Sunday, December 31, 2017

Translation as a way of life

My son, much to my chagrin, likes memes. I've been trying lately--mostly to better understand him, but also so I have some idea what to make of this powerful force in our culture--to go through a list of videos he recommended to me on "memetics." I can't say I've yet overcome my initial impression that Internet meme culture sacrifices intellectual honesty and precision in order to obtain wit and conciseness, but I'm learning that it's richer than it initially seemed to me.

One video on my recommended play list is Emp Lemon's takedown of Behind the Meme. For background, "Behind the Meme" is a YouTube channel that explains memes to those who aren't familiar with them. Emp Lemon's main complaint is that in trying to explain meme culture to outsiders (whom they term "normies"), Behind the Meme dumbs down Internet meme culture. Emp Lemon claims that rather than trying to bring outsiders inside, Behind the Meme takes something that only makes sense within its own native culture and bastardizes it by bringing it outside.

If you have to ask for an explanation like I did, then it's you this meme is talking about. Also, I apologize for using what I'm sure is a "stale meme." 

I'm familiar with this 

I'm a translator for a living. I mean that in the literal sense: I take stuff from one language and render it in English. I find it to be a profound responsibility. I not only need to get it right for the target audience, those who will read it in English, but I also have a responsibility to get it right for those being translated. It's hard enough for two people in this world to understand each other when they grew up in the same house. A bad translator can add misunderstanding exponentially.

I've started to think lately that I take on the attitude of a translator in my private life as a semi-professional writer. That is, whether as a fiction writer or a non-fiction writer (like here on this blog), I often semi-consciously see myself as a translator. I try to explain writing to those who are outside, trying to find a way in. But I also try to explain cultures I've had a chance to get somewhat inside of to those who are outside of them. In my last post, for example, I not only tried to explain something about stressed African-American communities in places like Baltimore where my wife taught, but also to explain something about conservative, evangelical-leaning communities to liberals.

This isn't, perhaps, the most purely writerly way of doing things. A lot of writers would think like Emp Lemon, that the goal of a story isn't to bring a character to someone else, it's to present the character in a pure and authentic way that allows the reader to come to the character. The writer isn't a bridge halfway between the world of the character and the reader; the writer is a door that opens to the character's world, and the reader must make a choice to open it and go in.

I can't help myself

I've been accused of waffling a lot as a writer and a thinker. Even when I clearly have an opinion, I feel it necessary to first prove that I understand what the other side thinks, that I know why they have this opinion, that I respect that opinion and see its value to some extent, but that I merely disagree in specific ways. I just can't help myself. A long run as a translator has made me sensitive to how often people are talking past one another, even when they speak the same language.

Of course, any time you try to interject yourself into a conversation two people are having, you risk them turning on you. Even if you did it to try to help, you may face the question, "Who asked you to translate for me?" A younger Ta-Nehisi Coates once determined not to be a translator of his culture to outsiders. As Robin D.G. Kelley sums it up in an excellent summary of the recent Coates-West Twitter war:

Coates found his calling during a particularly combative period for black intellectuals. In March of 1995, West was the target of a scurrilous attack by New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier, an essay promoted on the issue’s cover with the headline “The Decline of the Black Intellectual.” A month later Adolph Reed, Jr., followed with a piece in the Village Voice titled, “What Are the Drums Saying, Booker?: The Curious Role of the Black Public Intellectual” which names West, Michael Eric Dyson, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., bell hooks, and yours truly. In the essay, Reed characterizes us as modern-day minstrels and attacks us for being “translators” of black culture to white folks, and thus palatable to fawning white liberals. Reed’s piece left a deep impression on Coates. As he recalls in We Were Eight Years in Power, “I was determined to never be an interpreter."

Later, however, Coates grew to think differently:

"It did not occur to me (Coates) that writing is always some form of interpretation, some form of translating the specificity of one’s roots or expertise or even one’s own mind into language that can be absorbed and assimilated into the consciousness of a broader audience. Almost any black writer publishing in the mainstream press would necessarily be read by whites. Reed was not exempt. He was not holding forth from The Chicago Defender but from The Village Voice, interpreting black intellectuals for that audience, most of whom were white.”

Like it or not, there will always be translation, because it is human to want to understand what is outside our experience. Ultimately, the goal would always be to understand the other on its own terms, but that's simply not possible. We can't all read the Bible in Greek.(And even if we can, we can't all learn Aramaic to try to guess at what the underlying words of Christ were that the Greek is a translation of.)

Translator and Interpreter

Coates used the terms "translator" and "interpreter" interchangeably, but of course, strictly speaking, they are very different roles. An interpreter rapidly changes spoken words from one language to another. I respect interpreters a lot. It's a role that requires linguistic virtuosity, in my view. I can only do it in a pinch, and rather poorly. Except for volunteer work, I almost never interpret. I almost always only translate, and then only into my native language. This is a much easier form of translation. I can translate a Korean novel into English, but I'd have a terrible time translating even my own stories into Korean.

There's something about the etymology and just the feel of the two words, interpreter and translator, that are revealing about the differing psychology. "Interpret" is from a combination of "inter," meaning "between," and, most likely, a verb meaning "to sell" or "to traffic in." The interpreter is literally between two things. "Translate," however has a notion of crossing over, "trans" meaning "across." There is even a meaning to the word where one is literally translating objects from one place to another. In order to translate, you don't stand between two worlds, you go to one and bring something back from it to another.

While in the day-to-day world, both interpreting and translation have their place, if I take the psychological notion of these things into writing, I begin to have some idea what I view as legitimate translation. Legitimate translation is not interpreting, which is primarily a business-focused activity focused on some tangible end, like negotiating a trade deal. Cultural translation is legitimate only if it truly brings one world into another. It requires transporting oneself between two locations.

Ideally, the best translator will be so effective at bringing one world into another, it will almost feel that the translator is in two worlds at once. This is the only way the two worlds really have a chance to understand one another if what they hope for is more than just a transactional kind of co-existence. It is, however, hard on the translator. Being eternally in more than one world ends up leaving the translator feeling a little rootless. I sometimes wonder if I have spent so much time trying to communicate the values of one group to another, I don't even know what my own values are anymore. There is a kind of madness in being a translator.

That's how Borges viewed Shakespeare. In "Everything and Nothing," Borges imagines Shakespeare like this:

There was no one in him; behind his face (which even in the poor paintings of the period is unlike any other) and his words, which were copious, imaginative, and emotional, there was nothing but a little chill, a dream not dreamed by anyone. At first he thought everyone was like him, but the puzzled look on a friend’s face when he remarked on that emptiness told him he was mistaken and convinced him forever that an individual must not differ from his species.

Shakespeare ends up coping with his inability to be himself by being hundreds of people, by being each of the characters he creates. Still, at the end, he desires some self-identity:

The story goes that, before or after he died, he found himself before God and he said: “I, who have been so many men in vain, want to be one man: myself.” The voice of God replied from a whirlwind: “Neither am I one self; I dreamed the world as you dreamed your work, my Shakespeare, and among the shapes of my dream are you, who, like me, are many persons—and none.”

I do get tired of writing sometimes. It's hard to work to bring some character to life, to be that character for a while, to bring that character from his world into this one, and then to have nothing to show for it except that I've done it. For now, I'm still continuing along this road I've picked for myself, both in my day job and in the writing I still hope might one day be my day job. But it's a long road to travel on, and I do find myself longing sometimes to be one man and myself.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Five changes in liberal racial rhetoric I'd like to see in 2018

 ...such a degree of unmingled good was expected as it was impossible to realize. If the Revolution had been in every respect prosperous, then misrule and superstition would lose half their claims to our abhorrence, as fetters which the captive can unlock with the slightest motion of his fingers, and which do not eat with poisonous rust into the soul. The revulsion occasioned by the atrocities of the demagogues and the reestablishment of successive tyrannies in France was terrible, and felt in the remotest corner of the civilized world. Could they listen to the plea of reason who had groaned under the calamities of a social state, according to the provisions of which one man riots in luxury whilst another famishes for want of bread? Can he who the day before was a trampled slave suddenly become liberal-minded, forbearing, and independent? This is the consequence of the habits of a state of society to be produced by resolute perseverance and indefatigable hope, and long-suffering and long-believing courage, and the systematic efforts of generations of men of intellect and virtue.

-Percy Bysshe Shelley, from the preface to "The Revolt of Islam"

...our condition is not a mistake.... (W)e don’t need to run around pretending, as though there’s some great mystery going on—it’s not. If an alien came to planet Earth and looked at the socioeconomic statistics for African Americans and then measured that against the history and the policies of this country, there would really be no surprises about who we are and where we are.

-Ta-Nehisi Coates

I've been doing a fair amount of writing about race on this blog in the last year. From a business perspective, this is probably a disastrous decision. I'm a struggling part-time writer trying to get myself noticed. Writing about race is more likely to alienate people than it is to grow an audience. It's especially perilous for me as a white male writer to talk about race, because the statements of white writers are--not without good reason--looked upon with a certain a priori suspicion.

The best strategies I could follow from a business model perspective if I wanted to discuss race would be one of two courses: First, I could ape the idioms of the dominant liberal discourse on race, nod my head at ideas like white privilege and whitesplaining, and then generally avoid going too deep into it after that. Race is a dangerous subject, so it's best to just prove you know the right things to say and then move on. Secondly, I could throw my lot in with the self-described mavericks, the Breitbart crowd who think they're telling you the truth about race that the liberal establishment doesn't want you to hear.

I don't think either course is honest.

What I believe about where we are

I agree with Coates that the conditions of black Americans today are not an accident. They are the result of systemic choices over hundreds of years. Those choices include slavery and Jim Crow, but they also include more recent choices like redlining, the War on Drugs and how criminal justice is handled.

To say these things happened long enough ago that their effect should no longer be as great as it is today is to ignore how profoundly pernicious those choices were, up until how recently they have played a role, and how long-term the generational effects of these things can be. Conservatives argue, rightly, for the primal importance in society of family. Slaves were intentionally kept from having normal patterns of family life. At the end of slavery, former slaves weren't able to simply go back to their wives and children and start to rebuild a life as free folk. Many slaves had no idea who their parents were. The fact that former slaves didn't bounce right back after slavery doesn't prove that there is something wrong with African-Americans. It proves how terrible slavery was.

Normal family life would have taken generations to regain after slavery even in a best-case scenario. As I hope everyone knows, post-bellum black families did not face a best-case scenario. In the South, there was Jim Crow and predatory economic conditions for black families. Even in the North, there was separate-but-unequal segregation.

Black families recovered, albeit unevenly, over time. Even in two-parent families, though, there were problems most white families didn't face. Most black women worked long hours, making them unable to supervise the children. (Feminism's history of the last 50 years was altered by the realization that the demand for the right of women to work was a strange request if feminism was going to include women of color, who might have liked the ability not to work so much.)

In the last fifty years, although the legal standing of black Americans has largely been set right, there have been other policies that have disproportionately hurt black families. The War on Drugs has been the main one. Mrs. Heretic, as I've mentioned before, taught in Baltimore City Schools for about five years. Almost none of her kids were from families with two parents or guardians. The main reason was incarceration, followed closely by death from drugs, then death from gun violence, then AIDS, then diabetes, then the rest of the other black killers.

The main criticism of capitalism is that it's a race in which once you fall behind, it becomes exponentially more difficult to catch up. Black Americans have been shoved back by policy over and over. Each time they try to catch up, but America is a hard place in which to catch up. The tendency is actually not catching up: poor people tend to raise poor kids, and rich people raise rich kids.

There is a strange argument made by the alt-right crowd that when liberals assert there is a reason why black Americans struggle to catch up, this amounts to a kind of racism. The claim is that we liberals think blacks are fundamentally flawed and need help to catch up. This is a bizarre argument. Slavery is bad. Legal discrimination is bad. They harm their victims irreparably, and those effects are felt generationally. Just because I don't think black people are magic and super-human and immune to the effects of bad policy doesn't mean I think they're inferior. I think they're like everyone else. I think they're like me, or I'm like them. If I'd been born under different circumstances, I'd be a different person.

What I believe about what to do about it

I didn't blog for almost all of 2016. What started me going again was the election of Donald Trump. Like so many liberals, I was suddenly thrust into a place where I went from the rhetoric of being alarmed to being actually terrified. There was something obviously different about Trump's election from anything I'd ever seen in American politics. Vox writer German Lopez summarized a year's worth of study of the election by telling us what we kind of knew: the main factor behind Trump's win was racial resentment. Not kitchen table table issues. Not middle-class, middle-America-being-ignored issues. Racial resentment. Lopez defined racial resentment as “a moral feeling that blacks violate such traditional American values as individualism and self-reliance.”

It might seem like the thing to do in the face of this moral resentment is to confront it, to decry it and those who espouse it, from the rooftops. Here, I'd like to introduce a principle of political discourse I term "The Jack Sparrow Principle of Political Pragmatism":

It's hard to believe now, four movies later, that this series was once so much fun and Jack Sparrow seemed full of so much wisdom.

The fact that so many white people voted for Trump out of a sense that things they believed in were under attack is a raw fact we have to deal with. We can draw our sword on it and demand justice out of our own sense of righteousness, but that won't do any good. Lopez notes that it is possible to reach out to Trump voters. While one doesn't have to condone racism to do it, it has to be done in an empathetic way. As Lopez developed more fully elsewhere, calling people racist is not an effective way to reduce racial bias.

This is one reason why I consider writing stories to be my main project. Stories done well increase empathy. I could have browbeaten those people I knew who were criticizing the kids in the streets with their low-hanging pants tearing up their own neighborhoods during the Baltimore riots. Or, I could write a story, based very loosely on one of Mrs. Heretic's students, about what one young man's life was like during the riots. (That's "A Cinnabon at Mondawmin, the second story in my collection of stories from this year.)

Spike Lee's Chiraq or Aziz Anzari's Master of None deal with the very painful experiences of marginalized people. I never felt while watching either that I was being attacked. Chiraq is dealing with the very worst consequences of systemic racism in America, but I never felt that its point was anything except to tell the story of the people living in it. Ansari occasionally takes swipes at white folks. Once, while on an Internet-appointed first date, he mentions that black women and Asian men get the least views on dating websites. After adding that white people tend to get the most views, Anzari jokes that, "Well, thank God white people are finally getting a break in something." I didn't feel in any way offended by that. It was an earned joke at that point, because we'd seen enough of Anzari's life to know that:1) It was a joke, and 2) Even though he partly meant it, he had some reason for the frustration in it. One of the best characters on that show is a big, dopey white guy named Arnold that Ansari's character is obviously very close to. The show celebrates more than it scolds, and it works for that reason.

We can scream ourselves hoarse at the other side and pat ourselves on the back for our moral righteousness. But if it's not effective, what have you accomplished? In any event, the country is something like a big boat, and we're stuck in it with all those people who voted for Trump. So we can't start a riot with them without sinking ourselves.

Our role in this

Lopez's article points out that Trump channeled white angst in a way that neither Romney nor McCain did. One obvious reason why is that neither Romney nor McCain really tried. But there were other candidates available to the Republican Party in those years who would have been happy to try what Trump did. They didn't get the nomination. I have to believe that Trump rose not just because of his outsider persona, not just because Clinton was a flawed candidate, but because white feelings about race in America changed between 2008 and 2016. That is, not only did Trump do more to capitalize on racial resentment more than earlier Republican candidates, but there was more racial resentment in America on which to capitalize.

There are a lot of reasons why this resentment might have grown. Certainly, the organization of the alt-right has allowed it to get its message out more effectively. So race-baiters have grown through their own grass-roots movements, to some extent. I would like to submit, though, that we liberals who use a particular manner of speaking about race are also one of those reasons. Over the past decade, we have evolved a discourse that comes off as shrill. I do not mean to suggest that this was decisive or the main reason for the growth of racial resentment, but I believe it is a factor. I believe by changing it, we can help to shrink racial resentment.

Plea for an open mind

Before I start my list of changes I'd like to see in liberal rhetoric that I think might help to reverse the growth of white racial resentment, I'd like to say that I already know two objections. One is that I'm "blaming the victim," saying that the oppressed bear the blame for demanding their rights too directly from the oppressor. It's a fair objection, but I think it's important to keep in mind that many of the racial issues discussed in the public sphere now are more akin to the oppressor unknowingly stepping on the foot of the oppressed than knowingly stepping on the neck. There is oppression, but it takes a few steps of explanation to show how. Yes, the oppressor shouldn't be such a clod and should realize what he's doing. But he doesn't. So here's how to talk to him.

It's like if your neighbor's landscaping is causing flooding on your property. You don't storm over there demanding changes. You explain why you think your problem is caused by your neighbor. You provide expert testimony from the flood mitigation guy you brought to your house to fix the problem, because you're neighbor's immediate reaction is going to be to think you're wrong. If you're right, that means he has to do work and spend money, and that means you've got to get past the instinctive urge to deny the facts. So you ask, not demand, that your neighbor make changes. You offer to help if you can. The fact is, the law might not necessarily demand that your neighbor make the changes you want. It's the decent thing to do, but it might not be required. So it's better to appeal to his better side rather than go in guns blazing. So if I suggest that liberals can change their language and get better results, that's not to excuse bad behavior. It's simply to suggest a more effective means of asking your neighbor to do right by you.

Secondly, one might object that I'm advocating respectability politics, or going out of the way to avoid confronting American racism and upsetting whites. Again, this is a fair concern. The line between moral cowardice and pragmatism can be a thin one, and the latter can be used to justify the former.  And it does seem like every time I want to defend white middle America, some guy I know on Facebook who fits that demographic posts something that is unambiguously racist. Something like this:

About 500 dogs showed up at my window the moment I selected this photo for my blog.

It's not just my liberal imagination making this racist; it's racist.  (Part of me wonders if it's one of those things posted by liberals posing as Conservatives meant to make Conservatives look stupid by exaggerating the racism. The misspelling makes it suspicious to me. But I'm sure the guy who posted it meant it without irony.)

But what should my response be? I could unfriend the guy in a righteous huff, but that will make no difference to his life, and then there'd be one less social media contact likely to question his ideology. I've tried different approaches to these things with varying degrees of success, but one thing I don't do is tell him that either the post or he himself are racist without at least explaining what I mean by that and why. And I try to do it in a way that appeals to the better angels of his nature.

So how do we appeal to those angels?

I think there are five tropes of liberal discourse on racism that do more harm than good. There is truth to each of them, but they are presented in such a way that they instantly raise the defenses of people confronted with them. I'd like to hear less of each of these in 2018.

1. Advocating "color blindness" is racism by other means

A very simple Google search will give me a whole lot of examples of writers who claim that saying things like "I don't see color" are tropes of racists, not progressives. (Et tu, beloved Atlantic?)

I understand the argument. As Adia Wingfield put it in The Atlantic, "as the mechanisms that reproduce racial inequality have become more covert and obscure than they were during the era of open, legal segregation, the language of explicit racism has given way to a discourse of colorblindness. But (sociologists) fear that the refusal to take public note of race actually allows people to ignore manifestations of persistent discrimination."

Too many liberals will use this observation to produce unbalanced rants in which they accuse anyone who uses the language of color blindness of overt racism (instead, as the proper argument goes, of indirect and possibly unintended racism). This is not playing fair, because it ignores history.

As Wingfield noted, the language of color blindness was developed to confront the racism of an earlier time. When I was growing up, progressives actually argued that people needed to be color blind. That never meant that people didn't see color, of course. That's impossible. It was a hyperbolic way of saying you should strive to treat people as though you didn't see color.

In 1992, this was how progressives talked about race: "Free your mind/and the rest will follow/Be color blind/Don't be so shallow."

In an age of overt racism and the decades immediately after it, this was the right way to teach people. You have no idea how hard it was to get people in Ohio where I grew up to accept "treat people all the same" as a reasonable rule for human interaction. But it worked. It really worked. It's a goddamned miraculous social accomplishment that we got this country to mostly agree on at least the basic principle that people deserve to be treated equally regardless of race. It happened in a generation, and the language of color blindness played a big part in that. "Color blind" was an inaccurate but easy-to-digest bit of memetics that worked.

If you don't see any value at all in color-blind rhetoric, you likely never heard a scrum of football players referred to as a "nigger pile" when you were fourteen. You likely never heard someone tell your best friend in seventh grade, who was the only black kid you knew back then, that he ought to "go back to the plantation." I'm telling you, getting those overt racists from back home to "I'm color blind" a decade later was amazing. I doubt that 90% of those kids use the "N" word now. It didn't solve racism, but it was step 3 in our nation's 157-step program to recover from racism.

It's true that there is a difference between equality and equity. Step #4 in the 157-step program involves understanding that fact, and "color blind" language gets in the way. But the nation is still sort of consolidating the victory of step #3. We need to allow people a transitional sort of language and not immediately chasten the stragglers who just caught up to 1993 yesterday.

Rather than "it's racist to say you're color blind" it would be better to simply focus on equality vs. equity logic. That is, don't focus on ripping out the language you used to accomplish step #3, just introduce the language from step #4. If someone is still using the old language, just keep using the new with them. That's how anyone learns--from modeling.

It's hard to believe, but there are a lot of people in the U.S. for whom "I'm color blind" really represents their best efforts, and a lot of personal growth had to take place to get them there. That doesn't mean that you have to give them a cookie, but it does mean it isn't helping to immediately tell them all the growth they went through to get there just means they're now completely wrong about everything.

2. Ignoring (or accusing of racism) social conservatives who use the language of personal responsibility

If I believe the argument--and I do--that black Americans aren't struggling by accident, then I also accept that it will take something other than an accident to right the wrong. Intentional harm can only be undone by intentional attempts to fix the harm. I accept this.

That doesn't mean I have to think that every social program meant to be part of the intentional solution is a great idea.

Mrs. Heretic, in her years of teaching in Baltimore, knew hundreds of female students under 18 who had babies. When they got pregnant, it was treated like a very normal thing, something to celebrate. The students had baby showers--sometimes, very elaborate affairs. It wasn't uncommon for more than half of the females in her classes to be either pregnant or already mothers.

Social and economic conservatives have been arguing for decades that social programs make the cost of bad life choices too cheap. I have often thought their arguments were racist: who were they to criticize teen mothers for their choices under hard circumstances, and what was the cost of WIC and Medicare compared to the price of a human life?

But seeing how normalized it has become to have babies in the teen years--and contrasting this with how much anxiety I faced when I became a parent in my thirties with my upper-middle-class income--makes me accept that these conservatives at least have a good prima facie case. Maybe band-aid programs only serve to institutionalize poverty.

I don't know what the answer is. Ripping a band-aid off means terrible pain for a community already suffering. I just know that the current answers haven't seemed to help like they should have in the last 50 years. So a critique of social services-based solutions doesn't deserve to be attacked on the grounds it's racist.

It's certainly an inconvenient critique, because coming up with another solution isn't easy, and nobody wants to try to figure one out. I myself have tried to figure out what I would do to help Mrs. Heretic's students in Baltimore if I were president, and I don't know that I have an answer. Or I do, but I know that the country does not have the will to carry it out, because it would call for a massive mobilization of resources.

We can disagree over what the right answer is, but we shouldn't accuse someone of being racist because they say what ought to be plain, which is that whatever we're doing now isn't working like it should.

3. Calling critiques of culture racist without considering the critique

My Facebook friend who posted that meme up above with the sagging-pants guy was making a racist argument. If you asked him, though, he'd probably say he was criticizing an aspect of (black) culture, not black people, or not all black people. He'd probably be full of shit, and maybe this line about criticizing culture is, like patriotism, a last refuge of many scoundrels.

But that doesn't meant that it's never right to critique black, urban, American culture. One has to consider how well-informed and well-reasoned the argument is. I myself don't try much to talk about the culture. I've had a chance to learn a little about various segments of American black culture, but it's really been just enough to get past a little-learning-is-a-dangerous-thing territory. That is, I know just enough to know I don't know much.

But some people do, and they've actually done the work to deserve an audience. If someone argues that hip-hop isn't really a positive force, that argument isn't itself a racist one. Certainly, there are feminist critiques of hip-hop and rap that seem very reasonable to me. These deserve a hearing.

4. Ignoring prejudice against whites

I get that there is no such thing as "reverse racism," if I accept the standard definitions of these things. But there is prejudice, and sometimes it's excused as a truth-bomb.

It's not the most serious issue out there, so I don't need to belabor the point, or cite examples of it. We all know it happens. I just want to point out that my son, when he sees examples of it, has a much harder time excusing it than I do. He is growing up in a much different world from me. His school is 40% black, with the rest evenly split between white, Asian, and Latino. He is living in a world where students are expelled for hate speech if they use the N word. To him, when he sees those videos about dumb things white people say or do, and he knows his mother and I have threatened death to him if he ever speaks that way about another racial group, it's difficult for him not to develop cognitive dissonance. He either has to accept that he should put up with something we've taught him others shouldn't have to put up with, or he develops...well...racial resentment. You can argue with him if you want, but this is the kid of two fairly liberal parents who has a black sister. This is our ghost of Christmas future, liberals, if we don't mend our ways.

We don't need a massive campaign to eradicate it. We just need to stop doing it and not accept it when we see it.

5. Not having an agenda

It often seems like the only goal liberals have is to make everyone talk like they're woke. People are never going to see culture in the same way, so it's pointless to try to conquer society by working to get everyone to use the same vocabulary. Having a concrete agenda, on the other hand, is easier to get people to unite behind. Agendas can appeal to different people for different reasons, and we don't even have to agree on what those reasons are to work together.

What, in practical terms, do we liberals want? I bet we'd have a hard time giving an answer other than "to get rid of Trump."

Trump came to power with about a million promises, but a yuuuge infrastructure program was one of them. One of the benefits (?) of de facto segregation is that it's possible to advocate for a racial population by proxy. For example, liberals could stump for a massive infrastructure program "in America's inner cities." Why shouldn't we use our own dog whistles? We could try to shape it so that people in the cities themselves should get first pick for jobs. This makes it both a jobs program and an infrastructure program. One of the largest obstacles to work people in a city like Baltimore face is that it sometimes takes hours to get to work if you don't have a car. So a better system of public transportation would be a good thing to put at the top of the infrastructure wish list.

I don't know why we couldn't work with Trump to get it. If there's one thing that guy loves, it's to be loved. He doesn't particularly care who loves him, either. He'd take it from us as quickly as he'd take it from the other guys. Could we consider offering it to him? Or at least a truce until we inch forward the next step in the long battle?

우리답게 싸우자!

I had to write that sub-heading in Korean. Koreans are great at social campaign slogans. The one I just created there would be translated as "Let's fight like us!" Liberals have been growing coarse and shrill over the last twenty years, and 2017 was the peak of it. It's not a winning strategy for us. We're supposed to be charmers. Conservatives tell others how to live; we're supposed to make people want to live like us.

Sun Tzu counseled that the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. I hope that 2018 is full of less fighting and more winning.   

Saturday, December 23, 2017

For those of you considering a New Year's resolution to write more...

...I decided a few weeks ago to put writing for on hold for a while. Since that decision, I haven't been able to stop writing. Seriously. I had been stuck for over a month, unable to write anything and chiding myself for not writing. The moment I decided to give up, words came.

I've said before I'm not a big believer in writing every day. I think if you write every day, if you treat writing like it's your job, you end up with writing that sounds like it's your job. That is, it risks coming off as perfunctory. Write when you can't stop from writing, not when you feel obligated.

In my four-year run of seriously trying to write, the two most fertile writing periods I've had were immediately after making a decision to quit.

There must be something to the psychology of this. Straining to write, you feel the whole time like you're failing, like you're under pressure to do this thing you've set out to do. But if you already accept that you're done, if you tell yourself you shouldn't even be writing, that you have better things to do, writing feels like a stolen pleasure.

When I found out I was getting a book published early in 2017, I felt a lot of pressure to start acting like a writer. That sort of made writing a lot less enjoyable. It took six months of failure at the end of 2017 to get me to realize again that this is not my day job, it's something I do for the joy it brings me. When it doesn't bring me joy, I shouldn't do it.

I hope you write a lot in 2018. Unless you hate it, in which case I hope you don't write at all. But then I hope not writing makes you learn to love writing again at some point.

Merry Christmas, readers and writers.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Whither, liberal sexual mores?

It's been a tough year for older men who like to charm and/or pressure younger women out of their pants. There have been a lot of liberal men included in the purge. For the most part, this cleansing is something to grimly celebrate. We liberals claim we're the ideology that ought to appeal naturally to women, so it won't do for women to be unsafe among our most powerful men. Hopefully, we do better from here on out.

The effect on the brand

I'd guess a lot of people joined Team Liberal because it seemed like the cool place to be. I hang out now and again for gin fizzes and cigars with two friends who are both a good deal more conservative politically and culturally than I am. The two of them both concede, though, that when it comes to music, writing, art, and almost anything involving style, Team L has always been and will always be cooler. We've been that way about sex, too. We were the side that didn't judge you for what society told you was sexual deviance. We told people to quit being prudish, to have a more European view of sex, to accept that sex was just part of life, and a good part. All this Republican bluster over a President who had sloppy sex with an intern was just Puritan posturing, we said.

Come to the dark side, we said. We have orgies.

While Team L isn't about to start telling you that you've got to accept a lifetime of hetero-normative, missionary position sex for the purposes of procreation only, we do seem to be deciding to tone down the party a bit. One wonders if we can continue to be a party people want to be a part of under those conditions. Have people only been pretending to like us for the sex?

This is part of the larger process of figuring out what we're about after 70 years

All liberal systems begin by repudiating something. The current liberal consensus--or what remains of it--has its direct origins in the moments after the two World Wars. Meta-narratives of God and country had led us to the brink of destruction, we felt, and we had to deconstruct those. We were pretty good at deconstruction. Society, it seems, actually did kind of have a feeling something was wrong and needed to change, so we made headway. What we'd been told was moral no longer felt like it had authority. It didn't hurt that all the cool kids were on board with Team L. If the Hollywood stars didn't convince you to get on board, Jimi Hendrix's guitar would.

But time ground on, and eventually the revolution became something of a parody of itself. Moreover, having ripped down systems that needed to be ripped down, we didn't always have something great to offer in their place. We had mottoes, versions of liberty, equality, fraternity, but didn't understand how to incarnate them into policy. We also failed to understand that there is no utopia, and every system is merely a choice about which kinds of problems you want to have.

With sex, Team L is right that it's better to leave sexual conduct up to people to decide. A society that rigidly enforces sexual conduct wastes resources punishing people for acts that typically do not harm those involved. That is enough to offset any advantages such a system brings. Such a system also engenders psychological pathology by stifling natural desires.

But the downside of sexual liberty is that it turns out people can be kind of pervy, and don't always confine their perversions to those that another person won't find offensive. We try to moderate this by setting up rules, but lighter rules than a Puritan system. Basically, we outlaw only actions where one person's actions interfere with the freedom of another, such as rape, be it statutory, aggravated, date, or other. We also include incest, because we feel the danger to society outweighs the right to individual choice.

But sexual harassment has been a hard thing for Team L to deal with.We had hoped, back in our foolish days of young idealism, that people would work it out for themselves. We didn't want to dictate what you could or couldn't do, and we felt it was cool to be okay with gray areas. Now, we've come to find out that there were some advantages to that stifling old system where every man knew how to tip your hat to a lady and what it meant to be "fresh." It wasn't a lot of fun, but there also wasn't confusion that lead to those awful he said/she said kinds of situations where you have to ask questions like "how many signs of consent equal consent?"

Some colleges have been pushing this kind of unambiguous signaling, teaching students that in order for sex to be safely consensual, every touch needs a positive verbal affirmation. No alcohol can be involved in sexual intercourse. How fun. To say nothing of the precipitous crash in the world's human population if sex never happened after drinking again. 

Can we have our cake and eat it too?

Or more to the point, can we have our drunk frat parties without girls raped behind couches? Can we enjoy flirting and hooking up and making mistakes in dating as young people (or middle-aged or old people) without a girl having to ask herself whether last night was something she ought to report or just a night of bad sex? If we can't keep the fun, will Team L decline, as we become seen as the killjoy defenders of purity?

The short stories "Cat Person," which I recently blogged about, and "Gender Studies," from the 2017 Best American Short Stories, were built around the awful ambiguity built into dating in our culture. It's especially worse for women deemed attractive by our standards, who are taught that it's "bitchy" to be too direct about rejecting a man. This puts a lot of pressure on those women to get their point across in a way that makes their feelings clear but also saves the feelings of the man, especially with a man who does not seem to get the point.

Can we come up with a new rules of sex that allows us to keep the fun--fun that includes the possibility of making poor choices--but also prevents truly unwanted behavior? My friend Chris Hoffman has humorously suggested that the only way to get rid of the unwanted male gaze is to remove the male gaze altogether.

Some questions

To keep a balance between fun and safety, we're going to have to answer some questions I don't know we're equipped to answer. Like:

-I've seen it suggested that the entire problem with the Weinstein case was not the letchery, but the power. Once women have more power, this sort of thing will become less common. Fair enough, but I have some follow on questions. Are we ready to say that men should never attempt to date/hook-up with women who work for them? How directly must those women work for him for this prohibition to be in effect? May women date men they are in charge of? And if we prohibit all of these interactions, how do we deal with the fact that we thereby make that forbidden fruit unspeakably attractive?

Andy (on his girlfriend being in the Coast Guard): "She's probably so lonely with only two other women to talk to in her whole 40-person unit." 
Haley: "So you're saying it's just your girlfriend and 36 super in-shape dudes?" 
Andy: "Thirty-seven, and it's not what you think. The Coast Guard seriously frowns upon fraternizing. It's forbidden." 
Haley: "That doesn't make it hot."

-If we're going to nudge in the direction of saying you can't just have no standards, then what are the standards we're going to try to keep? Is adultery an important political matter again?  How about the number of sexual partners a man has? A woman? Is it scandalous for a man simply to be with someone much younger? Or are we saying anything is fine as long as it's consensual and between adults? What does that mean if the female secretary of the older male boss swears it's consensual?

-How dogmatic are we willing to get in order to avoid ambiguity or even the chance that someone will be the victim of unwelcome advances? At what point does that make us just an alternate version of social conservatives?

-What allowances do we make for transgressiveness? Being transgressive is what made us liberals in the first place. How rigid are we going to be with the new rules?

A word about (and for) men

I feel like if I even raise the issue that it's hard to know how to act as a man, I risk being attacked. Men don't face sexual violence like women do! Men have nearly all the power! And don't tell me it's hard to know how to act. How hard is it to not rape women and treat them with respect?

Well, if "Cat Person" and "Gender Studies" and many men I know can be believed, it is hard to know when you are treating a woman with so much respect, you're at a competitive disadvantage with other men. Whether there's any truth to it or not, men feel that women sometimes reject the nice guy for the bad boy. And there's probably some evolutionary reason to back up the thought that a woman would be attracted to a transgressive male. Transgressiveness shows that you have your own authority. It shows that you're an Alpha, that you call the shots.

Not that any woman wants Stanley Kowalski, but it is possible that there is an attractiveness in a man who shows a certain devil-may-care attitude. Even a sense of humor is somewhat subversive. So any rules we set up for the new sexual way to be are going to immediately be subverted by men looking for a competitive advantage.

What happened to my friend as an illustration of our confusing times

I know a woman in her twenties at work. I think of her as something between a younger sister or a daughter. She's not much older than my daughter. She coaches field hockey at a local high school. The other day, a father of one of her students hit her up on Facebook to ask if she was single, because, he said, "You're cute." He's 15 years older than her and has three kids.

Sigh. Any defense of men I wanted to make goes out the window with anecdotes like this one. My friend did great. She said that her dating status wasn't a topic of discussion, that her role was to be a coach. Good for her.

I take away a few lessons from that encounter:

-Men try for things they have no business trying for. It IS harder to be a woman than a man in the dating world. You have to constantly turn down aggressive and highly motivated salesmen. It's like life is a mall full of Russian kiosk workers.

-I bet that guy did not appreciate her directness, as much as guys always say they want candor and for a woman not to play with them. He probably thought, "What a bitch." So she can't win.

-It might be awkward at the next team practice, an awkwardness she did nothing to cause. Now, a part of her life she enjoys may become less enjoyable.

-There is no set of rules you can come up with that will preserve the possibility for fun and exploration that can also adequately protect women from the effects of the jerk.

-Then again, since I know nothing about that guy, was just asking so wrong? He's not her boss, he's just older than her. Dating his daughter's coach doesn't strike me as inherently wrong. He's divorced, I assume. Maybe he's lonely and really thought he had a chance. Does the dynamic change if he's really good looking? If he's doing well in life? If his wife left him and the kids because she's selfish and terrible?

This was a low-stakes example. It wasn't McKayla Maroney getting groped by a team doctor. But it's instructive because of its everyday-ness. There is a spectrum of behavior when it comes to sex that ranges from merely unwanted and rude but also allowable to unwanted, illegal, and morally repugnant. In the middle is an area where liberals are going to be have to careful about prescribing right action. In general, when in doubt, liberals have erred on the side of personal liberty. Right now, we are at a moment when, in the completely legitimate service of protecting the powerless, we risk becoming who we are not and also demonizing men more than is reasonable. We should seek to increase empathy of those in power. We should also be judicious about telling people how they must act.

My cynical side wonders if we aren't making such an overdue fuss about how men treat women now because the guy we hate the most is vulnerable to accusations of treating women badly, so we need to make it seem like it's the most important virtue on Earth to protect women from unwanted behavior. This isn't good for us in the long term, and is likely to bite us in the ass when some lecherous liberal--and there are many of us, which is partly how we got to be liberals to start with--comes to power again. 

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Why I wear a Captain America lanyard at work

I have barely read a comic book in my life. It just never appealed to me. When I watch the Marvel movies now with my son, I have no frame of reference to decades of stories, alternate timelines, crossovers, reboots, etc. I just watch them for what they are in themselves. Sure, I knew before the movies that there were heroes named Captain America, Thor, and Hulk, but I could only tell you the origin story of one of them. (It was Hulk. As a teenager, I still thought I could be a body builder.)
Everyone knows this, of course, but it really can't be emphasized enough what a vast difference it is going into a movie that has a long history pre-movie as a pre-existing enthusiast or not. Most people I know who have never read Tolkien loved the Lord of the Rings movies in an unqualified sort of way. I like them overall, but see them as deeply flawed in places. The person who has never read the books going in finds it easier to like them, because to him, the movie is the one giving him all the surprises of the plot. For the fan who knows the story going in, the movie has a lot heavier lifting. It has to do what Titanic did--be interesting to people who already know how it ends.

So with all the Marvel movies of the past decade, I'm an easier audience. Civil War couldn't disappoint my expectations, because I didn't have any.

For two of the Marvel movies, the first Captain America and the first Thor movie, I had lower than no expectations. For Thor, I thought, "Who the hell is Thor?" I thought Marvel was trying to shove more super heroes down our throats than we had an appetite for, because super hero movies were all the rage. Thor proved me wrong, because Chris Hemsworth's roaring over-the-top Shakespearean schtick not only holds its own, but in my view, he threatens to offset the entire balance of the Avengers every time he's in a scene, because he steals it. (Memo to self: movie idea: Hemsworth plays Hamlet, but entirely in character as Thor the whole time.)

For Captain America, I went into the movie thinking the whole notion of a super hero named for jingoistic patriotism was a stupid idea. Not just stupid, but totally inappropriate for our times. I actually thought that a movie like Captain America was bad for America, because the world looks to American movies to tell them about us, and Captain America, I thought, said nothing so much as Americans think America is pretty awesome, and everyone ought to feel lucky to know us.

But I've found Captain America to be a breath of fresh air throughout the series, through the three Captain America standalone films and the two Avengers ensemble movies. Here's why:

1. He's an antidote to the emo-hero. Even Superman has gotten mopey these days. I get that we live in an age where right and wrong are difficult to discern, and a dopey motto like "truth, justice, and the American way" has no place in a super hero's lexicon. Any hero spouting those words is likely to use his powers in terrifying ways. But just because the right way is hard to find doesn't mean you can spend 135 minutes of a 150 minute film avoiding trying to figure out what the best option is.

Captain America is a throwback to a time when people still believed right was knowable. That's naive, but naivete in small amounts can be useful. More useful than cynicism at the levels I usually ingest on a daily basis, anyhow.  It helps that he dates back to the last time most Americans thought U.S. actions on the world stage were very likely a good for the world. He represents a confidence in right action that a Captain America whose first action was in Vietnam or Iraq couldn't feel.

His insistence on following his conscience even if it's inconvenient annoys other Avengers, especially Tony Stark. Tony and Captain America aren't simple mirror images of each other. It isn't that one follows his conscience and the other doesn't; it's that both follow distinct inner voices to the exclusion of other voices. For Tony, that means an ego-driven quest to follow his inner truth, and if that happens to match the public good, so be it. For Cap, it means following what he thinks is right for others every time, but in his version of the golden rule, the "others" he does unto might be narrowly construed.

I was surprised during Civil War to find that not only did half the Avengers side with Stark, but about half my friends. Making good moral decisions is practically Captain America's super power. It's why the others naturally deferred to him as their leader in the first Avengers movie. The reason he became the first super hero was because he was tried for his moral intelligence and found worthy.

2. As traditional as he is, he's also an updated expression of the boy-scout super hero. In 1950, under a different system in America, he'd have probably argued that we needed to sacrifice our personal freedoms for the public good. But this version has never stood for that. In the second Captain America movie, he fights an Orwellian surveillance state that would have been put in place for our ostensible safety. In Civil War, he's the one who leads the rebellion against state control. It's not clear to me that Captain America is so patriotic, he wouldn't take a knee at a football game.

Since the Federalist Papers, we've seen American democracy as a balancing act between keeping the mob from destroying the minority and also not allowing the minority to hijack the entire process and hold the majority hostage. Captain America, a former downtrodden prole himself, tends to see the danger being stronger in one direction than another. 

3. He defines good and bad as much by his relationships as by abstract laws. This may not always lead to the right conclusions, but it does mean his decision-making is consistent and somewhat simplified. He does not turn Bucky in because he knows Bucky was once a good man. That's really all there is to it. I don't know that this is always a good heuristic, but there's something to be said for keeping things simple.


I wear his lanyard first because I needed a lanyard and that one was an easy one to find, but I keep wearing it because I often find that the difficulties of determining what's right in an extremely complicated world have nearly made me apathetic to even trying. Steve Rogers isn't going to help me to make the right choices--he is, after all, just a character in a mostly escapist comic-book series of movies. But wearing it does remind me that it's worth trying to find what's right. It's better than the alternative. The alternative is a DC movie.  

Saturday, December 16, 2017

A 150-minute commercial for authentic rebel merch: a review of Star Wars Ocho

Judging from the nearly unanimous positive reviews (93% on Rotten Tomatoes), I'm in a very tiny minority here, but I found the latest Star Wars to be just enough parts cheese and shameless commercialism to overwhelm its occasional charm. 

My personal relationship to Star Wars, because this is a movie where it kind of matters

I'm not a fanboy, which I suppose is important to put out there. Star Wars is a franchise where the level of devotion you have to it colors what your criticism means. I don't have a deep emotional attachment to it. I'm sort of an average Gen Xer, I'd guess. Episodes 4-6 came out when I was a kid. The first movie in 1977 is the first movie I can remember seeing. (It was part of a double feature at a drive-in, along with Herbie the Love Bug.) My friends and I went to see Jedi for my birthday in fifth grade. I loved those movies. As a young adult, I hated the prequels, like almost everyone. I thought episode seven was flawed--mostly because it was episode four again--but at least re-captured some of the magic. I'm neither a fan nor a hater.

I have to admit that I have a bit of a knee-jerk disinclination to like the new movies, because I feel like Disney paid $4 billion because they saw Gen X nostalgia as an incredibly value market to invest in. I feel I'm being manipulated to go ga-ga for every Star Wars thing they throw at me, and pass it on to my kids. If my son didn't want to see the movies, I wouldn't push them on him. But since he's expressed an interest on his own go to, I take him and I try to enjoy the experience.

I paid money to see the movie, I was there with my son, and I had no desire to sit there and dislike it. So I hope I have some level of objectivity here.

What's good about it--spoilers from this point forward

Rey is a great character. Most of the reason episode 7 managed to bring some of  the magic back to the series had to do with her. Where episodes 1-3 ruined the mystery of The Force by over-explaining it and giving it a genetic origin, Rey's genuine and charming innocence makes it new again. She feels the Force awakening within her, but is utterly at a loss to understand it. Because she cannot understand it, it is allotted its rightful position as a mystery for us to simply awe at, rather than a raw material to bend as the plot needs.

Episode 8 continues this re-mystification of The Force that makes it a potent narrative device worthy of building a mythology around. Rey stumbles and falls and she learns about it in very sparing lessons from Luke Skywalker. Luke explains what The Force is but does not explain too much. Rey learns a little bit more about how to control it, but only within herself, not in absolute terms. She is still very raw by the end, which is actually more appealing than having her master it.

Speaking of Luke Skywalker, he comes to a satisfying end, both within the narrative of episode 8 and also to all the people around my age who grew up with him as a hero. Luke has followed his mentor Obi Wan in becoming a hermit in old age, but is far more cynical than Kenobi ever was. Not much has gone right for him since he saw a trio of ghosts while passing the puff and jamming to Nyub-nyub at the end of Jedi. He's like a lot of great sports legends who find they aren't very good coaches. In his hubris, Luke thought he could teach a new generation of Jedi, but his best pupil turned to the dark side and destroyed the academy.

Luke's still not much of a teacher when Rey comes looking for a master to explain The Force to her. He offers her three lessons, but I only counted two--can anyone tell me what the third was? In any event, he really only wants to see the Jedi come to an end with him.

When at last Luke has a change of heart, it isn't to become young, heroic Luke. He outwits his old pupil, buying time for the rebels to escape certain doom. He dies, apparently having spent his life force in the effort. But it's a fitting end for Luke. The hero's journey isn't linear. It can easily slip backwards, and people fitted to one historical moment may find themselves ill-suited to others.

Luke's skepticism about the Jedi pushes forward a theme that episode 8 hinted at but didn't carry to its full conclusion. If it had, it might have been a much better movie. The movie has many moments where one might question whether the costs of the Rebellion are worth it. Besides Luke's litany of Jedi failures, we witness massive Rebel casualties. We realize that the Rebels buy their weapons from the same dealers who supply the Empire First Order.  For a moment, the movie seems to be deconstructing the entire notion of heroes.

Although it ultimately fails to deliver on this promise, it does provide an effective critique of the male hero. Not only are all the heroes of the movie women, they are also the most compelling characters. (Except Rose. Fuck Rose.) I've mentioned Rey. But Laura Dern as Vice Admiral Holdo is a huge surprise. We are meant to think Poe "Not Han Solo" Dameron has all the answers, but it's Holdo who has the right idea the whole time. Her "fly some shit into a bunch of star destroyers at light speed" trick is a little hokey, but it's also heroic in a way that Poe would wish he had thought of. Carrie Fisher had just enough acting chops left to anchor the trio of female leaders effectively. It's the ability to think outside the constraints of the male hero that allows them to escape the end of the rebellion. This movie was a mission that called for shepherding people to safety, and the three women in it carried it off.

What's neither wrong nor right: a quick word on Rey's parents

I'm fine with how they went with this. Rey's parents are nobody. That was one theory a lot of people floated. I think episode 8, trying to avoid the critique of 7 that it was just a rehash of earlier material, chose to go in the opposite direction. Every time it looked like something similar to 4-6 would happen, they shifted. Rey going to save Ben like Luke saved his father? Think again! Rey and Ben are twins, like Luke and Leia were? Nope! Rey's father is a character we all know? Not that, either!

I was okay with all of this, although I think there's a danger that trying consciously to be different at every turn could backfire. Did anyone say "I've got a bad feeling about this" in the movie?

What's wrong with it

Crap factor #1: Hoping hopefully for hopeful hope

Not only did the movie fail to follow through on its critique of clear good guys and bad guys and just-war theory, the same movie that tells us the good guys and bad guys buy their guns from the same sellers also wants to rhapsodize about the hope the rebels bring to a downtrodden galaxy. I think the movie mentions "hope" about a dozen times. And the rebels are, we are told over and over, something like the spark that lights the wick that burns the candle that ignites the flame that explodes the gas of hope or something like that.

It just gives me so much hope!

Why do we have any reason to think the rebels will give us anything better than what the Empire/First Order give us? They're certainly not very good at keeping order. They lost power once through a coup they let happen under their noses, then failed to make good on the advances they earned when they overthrew the Emperor and blew up Death Star #2. They're good at being a pain in the ass to the people in power. That's all they've proven.

But some downtrodden kid somewhere in the galaxy is secretly wearing Rebel swag because he's sure this is the answer to his troubles?

What do the Rebels offer? For that matter, if balance is so essential to The Force, why is the light side better than the dark? Because the dark side wants power for power's sake, whereas the light wants happiness for the ruled? But if the dark is greedy for power, the light seems to be so unwilling to wield it, it is unable to rule. Isn't the only way to end the struggle to join light and dark? Maybe that's where episode nine will take us, but right now, it seems like we're headed for the even greater hagiography of everyone in the rebellion.

And you know who is going to be happy to sell people here on Earth lots of merch with the rebel logo on it? One of the biggest corporations on the damn planet, people who have NO INTEREST at all in anyone rebelling against anything here in this galaxy.

This is the rebel insignia Disney wants to put on your t-shirts...

...and this is the Fire Nation insignia from Last Airbender. When I get them confused, I just remember that Last Airbender was the one that did everything the current Star Wars movies are trying to do better. 

Crap factor #2: Cheese

While episodes 1 to 3 bored us to tears with exposition, treaty negotiations, and philosophical musings on the qualities of sand, episode 8 gave us a plateful of cheese. My elder brother, a wise man I respect, described this movie as one that tried to swing big and missed a lot. I don't think that's something to hate. I'd rather see a movie have big aspirations and fail than play it safe. But when this movie struck out trying to swing for big emotional payout, it struck out big. The five worst lines/parts I can remember after one viewing:

5: In an otherwise very nice scene where ghost Yoda counsels Luke one last time, Yoda starts to talk like someone who just got religion from listening to Oprah. He gushes about the importance of failure. He sounds like the fatuous executives at my work who can't stop gushing about the latest faux-wisdom they received from reading some trendy leadership book written for the credulous. "Oh, my god, it's like...we all think of failure as, like, failure, but in fact, it's like, so important. It's like, in a way, failure is, like, success, if you think about it." It was a very 21st-Century self-help type of pop psychology for an ancient and wise master to make.

Related: "Page turners they are not" is a break from Yoda's former way of speaking. I am fine with the fact that episodes 7 and 8 have updated the series to reflect a more modern and ironic sense of humor, but to have Yoda suddenly bust out something so idiomatic from OUR galaxy was jarring.

Not a bad thing: Yoda ends the meeting with Luke with a much more restrained observation, words to the effect that a teacher has done his job well when the student doesn't need him anymore. I wish Yoda had just skipped the motivational speech and gone with that. This was mostly a nice scene that closed the loop on the Yoda-Luke relationship.

4. In the rebel deification vein:

4a) Finn actually uses an Arnold line when he knocks out his former Stormtrooper sweatshop boss. She calls him "scum," and he delivers the killing blow with something like "Naw, beyatch, I'm REBEL scum." And cue the Skymall magazine, placed in your movie theater seat, where you can buy all your Disney-approved rebel merchandise...

4b) A force sensitive kid being mistreated by his owner/parent/whatever at the end of the movie looks off at the stars and then reveals his secret rebel-insignia ring he's wearing. First of all, I guess that kid must be a Skywalker, too, because that's pretty much how both Anakin and Luke got their start, and secondly, Disney is a whore.

4c) Every line that has "hope" or "spark" in it.

3. You thought I was going to complain about the "not Ewoks" birds here, didn't you? No way, man. Those things are cute.

But why is Chewbacca still in the movies? Or C-3PO? Or R2? Because see my earlier remark about how Disney paid $4 billion based on the belief that Gen-X nostalgia is a highly profitable commodity.

2. Princess Leia force flies back to the ship after being blown up in an explosion out into the cold reaches of outer space. I...she...huh?

Okay, I'm glad Leia finally gets to show that Luke's not the only one in the family who's Force-sensitive. But has any fully trained Jedi ever pulled a trick remotely close to this? When Order 66 went out, the Jedi all got pwned in much easier situations that this, but Leia is capable of staying alive in the vacuum of space after an explosion and flying herself to a ship?

1. Rose, a Finn fanboy whose plucky grit is just off enough to grate every time I see her, says a line something like this: "That's how we'll win. Not by fighting against what we hate, but by fighting for the things we love. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaghhhhhhhhhh." And dies. Or doesn't die, because later it looks like she's just in intensive care.

That's the line that went for the big inspirational swing and missed, and then the bat went flying into the stands and killed a mom who was pregnant with twins.

Related: She says that after crashing her vehicle into Finn to save him from crashing his vehicle into another vehicle. Finn is fine. She is dead. Or hurt. Or something. That was thirty minutes after they jointly crash-landed a space ship and were both fine.

Also related: They were the last two attacking a giant line of bad guys, because even Poe realized it was dumb to attack them after everyone started getting blown up. But for some reason, after they crash right in front of the attacking line, nobody shoots them and they somehow make it back to base safely.

P.S: That whole part of the story on the casino planet was okay-ish, but it helped make the movie feel pretty long for a Star Wars.

P.S.S. Kylo Ren is dangerously close sometimes to being so stupid, he's more like Dark Helmet than Darth Vader. 

This wasn't a terrible movie. Depending on what happens in episode nine, they might yet save this story line and turn it into something that really will stick with the zeitgeist of a new generation. That's especially true if they break more fully from a good-guy/bad-guy formula. Alternatively, they could give us a better reason to see why one side really are the good guys. Right now, they're stuck between a traditional good-guy/bad-guy story and a modern or post-modern anti-heroic blurring of the lines between the two.

Right now, this was a movie that tried for greatness, but hit just enough flat notes that the symphony couldn't quite achieve the effect it wanted.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

I am not a cat person, but I am sort of a "Cat Person" person

If you haven't heard--and I hadn't, before I woke up Wednesday morning--a short story from The New Yorker has gone viral. Or as viral as a short story gets, anyhow. Kristen Roupenian's "Cat Person" has, improbably, not only drawn commentary from literary heavyweights, but is the subject of conversation among normal folks.

The fact people are even talking about it is part of the fuss

Nobody pays attention to short stories nowadays. The joke among all the hundreds of journals that publish them is that the only readers are other writers hoping to get published. But even those writers are just hoping to publish short stories until they can get a novel published, when you might finally get large numbers of regular people to notice you.

It wouldn't surprise me if part of the hate this story got--and there was hate--comes simply from people in the literary community who are irritated that this one story is getting so much love. As Vox's summary of the hub-bub on this story put it:

The short story is a medium already granted precious little respect — and now people barely acquainted with it were holding up “Cat Person” as exceptional rather than typical. Hackles rose; not necessarily at the story’s readers, but at the literary culture that makes it so easy to skate by on knowing the three short stories everybody reads in 10th-grade English, and to treat the great short stories that are written every year as afterthoughts.

I have to admit, while reading the story, I had to fight feelings of jealousy or maybe territoriality, wondering what it was that made this story, out of the tens of thousands of stories published every year, so popular. I myself wrote a story in the same thematic family this year, one in which a young woman wonders about the dating credentials of a man who isn't the paragon of masculinity. My main character does not share "Cat Person's" main character's other privileges, but she is dating a guy she's not entirely sure is up to snuff with the expectations she's been conditioned to have. I can't get the fucking thing published. So it was hard for me to deal with this story's explosive popularity. I got over it, though, and I'm glad I did.

Key issues people are arguing about

One major reason the story is so hot is pure serendipity. There is a bad date followed by bad sex that Margot, the main character, is wishing she weren't having. That bad sex forces the reader to ask a lot of questions. At a moment when America is having a come-to-Jesus experience about unwanted sexual acts, this story's central event takes place when a girl misinterprets a guy, ends up initiating sex she really doesn't want, and then following through because she feels the imperative to be nice. A really good story puts the reader in a tough moral space and forces us to ask hard questions of ourselves. In this case, one question is: "Was this consensual sex?"

It's a hard question to answer. It wasn't not consensual. It wouldn't hold up as rape in court. Or would it? He is 34, we find out, after the date, and she is only 20. He bought her beers. He questions whether she is drunk. It appears momentarily that he is going to turn down her sexual advances--which she clearly starts, not him--based on the possibility she is drunk. He is unable to resist, though, when she persists. He's a man. And probably not one who is all that successful with the ladies. One is now throwing herself at him, from what he can tell. He's only going to be able to say no for so long.

He never seems to force anything on her. He's not good in bed. She's dying for it to be over. But he doesn't know that.

It's a good story precisely because there's no easy answer to just how culpable both parties are. Bad decisions were made, and there is some blame to pass around.

I'd wager that most people would have given Robert--the sad sack guy--more benefit of the doubt if it weren't for the story's ending. He seemed to me to just be a guy who stumbled into dating above himself, got lucky, and then faced inevitable dumping. The dumping is brutal. Three days after sex, when Margot has ignored him nearly the whole time, Margot's roommate takes her phone and texts Robert this message: “Hi im not interested in you stop textng me.”

Robert sees Margot in a bar a month after that text. He texts her after seeing her. He starts off okay, just wanting to know if he did anything wrong, but he ends in a rage, asking if she is fucking the guy she was with in the bar. The last line of the story is Robert calling Margot a whore.

So maybe the guy was bad news all along, and not really so innocent that night.

Fat shaming

Some who didn't like the book, including literary all-star Roxanne Gay, hated Margot's attitude to Robert's body. The main reason she is repulsed by him is that he is fat. She notices “his belly thick and soft and covered with hair," his penis “only half visible beneath the hairy shelf of his belly.”

Margot appears to be a young woman of some privilege. She is in college. She is thin. While Robert is apparently touchy about her high-brow views of film, she is equally touchy about being seen as high-brow.

While some have criticized the story for its obsession with fat, others have pointed out that characters are not required to be role models. Margot is a product of the culture she inhabits, and that culture has conditioned her to have feelings toward fat bodies. The story is just being honest about the thoughts of a young woman dating.

A light touch of mansplaining

A lot of men apparently don't like this story.  I do. I especially liked the treatment of Margot's back-and-forth creation of a narrative for minuscule clues from Robert on their date. But I'm going to push back a bit on how Robert is being interpreted in a way that I'm sure some will find just so typical of a man. I think that when Robert calls Margot a whore at the end, we're supposed to lose all sympathy for him. The author suggested as much. But why do we forgive Margot's fat shaming, but not Robert's decision to try to hurt her with words after she has rejected him? You shouldn't call someone names like that, but he was probably drunk, had just seen the girl who dumped him after sex in a rude text three days after their date, and was at a very low point. He didn't attack her physically. He attacked her with a text.

I think we're meant to extrapolate back from that ending into the story and see him as something of a monster throughout. Margot wonders more than once whether he might be a murderer, since she knows so little about him. We are supposed to wonder the same thing at the end.

But I don't think so. I think that text is the lowest Robert is likely to go. He's a ball of insecurities. He's what my one friend calls a "Beta." He's a man without either the physical or social qualities a manly man is supposed to possess. He's got cats (probably), for crying out loud. That is not a good harbinger of a man's masculine qualities in our culture. He got his hopes up, because a girl out of his league seemed to hit on him in a movie theater, then pursue a relationship with him, then initiate sex, and then the whole dream came crashing down. He's devastated. 

Some might say he was a scoundrel for dating someone 14 years younger than him. I don't think Robert is the kind of guy who can afford to be that scrupled. She's legal and she seemed to be into him. He also seems to have thought she was older than she was when he met her.

Does calling a woman a name meant to demean her sexual conduct eliminate a person's claim to sympathy? I'd guess you'd get a statistically significant spread of responses from men and women on this. At least some men can feel some sympathy for Robert. I don't claim I'm right, only that I do feel it, too.

This story came at a good time for me

In addition to all the news of the past few months, in the past two weeks, I've also watched two shows on Netflix that dealt a lot with the issues that young women face while trying to figure out dating, love, and sex. One was Spike Lee's series "She's Gotta Have it," the other was the Korean drama translated as "Hello My Twenties." Both had a few scenes that were hard for me to watch, because they did an excellent job of showing how for women, the time of life where you're trying to find yourself can switch from magical to terrifying in a heartbeat. In her New Yorker interview after the story, Roupenian quotes--strangely enough--Louis C.K.: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them, women are afraid men will kill them.” This story was a punctuation mark on a couple of weeks' meditation on this theme.

Like most short story writers, I'm glad a short story is getting so much attention. It's not a perfect story. That ending strikes me as possibly an unearned surprise, or a bit of a hokey shock ending. But it still a very good story, and worthy of attention. That isn't less true just because there are thousands of other stories every year also worthy of this much discussion.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Writing is not your day job, so don't treat it like it is

In grade school, I loved the math game we called "travel." You've probably played it, even if it was called something else. Two students stand and the teacher reveals a math question on a flash card. Whoever shouts out the right answer first moves to the next desk and faces off with whoever is sitting there, and the process repeats itself. The student who travels the most desks during the game wins.

I guess I must have been a cocky kid. Strange, since now I have almost no confidence in anything I do (or, more accurately, I vacillate wildly between total confidence and crying in a corner), but I liked that there was a game that not only tested whether you knew something, but how quickly you could get through it. It was a way to show how easy math was for you.

In graduate school, when I read Castiglione's Book of the Courtier, I learned of the notion of virtu, which the kids today might translate as "skills." Castiglione proposed that a distinguished gentleman of court would strive to not only show himself skilled in all the subjects a gentleman should be adept in, he should also strive to make it look easy, to show his virtu, his skills. It wasn't enough to succeed, you had to succeed with style, to hide the hard work that went into becoming adept in the first place.

Trying to make it look easy can win you admirers, but there's also an obvious downside to it. Josh Waitzkin, the one-time child chess prodigy who was the subject of the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, noted once that when he was a child, he would often beat better chess players because they were hurrying, trying to make it look like beating a child took nothing out of them to accomplish. Trying to look cool cost them big time, and they ended up looking like doubly uncool as they would have if they had just let everyone see that beating this particular kid was not that easy.

At my day job, I am sometimes guilty of trying to make the work look easier than it really is. Part of this is just work politics: if bosses think there's no work I can't handle, then I get the good assignments and more responsibility. In theory, one day this will lead to me getting promoted and paid more. I also tend to mistrust the perfectionists, whom I sometimes believe are using the quest to make zero mistakes as an excuse for malingering. Whatever picayune mistakes I might sometimes make, I more than make up for in quantity of work.

Don't quit your day job, but also don't try to do your day job at home

But I sometimes take this attitude home with me to the stories I write. I act like just having written a lot of more or less passable stories is what I'm aiming for, instead of ripping into the depths of myself to write the best story I possibly can right now, even if it's the last thing I do. I try to charge through my writing to-do list like it's a list of weekend chores: finish rough draft of story about the unfairness of the immigration system; touch up story about a young woman's ambivalent search for her own racial identity, but really ratchet up the tension in the climax and if you can, see about making that description of the hospital unforgettably beautiful and yet haunting.

It doesn't work like that. Writing isn't raking leaves.

I blame those writing advice givers for making me think it is. I mean the ones who tell you to write every day, as though writing were nothing more than a set of push-ups to do in the morning. Writing is hard. Or, it's hard if you're doing it right. That doesn't mean that every time you sit down to write something, it's going to feel like drawing blood. Sometimes, the writing comes rather naturally. But getting into that state where the writing comes to you--that's what's hard. You're not going to be in that state every day of your life.

I'd wager one of three things is true about those who write every day:

1) They're professionals. All they do is write, so they can arrange every day in such a way that they are in the right space to write;
2) Their writing sounds like it was cranked out by force (i.e., it sucks); or
3) They write a lot of wasted words.

I realize everyone has their own way of approaching writing. If writing every day works for you, and you don't mind writing a lot of words that are going in the trash, have at it. I find that just wears me out, and delays me getting into the right head space to do the good writing I need to do.

In my last post, I indicated that I hadn't written in a few months. It was partly a loss of self-confidence, but it was also just exhaustion. Work has been very tough the last few months, and I eventually wore out trying to match my energy during the day when I came home every night. I needed a few weeks of mindlessness, of doing anything except writing, in order to get to where I could write again. The writer's mind is a well. It can run dry if you are over-using it. You have to give it time to fill up, and you have to give it reading and experiences and just plain idleness so it fills up again.

I just had one of the most productive weekends I've ever had. All that lack of self-confidence I had a few months ago melted as the words just came to me. I'm on such a roll right now, that I really need to give it a rest for a few days. Common wisdom might be to keep going while I'm on that roll, but I think it's really better to leave while you still want more. In a few days, I'll come back to where I was with fresh eyes and new energy.

Some people fear that if you don't keep pushing through the same work while you're in the same frame of mind, it will end up sounding like it was written by more than one person. I actually don't think this is always such a bad thing for a story. Most stories I read for my magazine where I volunteer start off pretty strong and then flag. They get bogged down and lose their initial energy as the writer starts trying to get into the exposition. This is a very difficult thing to avoid, but doing different parts in a different state of mind can actually give each its own propulsion. You are really taking the work of another person--the writer you were the last time you were working on this story--and riffing off of it as the person you are now.

You can probably write a story all in one go if you're writing micro-fiction. If you're not, it's going to take you a while to write the story. It really is. That's because writing is hard. If it seems hard to you, that means you're doing it right. Don't try to keep pushing through as though it isn't. 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Can you actually desensitize yourself to rejection?

Following my latest trend of reading whatever the algorithm gods have suggested I read, I recently perused a parenting advice article on getting your kids to become "rejection proof." It had to do with getting your kids inured to hearing no, so they aren't afraid of asking for what they want. The premise was that the more you ask for something, the more you get used to being told no, so the more courageous you become.

I wondered, "Does this work for wrirting?" Am I becoming more desensitized to rejection, and therefore more able to work through it?

I don't think so. The last few months, I've been almost completely unable to write fiction. I stopped in the middle of a rough draft of a story in October. Prior to that, I'd been on a roll. Feeling pretty good about myself, I submitted all of my recent work since the book, six stories in all, to many of the top 50 literary journals in September. In October, the rejections started coming in, and they haven't let up. One day, my creative mind just stopped firing, tired of producing work that is just going to sit on my hard drive.

You'd think I'd be used to it by now. I've had over 130 rejections to only six yesses as a writer, one of those yesses being the book. But apparently, I'm not used to it. Neither has my work for a literary journal, where I see how long the odds are and how haphazard the process of selection sometimes is, helped me to be philosophical about rejection. It feels personal every time. 

I think there are a few reasons rejection in writing is a more difficult thing to get used to than the kinds of rejection this article on raising kids was talking about.

1) Although "never settle for a no" is a rule in sales, if a customer doesn't want to buy your widget, that's not a slam on you as a person. But rejection of your writing is in a class with being turned down for a date or a job. It feels like someone is saying no not just to your work, but to you.

2) No matter how many times I get rejected, I can't keep myself from getting excited every time I see a notice come in. Every no, two seconds before opening it, has the potential to be the definitive yes that could make getting your work out there easier from now on. It could be the yes that means you're taken seriously. I cannot make myself stop doing this. So every rejection hurts a little bit, because it represents a little flicker of hope snuffed out as soon as it starts to burn.

3) Rejections have a strange way of coming in at a bad time, like right after you get the bill that says that your insurance isn't paying for that trip to the emergency room, or right after you find out you didn't get a promotion at work. They are often a fuck-you cherry on top of an already shitty day.

4) Would you want to date someone who machine-gunned through dating rejections until he got a yes? Probably not. Neither, I think, would you want to read the work of someone who didn't put enough thought into his work and who he was sending it to that every no stung at least a little.

5) Courage isn't an obstacle, like it is in sales. I don't talk to the people who read the story and reject it. It's a very impersonal interaction. It feels like nothing. It's not like asking a girl to the dance. It's like applying for a loan. 

Overall, I'm probably a little able to withstand rejection than I was five years ago, but I'm more like rejection-resistant than rejection proof. I can withstand a little splash of rejection, but don't drop me in a pool of it, or I won't keep functioning. I'm pretty sure I'll get through this current patch and get back to writing stories before too long. I'm drying out, so to speak. But I don't think rejection in writing is something you can harden yourself to the way a salesperson can learn to ignore it. That's like saying the best way to protect yourself against getting hit in the ribs with a baseball bat is to do it repeatedly until it doesn't hurt anymore.