And he's lately published a couple of thought-provoking pieces which I'd like to share.
This year, Vanity Fair asked writers to answer the following prompt: In a country defined by video games, reality TV, and virtual friendships, with a White House that has perfected the art of politics as public relations, what is reality to Americans today? And did we ever have a grasp of it?
James won third place, drawing on his experience working as an anthropologist in the vastly different environments of Albania, and ground zero, to answer the question:
1. It's June of 2002 and I'm doing an anthropological study on the street trade in 9/11 memorabilia near Ground Zero. Dust still lines the gutters; the stink of charred plastic and blasted concrete lingers in the air. Church choruses from far-flung states sing hymns to comfort the many visitors who shuffle past. My colleague and I walk up to strangers and ask them about the vendors who cluster nearby, their tables full of Ground Zero–themed snow globes, picture books, and T-shirts. Do they approve of the vendors? Would they buy something from them? Or do they agree with the tabloid papers that the vendors are "ghouls" profiting off of sorrow?
People from all over the country, of every age and skin tone, denounce the vendors for sullying a place they call sacred. Others, sometimes even members of the same family, call the vendors an embodiment of the great entrepreneurial spirit that the buildings symbolized—they were called the World Trade Center, after all.
These people think in symbols and ideals. When they look at a vendor, they don't see just a Chinese immigrant, an African-American Vietnam vet, or an elderly Mexican woman. They see Commercialism on Hallowed Ground, they see the American Way in Action. Just around the corner, in the smoking ruins, some see Why We Are at War.
My friend and I enjoy this research. The feelings we're talking about are vivid and strong. At one point, I casually refer to a group of passersby as "tourists" and the guy I'm talking to, a construction worker from New Jersey, nearly punches me in the face.
"They're pilgrims," he says.
The whole article is available up at Vanity Fair.
He also recently published an article on David Icke at Strange Horizons.
In case you've been living in the same cave as I have (in which case, "Hello! Care to share a hank of mammoth meat?"), David Icke is a conspiracy theorist who believes that the world is run by a secret class of reptiloid aliens who have infested the top ranks of society. They're apparently disproportionately represented among the Jews, but can also be found in other "ruling" classes, including the presidency of the USA. It was they who both taught the Egyptians how to build pyramids, and then forced them to do so. These days, they sacrifice children and feed on the blood of the innocent. From James's essay:
"The government made the hurricane on purpose. It's the same Brotherhood that's always been in charge. They're playing the same old game."
For a moment all of us were speechless. It had to be a joke. "What Brotherhood is that?" I asked, finally.
Roberto told me, "They're called the Anunnaki and they've been using humans as slaves for five thousand years." I sputtered and laughed but Roberto didn't laugh back.
James argues that Icke is so popular because his ideas have hit on a kind of culturally unconscious truth. The ruling class does not really sacrifice the blood of children, but post-globalization, it's increasingly possible to look at the world metaphorically in the way that Icke describes.
There are many cultural myths that function this way. For instance, there is documentation suggesting that enslaved Africans being brought to America feared that they were going to be eaten during middle passage. While African bodies were not literally used to fill European stomachs, they were used that way metaphorically. African fire engines are not literally powered by the blood of unwilling passengers, but there are some myths in Africa that suggest they are, and those myths have a certain metaphorical truth. Successful capitalists don't really carve out their empires by making legions of zombie workers, but there are myths about this in Africa too, and they also have metaphorical resonance.
James argues that Icke has tapped into one of these visceral cultural narratives that describes power dynamics in vivid, surreal terms. James writes:
The followers of Icke that I've known have often been members of minority groups, lonely and confused, and experiencing types of unemployment that are connected to shifts in the global economy. Like blacks in South Africa, they witness manifestations of incredibly complex problems that are difficult to understand from their vantage point. Unlike those South Africans, however, they don't have an indigenous system of folklore to provide an explanation. So they turn to David Icke, who weaves the warp of conspiracy theory with the woof of New Age and gilds it all with that system of folklore indigenous to the modern world, science fiction. In the end he creates a tapestry of belief that has a position on every issue and explains every atrocity, all while affirming the essential goodness of humanity.
James goes on to write about the ties between Icke's appeal beyond the page and the appeal of some mainstream science fiction narratives, comparing Icke to work like Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, which, as he notes, some activists have used as a touchstone for gathering their ideas about a utopic future. He dwells on how Icke manages, through science fictional imagery, to create and sustain not just the suspended belief of a fiction writer, but the belief of a myth maker.
How can feminists tap the resonance of those unconscious narratives, both in science fiction and in straight political narrative?
I fear we can't, or at least not directly. People gravitate toward Icke not just because his work describes metaphorical truths, but also because it underlies those truths with comforting lies. It allows the reader to always ally himself with good, and to escape any agency in his own situation. In creating a new myth, Icke relies on old mythic concepts of heroics, making his narrative compelling, but not helpful. One cannot galvanize around Icke in order to create change.
If nothing else, though, Icke demonstrates the importance of narrative. People believe in him because he can weave a compelling story, and because the framework he offers for people to rewrite their lives into is appealing. For those on the fringe in wealthy countries, Icke's story is a compelling way to make boundaries around the experience of alienation. Anti-feminist and white supremacist narratives have a similar appeal. Narratives get into people's heads. It's important for us to provide counter-narratives where possible, even if they aren't as popular and inflaming. The existence of counter-narratives gives people the ability to see through our framework, at least for a moment.