Friday, October 31, 2008

Studs Terkel, 1912-2008

Studs Terkel, the activist, writer, and oral historian who survived the infamous McCarthy-era blacklist and later won the Pulitzer Prize, died today. Much of his work examined the lives and experiences of ordinary working people--the folks, that is, who are usually left out of historical narratives. In her obituary of Terkel for the AP, Carolyn Rousseau writes

He was a cigar and martini man, white-haired and elegantly rumpled in his trademark red-checkered shirts, an old rebel who never mellowed, never retired, never forgot, and "never met a picket line or petition I didn't like."

"A lot of people feel, 'What can I do, (it's) hopeless,'" Terkel told The Associated Press in 2003. "Well, through all these years there have been the people I'm talking about, whom we call activists ... who give us hope and through them we have hope."

The tougher the subject, the harder Terkel took it on. He put out an oral history collection on race relations in 1992 called "Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About The American Obsession," and, in 1995, "Coming of Age," recollections of men and women 70 and older.

He cared about what divided us, and what united us: death — in his 2001 "Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith," and hope, in his 2003 "Hope Dies Last."

Rousseau notes Terkel's keen interest in the looming election:

Andre Schiffrin — Terkel's longtime editor, publisher and close friend who gave Terkel the idea for many of his books — said Terkel "had been in bad shape in recent weeks and he really felt that his life had come to an end. But he was as engaged as ever. He was a big fan of (Democratic presidential candidate Barack) Obama and he said one of the things that kept him going was that he wanted to see the results of the election."

For his oral histories, Terkel interviewed his subjects on tape, then transcribed and sifted. "What first comes out of an interview are tons of ore; you have to get that gold dust in your hands," he wrote in his memoir. "Now, how does it become a necklace or a ring or a gold watch? You have to get the form; you have to mold the gold dust."

Said Schiffrin: "He liked to tell the story of an interview with a woman in a public housing unit in Chicago. At the end of the interview, the woman said, `My goodness, I didn't know I felt that way.' That was his genius."

Terkel would joke that his obsession with tape recording was equaled by only one other man, a certain former president of the United States: "Richard Nixon and I could be aptly described as neo-Cartesians. I tape, therefore I am."

Good Chicago wit, that. We were lucky to have him.

A Conversation in the margins of The Golden Notebook

When Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing's novel The Golden Notebook first appeared in 1962, it made a major splash. And though its author disdained feminism and feminists herself, the novel became an important reading experience for many feminists over the next couple of decades. I can recall excited discussions that brought out both deep interest and ambivalence in the novel's feminist readers. Almost half a century later, now, The Institute for the Future of the Book has organized an online close reading of the novel.

Bob Stein, whose brainchild this is, writes:

Seven women will read Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook and carry on a conversation in the margins. The idea for the project arose out of my experience re-reading the novel in the summer of 2007 just before Lessing won the Nobel Prize for literature. The Golden Notebook was one of the two or three most influential books of my youth and I decided I wanted to "try it on" again after so many years. It turned out to be one of the most interesting reading experiences of my life. With an interval of thirty-seven years the lens of perception was so different; things that stood out the first-time around were now of lesser importance, and entire themes I missed the first time came front and center. When I told my younger colleagues what I was reading, I was surprised that not one of them had read it, not even the ones with degrees in English literature. It occurred to me that it would be very interesting to eavesdrop on a conversation between two readers, one under thirty, one over fifty or sixty, in which they react to the book and to each other's reactions. And then of course I realized that we now actually have the technology to do just that. Thanks to the efforts of Chris Meade, my colleague and director of if:book London, the Arts Council England enthusiastically and generously agreed to fund the project. Chris was also the link to Doris Lessing who through her publisher HarperCollins signed on with the rights to putting the entire text of the novel online.

Fundamentally this is an experiment in how the web might be used as a space for collaborative close-reading. We don't yet understand how to model a complex conversation in the web's two-dimensional environment and we're hoping this experiment will help us learn what's necessary to make this sort of collaboration work as well as possible. In addition to making comments in the margin, we expect that the readers will also record their reactions to the process in a group blog. In the public forum, everyone who is reading along and following the conversation can post their comments on the book and the process itself.

The seven writers participating are Naomi Alderman, Nona Willis Aronowitz, Laura Kipnis, Philippa Levine, Lenelle Moise, Helen Oyeyemi, and Harriet Rubin.

I'm very curious to see how this will work. I'm thinking, myself, of trying to make time to do a re-read before November 10. It's been years since I've read any of Doris Lessing's work (mostly because her conservative ideology has, since The Sentimental Agents, tended to get up my nose), and I'm always very interested to see how books that mattered to me thirty years ago strike me today.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

In Praise of Small Acts of Resistance

Josh Lukin just sent me a link to this story: Dozens Of Call Center Workers Walk Off Job In Protest Rather Than Read McCain Script Attacking Obama. In Indiana, where robocalls are illegal, telemarketing workers are expected to read the scripts live. But imagine this: handed "an incendiary McCain campaign script attacking Barack Obama," numerous workers were outraged and refused to read it.

"We were asked to read something saying [Obama and Democrats] were against protecting children from danger," this worker said. "I wouldn't do it. A lot of people left. They thought it was disgusting."

This worker, too, confirmed sacrificing pay to walk out, saying her supervisor told her: "If you don't wanna phone it you can just go home for the day."

Such acts of resistance are small potatoes, of course. But it just goes to show, even in these hard economic times, money can't buy everything.

But speaking of what money can and can't buy, I'm curious about whether Sarah Palin's friend, Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, who's now a convicted felon and refuses to withdraw from the contest for his seat, will manage to win re-election. Although some non-Alaskan political analysts think that he can't possibly retain his seat now (it would make Alaska a "laughing-stock" of the nation, one guy said; not to mention that the Senate would likely expel him if he didn't do the gentlemanly thing), Alaskans themselves aren't so sure. Stevens has been an incumbent for 40 years and has been dealing in pork all that time.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The "event" and narrative

One of the academic journals I regularly read, differences, has published a special issue, In the Event, which centers on the very notion of "the Event," with particular reference to Katrina. I'm finding this interesting reading (though I suppose that anyone who consciously hates theory would not share my response to the issue). The whole notion of "the Event" has long been a matter of concern for historians and philosophers, but it's not usually something anyone who's neither a philosopher nor a historian ever think about. An "event," for historians, is a singularity or a rupture. In the US, one could make the argument that cable news has pretty much fostered the impression that the Event doesn't exist-- "breaking news" is more likely to be a piece of utterly banal trivia as it is to be anything anyone would care about in a day's or a week's much less a decade's time, and a constant stream of shrilly proclaimed "breaking news" has pretty much led us to conclude that nothing in the public sphere is more important than anything else. And yet for many of us, there's been a sense over the last couple of weeks that we are in the middle of such an "event." But whether the global financial meltdown will qualify among future historians as an "event" remains to be seen.

The journal issue is conceptually grounded by Hayden White's article, "The Historical Event," which immediately follows the introduction. White is known for his important work on how the structures of narrative influence the writing and production of History. As he notes, the famed Annales School of history attacked the whole notion of the event:

"Event-history," it was held, was little more than entertainment and little less than fantasy insofar as it fed the dreams and illusions of a bankrupt humanism. In fact, the French historian Fernand Braudel tried to diminish the focus on the event in historical research because he saw it as the mainstay of a narrativist approach to history, which made history into a drama and substituted emotional gratification for the intellectual satisfaction of science in the process.

Reading this, I'm struck by this rather nice irony: thirty years ago, the hot new thing among up-and-coming young historians was writing "microhistories"-- that is, recovering the narratives of the everyday, ordinary people who never figure in history, from archival documents. This passion for telling the lives of ordinary people was a direct result of the work of the Annales School, which gave historians new ways of thinking and resources they hadn't previously had. Oh, sure, a few antiquarian types had told such stories as "curiosities," but because of the Annales work, this new approach was much more sophisticated than the antiquarian curiosity narratives. And of course the new approach continued to defy the assumption that diplomatic history (as the Great Events method was called) was the only True History. And if I recall the discussions of the day correctly, most of the historians interested in such narratives also wanted to make scholarly texts of history (again) readable by nonhistorians.

White notes something that philosophers of history have been worrying about for some time:

The historiological notion of event is much closer to the dramatic or rather dramatistic than it is to any possible scientific conception thereof. Historical narratives run much too smoothly to support any claim to realistic representation of the events they feature as their subject matter. Unlike the kind of natural events (or sets of events) studied by the physical sciences, real historical events run rather roughly and raggedly...

The Annales School, of course, claimed the name of "science" for its practice of "history." The typical Annales work examines "being" or structures rather than "events." A couple of paragraphs later, White discusses Alain Badiou's take on the Event:

[Badiou] assumes that being is everything that is the case and that there is nothing that is not the case. Nothing new can ever be added to being and therefore no event-- understood as an eruption of something coming from outside the totality of being-- could ever take place. And yet events seem to take place all the time, at least to observers or chroniclers of happenings in the real world. This "seeming to take place" could be construed as an event, but it would belong to consciousness rather than to the world exterior to it.

So how is this kind of event possible? As I understand it, Badiou thinks that events seem to occur because there is a disparity between being, on the one side, and the knowledge of being, on the other. Event occurs when knowledge of some hitherto unknown aspect of being as to be added to what has been previously known about being. It is, as it were, this "shock" to the knowledge-system by the insistent nature of a newly discovered truth about being that registers as an event to consciousness. In reality, Badiou argues, a new bit of knowledge is only apparently new: it is like the discovery of a hitherto unknown prime number in mathematics. It was always "there" (which is to say, was always "nowhere" but among the universe of numbers) only awaiting (as it were) that computer which is endlessly generation new prime numbers of all but infinite length for its registration.

After further discussion, White comes to the interesting conclusion that "specifically historical events" cannot occur "before a specifically historical kind of knowledge existed" because "it would have no ground or context against which to display its newness." In other words, whether certain happenings are classified as events has to do with consciousness.

White then traces the invention of historical event to Herodotus and then notes that it was the Romans who gave us the word historia-- "with its primary meaning of tale or story understood as the kind of account 'proper' to the rendition of a series of events into a 'history'." And this, White says, is where

the idea of history as a truthful account of events that really happened in the past cast in the form of a story with a plot is achieved. And this provides at least one way of identifying a specifically historical event. As Paul Ricoeur puts it: a historical event is a real event capable of serving as an element of a "plot." Or, as Louis O. Mink used to say: a historical event is one that can truthfully be described in such a way as to serve as an element of a narrative."

And so,

In order for a given singular event, set, or series of events to qualify as "historical," the event, set, or series must also be validly describable as if they had the attributes of elements in a plot of a story.

Which is to say, without a narrative, there's no event.

We might also then say: if there's no narrative that a singularity can fit into, if the singularity doesn't fit any of the stories historians are telling, then it can't be perceived as an event. Lack of narrative = invisibility. (But we all knew that already, right?)

Much of this discussion of the relation of event to narrative is familiar to me from the historiography course I took as a graduate student in history. But for the last twenty-eight years I've been thinking of narrative from the perspective of a writer, reader, and critic of fiction. There's much in the two perspectives that are similar. As a graduate student, I read fiercely for what I was taught to call "underlying assumptions." As a fiction critic, I'm always nailing the subtext. In the former case, the "underlying assumptions" often account not only for the conclusion the historian draws but also for the facts selected as relevant to a historical account. In the latter case, instead of the "conclusion," one finds the ideological implications of the work; and instead of facts selected, one finds choice of characters and circumstances and events described.

As a first-year graduate, writing a paper on the Roman Republic, I had the conceptual epiphany that every historian-in-training must experience. Suddenly I understood: history is about change! And that's why professional historians don't consider antiquarian histories interesting or useful. Curiously, science fiction is about change, too. (I've long believed that my jumping from historical scholarship to writing science fiction was no accident.) The doxa has it that in fiction there can be no story without change-- that a piece of fiction in which nothing happens is a vignette, not a narrative. (Which is not the same thing, of course, as saying it has to have a plot: it doesn't.) Ought written histories to be plotless in order to make them less susceptible to ideological manipulation and the inauthenticity that accompanies any narrative arc? Ought fictions to be plotless in order to free them from enslavement to the same stories about the same characters told in endless repetition? Some of the issues do seem to be the same...

I can't help wondering: is a historical figure in a traditional narrative of history, however faithfully and carefully rendered, any more real than a fictional character? Consider that very most personal of histories, the autobiography: writing an autobiography requires fictionalizing the self. (And let's not even go into the question of the authenticity of the "self.") Even if every fact put into an autobiography were documented, a degree of fictionalizing would still be necessary. If that is the case for autobiography, surely it must also be the case for biography. The fictionalizing isn't about telling lies or making up "facts" out of whole cloth: it's about imposing a narrative arc, a story on facts that are only fragments of a larger picture that can never be fully constructed.

If any of this interests you, check out White's article. He goes to an interesting place after he's laid down the groundwork I've quoted from. (It's Volume 19, No.2)

Those Eyeball-rolling Moments

It's nice to see that Lyndon Perry, reviewing Nancy Jane Moore's collection Conscientious Inconsistencies for The Fix, enjoyed her stories and found their quality impressive. But as happens over and over and over again in reviews and discussions of feminist sf (and so of course in reviews of Aqueduct's books), the reviewer here confronts us with the classic provocation for eyeball-rolling that anyone who regularly reads feminist sf will be familiar with: the assumption that because he likes the stories and perceives their quality, that therefore what he's reviewing can't be feminist sf.

Although touted in the introduction as a sampling of stories influenced by Moore’s feminism, I found, rather, the four pieces of fiction (and a list of “Thirty-One Rules for Fulfilling Your Destiny”) as examples of great writing featuring fully characterized protagonists who just happen to be women. Moore’s style rises above a particular perspective and stands on its own as quality short fiction. To classify this collection as feminist literature, in my opinion, might unnecessarily marginalize these stories away from the very genre fiction scene it seeks to represent.

The introduction he alludes to, by the way, is by me. A few comments seem in order. First: it's a safe bet that he hasn't read much feminist sf. Second: Since when does any story "rise above its perspective"? Every narrative has a perspective, and to imagine that the perspective doesn't matter is naive. But third, and perhaps more to the point: I find myself wondering yet again why it is so apparently impossible for "genre readers" to recall that feminist sf has made important contributions to the genre? (Jeanne Gomoll's manifesto took this on many years ago; but it's not an issue that has resolved itself with time, and so her "Open Letter to Joanna Russ" remains relevant to the discussion.) Although our noses are constantly being rubbed in this ignorance, as I wrote in my essay (in the Daughters of Earth anthology) on Karen Joy Fowler's "What I Didn't See," I keep hoping, I keep hoping, I keep hoping--- and I do keep seeing signs that at least some feminist sf is finally being integrated into the younger critics' understanding of the genre, and that discussions of sf by women aren't always relegated to special--segregated--chapters in critical studies of the genre as they always were in the past.

I've no doubt that for as long as Aqueduct publishes books, I'll be reading reviews expressing puzzlement that a particular book was published by Aqueduct because really, it's quality fiction and not-- ugh-- *feminist.* (Why, reviewers frequently want to know, do I think that the work published as a volume in the Conversation Pieces series is a contribution to the "conversation of feminist sf"? There's nothing "feminist" about this work! It's too good to be "feminist"!) Not wanting to be an ingrate, I do my best to overlook such remarks. But I do, in the privacy of my office, roll my eyeballs (not to mention raise my eyebrows).

The flip-side of this ignorance, of course, is that when a work of feminist sf is too subtle or goes too far outside a reviewer's comfort zone, said reviewer has a habit of taking his or her simplistic assumptions about feminism and projecting them willy-nilly onto the text, ignoring everything in the work that can't be forced into the square peg of their polemic-against-their-straw-man-feminism interpretation. This also drives me nuts. (More exercise for my eyeballs and eyebrows.)

I realize this is an aspect of living in the ghetto of a genre ghetto. Ignorance is a perk of privilege. (If you don't know what I mean, just contemplate Dubya's proud flaunting of his ignorance.) Come to think of it, I was constantly being called "Little Miss Know-it-all" in my family when I was growing up. I learned early that knowing things that other people didn't know was not a virtue. (I rolled my eyeballs a lot back then, too...)

Speculative Literature Foundation Announces 2008 Gulliver Travel Research Grant Winner

This press release arrived in my mailbox over the weekend:

The Speculative Literature Foundation is delighted to announce that its 2008 Gulliver Travel Research Grant has been awarded to author Alaya Dawn Johnson. The $800 grant will be used to help Johnson to travel to Mexico City and other historical sites in Mexico, to research a novel.

Johnson’s stories have appeared in Fantasy, Interzone and Strange Horizons, and have been reprinted in both the SF and Fantasy Year’s Best anthologies edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. Her first novel was published by Agate Publishing in 2007, with the sequel due in 2009.

“Alaya’s fiction is lean and muscular but bejeweled with strangeness,” said Colin Harvey, author of Blind Faith, editor of Killers, and the Foundation’s UK travel grant juror. “Within that strangeness, though, beat human hearts. Her characters love and grieve, are bitter, generous or ashamed -as real people are. Her proposal was detailed, her fiction compelling. She is a worthy winner, and we look forward to reading the completed novel.”

“Alaya's sample was a compelling slice of a brutal and beautifully realized world. The characters are fierce, tragic and brave, and events in this tantalizingly short piece hint at the complexity to come: one gets the sense that the threads of art, love, and ambition will weave together into a deeply passionate novel about human existence,” said Corie Ralston, the Foundation’s Managing Director.

The Gulliver Travel Research Grant is awarded to assist a writer of speculative fiction in his or her research. As in previous years, the 2008 grant of $800 is to be used to cover airfare, lodging, and/or other expenses relating to the research for a project of speculative fiction. The grant is awarded by a committee of Speculative Literature Foundation members on the basis of interest and merit.

The grant is named after Gulliver, a character in the 1726 story “Gulliver’s Travels” written by Jonathan Swift. The story represents one of the earliest examples of fantasy travel.

Applications for the sixth annual Gulliver Travel Research Grant will open on July 1, 2009.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

More Election Stuff

If you can afford to make a political contribution, a good place to send it, as Katha Pollitt points out, would be to the progressive, pro-choice Native American women running for the state legislature in South Dakota, where an initiative that would ban nearly all abortions in South Dakota is on the ballot. Women Run! South Dakota

is the umbrella organization for progressive pro-choice Native American women running for the state legislature: among them, Charon Asetoyer, Faith Spotted Eagle, Theresa Spry, Diane Long Fox Kastner, and incumbent Senator Theresa Two Bulls (the first, and so far only, Native American woman elected to the State Senate,now running for a third term). These are community organizers (take that, Sarah Palin!) with deep local roots, long-time activists on women's health, domestic violence, native american rights, and poverty issues. They would bring progressive grassroots leadership to a state where women currrently make up only 16% of the state legislature (and only four of those women are pro-choice), Native americans have long had trouble exercising their right to vote, and where not coincidentally, rightwing politics, including repeated attempts to make abortion a crime, have been the rule for far too long.

Check out the details in Pollitt's blog post. Donations can be made at WomenRun!'s Actblue page.

Sarah Palin, of course, continues to be as much in the news as her senior running mate:

--The Associated Press released an investigative report this weekend charging that Sarah Palin's "signature accomplishment," a natural gas pipeline contract, involved rigging the bid to favor one corporation.

--And on the political gossip front: apparently Sarah Palin's figured out that she's being set up to take the blame if McCain loses and is therefore "going rogue." Here's Ben Smith, in a piece at Politico:

"These people are going to try and shred her after the campaign to divert blame from themselves," a McCain insider said, referring to McCain's chief strategist, Steve Schmidt, and to Nicolle Wallace, a former Bush aide who has taken a lead role in Palin's campaign. Palin's partisans blame Wallace, in particular, for Palin's avoiding of the media for days and then giving a high-stakes interview to CBS News' Katie Couric, whose sometimes painful content the campaign allowed to be parceled out over a week.

The piece quotes sources who claim that Palin had no idea how expensive the designer outfits purchased for her were:

But few imagine that Palin will be able to repair her image - and bad poll numbers - in the eleven days before the campaign ends. And the final straw for Palin and her allies was the news that the campaign had reported spending $150,000 on her clothes, turning her, again, into the butt of late-night humor. "She never even set foot in these stores," the senior Republican said, noting Palin hadn't realized the cost when the clothes were brought to her in her Minnesota hotel room. "It's completely out-of-control operatives," said the close ally outside the campaign. "She has no responsibility for that. It's incredibly frustrating for us and for her." Between Palin's internal detractors and her allies, there's a middle ground: Some aides say that she's a flawed candidate whose handling exaggerated her weak spots.

The extent of Palin's naivete probably can't be gauged, especially given what has been emerging about her behavior as governor. But can there be any doubt that the McCain campaign chose her for cynical reasons that had nothing to do with her competence or fitness for high office?

--Maureen Dowd, in her column in today's New York Times, writes about McCain advisders

treating their own vice presidential candidate like Valentino Barbie, dressing her up in fancy clothes and endlessly playing with her hair... with the economy cratering and the McCain campaign running on an "average Joe" theme, dunderheaded aides, led by the former Bushies Nicolle Wallace and Tracey Schmitt, constumed their Eliza Doolittle for a ball when she should have been dressing for a bailout.

Eliza Doolittle? Shaw's Eliza Doolittle was smart, if poor. She was a quick study who was actually able to speak in complete, logically-constructed sentences. (Not to mention that she refused to follow through on the standard narrative arc assigned to women characters when it was offered to her.) What an inapt analogy for Dowd to choose. (Though perhaps she's not thinking of GBS's original character at all... Perhaps she doesn't even know GBS's original character...)

Dowd notes that Republicans have been charging the media with sexism for reporting on Palin's new wardrobe, then comments:

It doesn't wash to cry sexism now any more than it did at the beginning, when the campaign tried to use that dodge to divert attention from Palin's lacunae in the sort of knowledge you need to run the world. The press has written plenty about the vanities ad extravagances of male candidates. (See: Haircuts, John Edwards and Bill Clinton.) Sexism would be to treat Palin differently, or more delicately, than one of the guys.

Hmm. We're probably not going to get incisive feminist analysis of all these issues for a year or two. (I fully expect feminist theorists to be doing some interesting work on the subject of Sarah Palin's candidacy in the near- to mid-future.) Dowd pretty much undercuts her postion with a rather typical-for-her generalization in the last paragraph of her piece:

Makeovers are every woma's dream. But this makeover has simply pushed back Palin's dream of being president.

Oh gag me with a spoon, honey.

Friday, October 24, 2008

A Few Links, Talking about Books

Inspired by Niall Harrison's discussion of Gwyneth Jones's Kairos a couple of weeks back, Ian Sales has written about Gwyneth's 1986 novel Escape Plans, a novel I've always felt has received very little attention-- though my perception of that may be due to the lack of a US edition of the novel. Sales' writes:

...a story which is not all together easy to parse in the first place. The setting, the use of an acronymic language, the mentions of the myriad systems, the deliberate confusion between the systems' real and virtual locations, and the metaphors used by the Earth's populace in explanation of this... all serve to richen and partly obscure the story. Happily, the prose is so well written, it pulls you along with the plot.

This description confirms my memory of the reading experience. And if I correctly recall, there were many little things in the novel that absolutely tickled me. So many delicious ironies (for 1986 especially).

I was amused to read a response to Sales' review from someone who doesn't get "the regard in which Ms. Jones is held. I've met her and like her, but I find her fiction almost unendurable. It is, for me, not quite unreadable, but I wish it was; I waded through the Aleutian trilogy and enjoyed it as much as if it were thick sewage." After going on a bit in that vein, the commenter then declares his love for Neal Stephenson's work and provides a link to his praise of said work. Sales's reply made me chuckle: "Ah well, you see I don't get the Stephenson thing. I thought Snowcrash was mildly entertaining, Cryptonomicon twice the size it needed to be, and I gave up on the Baroque Cycle halfway through. I feel no burning desire to buy Anathem. But I will be buying GJ's new novel, Spirit when it's published in December..."

On Wednesdy I read first a notice and then a review of Nisi Shawl's Filter House. The review is Matt Cheney's, and can be found here. The notice is in the Fall issue of Ms. Magazine, which lists Filter House among its dozen "Great Reads for Fall 2008." (There's no weblink yet, since the site's still showing the Summer issue.)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Politicians and their Wardrobes

On learning that Sarah Palin spent $150,000 in campaign funds on hairstyling, clothing, and accessories, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission against Sarah Palin and the Republican National Committee, charging them with violating the FEC rule prohibiting candidates from federal office for using campaign funds to purchase clothing. Questioned by reporters about this, John McCain tersely replied: "She needed clothes at the time. They'll be donated at end of this campaign. They'll be donated to charity."

The Anchorage Salvation Army announced that it would be delighted to be the beneficiary. So now I envision a charity fashion show, auctioning off clothing worn by Sarah Palin during the campaign. Will the Valentino-Garavani jacket she wore to the debate go for more than the outfit she wore on SNL, I wonder? I can even imagine Tina Fey agreeing to model the clothing for them. Wouldn't that be fun!

Another Republican, Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman (who is running against Al Franken), has been under fire because Nasser Kazeminy, a wealthy donor, bought expensive suits for him. And it turns out that Palin's personal shopper is a close Coleman connection, one Jeff Larson, whose firm is involved in engineering the McCain campaign's robocalls---and whom Coleman tipped for the juicy plum of running the Republican National Convention last summer. Are these instances of politicians helping themselves to sartorial perks a signal that candidates should be grilled by the media about whether or not they buy their own clothes? I don't know. The media never bother to explore the issues and the candidates positions more than superficially as it is. Asking candidates about their clothes might simply further distance them from discussing the issues. And yet...

While in one sense, such gossip is irrelevant, in another, such details offer the public a clear index of the values and attitudes rife among politicians and lobbyists-- values alien to everyone but the most elite. I'm sure Palin feels entitled to a new wardrobe: this, after all, being a "natural" perk of power, just as the investment bankers who exuberantly participated in the subprime mortgage pyramid scheme feel entitled to multimillion bonuses as their companies and clients are all going bankrupt and failed CEO's always seem to be given golden parachutes when they're fired for incompetence. The McCain-Palin position is that Bush didn't go far enough in redistributing income from the middle to the very most upper classes-- they're demanding even more redistribution (and must be laughing their asses off at "Joe the Plumber's" naivete in thinking that Obama's plan to raise taxes on millionaires will hurt him personally). Since robbing the middle class to give to the rich has become an absolute ethic of the Republican Party, Republican politicians must find it galling when they get called on the perks they believe they're entitled to.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Battle against Voter Suppression

Katrina Vanden Heuvel and Nicholas Jahr's Voter Registration Flashpoints reports on the battle against voter suppression, which seems to be going well in at least some places (like Ohio).

As we head into the final stretch of the election season, alarming reports of dysfunctional voter registration, purges of the rolls, and possible voter suppression are surfacing weekly, if not daily. The National Campaign for Fair Elections' hotline (866.OUR.VOTE / 866.687.8683) is already receiving roughly a thousand calls a day; while the majority of these are requests for information, some concern problems with registration. The New York Times reports that tens of thousands of voters may have been illegally purged from the rolls in swing states. Other news sources speculate there are 600,000 voters at risk of disenfranchisement in Ohio alone. What goes unreported upon amid all this turmoil is how effective the response has been, and what can still be done.

Their report looks at battles in Montana, Ohio, Virginia, and Florida.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Is the strategy of disenfranchising voters "pro-American" and patriotic?

Here in the US with only a few weeks remaining to Election Day, Republicans, in danger of losing not only the Presidential election but also a substantial number of seats in both the US Senate and House of Representatives, are really, really desperate. It's becoming obvious that they believe that the only way for the GOP to avoid devastation at the polls is by preventing as many people from voting as possible. In GOP Terrified of American Voters (The Atlanta Journal Constitution October 19,2008), Jay Bookman notes that

On Friday, the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously against Ohio Republicans in their effort to try to challenge 200,000 voters. Two hundred thousand!! Republican officials fear the verdict of the American people. They fear the wrath of those Americans drawn into political participation by anger at the direction that the GOP has tried to take their country. And they are trying desperately, frantically, to try to prevent that verdict from being delivered.

This is probably the most egregious instance of the numerous challenges Republicans are making to the rolls of registered voters, but in many, many states, the Republican Party is doing its damnedest to disenfranchise voters. Presumably they hope that by making their challenges at the last minute, the voters knocked off the rolls won't have a chance to contest their elimination. This was a tactic that worked well for the Republicans in 2004 and even better in 2006. (And we know that similar tactics were successfully deployed in Florida in 2000.) But this year the effort is much wider and more systematic and seems to constitutes one of the party's major strategies. It stinks of desperation and implies a dangerous mindset: that if the only way to stay in office is to prevent the electorate from voting, the strategy's justified. Republicans and Democrats alike proclaim that the US is a democracy; and they make this assertion solely on the basis of the fact that two branches of the government are headed by officials elected by the nation's citizens. (As we know, leaders of both parties were furious when the citizenry opposed the Big Finance "bailout," and they rejected public opinion as ignorant and irrelevant.) But the Republicans' open embrace of cheating is as good as an admission that they don't give a damn about even this most limited, timid form of the democratic process.

Okay, so the fact that the Republicans cheat (or are trying to cheat) is old, old news. But when I start matching it up with some of their recent rhetoric, I find myself wondering whether there's any line they won't cross in serving their desperate addiction to power. This morning on Meet the Press, Republican Colin Powell, when endorsing Obama, said that he has heard "senior members of my own party" insist against that Obama is a Muslim and is (therefore?) connected to terrorists. (The Nation has a video clip of this.) Powell duly criticized robocalls trying to taint Obama, which he says go "too far." He said he's "troubled by these approaches"-- troubled by what "senior members of the party" say-- and asked: is there something wrong with being a Muslim in America? As for Sarah Palin-- Powell cited her choice as McCain's running mate as an indication that the GOP is taking a turn even further right than it already is.

And then there's Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachman's assertion on Chris Matthews' Hardball that Barack Obama and liberals in general are "anti-American." (The Nation has a clip of that, also, here.) This assertion resonates in a very sinister way with Sarah Palin's statement at a North Carolina fundraiser that

We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit. And in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard-working very patriotic, very pro-America areas of this great nation.

Excuse me? What does it mean, talking about certain parts of the country being more "pro-America" than others? Logically speaking, it seems to be a meaningless oxymoron, though various commentators have extrapolated it to mean she considers some areas of the country more "American" than others. But then she reprised this comment last night in her (reality, not parody) "first press conference," held last night on Saturday Night Live--

You recently said you prefer visiting the pro-American parts of the country; are there parts of the country that you find un-American?

“Sure, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, California, *raspberry*

“But then also too you have states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida... who can choose whether they are un-American or not. *wink*

The wink, of course, is supposed to indicate that she doesn't seriously mean this. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink... What can we conclude, given Michelle Bachman's tarring of both Obama and "liberals" as "anti-American"? Ask yourself who might find Palin's "joke" funny... and there's your answer.

ETA: As Eileen Gunn points out in her comment (and as I also realized when I viewed the SNL clip myself), the "press conference" was actually given by Tina Fey playing Sarah Palin. (My source apparently didn't realize that.) So there are two jokes here: Sarah Palin's joke, and SNL's joke about Sarah Palin's joke. See the comments for more on this.

Sic transit gloria mundi

In Eleanor Arnason's To the Resurrection Station (1986), Belinda Hernshaw and two others from a planet many light years away visit Earth, which they find is now ruled by giant intelligent rats bred by a scientist to survive ecological catastrophe and nuclear holocaust. The rats worship the gods Darwin and Mendel (bizarre human-shaped constructions of wicker on wheels, wearing feather crowns , necklaces made of plastic, glass beads, and animal teeth, and each with an enormous phallus stuck out in front of it). And to their gods they chant this prayer (as they prepare to kill a one of their own for the crime of having paws that are neither long nor nimble:

Darwin, bless us,
Mendel too.
Make our breeding Always true.

Make our children
Long of hand,
Nimble fingered,
Strong to stand.

Wise of wit,
With tongues to praise
Darwin, Mendel
All their days.

After a close encounter with the city government officials (all rats, of course) at Columbia Circle, Belinda & company escape in a canoe & paddle out into New York Harbor. There,

Belinda saw the huge ruins at Manhattan's tip. That was Wall Street, she realized--those bare building frames, those broken facades. Huge flocks of birds circled above them.

Wall Street! Somewhere in that jumble was Trinity Church, the Treasury Building, and the New York Stock Exchange. America, her professors had told her, was the only true and authentic puritan country. It had been built on two supports-- religion and greed. In those shadowy ruins, the leaders of America had worshipped God, Truth, the General Good, and Money. Now, like the temples of the Maya-- like Uxmal, Tikal, and Chichen Itza-- the holy places of American Capitalism had all fallen down. Trees grew from the seats of the stockbrokers. The birds flying overhead cried, "kree-kree-kree." Belinda felt a terrible sadness.

You must bear in mind, of course, that Belinda's professors never lived on Earth and were the descendants of space colonists, and Belinda seems to be cursed with the gift of imposing a null-probability field, everywhere she goes...

Yum. It's wild, funny stuff.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Stuff of Interest

--The San Francisco Chronicle reports:

An advocacy group is suing over an Oklahoma law that prohibits a woman from getting an abortion unless she first has an ultrasound and the doctor describes to her what the fetus looks like.

In the lawsuit filed Thursday in Oklahoma County District Court, the Center for Reproductive Rights says that the requirement intrudes on privacy, endangers health and assaults dignity.

The law, set to go into effect Nov. 1, would make Oklahoma the fourth state in the nation to require that an ultrasound be performed before a woman can have an abortion and that the ultrasound be made available to the patient for viewing, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a health research organization in Washington, D.C. The other states are Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.

--Alan De Niro has been posting "transcriptions" of the sinister Palinomicon at his Goblin Mercantile Exchange.

--Nation columnist John Nichols reports that Republican Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon has taken the desperate measure of trying to cling to Barack Obama's coattails in his television ads, even though Obama has been providing unambiguous support for Smith's opponent, Democrat Jeff Merkley.

--The New York Times reports that a senior World Bank official requesting anonymity commented that "There's no question the Washington consensus is dead," adding that at the World Bank, the push toward deregulation and unfettered free markets "died at the time of the $700 billion bailout."

--"Food insecurity" is on the rise in the US, reports the Food Research and Action Center in Washington DC, and "the study's findings show there is strong public opinion in favor of the need for a comprehensive debate among candidates for the White House and other public offices on the issue of hunger and food insecurity."

--Strange Horizons has posted my review of the anthology Paper Cities.

--Chris Gerrib has posted a review of Alanya to Alanya.

--The Fix has posted a review of Plugged In.

--Annalee Newitz's The Greatest Depressions (and Economic Recoveries) of Science Fiction offers a brief survey of sfnal depictions of economic crises at io9.

--Steven Shaviro muses on the role of financial crises in capitalism and concludes "Now more than ever is the time... to be unrealistic, demand the possible.”

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Style! Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise

A couple of weeks back I posted a quotation from Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise. This is an interesting book, originally published in 1938, that's recently been reissued by the University of Chicago Press. Chip Delany urged me to read it, and so I did. The book addresses the situation of "writers of promise"-- that is to say, it's a book about writing for writers who are neither beginners nor satisfied merely to make a living from their work (even when it's a very good living). What does it take, Connolly wonders in the first chapter, to write a book "that will hold good for ten years afterwards"?

Part 1, "Predicament," discusses the hazards that entangle every aspect of writing, placing a special emphasis on style and the continual shifts in literary fashion that sweep respected and even popular works into the dustbin of obscurity. His elucidation of style is fascinating and makes great sense to me (perhaps at least partly because it resonates powerfully with my recent reading in ms of the revised edition of Delany's Jewel-Hinged Jaw, which Wesleyan will be publishing next spring.) Some of it is a bit dated, and obviously its scope is restricted to early twentieth-century English literature, but there's much here to interest writers and critics today.

Part 2, "The Charlock's Shade," analyzes "the conditions which govern the high rate of mortality among contemporary writers"-- specifically politics, daydreams, conversation, drink and other narcotics, the "clarion call of journalism" (which includes writing reviews), worldly success, sex with its obsessions, and the ties of duty and domesticity. And he begins by citing Samuel Butler: "What ruins young writers is over-production. The need for money is what causes overproduction." His analysis, of course, is (unconsciously) gendered. Though women writers face the same obstacles men writers face, their resources and internal obstacles tend to be different from those of men writers, and these create differences it doesn't occur to Connolly to attend to.

Part 3, which is fully half of the book, "A Georgian Boyhood," is autobiography that culminates with an intense, almost novelistic description and analysis of his years at Eton. (His schoolmate George Orwell appears as a figure that haunts its margins.) It is only after finishing Part 3 and returning to the first two parts of the book that one realizes that an unstated reason for Connolly's writing the book must have been his need to explain to himself the dissipation of his own "promise" as a writer (ironically, of course, since the book was reprinted in 1948 and then again another 60 years later).

Of course Delany forcefully demonstrated in the Jewel-Hinged Jaw that "Style," as Connolly says, "is manifest in language." Connolly continues:

The vocabulary of a writer is his currency but it is a paper currency and its value depends on the reserves of mind and heart which back it. The perfect use of language is that in which every word carries the meaning that it is intended to, no less and no more." (10-11)

And so,

One might say that the style of a writer is conditioned by his conception of the reader, and that it varies according to whether he is writing for himself, or for his friends, his teachers or his God, for an educated upper class, a waiting-to-be-educated lower class or a hostile jury. This trait is less noticeable in writers who live in a settled age as they soon establish a relationship with a reader whom they can depend on and he, usually a man of the same age, tastes, education, and income, remains beside them all their life. Style then is the relation between what a writer wants to say; his subject--and himself-- or the powers which he has: between the form of his subject and the content of his parts. (10)

My oh my. So many he's and his'es, typing them out wearies my spirit. And yet, I do appreciate its clarity.

Connolly classifies all styles as being either "Mandarin" or "Vernacular," and then makes subdivisions within these two classifications as he examines the advantages, limitations, and pitfalls of various styles. I particularly liked this passage:

The quality of mind of a writer may be improved the more he feels or thinks or, without effort, the more he reads; and as he grows surer of this quality, so he is the better able to make experiments in technique or towards a simplification of it even to its apparent abandonment and the expression of strong emotion or deep thought in ordinary language. The great speeches in Lear and Samson Agonistes do not seem revolutionary to us because we do not recognize them as superb and daring manipulations of the obvious. Any poet of talent could write: "The multitudinous seas incarnadine" or "Bid Amaranthus all his beauty shed," but only a master could get away with "I pray you undo this button," or "Lear's quintuple "Never."

Style is a relation between form and content. Where the content is less than the form, where the author pretends to emotion which he does not feel, the language will seem flamboyant. The more ignorant a writer feels, the more artificial becomes his style. A writer who thinks himself cleverer than his readers writes simply (often too simply), while one who fears they may be cleverer than he will make use of mystification: an author arrives at a good style when his language performs what is required of it without shyness.

I recommend this book to writers with ambition, and anyone interested in the writing life.


In case you haven't been dropping by Ecstatic Days to read Vandana Singh's guest posts there, I urge you to check out a post Vandana made yesterday-- Women Writing in India: A Conversation with Urvashi Butalia and Anita Roy.

Today's San Francisco Chronicle has this: Veiled Racism Seen in New Attacks on Obama.

"It is the Willie Hortonization of Obama," said University of San Francisco associate professor of political science James Taylor. Horton, an African American man, was a Massachusetts felon who committed a rape and armed robbery while on a weekend furlough. Republican strategist Lee Atwater used a TV attack ad featuring Horton to create a negative impression of the 1988 Democratic nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, in the campaign's final months.

Instead of using a grainy photo of a grizzled convict as Atwater did, the current attacks, analysts say, are embedded in "coded" language. They cite as examples Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin portraying Obama as a cultural outsider and friend to terrorists and the dismissive way his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, referred to Obama at their Tuesday night debate as "that one."

Other recent attacks include the unsubstantiated allegation on Fox News' "Hannity's America" Sunday that Obama's community organizing work in Chicago was "training for a radical overthrow of the government." The incendiary allegations - as well as the anti-Semitic background of the source of the allegation, commentator Andy Martin - went unchallenged and undisclosed by the host, conservative commentator Sean Hannity. Fox said that the program is the host's opinion, even though the allegation was presented as a documentary. Obama did not respond to Hannity's request for comment.

The article concludes that according to Stefan Forbes, whose documentary on Lee Atwater is being released this week in San Francisco,

The key to Atwater's success was that the candidates themselves remained above the fray.

"They were friendly, like (Ronald) Reagan," Forbes said. "Just like now, Palin is the friendly face, or George W. Bush was the guy you wanted to have a beer with. They'll dance around it and say (these tactics) aren't racist, but they are.

"The next couple of weeks are going to be really fascinating," Forbes said. "If the Atwater playbook can destroy Obama when the economy is collapsing the way it is, then it can accomplish almost anything."

But Stanford University political science Professor Paul Sniderman, who recently completed a survey on racial attitudes of voters, doesn't think the attacks will work. He also said widely circulated media reports that said "Obama's support would be as much as 6 percentage points higher if there were no white racial prejudice" were wrong.

A piece at the Nation by Leslie Savan, McCain Takes His Party Prisoner, includes a video-clip of McCain addressing his audience at a campaign rally as "my fellow prisoners," obviously without realizing what he is saying. Reading Savan's piece, I wondered if McCain suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (which would go some way toward explaining his wild, irrational rages).

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Racism and Election 2008

Given that racism is one of the driving forces shaping US society today, and given that this is the first US presidential election in which a candidate from one of the two major parties is black, it was a foregone conclusion that both overt and covert racism would play a role in media coverage, punditry, and the campaign tactics and strategy of the opposition. The desperation of the McCain campaign is certainly bringing out the ugliness always lying there at or just below the surface. Have you seen Jonah Goldberg's contribution to io9's feature on what works of political sf people should be reading or watching before the US presidential election? Goldberg, a pundit for the National Review Online, urges that everyone should watch Angel, Season 4, for this reason:

An extra-dimensional being (played by Gina Torres) appears on Earth, and everyone who sees her becomes totally devoted to her and starts to worship her. She brings peace and prosperity, and only Angel's friend Fred can see that she's really a hideous monster.

In the story, the world is mesmerized by a god from another dimension played by a charismatic black woman who truly does bring universal peace and love to the planet. Her only price: we all must worship her (and provide her with a statistically irrelevant number of humans to eat) and unify around our love for her.

I don't think Obama is evil or a villain of any kind. But the lesson is pretty valid. Obama is the high priest of a cult of unity. Unity can be useful, but it is also very, very dangerous. That's why the founders conceived of a system of divided government, after all.

I didn't get the full punch of Goldberg's point until this morning, when I read a discussion of last night's debate, discussing how McCain, so brimming with hatred for his opponent that he couldn't bringing himself to use the usual Senatorial courtesy of acknowledging that they are colleagues, referred to Obama as "that one"--- a reference, it seems, to the topos of the Dangerous Black Charismatic leader that the McCain campaign and its supporters are exploiting in television commercials and mass media punditry. Writing for a venue like io9, Goldberg wisely plays down the extremity of this position by saying he doesn't think Obama is "evil or a villain of any kind" (which he is no doubt happy to let Sarah Palin say). But "unity" is "very, very dangerous"? Didn't Dubya call himself "the Unifier"? Wasn't that his major campaign point in 2000? And what does divided government have to do with warning about "the high priest of a cult of unity"? For the last eight years the US Congress has been letting the President do whatever he wants, shredding the US Constitution in the process. Does electing Obama pose any greater threat than what has already been done?

Perhaps more troubling is the likelihood that on election day Obama will face "the Bradley Effect" (as it's been called), which several commentators have been warning could make Obama's apparent lead evaporate when people actually vote. Chalmers Johnson's Voting the Fate of the Nation: Will Economic Meltdown, Race, or Regional Loyalty Be the Trimp Card in Election 2008 takes sober note of the effect unacknowledged racism has had on past elections.

Although large numbers of white Democrats and independents have told pollsters that the race of a candidate is not a factor in how they will decide their vote, there is ample evidence that they are not telling the truth -- either to pollsters or, in many cases perhaps no less importantly, to themselves. Andrew Hacker, a political scientist at Queen's College, New York, has written strikingly on this subject, starting with the phenomenon known as the "Bradley Effect."

The term refers to Tom Bradley, a former black mayor of Los Angeles, who lost his 1982 bid to become governor of California, even though every poll in the state showed him leading his white opponent by substantial margins. Similar results appeared in 1989, when David Dinkins ran for mayor of New York City and Douglas Wilder sought election as governor of Virginia. Dinkins was ahead by 18 percentage points, but won by only two, and Wilder was leading by nine points, but squeaked through by only half a percent. Numerous other examples lead Hacker to offer this advice to Obama campaign offices: always subtract 7% from favorable poll results. That's the potential Bradley effect.

Meanwhile, the Karl Rove-trained Republican Party has been hard at work disenfranchising black voters. Although we are finally beyond property qualifications, written tests, and the poll tax, there are many new gimmicks. These include laws requiring voters to present official identity cards that include a photo, which, for all practical purposes, means either a driver's license or a passport. Many states drop men and women from the voting rolls who have been convicted of a felony but have fully completed their sentences, or require elaborate procedures for those who have been in prison -- where, Hacker points out, black men and women outnumber whites by nearly six to one -- to be reinstated. There are many other ways of disqualifying black voters, not the least of which is imprisonment itself. After all, the United States imprisons a greater proportion of its population than any other country on Earth, a burden that falls disproportionately on African Americans. Such obstacles can be overcome but they require heroic organizational efforts.

This is all pretty strange stuff-- people lying to pollsters-- and even to themselves-- about who they''ll be voting for, and then doing something different when they're actually filling out their ballot. I can believe it, though, since racism does strange, weird things to people's thoughts and emotions.

Just to end on an upbeat, though, in case you haven't already heard about this: Small Beer Press is having a fabulous sale of everything they've ever published, and they will be giving 20% of the proceeds to the Obama campaign. Check it out here.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Anna Politkovskaya Award of 2008

The Nation has the address Afghan social activist and ("suspended") member of parliament Malalai Joya gave on receiving RAW in WAR(Reach all Women in War)'s second annual Anna Politkovskaya Award.

My own life and hardships speak for themselves about the obstacles Afghan women face today. I've been threatened with death; I've survived a number of assassination attempts; and every effort is made by the fundamentalists to silence me. But I am happy to enjoy support of the peace-loving people of the world. I am especially grateful to Reach All Women in War (RAW in WAR) for considering me for the Anna Politkovskaya Award of 2008.
. . . .
Seven years after the US invasion of Afghanistan, our devastated country is still chained to the fundamentalist warlords and the Taliban; the country is like an unconscious body breathing its last.

The US government and its allies exploited the plight of Afghan women to legitimate its so-called "war on terror" and attack on Afghanistan. The medieval and brutal regime of the Taliban was toppled, but instead of relying on Afghan people, the United States and its allies pushed us from the frying pan to the fire and brought the infamous criminals of the "Northern Alliance" into power--sworn enemies of democracy and human rights, who are as dark-minded, evil, anti-women and cruel as the Taliban.

Only few months ago, US National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell told the Senate Armed Services Committee that 70 percent of Afghanistan is lawless. The Afghan government has control of only 30 percent of the country, and where the Taliban and local warlords hold power, there is no rule of law.

Our nation is still living under the shadow of war, crimes and brutalities of the fundamentalists, and women are the primary and silent sacrifice of this situation. Justice doesn't exist in Afghanistan. Every sector of life in Afghanistan today is a tragedy, from women's rights to security, law and order and domination of a drug mafia.

Women suffer especially. The rates of self-immolation and suicide due to domestic violence and poverty, of forced marriages and violence against women are higher than ever. In the first six months of 2008, forty-seven cases of self-immolation among women were reported in a single hospital in the western city of Herat. Reports come every day of gang rapes of young girls, especially in the northern portion of Afghanistan, where pro-US warlords have full power and a free hand. But the rapists are not prosecuted. Last month President Hamid Karzai ordered the release of two men who were sentenced to eighteen years in prison for raping and killing a girl.

Read the rest of her address here.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Take note!

Aqueduct author Vandana Singh is now guest-blogging on Ecstatic Days. She tells me she'll be bringing to her posts "thoughts relevant to various things close to my heart, including feminism." Be sure to drop by and visit her there this week.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Aqueductista Events This Weekend

Two Aqueductistas will be talking, reading, and signing at bookstores on Saturday. Nisi Shawl will be appearing at Book People in Moscow, Idaho. According to the Daily Evergreen, this will be a "brown bag lunch" event and that besides reading from Filter House, Nisi will also sing with accompaniment from Brian Clark on guitar. Here a snippet from the article in the Daily Evergreen:

Her work is helping pioneer the capacities of the sci-fi genre beyond the cliches from questioning the most rigid social norms. She will be reading from her latest collection of short stories, “Filter House,” from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at the BookPeople of Moscow bookstore on 521 S. Main St.

“I use science fiction to question the authority of the way things are. It’s good for challenging the status quo and that’s what I use it for," she said.

Defying any branch of mainstream storytelling, Shawl said her ratio of female to male protagonists is nearly nine to one and the women are rarely preoccupied with locking down a love interest. Yet, Shawl said she doesn’t feel particularly aware of trying to write feminist literature.

“It’s not a conscious or preachy thing, gravity is a part of my work too,” she said.

On the other side of the country, in Phialdelphia, Josh Lukin will launching Invisible Suburbs: Recovering Protest Fiction in the 1950s United States by giving a lecture-- "How Dreams of Freedom Survive in a Conservative Time"-- at Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Mt. Airy at 3 p.m. Here is the bookstore's description:

Invisible Suburbs: Recovering Protest Fiction in the 1950s United States. Reading with Josh Lukin. An examination of fiction from repressed voices in a misunderstood decade, with essays by Stephanie Brown, Ladislava Khailova, Kathlene McDonald, Ian Peddie, Harry Thomas, and Jennifer Worley. Were the 1950s an oppressive or a liberating time? Some scholars argue that the Red Scare, newly institutionalized discrimination against gays, and a public discourse saturated with sexism left wounds in American society. Others trace the origins of sixties liberation movements to the fifties and celebrate America's postwar prosperity, or argue that such new phenomena as rock 'n' roll, teenage consumerism, and Beat poetry gave Americans a new sense of freedom and identity. Invisible Suburbs advances a new synthesis of both views from the perspective of literary scholarship. Josh Lukin is lecturer of English at Temple University. His work has appeared in many periodicals, among them Modern Language Notes, Minnesota review, Comics Journal, and Exquisite Corpse, as well as in the anthology Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century.

Have to say, I'd love to be able to attend both of these events and am sorry I can't.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Dark Side

The institution of higher learning at which I spent almost ten years of my young, adult life has apparently gone over to the Dark Side. (Not for the first time, of course. Like most universities, it behaved shamefully during the McCarthy Era.) An article at Inside Higher Ed, Beware the Button Police, takes note of the University of Illinois' new policy on political expression: viz., banning political expression on campus, be it pins or buttons, bumper stickers on cars, attending rallies on campus, much less expressing an opinion on the election in class. (Link thanks to Bitch Ph.D.) I checked out the University of Illinois' "ethics" page myself and saw that it also requires every employee of the university to report all "communications" with elected officials. Does that mean that staff and faculty are now required to keep & submit a log of all their phone calls and letters and visits to their federal, state, county, and municipal representatives? The article quotes from a draft statement by Cary Nelson (who happens to be the president of the American Association of University Professors) and other faculty, now circulating:

“Although these rules are not at present being enforced, the AAUP deplores their chilling effect on speech, their interference with the educational process, and their implicit castigation of normal practice during political campaigns,” the draft says.

It adds: “The Ethics Office has failed to recognize and accurately define both the special context of a university and the role of its faculty members. Campus education requires that faculty and students have comparable freedom of expression on political subjects. This applies not only to obvious contexts like courses on politics and public policy in a variety of departments but also to the less formal settings in which faculty and students interact.... As the rules stand, students can exercise their constitutional rights and attend rallies and wear buttons advocating candidates, but faculty cannot.... [S]tudents might attend campus rallies and later analyze them in a classroom. Are faculty members to have no experience of the rallies themselves? Finally, it is inappropriate to suggest that faculty members function as employees whenever they are on campus. Faculty often move back and forth between employee responsibilities and personal acts within the same time frame.”

I wish he had also included staff in that last sentence. University staff often belong to activist groups, often attend rallies, often help organize rallies (after hours, during their lunch breaks-- but apparently all political activity during breaks from work is now forbidden to staff when they are inhabiting University property).

My reference to "the Dark Side," of course, was a joke. A peculiar kind of joke I seem to need to make because this controlling and surveilling of political expression at a place so important in my personal history pains me. But after writing those words, I suddenly recalled Steven Shaviro's recent posts on The Pinocchio Theory on applying the characterization "Evil" to John McCain.

[W]e should make it clear that even the most minimal sense of human dignity requires us to throw the Republicans out of power. It is not stupid to vote for McCain/Palin; rather, it is evil. Republicans are intrinsically, and necessarily, morally depraved. Anyone who votes for McCain/Palin, or supports them, by that very fact demonstrates that he or she is a person utterly devoid of basic morality, and lacking in any respect for others. To vote for McCain is to shit on human civilization, and show utter contempt for human values and human hopes. And not in spite of the Democrats’ hypocrisy, but rather precisely because of this — because their hypocrisy is, as it were, the compliment that vice pays to virtue — the moral thing to do in this election is to vote for Obama.

In a follow-up post, he defends his use of the word "evil" against the uneasiness of anti-essentialists like me who are deeply suspicious of the use of the word wherever they encounter it. His argument about McCain is very interesting and likely to startle a lot of people (and has in fact provoked 50 comments so far):

In other words, no matter how hypocritical the Democrats are (and they are, if you think — for instance — about how Biden pours forth all this rhetoric about helping the less well-to-do citizens of this country, while at the same time he has spent his entire political career working hand-in-glove with the credit card industry to screw over working- and middle-class Americans just so Visa and MasterCard can increase their already obscene profit margins even further) — nonetheless, the fact that they pay lip service to human rights, human dignity, and freedom from unnecessary suffering makes them morally superior to the Republicans, who are so crassly cynical that they overtly and positively revel in the prospects of torture, bigotry, destroying the environment for quick corporate profits, and enriching the already-rich at the expense of everyone else.

Thus, the Democrats’ hypocrisy is to be preferred to the Republicans’ cynicism, for good Kantian reasons (though Zizek would probably give Hegelian ones instead). As Kant famously said about the French Revolution, no matter how much this uprising might have “miscarried” or been “filled with misery and atrocities,” nonetheless any decent human being, observing the events of the Revolution from afar, would have to be caught up in “a wishful participation that borders closely on enthusiasm”; the sheer fact of this “sympathy,” despite everything that goes wrong in actuality, itself testifies to “a moral predisposition in the human race.” In other words, the sheer fact that something like the French Revolution could occur, no matter how badly it went wrong subsequently, gives us a legitimate ground for hoping that human beings are not forever subject to the Hobbesian alternative of either continual war of all against all, or severe and violent repression.

In the present circumstances, this means that Obama’s rhetoric of hope, no matter how vapid and empty it may actually be, still matters. Anyone who thinks that Obama will actually change things is in for severe disappointment if he wins. It’s pretty clear that Obama will do no more than restore Clintonian neoliberalism, in place of the revanchist militarism and rampant looting and pillaging that characterizes the current Bush-Cheney regime (and that McCain, for all his promises of “change”, will do nothing to alter). In other words, Obama may well rescue us somewhat from the nightmare of the last eight years, but only to the extent of restoring the status quo ante, with its foreign bombings and domestic “rationalizations” of the economy, that we rightly objected to in the 1990s. Nonetheless, the fact that Obama, Biden, and company pay lip service to humane values that they will not actually uphold is in itself a cause for hope, for maintaining a “hope we can believe in,” or (to quote a past Presidential candidate whom it is now taboo to mention) for “keep[ing] hope alive.”

Do check out the posts and ensuing discussion here and here.

The Bailout (again): Battling Narratives and Alternative Plans

John Nichols reports that some of the progressive House Democrats who voted against the bailout plan, including Peter DeFazio of Oregon and Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, are proposing an alternative plan, one modeled on

a proposal made last week by former FDIC chair William Isaac, who recalled that in the 1980s Congress enacted a "net worth certificate" program - which allowed the federal agency to shore up the capital of weak banks to give them more time to resolve their problems - and the FDIC resolved a $100 billion insolvency in savings banks for a total cost of less than $2 billion.

"It was a big success and could work in the current climate," argued Isaac.

The chair of the FDIC during Ronald Reagan's first term explained that that:

If we were to (1) implement a program to ease the fears of depositors and other general creditors of banks; (2) keep tight restrictions on short sellers of financial stocks; (3) suspend fair-value accounting (which has contributed mightily to our problems by marking assets to unrealistic fire-sale prices); and (4) authorize a net worth certificate program, we could settle the financial markets without significant expense to taxpayers.

Say Congress spends $700 billion of taxpayer money on the loan purchase proposal. What do we do next? If, however, we implement the program suggested above, we will have $700 billion of dry powder we can put to work in targeted tax incentives if needed to get the economy moving again.

The banks do not need taxpayers to carry their loans. They need proper accounting and regulatory policies that will give them time to work through their problems.

DeFazio, Kaptur and their allies essentially agree.

So, too, does the powerful Service Employees International Union, which has endorsed DeFazio's proposal.

"We finally have a plan that will restore confidence in the financial markets without writing a blank check to the same Wall Street banks and CEOs who got us into this mess," said SEIU President Andy Stern. "This is an important, short-term solution that protects taxpayers and their savings accounts. To revive the economy over the long-term, we must address rising unemployment, stagnant wages, the healthcare crisis, and a tax system that is tilted in favor of the wealthy."

Christopher Hayes has more on the proposal here.

NPR this morning aired a segment discussing some of the concerns of the 200 economists who signed an open letter to Congress opposing the bailout plan.

Paul Krugman, in his column in today's New York Times, looks at two of the various narratives of the bailout people are subscribing to. (Link thanks to Eileen Gunn.)

There seem to be two prevailing narratives about the bailout plan(s). Both have elements of truth, but are fundamentally wrong.

And at The Black Agenda, Glen Ford has a scathing political analysis of the bailout crisis in his piece Bailout Lesson: Capital Crisis Will Wreck Both Parties.