Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening, part 13: Christopher Brown

2018 Reading in Review
by Christopher Brown

You would be surprised how many how-to manuals on the administration of martial law you can find in the bowels of the law library. Major Birkhimer’s Military Government and Martial Law (1892, 1904), Lt. Col. Fairman’s The Law of Martial Rule (1930, 1943), General Wolters’ Martial Law and Its Administration (1930), Captain Wiener’s A Practical Manual of Martial Law (1940) and Professor Fairman’s Government Under Law in Time of Crisis (1955) are among the treatises of handy practice points from the period when martial law was quite frequently invoked to keep unruly citizens under control. In that era from the Gilded Age to the Great Depression, it was pretty common for governors to declare martial law in order to deploy military forces to put down strikes and other disruptions of the established order by labor. It was also used to “enforce the operation of the economic principle of free competition”—and its opposite, as when the governors of Texas and Oklahoma declared martial law to enforce compliance with oil & gas production limits. Soldiers were called out to prevent publication of a newspaper in West Virginia, settle strikes by truckers and knitters in Minnesota against the strikers, to shut down a horse racing track in Rhode Island, to enforce segregation zoning in Oklahoma City, to interfere with primary elections in Tennessee in an effort to disenfranchise black voters, to take over and operate coal mines in North Dakota, and even to remove highway commissioners in South Carolina based on the governor’s finding that their department was in a “state of insurrection” against his authority.

When these cases are compiled in dry hornbooks of black letter law, one sees how many of these gubernatorial exercises of domestic military force there have been in the past century, most often to suppress supposed rebellions that were no more than assertions of economic right against powerful property interests. In many instances the imposition of martial law was subsequently invalidated by the court. But in many others it was not, and the reasoning is as diverse as the cases. For a contemporary lawyer, it’s quite a revelation to find an entire American jurisprudence of martial law—a term that really means the suspension of law and the liberties it secures.

After World War II, the phrase martial law seems to have become disfavored by those who impose it. Instead, it’s described as “calling out the national guard,” which somehow is taken as more innocuous—maybe because it has been more frequently done in the modern period to protect minority groups than oppress them, as in the desegregation battles of the 1960s. But it’s the same power, one embodied in many state constitutions, and at least implicit in the federal constitution, as with the express power of Congress to suspend habeas corpus during times of rebellion or insurrection. It’s a power that doesn’t seem to be tied to any clear objective standard, but to a highly subjective and contextual assessment of whether an emergency exists in which military force is necessary to sustain civil order.

I went looking for the not so secret legal history of martial law on U.S. soil as research for my forthcoming novel Rule of Capture, an effort to blend the dystopian novel with the legal thriller. I didn’t expect to find so much true dystopia. It made me see what limited patience there is in this country for the sort of dissidence that disrupts normal commerce, and how ephemeral are the legal protections we assume prevent us from waking up and finding soldiers occupying our own town. The state of emergency suspends the law. And the executive decides, with broad discretion and uncertain checks, when the emergency exists.

I saw similar things in the first book I read this year, Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago, his journal of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions fifty years ago this year. I picked it up in a used bookstore’s dollar bin, having never read Mailer and trying to read widely about American political tumult for my extrapolative research. I found more than I expected, even though it was history I already knew: political assassinations, offshore wars, unleashed riot cops throwing convention delegates through the plate glass window of the Hilton hotel bar, a damaged president manipulating the scene from off stage, a fascistic mayor running the show as a kind of municipal warlord, a sense of immanent revolution and dissolving democracy, all told with a novelist’s eye for show-don’t-tell detail. It made the insanity of 2018 seem kind of coddled by comparison, and made me wonder how much worse things could get in today’s climate as whatever comes next is incubated and hatched.

In addition to true dystopias, I read a lot of dystopian fiction this year. Indeed, I read most of the science fiction of any sub-genre that came out this year, at least the paperbacks, serving as a judge for the Philip K. Dick Award. That means I can’t talk about those books until our work is done next year. It’s safe to note that the dystopias were in the minority, though I’d hasten to add there were even fewer utopias.

One science fiction I did read this year that I can talk about, which has both dystopian and utopian elements, is Tim Maughan’s Infinite Detail, coming out in 2019 from FSG. Urgent and vivid, it’s the story of a breakaway community in near-future Bristol that manages to engineer its own digital and political autonomy. Maughan writes with great clarity and authenticity of voice, deploying his journalist’s eye for the details of the observed world to build a plausible future that explores cutting edge ideas. It’s the rare science fiction that manages to envision the end of capitalism instead of the end of the world. Maughan gets there through a deep exploration of the liberatory potential of networks, something he manages to visualize beautifully without shirking from the dark truths of the immanent now.

I tried to find my way to a similar place in my 2017 novel Tropic of Kansas, but concluded that the democratization of electronic cybernets couldn’t get you very far into a better future unless you first solved the ecological (and perhaps anthropological) part of the puzzle. That the network-based direct democracy I imagined would never work by itself, because the biggest social and economic problems of the mirror America of the book (and the real one) were rooted in that society’s damaged and dominionist relationship with the land. The nation’s original sins of slavery and the conquest and dispossession of indigenous peoples were all about the means of agricultural production, the core of a property system that produces scarcity, inequality and environmental damage by design. So as I get to work on the untitled book that will follow Rule of Capture, which will be the story of a lawyer in a utopian society, I turned to a couple of deep histories that came out this year in search for fresh ideas about those deeper problems.

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James Scott examines the origins of urban human societies in the “thin Anthropocene,” as early human settlements in biodiverse wetlands morphed into food monocultures to feed the institutional interests of the city-states that had evolved from those camps. The result was the human modification of most of the natural world to feed the machine. For most of the intervening millennia, Scott contends, hunter-gatherers—who he notes had in many respects a more prosperous, healthy, unlabored and egalitarian society—persisted in a balanced symbiosis with the city-states, until the the gunpowder revolution around four-hundred years ago eliminated the viability of the nomadic barbarian. Scott’s research and analysis suggests that we cannot craft a healthier human and planetary future without reengineering the intrinsic problems created by the agricultural revolution.

The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century by Walter Scheidel explores a similar span of time to conclude that the profound wealth inequality we have now, and have had during much if not most of human history, has never been materially remedied other than through the mass destruction of wealth by war, revolution, plague, or societal collapse—and even then, never for long.

My conclusion from these two tomes is that crafting a plausible utopian future is a lot harder than I thought. And that the closest starting point on the generic shelf probably starts with a post-apocalyptic premise, as small groups of lucky survivors return to their roots on an ecologically recovering Earth. Can you have the benefits of a literate and technologically advanced society, while living the healthier and happier lives of leaderless bands of hunter-gatherers? Probably not with the nine billion of us there are projected to be by 2050.

The other notable book I read this year on this theme is one I re-read—Robert Fagles’ contemporary translation of Virgil’s Aeneid. I read it as a story about the fall of an imperial society, and the creation of a new one from its scattered remnants. In that aspect of its narrative, I learned in some related reading along the way, it was an important inspirational text to the American founders. That made it a doubly interesting reference point for imagining what comes after the end of the current American empire. Unfortunately, while the first half of the Aeneid is wonderful reading, and the translation is compelling throughout, the second half kind of sucks—a retrofitted national creation myth grounded in violent conquest and loaded down with hagiography. Which maybe only makes it an even better source for the modern American myth hacker, except that what it really needs is a third part, where the heroic nobles are toppled by the epic’s invisibles on whose backs the heroes are standing.

But there’s one sure thing the Aeneid gets right for our time: to get to a better future, you have to go through Hell along the way.

Christopher Brown’s novel Tropic of Kansas was a finalist for the 2018 Campbell Award for best science fiction novel of the year. His new novel Rule of Capture is forthcoming from Harper Voyager in 2019. He lives in Austin, where he also practices law.

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