Was America Always This Way?

I think what a lot of us have been struggling with recently is the question of how a country that reelected Barack Obama could have come so close to also reelecting Trump — or, conversely, how a country that very nearly reelected Trump in the midst of outright social and economic catastrophe could also have reelected a Black dude with a middling economy not even a decade before. How could a country that was “always this way,” that always had so many people willing to throw away democracy and lives and the economy in order to keep white supremacy in the White House, have also reelected Obama in 2012? It seems impossible for many of us to imagine that Obama’s America and Trump’s America are not only the same place, but also by and large made up of the same people.

Trump’s overt racism, sexism, authoritarianism, and overall vulgarity have proven to be a remarkably effective turnout operation for white voters, even without all the ballyhooed micro targeting that was supposed to be able to sway close elections. This undeniable fact raises many disturbing questions. If we were always this country, if the deep wells of white supremacy that Trump “activated” were always there, does that mean that Romney could have won in 2012 if he’d only been more racist? If he’d only been a brazen, vulgar, Trumpian figure rather than an avatar of the old school genteel white patriarch, would that have won him the White House? Even worse, could Trump himself have beaten Obama if he’d run in 2012? After all, Obama ’12 only beat Clinton ’16 by 60k votes total, whereas Trump ’16 beat Romney ’12 by over 2 million.

The answer, I think, is no. The Trump path to victory in 2016 was not open in 2012, even if you disregard the influence of Comey’s shenanigans, WikiLeaks dumps of Russian espionage, the differences between Obama and Clinton’s relations with the media, and so on. Why? Because in 2012, Shelby County v. Holder hadn’t happened yet.

A person could be forgiven for thinking of voter suppression as a thing the left has always complained about, that has always been with us, and therefore something that has barely changed over the years. Such a person would be wrong. The 2013 Shelby County decision opened the door to a new wave of voter suppression the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the ’60s. Since that decision, states have been free to close hundreds of polling places, often without warning, to impose new voter ID laws even as they close DMVs, and to purge hundreds of thousands of voters from the rolls, a policy the court officially condoned in 2018’s Husted ruling. The Republican Party’s brazenness in pursuing a whites-only electoral strategy owes everything to these decisions.

Much ink has been spilled about negative partisanship over the last few years, with commenters right and left agreeing that Donald Trump has had a particularly polarizing effect on the electorate, jazzing up both his base and his opposition, culminating this year in the highest-turnout election in living memory. In 2012, the last time a Democrat won Florida, it was not unreasonable for Republicans like Romney to worry that going full racist would end up turning out more voters against the GOP than for it. The famous “2012 Election Autopsy” urged national Republicans to abandon the politics of white racial grievance, arguing pretty reasonably that a party that went 1 for 6 in the presidential popular vote was not on a sustainable path (it’s now 1 for 8).

But the Court came to the rescue and provided a different path to victory: doubling down on voter suppression. If you can rally and radicalize your own base while keeping half the people you turn off from ever reaching a polling booth, brazen white supremacy stops being such an automatic loser. In 2016, in a perfect storm of Russian interference, sexism in media, meaningless but scary-sounding FBI announcements, and high third-party margins, it was just barely enough to eke out an electoral victory amid yet another popular vote loss, this one a loss by over 2 percentage points and over two and a half million votes. This year, even with record suppression and the unprecedented gutting of the US postal service, it wasn’t enough.

This is not a victory lap. With a 6-3 Supreme Court and no guarantee of a Senate majority, the Suppress Your Way To Victory path remains, and with it, despite all demographic change, the Rally Racist Whites path. If you think demographic change is bound to overcome legalized voter suppression, I’d encourage you to look up the demographics of the antebellum South. It’s not enough to have the majority on your side, you need the law on your side too. Until we can change the structure of our voting systems, or at least guarantee that they won’t get even worse, the Trumpian path to power will remain. If we can return our small-d democratic infrastructure back even to 2012 levels, that path will almost certainly disappear.

To return to the original question, was white America always this open to racism and demagoguery? Yes. Most certainly. Was that always a viable path to conservative victory? No.

So, have we seen the last of the Romney/Ryan genteel racist? Considering all the genteel racism even on the other side of the aisle, I doubt it. But I suspect that with another Romney-style presidential candidate, Republicans’ white rural turnout problem would return in full force. After Trump’s loss, future Republican candidates will have to reweigh the risks and rewards of relying purely on white supremacy and grievance politics. Or, as famous Twitter personality dril would put it:

A Belated TLJ Review

I picked up The Last Jedi and Rogue One from the library last night, so as usual, I’m ready to understand the conversation around these movies just in time for nobody to be talking about them anymore. Oh, well. A review follows anyway.
 
So far, I’ve just watched TLJ. Here’s what I thought:

Continue reading

I’m Not Woke, and I’m Not Your Ally. Yet.

I’ve been uncomfortable for sometime with the left’s two most common terms for the “good kind” of privileged people: Woke (usually used for white people who aren’t shitty), and Ally (used in all sort of contexts, but my first exposure to the term was in high school in reference to “straight allies” who supported gay rights). It has taken me some time to really put my finger on why I don’t like the way these terms are used.

After all, the language of alliance is deep and descriptive, and the metaphor of wokeness is evocative and powerful. Who can argue that mainstream white culture’s inability to perceive black humanity and all but the most stylized black pain isn’t in some ways like being asleep, and that those who break free from that slumber don’t come out shocked and disoriented? Who would disagree that if we’re on the same team, we’re therefore allies?

Well, first let’s talk about “woke.” To my mind, the term implies that those of us who are woke see what’s going on, but how can anyone ever really see and understand what’s up without being there? Hell, some people aren’t “woke,” don’t get it, even though they ARE there. To accept the term “woke” feels like accepting the idea that a white person can truly, deeply understand all the ins and outs of white supremacy and oppression without having experienced them on the receiving end.

Okay then, but what’s my problem with the language of “allyhood?” I think again it’s the notion that you can be an ally as a noun and retain it as part of your identity, as opposed to the more accurate notion that alliances are things we construct that frequently fall apart. The US and USSR were allies. Then they weren’t. Alliance is something you do toward some shared goal. If your goals aren’t shared, you’re not an ally anymore. I’ve seen white people claim to be allies of people of color in the same breath that they demand that members of that community abandon their goals. That is, frankly, not an alliance by any means.

I like ally better as a verb. White liberals can ally with people of color to elect certain officials, pass certain legislation, effect certain cultural changes etc. Jews have in the past allied with black Christian church leaders and Muslim leaders  to combat white supremacy (hopefully we can keep that going). When you and I ally with each other, that relationship is inherently one of action, and is assumed to be temporary unless proven otherwise. Sometimes such an alliance can also lead to friendships. Great! But you’re only an ally to my cause, and I’m only an ally in yours, if we’re working TOGETHER. If I go ignoring your needs or prioritizing my wants over them, I can no longer consider myself your ally. Our alliance is over.

Readercon!

*UPDATE: The panel Rethinking the Dangerous Victim, originally scheduled for Friday at 10am, has been moved to Saturday night at 8pm. I will still be there, and I hope you will too!

ORIGINAL POST:

Hey, are you going to Readercon this year? What if I told you that the first night is free?

Yes, indeed! This lovely con runs from Thursday, July 12 through Sunday the 15th in Quincy, MA, and if you’re interested but unable to spend the whole weekend/registration fee, you can check it out for free on the evening of the 12th! You can even (gasp) come hear me read from my books!

I’ve been scheduled for a half-hour solo reading at 9pm on the free night, Thursday the 12th, and for two absolutely fascinating panels later in the con:

On Friday the 13th at 10am, I have Rethinking the Dangerous Victim 
Panel Description:
“Many SF stories hinge on distress calls that turn out to be scams. In the real world, under 10% of felony reports are false; the number is even lower for false reports of general distress. Why do we return to the dangerous victim story—the story in which the person who claims to need help is not only lying but actively malicious—again and again? What exciting adventure stories can we tell about helping those who are genuinely in need?”

Then on Sunday the 15th at 1pm, there’s Our Bodies, Our Elves: Sexual Awakenings in Epic Fantasy
Description:
Starting in the later 20th century, the bildungsromans of epic fantasy began to include sexual awakenings. Some are raunchy, some are awkward, and almost all are self-directed; the wise elders of the genre are mysteriously silent on this crucial topic. When authors can imagine elves and dragons, why is it so hard to also imagine decent fantastical sex ed? How do today’s writers and readers approach this aspect of adolescent self-discovery stories?

These panels are going to be great, and so is the whole convention. We’ve been going to Readercon ever since our daughter was born, as our weekend off for child-free intellectual conversation. It’s a great, thoughtful convention full of great, thoughtful people, no costumes required (or even expected). Come check it out!

Note: If you’re looking for me on the program and can’t find me, it’s because they have me listed under my real last name, Beit-Aharon.

Review: Stay Crazy

I don’t get enough time to read nowadays, and by “not enough time,” I mean that I can basically only read on the odd Friday night when I manage not to fall asleep after both kids have already succumbed. So when I purchased Stay Crazy, I was relieved to find that it was such a slim volume. Maybe sixty, seventy thousand words tops? I can manage that in one sitting! If I don’t sleep much, anyway.

It took me until 2:30am, and I enjoyed every minute. Satifka doesn’t waste too much time getting us to Savertown USA, the Walmart-like superstore where all the action happens, but by that time she’s already established our main character Em well enough that we understand where she’s coming from and can usually tell a hallucination from reality. Usually.

The plot is fun if occasionally predictable, but the greatest strength of Stay Crazy is its incredible depiction of paranoid delusions and the way those delusions mix with the sci-fi element to keep both Em and the reader off their game. Once we’ve accepted that there is an interdimensional being talking to Em, and another one making people kill themselves, every subsequent delusion becomes at least somewhat plausible. Escodex says there’s an evil mind-controlling entity around somewhere, but he doesn’t know exactly where. Could it be the TV quack psychiatrist Wes Summersby? Maybe! The reverend who leads Jackie’s cultish church? Quite possibly! Is Em being paranoid? Absolutely.

I don’t have much experience with schizophrenia, but working with dementia patients I have witnessed plenty of clinical-level paranoia, delusions, and hallucinations up close and personal. I have also been present for manic episodes among friends. At least from my limited experience as a witness and caregiver, the depictions in Stay Crazy ring true. There are plenty of times when Em sees and hears things that aren’t there, and she knows they’re not there, but that doesn’t make them any less distressing. Boy have I seen that with some Parkinson’s patients. There are times when her practical concerns are overwhelmed by mania and magical thinking. I’ve seen that too, and at least from the outside, Satifka’s writing looks spot-on.

The premise is great, the execution is great, the book is great. Highly recommended.

What is Activism For?

This will be a short one, I promise. I just want to take a moment to point to tonight’s huge wins for the Black Lives Matter movement. In Illinois, state attorney Anita Alvarez lost her reelection bid by big margins after gaining notoriety for shielding Chicago police after their killing of Laquan McDonald. In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, it looks like County Prosecutor Tim McGinty will lose his reelection bid too, after coming under fire for refusing to prosecute the killer of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

Put simply, THIS is what activism is for. The little races are often the ones that matter the most, and local government has in many ways a lot more power over people’s day-to-day lives than the federal government does. Building a protest movement is sometimes deceptively easy, and many movements have failed because of an inability to focus on those places where real change is possible.

Black Lives Matter, for all that it is decentralized in its leadership, seems to understand this on a basic level. Their ability to influence the next president more or less ends once the the Democratic primary does, but the problems that BLM seeks to address are primarily state-level problems (ignore the headline and read the whole article – you’ll be glad you did). The vast majority of state- and county-level races have so little public attention that a modest bit of organizing can go a very long way. And those races matter a LOT. DAs and county prosecutors, for example, have practically absolute power over whether police are held accountable for criminal behavior.

When Occupy Wall Street was at its height, its most obvious flaw was that it functioned much more as an expression of left-wing rage than as a driver of alternative policies. Black Lives Matter isn’t falling into the same traps, and that means it’s also much less likely to fall into the same memory hole.

Why I Stopped Watching “Grimm”

[Spoiler alert: this post will make you hate the show regardless of whether you’ve watched it or not.]

I’m a sucker for fantasy, especially on TV. If a show has magic and mythology in it, I will watch it way beyond the point where it jumps the shark. I watched through the first season of Merlin despite finding it to have some of the laziest writing I had ever seen. I watched the first season of Once Upon A Time even though the child actor annoyed the hell out of me and the main lead character was ludicrously naive for someone who was sold as bad-ass and cynical (I hear the show improved in season two, and the villains were great to begin with, but I just couldn’t bring myself to give it another try). I watched Misfits right to the end even though the show was a master class in idiot plot, had seriously problematic sexual politics, and its most entertaining character left after season two.

The point is, I often let my love of fantasy override my good sense and taste. But after nearly four seasons of watching Grimm, I just couldn’t do it anymore.

It wasn’t the characters, who were mainly two-dimensional. It wasn’t the repetition of lines and themes that weren’t even interesting the first time (“I don’t know much about his side of the family” ooh, mysterious). It wasn’t the endless complications that didn’t ever resolve themselves or give you a better understanding of the world of the show; it wasn’t the deus-ex-machina and general hand-wavery that the writers used to get themselves out of jams; it wasn’t the long, long parade of “wesen” that – no, it couldn’t be one of those…I thought they were extinct! Nobody’s seen one for a thousand years!

It wasn’t any of that. It was how the writers used sex.

If Misfits was a show that punished its characters for being happy, Grimm is a show that punishes its characters for having sex. And nobody is punished more cruelly or more senselessly than Adelind Schade. For those who are unfamiliar (hopefully everybody), Adelind is the show’s Scheming Woman. In the first season, she and police Captain Renard were secret villains, lurking in the background while they plotted…something evil. We never exactly found out what, because the (male) captain allied with the main character and was redeemed, whereas Adelind was vanquished and her witch’s powers were taken away. How, you ask? Well, the main character forced her to the ground and kissed her against her will; she bit him in response, and through the magic of handwavium, ingesting a drop of his blood de-witch-ified her. This was his revenge on her for having nearly killed his (police) partner…by having sex with him. I know, I know, I should have stopped watching then. It should have been obvious enough that things were not going to get better.

Well surprise surprise, things get worse. Captain Renard and Adelind’s mother treat her like a foolish child for having her powers stripped away, so she leaves the U.S. for some sexcapades. Also so that she can scheme with the remaining villains. It may bear mentioning that despite having turned against her former ally Renard, Adalind apparently has no information of actual worth to share with his enemies. Instead, she briefly returns in order to have sex with Renard and become pregnant (on the first try!) as some kind of a master plan.

But does she actually have a master plan? Of course she doesn’t. We know this because people keep telling her that she’s done something very consequential and dangerous, and that everybody will want to steal this politically important baby from her, and she is surprised every time. She is presented, for the rest of the show, as completely out of her depth.

Now as I said before, this show is chock full of unnecessary complications. Adelind leverages her important pregnancy to find an ally who can help her regain her powers. Then she goes through episode after episode of tasks that are completely punitive in nature (eating raw heart, etc.), all of which eventually result in her regaining her powers, although they also super-charge her baby and make the rest of her pregnancy hell. And now everyone wants to steal her baby even more.

How does she get out of this mess? Why, through the power, wisdom, and self-sacrifice of a bunch of men, of course. And at the end of a long and humiliating road, Adalind does in fact have her baby stolen from her. But it’s stolen by the good guys, so that makes it okay.

Well, she can’t get her baby back, but Adelind can still be all villainous, right? She certainly does her best. How? Sex, of course! She impersonates the main character’s fiancee, seduces him in that form, and thereby takes his powers away from him. For, you know, a few episodes.

You’re probably wondering, how did you ever get this far into the show, and if none of this outrageous shit made you stop watching, whatever could? I’m glad you asked.

This one sexual encounter with the main character gets Adalind pregnant again. All it takes is having sex once, people! Pregnancy every time. Sex has consequences. But worse then that is Adalind’s reaction: Oh no, not again! This can’t happen to me! Because apparently in the world of Grimm, abortion does not exist. Not even for villains! And I guess only the good guys use contraception? Either that, or their virtue makes them immune to unplanned pregnancy.

Adalind’s transformation over the course of the show is from somewhat stereotypical villainess to tragically incompetent, tragically abused villainess. And she has only herself to blame, because throughout the whole show, men are always giving her advice. To her credit she rarely listens to any of it, but then, perhaps that’s why she’s punished so severely. For a show based in Portland, OR, this show is somehow the least progressive piece of media I’ve ever come into contact with. And I’ve seen the occasional episode of Dragnet, which, let me tell you, has not aged well.

For all the talk we had this year about people giving up on Game of Thrones, it’s kind of remarkable to me that this show has slipped under the radar. This is a network show, people, and its ratings have been high enough that NBC has committed to a 5th season. Its viewership has actually been going up from season to season. For all of Game of Thrones‘ gratuitousness, it’s pretty even-handed with its misery. The same can’t be said for Grimm.

Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings

I feel I haven’t said enough to recommend Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings. Whether readers like this book or not (personally, I loved it), it is an undeniably revolutionary work of fantasy fiction, as tonally different from mainstream fantasy as Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was.

In the case of The Grace of Kings, the tone and subject matter are unmistakably Chinese. The heroes are based on characters out of Chinese mythic history. The armies of the Evil Empire are led neither by bumbling minions nor by brainwashed innocents, but by strategic geniuses and true patriots, doing their best to defeat the Rebellion for the glory of their beloved country. And you root for them at times, as they win battles and crush enemies despite having their hands tied by foolish (and evil) political leadership.

And the villain? Basically doesn’t exist. Even the Evil Emperor himself comes out vindicated in his aims if not in his methods, just like the king of Qin in so many kung fu movies (Jet Li’s “Hero” and Jackie Chan’s “Little Big Soldier” come to mind). The book is sweeping in its scale, clever in its execution, and more than anything, different. It gives a completely fresh view of what a novel can be, and although I don’t exactly wish I had written this book, I am completely envious of its originality.

Read it. You’ll be glad you did.