bloodygranuaile: (wall wander)
 After the relentless epic that was Dark Money we decided we'd like to read something shorter and lighter for the next book club; however, because we are bad at not being morbid, we instead decided to read Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, which is shorter but really not any lighter, since it is about police brutality and America's multi-century history of vicious, violent racism.
 
Although this book was short—about 150 pages—it took me three days to read because I tried to read it slowly and carefully. It's not something to just zip through.
 
Between the World and Me reminded me of James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, and a quick look through the press the book has gotten makes it clear that this was likely intentional; the parallels are pretty clear. Coates' book takes the form of a series of letters to his teenage son, Samori, just as Baldwin's book was in the form of a letter to his nephew. Both are works of memoir, discussing their visceral, lived experiences of American racism and tying their life stories in closely with the philosophical, historical, and political dimensions of American racism. The parallels are even stronger in part because there are some broad-brush similarities in their life trajectories. Both grew up in poor, often violent urban areas--Baldwin in Depression-era Harlem; Coates in Baltimore in the '80s (i.e., during the crack epidemic)--and spent a lot of time in libraries; both are atheists; obviously, they both became highly influential writers--more specifically, they both became authoritative voices on racism in America and developed platforms within what is still a very white liberal literary establishment. But beyond that, the similarities between the two books come mostly from the depressing fact that racism in America hasn't actually changed nearly as much between 1962 and 2015 as we'd like to believe it has.
 
One of the motifs Coates uses a lot is the invocation of the body, often using terms like "my body" where most people would probably just say "me" or "black bodies" where most writers would use "black people," etc. Coates is pretty clear that he's an atheist and believes that our bodies are all we're made of and that consciousness is an emergent property of the body and all that materialist stuff, so his focus on the body is the opposite of how a lot of other writers, especially religiously inclined ones, use it, where the body is just a shell and what happens to it is not of ultimate importance; instead, Coates uses the unambiguous physical existence of bodies to break past the abstract tendencies of so much of Western discourse, to bring the realities of racism home from the vague philosophical plane that people take refuge in when talking about terrible things. (I'm perhaps being condescending here but it never ceases to amaze me what a widespread habit of thought this is and how hard it can be to break through it, on any subject, from parents telling kids to "just ignore" bullying because they assume all bullying is verbal and it doesn't occur to them that it's hard to ignore being shoved into a locker, to all the various people I've witnessed who know that Nazis are bad but who still had to be walked through the idea that Nazis do bad things--and were surprised.) Coates' continual invocation of the body makes it clear that "rights" are not abstract and "racism" being systemic is not the same thing as it being philosophical; that what's at stake here is not just intangible ideals about dignity or belonging, but actual fear of physical violence. He talks about the psychic toll of constant hyperawareness; the fear behind the harsh discipline that parents inflicted on their children in the neighborhood he grew up in; the threats from other boys in the neighborhood compensating for their lack of bodily security by engaging in their own violence and territorialism.
 
The other big motif in the book is the Dream, which is only superficially a lovely dream, but Coates uses it to mean comforting myths or self-delusions that people use to avoid learning about or facing up to the violence in American life and American history. the Dream, which is a false, stands in contrast to the body, which is real, and again is a noticeable departure from how these concepts are traditionally invoked in high-minded Western writing. You can see parallels between the Dream as it is dreamed by "people who believe they are white" and Baldwin's argument about "the innocence which constitutes the crime." Coates is pretty blunt about the level of longstanding delusion it requires to maintain the Dream, the "practiced habit of jabbing out one's eyes and forgetting the work of one's hands."
 
One of the early arguments Coates makes in the book is that racism isn't the result of race; race was basically invented to provide a justification for racism. Racism, of course, was invented for reasons of wealth and power; while I don't think Coates is an anti-capitalist writer, he's very well informed about the ways American wealth was built on the stolen labor, stolen wealth, and stolen bodies of black people--including that enslaved people were considered not a consumer good but a commodity, meaning that not only could they be bought, sold, and traded, but they could be underwritten, securitized, insured, and turned into all sorts of fancy Wall Street financial products. He discusses how difficult it is for black families to build wealth; in his famous The Case for Reparations piece in The Atlantic, he goes into more detail about redlining and other racist housing policies. But he also talks about the ways in which ascending into the middle class can afford some kinds of privilege and escape compared to how he grew up, but also the ways in which, in essence, middle-class blacks still can't buy their way out of being black, with all the danger that comes along with it in America. The last part of Between the World and Me relates the story of Coates' former classmate at Howard, Prince Jones, who was shot by the Prince George's County police in front of his fiancee's house. Jones was raised in a securely well-off household and was about as respectable as it's possible to get, and it didn't save him, which seems to have made a pretty big impression on Coates. At the end of the book he recounts a lengthy, powerful interview with Jones' mother.
 
Between the World and Me, while obviously heavy, is not completely bleak all the way through. Coates talks a lot about his time at Howard University, and its impact on his thinking about black history and identity. (This section left me with a long list of things to read, starting with The Autobiography of Malcolm X.) The love with which he writes about his school, which he refers to as The Mecca, and all the people he met there and all the things he learned from them, as well as his adventures in learning how learning about history works (i.e., it's messy and contradictory), is heartwarming.
 
One thing this book isn't, obviously, is an objective in-depth study of any of the topics it touches on. But that's OK, because it isn't intended to be, and there are many other good, heavily researched books you can read about police brutality, or black poverty, or the history of racial constructions in America, or race and capitalism, that you can pick up at the library if you want to learn more about these subjects, which we all should. But the book has a lot of moral and philosophical force, and it challenges those of us who are not Coates' kid to whom the book is explicitly addressed, but who are reading it anyway because it was published for mass access, to both think and feel deeply about the material and physical consequences of what it means to be black or to believe you are white in America.
bloodygranuaile: (plague)
 For my politics books club we decided on some light summer reading for June: Robert O. Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism, which explores the creation and expansion of different fascist movements for the purpose of arriving at a working sense of what fascism is based on how it has historically worked, rather than what its adherents said about it. 
 
As someone who got probably a pretty decent overview of both World Wars in high school by contemporary standards but has supplemented it with additional self-teaching in an extremely haphazard and piecemeal fashion (I like to read about very specific historical events like a single intelligence mission at a time), I felt like I had enough base-level knowledge to follow this without having to Google too many things, but it was also enormously helpful to have the subject set out in such an orderly manner. Paxton looks at different “stages” of fascism, of which only Mussolini’s and Hitler’s reigns both qualify as unambiguously fascist (rather than regular ol’ authoritarian) and went through all the stages he lists. 
 
I was expecting it to be a bit denser because some of the reviews I’d checked out said it was a bit dry, but while it doesn’t read in the novelesque way that some history books of more limited scope of subject manage to pull off these days, I really didn’t find it too dense or academic at all. It commits the occasional bit of academese, like “fascisms,” but it’s always quite clear what he’s getting at and overall I found it to be quite clear and straightforward. If you’re interested in the subject—which you should be, because otherwise why are you reading this book?—it should pull you along quite well; the prose style and the overall organization of the book just set everything out in a very plain and straightforward way. The content is terrifying without being either coy or gratuitously graphic. 
 
The book was written in 2004, and… well, I’d be quite interested in hearing Paxton’s take on current events. (ETA: I am a dumbass; he wrote an article about in in the May issue of Harper’s Magazine that I have just not gotten around to reading yet because I am a twit.) A lot of what he talks about regarding the early stages of fascism—it’s ideological incoherence, its poaching of grievances from the left, its roots in socialism and syndicalism even as it immediately became viciously anti-socialist, its alliances with conservative elites who thought they could use its energy for their own ends—sounds uneasily familiar to anyone following modern politics. But there are a lot of movements and regimes that are often called fascist and that may be sort of fascist in some ways but not in others. Paxton gives us a good rundown of unsuccessful fascist movements and of not-properly-fascist authoritarian regimes (I was perhaps inappropriately delighted at the section dedicated to the Perón regime in Argentina and the conclusion that it was not fascist, despite Perón’s ties to Mussolini. Musical theater is a helluva drug, apparently). 
 
This book doesn’t talk a huge amount about propaganda per se, which is something I would usually be disappointed with since propaganda is my favorite, but it does talk a lot about the appropriation of symbols, emotional manipulation, the slippery relationship between fascism and making any sort of coherent sense, and its anti-intellectualism, all of which is much fun, although it’s a bit terrifying to look at the legacy this kind of intellectual nihilism has left on mass politics in more recent years. It’s also terrifying when Paxton talks not about the internal properties of fascism itself but also about the political space that allows it to develop.
 
Though the book is short and is about 25% footnotes, I think we could end up having a very long book group discussion on this, especially if I come up with enough really good questions. It’s not for three weeks though so I’ll have to review it again when we get closer—and I’m really looking forward to doing so. 
 
Oh, and the book also contains a “bibliographic essay,” which basically is just a lifetime’s worth of book recommendations. Damn you, Paxton. Now I’ve got a TBR list I couldn’t hope to get through even if I turned into one of those doofy Stephanie Meyers vampires that never needs to sleep.
 
bloodygranuaile: (Default)
If you live in Boston, you may have heard some version of this story, in which the Ben & Jerry's franchise at Harvard Square decided to make a flavor for Jeremy Lin, apparently couldn't remember anything about Jeremy Lin other than that he's Chinese-American, and decided to mix lychee and fortune cookie pieces in with plain vanilla FroYo. The initial test batch received complaints that the fortune cookie pieces were soggy, and some sort of "initial backlash" that has not been reported on in detail anywhere, meaning that it could have ranged anywhere from someone throwing a giant fit and threatening to sue, to a few people giving it a side-eye or eyerolls or disdainful glances down the nose, or any number of critical comments in between. As sometimes happens when a new product is introduced and is doing an initial run at only one location, the store responded to its customers' comments by tweaking their product--in this case, replacing the soggy fortune cookie pieces with waffle cone.

Whether or not you live in Boston, by this time, you may have heard the version of this story that goes "THE PC POLICE BULLIED BEN AND JERRY'S (THE ENTIRE CORPORATION) INTO RUINING A PERFECTLY DELICIOUS FLAVOR FOR NO REASON AT ALL EXCEPT THAT THEY HATE FUN AND DELICIOUSNESS, AND ETHNIC STEREOTYPING IS TOTALLY NOT RACIST AT ALL AND YOU ARE JUST LOOKING FOR THINGS TO GET OFFENDED ABOUT AND MAKING A BIG DEAL OUT OF NOTHING, BECAUSE OBVIOUSLY THE ONLY OPTIONS ARE 'BIG DEAL' AND 'NO DEAL AT ALL', AND THE ONLY LEVELS OF PROBLEMS ARE 'NOTHING' AND 'KKK RALLY,' BECAUSE NOBODY WOULD EVER MAKE MILDLY CRITICAL COMMENTS ABOUT SOMETHING MILDLY RACIST, LET ALONE RESPOND TO THEM, BECAUSE MIDDLING LEVELS OF THINGS DON'T EXIST IN MY SIMPLIFIED WORLDVIEW."

Duuuuuuuuuuuudes. If Ben & Jerry's does not want to be even a little bit questionably racist, they are perfectly allowed to realize when they are being a little bit questionably racist by accident and quietly knock it off. You do not have to have massively and irredeemably pissed off every single Chinese person ever so badly that they'll never talk to you again in order to decide that maybe you should not always keep doing exactly what you're doing.

The original flavor may not have been particularly malicious, but it was definitely the sort of thing where you can, in the manner of Yo, Is This Racist?, imagine the creative session where this was greenlit:

"We have to make a flavor for Jeremy Lin!"
"Who's Jeremy Lin?"
"A famous Chinese dude."
"What Chinese foods would work in ice cream?"
"Er... lychee?"
"Good! What else?"
"Fortune cookies?"
"Excellent! Throw it in the FroYo and put it in a carton."

~FIN~

Is this malicious and motivated by intense hatred of Chinese people? No. Do you know what it is? LAZY. Way motherfucking lazy. It's lazy, half-assed, lazy, ill-thought-out, lazy, slapdash, and lazy. Do you know what you call it when you get as far as someone's ethnicity and are then too lazy to continue putting in thought or effort into what you're doing?

motha fuckin RACISM

The fact that they didn't seem to actually test whether the foods they're putting together ACTUALLY went well together or just sounded good also highlights how little thought went into the whole process, which does make the whole thing come off as more racist than if the product had turned out actually meet the same level of quality we expect from Ben & Jerry's. And it makes it particularly irritating that one of the more frequent responses I've heard to this is a sort of knee-jerk "That sounds delicious!" Yeah, it does sound delicious, off the bat; this is likely part of why they decided to put in the ice cream instead of, like, sweet and sour sauce. However, it would appear that it did not turn out to actually be all that delicious in actuality (and if they'd given it a second thought instead of moving right from "sounds good off the bat" to "serve it to people in actuality," it might have occurred to someone that fortune cookies are an extremely porous baked good and get soggy if you look at them sadly, and that ice cream starts to melt immediately at the temperatures you generally eat it). Businesses do not survive by refusing to fix problems with their products and digging their heels in going "Nuh uh, it totally SOUNDS fine, so it IS fine."

Also, even if you still think that something being lazy and stupid in regards to race is totally not the same thing as being racist, because it's not mean, it's just lazy and stupid, guess what: Lazy and stupid are not virtues. You should not strive for them. You should not be focused on how much lazy and stupid you can get away with before it becomes racist/sexist/whatever; you should be trying to be as not-lazy and not-stupid as you can be, and if someone points out that something you're doing is lazy and stupid, that is also a valid criticism and you should respond to it, even if it's got nothing to do with racism whatsoever. And while lazy shit might fly in some spaces, I see absolutely no idea why Harvard Square should be expected to be one of them. It's Harvard Square. Boston as a city is packed solid with more higher education than any one city should be expected to support, and Harvard is supposedly the most prestigious, elite private college in the country. I would be completely unsurprised if the most common form of negative feedback on the flavor was that it was so boring and obvious. Because that is the thing about stereotypes--in addition to being offensive, they are tedious. Tediousness is also a bad thing that people are allowed to not like, and to refrain from showering you with compliments on your cleverness for, and even to complain about, if they think listening to themselves complain will at least be more interesting.

None of this shit makes anybody the mythical PC police. But the anti-PC police are out in full force, Yahoo Sports being one of he worst offenders (sorry, not linking). Sadly, this includes Voltaire, who I follow on Facebook in order to keep up on wacky, dark, and whimsical things, but who, it appears, is still a middle-aged white guy. (How's that for not being PC?) Apparently, some people think that if they are not allowed to rely on boring-ass stereotypes, they will have nothing to say, because actually thinking about what you're saying and trying to come up with original and accurate ways to express your ideas (not to mention coming up with your own damn ideas) is the antithesis of creativity.

Some people are "tired of PC culture". Do you know what I'm tired of? White guys complaining about how totally oversensitive everyone else is. I am tired of anti-PC culture, like being expected to think about what you say or do or what words mean before you open you mouth is just so hard, those women and minorities and immigrants and people with disabilities just don't know how hard it is. I am tired of people who think that any action you take to be a little more considerate of other people, no matter how small, means that you are "caving" and "making a big deal" (again: small deals. They exist. If you do not understand this, you should withdraw from having opinions until you develop the ability to think with nuance) and blah blah blah. I am tired of listening to people go on long 'splainy rants about how that wasn't really racist or sexist or homophobic, they didn't mean "gay" like that, etc. I am tired of people claiming that supporting the status quo and being racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, and basically disrespectful of other people is now the brave, embattled, noble minority position. I am tired of being very, very, very, seriously and painfully aware that most of the people I know are assholes, most of the people I have ever been friends with or loved are assholes, most of my family is assholes, most artists whose work I have admired are assholes, and that realizing this makes me more like them--smug and self-congratulatory about how much better I am than everybody else.

I am tired of assholes who think that intent is fucking magic and I am tired of striking the terrible bargain and I am tired of being tired of people.

I am twenty-four years old and I am already thoroughly sick of this shit.

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