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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Do Not Say We Have Nothing and There's Lots of Ways This Thing Can Go Wrong


We're all having a lot of fun on the social medias comparing Donald Trump to Hitler, and by fun, I mean an existential crisis of humanity in which we want to make jokes but also we don't want to look back on our crumbling society and say "haha that was a zinger." Not that this is new. We've been comparing things to Hitler since the invention of post-Hitler things. We are all the boys who cry Hitler at this point. And by boy I don't mean we're all boys, I mean that in the story the character was the "boy who called wolf," which is a metaphor as gender neutral as your average anime character.

Second only to the Hitler comparisons is saying that we're in 1984 now. Which, come to think of it, I think I've heard that before, too. You guys, this isn't even the first time Amazon's sales of the book have "soared" after a scandal. In 2013, following news of the NSA's aggressive phone-tapping, the book broke the top 100. That's a far cry from the number 1 spot it hit this year, but also totally a thing. When people on the right and the left both use the same examples to point out how wrong their opponent is, what does that even mean anymore? It's like if the same word meant two exact opposite things.



I wrote a post about Hitler, too. I also used a picture in that post that was uncredited and it almost took down the entirety of Howie's Book Club Dot Com, The Blog. Which I'm going to go ahead and blame on Big Brother in order to tie this whole thing together.
Let's say you have a dirty job that needs doing, and this job is (again hypothetically) to root out members of a certain religion or racial group because they were deemed to be dangerous to the greater populous. Most people you and I know would not enjoy this job, as it entails separating families from their loved ones for no reason other than the border they were born within or the church they go to. Some would do it out of a feeling of duty towards their nation. Or because it's their job. Others would do it because they believe in an organized society of laws and the flaunting of said laws motivates them. But there will be people who do it because they like to do it. - Me. I said that. Pretty good, huh?
In that post I do the same thing that keeps happening all over the world wide web, which is pointing out parallels between that horrible, horrible person and today's current political climate. There are definitely some pretty interesting and worrisome comparisons to be made. But here's why I'm disappointed in both myself and everyone else who keeps doing it: it's lazy.

Here's my defense: I'd just read a book about it and it would be silly not to sit and think about how it applies to the current world. That's what I think we should be doing with every book we read, period. When I read the first half of Ravensbruck, it was impossible not to think about the people who at the time were being scapegoated for our nation's problems, and conjecture about how that same mentality could apply to oppress people today. At the time these were simply campaign promises. Now, I'm pleased to say, everything is fine. Whew.

That's the whole thing, though, right? I worry that for a lot of us, our learning kind of stopped around the time when we were all reading 1984 and picking up some basic history. At 17 or whatever we were super impressionable and a couple of things really stood out. One is the pretty simple logical conditional statement: Indiana Jones is cool. Indiana Jones hates Nazis. Nazis must not be cool. Then there was the little girl with the red coat in Schindler's List. Somehow everyone but Richard Spencer got the message by then.

Universal Pictures
Most of us: crying
Richard Spencer: "cool overcoats"

The other is this: 1984 scared the pants off of us. "Man," we thought, in between making bad decisions that would haunt us well into adulthood, "I sure hope that something like this has never happened in the history of people and also I hope it doesn't happen to me in the future. I especially don't like the idea of varicose veins that sounds gross."

That's basically it, I guess. The only shared cultural touchstones we have that help us define and interpret disturbing trends in our own society are the holocaust and a book by a socialist critiquing the dangers he saw within his own movement. You know the Abraham Maslow quote, "I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail." These are some pretty specific tools given the multitude of ways a society can collapse.

I think 80% of the time I sit down to write one of these posts my main driving thought is that I wish everyone would just read the book I read and we could talk about it. The other 20% of the time I'm just hoping someone reads my post and tells me that it's good and by extension that I am good (haha let's be real, this is 100%). I know it's hard and that it can sometimes take as long to read a long book as it does to binge-watch a TV show and nobody you know is talking about it, but oh my gosh, you guys. There is just nothing else that compares to reading good books. But you've got to read a lot of them. That's kind of the trick.

Then, when you're watching the events of the world unfurl around you, you can say things like "Actually this is less like 1984 and more like The Handmaid's Tale," and sound like a big ol' pedantic douche. When discussions tend towards the United States never being more divided, you can say, in your most mansplainy voice "Actually, if you read News of the World, you'd see that post-Civil War United States was a pretty crazy time and place, too, and somehow we survived it." Really, all you need to do is say, "If you read Howie's Book Club Dot Com, The Blog, you'll see that there are lots and lots of books out there and every one of them can be related to either a story from one guy's life or a major political talking point in one way or another." And doggone it, you'd be right.

For example, Madeleine Thien's Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a beautiful and moving and downright terrifying book. Holy cats, you guys, it's scary. And this is going to blow you away, but even though it's about China in the 60's there are things about it that we should really know about today. Is it readily applicable to everything we are reading in the news? Some of it is. But what's scary to me is the parts that aren't -- yet (thunder rumbles).

A few weeks ago I wrote a very rambling, very political piece about the state of one political party in comparison to The White Tiger. I almost didn't post it so predictably it became one of my most-clicked posts. Here's what I said to my Republican brothers and sisters in that post, I said, "Anyway, I don't know if any of you are reading this, but conservatives: y'all party's gone off the ever-loving rails." I feel like I backed that up with some real-ass science mixed with my trademark self-effacing gentle humor, but I understand that it takes some pretty selective reading of the news to think that this isn't happening on both sides. Luckily, selective reading seems to be the only thing any of us are good at these days.

In The White Tiger we see modern India as a corrupt plutocracy masquerading as a democracy. At my most cynical it feels like my beloved country is on that path. It feels like -- and stop me if this seems crazy -- it's being run by billionaires who live in literal gold penthouses who pretend to care about the average working person just long enough to take them on a bus to the polls before going back to adding more gold layers to more penthouses. Like if the only way to win is to cheat, then cheating becomes not unethical, but necessary. And then we find ourselves praising a cheater for being the cheatingest billionaire and therefore the best leader for a party previously obsessed with personal achievement that currently really just cares about how much you've inherited.

Anyway it's a good thing I got that out of my system in that post and that clearly none of it is still hanging out back there in my mind like so many Republicans who quietly object to the direction their party has gone. But don't want to admit it because they don't want to ruin their careers. Or because it would make their bishop sad. Free of bitterness, that's me. Super excited about the future.

Guess what, though, Democrats have every bit of potential to be the crazy ones. A lot of folks think that they already are. Right leaning news sources spend all day reminding everyone that there's an Obama or Clinton version of everything Donald Trump is trying to do now. Privatizing prisons? That's a big Clinton thing. The prison-industrial complex has donkey signatures all over it. Bill Clinton admitted that his 1994 Crime Bill (including the three strikes rule), "...wound up...putting so many people in prison that there wasn't enough money left to educate them, train them for new jobs and increase the chances when they came out so they could live productive lives." What about the mass deportations you see me freaking out about on Facebook? Well that's an easy one.

A lot of my liberal friends are pulling their hair out at executive orders that they disagree with, but praised the same law-making tool when they thought it was the only way to help suffering people in spite of an obstructionist congress. If Obama had spent some of his time reducing the power of the Executive Branch instead of increasing it while he was in office, we wouldn't be looking at an uneducated, inexperienced old man signing documents willy-nilly, now would we? So instead of, like, real laws, we get stuff like a Department of Education rule that gave transgender kids eight months of freedom to make their own decisions before losing it again. I suppose the administration thought for sure that there would be another Democrat in office and a nice down ballot majority to solidify it down the road, but alas and alack, you guys. Alas and alack.

I think Bernie Sanders is a neat guy, I do. His consistency is something we don't see often in politics. He has an ideological purity that honestly could only survive in Vermont, but it's laudable. I wouldn't have minded seeing him in the White House. The things I saw his supporters say, though, especially here on this sacred internet, generate concern. Cult of Personality isn't just a cool Living Colour song. We can't hold that kind of reverence for anyone in power. Let's say Bernie won, and he was everything his supporters wanted him to be. Dude would be hard-pressed to get many if not any of his promises through even a Democratic majority congress.  That kind of change would put an enormous amount of power in one branch of government, it just would have to. "Well," you say. "It takes drastic measures to do what's right."

I'm trying to be nice here, but that's the kind of thinking that put Donald Trump in office. "Right" means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

I don't think we're supposed to love our leaders. I've been doing a lot of soul-searching about my blindness to some of the directions my country headed under the Obama administration. I think he's a very charismatic and funny guy. He seems like a great dad and husband. He seemed sober and professional. But it was wrong to let that cloud my vision and see his administration through a lens of optimism. I accept that many of his decisions came from pragmatism gained when you start to see all of the little ways we're in danger every day that most of us are completely unaware of, but I still dislike a lot of things that happened. When we say about a leader "I would follow that person anywhere," we're giving ourselves permission to do some nasty stuff and blame someone else for it. That just doesn't fly and it never will. I'm looking at you when I say this, ICE agents.

In Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the story moves back and forth between Marie, a young girl in modern Vancouver meeting Ai-Ming, a woman fleeing China after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, and their fathers, who lived through the Cultural Revolution in the 60s. Marie and Ai-Ming's fathers were friends decades prior. Marie's father Kai was a brilliant pianist, and Ai-Ming's father Sparrow, a composer. What follows is a history of the brutal and horrifying impact of Chairman Mao's crackdown on university professors, musicians, artists, authors -- anyone representing the bourgeois corruption in institutions and government -- and later, the same government's crackdown on protesting college students.

On the one hand, we see that stuff happening now. Right-wing news sources and the politicians whose talking points they provide obsess about how universities are liberalizing our poor impressionable youth while somehow at the same time protecting our resilient strong youth who can definitely handle life without trigger warnings. Elitism is bad now, even though elite used to mean good. Elite, by definition, means the best of anything considered collectively. But it also means smarty-pants professors who are out of touch with "real" Americans. (In this case "real" makes as much sense as the "real" in The Real Ghostbusters.)

But also most American universities are pretty rough places for conservative kids. I get that. I went to school in one of the most conservative counties in the United State and still I felt bad for the Young Republicans club. Mostly because they wore suits to school.

There's a rap group I like quite a bit, and one of their members is a really smart interesting dude who calls himself Killer Mike. He raps lyrics like, "A revolutionary bangin' on my adversaries/And I love Dr. King but violence might be necessary/Cause when you live on MLK and it gets very scary/You might have to pull your AK, send one to the cemetery." Now we get that it's rap and it's going to be incendiary and that this is a kind of poetry putting words to the voiceless. You and I get that. Also, we get that the song rules. That being said, American universities regularly invite Killer Mike to speak without protest. I think that's great. He's got interesting things to say.


Some of his lyrics, though (and let's be honest, it's a lot of his lyrics), could be easily interpreted as advocating violence against police officers. That's a real thing. Police officers are killed by people in the communities where they work. I'm not making that up. I understand that according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, it's safer to be a police officer than ever before. That statistic doesn't mean much if it's your husband, wife, mother, or father who was killed. This isn't a blue lives matter post and I'm not discounting the radical notion that police officers who break the law or use their power abusively should be punished by law. All I'm saying is that one could point to lyrics that say, "When you (blanks) gon' unite and kill the police?" is not something that a family member of a police officer would get excited about, even if Mike's own father was a police officer.

                                                            Mass Appeal
This video has bad words in it. It also has a complex social message that requires nuance, something that we don't have a lot of patience for these days

When the conservative club at New York University invited Gavin McInnes to speak at New York University, it was probably because they feel like they can't speak up, like they have to keep their beliefs a secret. It makes them sad and maybe they can't get dates. So they thought it would be funny to make their fellow students angry and get some headlines. It worked. He was protested and 11 people were arrested.

Yeah, he carried his own baggage with him. He's a British comedian who regularly appears on conservative talk radio. He has said that feminism "has made women less happy," and wrote an article titled "Transphobia is Perfectly Natural." He called Trump's Muslim ban "brash and bold, but it's also what we need in this day and age." I don't agree with any of that. Hopefully I've been on the record multiple times saying that all of those things are bad. I think that his statements regarding the trans and muslim communities could lead to violence against people in extremely vulnerable groups. There's a lot to be said about the debate over what "free speech" really means. That's not what this is about. Apparently America's youth can clearly handle a message that is traditionally considered offensive as long as they agree with it politically.

Note that this protest happened just a day after the big Berkeley kerfuffle, but I don't have to give that snot waffle any more attention because this is my blog and I can do whatever the heck I want on it.

Where are we at here? There are some pretty good discussions to be had defending profane rap music. Generally fans (and research) dismiss the idea that rap lyrics cause crimes. 
Rap fans would also point out the double standard that brings their genre more scrutiny than other styles. Rock-and-roll history is full of sexist, predatory lyrics, including those that use the “p word” and the “b word.” But it’s understood that rock is an art form for fantasy and exaggeration, a distinction that isn’t always afforded rap, long a scapegoat for those looking to blame social problems on the cultural output of people trying to survive those very problems. - The Bizarre Attempt to Excuse Donald Trump's Misogyny With Racy Lyrics, The Atlantic
Ugh, I set out specifically not to get into this free speech thing and here I am. I just deleted like 8 paragraphs, and I NEVER delete paragraphs. This is why I'm not a good writer, by the way. Here's what I think: we want Killer Mike on campuses because he represents a group that historically has not had a say as a voice of a community. A community of people who have finally found a way for their plight to be spread beyond their neighborhoods and into the ears of the people who actually have power. That this vehicle is couched in offensive language and the kind of lyrics that bloggers delight in surrounding with scare quotes is what makes it resonate with the people for whom it speaks.

What we don't need more of is another representative of the ruling class reaffirming the institutions and philosophies that have lead to centuries (at least) of oppression. College campuses have plenty of white men saying that feminism actually makes women sad. It has plenty of people in power who would very much like to stay in power who will tell us that these voices are actually divisive when in real life they're asking for inclusivity. The reason, perhaps, why universities invite traditionally ignored voices is to counter the samey-same vanilla message in suburban white communities that invented segregation and still has the gall to call it the "good old days."

The last thing we need is an avatar of The Man "telling it like it is." People keep railing on about political correctness, but politically correct is the status quo, and always will be. What these guys call PC culture is actually the tip of the spear of a more inclusive world. Every time a privileged man or woman wants to go to a college campus and tell them that gay people talk silly and that black women are best as sassy sidekicks they aren't blowing anyone's minds because we've been hearing that our whole life. They are mad that the world is changing and that they are going to die and they want to scream that in the faces of the young, hopeful, and beautiful and say "This is not how it was when I was young and that's bad." Much brave. Many edgy. Wow.

I'm glad that young people are standing up for themselves, even if it's clumsy sometimes. In Do Not Say We Have Nothing, though, we see the scary, scary extreme. See, the revolutionaries from the 20's who incited revolts and murder against landowners and encouraged neighbors to inform on one another were rewarded with status and power and sent their kids to the best schools. The next generation didn't have much interest in their heroics, however, and only saw a new elite. They saw kids their age training to be artists and musicians and poets while they themselves worked in factories and farms. They were probably already mad, but then their great leader (who himself grew up wealthy) gave them a reason to do something about it, and they followed enthusiastically.
She wanted to tell him that whatever happened, whatever they chose, one day they would have to come awake, everyone would have to stand up and confront themselves and realize that it wasn’t the Party that made them do it. One day, they would be alone with their actions.
Mao used the young to perpetuate his Cultural Revolution, and for 10 years, they sure did. He encouraged college-aged kids to join the Red Guard, and told the police and military to leave them alone. The Red Guard got whipped up into a socialist frenzy and started denouncing all of their professors. Many were sent to work camps. There were beatings, humiliations, and then public executions. This didn't just apply to the teachers and professors, though, but also the students. China's cities were in chaos. Musicians were sent to factories, artists to farms, and many professors were beaten to death in the streets. An entire generation of college-aged kids actively prevented each other from attending college, creating a generation of adults without jobs who later watched their children thrive with the education they were denied. A crashed economy. A gaping whole where achievement should have been.
Zhuli had overheard her mother saying that the bodies of those who died in the desert camps were left to decompose in the sand dunes. Scientists and teachers, longtime Party members, doctors, soldiers, paper-pushers and engineers, more than enough to build a better China in the underworld.
Here's the thing. There are lots of authoritarian governments, and to assume that there are just two ways for them to come to be is ignorant. That's why we need to read more books. Don't just study Hitler. Don't just read the one book you read in high school. Read more histories. Read more stories. Otherwise, we end up with some pretty silly opinions.

Do you remember when Susan Sarandon said "People feel Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately, if he gets in then things will really explode."? Can you imagine a whiter thing to say?
They had never been targeted and so, deep in their bones, did not believe they could be. They were free because, in their minds, they persisted in believing they were. Maybe they were right but Zhuli felt as if she were watching an oil drum that was about to explode.
In this revolution that she wants so badly, is there a guarantee that "Hollywood elites" aren't a target? Will the angry members of an oppressed class look at her $3 million dollar NYC penthouse and says, "well she was always a tireless supporter of liberal causes so she's fine." Maybe. But what about the people who suffer in this "revolution" that she's so excited about? You know who I didn't hear saying that they hope Trump wins so that they can get this revolution started already? Muslims. Immigrants (documented or otherwise). Men and women of color. LGBTQ+ people. They've seen this story already. They know who ends up on the front lines. They know who will get chased around by abusive men who threaten to "cut them" if they call 911, and it's not the liberal rich white woman. It's the gay couple in Miami being told "You live in Trump Country now."

This is the thought I kept having while reading this book: This crap can come from anywhere. Left, right, military, religious leaders, etc. China was around for tens of thousands of years of unbroken China-ness. They were just China-ing the heck out of it. We've got nothing on them, history-wise. And things went super south and they went super south again in 1989 when hundreds of unarmed protesters were killed. We think because we produce the fastest swimmers or the best basketball players or the coolest movies that somehow we're untouchable and I'm sorry but that's just a bunch of nonsense. Lists of the warning signs of dictators are easy to share and extremely easy to tailor to your own viewpoint, but they are also overly simplistic and don't cover all the bases. This is what happens when your only source of the state of things is from reactionary headlines and Facebook posts. Read books. Get some context in there.

I love millennials. I'm so excited about them. I'm so excited about their passion and I read that they have a favorable view towards socialism while simultaneously not understanding what it means and I don't freak out. They mean like the hip Scandinavian socialism that means free school and healthcare and very pretty girls.

Here's Bernie Sanders' definition:
In terms of socialism, I think there is a lot to be learned from Scandinavia and from some of the work, very good work that people have done in Europe. In countries like Finland, Norway, Denmark, poverty has almost been eliminated. All people have health care as a right of citizenship. College education is available to all people, regardless of income, virtually free. I have been very aggressive in trying to move to sustainable energy. They have a lot of political participation, high voter turnouts. I think there is a lot to be learned from countries that have created more egalitarian societies than has the United States of America. - 14 Things Bernie Sanders Has Said About Socialism, Politico
They grew up seeing Fidel Castro as a pretty cool guy who hung out with the dude on the Rage Against the Machine shirts. Not, like, the despot.
It began with mass summary executions of Batista officials and soon progressed to internment of thousands of gay men and lesbians; systematic, block-by-block surveillance of the entire citizenry; repeated purges, complete with show trials and executions, of the ruling party; and punishment for dissident artists, writers and journalists. - Fidel Castro's Terrible Legacy, Washington Post
According to that first article, though, it's been a pretty common trend that each generation looks fondly on big government while they benefit from it, but start to frown at it when they foot the bill. Cool, cool. That kind of generational mix makes for an interesting dynamic. I'm all about listening. I just don't want to see those arm-bands come out. I'm watching all y'all.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/ivanwalsh/ - Creative Commons

Hey Howie I reject your straw man argument