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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Emma Donoghue's The Wonder and The Part at the Very End Where I Throw Tom Brady Just Straight Under the Bus

In Lib’s experience, those who wouldn’t cheat a shopkeeper by a farthing would lie about how much brandy they drank or whose room they’d entered and what they’d done there. Girls bursting out of their stays denied their condition till the pangs gripped them. Husbands swore blind that their wives’ smashed faces were none of their doing. Everybody was a repository of secrets. - Emma Donoghue, The Wonder

I've had to do some soul-searching for the last week. On the one hand, I've used this digital space to push a kind of determined optimism. Let me see if I remember my argument here. OK, here it is:

To me, optimism is a choice, and that choice is to bet on the future. I need to come up with a more original term for this if I'm going to sell shirts or whatever, because "bet on the future" pops up a lot on the internet in various forms and if it's not marketable, what good is a philosophy? On the other, as you've probably read in the last four or five posts, I've been processing some very distressing news. Most of us have.

Here's what I've always been saying: betting on the future (improved slogan pending - Wagering on Wednesday?) doesn't mean hiding your head in the sand and pretending everything is OK regardless of the evidence. That kind of blind optimism doesn't work for me. Instead, it comes from staring right into that gaping maw of oblivion and nihilism and even when it looks pitch black and sort of swirling with gross skulls and ravens and stuff like a heavy metal album cover, you still see the pieces with which one can build something good and interesting. What I'm saying is have you seen the kind of rad stuff you can make with skulls?

Oh. No. That's not what I'm saying. What I'm saying is that since about this point in my blog I've been pitching this idea that while there has always been a contingent of people saying that the world is ending, and so far none of them have been right. Even conservation biologists such as myself.

Here are a couple of quotes on the first Earth Day, in 1970.
Demographers agree almost unanimously on the following grim timetable: by 1975 widespread famines will begin in India; these will spread by 1990 to include all of India, Pakistan, China and the Near East, Africa. By the year 2000, or conceivably sooner, South and Central America will exist under famine conditions…. By the year 2000, thirty years from now, the entire world, with the exception of Western Europe, North America, and Australia, will be in famine. - Peter Gunter, North Texas State University
If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age. - Kenneth Watt
These quotes all come from right-wing websites that are trying to disprove the current calamitous claims of climate change, and that's not what I'm doing. Folks on the internet are making a lot of hay mocking these predictions, but anyone who is paying any attention have to admit that not all of them are as hilariously wrong as they say they are. For example:
The day after the first Earth Day, the New York Times editorial page warned, “Man must stop pollution and conserve his resources, not merely to enhance existence but to save the race from intolerable deterioration and possible extinction.”
Well yeah. There's a thing we said about this kind of statement when I was in high school and it's this: It's "doy."

Anyway, Paul Ehrlich, the president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford, said “Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make. The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.” At the time there were 3.7 billion people on the Earth. Today, 46 years later, there are an estimated 7.5 billion.

So the guy bet against the future. But listen, this is interesting. At the time, the population growth rate was at 20%, which is the second highest rate since 1950. Currently that growth rate is at just under 9%. Is it possible that if the population kept growing at that rate for almost 50 years that this prediction would come true? Sure. But here's the key: it didn't. Also, the population more than doubled, but at least since 1990, world hunger has been decreasing.

Remember Y2K? I forgive you if you forgot. When the year 1999 turned to the year 2000, everyone got very scared that all of our computers would revert to 1900 and I guess The Wonderful Wizard of Oz would be published again? I'm actually not sure what it meant. Here's what Jerry Falwell prophesied:
The Rev. Jerry Falwell suggested that Y2K would be the confirmation of Christian prophecy, “God’s instrument to shake this nation, to humble this nation.” The Y2K crisis might incite a worldwide revival that would lead to “the rapture of the church.” Along with many survivalists, Mr. Falwell advised stocking up on food and guns. - The New York Times, "It's Always the End of the World as We Know It."
Y2K Chicken Littles aside, this is a pretty common occurrence. Listen to Glenn Beck melt down about the Baltimore riots.

Later he says this:
"If you look back at history, what happens to people who have voices and can cobble together people and be a leader? If you go back to what happened with the Armenian genocide, what is the first thing the Turks did? What is the first thing the Nazis did? You have a Night of Long Knives. The Armenian genocide. Any of the Armenians that could lead, any mayor, any writer, any person that was a hero in war, in one day, in each city, they would kill about 1,000 people. They’d just slaughter them. And they were all the leaders of the community. Anyone that people would rally around and follow. They were killed, day one. They just disappear, or they’re killed.”

“There are 10 million people that listen to this show. They cannot kill 10 million people in one night. You were born for a reason, and you’re listening to this show for a reason... Prepare for a time when voices like mine or others are no longer heard and yours is the only voice."

Boy, that sounds kind of familiar, doesn't it? That sounds like my Facebook feed right now. If someone said that about Donald Trump's recent tweet claiming that if crime doesn't reduce in Chicago, "I will send in the feds!" none of us would blink an eye. Many of us would "like" or "share." Perhaps you should "like" and "share" this blog instead, is what I'm thinking.

Does that mean we stop trying to figure out what every headline says about the next executive order or weird, middle-of-the-night tweet rant from the Fox News Grandpa-In-Chief? No. The thing about that Paul Ehrlich prediction on Earth Day is that it came as part of the birth of the mainstream environmental movement. The article I got that quote from gleefully mocks environmentalists' predictions, forgetting that some of them came very, very true. For example, from the article:
"Paul Ehrlich chimed in, predicting in his 1970 that “air pollution…is certainly going to take hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few years alone.” Ehrlich sketched a scenario in which 200,000 Americans would die in 1973 during “smog disasters” in New York and Los Angeles."
Haha what a doofus. Maybe he was a little early on his predictions, but according to the Global Burden of Disease Project, bad air is responsible for 5.5 million premature deaths a year. What I'm saying is that predictions are useful, but they are not gospel. And certainly whatever trends are being observed can be reversed.

This is the thing about predictions: sometimes they don't come true because they are literal nonsense. Sometimes they don't come true because of honest miscalculations. And sometimes they don't come true because people took the prediction seriously.
And the regulations have worked. After DDT was banned in 1972, populations of bald eagles and other birds rebounded. Regulations on nitrogen dioxide and particulate pollution have improved air quality in cities alongside children’s lung development. In the late 1970s, 88 percent of American children had elevated lead levels in their blood; after leaded gasoline was phased out, that number dropped to less than 1 percent. - Smithsonian, "Why Didn't the First Earth Day Predictions Come True?"
This is dopey, but I'm going to bring up Marvel Comics again, because I always do. Do you know why we haven't seen a movie where the X-Men and the Avengers team up? You don't think New York City could be attacked by a bunch of aliens and Professor Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters can't send an X-Jet from upstate? COME ON.

Well, in 1993, Neil Gaiman predicted the crash of the comics industry, and he was right. Soon revenues for comic books were so low that Marvel was on the brink of collapse. Comic book sales were reduced by 70%. Collectors finally realized that comic books weren't going to be valuable anymore because collectors would buy 20 copies of each book, keep 19 in their plastic, and read the 20th. The only reason comic books were valuable before is because parents thought they were garbage and threw them out, leading to a scarcity that could not come close to meeting demand. When collectors finally caught on, Marvel was in trouble. To get out of their massive debt, they started selling the movie rights to their most popular characters. Who cared? The last Marvel movie had been Howard the Duck, a movie that bombed so badly it forced George Lucas to sell his share in a little-known animation studio called Pixar.

We know the rest. Marvel turned all the guys nobody wanted to buy movie rights for -- relative has-beens like Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America (and Bucky Barnes? Seriously?) -- into a 21 billion dollar movie franchise. Be honest, how many of you had even heard of Guardians of the Galaxy? Kids like me who figured comic book movies were dead after Batman and Robin now feel like the entirety of the Hollywood machine are aimed straight at us. It truly is a golden age for fans of grown men and women saying very serious things while dressed in Halloween costumes.

Steven Spielberg says we're approaching the death of the superhero movie again. And Breitbart is proclaiming the death of Marvel comics due to their new emphasis on diversity. Are they right? Who knows? Maybe a girl Ironman truly is so disgusting that the company goes out of business. Maybe they're playing the long game and realizing that the same 30-40 year old white guys can not sustain an industry forever. Or, maybe it's because women buy comics digitally, which isn't captured by B-Bart's extensive journalism practice of talking to shop owners. I can tell you that if they'd listened to naysayers 20 years ago I wouldn't have seen Hulk smash Loki. And screw that.

In 2009, a retired Russian KGB analyst and dean of the Russian Foreign Ministry's academy for future diplomats, predicted the fall of the United States by 2010.
A polite and cheerful man with a buzz cut, Mr. Panarin insists he does not dislike Americans. But he warns that the outlook for them is dire.
"There's a 55-45% chance right now that disintegration will occur," he says. "One could rejoice in that process," he adds, poker-faced. "But if we're talking reasonably, it's not the best scenario -- for Russia." Though Russia would become more powerful on the global stage, he says, its economy would suffer because it currently depends heavily on the dollar and on trade with the U.S. 
Mr. Panarin posits, in brief, that mass immigration, economic decline, and moral degradation will trigger a civil war next fall and the collapse of the dollar. Around the end of June 2010, or early July, he says, the U.S. will break into six pieces -- with Alaska reverting to Russian control.

My favorite part of this prediction is that Utah would somehow join The California Republic. Can you even imagine.

It's got to be crazy feeling like you're the only one who sees all the signs, whether it's the end of freedom because of the Baltimore riots, the end of the biggest comics company in the world because Thor's A Girl Now For a While, or the end of the greatest superpower in world history. The thing is that every article you read about the great civilizations is the looming specter that they all have one thing in common, and that's an end. Just like the negative trends aren't guaranteed to continue, neither are the positive ones. I comfort myself by remembering that there are other times in our nation's history where we were deeply divided politically, and other times when things seemed to be teetering on the edge of disaster, and we got through it.
Will we survive whatever this new administration has to offer? I don't know, but I'm going to go with probably. I'm not stockpiling beans just yet, aside from the beans I already stockpile because I like to make them in the crock pot (see, the trick is saving your bacon grease and then putting it in there with a bay leaf and some chili powder, garlic powder, onion powder and just a pinch of salt. Cook them all day under some water and hoo-doggie thems some beans) but I haven't converted my 401k to gold yet. Like Marvel, I'm looking at the long game here, and for at least the last 100 years, the long-game has favored those who expect there to be a tomorrow.

"For the first time I'm thinking past tomorrow," now there's a slogan nobody is using.

You guys, I'm still working through this. Let's get out on the other end of this post with the confidence and knowledge that while there are butts to kick we have the feet to kick them, be they the literal butts of despots and dillweeds or the metaphorical butts of hunger, pain, and suffering. Wrongs can be righted, even if it feels like we're the only ones who recognize them.

Be like Lib, in Emma Donoghue's The Wonder, for example. She's a nurse who worked with Florence Nightengale tending soldiers during the Crimean war. She's been trained in the importance of science, and is skeptical by nature when she's called to be the nurse of a young girl who claims she hasn't eaten in four months. Fasting girls were surprisingly common during that time, I've learned. I don't want to give away too much but she soon finds herself to be the only one who knows what's going on in an infuriatingly close-minded Irish village.
Lib had a dizzying sense that time could fall into itself like the embers. That in these dim huts nothing had changed since the age of the Druids and nothing ever would. What was that line in the hymn they’d sung at Lib’s school? The night is dark, and I am far from home.
Lib feels helpless as she learns more about her patient, Anna O'Donnell. She thinks the girl's claim that she lives on manna from heaven is nonsense, but can't prove why. She starts to question everything she's ever known. It felt like something I've been going through, myself. Is there a point where all of the voices around you might be right? Or do you check your conscience constantly to remind yourself that there is something to what you believe?
A fast didn't go fast; it was the slowest thing there was. Fast meant a door shut fast, firmly. A fastness, a fortress. To fast was to hold fast to emptiness, to say no and no and no again.
There's a lot of talk about belief here. Lib meets Catholics who follow their faith blindly, and other faithful members who believe, but in a way that seems more reasonable than unbelief. She meets doctors blinded by their own fame, and priests worried about the reputation of their religion. She begins to love the girl and she finds the courage to fight for her.
Besides, could children ever be considered quite of sound mind? Seven was counted the age of reason, but Lib's sense of seven-year-olds was that they still brimmed over with imagination. Children lived to play. Of course they could be put to work, but in spare moments they took their games as seriously as lunatics did their delusions. Like small gods, children formed their miniature worlds out of clay, or even just words. To them, the truth was never simple.
It's heavy stuff, but it's also just like a crackerjack mystery. The last maybe 50 pages were riveting. First with Room and now with The Wonder, Donoghue keeps surprising me with her ability to write capital L literature that devours me like some paperback private eye book and spits me out emotionally exhausted.

Here's where I try to wrap this all up. When Lib figures out what's really going on, it seems like success is impossible. She is using her considerable experience and knowledge and making accurate predictions, but awful gloom and doom scenarios don't have to come true just because you see them coming. Because you can change it.

My dearest hope is that someday we look back on this administration and we are mocked for all of the gloom and doom predictions we've made because they didn't come true. I would love to be proved wrong. Personally, though, I think the only way we prevent disaster is by sounding the alarm, reporting and critically analyzing that reporting, and agitating. It's not enough to constantly say "this is not normal," without showing what the alternative is. And in some cases, fixing it ourselves.

There are really people like Lib out there, who risk a lot to make the world better even if it's for one person. That takes some optimism for sure. Even though she watched countless soldiers die in the war and the best she could do for some of them is hold their hand when it happens. That's what I'm talking about. On the other hand, there's Tom Brady, who said, "What's going on in the world? I haven't paid much attention. I'm just a positive person."

Guys? Screw Tom Brady. That's my main point here.