Equality/Inequality

Nov 3, 2016

The Great Dumpster Fire Election

The Chicago Cubs have won the World Series. I couldn’t care less about that if I tried, but the statistics behind their victory interest me. The odds have not been in the Cubs’ favor for a long time. Before last night, they hadn’t won a World Series championship since 1908. To put that into perspective, that was before both world wars, the polio vaccine, and the moon landing. As recently as October 30th, FiveThirtyEight published that the Cubs had “a smaller chance of winning than Trump.” As in, their chances were slim. Trump, at the time, had a 22% chance of winning the presidential election.

A lot can happen in a few days, though. The Cubs can win the World Series for the first time in a century, and the controversial reopening of the FBI investigation into Clinton’s emails can make the 2016 election less certain. At the time of my writing, Clinton has a 65% chance of becoming president, compared to Trump’s 34% chance. Trump’s odds aren’t that great, but they are improving, and he may yet be the 45th president. Anything seems possible after a Cubs win and Brexit.

Odds aside, a majority of Americans don’t like either candidate or their campaigns. The endless scandals and “misspoken” moments aren’t helping. In fact, nearly a third of likely voters are simply voting against the other candidate. Behold, the wonders of democracy in a two-party system. Let us weep together.

Jigsaw from Saw

No, I don’t want to play this game.

This year’s election is like living in the latest, lamest horror movie from the Saw franchise. You wake, chained to a chair, only to hear Jigsaw ask if you’d rather be shot in the leg or have your intestines pulled from your body. You’re more likely to survive losing a leg to infection, but that doesn’t make it any easier to say, “Sure, go ahead and shoot me in the kneecap.” Meanwhile, no one around you can stop talking about Ralph Nader.

While there are die-hard Clinton and Trump supporters, and there are even more die-hard supporters of the Democratic and Republican parties, more than 40% of us identify as independents, and so are left to wander a political no man’s land. (This is why so few participate in the primaries, during which voters are typically required to identify with a party to make their vote count.)

Pick apart our nation’s collective psyche, and it’s not so surprising that nearly half of us are dismayed. We are a people brainwashed to fear words like socialism, and yet when asked about specifics we are far more socialist than our system or the people who manage it. We are disgruntled, if not unhappy. This partially explains why, relative to other nations, voter participation is low in the States.

Many of us know that, no matter which party controls Congress or occupies the White House, we are going to be screwed. This is the true cost of having so much money in politics. It’s only a matter of how we’re screwed and who gets screwed. Hint: It’s almost always the poor and middle class.

If you loathe both candidates, the person you believe to be more survivable comes down to political leanings. I lean further left than the Democratic Party, so Clinton is the saner, more predictable, and more qualified of the two from my perspective. But even as we survive and perhaps even see some positive changes under Clinton, I also know many will suffer. It’s likely the nation will end up entrenched in costly controversies and conflicts under her guidance. We have under every president for decades now. The subject of war is particularly distressing considering Trump fancies himself a strongman and Clinton is a well-known war hawk.

Tuesday—four full, unpredictable days from now—we’ll elect a new president. Well, people living in Nevada, North Carolina, Florida, and a handful of other places will. The rest of us will cast our ballot, and then warm ourselves by the dumpster fire that is the 2016 election.

Jan 18, 2016

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Book cover for THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS by Isabel Wilkerson
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In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I urge you to read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. This book, more than any other I’ve read, provides historical context for the state of relations between blacks and whites in America today. There’s a reason it won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2010, just as there’s a reason Wilkerson won a Pulitzer Prize in journalism in 1994.

Wilkerson chronicles the massive, though perhaps little-known, migrations of African Americans out of the southeastern region of the United States, between 1915 and 1970. While closely following the lives of three people, she more broadly discusses the stressful and dangerous circumstances under which millions of African Americans migrated. If you’ve ever wanted to understand institutionalized racism—or have ever been skeptical about the concept—this book is well worth your time.

Never forget that what was done yesterday influences what takes place today.

Quotes from The Warmth of Other Suns

People like Ida Mae had few options, and the landlords knew it. New arrivals often paid twice the rent charged the whites they had just replaced for worn-out and ill-kept housing. “The rents in the South Side Negro district were conspicuously the highest of all districts visited,” Abbott wrote. Dwellings that went for eight to twenty dollars a month to white families were bringing twelve to forty-five dollars a month from black families, those earning the least income and thus least able to afford a flat at any rent, in the early stages of the Migration. Thus began a pattern of overcharging and underinvestment in black neighborhoods that would lay the foundation for decades of economic disparities in the urban North.

Like other mass migrations, it was not a haphazard unfurling of lost souls but a calculable and fairly ordered resettlement of people along the most direct route to what they perceived as freedom, based on railroad and bus lines. The migration streams were so predictable that by the end of the Migration, and, to a lesser degree, even now, one can tell where a black northerner’s family was from just by the city the person grew up in—a good portion of blacks in Detroit, for instance, having roots in Tennessee, Alabama, western Georgia, or the Florida panhandle because the historic rail lines connected those places during the Migration years.

[The Illinois Central Railroad] carried so many southern blacks north that Chicago would go from 1.58 percent black at the start of the twentieth century to one-third black by the time the flow of people finally began to slow in 1970. Detroit’s black population would skyrocket from 1.4 percent to 44 percent during the era of the Migration.

The children, having emerged from one-room schoolhouses with their southern English, were often labeled retarded by northern school officials, regardless of their native abilities. Segregation was not the law, but northerners would find creative ways to segregate the migrant children from the white children when so inclined.

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Aug 17, 2012

Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson

Book cover for TIGER LILY by Jodi Lynn Anderson
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Told from Tinker Bell’s perspective, Tiger Lily is the story of a young girl struggling to understand herself and cope with the looming unfairness of womanhood. When she meets Peter and the lost boys, she believes she’s found where she belongs, but what will she give up to join them? Should she have to give up anything at all?

Anderson Embraces Complex Subjects in Peter Pan Reimagining

Jodi Lynn Anderson’s beautiful, poignant writing style carries you away to the jungle island of Neverland, a place where mystery and magic live and where some faces are ageless. Most of us won’t have found Neverland intriguing since early childhood, but I think even skeptics will like this one.

Retelling a children’s story in a way young readers will love it isn’t necessarily difficult, but Anderson goes beyond retelling Peter Pan. She re-imagines Neverland and its characters in a way many readers of all ages will enjoy (and maybe feel a little dread over). It’s no small feat to recreate Peter Pan in a way that doesn’t conjure up Disney characters or various actors; however, Anderson achieves all this and more in Tiger Lily.

The story is told from Tinker Bell’s perspective. But Tinker Bell—like all faeries, we’re told—is mute, and so while the occasional first-person opinion surfaces, the majority of the book is told from Tinker Bell’s semi-omniscient point of view. She can have no verbal communication with the characters she’s observing.

Tinker Bell is obsessed with watching the unpretty, proud native girl known as Tiger Lily—and with good reason. Tiger Lily is a walking mystery. She’s a girl who was found orphaned in the woods and raised by the Sky Eater tribe’s shaman. She’s a girl who doesn’t quite know how to be the person others want her to be, or even what kind of person she wants herself to be. She’s an intense character, and her village senses and reacts to the darkness of her personality. Sometimes they are in awe of her. Other times, they fear and hate her. They are her family, but they don’t understand her. A part of them doesn’t want to understand her.

Tiger Lily’s tribe particularly doesn’t understand when she nurses a shipwrecked Englander back to health. Sky Eaters hold a belief that coming into contact with Englanders makes them age and die as other non-Neverlanders do. When Tiger Lily’s efforts are discovered, she is harshly punished for her transgression.

It’s through these events that Tiger Lily eventually meets Peter Pan and the lost boys. They are an infamous bunch in Neverland, rumored to be psychotic murderers of mythic proportions. But the gossip is mainly that—gossip. Peter and the lost boys who follow him are only teenagers hiding from pirates, trying to survive the island’s wilderness.

In Peter, Tiger Lily finds a kindred spirit. He may be boisterous, while she is quiet, but they share a wild restlessness and rivalry that is both good-natured and stubborn. They also share an intense feeling of fear due to their own private circumstances. Being brave and proud, neither fully reveals this to the other. They fall in love slowly and awkwardly—innocently. This is where most young adult books settle the romance with nice, neat bows, but Anderson isn’t here to tell anyone a love story—at least not a typical one for young adults. She’s here to remind readers that life is rarely so nice, rarely so neat.

This is one of a very few young adult books I would give to young women without millions of disclaimers, such as, “Don’t you ever do this for a boy,” or “You know not all girls behave this way, right?” Beyond the fantasy elements in Tiger Lily, there are important life lessons that are applicable to real life. Some of these lessons are obvious and seen in many books, but others are more subtle and less common. And Anderson actually covers a couple of topics—(trans)gender equality and the effects of colonialism—that few young adult authors would dream of tackling, much less in the speculative fiction genre.

Anderson should also be commended for avoiding two tropes she could have easily fallen victim to with this story: what internet and TV lovers might call Mighty Whitey and Noble Savage. Tiger Lily’s tribal life isn’t played up to the point of becoming a spectacle, and there’s no Great White Savior to be found here. A lot of Peter Pan stories of the past and present have—accidentally or not-so-accidentally—drawn attention to racial stereotypes. Initially, I was sad to see Anderson make Peter an Aryan’s dream—defining his looks was something Peter Pan’s creator, J.M. Barrie, consciously avoided—but I later understood Anderson’s reasoning.

Fairy tales often have blatant good and evil themes, but in Tiger Lily, decisions made with good intentions don’t always yield positive results, the bad guys sometimes have a reason for being bad, and sometimes love doesn’t save the day. Sometimes love isn’t enough, or it isn’t what you thought it might be. For a short book that makes use of a very old story, Anderson covers a lot of new ground. Many fantasy readers will love this, and it would make for a wonderful gift for teens.

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Quotes from Tiger Lily

“I think we could be good friends,” he said, falling into step with her. “It’s perfect because I wouldn’t fall in love with you, like I do with the mermaids. Girls always seem so exotic. But it would be okay with you, because you’re more like … you know. Not like a girl.” He shrugged.

Human hearts are elastic. They have room for all sorts of passions, and they can break and heal and love again and again. Faerie hearts are evolutionarily less sophisticated. They are small and hard, like tiny grains of sand. Our hearts are too small to love more than one person in a lifetime.

An unspoken rivalry threaded their relationship, in which Tiger Lily thought that if she could keep up with him, she could hold tighter to him.

May 22, 2011

The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

Book cover for THE SPEED OF DARK by Elizabeth Moon
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As an autist, Lou Arrendale struggles in a world that, at best, doesn’t quite understand him and, at worst, hates him. Using long-learned techniques, he lives a decent, if occasionally awkward, life, working for a pharmaceutical company where he finds patterns in data. Functioning in society is possible, though difficult, especially now that children up to a certain age can be cured of autism. This leaves Lou’s generation the last of their kind and perhaps more misunderstood because of that. When the company Lou works for believes it’s found a way to cure autism in adults, Lou must decide whether he wants to change. Will he lose himself by becoming what others wish he was?

Imagining the End of Autism

The Speed of Dark is a character-driven story. If you’re not interested in close and personal explorations of the human condition and psyche, this book’s not for you. It isn’t a sweeping adventure with lots of action and witty, debonair characters. It’s about one man and his small, but important life journey, which is made more complicated by autism. Primarily told from Lou Arrendale’s somewhat stilted perspective, it is a story about being confused and confusing others, about being accepted and loved—or feared and hated—because of who you are, who you can’t help being. It’s about trying to balance the acceptance and change. It’s about figuring out what the hell the terms “normal” and “abnormal” mean—if they mean anything at all.

Though The Speed of Dark is more focused on its characters, it has a small but meaningful plot—and, potentially, a realistic one. Set in the future (2040s?), Lou is one of a transitional generation in terms of medical science. He was born in a time when society had learned of reliable techniques to help him function with his autism, but he was born too early for the gene therapy that cures autism in children two years and younger. This puts Lou in a precarious position, where society not only doesn’t quite understand autistm (still), but is also coming to expect the disorder to be a matter of the past because of recent scientific developments.

Lou, along with several other autists, works for a pharmaceutical company, where his job is to find patterns in data. His autism enables him to find and understand patterns much more quickly than “normal” individuals can, and perhaps more intuitively and creatively than a computer can. When middle management changes hands, Lou’s section of the company is determined too costly, due to its employees’ special needs (a gym, music, etc.). When there’s hope a cutting edge technology may reverse autism in adults, Lou and his coworkers are given an unethical ultimatum: they are either to participate in the clinical trial as guinea pigs or the company will find a way to legally fire them.

With hardly any information to go on, Lou and his coworkers must decide if they want the treatment, which has previously only been tested on animals. Those who care for Lou must decide how much they can or should interfere, and whether they want to get involved in what is set to be a personal and legal quagmire. What unfolds is a tale of self-exploration and a look at what it means to be human and supposedly normal.

What I like most about The Speed of Dark is its balance of characters. Given the subject matter, there could easily be a lot of stereotyping of those with autism and those without. Moon expertly avoids this. A whole range of autistic experiences are exhibited by various characters, and characters without autism are just as diverse. She doesn’t try to paint any one group as being completely innocent or evil, weak or strong. I’m sure it took effort, especially considering she has personal experience in this matter, as a parent to a son with autism.

I’ve seen some reviews compare The Speed of Dark to Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, a book first published in 1959. While similar questions and emotions are explored, I think it’s obvious The Speed of Dark is the newer of the two, and modern readers are more likely to relate to it. Moreover, the situation Lou finds himself in—of being one of a transitional generation—is something I imagine we’ll see in the near future (if it’s not already happening to some degree, as I suspect it might be).

Some readers complain about The Speed of Dark‘s ending, which is a little abrupt, but so long as one goes into the book knowing the story is specifically about autism and the choices one who’s seen as being abnormal has to make, the ending will not be bothersome.

Anyone who loves science fiction and delving deep into characters’ minds should give The Speed of Dark a try. It’s a beautiful, bittersweet story.

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Quotes from The Speed of Dark

I like it that order exists somewhere even if it shatters near me.

“Do you like the gym a lot, then?”

The long answer is always more interesting than the short one. I know that most people want the short uninteresting answer rather than the long interesting one, so I try to remember that when they ask me questions that could have long answers if they only understood them. Mr. Crenshaw only wants to know if I like the gym room. He doesn’t want to know how much.

“It’s fine,” I tell him.

Sometimes it seems obvious why normal people do things and other times I cannot understand it at all.

May 6, 2011

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Book cover for THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood
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Extremist Judeo-Christian beliefs have won America’s culture war. Now women have no rights. They are slaves to men and the biblical, patriarchal society in which they live. The Handmaid’s Tale is the first-person account of one of these enslaved women.

Massachusetts Becomes Saudi Arabia?

More than thirty years have passed since The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985, but many still think of it as the go-to book for feminist fiction. It makes numerous “best of” lists, the kinds with 99 other books everyone should read before dying. Even so, The Handmaid’s Tale frustrates me a lot—and not only because it contains run-on sentences and needlessly abandons quotation marks. (This is no train wreck like José Saramago’s Blindness, but it’s bad enough.) Simply put, if you can ignore whether you agree or disagree with Margaret Atwood’s ideas about politics, religion, and women’s rights, the plot and setting make no sense.

The religiosity of the Reagan era inspired Atwood’s dystopia, in which fundamentalist Christians have taken over society. While that premise does give me the heebie-jeebies, Atwood’s taken the idea to a literal extreme to make a point. This ruins the foundation of The Handmaid’s Tale because most American fundies would balk at this world. Atwood imagines the extreme of the extreme and in the process completely misunderstands American evangelicalism.

Gallup's U.S. map of weekly religious service attendanceI’m a heathen bastard and no fan of religion. Fundamentalism has hurt people, particularly women, for millennia. Extremism continues to hurt people every day, especially in some parts of the world, especially in some states. Even so, it’s hard to accept Atwood’s dystopia when it’s set in the U.S., in the near future—and in Massachusetts, one of the most progressive states in the country, one of only sixteen states in the union with state constitutional protections for abortion (since 1981, I believe). Massachusetts is a liberal bastion when it comes to American women’s reproductive rights, so it’s an odd setting for this brand of nightmare. In recent decades, Massachusetts is also one of the least religious states, so it’s an odd setting for a theocracy, too.

Atwood chose Massachusetts for its puritanical history. I can embrace the connection to the Reagan administration, in the same way I can embrace Orwell’s fear of communism in 1984, but to imagine an unchanging, puritanical Massachusetts requires a bit too much.

Societies Don’t Change Overnight

The Handmaid’s Tale is told in first person by a woman who’s lived in our present day (more or less), as well as in this dark fundamentalist Tomorrowland. She’s gone from wearing flip-flops and sundresses to a full-body religious habit, color-coded red to match her subservient role. She was married once, had a child. Now she’s another’s property, one of the handmaids sent from one man’s house to another. The hope is that she will become pregnant when a prominent man’s wife cannot. Her life has been flipped and made forfeit. She lives in fear and depression and abuse. This is meant to make me unnerved, and it does.

But.

Simply because an author wants to comment on society doesn’t mean he or she can ignore important, logical story elements. The logic part should be emphasized here, I think, given this is supposed to be science fiction, not fantasy. (Although Atwood does insist The Handmaid’s Tale is speculative fiction, because that further legitimizes her story…or something? Never mind that sci-fi and fantasy are types of speculative fiction.)

There’s a question I have that never gets answered, not properly at least. How did this happen so quickly? How did we go from “burning bras” to having every part of our lives regulated? Why did it take Massachusetts decades, centuries, to reject puritanism, but only a few years(?) to reject liberalism?

Rights can erode, but you don’t see it happen on such a large scale and so seamlessly, and not overnight. Nothing happens overnight, especially not governmental takeovers in relatively stable, secular societies, which is the book’s scenario.

Societies evolve, one way or another, usually rather slowly. Civil, moral, and regime changes don’t sneak up on you. It wasn’t the case in Germany before Hitler, in China before Mao, in Afghanistan before the Taliban, in Syria before its civil war. It’s not the case in 2016, with people like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump leading in GOP primary polls. The world may be disappointing and horrible sometimes, but it is rarely surprising.

If Atwood had built her dystopia on a chain of events that occurred over a longer period of time, or explained how everything unraveled so quickly, I might have been on board with the premise. That isn’t how The Handmaid’s Tale is written, though. The explanations for the sudden changes are fantastical, at best, dependent on evil, digitized money—be careful with the mobile payments and bitcoins, ladies!—and misogynistic, conservative conspiracies that readers are to believe could bring millions of people to a stupefied halt and change culture in the blink of an eye. Apparently it’s easy to gun down all of Congress while it’s in session. Who knew?

I don’t buy it.

You can change laws all you want, but society, culture, has to be willing to follow the most drastic changes. (This is why the American Drug War has never worked, why prohibition of alcohol never worked, why banning abortion didn’t work.) Why was modern American society so willing to enslave women?

Atwood chucks a plot point at you here or there, hinting at a larger, more complex world through her main character. There’s a vague fertility crisis (of course). There’s conflict somewhere between some people about some stuff, but details are never given. Some of this can be excused, what with the limited point of view, but not all. Plot holes aren’t mysterious or clever. They’re just plot holes.

By the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, I feel the book is less an exploration of religious extremism and feminism than it is a narrative written for shock value. It’s an irrational feminist’s fears exposed, that the world is out to get you at every turn—especially the men, especially the women controlled and brainwashed by the men. Nowhere is safe. Overall, the summary for this book could be this: Almost anyone with a penis is mostly unfeeling and evil, deep down. (The rest are idiots, I suppose.) He doesn’t care. He will betray you at the first opportunity. Even when you’re dead and gone, he will chuckle at your misfortune and demise. No, this isn’t sexist or a generalization. Of course not. Not at all.

Except it is.

Asides

  • For a slightly more accurate portrayal of American Christian fundamentalism and its very awkward relationship with women, see Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke. It makes several nods to The Scarlet Letter and The Handmaid’s Tale—and better understands its villains and their behavior.
  • Two nonfiction books, Jenny Nordberg’s The Underground Girls of Kabul and Ned & Constance Sublette’s The American Slave Coast: The History of the Slave-Breeding Industry, will show you what it’s really like to live in a society where women are chattel.
  • Some think that because I dislike this book I’m not a feminist, or am a bad feminist. I hate to break it to everyone, but Margaret Atwood is not feminism’s god, and The Handmaid’s Tale is not a religious text. If I must attach labels to myself, feminist would be one of them, and I’ll say and think whatever I damn well please. And as a feminist, I hate how one-dimensional the men are in this book, just as much as I hate how one-dimensional women are in far more books, TV shows, and movies. Deal with it. Or don’t. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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