Category Archives: News and Politics

Zephyr Teachout, Corruption in America

Popular history is often written like a novel, shaped into the kind of story for which an author might sell movie rights. It’s possible to write good history like this, but it has to be a particular kind of history, focused on people who resemble protagonists and events that can be arranged into plot arcs. Zephyr Teachout’s Corruption in America is another kind of history underrepresented on the bestseller lists–the story of an idea and a legal concept. Teachout describes legal cases and court decisions in terms non-lawyers can understand, and the deeper beliefs about corruption that drove them. The book doesn’t need dramatization, or formulaic biographical sketches of the participants, or any of the usual human interest tricks of bestseller history. The subject is interesting in itself: an argument in response to the Citizens United case about how the United States has understood corruption and how we ought to understand it.[1] (It’s a pretty wide-ranging book. This post shouldn’t be taken as a comprehensive review; it’s more me talking to myself about some bits I found interesting.)

Cover of Corruption in America

Corruption in America defines corruption as the use of public power to further private interests at the expense of the public good. What the public good is, and when we can say for certain private interests are being pursued at its expense, are not always clear. Take the Credit Mobilier scandal. The Credit Mobilier company existed to skim excess profits off railroads; what’s relevant here is the cheap stock sold by congressman Oakes Ames to colleagues who voted on railroad funding. When the details came out, part of Ames’s defense was that he didn’t need to bribe anybody: everything was going great, Congress was very pro-railroad, so where was the motive?

He had a point, sort of: corruption can be nebulous. Did Senator Jones vote for the artichoke bill because of the campaign contribution from Big Artichoke, or did the artichoke PAC donate to his campaign because it knew he really loved artichokes? That’s why we have what Teachout calls structural or prophylactic regulations. These set bright lines officials cannot cross, like the constitution’s now-famous emoluments clause[2]: “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” No need to establish motivation, or prove a quid pro quo: ban presents of any kind whatever and you remove the temptation to turn a gift into a bribe. Instead of watching for scandals and proving motives in court, change the incentives. It’s the difference between treating a disease and getting vaccinated to keep from catching it in the first place.

The emoluments clause exists because in 18th century Europe it was de rigueur to shower foreign ambassadors with lavish gifts. The iconic example for Corruption in America is a diamond-encrusted snuff box the king of France gave Benjamin Franklin: that’s it on the cover. Franklin’s snuff-storage problems notwithstanding, for Americans this was exactly the kind of archaic old-world decadence they wanted to do away with. It wasn’t that Americans didn’t trust Franklin, or any ambassador in particular: even in the absence of any specific scandal, emoluments were a moral problem. Gifts create a sense of obligation between givers and recipients. Who could say whether that sense of obligation was stronger than an ambassador’s sense of obligation to the public? Could even the ambassador know for sure? “Offices,” whether patronage positions or expectations of post-government jobs, might be even worse: they created dependencies, encouraging officials to put their employers before their public.

The United States had a representative government. Officials who furthered their personal interests, or the interests of their friends, at the expense of the public interest deprived citizens of representation. Creating a situation that tempted officials to put their private loyalties above their loyalty to the public–letting them accept gifts, or promises of sinecures, for instance–would rot the whole system.

Ideas about corruption have changed since then. Lobbying is a useful example. Lobbying got its start in the 19th century, when lobbyists literally hung around capitol lobbies. This was not a respectable career choice. There were two problems with lobbying (or maybe two facts adding up to one problem, since neither was automatically a problem in itself). First, lobbyists pedaled influence privately, out of the public eye, not just in a courtroom, or before a committee, or anywhere the arguments would be part of the public record. Second, lobbyists didn’t advocate for their own beliefs: their influence was for hire, even to causes they might not personally believe in. Lobbyists sold their personal civic engagement. For many people that was as illegitimate as selling their vote. As a result, courts often refused to honor lobbying contracts: if you agreed to lobby for someone and they stiffed you for the bill, you were out of luck.

Today, lobbying is a major industry. What changed? Well, first, there’s the artichoke problem again: Sure, Senator Jones hangs out with artichoke lobbyists… but what if some of his constituents are artichoke farmers? Representatives are supposed to listen and respond to their constituents. It’s hard to figure out where responsiveness ends and “undue influence” begins. Second, lobbying evolved. As often happens with businesses initially considered weird and dodgy–acting, police work, internet advertising–as people got used to having lobbyists around they went from shady hustlers to professionals. Meanwhile, courts stopped ruling against lobbying contracts. Judges were increasingly reluctant to pass judgement on the content of contracts: where contract law was concerned, courts were laissez faire neutral arbitrators, not moral authorities.

That last change is key: Corruption in America argues that changes in underlying legal philosophy are a major influence on how the United States deals with corruption. Legal philosophy drives court decisions, which decide which laws are valid and how we interpret them. One example of how much the American idea of corruption has changed is the 1999 Sun Diamond decision. Sun Diamond, a trade association, had been fined for giving thousands of dollars in gifts to Bill Clinton’s secretary of agriculture. On appeal, the Supreme Court ruled the gifts weren’t enough to justify a fine: the government had to prove a quid pro quo–unambiguously connect the gifts to a definite “official act.” Otherwise, according to the decision, a high school principal might be prosecuted for giving the Secretary of Education a school baseball cap. What’s striking is that, compared to Americans 100–200 years ago, the court’s priorities have completely flipped. Americans used to be so worried about corruption they wrote structural rules to prevent officials from accepting gifts. The Supreme Court in 1999 was so worried about criminalizing innocent token gifts they ruled against a structural rule to prevent corruption.

Which brings us to Citizens United. This was the ruling that, as long as they weren’t making literal campaign contributions, corporations and unions could spend as much as they damn well wanted to influence an election. (Which is also a campaign contribution of a sort. An indirect one, yeah, but you have to assume politicians keep track of who helps them out.)

Teachout really doesn’t like Anthony Kennedy’s opinion. In her telling it’s not just technically, procedurally bad, but also bad in its underlying assumptions. She has several points to make, but for the purposes of this blog post I’ll look at one.

The opinion rejects the argument that allowing unlimited spending distorts the political process in favor of corporate interests; thus, the rich and the poor alike are granted the right to spend millions of dollars on political advertising. Partly this is because of the court’s habit of treating corporations as interchangeable with individuals. One of the other justifications is more interesting. Quoting his own dissent from McConnell v. FEC, an earlier decision that went in a different direction, Kennedy says “Favoritism and influence are not… avoidable in representative politics. It is in the nature of an elected representative to favor certain policies, and, by necessary corollary, to favor the voters and contributors who support those policies." If favoritism is unavoidable, goes this logic, maybe counteracting it shouldn’t take priority over a corporation’s right to advertise.

This is a practical argument… but it’s a particular kind of practicality that feels familiar. Teachout detects a distaste for democracy in this decision–she thinks it valorizes corporations as information providers while casting citizens in the role of consumers–but I’m reminded more of what Jay Rosen calls the “Cult of Savvy”. Rosen coined the term to describe an attitude he saw among political journalists: as he puts it, “Savviness is that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, ‘with it,’ and unsentimental in all things political.” The crucial element of savvy is realism, or something that presents itself as realism. It’s more of a performative rejection of idealism. For the savvy politics is a game, a series of strategic maneuvers. Savvy people are usually ethical in their personal lives, but when it comes to politics calling something strategically or perhaps economically wrong is as close as they come to taking a moral stand. Access to the political system is inherently unequal; representatives naturally favor certain voters and contributors; refusing to accept this is naïve. Regulations written out of idealism instead of hard-headed pragmatism will only lead to unintended consequences.

So Teachout is unsavvy when she argues for a return to older concepts of civic virtue. She frames this as a moral issue, a question of equal access: every citizen has a right to representation, to be heard, to have access to the political process. She argues for structural rules that, if they don’t perfectly guarantee equal consideration and access, at least discourage dependent relationships between public officials and concentrated wealth. The underlying assumptions of Corruption in America’s final argument are that our institutions should be structured not just around the concerns of realpolitik but around our values[3]. And “values” here mean not just what we want these institutions to do (discourage the use of public power for private interests) but the reasons we’re doing it (ideally, everyone should have equal access to the political system regardless of their wealth or power). Ideals are often not actually achievable in the less-than-ideal real world. But it’s not impractical to aim towards an ideal, and count it among the competing interests we weigh against each other when we decide how our institutions will work.

Basically, the argument is that where government is concerned equal access should be a value we treat as important. I have to agree we could stand to work on this: if we’ve learned anything from the town hall meetings of early 2017, it’s that representatives are really unused to listening to constituents.


  1. The argument is the weak point of popular narrative history: the less interesting examples tell a story and stop there, without taking a point of view on it. Some things happened, how about that? This doesn’t necessarily make these books read more like novels: any remotely interesting novel is making an argument of some kind, and watching a writer develop an argument can be as interesting as following a plot. There’s even suspense: What’s she building to? Will it be convincing?  ↩

  2. Whenever I hear the word “emoluments” some small part of me expects muppets to pop up and sing “doo doo de doo doo.”  ↩

  3. Not that the savvy people don’t have a point when they say idealistic rules and programs aren’t going to solve everything, or that they can go wrong. But “can” does not equal “must.” This isn’t an argument for not having rules at all, but for carefully considering their potential consequences.  ↩

Raskolnikov, C’est Nous

A cartoon of Newt Gingrich reading Slan.

Compulsive readers get used to finding unexpected connections between books. I also make random connections while wasting time on the internet. Sometimes, like now, this leads to a blog post’s worth of dubious, rambling speculation and crazy theories.

A few days ago I read a blog post at Welcome to My World by Martin McGrath called “Why Does SF Hate Ordinary People?”1 finding a strain of contempt for ordinary people in certain science fiction and fantasy novels.

“Ordinary” has many definitions, so before proceeding I should explain what, in this case, it doesn’t mean: As I write, among the memes stumbling around the internet is a quiz based on a new book by famed statistic-mangler Charles Murray. It supposedly measures how much contact you have with “ordinary” Americans. Actually, it asks questions based on a stereotype of rural white midwesterners (Can you identify this NASCAR driver? Do you have a fridge full of Pabst Blue Ribbon?) and suggests anyone who can’t answer in the affirmative is living in a “bubble.” It must be a very large bubble. It would have to contain most of the country’s actual working class.

The culture-war definition of “ordinary” is not what this blog post is about. Being staggeringly bored by cars driving in circles very fast is not less legitimate than being entertained by them. Another term for making judgements about culture is having taste.

These “ordinary” people have nothing in common beyond the fact that they are not wealthy, famous, heroic, or adventure-prone. They hold down middle- or working-class jobs and keep regular schedules. Their biggest worries aren’t crusades, revolutions, or the impending apocalypse; they’re rents or mortgages, health care, child care, and putting food on the table. They’re “ordinary” only in the sense that they live like the vast majority of people in our society–or whatever fantastic society they call home, which may or may not have mortgages but certainly has people whose main concerns are not the stuff of high drama. As an example McGrath cites Colson Whitehead’s post-apocalyptic zombie potboiler Zone One, which judges the average American too inept to survive an emergency, valorizing, in McGrath’s words, “the loners, the socially inept and those who chafe against the ‘burdens’ imposed on them by the social contract that knits the rest of us together.”

When I finished reading McGrath’s post my brain turned to thoughts of Newt Gingrich. Which sounds, I grant you, quite the random leap. I can explain. See, in one of the endless series of Republican presidential debates, Gingrich revealed a cunning plan to solve school budget problems and reduce the dropout rate: child labor.

“New York City pays their janitors an absurd amount of money because of the union. You could take one janitor and hire 30-some kids to work in the school for the price of one janitor, and those 30 kids would be a lot less likely to drop out. They would actually have money in their pocket. They’d learn to show up for work. They could do light janitorial duty. They could work in the cafeteria. They could work in the front office. They could work in the library. They’d be getting money, which is a good thing if you’re poor. Only the elites despise earning money.”2

Not long after the debate I read a post by “Kay” at Balloon Juice, “Only the Elites Insult the Working Adults Who Pick Up After Us,” that made explicit something not everyone picked up on:3

While it’s certainly interesting that opposing child labor laws is now a mainstream position on the Right and among conservative news personalities, I hear something else entirely in Gingrich’s statement than the pundits and politicians heard. Newt Gingrich told us all last night that nine year olds can replace the grown men and women who currently do these jobs. Newt Gingrich believes janitors and cafeteria workers and people who work in school libraries and offices can and should be replaced by children.

That’s how much respect Gingrich has for the work that these people do.

Gingrich, of course, is an SF fan who loves Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy and has co-written several alternate history novels. McGrath, on his blog, traces a thread of science-fictional disrespect for the ordinary back to the “golden age” of SF, when:

…the triumph of the “golden era’s” omni-competent men, the math-wizard engineers, scientists and the all-knowing astronauts, was always about the final victory of those who felt they were hard done by in a society that did not properly value their obviously superior intelligence.

Which is true. And not necessarily political; I was reminded of Gingrich, but McGrath sees disdain for the ordinary in both right-leaning and left-leaning SF. The thing is, I don’t think “Why does SF hate ordinary people” is the right question. You might ask it about fiction in general.

Dostoeyvsky parodied this attitude over a century ago in Crime and Punishment with Raskolnikov, the self-styled “extraordinary” man. According to the Raskolnikov theory the world revolves around powerful, charismatic Great Individuals, the lynchpins and keystones of civilization. If they’re in politics, our safety and security depend on their strength and resolution; if they’re in business, our prosperity depends on their innovation and creativity. Whatever these extraordinary people do, we can’t hold them to the same rules the rest of us follow. Sometimes, to get the job done, they have to break them. You might remember these ideas from such novels as Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, but it’s also the premise of every second Hollywood action movie, ever.4

A few days after McGrath asked his question, Gareth Rees’s post about the teapot-tempest stirred up by a book review at Strange Horizons led me to Caleb Crain’s New York Times review of Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work:

Describing a manager who feeds him lunch, de Botton writes that “years of working around noisy machinery had left my host mildly deaf in one ear and given him a concomitant habit of leaning in uncomfortably close during discussions, so close that I began to dread his enunciation of a word with a ‘p’ or a ‘g’ in it.” For good measure, de Botton adds that the man bores him, perhaps as a result of his “surprisingly intense pride in the plant and its workers.” If de Botton were genuinely concerned that work today lacks meaning, surely here was an opportunity to ask questions. But is he worried that work today lacks meaning? Or just that some work means more to other people than he thinks it should?

This is aimed at the same target, but from a different direction. It’s the contempt of the counterculture for the squares–contempt from outside as opposed to Raskolnikov’s contempt from above. Contempt from outside sees regular, orderly lives as a curse and the people who live them as dupes or zombies. It sees white collar workers as gray killjoys, blue collar workers as Morlocks. They’re buttoned-down and repressed; obstacles to be routed around, or beaten-down victims who need a Manic Pixie Dream Girl to loosen them up and teach them to enjoy life. Contempt from outside sees Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces telling the waitress to hold the chicken salad between her knees, and thinks Bobby DuPea is a free spirit sticking it to The Man rather than, as I think the filmmakers intended, an asshole.

Gingrich sees “ordinary” people as inept, inferior–in comparison his own success is proof of his competence. De Botton sees “ordinary” people as limited, unimaginative–in comparison, he’s deeper, more free. What these attitudes have in common is that they help their holders define themselves as something other than ordinary.

I don’t think many genuine full-time Gingriches and de Bottons exist. In real life, hardly anyone hates ordinary people. In real life, most of us are ordinary. But these kinds of contempt are basic assumptions in many books and many movies–fundamental to the narrative’s world view–and, as long as we’re reading or watching, we go along with it.

The reason is simple: in fiction, ordinary is boring.

It’s hard to hold an audience’s interest in a very long and intricate description of a hero washing dishes. We’ve washed our own so often it takes genius to show us anything fresh. Fiction centers around the most important, most dramatic events of its characters’ lives; unusual, extraordinary events, even adventures. The characters who aren’t going through big changes aren’t the main cast, they’re the extras. Fiction skips the quotidian details.

At this point Raymond Carver busts into the room, waving a copy of Best American Short Stories. “Hey!” he says. “I’m standing right here, y’know!” And Ray has a point. Huge swathes of stories, ranging from great to unreadable, anchor themselves in the everyday. As pro-genre as I am, I’ll admit when it comes to ordinary people the novels filed under “literature” have a better track record than the ones that get filed under “genre.” Heck, sometimes the skill with which a book deals with the ordinary determines where we file it. Still, the protagonists of even the weightiest of serious literature have deeper thoughts and more passionate affairs than most of us have most of the time. If the protagonist is an Uncle Vanya or a Madame Bovary, living entirely without excitement or drama, chances are the story is about how he or she wants that to change:

I am clever and brave and strong. If I had lived a normal life I might have become another Schopenhauer or Dostoieffski.

Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya

In reality, thinking like Vanya lead people into weird places–especially if Vanya starts listening to Raskolnikov. Maybe, thinks Vanya, I can be Raskolnikov, too! Yeah, maybe now he’s filed away in a tiny beige cubicle. But the Great Individuals didn’t get their amazing, superhuman abilities by educating themselves or devotedly practicing their craft. Their talents just sort of came to them, because they’re special. Just like, deep down inside, he’s special. Someday he’ll be Great, too. All he has to do is believe in himself.

Our popular fiction is swarming with spunky nobodies discovering natural God-given talents–not skills, because they rarely need to work at them–and overcoming hidebound establishments and opposition from nay-saying friends and family to fulfill their dreams. Often this is a fantasy-hero thing–see The Matrix, Star Wars, or other stories about Chosen Ones who inherit their powers, or unleash their inner badass after very little training. I’m often struck by the contrast between modern adventure movies and older Hitchcock-style thrillers whose average heroes muddled through extraordinary adventures without manifesting heretofore unsuspected Kung Fu.

In the movies, the follow-your-dreams hero is as likely to become an entertainer, or some other kind of celebrity. These stories combine the “special person” narrative with the “outsider vs. the squares” narrative–their heroes succeed because they’re more soulful and free-spirited than the hoi polloi. Who are–to bring this essay back to the point–us, in the audience, watching.

It’s tempting to identify with the hero’s point of view even when, technically, that point of view doesn’t like us very much. One of the attractions of fiction is that people think in stories. We make sense of our lives by organizing them into narratives in which we’re the central characters. We feel like protagonists, exceptional people. In a way, from our own viewpoints, we are exceptions: every one of us is the only person whose head we live inside–the one person whose thoughts and point of view we have full access to, as we have access to the thoughts and POV of a novel’s protagonist. It’s the protagonist that we measure ourselves against, not the extras and walk-ons. When the narrative point of view tries to open some space between the hero and the herd we instinctively side with the hero.

Which is fine. The danger comes when too many of our stories define their heroes as better than everyone else. Stories are one of the big ways a culture or subculture spreads its values. Hearing a message over and over again habituates us. It can become part of the cultural furniture, something those who share these stories unthinkingly assume to be true.

There’s long been a toxic strain in SF fandom, a subculture-within-a-subculture that actually believes SF fans are superior to the common horde. Some fans in years gone only half-jokingly coined the phrase “fans are slans,” comparing themselves to the scorned superhumans of A. E. van Vogt’s novel Slan. Even today SF appeals to more than its fair share of inflated egos. Even those of us with no interest in formal, organized fandom run into these people when we make the mistake of reading an internet comment thread. Would-be writers convinced their self-published zombie-vampire-dragon trilogies would sell millions if the market weren’t conspiring against them. Self-styled omni-competent men who think all they need to reveal their true potential is the breakdown of civilization. Guys who whine about “political correctness” if a book’s protagonist is female or gay or something.

Part of getting along with people, functioning in society, and maintaining a working sense of empathy is keeping in mind that, though we’re our own protaginists, so is everyone else–to others, we’re supporting characters or extras. If we find this tough to accept, maybe our culture–whether “our culture” means SF fans or American culture in general–isn’t hearing that message often enough. We could stand to be more comfortable in our ordinariness.


  1. Via ↩

  2. And yet Gingrich is upset by a janitors’ union negotiating for a living wage. I guess it’s because he’s an elite! ↩

  3. Via ↩

  4. As well as a lot of comics. R. Sikoryak once drew a mashup of Crime and Punishment and Batman, with Batman as Raskolnikov. They fit together frighteningly well. ↩

More Links to Things

There’s probably going to be another gap of at least a week before my next substantial post, but I have a few more interesting links:

  • Comix Cube on comics, sound effects, and typography, with a focus on the work of Jordan Crane:

    That being said, there’s something especially exciting about what Crane is doing here. The graphic forms he’s using are typographic, but by and large they’re just beyond identifying as anything in our alphabet.

  • SF writer Karl Schroeder makes the case for aspirational science fiction:

    The fact is that if I’ve learned one thing in two years of studying how we think about the future, it’s that the one thing that’s sorely lacking in the public imagination is positive ideas about where we should be going. We seem to do everything about our future except try to design it. It’s a funny thing: nobody ever questions your credentials if you predict doom and destruction. But provide a rosy picture of the future, and people demand that you justify yourself. Increasingly, though, I believe that while warning people of dire possibilities is responsible, providing them with something to aspire to is even more important.

    Right now, this is the kind of thing I want to read.

  • This article, about a local-food restaurant operating in a small Virginia town, contains the most comedically oblivious sentence I’ve seen in any news story this week:

    The biggest challenge has been winning over townspeople. It’s not hard to find residents who say that a meal at the Harvest Table is more than they can afford, though none who said so in interviews had actually eaten there.

    Gee, I wonder why.

  • Every so often, you hear politicians and talking heads claim that half of Americans–the bottom half–pay no taxes. This is, of course, not the case; these people are using rhetorical sleight of hand, using the single word “taxes” when they mean “federal income taxes.” Kevin Drum explains the real situation, and then clarifies exactly who doesn’t owe federal income tax, and why.

Apropos Nothing

This is my favorite George Orwell quotation. He wrote it in 1944, in a review of a book by James Burnham called The Machiavellians:

Any theory which is obviously dishonest and immoral (“realistic” is the favourite word at this moment) will find adherents who accept it just for that reason. Whether the theory works, whether it attains the result aimed at will hardly be questioned. The mere fact that it throws ordinary decency overboard will be accepted as proof of its grown-upness and consequently of its efficacy.

Sometimes, when pundits explain to me what I ought to consider “realistic,” and “grown up,” I marvel at how true this still is.

Links to Things

I’m still not writing much because my mind is still acting like this a lot. Here are some people who are more interesting than I’ve been during the past month:

I spend much more time staring at the drawing than drawing, to spot possibilities hiding in the unfinished image.

To create is to love, but apparently not always. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins do not love Hattie Durham. They despise their creation. Their contempt for her and disgust with her is tangible in every scene she appears in.

I think the authors expect their readers to share in this contempt, but that’s not how this works. When an artist creates a character that the artist does not love, readers or audience members don’t come to dislike that character, they come to dislike the artist. It is the writer — or actor, or painter — who reveals himself as unlovely. The character just becomes an expression of that unloveliness.

When one encounters a character like Hattie, a creation unloved by her creators, one has to wonder why she came to be at all. Creation takes work, so why put in all that effort for something you do not love?

Protagonismos, the quality of being the kind of person to whom things happen.

  • Kip Manley, at Long Story, Short Pier, with one of those “oh, yeah, that’s what that genre is for” moments you get sometimes from good criticism–in this case, in a post about what’s driving Urban Fantasy. (Or what we called Urban Fantasy, before the term was grafted onto the Angsty Vampire subgenre.)

No, the point is the moment just before, the moment when the thing there on the side of the building shivered, or could have shivered, maybe, if the light had been right; when a wonder-generating mechanism of fantasy reattached itself however briefly to something any one of us could see out in the world: cables; snakes; pythia: not a portal opening onto some secondary world beyond the fields we know, but something indisputably here and now: contemporary; indigenous; syncretic.

The only reason it’s urban is because so very many of us who make it and read it these days live in cities. (Or suburbs, yes. Or exurbs. Urban. Look at the words.)

  • Lance Mannion has written a three-part essay on a point of similarity between P. J. O’Rourke, as he presents himself in a recent essay, and Ebenezer Scrooge. Part one, part two, and part three.

Quiz the O’Rourkes of the world and they’ll tell you, usually in no uncertain terms, that they have a Scrooge-like opinion of their fellow men and women.

Everybody—everybody else, that is—is a fool, an incompetent, or a would-be thief, which turns out to be a very useful thing to believe because it provides an instant defense against arguments that they are somehow responsible for and obligated to other people. Nobody deserves your help if everybody is by definition and natural design undeserving.

At the heart of O’Rourke’s grumpy old man post about elections not changing anything until we stop electing professional politicians to office is the Scrooge-like belief that it’s not just professional politicians who are fools, incompetents, and thieves. Everyone who collects a government paycheck—especially teachers—and all the other kids in his kids’ school and their parents are also fools, incompetents, and a form of thief, which pretty much amounts to an argument that the public school system is dedicated to employing and serving the undeserving but also, by extension, that all public services are dedicated to employing and serving the undeserving.

Links to Things

  • Lev Grossman on the connections between modernist literature and fantasy, an the difference between fantasy (the genre) and fantasy (the mental state), with added background on Leonard Woolf (husband of the more famous Virginia) and his odd housemate from his days in the Ceylon Civil Service:

    Magical thinking isn’t fantasy in the literary sense. It is a fantasy, in the psychoanalytic sense: a dream of a world where actions don’t have consequences, where loss is an impossibility, where wishing makes it so, where one doesn’t have to make choices, because all possible good things arrive at once, unbidden, with none of those nasty trade-offs that are so characteristic of real life. There is no either/or in a fantasy, it’s all both/and. This is the world that Dutton’s fairies evoked for Woolf, and that he was struggling so mightily to put behind him.

    But fantasies aren’t literature, and fantasies aren’t fantasy. This isn’t a distinction that Woolf would have made, but Dutton might have made it. Granted, fantasy literature, broadly speaking, tends to be set in worlds where magic is real. But that doesn’t mean anything is possible. Magic doesn’t permeate those worlds completely. Magic exists, but only as a flash of vital light in a universe that is otherwise as dark and mechanical as our own—its presence casts the tragic, non-magical parts of life in higher relief. Magic tantalizes with the possibility that it might quicken the world back into life, restore the lost paradise of magical thinking, but ultimately it cannot.

  • Because I want to be able to find them again, here are links to SFSignal’s lists of the most underrated science fiction series and the most underrated fantasy series.

  • Jacob Lambert on Tetris as an aesthetic experience:

    Floating through Tetris’ cranial hyperspace forces a natural introspection. Often, sort of insanely, I’ll dwell upon what my playing method can tell me about myself. My technique isn’t to plow through rows or shatter a score; I play Tetris for the tetris: the four-row clear that comes with the vertically-nestled “I” block. Self-denial is necessary for the maneuver, as all must be laid aside for the blessed piece’s arrival. Meanwhile, the pile mounts dangerously. When the block finally appears, this mild daring and asceticism are handsomely repaid: there’s a flash of light, a scream of sound, and the pile’s heavy fall.

  • Paul Bloom, “The Pleasures of Imagination”:

    The emotions triggered by fiction are very real. When Charles Dickens wrote about the death of Little Nell in the 1840s, people wept—and I’m sure that the death of characters in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series led to similar tears. (After her final book was published, Rowling appeared in interviews and told about the letters she got, not all of them from children, begging her to spare the lives of beloved characters such as Hagrid, Hermione, Ron, and, of course, Harry Potter himself.) A friend of mine told me that he can’t remember hating anyone the way he hated one of the characters in the movie Trainspotting, and there are many people who can’t bear to experience certain fictions because the emotions are too intense. I have my own difficulty with movies in which the suffering of the characters is too real, and many find it difficult to watch comedies that rely too heavily on embarrassment; the vicarious reaction to this is too unpleasant.

    These emotional responses are typically muted compared with the real thing. Watching a movie in which someone is eaten by a shark is less intense than watching someone really being eaten by a shark. But at every level—physiological, neurological, psychological—the emotions are real, not pretend.

  • On a less pleasant note, a truly depressing article by Tim Dickinson, from Rolling Stone, on the oil spill in the gulf and the political dysfunctions that helped to bring it about.

    The tale of the Deepwater Horizon disaster is, at its core, the tale of two blowout preventers: one mechanical, one regulatory. The regulatory blowout preventer failed long before BP ever started to drill – precisely because Salazar kept in place the crooked environmental guidelines the Bush administration implemented to favor the oil industry.

Alternate Histories

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I haven’t written much lately. I’ve felt used up and exhausted and, honestly, I feel like I haven’t been thinking much lately. Writing is thought set down and recorded, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I haven’t come up with much in the way of text.

Also, the random, unmoored weirdness of the news I’m reading overwhelms me. I have never spent so much time staring at my newsfeeds with the same expression as Krusty the Clown after a viewing of “Worker and Parasite.” American politics is deranged. Sometimes it’s goofy deranged, like a Muppet. Sometimes it’s scary deranged. Either way, the election coming this November, like a black hole in the center of the galaxy, looks set to pull American politics further and further into outer space.

I’d been thinking of jump-starting the blog with occasional posts, in the style of the “Links to Things” posts, documenting the stories that made me sit up and say “Huh?” So I decided on the ground rules–every story would be about an actual politician, current or aspiring, rather than some talk radio host or blogger–and collected stories. These were the first three I remembered:

It occurred to me that these stories had something in common.

There’s a science fiction subgenre called alternate history. It is what it sounds like: stories set in worlds where history happened differently. Alternate history bores the hell out of me. This is maybe a little strange given how interested I am in real history, but there it is.

I have to assume that Sue Lowden, Robert F. McDonnell, and the Republican Governors Association are more interested in alternate histories than I am. They’re living in them.

Governor McDonnell lives in a world where the Confederacy was untainted by slavery, where romantically doomed rebels fought for the lofty abstraction of “states’ rights.” The Republican Governors Association hails from a timeline where Guy Fawkes was not a terrorist but an anti-authoritarian V-For-Vendetta superhero. Sue Lowden remembers the good old days when country doctors made housecalls on poor-but-honest folk in little Norman Rockwell towns and would treat the concussion little Timmy got falling out of the apple tree in exchange for a basket of fresh zucchini.

None of these timelines much resemble the universe most of us live in. How did Governor McDonnell get there? How did Ms. Lowden pierce the barrier between the worlds? I think it has something to do with how we teach history. (Maybe. As with anything I write, this could be crazy.) Continue reading Alternate Histories

Good Guys, Bad Guys

Every time I think modern American craziness has peaked, and will now degrade into mere oddness and maybe eventually into normalcy, it stops and turns around and zigzags to new heights. Since the health care bill passed I’ve read about a blogger who made a name for himself calling on “modern Sons of Liberty” to go on a massive window-breaking binge, and about one of the guys who went to a rally, got fired up and angry, and worked off their energy by mocking a man with Parkinson’s disease. I’m too depressed to get angry right now. I just felt a little sad. And then I read they’d both received threats. And that made me a little sad, too.

In the last decade, Americans have openly advocated torture. Americans have openly advocated holding prisoners forever, with no charges or possibility of redress. That’s just what Americans have advocated as official government policy; poll the hoi polloi and you’ll find people willing to indiscriminately bomb entire populations into the Precambrian era if you tell them it will kill a couple terrorists. Pick any crazy idea that violates the principles the United States of America are supposed to hold, and, somewhere out there, herds of Americans are in favor of it.

People into atrocity-endorsement often justify it with the observation that, hey, the people we’re wishing this on, or even actually doing it to, are Bad Guys. Actually, a lot of the people swept up in the War on Terror were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but never mind–for the sake of argument, we’ll assume they’re all genuine terrorists. And here the pro-torture crowd is right: terrorists are monsters.

The thing is, monsters are not born monsters, the way they’re born with brown hair or third nipples. Bad Guys put themselves into the Bad Guys category by doing bad things. What the torture advocates consistently do not get is that a bad thing is a bad thing no matter who you do it to.

It’s the “No, Wait, I’m the Hero” principle. Anyone with any exposure to movies or comics or TV knows this bit. Captain Kirk and Superman and the Doctor have the villain in their clutches, at their mercy… and they pull back, because killing the bad guy would make them just as bad as he is. And the audience groans, because it’s such a cliche. But just because it’s a cliche doesn’t mean there’s nothing in it.

Good isn’t something you are. Good is something you do.

Or, sometimes, what you refrain from doing. Let’s say you’ve witnessed a horrible injustice. Let’s say you’re face to face with some people who’ve done some bad thing–like maybe intimidating supporters of the health care bill. You want to respond… so you argue rationally. You take to the streets and protest. You apply ridicule. You take the Bad Guys to court. You start a group or a nonprofit to repair the damage done by the Bad Guys, or just donate money. You vote the right people into office or run for office yourself. Sometimes, when the Bad Guys have backed you into a corner and are coming at you with bricks–I mean literally coming at you, no metaphors here–you might, in self-defense, respond with violence.

But death threats? There are no extenuating circumstances for them. Twist logic all you want, but you’ll never make a logic pretzel non-euclidean enough to serve as a justification. Threaten someone–or torture them, or throw them into a hole and forget about them–and you’ve joined the Bad Guys, and it’s time for the remnants of civilization to take a stand against you. It’s no use arguing that the guy you’re threatening is himself a bad guy. The fact that you’re fighting a Bad Guy does not automatically make you Good.

(Does this mean it’s harder to be one of the good guys than it is to be one of the bad guys? Yes, it does. Life is unfair that way.)

Understand, I’m not setting up a false equivalence here. I’m not saying “Why, you’re both as bad as each other!” I hate that crap. It’s not Democrats who have maps marked with rifle sights on their Facebook pages, and it’s not the health care supporters who brandish guns at town hall meetings and fax pictures of nooses to members of Congress. (Republicans, meanwhile, complain that by just talking openly about the threats they’ve received, Democrats are “ratcheting up the rhetoric.” Or in other words, “Stop telling people I hit you, or I’ll have to hit you harder!”) But it’s because I don’t think both sides are equivalent that I expect my side to be better.

There’s one piece of good news, one little bit of hope we can pull from this mess. If bad is something people do, not something they are… well, they can stop doing it. And, as far as I’m concerned, they can join the Good Guys again. I don’t think they even need to apologize, usually; just understand what it is they’ve done, and decide to stop.

Remember the guys who mocked the man with Parkinson’s? At least one of them really has apologized. I think he means it. I think it’s worth giving him the benefit of the doubt, anyway. I want to believe that guy’s come back to civilization. I want the people writing the online threats to come back, too.

Kenneth Fearing, Clark Gifford’s Body

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I’m starting to write reviews again. I’m not entirely convinced by this one, but at some point I have to stop fiddling with it, so here it is.

Clark Gifford’s Body is an obvious reference to the old song about John Brown, who sparked the Civil War with his raid on Harper’s Ferry. (Which may have been a blessing in disguise; arguably, only the war could have put an end to slavery in anything like a reasonable amount of time.)

A hundred years later, in the far-flung year of 1959 (Clark Gifford’s Body was published in 1937; no explicit date is given for the raid, but, as Robert Polito points out in the introduction, it’s not hard to work out), Clark Gifford and his “Committee for Action” seize radio stations across the country–Gifford himself takes WLEX in Bonnfield–and spark a twenty-year civil war.

The New York Review Books Classics edition of Clark Gifford’s Body demonstrates the importance of typography–in this case, the importance of getting the page numbers right. The page numbers are in the same font as the text, printed at the same size, located just under the text, where the next line would be, if there were one. So on the left-hand page my subconscious was constantly interpreting the page number as part of the text, and I kept getting knocked out of the story by phrases like “The short-wave of a number 200 of local stations…”

Kenneth Fearing wrote Clark Gifford’s Body in fragments. Narrative islands, written in different styles from different points of view, form a bigger picture like the dots in a pointillist painting. The sketches are set up to thirty years before and thirty years after Gifford’s raid. It’s a history of the future.

As such, Clark Gifford’s Body is technically science fiction. It may not satisfy many SF readers: socially and technologically, the future looks a lot like 1937. I’m willing to forgive. Within the story, we have a limited view of this society, and that twenty year civil war would not have laid a smooth road for the march of progress. In more critical terms, this kind of near-future SF is really about the present. Kenneth Fearing wrote Clark Gifford’s Body about his own world.

Continue reading Kenneth Fearing, Clark Gifford’s Body