Reich v Hedges v Clinton v Trump

Just listened to a debate on Democracy Now! between Robert Reich and Chris Hedges over whether to support Hillary in the general. A frustrating experience, as is so often the case with debates like these. I can imagine that when you’re trying to think on your feet, in front of a microphone, it’s easy to lose track of certain ideas, even when you have a lot of experience as both these men do. Nevertheless, I found it hard to take. Hedges, especially, continues to annoy me with his rhetoric, which increasingly strikes me as self-indulgent and toxic. He fulminates excellently, but that’s all he’s got. When Reich argued for building a feasible left challenge to Hillary, going forward, Hedges responded by discussing an ostensible historical parallel in Yugoslavia, the burden of which seemed to be simply the same point in a new form: mainstream liberals are bankrupt and have nothing to offer. Not that this is inaccurate, nor that we shouldn’t learn from history, but this just struck me as an particularly egregious example of what I don’t like about him. It’s much easier to wave your arms and talk about incipient fascism than to propose concrete strategies and tactics.

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Grexit: Truth in etymology

Well, everybody’s talking about the “Grexit,” i.e., Greece’s exit from the Eurozone, which looms egregiously as I write. But how many of them know that “grex” is Latin for flock, and forms the basis for the word egregious (lit. standing out above or from the flock), not to mention congregate, aggregate, and segregate? Or that in English, it actually refers to a clump of slime mold?

Just saying.

But perhaps the most relevant term with “grex” at its root is gregicide, “involving the slaughter of the common people,” to quote the egregious (in its original sense of outstanding or excellent) OED.

What more do you need to know?

No Trans Pacific Partnership

This morning I sent the following to my member of Congress:

I write again to urge you in the strongest possible terms to reject the President’s request for fast track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

As recent disclosures have made quite clear, the TPP is not so much a trade agreement as it is a drastic rewriting of international law, in which national, state, and local sovereignty is replaced with an unaccountable, anonymous tribunal dominated by special interests. Nothing so eloquently attests to its pernicious and anti-democratic effects as the concerted effort to keep the agreement secret, even to the President’s own advisers.

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Sci Fi Reportage

Thinking about the strange sci-fi convention of filling readers in on social, political, technological, even geological developments that are obviously counter-factual, in reportage or encyclopedia style, when of course if they’d happened readers could be expected to know about them. Somehow these blatant lies, which seem like they ought to disrupt the willing suspension of disbelief, if done well reinforce it. How does that work? Whence the convention? And how does it relate to the idea of “lethetic” fiction that Clayton Koelb discusses in his 1984 monograph, The Incredulous Reader? (Koelb argues that there is a class of fictions which cannot be understood by means of the conventional notion of the reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief.” This class of fictions, which he calls lethetic, is defined first of all by the fact that such works actively “solicit the reader’s disbelief.”) Continue reading

Made Personal

I’m “Writer in Residence” for the current show at The Alice, a gallery run by Julie Alexander and Julia Freeman in Georgetown (Seattle). The show is called “Made Personal” and is curated by, with works by, Serrah Russell, Joe Rudko, and Colleen RJC Bratton. This is the piece I wrote for the show.

Thing was once a verb

The first thing you notice is the hum. Or throb. A blue-green, metallic sort of sound, with a nice subtle backbeat to it, the quiet oscillation of a mindless drone doing its thing, sometimes a little faster, sometimes a little slower, but if you close your eyes you can dance to it. In a sort of tripped-out spacey way. Like the noise of the ferry when you stand at the bow, the diesel engines pulsing and the hull cutting through the waves with their cross-rhythms, the foam piling up and spilling back, piling up and spilling back, the gulls hovering along beside.

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Whose broken window is a cry of art

I always feel a little badly for Gwendolyn Brooks. Like many readers, for years all I knew of her work was “We Real Cool,” the short striking poem that gets anthologized all over the place, and that fits–for careless or superficial readers–a little too neatly into racist tropes of African American cultural dysfunction.

Don’t get me wrong–I like the poem, I think it’s got a lot going on, formally as well as in what it has to say. More so, in fact, than at first meets the eye. It’s just that it’s almost too accessible, and so invites quick dismissal. And, like any over-anthologized piece, it ends up being what this deep and multifaceted author is reduced to.

Then I started reading some of her other work, and discovered how much broader and deeper her range is than any one poem can illustrate. But one poem that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go was “Boy Breaking Glass.” It’s a gnarly poem–challenging, complex, rich in meaning and technique–and I found I had to write about it, to understand why I found it so compelling. I worked at it and let it sit and then worked at it some more, but was never satisfied. Finally I decided just to post what I had, even so. The recent events in Baltimore just make it all the more appropriate.

Here’s what I came up with.

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The (in)human author and the (in)human characters

The other night we were talking about fiction, or more generally any art, that could represent a non-human reality, a non-human perspective and experience. I argued that fiction was particularly unsuited to this task, because it’s a genre rooted in very human experiences and conventions for representing those experiences. A couple of us speculated that any art is ultimately going to founder on this problem, because we always bring our human perspective to bear, both in the making and in the reception of the work. But I suggested that other genres—poetry, nonfiction—might do better at getting us closer to some such world.

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Kick the Kochs off the Board

A group of scientists have published an open letter to the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History, and others to cut all ties with the fossil fuel industry, including removing David Koch from the boards of those two museums.

As James Powell, one of the signatories, put it on Democracy Now!,

And when you have on your board someone who has gotten the science wrong and who is a billionaire and is sitting at the table when trustee decisions are made, you at least give the appearance that your exhibit might be tainted and might not be giving the best science. And, in fact, with the Smithsonian exhibit that you talked about, I think that’s not just an appearance, but it’s actually the reality—the notion that we can evolve our way out of global warming. I like to say my grandchildren are already here; they’re present on the planet. They’re not going to evolve by the time they’re my age. What is going to happen is that the world is going to be a much more dangerous place.

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Luis Alberto Urrea at Hugo House

Luis Alberto Urrea spoke at Hugo House last night and, thanks to a perspicacious colleague, I knew about the event in time to actually go. The talk was in two parts: a written lecture on what Urrea calls “understory” and an on-stage interview. The lecture was good—entertaining, well written, insightful, delivered with verve despite the fact that he was reading, not speaking extemporaneously. I had issues with parts of it, but overall I liked it. But the real highlight for me was the second half, the on-stage interview, where Urrea spoke off-the-cuff about his work, spinning tales about his Yaqui relatives, speaking at all-Latino high schools, working with Border Patrol agents when writing his book The Devil’s Highway, and an astonishing story about his mother’s experiences in World War II, to be the basis for a new book. His riff on the importance of empathy was inspiring. I won’t try to reproduce the talk; suffice it to say that he was funny, engaging, profound. I came away with great respect for this author whom I’ve never read. I hope to check out The Devil’s Highway, a nonfiction account of 26 Mexican men’s attempt to cross the Sonoran Desert into the United States, and his novel The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

My response to Seattle Times editorial on Shell lease

Today’s Seattle Times has an editorial in which it dismisses as mere symbolism efforts to prevent Shell from leasing the Port’s Terminal 5 for its Arctic drilling fleet.

Here’s the letter I sent in response:

The Times is right that the real fight over Arctic drilling has to be national, where the leases are granted. But it’s wrong to dismiss the Port Shell lease as mere symbolism. What this argument overlooks is that politics is all about symbolism.

Rejecting the Shell lease would dramatically enhance efforts to change those national leasing policies. It would get lots of attention and shift the debate by reminding everyone that much bigger interests are at stake. The economic and other benefits of leaving the oil under the Arctic far outweigh the advantages of extracting it.

I remember when divestment from South Africa was dismissed as mere symbolism. Yet we learned from the activists in South Africa that it was a vital form of solidarity.

Those accident-prone Shell rigs will be traversing Native territory that was never ceded, operating in extremely harsh conditions, threatening whales, seals, salmon, countless other species—and the people who depend on them.

It’s unclear whether Shell could find another port. What’s not debatable is that if we go along, we are abetting the worst crisis humanity faces. As the old proverb says, if you don’t stand for something, you’ll go for anything.