The hands of life and death

Welp, I wish I was updating here with better news, but that is not the case. Today, as anticipated, the US Supreme Court has declared my humanity to be conditional only, predicated on what the state I live in thinks about it. What the state I live in thinks about it is pretty grim.

I’ve been thinking about this since the impending decision was leaked. There is a seemingly infinite number of takes on what’s to be done or what it all means: “She has an accomplice, you know — women don’t get pregnant by themselves!” “Time to nuke the filibuster/alter the Court/impeach the dishonest unelected justices….” “We can thank [insert villain/activist/centrist/Hillary Clinton] for this….” “A young man wanting to get a gun should be subjected to the same invasive and delaying hurdles as a young woman needing an abortion….” “They’re coming for birth control next.” “We need paid maternity leave and childcare — we can’t have all these children without support for them!”

Some of this is a more intense form of recreational complaining, snark vented for relief. Some of this is even true. A lot of it is stuff that people want to see done by fiat; I’m guessing they haven’t been paying attention for the last twenty years or so to the long game the confederascists have been playing. This event only seems like the work of a day; reclaiming our human rights won’t be the work of a day either.

I’m forty-six. That’s not very old. When I was sixteen, my mother took me to the bank in our small town and had me open a savings account with the money from my first summer job. I did not know then that the sixteen years I’d been alive was almost the sum total of time that American women had had the legal right to open an account or a line of credit without having to get a father or husband to co-sign for access. If I had known this, I might have been less sullen about this boring adulting thing my mother was making me do.

Thirty years later, I have more wisdom but fewer acknowledged rights.

In sifting these reactions, I’ve seen one issue surface in multiple ideological circles: the issue of guns. The mass shootings are becoming almost clockwork, followed by recriminations as predictable as they are useless. People from all perspectives point out what looks like an inconsistency in their opponents’ stance on guns vs. abortion — “You want to ban guns even though people will obtain them anyway, but you want to keep abortion legal even though women will obtain them anyway? Hypocrite.” or, “It’s insane that the Court says the states can’t forbid unfettered gun ownership, but the states definitely can ban abortion care even if a woman will die without it.” But when it comes down to it, the inconsistency is a mirage. There is a common link to this kill-don’t kill dichotomy that makes them perfectly consistent.

That common link is men.

Oh, I don’t mean men as individuals [insert tired hashtag here]. I mean men (particularly white ones) as a demographic that our homegrown fascists want to set above everyone else in the country. They want all of the responsibilities of our society to be fastened upon us, and all of the authority to be awarded to them.

They want the power of life and death to be in the hands of (white) men at all times.

To them, the very idea that a woman has the practical ability to thwart a man’s decision to beget life upon her body is an abomination so vile they call it murder for want of a more shocking word. Indeed, murder itself is a mere peccadillo in comparison. That is why they call the Pill, or IUDs, or any other form of self-administered birth control to be “abortifacient” even though scientifically speaking that’s ridiculous. It puts life in the hands of the person with the womb, and that is a thing to be destroyed and salted with fire. For a woman to escape from subjection is a mortal sin.

And if she does it anyway, well, there’s always the guns.

Life and death. The confederascists like to make sad mouth noises, but I suspect the worst among them actually rejoice over mass shootings. The more of them they allow, the more the rest of us will creep around in public, running errands like prey animals at the waterhole. Normal men who actually like and respect their relatives and coworkers; children rattling their lunchboxes on the way to school; the barista supporting her family on a pittance; the married same-sex couple swinging their daughter on a tire at the park.

To annul state laws against unlicensed concealed guns is to say: “Let the lynchings begin.”

Of course none of this is news to Black men and women. In fact, seizing the means of production, as it were, of children, and nationalizing it, is a largely white supremacist project. It’s not just that womb-carriers were meant to be disposable (and how dare they get ideas above their station); it’s that white women in particular need to be requisitioned for rebuilding the white population and staving off the minority majority. Of course, this project incurs a good deal of collateral damage — after all, more Black children will be born to women who can’t get around the laws, and the occasional elementary school classroom will have its share of unrecognizable white children’s corpses. But it’s all worthwhile in service of restoring the power of life and death to the hands it belongs in.

My lifetime. Forty-six years. Think about all the money earned by women that men couldn’t touch. Think about all that real property they’ve bought. All the businesses they’ve started, all the investments they’ve made, all the patents and achievements that have accrued to their own names. All the children born to women who were not obliged to identify them by their father’s surname. Forty-six years of riches, modest perhaps in proportion to the generations of white men’s wealth, but not insignificant. Forty-six years of dynastic property maddeningly held out of reach of their “rightful” owners.

They had no right to it. But they want it back.

So we have One Job: organize. I’ll talk more about this later; but if you’ve been reading earlier numbers of this intermittent gazette, you know that I have been following the Ukrainian resistance to the ruscist invasion as a mountaintop bonfire for the resurgence of democracy — actual democracy, not the democracy the coupsters were yelling about on January 6, 2021 while smearing their own shit on the walls of the United States Capitol. Not coincidentally, Russia is the last white patriarchy of any size or significance left in the Old World; also not coincidentally, Russia has been attacking us under the radar for at least a decade, at the same time as they were invading Ukraine the first time for daring to muster a democratic wave and oust the pro-Russian government Putin had installed. Ukraine has been at this for close on a decade, and they’ve done it by continuing to tell one another their story of a dream of freedom at least a century in the making.

Notice what Ukraine did first: they pulled together a coalition and voted out the Russian assets in their government. Then: they spent some years rooting out, or working around, the remaining spores of moldy corruption in their state, a work that is still in progress. They developed an identity of citizenship that pitches in with the minimum of fuss, since waiting for the government to invent that citizenship for them was an obvious nonstarter. They did most of this while being invaded by a nuclear power on their eastern border — the first time.

We are at their Step One. We are not giving Ukraine weapons and money because we have something to teach them about democracy. We are giving Ukraine weapons and money because they have something to teach us about democracy, and we want them to live to teach it.

This is a process. Grieve and rage as needed; then let’s get to work.

100 days later

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, known to us then in the US mostly as the untried people’s-choice president whom The Former Guy had tried to extort for manufactured dirt against Joe Biden (and escaped conviction in the Senate for it), took to social media with a firm reassurance:

One hundred days later, President Zelenskyy posted his latest nightly address thanking President Joe Biden for the US’s continued material support for Ukraine’s defense of their sovereignty:

Between Night One and Night One Hundred Zelenskyy was put through a public crucible of leadership. When the US offered to airlift him to safety, Zelenskyy’s retort — “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride” — signaled to us the quality of independence we’ve come to recognize as a Ukrainian passion; but it also signaled to Ukraine that unlike previous presidents, he wasn’t going to cut and run. It was time to stand and fight back. Ukraine has taken his cue, counted the cost, and decided it was worth paying.

The rest of us are still counting.

While we were counting, Ukrainians fought the might of Russia inch by inch away from Kyiv. The latest address above is recorded in the presidential palace proper, with the lights on: but this is recent. Most of Zelenskyy’s evening addresses were recorded in a bunker, in dim light, in moments snatched during his sleepless slog from emergency to emergency. Nor did he only speak to Ukraine. He gave address after address to every governing body within Zoom’s reach: in one early teleconference with EU leaders, he said, “This might be the last time you see me alive”; later, he crafted appeals to every country’s parliament, legislature, and council with analogies to their own history. But the core appeals to each were nearly identical.

He wanted the world to acknowledge, explicitly and on record, that Ukraine is a sovereign nation with the right to exist independently of Russia. And he wanted “ammunition”; weapons to fight Goliath off their homeland and put a stop to the indiscriminate carnage being inflicted on his people.

Goliath, meanwhile, was demonstrating that they were both inept and cruel in the prosecution of their illegal war. As the Ukrainians drove them back, they saw what Russia had left behind. Zelenskyy, visiting Bucha after its liberation, was captured on camera with his face an open depth of rage and grief.

I recommend this 60 Minutes interview with Zelenskyy for its portrait of the things I am talking about here. It’s the end that stayed with me: Scott Pelley finishes the interview with, “Mr. President, we wish you all the luck in the world.” Zelenskyy switches from Ukrainian to a halting English and says with a painful smile: “I need half of it. Even half would be enough.”

We wish you all the luck in the world.

I only need half.

Not too long after that, I downloaded the Duolingo app and started to learn Ukrainian. Going over these videos now, I can actually pick out words, though after only 44 days of the curriculum I’m not quite at the point of fully grasping everything that’s being said. This is a country that has a deep, mordantly funny, stubborn character. Ground between the millstones of empires for centuries like the wheat grown in their fields bound for parts elsewhere, they’ve been fighting for their independence (and their unity) for almost as long as we’ve had ours. They understand their own peril; they understand they are standing in the gap for everyone else’s democracy. I’m not sure we really understand either of those things, but I know whose example I want to follow.

This war isn’t new — Russia started the process in 2014 after Ukraine got fed up with Russia’s meddling and swept in a new government not beholden to Putin and his encroachments. There’s a picture somewhere of a fight that broke out in the Ukrainian parliament during these troubles; I thought it very quaint, then, to see political disagreements reduced to fisticuffs. I did not know it was the first manifestation of a malice that would finally show itself in our country with The Former Guy and the January 6 insurrection. Nobody died in the Verkhovna Rada as they did in our capital: but Ukrainians are certainly dying now. Our whole country has turned into Bleeding Kansas. The war isn’t new.

Zelenskyy was new, though. But one can only admire how quickly he understood his assignment. He became the avatar of his country to us, and a mirror for the Ukrainians themselves. He pushes Ukraine’s asks aggressively with one hand (“He has the list,” Zelenskyy said of Biden when Scott Pelley asked him what weapons he wanted sent), and dishes out sincere gratitude with the other:

He throws shade on Russia not as a slam line looking for applause, but as if he expects any Ukrainian sitting in his seat would employ the same devastating skill:

And I believe they would! After all, the Snake Island soldier’s defiance is now a Ukrainian postage stamp, and the Moscow — that very Russian warship he told to go fuck itself — has been promoted to submarine in the Black Sea fleet.

Zelenskyy knows how to use his art, too. Here he is (in a two-parter; do watch them both) juxtaposing the May 9 Victory Day with the slogan “Never Again”:

And the next day, rallying Ukraine to envision its future victory:

There is one benefit of war to set against its evils: it can be a rough but effective sieve for our priorities. And I think our first priority is to stop talking about, thinking about, and revolving about other people who are doing it wrong. They might be! Who cares? Find someone who’s doing it right, and imitate them. To the hilt.

This year I have resolved to say nothing about what is or isn’t being done in political circles if I do not have something I am doing to put next to it. Seriously, it just darkens counsel. I wonder what would happen if for 24 hours nobody in this country could post anything to social media, no “what he said!” or “can you believe this?” or anything. Would we be able to peer through the cloud of dust and see who we are?

Likewise, if your plans for Bleeding Kansas this year involve trying to make some individual or group feel ashamed of themselves for whatever they’re doing: you’re gonna need to make another plan. Like Russia at the Olympics, this year’s bad actors live in the conviction that shame is something that happens to other people. No plan depending on any of them having a change of heart or making an honest agreement is a plan that will work. Even those people who can be reached — is this really the best use of our time? I don’t think we have as much of that commodity as it seems. Be like Ukraine: surmount what you can, and when you can’t, trade space for time and fight smarter, not harder.

There are lots of op-eds proliferating in mainstream media right now, warning us that supporting Ukraine is going to get “complicated” and that we had better get used to the idea of letting Russia have its way at least in part if we want to save lives. Whose lives? Not the Ukrainians, a population destined for liquidation for the sin of refusing to think of themselves as “Little Russians.” They don’t want us to do their fighting for them. In all the ways that matter, they are doing our fighting for us.

I can think of lots of ways we could be less lost, less unfocused, than we are now. But I shudder to think of where we’d be without Ukraine, and Volodymyr Zelenskyy, its willing avatar, to raise the standard.

The Mudsillers

Last week I posted about the despicable aims of authoritarians both at home and abroad, and how our definition of “The Bad Guys” has to recalibrate for a new age. Since then, I’ve discovered more about what that means. Yes, it’s a new age, and old terms are not a perfect fit. But the past is prologue to the story we’re in now.

This week in the war in Ukraine:

These conscripts dug trenches in the Red Forest of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and probably got their lifetime rads, and then some, within the hour. Some reports say they didn’t even know what the Chernobyl complex was when they occupied it. What a boneheaded move, one might say. What terrible tactics. And how can you not know what Chernobyl was?

But it turns out that it’s really quite simple. The Russian command simply does not regard the safety or support of its rank and file, and this is, I am told, a longstanding posture going back to the USSR. They throw bodies at their theatres of war until they win — or founder. According to President Zelensky, he tried to get Russian command to collect their dead from the streets of contested cities; they wouldn’t.

Surely this can’t be true — it’s too horrifying. But the evidence piles up in independent reports and social media uploads; and the treatment of cities like Mariupol, a testament of rubble to undeniable war crimes, confirms the logic. These conscripts are trained in trauma that apparently makes Full Metal Jacket look like a stroll in the park; shoved across the border with armor and provisions that are the crumbs left over from grift; and bid to pay forward as much cruelty as they can. And many of them do.

To be honest, though I consider myself as a writer to have a fairly robust invention of horrors, I had simply never conceived this. Cruelties toward the enemy, I could imagine; but not a corresponding abyss of disrespect for one’s own troops. Even in Ann Leckie’s Justice trilogy, the Radch empire’s ancillaries are fed into the maw of war only after being converted from human POWs to ships’ apparatus.

But there is one aspect of those books that illuminates this real-world enormity. Early in Ancillary Justice, two officers are talking about ancillaries and the imperial project. One officer, who is of a much higher caste than the other, says: “Here’s the truth: luxury always comes at someone else’s expense….When you grow up knowing that you deserve to be on top, that the lesser houses exist to serve your house’s glorious destiny, you take such things for granted. You’re born assuming that someone else is paying the cost of your life. It’s just the way things are.” The way things are is a statement with religious overtones in Radch society; it is pious to believe that both luxury and misery are wholly deserved by the people who experience them.

This has a direct correspondence in real life to the idea of the mudsill people, an analogy devised by a South Carolina senator to not only justify but celebrate the institution of slavery. The mudsill, the lowest foundation of a building that keeps it stable and protected from the elements below, is essential to the stability of the building; as southern landowners saw it, some groups of people had a divinely ordained destiny to be the sill plate for their metaphorical houses. Slaves were slaves because they deserved it as inherent inferiors to the people who lived on their backs.

Thus while many arguments in democratic societies center around how to develop the economic and social infrastructure to eliminate reliance on groups as mudsills — sweatshops, migrant fruit pickers, miners, factory and food service workers, to name a few — authoritarians are infuriated to see anyone escaping mudsill status and are determined by any means possible to undo all safety nets, all acknowledgments of minority rights, and all the operational structures that make people freer.

If your very sense of self depends on having people set below you and degraded for your benefit and convenience, then no doubt the flourishing existence of healthy democracy is an existential threat. If you regard a sovereign nation as neither sovereign nor a nation, no doubt you will do colossally stupid things like invade it with a picked-over force and camp out in a nuclear exclusion zone of your predecessors’ own creation. But just because it’s colossally stupid doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous. And just because it’s not our cities being shelled doesn’t mean we’re not in it up to the eyeballs. We might equip and train our army better, but we’re fighting mudsill malevolence just as much here as Ukrainians are there.

We have less to fear than the mudsiller authoritarians. But we also have more to lose. Look to your sovereignty, and watch your neighbor’s back.

The Bad Guys

A few days ago, in my trawls for reliable bits of Ukraine news on Twitter (I manage to stay off Twitter for weeks at a time, and then the obsession returns like a fit), I ran across this comment on a clip from one of Putin’s speeches:

Yes, that’s Mike Godwin, of “Godwin’s Law” fame. If you need a refresher, Godwin’s Law refers to the end stage of an argument on the internet, when someone brings up Hitler or Nazis or the Holocaust, out of all proportion to the topic being discussed. At the dawn of the public internet, in the late 80s and early 90s, that was a meaningful observation: the Soviet empire was on its way out, and totalitarian movements were (we thought, at least in the West) a disproportionately evil memory, a bugaboo for whiners to invoke when they don’t get their way.

Godwin’s Law, like the post-Cold War era, now has an end date on its tombstone.

When we thought Nazism and fascism were dusted and in the past, invoking them became a way of administering a moral shock to someone whose behavior we were opposing. Everybody knows Nazis are the quintessential bad guys, after all! By degrees, the word’s meaning eroded: at its most specific, it came to mean “someone who fought for Germany in World War II” or “undirected anti-semite.” At its least specific, it meant “bad guy.” And in Putinist Russia, apparently, it means “someone who hates Russia.” The whole Third Reich, apparently, is defined by its attacks against the Soviet state. Jewish people apparently don’t signify much in this definition, which is why some Russians apparently see no problem with calling Volodymyr Zelensky, a scion of Holocaust survivors, a “Nazi” leader.

Thus one instance of the death of Godwin’s Law. The other is here at home.

People still object to being called “Nazi.” But it is now impossible to shame those people who espouse what Nazism actually stood for. They’re not ashamed of it. They’re not ashamed of the idea of suppressing queer communities, not ashamed of treating women like so many milling cattle, not ashamed of rounding up undesirables and deliberately insulting their humanity, not ashamed of training police to deliver white wrongdoers to the inside of a courtroom and black wrongdoers to a grave, not ashamed of randomly accusing people of being pedophiles so as to stigmatize whatever aspect of the person’s identity draws their contempt. They’re not ashamed of putting barbed wire around ballot boxes, not ashamed of looting the public weal on the grounds that they deserve to take and have, not ashamed of being cruel to people in public; not ashamed of sabotaging public health if it’s likely to lead to the deaths of people they hate.

And they measure the rest of us by their own crooked beam, and assume that we would do the same to them and worse.

A lot of us think that this rank outgrowth of evil is due to a lack of education. And it’s true that there’s some staggering ignorance in some of the things these terrible people say. By all means let us upgrade the education of as many people as possible; but it’s my conviction that other people is the education we’re looking for. I recommend Tara Westover’s Educated, and point out for those who’ve read it that it wasn’t Westover’s curriculum that changed and liberated her, it was the influence of reality in the form of the new people she met. The curriculum hardly made a dent until the people in her life gave her the capacity to grasp it. It is not the capacity to understand a treatise that makes the difference. Stupid people are not naturally cruel. I know one young man who has never so much as spoken a word and will be under basic needs care for the rest of his life; yet what capacity he has for trust and concord, he says yes to, in Hammarskjold’s phrase. The most ignorant tweet was written by a person smarter than he is; but they have refused the education of other people that leads to a welcome for reality.

I know that coalitions suck. I know that the best that can be said of some of us is that we’re Not The Bad Guys. I know that we crave a protagonist person or group to rally around. In that sense Ukraine has done the world a massive favor by demonstrating their willingness to fight to the death for their own independence. They are literally on the front lines of democracy. And what is democracy but the education of other people translated into the rule of law?

This, in my view, is the only potent antidote to the cynicism and cruelty the bad guys would tempt us with. It’s the reality that we must constantly set against the fog of lies. The bad guys are not ashamed of themselves: but they sure as hell resent that we think they should be. The Great Litany of the Book of Common Prayer contains a petition to God — “that it may please thee to forgive our enemies, persecutors, and slanderers, and to turn their hearts”; all of which is work for the Almighty. It is not fit for us, and we are not fit for it. We can’t make the enemies of democracy ashamed of themselves; they are not in their present state capable of it. We can, however, fight for reality and truth against delusions and lies. Glory to the heroes.

And now, as a palate finisher, some pictures.

Now the green blade riseth

The thing about the impossible, is that it continues being impossible right up until it isn’t anymore.

That goes for many kinds of things, and it cuts in more than one direction. But right now I’m mostly thinking about world events. There are tipping points accumulating in all sorts of places, and suddenly I don’t think we’re fighting a rearguard action against fascism, cruelty, and cynicism. I think we have a potential for a rout on our hands. But we have to build up the possible.

When an online friend asked his audience, “What do you think you can do, right now?” — he was crowdsourcing answers to get a full perspective on the current state of the possible. I thought of what another friend has been saying about the videos of songs and performances coming from within Ukraine and outside of it: that music is resistance. Every platoon has its ditty; every arena has its chant; every polity has its anthem, to be sung in times of joy and times of anger. Lift every voice and sing — or if you have to, lift every chair and swing!

So what I’m focusing on is art, as nourishment of the possible. I’m thinking of ways to mobilize the art at my hands — whether that’s buying it, playing it, displaying it, or writing it — to continue compiling substance toward that tipping point. And if this idea speaks to you, I encourage you to do it too. Or — if you have a different idea of how you would build up the possible: do that.

If this idea coalesces into something more organized, I’ll update here. Watch this space.

Warmish take: The religious belief you don’t know you’re holding

“The solutions are there,” is a climate action slogan that has borne up the last several years, and what it means is that we don’t need fancy tech to address the problems of climate change; we just need to do things that nobody wants to do.

Free public transit solves several problems, but nobody wants to sit within sight, sound, and smell of homeless folks. We can do health care that makes population health a reality, but we’re not doing that because it would mean we can’t ration health care away from people we think don’t deserve it. People won’t even mask or vax, why? Because it would be helpful to people they would rather see die.

The solutions are there, but we won’t use them because they are a threat to the supreme religious belief of our country and in large part our world: that whatever happens to a person is the thing that person deserves.

If you’re rich, it’s because you deserve to be rich. If you’re poor, it’s because you deserve to be poor. If you’re sick, you must have done something to cause it. If you’re healthy, it’s because you have more deserving genetics.

If something bad happens to you, you become a crime scene with yourself as the perpetrator. Books upon books are written and read examining why bad things happen to good people; we could as well ask why good things happen to bad people. In the story of Job, Job’s friends cease to be his friends and tie themselves in knots trying to figure out what it is he did, and end up making stuff up at an ever more hysterical pitch.

But Job’s ending doesn’t appear to address the problem, at least as far as the human view is concerned. Likewise in the Gospels, in the story of the healing of the man born blind, the explanation isn’t entirely satisfactory. Jesus’ disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus’ answer: “Nobody sinned. He was born blind so that the works of God should be revealed in him.” In my crotchety opinion it seems rather hard that both Job and the man born blind should have to suffer for a heavenly lab demonstration.

But of course the latter is happening in the gospel of John, in which time (the rate of change and the measurement of effect) is little more than an exploded diagram of a three four-dimensional reality. When Jesus says, “When I am glorified,” he doesn’t mean the subsequent triumph of the resurrection, he means when he’s actually on the cross, when his suffering is the most abject, most humiliating, and most undeserved.

The point is, there is a throughline in the Bible confirming, against all our settled devotion, that humans are the work, image, and reflection of the divine while they are still suffering. How much less would our suffering be if we didn’t have to wonder whether we deserved it? Yet how much terror could we handle in contemplating the true, minuscule amount of our control over life?

Considering how much people quote the Bible without understanding that its entire point is to uproot their most precious belief of all, that what happens is what is deserved — it’s no wonder the character of God is reduced to hair-tearing sarcasm at the end of Job.

Yet although getting rid of this belief means owning the fearful truth that our power to prevent bad things or induce good things happening to us is much smaller than we want to think, we should still do it. Think how much less life would suck if you never again had to wake to a free-floating uneasiness that you might be a bad person. If you never again wondered if that person blaming you for your disability was right after all. Think how much more fun doing shit would be if you weren’t hoping the accomplishment would say something positive about you. Think about those sourpusses at Fox News hating on Fred Rogers because he dared to say I like you just the way you are. Why, if you’re liked just the way you are, you can’t be terrified into trying to be something more convenient to someone else!

Speaking of that, think how much less of an asshole you’d be if you believed in your bones that that panhandler was of the same divine value as yourself. Think how much easier it would be then to help! Think how much less off-putting and threatening the slogan Black Lives Matter would be, if you really believed that they did, despite the wrongs that have been collectively done to them. What if you never again had the casual thought, about anyone, about things as large as natural disasters or as small as dings on their car, “Well, if it happened, they must have deserved it.”

If we got rid of this shitty belief, people with bad motives would not be able to make us think they can confer our dignity upon us from without. Our own motives would improve. We could get on with doing things for their proper sake. Religion itself would be more fun.

The solutions are there. But it’s dark right now, and no one can work.

Jane Eyre, trauma, and the writer’s id

So in my summer odyssey of brain fog, I became a bit of a Youtube junkie, because that was a relatively effort-free distraction from my back injury and its sequelae as well as my complete inability to make and carry out plans. (As any ADHD person knows, you have to make a plan to make a plan, so sometimes you’re just SOL on a bad brain day.) There, that should fill you, gentle reader, in on what was going on while I wasn’t blogging.

But, I’m back, with a whole list of Youtubers whose channels I’ve been enjoying, and today I’m linking a recent video by Dr. Octavia Cox, who does close readings of 18th and 19th century literature as a public service, and really, why more English majors don’t do this, I don’t know. Dr. Cox invites people to open discussion in the comments, but to be honest there’s no way I’m going to fit my ersatz Romanticist reax into a mere Youtube comment, so I’m blogging it instead. Plus, it has a bearing on the kind of writing talk I do here, so that’s where I’m going with this post.

You should really watch the video for the nuances — it’s only 20 minutes — but the gist is that a very celebrated passage in Jane Eyre, in which Jane-as-narrator castigates the cultural bonds that give women no scope for action and creativity, is bookended by her rather repressive methods as governess at the beginning, and the bitter laugh of Grace Poole (which is really Bertha Mason but Jane doesn’t know it yet), in a metaphorical commentary on Jane’s feminist mental rant at the end.

I think Dr. Cox is mostly right in her analysis of the passage (she is pretty good with these close readings generally — I particularly commend her commentaries on Jane Austen). What I’d like to discuss is the wider angle of Charlotte Brontë’s engagement with the themes of non-balanced power dynamics.

Jane Eyre is one book — among all the other books I read in surveys of the period — that all but demanded that I read it like a writer. I mostly do that anyway, but I think CB deliberately invites the interlocutor into the space where the story is being created: “Reader, I married him” seems to me another way of saying, “Writer, this is how I’m doing this story.” At some points of the text this invitation seems almost like daring the reader/writer to argue; at others it seems to presume a collaborative listening on our part, and this is where I’m reminded that the Brontë children made up stories together in a literal collaboration of writing/reading.

When it comes to this feminist/counter-feminist tidal lock in Jane Eyre, I have to (pause to groan) bring up The Professor. I’m not going to say go read The Professor if you haven’t, because you probably will wish you hadn’t. It’s an extremely idtastic early novel of CB’s in which the titular professor goes to Belgium, courts one of his students and marries her, and finally achieves a relationship in which he can be the dom he’s dreamed of being all his life but who no one in real life would ever want to have as a dom. If you think I’m exaggerating, this novel really puts the sub in subtext, and the reason I bring it up is that this novel is also written in first-person POV — but from the POV of the male character. The female character (well, all the other characters, really, but the love interest in particular) is seen entirely from the outside and is objectified by the narrative as well as the professor. My overall impression of this story is that CB had to write it to cleanse her writerly palate; but the point is this. The D/s elements in The Professor are very strong, counter-feminist, and appear to be quite unexamined; but in Jane Eyre they are brought to the center of the narrative and deliberately engaged by the author with the intent of making a fully integrated story realized not just in the POV of Jane the character, but in the 360 degrees of vantage surrounding her.

What this suggests to me is that while Jane the character is replicating the repressive education she herself received, the narrative is interrogating it, and the author is continuing a process of engaging with elements of her own interior world that she is working out through stories.

That’s one of the things that makes Jane Eyre so exciting as a novel, in my opinion; this deliberate cultivation of the id in story to narrate and re-narrate the experience of powerlessness minus trauma. Part of the mechanism of that in Jane Eyre is an actual redressing of the balance of trauma — Rochester has to suffer in order for Jane’s coming back to him to work as a story. But part of it is also setting up situations in which sexually-inflected power imbalances are handled without threatening the integrity of the person who has less power. I’m thinking particularly of St. John whatsisname and how he tries to tell Jane who she is and is destined to be, which is of course his obedient wife, very Professor-like; so, she leaves. And goes back to Rochester, who may be chaotic but at least seems to get her. I have a very strong memory of the scene in which Rochester is begging her to be his bigamous mistress and becomes so insistent and tearful that Jane in the narrative voice says “in another moment, I should be able to do nothing with him” — i.e., if she doesn’t change the trajectory of this scene he is going to make her his mistress by force. Jane frames the threat of rape by someone she loves who lied to her as a situation in which she can’t “do something” with him — she can’t make him be obedient, tractable, calm, or docile as she can with his ward, Jane’s pupil. The Professor this is definitely not.

No, Jane Eyre is not reliably feminist as a governess; one would be surprised if she were. But her counter-feminist tendencies are mingled with this element of dominant-submissive power exchange as a part of the author’s ongoing project of recasting potential and even actual traumas as more integrated stories. Conceptually, feminism and D/s interplay are two different issues, but in the human heart, it ain’t necessarily so. Charlotte Brontë has invited us into her parlor as collaborative listeners as she tells this story; she sets the parameters, and we have the opportunity to reimagine trauma as integrity along with her. I think it’s this aspect of the book that makes it a feminist project, more than the sum of its ideological parts.

Part of the problem for my generation of writers, though, is that the New Critics stand between us and the Brontës, with their insistence that “objective” (which is to say, established and therefore male) storytelling is superior to that which draws on the author’s id; that the recasting of trauma and power imbalances as integrated stories is a contemptible project for a writer to undertake. To which, at this point in my life, I want only to make the same reply that Captain Marvel did: “I don’t have to prove anything to you.”

But I am writing this blog post: I’m glad people are still reading Jane Eyre and grappling with its implications, because it’s still a hugely important book, and I can only aspire to the kind of narrative theology that CB’s achievement represents.

On Self-Perception

This post begins with a story of two tweets, one of which I will link and one of which I will not.

Earlier this week, I ran across a tweet from someone who didn’t want to give oxygen to some person’s anti-trans screed, but screenshotted part of it to discuss one particular aspect of it. The highlighted text wasn’t what drew my eye, though. The screed-writer was so outraged by trans people demanding that society validate their self-perception that the phrase was italicized. It was this italicized phrase that caught my eye.

I thought: “Why, yes. Yes, that is exactly what is expected of you, Unknown Screedist. I’m sorry to hear that you find your moral duty so repugnant.”

Everybody has their particular moral lodestone, and this has always been mine: People get to say who they are. Yes, even if you’re 99.44% sure they’re wrong. Yes, even if you would really prefer they name themselves something else. Yes, even if they make you look bad by association.

If nothing else, holding to this principle insulates you from committing the No True Scotsman fallacy of argument. And here is the second tweet, fresh off the internets this morning:

It was clear the terrorists perceived themselves to be Christians. It was “confusing” to be attacked by people who acted not like Jesus Christ, but by the mob who demanded his crucifixion. We are used to thinking of “terrorist” and “Christian” to be mutually exclusive categories of person. But they aren’t. People get to say who they are. If a person committed to a terroristic act says they’re a Christian, I won’t gainsay them. I will note that their idea of worshiping God bears an awfully strong resemblance to the domination system that Jesus Christ came to dismantle, but I can’t force them to internalize that.

And I won’t. Because forcing other people to internalize what you think they are is the core impetus of fascism. It’s what some people find so appealing about our disgraced former president, and some of us others find so chilling: that offhand, pseudo-reasonable tone in which he said things like, Well, what can you do? Democrats are just evil. They’re just bad people. Any act of violence against Bad People is therefore justified, is lifted out of the sad category of terrorism into the shining platform of holy war.

This is the entire purpose of the rule of law: not to separate the Good People from the Bad People, but to uphold or deprecate certain acts according to their vital importance. It’s vitally important to fascists — and to people whose life’s investment has been placed in our social structures — that gender conformity be enforced. It’s vitally important to them not only that they think of themselves as the flower of Christianity, but that the rest of us are forced to acknowledge that we are not Christians at all if we are not like them. Defining people and codifying them is the basis of their ideal state: not the rule of law.

So my advice, for anyone who cares for it, is this: don’t play the game. Let people say who they are. Let the tree be judged by its fruit. Let no stroke or dot of the law be subverted by a crusade to prove to people who they are. That is a game for fools and fascists.

Every person has a right to the proving ground of their own self-perception. And I’ve committed not to invade.

The self-suspicion of the (woman) artist

I’m not sure how or why this 2017 essay by Claire Dederer washed up on my Twitter timeline, but it was an interesting and layered read. Its question was: what does one do with the art of monstrous men? And of course, in that #MeToo moment, it was a question on everyone’s lips. And, since the essay invites its readers to weigh in with their perspective, I’m going to.

Hildegard of Bingen: now there was a woman who could write things in accordance with reality!

Dederer chose to peel these layers using the particular onion of Woody Allen. Which is interesting because I know exactly two things about Woody Allen: his movies are supposed to be towering comedic art, and he’s a child predator. Have I seen said movies? I have not. Have I read in depth the accounts of Allen’s misdeeds? Also no.

This is because I was raised in a strictly evangelical Christian environment. My parents may have watched a Woody Allen movie or two; I don’t know. When I became a fully independent adult, I had a nearly limitless array of modes in which to revolt; “watching Woody Allen movies” just didn’t make it onto the list. Diving into the liturgical church; reading, writing, and watching sci-fi and fantasy; and excusing myself from marriage and motherhood occupied most of those energies.

But. I’m intimately familiar with the self-suspicion Dederer describes. Am I a monster? I was asking myself this while I was still a child. I asked myself this when I was a callow college student. I asked myself this while working as an underemployed adult. I asked myself right up until I was 38, and one morning I contacted again an old memory of fleeting cruelty from a man when I was very small. But for the first time ever, instead of focusing on how furious and helpless it made me feel to remember it, I thought: I was right.

At the time I had said to myself: I must be mistaken. This can’t be sadism. This must be something else. I must be making a mistake.

But I wasn’t. I was simply telling myself a necessary lie, a lie that the powerless have to tell themselves for the time being. My perception is messed up, that’s what the problem is. No, what the problem is, is that lies like that throw out little metastatic filaments and snare the rest of your soul and make you think you’re fundamentally broken. Evil, even.

A monster.

But I’m not a monster. I have a fully functioning human instrument. My perception is just what a human’s perception ought to be: limited, but a miracle of function. My insight is a fine blend of acuity and experience.

It’s interesting to me that Dederer describes the indignation against monstrous men making good art and moves from that toward suspicion of herself as — too selfish? not selfish enough? — a secret monster making good art, or an aspiring monster in order to make good art. Yes, it’s all very sturdily Jungian; do your shadow work.

But this meditation is centered around a movie apparently written as an elaborate apologia for a middle-aged man fucking a 17-year-old girl. A girl who, because Allen is a good writer and has a sense of “balance” in these things, is miraculously free of the neuroticism that the grown women characters display. Listen: show me a girl who is preternaturally mature at 17, and I will show you a girl who secretly suspects she is the real monster in the room.

I believe that the only thing that has kept me perpendicular and sane these last four years is that moment of unbelievable escape beforehand, when every single one of those protective lies unraveled and fell to my soul’s feet. It was easier on me for a time to think of myself as a monster rather than stare my helplessness in the face. It took escaping one to also escape the other.

Perhaps this is why none of these terrible revelations about monstrous men behind closed doors have given me more than a few layers’ worth of pause about their art. Yeah, I felt a little guilty watching Carol — not because it was a film about lesbians, but because it was a Weinstein property. But there’s just not much shadow work to be done there, if I’m honest. No, what I’m thinking about is the parable of the demoniac who got rid of his demon, only to have it come back with seven friends and make things worse. Jeffrey Toobin is back on CNN as a pundit, after how many months in exile? Not many. They filled an empty chair with Toobin because there was an empty chair there.

This is not about selfishness, though arguments about selfishness are the stuff of (women) artists’ lives. This is not even about monstrousness, though the troops of House Depiction Is Endorsement come out to bay across the valley at the giants of predatory cruelty.

This is about insight. To claim insight is the ultimate act of temerity. Dederer lost a male reader because she questioned Allen’s insight in making Manhattan; she was not an obedient audience. She could make bloodthirsty remarks about butchering men in the street, apparently, without giving this man a qualm; and indeed why not? That can be dismissed as derangement. Derangement and neurosis, or demure nubile receptivity: no place for actual insight, in stories or in life, for people who are not white men. If a white man is not sitting in the chair, it’s an empty chair, amirite?

Yes, I say these things because the reality on the ground makes me angry. But it’s a mathematical anger. A logical anger, even. A Zachary-Quinto-saying-Live-long-and-prosper-when-he-really-means-Fuck-you kind of anger. A Stacey-Abrams-writing-a-shedload-of-romance-novels kind of anger.

An insightful anger. An anger that finishes what it starts.

In the summer of 2017, while Dederer was working on this essay (and her book on the subject), I was feverishly finishing the manuscript of Ryswyck. It’s an interesting thing to remember, the galvanizing power of that anger. I wasn’t marching in the streets; I was sweating in front of a computer screen in my apartment. In the same 24 hours, I wrote the last sentence, and John McCain turned his thumb down on ACA repeal. In such acts, visible and invisible, the resistance propounds itself.

We’ve had our fill of monstrousness, and even with the Abuser in Chief gone, there are still plenty of inexplicably cruel people willing to be monsters in public, and occasionally it feels really demoralizing. So it’s good for me to remember that I got free of that debilitating self-suspicion, and when I did I vowed to set free as many other people as I could.

In that sense, the pen isn’t mightier than the sword. It is the sword.

Soul possession

One day, more than a decade ago now, I was on my commute fretting about how a boundary I wanted to establish would make me An Asshole in everyone’s eyes including my own. And as I was driving along, for the first time ever I thought, “Well then, I’ll just be an asshole.” Like Huck Finn saying, “Well, then, I’ll go to hell,” when he committed to help his friend escape slavery, except I didn’t think about that at the time.

I also didn’t expect the curious sensation that followed, as if my soul had been trailing out 10 feet in front of me and was suddenly sucked back in my body. And just as suddenly, I had more power to take care of my daily business, like I’d been trying to do calligraphy with a selfie stick before. The sensation was short-lived; but also, I never forgot it.

Occasionally I’m reminded just how much of the business of living I’ve conducted at this kind of remove from myself. I was reminded again this morning while reading Morning Prayer; on Wednesdays there’s always a section of Psalm 119, and today it was in the morning psalm slot. More often than not I find reading this psalm tedious, though I know it rewards deep study, but this morning I did a thing I often do and read she/her pronouns for the Psalmist. And I read: “How shall a young woman cleanse her way?/ By keeping to your words.”

It gave me a pang on two levels. One was a memory, of cycles and years of weeks in which my friend V and I would pray Psalm 91 at Compline (also on Wednesday, now I think about it) with she/her pronouns for the Psalmist.

“She who dwells in the shelter of the Most High/ abides under the shadow of the Almighty./ She shall say to the LORD, “You are my refuge and my stronghold,/ my God in whom I put my trust.”…”Because she is bound to me in love, therefore will I deliver her;/ I will protect her, because she knows my Name./ She shall call upon me, and I will answer her;/ I am with her in trouble; I will rescue her and bring her to honor.”

I miss Virginia all the more when I remember these things. But the other reason I felt a pang was that I was all the more aware of how much of my worship through the years has been done with my soul trailing out 10 feet in front of me. Like I have to animate a ghost out there who can pretend that any of this is about them. The ghost can feel any feelings required in the moment, can say of male POVs in the Bible, “This is a story of me,” can be included round the fire with Jesus’s disciples, can witness, can tell good news.

But if there’s anything I’ve learned from this plague year, it’s that there are things going on back at the ranch. With a few pronouns I reel my soul back in to survey the scene, and there are things going on; there always have been. Not just angry victimy things, but rich things; wondering things; measuring things; delighting things. This is, after all, the place where I write from, where I craft verisimilitude with a loupe and tiny chisel. This is my workshop of making, making life and the image of it.

I can’t say it’s not been useful to me, sending my soul out on regular EVAs to read books that aren’t about me, sing songs that aren’t about me, pray prayers that aren’t about me. The structure of scientific revolutions needs data. Empathy needs data too. Keats dignified this practice and process with the term “negative capability,” which was never a set of words I thought very accurate, but I knew what he meant. I don’t think it’s negative, because when you do it you’re reaching for something, for belonging, for affirmation, for acquaintanceship. And can it be a capability if you have to do it to survive?

Keats came fairly close to having to; he wasn’t rich, he was riddled with tuberculosis, and he was on the wrong side of a few too many mean tweets. He also spoke meditatively in a letter to a friend about the “gordian knot of complications” involved in his own misogyny that he wasn’t sure what to do about. So it just goes to show how useful “negative capability” can be.

(Why the hell am I talking so much about Keats these days? He wasn’t even my favorite Romantic.)

Writers such as Seanan McGuire and N.K. Jemisin have talked more pithily about the backlash that often results when we write from our own POVs, about how truly resentful some people are that they might have to exert some negative capability to read a good book, as if negative capability is a towering virtue and stooping condescension for them and an inherent moral obligation for everyone else. And it’s clear that they perceive the obtrusive POVs of others as such a threat that they are willing to commit sedition, conspiracy, and treason against their own country. I mean, none of this is surprising, though it is shocking and angering. It’s just…really? It’s that hard? It’s that painful? It’s that insulting?

I mean, you’re dealing with people who, if they know anything, know how to project their soul outward to understand things that aren’t about them. If you’d asked for imagination and compassion and fellow-feeling, you’d have got it. But what you want is to be hermetically sealed away from any sign that those other people have souls, like it burns you to know that. And you hope to kill their bodies by not wearing a mask, too. Or by quicker methods, if you’re impatient enough.

It’s an impossible thing for you to have, even if we wanted to give it to you. Which we don’t. You’re an asshole and you haven’t figured out how to choose otherwise.

But negative capability is for everyone. Positive capability is for everyone too.

Here endeth the lesson.