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.

Fresh as the shriven snow

Happy Mardi Gras to all who celebrate, and may your Lent bring you a blessing. Lent, in its original incarnation, was the time set aside for those preparing for baptism into the Church; since I spent most of Epiphany season preparing for a medical procedure, Lent’s arrival doesn’t feel like an ambush to me this year. My house is clean, my larder stocked, I did my errands (carefully), avoided covid exposure, and took lots of “prehab” walks. Now the procedure is in the rearview and so far, the prep work has been paying off.

Something else is different about Lent this year: I’ve come out of the pandemic with a changed perspective. Not a change in beliefs or opinions, really — but a re-saturated perspective on what it means to take on penitence.

In Dante’s Purgatorio, the first thing Dante is bid to do is wash his face with dew, reflecting a doctrine that we don’t really subscribe to anymore: the doctrine that the first duty of a penitent is to be cheerful. It’s always seemed so weird to me that the gospel for Ash Wednesday is the one from Matthew about not making a big production about it when you are fasting or giving alms — as we have ash crosses drawn on our foreheads and put the kneelers to extra use and play hymns in a minor key.

But shouldn’t we be sorry for our sins? I hear the reproach. Why, certainly — but isn’t it so relieving to get started tidying up, to begin pointing one’s feet toward home! Shouldn’t we remember that we are but dust? Yes, but why the long face about it? I just watched a TikTok video of a young Ukrainian girl demonstrating how to start, drive, and make off with a Russian tank. I bet she remembers she is but dust: and the video was funny as hell.

In a time when some people are demonstrating how unrepentantly wicked they’ve chosen to be, I think it is imperative that any penitence we undertake is purposeful, to the point, and above all cheerful. We are good. People are good. We might feel broken from time to time, but nobody is broken on a fundamental level. I escaped thinking that about myself, and I am determined to free the other prisoners.

Pancakes today, fasting tomorrow: and a smile for both.

Warmish Take: “Careful or I’ll put you in my novel.”

Hello and welcome to the newest segment on this here blog, Warmish Takes. There are already plenty of places where you can get Hot Takes, but what yours truly promises here are Warmish Takes, straight off the bat.

Mind you, many of my takes are Warmish because it takes me so damn long to string enough words together: hence the hiatus here while I coped with Summer Doldrums and Plot Problems. More on that in another post. Fortunately, some of my Warmish Takes receive a flush of renewed warmth by coming back round again in the social media turbine, and that’s the case with today’s take.

In keeping with the warmishness of my takes, I’m not going to link out to any NYT articles or dissections of the short story “Cat Person” (the value of which for me is primarily in improving my Current Events percentage in my online trivia league). I’m just going to address this whole idea of “borrowing” (or “stealing” or whatever) other people’s lives and personalities to write fiction with.

And yes, I’m a longtime fan of Anne Lamott too, who says, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them they should have behaved better.” I’ve read any number of tweets the last few months in which writers defend themselves against the charge of sociopathy with something along these lines. Don’t want to appear in a writer’s fiction? Don’t have writer friends. Or friends with writers for friends. Or something.

As pointed out on Twitter, this particular hazard seems to be more endemic to the literary fiction world:

And really, why not? Literary fiction is more likely to involve situations and personalities that can be more easily lifted (or at least recognized) from the people around us. It does seem like a natural kind of hazard. I suspend judgment, like a shiny trapset cymbal to bang upon when the mood strikes. After all, aside from the more obvious heists, writers are the last people to know what alchemy induced them to come up with and sustain a story or a character — I say sustain because no matter how juicy a bit of goss might be, the writer just might not be into it for creative purposes.

No, I suspect there has to be a constellation of motivations in order for a writer to satirize a real-life person in the fiction they write. There are plenty of coffee mugs and bumper stickers warning the public at large: “Careful, or I’ll put you in my novel.” I usually take this for a pretty light jest; some writers pay compliments to people they love by drawing on them for a character and killing the character off. And a real friend eats that shit up with a spoon!

So yeah, judgment suspended. But…I can’t be the only writer who doesn’t really do this?

I mean, not that you’re not all interesting, you crazy multifaceted diamonds, you. It’s just a way of going about things that is really foreign to me. I just don’t really get the concept of fictionalizing things and people that are really out there. I don’t get fictionalizing my own life, or any of my experiences; all of that stuff is like wool sheared from the sheep, destined to be carded and dyed and spun and become something, well…else. Not rearranged into the shape of the original sheep and framed on a wall. It just doesn’t make any sense to me as a writer at all.

It’s not dazzlingly unique to say that all my characters are made out of me-stuff, out of things I’ve thought and felt and experienced; and I’m sure that’s true of these other kinds of writers too. Who knows, maybe I do have a roman à clef kicking around in me somewhere. But as of this warmish moment, it’s not interesting to me, either to write or to read.

And that’s my Warmish Take.

The Burden of Proof is On You

And now for a brief rant.

The pundit class may be inexhaustibly devoted to the spit-warm take that we should sympathize with and seek to mollify these anti-public-health sadopopulist wombat cubes with weeping sores where their empathy should be. But I’m well past exhausted and cracked the needle on the annoyance knob long ago.

Never mind if it’s possible to make these anti-vaxxing, anti-masking, pestilence-spreading, mass-murder-policy-platforming corkbrains crumbled in the bottom of a jug of thirty-cent wine feel like the rest of us don’t look down on them. They’re like that dude in Christy who bullied the title character and then she nursed him through typhoid fever, only to have him snarf down some hardboiled eggs and perforate his weakened bowel when her back was turned. Very tragic, but it’s not his name on the cover of the book.

Nope. It is not our obligation to prove a goddamned thing — not about vaccines, not about COVID, not about Tromp and his cupcake coupsters, nada, zip, zilch. You, Greg Abbott; you, you obnoxious shouter at staff in a Walmart; you, you Facebook swastika-jockey projection-artist; you are the ones with the burden of proof.

YOU prove that you’re not a heaving pile of mass-murdering maggot-brains whose motto, like Hell’s in Paradise Lost, is “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” YOU prove your good faith to US, and maybe you’ll be able to step foot out of your house without getting booed to Ultima Thule and back for the rest of your life.

Or, of course, we might be nice. But we don’t have to be.

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.