Miscellaneous

Reading Darkness to Find the Light

In times of crisis, what should we read? Should we read books that expose the dark side of humanity, or should we seek instead more uplifting books? Readers (and film-goers) today seem to fall into one or the other category. People are either going for Animal Farm1984, or It Can’t Happen Here, or they are indulging in more feel-good novels like Three Things About Elsie, A Man Called Ove, and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I fall in the first category.

I must admit that I am by default somewhat of a pessimist. I am not surprised by evil in the world because I believe that humans are tempted by selfishness. That being said, I have spent the past two years actively trying to be more optimistic. Consequently, I am much less cynical than I used to be. I’m certainly much friendlier.

But I am increasingly drawn to dark fiction and histories that explore atrocities. My current project explores responses to the trial of Louis de Berquin, a 16th century Lutheran executed for heresy. I have scoured Inquisition registers and read treatises in defense of the enslavement of indigenous people (such as Sepúlveda’s), in hopes of “understanding” and recognizing today the arguments people have historically given for violence. There’s nothing new about the rhetoric white supremacists use to defend their xenophobic, misogynistic, and racist beliefs.

I guess I feel a responsibility to put my linguistic and historical skills in the service of social reform. It is important to note that there have always been dissenters, like Bartolomé de las Casas or Erasmus, who challenged dominant perspectives on social issues. Still, studying the rhetoric of unpleasant treatises has made me more sensitive to the language politicians throw around in the public square. Perhaps it is because I am more informed that I am less cynical. When all arguments appear equally dazzling, you don’t know what is true and what is false.

Furthermore, literature has taught me to trust my heart as well as my mind. Over and over again, medieval/Renaissance treatises in defense of violence privileged reason over feeling. Sepúlveda appealed to Aristotle in defense of the enslavement of the indigenous people of the “New World”. When we tell others to suppress their feelings, we are asking them to deny a part of their humanity. The deeper I dig into history, the more I realize how essential pity and mercy are to good, ethical decision-making. I am also reminded that reform is possible. Those treatises didn’t have the last word.

Although I do not know what we should be reading in this period of crisis, I do know from personal experience that reading unpleasant works has made me less, not more, cynical. They have inspired me to take action in order to nip hatred in the bud. Consider that the far-right is populated with some of the most cynical people you’ll ever encounter. Their prejudices and conspiracy theories come from a place of fear. And predictably, they have a poor knowledge of history.

Reflections

When Reviewing is Political

In a recent (Oct. 23) New Yorker article, Nathan Heller condemned Kirkus Reviews’ response to a controversial book review. American Heart by Laura Moriarty was initially praised by its Kirkus reviewer, but the review was later modified and the book demoted due to public criticism over the apparent “white savior” trope in the novel. The novel tells the story of a white Islamophobe who initially supports detainment camps for Muslims living in America. But after befriending a Muslim woman, the former-Islamophobe helps her new friend escape from persecution. Kirkus has acknowledged that it altered its review of Moriarty’s novel as a result of public outrage over the initial review.

In the article, Heller called Kirkus’ response “insidious”, an attack on the reviewing industry. He argued that book reviewing should always be an individual affair; it should not be influenced by a crowd.  The Muslim reviewer who was assigned American Heart had high praise for the novel, so Kirkus should have accepted her review.

A growing number of review companies, like Kirkus Reviews, have started to assign “Own Voices” reviewers to books featuring minority characters. The demotion of Moriarty’s novel is, therefore, only the most recent development in a new movement in the publishing and reviewing industries. YA readers seem to be the most sensitive to the way minority characters are represented in fiction. The “Own Voices” movement is built on the assumption that the best social justice-themed books are written by authors who have an intimate understanding of the issues they are addressing.

It is clear that from the very start Kirkus was concerned about the representation of Islam in American Heart. The novel’s demotion seems to me to be the next logical step in Kirkus’ “Own Voices” agenda. The “Own Voices” movement considers authors and characters from a political perspective. American Heart should be reviewed by a Muslim because a non-Muslim does not really know what it’s like to be Muslim. The Muslim reviewer, author, or character does not represent herself alone. Concern for good representation stems from the assumption that individuals can represent and speak for the groups to which they belong.

I am still not sure how I feel about the “Own Voices” movement. I am not a YA reader, and most identity-centered books are aimed at young adults. But if we are OK with the practice of assigning reviewers to books based on social identity, we should also be OK with reviews influenced by the judgements of a crowd. Politics always concerns more than one person, and social justice is necessarily political. The Muslim reviewer of American Heart was no traditional reviewer. When Kirkus assigned her to that novel, it expected her to consider the novel through a political and social lens. She was chosen because she was Muslim, a member of a world-wide group. Critics of her review felt that she overlooked the “white savior” motif in the novel. This is a motif that she should have been able to identify because of her identity. The reviewer had forgotten that she represented more than just herself. She had forgotten that she represented a people.

The shift toward reviewing based on the judgments of a crowd began when Kirkus assigned American Heart to a Muslim reviewer because she was Muslim.

Nonfiction by Genre, Social Justice

The New Jim Crow on MLK Day

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of ColorblindnessThe New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander is a reminder to white Americans that racial injustice is alive and well in the United States. Martin Luther King Jr Day should not simply be a day when Americans remember and celebrate the life of a civil rights activist – as if the Civil Rights Act fixed everything. It should also be a time when we reflect on how far we have yet to go. Martin Luther King’s dream has not yet been realized. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, but racism still exists in America.

But most of it is more subtle and more structural. Certainly, there are Americans who still hate blacks (ex. the Charleston massacre), but most would like to think that they are colorblind. Michelle Alexander argues convincingly in her book that our criminal justice system is not colorblind. The War on Drugs has perpetuated racial discrimination in this country, but non-black Americans have no problem with a prison system almost entirely made up of blacks. Whites do drugs at the same rate or at a higher rate as blacks, but police do not patrol their neighborhoods. Whites are not stopped and frisked for drugs, so whites are not found with drugs. Black men are shot down by the police who have been trained to associate blacks with violence. Unfortunately, because the Supreme Court assumes that our country is colorblind, claims of racism are dismissed. Our unjust structures are not considered unjust by our courts, so the system continues unchallenged. This is the new Jim Crow because like the old Jim Crow, black men with a prison history lose their voting privileges (often, for life), cannot get employment, are disqualified for food stamps, and may not even be able to get housing. Our country found the perfect way to strip blacks of their rights without overtly discriminating against them.

On this MLK Day, consider purchasing or borrowing from the library The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. We are not colorblind. Unfortunately, I don’t have much hope things will get better under Trump.

“Although drunk driving carries a far greater risk of violent death than the use or sale of illegal drugs, the societal response to drunk drivers has generally emphasized keeping the person functional and in society, while attempting to respond to the dangerous behavior through treatment and counseling. People charged with drug offenses, though, are disproportionately poor people of color. They are typically charged with felonies and sentenced to prison.”

“When black youth find it difficult or impossible to live up to these standards – or when they fail, stumble, and make mistakes, as all humans do – shame and blame is heaped upon them. If only they had made different choices, they’re told sternly, they wouldn’t be sitting in a jail cell; they’d be graduating from college. Never mind that white children on the other side of town who made precisely the same choices – often for less compelling reasons – are in fact going to college.”