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The World in the Satin Bag

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  • Shaun Duke
  • September 11, 2007 07:19:13 AM
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A Blog and Novel by S. M. Duke. Writing discussion, genre fiction, reviews, tips, and more!

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My Worldcon / ConZealand Schedule

Things have been extraordinarily busy in the Duke compound. I’m buying a house. I finished an online college argument course. And now I find myself prepping for a whole semester of virtual classes. Thus, I have no posted much here in the last few weeks. The good news? I’ve got a ConZealand schedule to share....

Things have been extraordinarily busy in the Duke compound. I’m buying a house. I finished an online college argument course. And now I find myself prepping for a whole semester of virtual classes. Thus, I have no posted much here in the last few weeks.

The good news? I’ve got a ConZealand schedule to share. To add things to your ConZealand schedule, you can find all my items here in Grenadine. I’ve also included the list below w/ U.S. times. There are panels, like Skiffy and Fanty Show shenanigans, and more. So please come!

Here’s the schedule:

  • “Magical Realism in Genre” — Tuesday (7/28) at 6 PM EST / 5 PM CST / 3 PM PST (10 AM on 7/29 in NZ)
    Magic realism has highlighted inner life when confronted with harsh reality, with a turn of a kaleidoscope,. Given the how magic realism works within interstitial spaces of ordinary life, can it slip into genres that already require a suspension of disbelief? (w/ Eli K.P. William, Silvia Brown, and *hopefully* Libia Brenda)
  • “Recent SF and Fantasy on TV: Beyond the Usual Suspects” — Wednesday (7/29) at 5 PM EST / 4 PM CST / 2 PM PST (9 AM on 7/30 in NZ)
    Talk of SF and fantasy on TV and streaming services often centers on Star Trek, Doctor Who, Game of Thrones and the Expanse. But there is so much more. Westworld. Stranger Things. Counterpart. The Good Place. The DC and Marvel Universe Shows. Star Wars (The Clone Wars, The Madalorian). The Witcher. What’s really good? (w/ Juliana Rew, Stina Leicht, Christine Taylor-Butler, and possibly another)
  • “The Golden Age of SF Movies: SF Films of the 1950s and Early 1960s” — Wednesday (7/29) at 12 AM EST / 11 PM CST / 9 PM PST (4 PM on 7/30 in NZ)
    Soon after World War II, as the Cold War introduced chilling new threats to the world’s peace of mind — Hollywood (and Tokyo) launched an avalanche of SF and monster-related movies. Was this a golden age? Or were these flicks mostly cheap shockers that kept recycling variations on the theme of “Monster Attacks!”? (w/ Dr. Bradford Lyau, Mallory O’Meara, and Ion
  • “The Skiffy and Fanty Show Podcast (LIVE)” — Thursday (7/30) at 4 PM EST / 3 PM CST / 1 PM PST (8 AM on 7/31 in NZ)
    Join us for a discussion of the Netflix film The Old Guard & comic book adaptations. (w/ Jen Zink and Alasdair Stuart)
  • “History and SF” — Thursday (7/30) at 9 PM EST / 8 PM CST / 6 PM PST (1 PM on 7/31 in NZ)
    Phil Klass (William Tenn) once said that the real science of science fiction is history. Many great SF works get much of their strength because the history — implicit or explicit — behind the story feels real. How do writers manage this? How can real history be made to work in a story? What are some examples? (w/ Arkady Martine, Dr. Farah Mendlesohn, Claire Bartlett, and Ada Palmer)
  • “Kaffeeklatsch: Shaun Duke and Jen Zink” — Friday (7/31) at 10 PM EST / 9 PM CST / 7 PM PST (2 PM on 8/1 in NZ)
    In which Jen and I will sit in a Zoom meeting to talk about podcasting, nerdery, and whatever else you want to pester us with. Come hang with us! We might have beer…for us. Sorry. We can’t share over video…

And there you have it. My schedule. I hope to see y’all there!


How to Be a Conservative Rabbit Tale: On Polly Horvath’s Mr. and Mrs. Bunny–Detectives Extraordinaire

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I requested a review copy of Polly Horvath’s then-new children’s novel, Mr and Mrs. Bunny–Detectives Extraordinaire (2012). The quirky premise — a pair of rabbits taking on the role of detectives (duh) — gave me some strong The Rescuers vibes, and being a bit of...

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I requested a review copy of Polly Horvath’s then-new children’s novel, Mr and Mrs. Bunny–Detectives Extraordinaire (2012). The quirky premise — a pair of rabbits taking on the role of detectives (duh) — gave me some strong The Rescuers vibes, and being a bit of a closet animal fantasy nerd, I figured it was up my alley. And then I promptly forgot about it until now. You’re free to call me a monster.

The story splits its time between Madeline, Mr. and Mrs. Bunny, and the Grand Poobah, who is mostly there to be the menacing villain. For Madeline, island life with her extreme hippy parents, Mildred and Flo, is no picnic, especially when it comes to her education and desire to fit in with “normal society.” But when her parents are kidnapped by what appears to be a car full of foxes and she discovers a note demanding to know the whereabouts of her code-breaking uncle, she must set out to save them. Enter Mr. and Mrs. Bunny, a couple of country bunnies who move to a more bustling bunny valley and decide to try their hand at being detectives, which they do by simply wearing fedoras. When they stumble upon Madeline, who can curiously understand them, they set out in their clunky way to help her find her parents and put an end to whatever the foxes are really planning. And meanwhile still, the Grand Poobah, the leader of the foxes, just wants someone to decode a set of coded recipe cards so he can make bank in his rabbit and rabbit by-products facctory. Hi-jinks ensue.

The thing about time is that it is often unkind even to seemingly silly books meant for children. This is a fact I discovered while reading Mary Norton’s The Magic Bed Knob (1945) and Bonfires and Broomsticks (1947), the former of which, while still mostly fun, spends a great deal of time hammering home a familiar colonial and racist narrative about island peoples and cannibalism. For the amusement of children. Ho hum. Time has been no less kind to Mr. and Mrs. Bunny, a book that, as the title of this review suggests, takes a decidedly conservative direction in its quirky story, something which, I’m afraid, I did not find amusing. The novel does not simply parrot loose conservative ideas about culture or narrative or simply present them as jokes that the reader is meant to be “in” on; rather, it seems to relish in these ideas with an almost brutal efficiency. Worse, it harbors contempt for its political opposite while parroting and delighting in ideals that, at best, are “Uncle Joe at Thanksgiving” acceptable and, at worst, toxic.

The most obvious example of this conservatism (small “c,” not big “c”) is in the novel’s treatment of Madeline’s parents. From the start, they are presented as woefully clueless hippies with little to no regard for the well-being of their child or for, well, anything but their eclectic set of hippy ideals. They refuse to work to cover expenses, they reject with self-righteous aplomb any semblance of modern society, and they regularly insult and belittle Madeline’s interests in school, graduation, or, well, anything. If that’s not enough, the narrator reminds us over and over that hippies are bad people: ignorant, abusive, and contemptible. If not for this being a book for kids, you might call this portrayal a flat straw man, a deliberate distortion of actual people for a political message.

Yet, because it is for kids, it feels even worse, especially in light of the fact that the novel’s heroes are the polar opposite and yet are meant to be viewed as a fun, quirky, and eccentric alternative to Madeline’s parents. They are caring and loving, but Mr. Bunny is also “that man,” repeatedly making things up despite Mrs. Bunny’s protests and repeatedly ignoring Mrs. Bunny’s wishes and desires. He rarely consults Mrs. Bunny about his decisions that affect her and regularly rejects her opinions even though it’s obvious to the reader that she is right. This is meant to be “cute,” but it comes off as a stereotypical “that man” marriage, rife with the sexist tropes one expects of the stereotype. Mr. Bunny even gifts us with numerous cultural rants, including one gem in which he lectures everyone about why tipping waiters is an affront to decency, which he uses as an excuse to leave a poor tip. Anyone spending time on social media will recognize this story in the numerous examples of customers leaving rude notes to waiters to explain why they didn’t tip.

All of this is buried in a narrative style that comes off as less quirky than self-obsessed and assured of its cleverness. The novel regularly wanders into rambling “jokes” about all manner of tangents. Sometimes they are actually amusing, but most of the time they distract from or come off as replacements for the story. For example, consider this:

And here Mr. Bunny paused for dramatic effect. He paused so long that several councilbunnies went out for coffee. One had time to order a short decaf double shot no whip mocha iced frappuccino to go. Mr. Bunny paused so long that when the councilbunny’s coffee cam, he had time to change his mind to a venti semi-skimmed soy no sugar caramel macchiato with no whip but double caramel and a reduced-fat skinny poppy seed and lemon muffin, hot, no butter. When the councilbunnies got back, Mr. Bunny was almost done pausing. They sipped their coffee and turned their attention back to him.

Page 185-186.

First, I’d like to know how many children reading this book could reasonably understand both the cacophony of Starbucksian coffee slang and the sentence itself, which even a learned adult would struggle to read. Second, I’d like to know what the point of this was. Is it meant to be funny because, haha, bunnies like the same eccentric mouth-gumming coffee monstrosities as we do? Maybe this sort of humor was “in” back in 2012, but by golly does it come off as trite here (if not a tad insulting to people who actually enjoy their complex coffees). In terms of the plot, the dramatic pausing only exists to set up this “joke,” but within the context of what is actually happening (Mr. Bunny is on trial for consorting with marmots and humans, which, admittedly, is kinda amusing) it doesn’t really do anything but delay the inevitable: Mr. Bunny declaring that Madeline is their pet, and thus not subject to the law. If not for the previous 180+ pages of random tangents as setups for hopelessly modern “jokes,” I might have found this at least a tad amusing, but so much of Horvath’s book is stuffed with this stuff, delaying the plot for what seems an eternity.

These tangents also set up another critical flaw: the lackluster and largely unexplored animal fantasy. In the best talking animal books, the authors either totally excise any sense that the animals live in separate worlds from humans or attempt to imagine an animal society extrapolated from the actual animals. Here, however, there’s little logic to the existence of a bunny society (or any other animal societies). When the story needs them to have some feature, it gives it to them. Horvath neither commits to a fully realized animal society separate from humans or to a fully conceived anthropomorphic animal society. Instead, there are explicit descriptions of bunny behaviors paired with explicit descriptions of bunnies as nothing more than tiny humans with fur. This is meant to be quirky and fun, but it comes off more like a novel that doesn’t know what it wants to be.

As much as I wish I could say something nice about this book beyond the lovely illustrations by Sophie Blackall, in the end, I found it tacky, overly obsessed with its own cleverness, and, frankly, insulting. This isn’t a book in the vein of The Rescuers or Stuart Little. It’s a book that is too self-absorbed to realize that its contempt for its characters, its valorization of abusive tropes, and its incessant tangents and desperation to seem clever makes it memorable for the wrong reasons. It’s not a book for kids. It’s a training manual for conservative rabbits. And there’s a bloody sequel…


Donald Trump is a Fascist, and It’s Time We Stop Pretending Otherwise

The U.S. military has begun appearing on U.S. streets in response to protests against police brutality and murder. The president has threatened more aggressive action, and fears abound about whether Trump can use the Insurrection Act to override the Posse Comitatus Act (an 1878 law that limits the president’s ability to deploy the military on...

The U.S. military has begun appearing on U.S. streets in response to protests against police brutality and murder. The president has threatened more aggressive action, and fears abound about whether Trump can use the Insurrection Act to override the Posse Comitatus Act (an 1878 law that limits the president’s ability to deploy the military on U.S. soil). Meanwhile, in his latest tantrum, Trump has issued an executive order to attack the lawsuit protections granted to social media companies under his false belief that a notification of a fact check on a publicly available tweet constituted censorship. Lawsuits challenging the order have already been filed, and we wait now to see what will be the next step in the increasingly unhinged rants and flails of a president who too often seems to live in an alternate reality.

In all of this, I’ve pondered a question I asked my students in a college writing class in 2017: is Donald J. Trump a fascist? Throughout the semester, they read non-fiction and literature ranging from Umberto Eco’s “Ur-fascism” to Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here to better understand what fascism is and the influence it had on U.S. culture. Back in 2017, the answer was a definitive “no, but.” No, he’s not a fascist, but he is an authoritarian. No, he’s not a fascist, but his behavior is unsettling. No, he’s not a fascist, but we should still be concerned. The question is one that the nation has struggled with since Trump’s election. There’s a good reason for that: fascism is, for most U.S.-Americans, an ill-defined concept. Much like the phrase “science fiction,” most of us are only equipped to identify it when we see it, and even then, not very effectively. I sought to combat that in my fascism course, and I’ll turn to some of that knowledge here to once more consider that infamous question.

In Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism, he makes a compelling argument for a definition of fascism and an explanation for its rise. For Paxton, fascism cannot be defined by a cogent ideology, in part because fascists may have none or may use a variety of other ideological positions to scaffold their grab for power. As such, fascism differs remarkably from other ideological forms, especially those arising to power in the same period (communism, for example) and the most visible fascist societies in the 20th century (Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy). This is not to suggest that fascists cannot have an ideology; rather, what defines them as fascists isn’t the ideology to which they adhere. For that reason, fascists may borrow from other ideological structures, often to absurd effect, as a ladder for the manipulation of a society and the seizure of power. For Paxton, in other words, fascism is a political phenomenon defined by its behaviors and development or paradigmatic stages, which include:

  1. Intellectual exploration, where disillusionment with popular democracy manifests itself in discussions of lost national vigor
  2. Rooting, where a fascist movement, aided by political deadlock and polarization, becomes a player on the national stage
  3. Arrival to power, where conservatives seeking to control rising leftist opposition invite fascists to share power
  4. Exercise of power, where the movement and its charismatic leader control the state in balance with state institutions such as the police and traditional elites such as the clergy and business magnates.
  5. Radicalization or entropy, where the state either becomes increasingly radical, as did Nazi Germany, or slips into traditional authoritarian rule, as did Fascist Italy.

Anyone familiar with Paxton’s work who looks at the United States of 2020 would be hard pressed to argue that we are not already many steps into the fascist development. The “Make America Great Again” slogan of the Trump administration demonstrates clearly the first paradigm even as protests across the nation and the rapid decline of U.S. favor around the world continues around us. The very election of Trump — a product, arguably, of at least 8 years of blatant and public political deadlock and polarization — points clearly to the second paradigm. I’d also argue that the endless desire of traditional Democrats to find bipartisan support in those same 8 years and beyond — an effort frequently in vain — shows us the third. The notion that the Democratic party is a truly left party, which we hear all the time in the political sphere, is laughable given that by any other western measure, the Democrats are conservatives. That more left leaning Democrats and politicians are challenging the traditional neo-liberalist hold on the Democrat party makes it even more clear that we are either in or through the third paradigm.

This leads us to the fourth and fifth, two of the most important paradigms in Paxton’s framework, but also two of the most difficult to see at societal scale in the U.S. If not for recent events, I might have argued that we were verging on but not yet in the fourth paradigm. Yet, the increasing use of police force (and manipulation) against the current protests across the country and the Trump administration’s efforts to use military force make it clear that we’re at least within that paradigm. While I don’t think the fourth stage is fully realized, the fact that the military have been present on U.S. streets in some cities is enough to convince me that we are within it. And since the fourth paradigm is still in process, we can’t yet be within the fifth even if it’s clear from a close analysis of Trump’s governing style and behavior that this is the direction we’re going.

Trump with his best friend.

All this is to say that while the U.S. is not yet a proper fascist state, we are well on our way there. Experts and survivors of fascism and related oppressive governments have been warning us since the election of Trump, yet the rise of (white) nationalist populism has proceeded apace, slowed largely because there are still systems of power in place to prevent it. But we should know that if those systems did not exist, many of the most brutal and horrific things this president imagines would have come to pass. But why should we be concerned, then? If fascism is in the United States and it’s currently stalled by checks and balances, should we really be worried?

The answer is “yes.” And the reason is Donald J. Trump. That the Trump administration and its supporters (Republicans in general) plan to uproot the system by packing the courts with conservative judges should serve as a serious warning about the health of our democracy. More importantly, Trump’s rhetoric and behavior, if left unchecked, make it hard to argue that we are not dealing with a fascist in practice. In the same book, Paxton suggests that fascists are governed by a range of behaviors or passions that help propel the movement forward. Broken down, they paint a stark picture of the current state of politics in the U.S.:

  1. A sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions.
    The defining feature of the Trump campaign: that he and he alone can solve the United States’ problems because he is an outsider, an unconventional politician, a purger, a solution from God. If we look at the rhetoric of Trump’s campaign and administration, we’ll find endless stories of grand conspiracies from a corrupt “swamp” of politicians to global manipulation and abuse by foreign nations (China in particular). And these, we’re told, can’t be solved by politics as usual; after all, the political system is implicated in this corruption, and only Trump can solve it by “draining the swamp.”
  2. The primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether individual or universal, and the subordination of the individual to it.
    One need only look at Trump’s remarkable ability to mobilize his followers on social media to see this passion in action. The frequent return to identity-by-hashtag, the repetition of common talking points, the adoration of Trump and Trumpism at the expense of reason or actual political conversation, etc. While this is not unique to Trump — indeed, even left-leaning or center groups can engage in these behaviors — it’s hard to miss the singular importance of his base to the movement he helped shove into the spotlight. They are passionate, obsessive, and seemingly unmoved by anything from outside of the Trump bubble. They have, in a sense, relinquished their identity to the cause — subordinated themselves, as it were, to the leader and his loose, incoherent ideology. And they believe unflinchingly in their superiority because of their dedication. Unlike their enemies, they are unquestionably right just as Trump is unquestionably right. That passion is so firm that even seemingly simple challenges of the most basic facts often cannot penetrate the fold.
  3. The belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external.
    If anyone could be accused of playing victim, it would be Trump. Since his election (and before), Trump has almost daily accused the press of lying about him and has encouraged his followers to believe themselves to be unfairly set upon by leftists, fake Republicans, liars in the press, foreign governments and business, the general media, and even the general public. Essentially, everyone who isn’t “for Trump” will inevitably be smeared as part of the machine out to get him. Trump and his followers have regularly threatened to do something about it. These words became action when Trump openly declared war via executive order against social media companies and happily allowed the theft of immigrant children in one of the largest human trafficking incidences in U.S. history.
  4. Dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences.
    What is the “America first” obsession if not an explicit belief that one’s group — one’s America — has suffered from influences and behaviors most foul? Trump’s obsession with victimhood and his follower’s obsession with the perceived (and, frankly, misunderstood) decline of the United States are foundational to the “America first” mantra. America, after all, has suffered. Its politicians have failed its people, selling out American jobs and American families to foreign governments, allowing multiculturalism to gut the middle class, letting illegals take American jobs, etc. All leading to the loss of U.S. influence around the world, to the broken systems that leave too many Americans behind. This singular terror continues to occupy the Trump administration, especially today as protests continue to flood U.S. streets across the country. Despite evidence to the contrary, Trump continues to believe that antifa (anti-fascist) groups are looting businesses and burning public property. Evidence, after all, doesn’t matter. Leftists are the real problem.
  5. The need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary.
    The “America first” president has argued since day one for a more pure America. Whether you consider Trump a white supremacist or not, the open hostility against foreigners, especially from Mexico, Central America, and Asia, his endless calls for an isolationist approach to governance, and his verbal and governmental attacks on various foreign governments over trade and other issues all strongly support this “purity” passion.
  6. The need for authority by natural chiefs (always male), culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny.
    Trump is a prophet. Trump will lead us to glory. Trump will fix the nation’s problems. Trump’s machismo will never be broken. Trump is us. Trump is supreme. Masculinity is frequently on display in fascist and authoritarian systems; after all, we associate dominance and violence with the masculine in most western cultures. Trump has often asserted his masculinity in public, both in vulgar ways (grabbing them by…) and by declaring, as most authoritarians do, that force should be the answer (they must be made to do it). His rhetoric and actions have placed him firmly in the center of a movement that only he can lead. His influence, as such, has probably irreparably changed the Republican party. His own party members are afraid to challenge him, and if they do, they’ll be publicly emasculated on Trump’s Twitter account and by his followers.
  7. The superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason.
    For this, we need only look at the endless stories of Trump’s supporters flocking to his defense without thought and arguing for his brilliance and the Evangelical community’s belief that he was sent by God. Trump, of course, plays into these fantasies, both in his self-aggrandizing tweets and in his frequent PR stunts to link himself with a God movement.
  8. The beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success.
    We saw this one during the campaign. Trump openly joked about violence at his rallies, sometimes proclaiming his love for it and sometimes effectively arguing that he would use it. His recent call to use the military to stifle protests contributes to this message; it also ties into Trump’s almost fanatical obsession with his own success and the equally fanatical obsession among his followers of his ability to do what they believe is right. For his followers, his actual success is less important than their belief in what he can and will do to protect them from the forces aimed to destroy their version of the United States.
  9. The right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle.
    We will win. We will defeat our enemies. We will destroy the left. We will root you out and remove you. Trump and his followers have frequently declared that domination is not only necessary to keep them in power, it is also the American Way™ when faced with, as we saw in #3, an unrelenting (straw man) foe. Trump has also frequently said he will use the U.S. military to smite our enemies abroad, real or imagined, and he regularly denies the authority of law in his speeches and tweets despite being the so-called “law and order” president. His followers have likewise been encouraged to dominate through violence and rhetoric, both by Trump and by his more eloquent followers. What are his references to the 2nd Amendment and his seemingly vague but rather pointed statements that violence and aggression are the answer but an asserted right to domination? If we look closely at the entirety of the Trump apparatus, it seems clear to me that the right and will to dominate is fundamental to their political identity, even if much of that “right” is founded on rhetoric that hasn’t transferred into organized action.
Charlottesville Unite the Right rally. Photo by Anthony Crider.

I don’t think Trump realizes that he is a fascist, but I think that largely because Trump doesn’t read and appears to have a shaky-at-best grasp of reality. But what he realizes and what is true are often very different things, especially for this president. For that reason, I think he represents a greater fascistic threat in U.S. society than more eloquent and thoughtful variations, in part because Trump has an inability to filter himself or think through most anything he says or does. For some who have clambered for this sort of political momentum, it’s a glorious moment. For those who value democracy and reasoned discourse, it’s a nightmare.

There is, however, a small bit of hope in all this: Trump is also a coward. Like all blathering authoritarians, Trump can and sometimes is called on his bluffs. When faced with what most would consider his defining moment of his presidency — responding to civil unrest in U.S. streets — he allowed himself, unlike his main opponent, Joe Biden, to be whisked away to a bunker for safety. Instead of taking his security detail and walking out to speak with protesters, he had them (and the press covering them) gassed so he could stage a photo op at a church (which denounced the move). One thing we know about cowardly authoritarians: they never last.

But the fact remains: Donald Trump is a fascist. And it’s time we stopped pretending otherwise.


“Protest. But Not Like That. Or Like That.”: U.S.-America’s Self-Imposed Riots

To suggest that protest in the United States is in its blood would be an understatement. Even a flippant view of the creation of this nation would require a recognition that the very founding of the United States was predicated on a string of protests. The casual references to the Boston Tea Party of 1773...

To suggest that protest in the United States is in its blood would be an understatement. Even a flippant view of the creation of this nation would require a recognition that the very founding of the United States was predicated on a string of protests. The casual references to the Boston Tea Party of 1773 and other events in the decades leading up to the American Revolution would have to recognize the train of events as inevitable stepping stones to violence. The founding American story is an easily discernible hill that one must climb, fall down, and climb again: peaceful protest, destruction of property, looting and rioting, rebellion, and revolution.

Yet, in the grand scheme of U.S.-American culture, we have often segregated our favorite variations of the pattern from the less comfortable ones. U.S.-Americans can joke about the Boston Tea Party or raise their fists over the Revolutionary War, but the same fervor and pride is noticeably absent when it comes to the same patterns concerning racial injustice, as in the case of the Slave Insurrection of 1741 or Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831. U.S.-Americans during the era of slavery responded to possibility of slave revolts not by recognizing the immorality of the slavery system but by stifling dissent, increasing their control on slaves, and preserving white society. Later, U.S.-Americans would split their views on the institution of slavery while preserving a segregated society — by law in the South and by design in the north. Later still, U.S.-Americans were split again on the Civil Rights movement, with far too many supporting the use of police violence to stop dissent (with the help of the FBI). And today, that familiar response is here again.

In Ferguson in 2014, protests over the police killing of Michael Brown were met by police in riot gear, SWAT teams, tear gas, and other non-lethal methods of crowd dispersal (and violence). Police also destroyed a memorial laid by Michael Brown’s mother, adding fuel to a fire that would erupt into riots. Three years later, Vice President Mike Pence, following the lead of many angry U.S.-Americans, would storm out of an NFL game after several 49ers players knelt in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and in protest of racial injustice. Pence, who probably staged the walkout, stated that he left because he would not “dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem,” a sentiment shared by Trump and later emphasized when the cast of Hamilton offered a dissenting message to Pence at the conclusion of their performance in the same year. For Trump, apparently, being told that his administration may be contributing to the unsafe conditions for minority populations constituted an attack on the safety of the institution of the theater, despite, it should be clear, the Hamilton cast offering little more than words. And in Minneapolis, peaceful protests were similarly met by police, and just as in Ferguson, peaceful protests turned to riots. The murder of George Floyd has likewise sparked protests and possible riots across the country. As I said the other day: America burns.

The message from the bottom to the top is pretty clear: you can protest, but not like that or like that or like that…

3rd Police Precinct building on after 5/28 protests in Minneapolis. Photo by Lorie Shaull under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

U.S.-Americans are fond of proclaiming their appreciation of dissent and protest. It’s so ingrained in our culture that we often utter the phrase “your right to protest” without critically examining its unequal distribution. White Americans can show up at government buildings armed to the teeth to protest stay-at-home orders and face little more than ridicule on Twitter. They can crowd government buildings so that business cannot be conducted. The same cannot be said about black America, who are frequently met with police violence, mass arrests, and more, even though they are rarely armed with more than signs and the occasional bottle. The contrast is stark.

Beyond this unequal distribution, U.S.-Americans are also remarkably adept at outright rejecting demonstrations when they don’t conform to the dominant narrative. Protests against racial injustice — a demonstrable and objective problem that extends back to the founding of the nation — challenge the U.S.-American narrative of itself, a narrative created and disseminated by white America. They challenge our institutions and our understanding of our world. They are, unsurprisingly, uncomfortable things. Yet, the fact that protests are meant to provoke discomfort, to challenge entrenched institutions of power, and to seek justice is often lost in the translation, this despite the dominant narrative’s obsession with forms of protest that provoke these very things. It’s hard to view the foundational arguments about taxation without representation as anything but explicit challenges to entrenched institutions, or as naturally uncomfortable forms of protest for loyalists and the British, or as attempts to seek justice. Go through the U.S.-American (dominant white) narrative, and you’ll find countless stories about this very thing, even when those stories end with peaceful protests rather than looting or property destruction or rebellion. Even when this U.S.-America acknowledges racial injustice, it’s often merely to prop up the fundamental myth of the Great America that dispelled its demons for a more equal society.

The unfortunate truth is that the protests in Minneapolis and the protests of racial injustice over the last 30 years are a product of a predominately white public that views most acts of protest as an attack. Indeed, many predominately white Americans have felt themselves under attack by a culture that seems destined to leave them behind, a kind of victimhood that absolves them of responsibility. Rather than treat protests as opportunities for community discussion, far too many wish to dismiss them out of hand. We saw this all too well with the reactions to Kaepernick’s knee protests. No matter how many times he or others tried to explain his position, the narrative of racial injustice was always left behind. His protest was the wrong way. His protest upset people. His protest made us uncomfortable because it flew in the face of the institutions we had uncritically accepted as unchangeable. You can protest, but not that way, or that way…

In the end, it’s hardly surprising that there are riots in Minneapolis and elsewhere. It’s hardly surprising that there are protests happening across the country or that so many people are fed up. This is what happens when people who feel slighted, ignored, and literally brutalized by the de facto U.S. police state try to follow society’s rules and realize that they aren’t being heard. They rebel. They riot and burn things to the ground.

U.S.-Americans (especially white Americans) don’t want to hear it, but they need to. This is the bed that the dominant culture of this country made for itself. Riots are not pure chaos. They are not without provocation. They are a symptom of a disease ravaging the nation. A disease of inaction. A disease of injustice. A disease of closed doors. And they are by no means the “preferred method.” But when the preferred method doesn’t work, what else is there?

The country isn’t burning because the protesters have lost their minds or because they are bad people, even if some of them probably have and probably are… The country is burning because too many of us didn’t want to listen when the message was just a little uncomfortable. And just like the empires of old, sometimes the only way to get a message across is to punch the person who isn’t listening in the face. Or to burn part of your community to the ground to feel a sense of control in a world that has stripped you of it. Whether it works doesn’t really matter.

My friend K. Worthen made a great point in her recent article, “The Frenzy of Our Frustration“:

And yet, it would be unthinkable, in fact repugnant, to not speak, to not scream, to not rage at this persistent juridical, legal, political, and social devaluation of Black life. Throughout its history, it is the one thing that America has done with malignant consistency. So we must speak. We simply cannot sit still.

The tension of U.S.-American protest rests in this moment of the unthinkable. The idea that an injustice can continue unchallenged forever, no matter how small or how large. That familiar narrative mountain always reappears. We protest. We destroy property. We rebel.


The Lie of Resisting Arrest

In the last four days, Minneapolis has been on fire, literally and metaphorically. On Monday (5/25), George Floyd was strangled to death by a police officer who placed his knee on Floyd’s neck for a total of seven straight minutes. The officer was white. George Floyd was black. In the wake of the murder, the...

In the last four days, Minneapolis has been on fire, literally and metaphorically. On Monday (5/25), George Floyd was strangled to death by a police officer who placed his knee on Floyd’s neck for a total of seven straight minutes. The officer was white. George Floyd was black. In the wake of the murder, the officer (and three others who were with him) was fired and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo has called for an FBI investigation; to date, no charges have been filed. Protests followed. Those protests soon became two straight evenings of riots; protesters turned from peaceful demonstration to destructive rage, lighting buildings on fire, looting stores, and creating mayhem.

Minneapolis is just one fire burning in the United States, a country that has struggled and sometimes fought tooth-and-nail to preserve its racist history. A history that lives today in the apparent racist SWATing-style attempt against an NYC Central Park bird watcher, the apparent lynching of a black man who was simply jogging, the systemic inequality contributing to a disproportionate number of deaths in black communities from COVID-19, and the rise of anti-Asian racism partly fueled by Trump. Minneapolis has its own unique racist history, from the destruction of the predominately black Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul during the construction of I-94 to the history of racism within the Twin Cities police forces — the same area in which Philando Castile was murdered. And just like the the country it resides in, Minneapolis is burning.

All of this is setup for what will be the inevitable string of arguments to justify the death of George Floyd. Indeed, in the wake of many police shootings of unarmed black men, the stories we’ll see fit into one of a small group of options: he was a criminal; he was doing something illegal (but totally minor) at the time; he lied about something; he tried to run; he reached for a gun; or he resisted arrest. Setting aside the fact that it’s often difficult to know what actually happened — and a dead black man cannot defend himself from accusations — or that most of these are hardly justifications for death (reaching for a gun being an exception only if it’s actually true and not simply claimed without evidence), only one of these is absurd even when it actually occurred: he resisted arrest.

Photo of protest for George Floyd in Minneapolis. May 26, 2020. Photo by Fibonacci Blue under CC 2.0.

“Resisting arrest” legally refers to someone who deliberately and knowingly attempts to prevent a police officer from conducting a lawful arrest — of themselves or someone else. U.S. states offer variations on this definition and its criminal consequences, and some courts have even ruled that resisting unlawful arrest may not be legal either. A Catch-22 of sorts. Yet, resisting arrest may also appear before the use of force, during the use of force, after the use of force, or even the quite popular “when the police officer needs an excuse for the use of force.” A fourth category might be “when the police offer decides the use of force should proceed directly to the use of lethal force,” as appears to be the case in the murder of George Floyd.

Yet, the legal scholarship and the public’s understanding of “resisting arrest” needs a serious reality check in the form of a biological roadblock: requiring someone to comply in most of these situations is completely antithetical to human nature and denies a basic human physiological function — the fight-or-flight response. And in denying that function, the very idea that one can “resist arrest” — let alone “resist arrest” knowingly in any meaningful way — seems, at best, irrational and utterly absurd.

“Fight-or-flight” is part of the body’s “stress response.” These days, we mostly talk about this response in the context of stress disorders and anxiety, but it applies equally as well to confrontations with police. In short (and super basic), when in danger, your brain’s emotional processing center sends distress signals the brain’s command center. This triggers an automatic response in the body that sends adrenaline into numerous systems, increasing your breathing and heart rate and causing other physiological changes, such as sharpened senses. All of this begins before your conscious responses can fully react — wherein your body’s parasympathetic nervous system might serve as a “brake” provided your ability to control your response to stress hasn’t been compromised. From here, a bit of a battle ensues. While your brain’s emotional processing center goes into overdrive, the logical response center attempts to process the information to determine the seriousness of the danger. In most brains in mildly threatening situations, the logical response center overrides the emotional processing center; in other situations, that response may be hindered or completely stifled by the body’s natural inclination towards “fight-or-flight.” This is sometimes called the amygdala hijack. Obviously, this can compromise decision making.

When people talk about “resisting arrest,” the implication is that altercations with the police are inappropriate situations for allowing this hijacking to occur. After all, they’re police officers; you’re not running away from a very angry bear. But the response to these situations suggests otherwise. Having an officer pin you by the neck with their knee or threaten you with a gun while you are unarmed or beat you with a baton or place you in a choke hold or throw you violently to the concrete … These are all perfectly justifiable reasons to give in to your fight-or-flight response. More importantly, it’s completely illogical and irrational to expect any everyday citizen to react otherwise. We are not trained to suppress our stress-based reactions. Ask yourself if you would allow anyone to throw you onto a concrete sidewalk and place their knee on your neck for seven minutes until you pass out. Would you stay perfectly still? Could you stay perfectly still? Could you stop yourself from resisting? Ask yourself whether you’d still give in if that person ignored your repeated complaints that you can’t breathe or that you’re in extreme pain. Could you do that? Do you think it reasonable to expect you to do so? I didn’t think so.

In almost all “resisting arrest” situations, what we hear are not stories of understanding — except from the black community and its allies. We hear people looking for justification. He resisted, so he deserved to be suffocated to death. He resisted, so the choke hold was acceptable. He resisted, so beating him repeatedly on the head was OK. He resisted, so slamming him to the concrete and holding him down with your knee in the center of his back until his heart gave out from stress was just fine. He resisted officers doing these things, so he deserved the offer to put a bullet through his choice at point blank range. The conversation never considers that maybe our police forces should be better trained in deescalation tactics. Most of you know this deep down because you, like most U.S.-Americans, were raised in a culture that told you violence was a last resort. Yet, for some reason, we don’t apply that same reasoning to the police, who hold the right that almost no American has in almost any situation: they are allowed to kill citizens.

None of this is “fine.” There is no moral justification for this anymore than there is to train children in active shooter drills when other solutions could correct the problem. We may tell children to listen to the police, but we don’t tell them that even perceived acts of defiance may result in violence that puts them at odds with their own biology. Some of them have to learn from their family and friends (or the hard way) that the mere presence of melanin will mean that defiance isn’t even necessary to receive this treatment. Worse, they will learn that far too often, the only choice is to give in to fight-or-flight because death is almost assured either way. Either you die being choked to death on the street over an imagined or largely benign crime or you die getting choked to death or shot to death on the street because you “resisted.” America’s racial Catch-22.

What America needs is an ethical reckoning. We need to recognize that resisting physiological instincts to protect your lives should not be perceived as a crime by default. That the job of the police should be to avoid this response through deescalation. That the police should use violence only as the last resort — and, yes, restraining techniques are violence. That “resisting arrest” is a bullshit crime used far too often to justify police violence and murder. Until we do, we will see these stories again and again. More protests will occur. More cities will burn. And it won’t be the fault of some uppity folk who deserve their lot — yet another bullshit excuse. It’ll be our fault for not doing anything to prevent the deaths of unarmed citizens, too often black, too often just folk like you or I, too often fathers and brothers and friends and nephews, and too often just trying to live without the everyday reminder that their lives are structurally devalued in the society in which they were raised.


“Finding Hope”: The History Reading List

Not too long ago, I announced a little project called “Finding Hope in the Histories of the United States.” I set as a goal to begin with a series of general histories of the United States to see if understanding the full line of this country’s history can change how I understand the concept of...

Not too long ago, I announced a little project called “Finding Hope in the Histories of the United States.” I set as a goal to begin with a series of general histories of the United States to see if understanding the full line of this country’s history can change how I understand the concept of “hope.” And now that project can finally begin!

For the past few weeks, I’ve been waiting on the books I selected for the project to arrive. More particularly, the first two books in the chronology (listed below and shown at the top of the image). All the others got here in record time, but for some reason, the books I needed to even begin took a little extra time. But now the wait is over. Here’s the magic reading list for the first phase of “Finding Hope”:

The list is as follows:

  • American Colonies: The Settling of North America by Alan Taylor (Penguin)
  • The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 by Robert Middlekauf (Oxford University Press)
  • Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 by Gordon S. Wood (Oxford University Press)
  • What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 by Daniel Walker Howe (Oxford University Press)
  • Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson (Oxford University Press)
  • The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 by Richard White (Oxford University Press)
  • Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 by David M. Kennedy (Oxford University Press)
  • Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 by James T. Patterson (Oxford University Press)
  • Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore by James T. Patterson (Oxford University Press)

There’s a pattern here, of course. Most of the books are from the Oxford History of the United States. As I mentioned in the original post, I wanted to start from a solid foundation before moving to specific histories. There’s a reason for that. The biggest concern I have when reading history is the potential for manipulation, propaganda, or distortion. All history has some of this to a certain degree, but being able to suss out the more pernicious forms is, for me, crucial. I’m not a historian. But I am an academic who spends far too much time thinking about disinformation and its various cousins. It’s important to me to feel well-equipped to handle histories that might gloss over some aspects for others, even if the reason for that isn’t nefarious. And as I dug into academic readings lists and favored texts, the one group that came up over and over was the Oxford History of the United States. And so that’s where most of this project will start before bouncing off into the wild world of other non-general histories.

I hope you’ll follow along as I start to contemplate all this reading!


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