A good part of the reason I started blogging was because I went to a history conference at a UT branch up between Dallas and Fort Worth and found that, contrary to belief, many well known academic historians have found community history projects to be invaluable because of their focus and details. Photos rated high. Photos with details rate high. Interviews with participants in events rated high. Interviews with older people rated high if you cover their experience and perspective.
- Prairie Weather


“Protest works. Just look at the proof”


The last place you will hear about the new American labor movement is in big American outlets.

Via lambert, via susie. See them, their blogrolls, Twitter hash tag #1u and just about any other outlet where citizens can get the word out.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)

The CIW is a community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida. Via.


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Hugos, puppies, and the sci-fi equivalent of classic rock

I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy growing up, and I still have fond feelings for it. I don’t dismiss it as kid stuff or think of it as some kind of phase one might pass through on the way to reading more legitimate material. So even though I don’t keep up with it any more I still pay attention when it breaks into the news - which it did this week because of the Hugo Awards. It turns out there was this thing called #PuppyGate in which a group that called itself Sad Puppies - and a splinter group called Rabid Puppies - attempted to organize block voting for a slate of Hugo candidates. (By the way, memo to activists: the suffix -gate is a reliable indicator of an essentially trivial matter that someone is trying to hype into a scandal.)

The Sad Puppies were unhappy with what they saw as an atmosphere of political correctness. By their lights, any book that eschews current trends in favor of good old fashioned butt kicking adventure is unwelcome, ostracized even. It should go without saying, of course, that good old fashioned butt kicking adventures are not informed by any particular point of view but are wholly objective.

Those they deride as social justice warriors (SJWs) have created a stifling atmosphere in which only approved narratives are eligible for recognition. So they tried to get as many like-minded individuals as possible to vote for books that the SJWs had it in for. Scoring a win as a gesture of defiance to the tastemakers would emphasize the importance of quality over fads. Please try not to think about that last sentence too much.

The puppies are upset because, as they see it, the rest of the sci-fi community has declared that inclusiveness and alternative narratives are inherently meritorious. If, say, you write a book with a gay protagonist then your book has (in the puppies’ reading) a leg up on a book with a straight one. To be fair, I don’t think those on the side of diversity have always spelled out their reasoning as explicitly as they could have, which leaves some room for misinterpretation.

Amy Wallace has a nice overview of both the campaign and the awards. One of the striking characteristics of the puppies’ campaign is how inscrutable its lingo is. Terms like SJWs and the puppy titles themselves aren’t intuitive - they need to be explained to anyone who hasn’t marinated in the subculture. Maybe that’s how they want it. Maybe they don’t care about being understood as much as energizing true believers, in which case exclusionary jargon is a plus and not a minus. But it sure seems like a curious approach for any group trying to make a case to the larger public. As a largely disinterested observer I found it off-putting.

In any event, it didn’t strike me as an issue of rigidly enforced RightThink as much as one of innovation. If sci-fi and fantasy have traditionally been disproportionately represented by white men, then actively seeking out those who aren’t widens the spectrum of default perspectives. It’s not that a straight person can’t write believable gay characters (or vice versa). It’s that we all start by having the greatest ease and nuance in our own skin. That can be overcome - I’ve seen women rhapsodize about Tolstoy’s female characters - but it’s not easy, automatic or common. So casting a wider net will generally bring in a greater variety of storytelling, which in turn helps redefine the boundaries for the genre - and that is inherently meritorious.

The Sad Puppies’ position largely boils down to conservatism and nostalgia. They believe science fiction and fantasy should be about grand, sweeping epics - the kind of stories that used to dominate the form. They’d like it to go back to that, but as with all art and literature, sci-fi has evolved. The puppies don’t like the new direction; fair enough. There are also music fans who think it’s all been downhill since “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” No one is required to endorse new forms as they emerge.

Those who prefer older forms, though, should acknowledge that there may be some merit they don’t appreciate in the new ones. They should also understand that a flawless execution of the former may be less important than an imperfect execution of the latter. Only one of those pushes things forward, and pushing forward is the only way art stays vital. That seems like something worth celebrating - worth rewarding, even - not something to get sad or rabid over.

And Lucifer stole the show in Paradise lost, too

I learned a bit of largely unknown history this week thanks to Justin Gifford’s piece on Robert “Iceberg Slim” Beck, a writer who drew on his many years’ experience on the wrong side of the law to pen a series of lurid novels. His autobiography Pimp: The Story of My Life, was published in 1967. Gifford describes how it and Beck’s other novels pioneered a genre of black street fiction that first influenced the blaxploitation films of the 70s and gangsta rap in the 90s. (It also cleared up a idle curiosity of mine from back then: What prompted Ice-T and Ice Cube to both choose their Ice monikers? What’s the deal with this ice thing anyway? (Beck’s influence on Vanilla Ice awaits further academic inquiry.))

Gifford also describes how publisher Holloway House turned the genre into a cottage industry, details Holloway’s shabby treatment of its writers, and makes the case that the books spoke to significant parts of the black experience that the larger culture ignored: “they dealt directly with the pressing issues - white racism, police brutality, incarceration, poverty - that have plagued black urban communities for the past century.”

Commenter angela found the piece objectionable, though:

The condition of blacks was not and is not such as to automatically or necessarily lead to what Iceberg Slim wrote about. White liberals and african americans make a mistake to portray black people in this manner. The acceptable narrative is that life in the US is so bad, blacks have no choice, they can’t learn, they can’t do any work, they can’t refrain from crime. And if someone takes another path, we are told that this is a very exceptional case, little short of a miracle….Most human beings would not have a pimp as their hero. That is the kind of thing that most people want to shunt aside. Not that they don’t have pimps, but they would not define it as their culture. Not Muslims, not Hindus, not the Chinese, not the Peruvians, not the Mexicans, and not the Africans would point to a pimp as a cultural leader. This is a sign of misplaced values.

The idea that other narratives are unacceptable doesn’t account for the ones that have in fact been culturally acceptable. From the successful (if slightly buffoonish) businessman George Jefferson in the 70s, to the upper class professionals in the Cosby Show in the 80s, all the way down to the solidly middle class lead family in Blackish today, there’s a history of successful and productive blacks reaching popular audiences - and that’s just on TV. Sure they also share space with unsavory characters, but I don’t think it’s fair to say the latter have achieved some kind of critical mass.

As to her next point, I first got acquainted with the “normalization of deviancy” critique via harrumphing, grumpy old man op eds that went roughly like, sure we had teen pregnancy back in the day, but we didn’t celebrate it like we do now! I tend to think that overstates the case at both ends and I usually don’t find it very persuasive. Fiction that covers the dark side of human nature often has to confront how to describe bad behavior without seeming to glorify it.

When I read her comment I immediately thought of the controversies that pop up in movies and TV shows about the Mafia. Italian Americans voice similar concerns: it portrays us all as criminals, it overlooks those in our community working hard and playing by the rules, etc. There has to be room for morally compromised characters, though, and they aren’t very compelling if they are presented as pure evil. They need to be three dimensional; audiences will feel like they’re being beaten over the head with the message if they aren’t.

So you present the characters not necessarily as sympathetic, just not as caricatures. Beck seemed to have recognize this as well. Writing of his soon-to-be published and long lost novel Shetani’s Sister, Gifford says Beck wanted “to dismantle the glorious pimp image he had been criticizing in all of his works by showing how that lifestyle led to drug addiction, prison, and death.”

It sounds like Beck doesn’t use a heavy handed style, doesn’t telegraph THIS IS BAD every step of the way. Instead he describes the lifestyle, shows its considerable downsides, and lets readers arrive at their own conclusions. That’s what a good author does. (Beck also seems to have a real talent for turning a memorable phrase: “The melded odors of bargain colognes and steamy armpits rode the sweltering air like a sour aphrodisiac for gawking male bangers.”)

I understand that creators don’t have any control over how their work is received, that Mario Puzo may not have meant for mobsters to start actually imitating the characters he wrote about or thinking of them as role models. But that’s one of the risks of creating art that doesn’t lead people by the nose: The audience might see the decadence and conclude that it looks pretty great. And Lord knows the allure of villainy is not a new problem.

And Lucifer stole the show in Paradise lost

I learned a bit of largely unknown history this week thanks to Justin Gifford’s piece on Robert “Iceberg Slim” Beck, a writer who drew on his many years’ experience on the wrong side of the law to pen a series of lurid novels. His autobiography Pimp: The Story of My Life, was published in 1967. Gifford describes how it and Beck’s other novels pioneered a genre of black street fiction that first influenced the blaxploitation films of the 70s and later the gangsta rap in the 90s. (It also cleared up a idle curiosity of mine from back then: What prompted Ice-T and Ice Cube to both choose their Ice monikers? What’s the deal with this ice thing anyway? (Beck’s influence on Vanilla Ice awaits further academic inquiry.))

Gifford also describes how publisher Holloway House turned the genre into a cottage industry, details Holloway’s shabby treatment of its writers, and makes the case that the books spoke to significant parts of the black experience that the larger culture ignored: “they dealt directly with the pressing issues - white racism, police brutality, incarceration, poverty - that have plagued black urban communities for the past century.”

Commenter angela found the piece objectionable, though:

The condition of blacks was not and is not such as to automatically or necessarily lead to what Iceberg Slim wrote about. White liberals and african americans make a mistake to portray black people in this manner. The acceptable narrative is that life in the US is so bad, blacks have no choice, they can’t learn, they can’t do any work, they can’t refrain from crime. And if someone takes another path, we are told that this is a very exceptional case, little short of a miracle….Most human beings would not have a pimp as their hero. That is the kind of thing that most people want to shunt aside. Not that they don’t have pimps, but they would not define it as their culture. Not Muslims, not Hindus, not the Chinese, not the Peruvians, not the Mexicans, and not the Africans would point to a pimp as a cultural leader. This is a sign of misplaced values.

The idea that other narratives are unacceptable doesn’t account for the ones that have in fact been culturally acceptable. From the successful (if slightly buffoonish) businessman George Jefferson in the 70s, to the upper class professionals in the Cosby Show in the 80s, all the way down to the solidly middle class lead family in Blackish today, there’s a history of successful and productive blacks reaching popular audiences - and that’s just on TV. Sure they also share space with unsavory characters, but I don’t think it’s fair to say the latter have achieved some kind of critical mass.

As to her next point, I first got acquainted with the “normalization of deviancy” critique via harrumphing, grumpy old man op eds that went roughly like, sure we had teen pregnancy back in the day, but we didn’t celebrate it like we do now! I tend to think that overstates the case at both ends and I usually don’t find it very persuasive. Fiction that covers the dark side of human nature often has to confront how to describe bad behavior without seeming to glorify it. When I read her comment I immediately thought of the controversies that pop up in movies and TV shows about the Mafia. Italian Americans voice similar concerns: it portrays us all as criminals, it overlooks those in our community working hard and playing by the rules, etc. There has to be room for morally compromised characters, though, and they aren’t very compelling if they are presented as pure evil. They need to be three dimensional; audiences will feel like they’re being beaten over the head with the message if they aren’t.

So you present the characters not necessarily as sympathetic, just not as caricatures. Beck seemed to have recognize this as well. Writing of his soon-to-be published and long lost novel Shetani’s Sister, Gifford says Beck wanted “to dismantle the glorious pimp image he had been criticizing in all of his works by showing how that lifestyle led to drug addiction, prison, and death.” It sounds like Beck doesn’t use a heavy handed style, doesn’t telegraph THIS IS BAD every step of the way. Instead he describes the lifestyle, shows its considerable downsides, and lets readers arrive at their own conclusions. That’s what a good author does. (Beck also seems to have a real talent for turning a memorable phrase: “The melded odors of bargain colognes and steamy armpits rode the sweltering air like a sour aphrodisiac for gawking male bangers.”)

I understand that creators don’t have any control over how their work is received, that Mario Puzo may not have meant for mobsters to start actually imitating the characters he wrote about or thinking of them as role models. But that’s one of the risks of creating art that doesn’t lead people by the nose: The audience might see the decadence and conclude that it looks pretty great. And Lord knows the allure of villainy is not a new problem.

Coates and the racial reckoning

Here in post-racial America a book about race has somehow managed to elicit divided responses along racial lines. Reading the reviews of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me” I’ve noticed two types. One comes from people of color, particularly women of color. Britni Danielle, Shani O. Hilton, Syreeta McFadden and Brit Bennett have all praised the book, but found one noteworthy flaw in it: its conflation of the black male experience with the black experience. Black women are largely relegated to the periphery, and when they do show up it is in relation to a black man, not as individuals in their own right. They praise the book overall but they aren’t shy about pointing out that blind spot.

Meanwhile, H. Rambsy observed that white reviewers wrote for what they assumed was an exclusively white audience. Noah Berlatsky noted a hand-wringing quality to some of them as well: “the Economist and the NYT both wrote the same review of Coates’ book in which they flapped anxiously at his lack of respect for 9/11 firefighters and assured him that the world was getting better all the time because of nice establishment folks at the NYT and Economist, why oh why must he be so bitter?”

Carlos Lozada, who appears to be Hispanic so I have no idea where to fit him into this racial framework (I leave that as an exercise for the reader), sounded a similar theme: “the book also reads like an open letter to white America, to the well-meaning sorts who at some point might have said, ‘Yes, things are bad, but they’re getting better, right?’”

I noticed this dynamic last year during Coates’ exchange with Jonathan Chait: White writers wanting to look at the very long arc of history and tell a story of slow but inexorable improvement. There was slavery, then it was abolished, then there was Jim Crow, then civil rights legislation was passed, and now we are at wherever we are today. Progress! Meanwhile Coates was writing about how we haven’t actually tried to account for the damage that was done, and in any event he still has a very real fear that his kid will end up dead if he has a bad encounter with a cop.

As to that first part - accounting for the damage - both Coates and his reviewers of color seem to be on the same page. The historical fact of plunder and the present-day state of violence is a given, something so obvious as to hardly need comment. That’s because what is missing from the narrative of progress is the reckoning. It’s not enough to change the bad laws and walk away; we have to try to account for, and right as best we can, the wrongs that occurred during the bad laws.

America is capable of that kind of reckoning. We paid reparations to Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps during World War II. But of course a comparable reckoning with black Americans would be unfathomably more dramatic. Figuring the cost not of internment but slavery, measured not in years but centuries, would be a fearsome task. It would force us to once again face a grotesque history, and to acknowledge that justice was only partially done by changes in the law. It is much, much easier to just say yeah it was bad then but it’s better now so bygones, OK?

As to the second part - the situation now - it’s a little easier to face since we’re all living through it. But that doesn’t make it comfortable. It’s difficult to know that those we work with (and perhaps live near) are still in very different countries, that the easy familiarity we may have with each other, and certainty of each other’s good character, doesn’t change what happens in a store or at a traffic stop. Because acknowledging that means confronting the institutional forms of racism that still exist - despite the steady march of progress we console ourselves with.

Coates doesn’t give space for those illusions in his writing, and for that he is considered negative or a radical. A lot of people want to look at race from 50,000 feet, and all he does is pull the focus in, over and over again, and say: this is what we’ve done and who we are. It’s uncomfortable because we still haven’t had the reckoning. But maybe if we were to have it, he (and others) wouldn’t have quite the same acute worry that one of his children will meet an umtimely end.

When the truth is not enough

One week from Monday I will mark eight years blogging at Pruning Shears. It’s largely been quiet - my numbers have rarely bumped above the hundreds in visits per week. I like to console myself that this is because I write really smart, well reasoned and occasionally polemical essays that don’t fit the successful clickbait models (sensational headlines with quick, breathless and highly partisan takes; inspirational drivel; celebrity sideboob). But the more likely explanation is either a) I’m a terrible writer or b) I write about things that few care to read about.

Which is fine, I’ve only run the site as a hobby and (thankfully) never had to make money off it. I write about what I want, when I want. I don’t have an assignment editor making me cover topics I’m not interested in, and over the years I’ve connected with some really interesting people (including the bloggers at Prairie Weather and First Draft). While it would be nice to have massive traffic, I pretty much have the traffic I’ve earned and I can live with that.

I can afford to do that because I don’t need to make a living off it. Professional writers, on the other hand, need to hustle. They have to publicize their work and compose with one eye on capturing the largest possible audience. They don’t have the luxury I do: of writing only about what interests me, and if no one wants to read it then fuck it. Or of writing “fuck” for that matter.

So I understand that pressure, and I also understand the amateur blogger’s desire to get a big server-busting hit. But I have a hard time wrapping my head around how one can make the leap from that to presenting fiction as fact - particularly when doing so involves confessing to crimes. Alice Goffman appeared to do just that in her new book “On the Run.” She quickly backed off when the issue was raised, yet that just raises more questions. Her statement doesn’t square with her account in the book, so which are we to believe? Will future editions of the book be rewritten to present Hoffman’s new, less dramatic account? And how does she reconcile her radically re-worked version of events with the one in the book? Both of them cannot be true.

A story this week had a similar theme. A doctor with the pseudonym Hope Amantine wrote about1 an absolutely extraordinary event that happened during her residency. Noting her extra care during a heart procedure,

My attending asked, “Why are you being so dainty with your dissection there?” I answered that I wanted to avoid ripping the cava because they’re so much harder to fix.

Big mistake.

I take it he interpreted my comment as fear, and decided upon a teaching moment. He took his scissors and incredibly, before my eyes, and with no warning or preparation of any kind, cut a one-inch hole in the cava.

I was stunned. As I tried to process what I just saw, incredulous that he would actually intentionally make a hole in the cava, and as dark blood poured out of the hole, the tide rising steadily in the abdomen, he remarked, “Well, are you just going to stand there or are you going to fix that?”

Now, whatever else you may think about this, it is not presented as fiction. She doubles down on it as fact in the comments too:

it was a different era. Time will tell if we are better or worse off today… I can tell you that since much has changed in the last twenty years, surgical residents today touch instruments much less often, and many report feeling unprepared for the rigors of attendingship when they have finished their training. Their work hours are restricted, their experience likewise, and I have seen more than a few young attendings that can’t operate their way out of a paper bag. They have been trained in a kinder, gentler environment, and that is great as long as every operation goes as planned.

[snip]

When there is a computer simulation that adequately prepares surgeons for unexpected anatomy, findings, and intraoperative unplanned “events,” I will be the first one to sing Hallelujah. It hasn’t been invented yet - so until that time, you better pray that you never get a hole in a cava. But if you do, you better hope that the person holding the knife can actually fix it in less than the five minutes it will take for you to bleed to death.

When it became clear that this was not just an appalling breach of ethics or a grimly satisfied reflection on how much better things were back in the day (along with mandatory snark about how soft kids today are), but rather a felony assault, the following got tacked on to the end: “Author’s note 7/8/2015: This is a fictional article. No one was harmed, then or ever, in my care or in my presence. I apologize for any remark that may have been misconstrued.” And the author’s personal blog disappeared too.

What’s frustrating is that in both cases the authors already had compelling material to work with. As Michael Hiltzik wrote about Goffman:

Certainly much of “On the Run” rings very true, and there’s no disputing the vigor of its prose and the percipience of much of Goffman’s observation. Authorities’ exploitation of petty infractions to confine minorities in an endless cycle of fines and court dates and police harassment has been documented in many communities, including Ferguson, Mo. No one can follow news reports of police shootings and beatings of black residents of cities across America and doubt that much of what Goffman described does happen as a matter of course in the neighborhood she dubs “6th Street.”

And Janet Stemwedel on Amantine:

Without a doubt, the central question of the original post is an important one. Trainees perfecting their skills can be cautious in a way that frustrates the more-practiced people training them. That caution is amplified, understandably so, when they are perfecting their skills while working on real patients. It is true that real cases they will eventually face outside the training context may be more serious, more complex, more urgent, and that practitioners will need to deploy their techniques more swiftly and confidently.

Which is why it’s so frustrating when things like this happen. Were neither confident enough in the story they were telling to let reality speak for itself? Was there nothing else on the mean streets of Philadelphia that would have made for a dramatic conclusion? Did Amantine have no other tales of god complexes in the operating room that would have seized the reader’s attention? Both authors seem passionate about their subjects. Don’t they realize how severely they cheapen and degrade those subjects by turning in eye-popping reports that get falsified?

I really try not to judge on these things. Sometimes people are under pressures that we can’t know or understand. I’ve certainly done things I’m not proud of, and so far haven’t had any of them held up to the world for comment. I sure don’t know how well I’d handle it if they were. I don’t want to see either writer hounded from public life or drowned in shame. But I don’t want to see them get off without being called to account a little, either. The topics they’re covering are too important for them to get a pass just because their hearts were pure. And in any event, getting it right matters for its own sake.


NOTES

1. The story has since been deleted from the site. An archived snapshot is still available here. Twitter user Matt Algren made a PDF of the comments here, which I’ve also uploaded along with a plain text version since one of the comments in the PDF appears truncated. Finally, a snapshot of Hope Amantine’s tweets just prior to her account deletion is here.
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