Ryan Anderson

Science, Fiction, Life

Category: Feminism

Finding Balance – Part 2: Yin and Yang, Happiness and “Heroes”

In my previous post I wrote about how the book “Feeling Good” helped clue me in on the major causes of my (mild) mental health issues. It turns out, the need for approval from others and the constant pursuit of external achievements in lieu of real self esteem can lead to anxiety and depression. Right after reading that book, I read a collection of essays, speeches, poetry, and other short writing by Ursula K. Le Guin called “Dancing at the Edge of the World”. Some of the insights in Le Guin’s writing really resonated with what I had just read in Feeling Good, and I’m still thinking about them.

Dancing at the Edge of the World is a strange book, and I wouldn’t recommend reading the whole thing to anyone but the most die-hard Le Guin fan. Some of the essays are brilliant but quite a few are academic and esoteric, and I suspect most of the speeches work better as speeches than on the page. However, despite the challenges, I found it provided the clearest summary I have yet read of the core themes and philosophy underlying Le Guin’s work. In particular, the interconnections between her interest in Taoism, her feminism, her writing, and her general philosophy of life.

As far as I can tell, Le Guin didn’t believe in an afterlife or God or anything supernatural, she just uses Taoism as a way to recognize a dichotomy that pervades much of society between those things traditionally grouped under Taosim’s “Yin” and “Yang”:

YinYang
DarkLight
PassiveActive
MoonSun
GatheringHunting
ContainingPenetrating
ProtectingAttacking
WildernessCivilization
Nature“Man”
CircleLine
FlexibleRigid
ConsensusAuthority
DecentralizedCentralized
SoftHard
HomeExploration
RepetitionNovelty
StabilityChange
FemaleMale

Throughout the essays in the book, Le Guin makes the case that our society is profoundly and deeply biased toward the “yang” or masculine attributes and often downplays the importance of “yin” and those things traditionally considered feminine.

This should come as a surprise to nobody, but the framing in terms of Taoism’s dichotomy was a new spin on it for me. It takes our society’s misogyny and links it up with other biases, some of which are listed above, that may not be as obviously gendered.

She also digs deeper and addresses why there is a pervasive bias in favor of “yang” traits, and proposes that it links back to storytelling. In particular, the following quote from her brilliant essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” really resonated with me. In the essay, she discusses the very reasonable theory that, contrary to long-held consensus (among mostly male anthropologists), it is likely that the first tool used by early humans was not the (masculine) spear, but the (feminine) “carrier bag”: Something in which to put gathered food.

It is hard to tell a really gripping tale of how I wrested a wild-oat seed from its husk, and then another, and then another, and then another, and then another, and then I scratched my gnat bites, and Ool said something funny, and we went to the creek and got a drink and watched newts for a while, and then I found another patch of oats…. No, it does not compare, it cannot compete with how I thrust my spear deep into the titanic hairy flank while Oob, impaled on one huge sweeping tusk, writhed screaming, and blood spouted everywhere in crimson torrents, and Boob was crushed to jelly when the mammoth fell on him as I shot my unerring arrow straight through eye to brain.

That story not only has Action, it has a Hero. Heroes are powerful. Before you know it, the men and women in the wild-oat patch and their kids and the skills of the makers and the thoughts of the thoughtful and the songs of the singers are all part of it, have all been pressed into service in the tale of the Hero. But it isn’t their story. It’s his.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Humans are storytellers, and so we are biased toward the sorts of actions that make for an exciting story. Things with danger, adventure, change, and heroes. And when all of those story-worthy things are culturally defined as the domain of men, it’s no wonder that the result is a bias in favor of men and anything seen as masculine, and against women and anything seen as feminine.

LeGuin goes on to highlight how this bias toward the “masculine” is pervasive in science fiction, choosing in particular to pick on Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey:

Where is that wonderful, big, long, hard thing, a bone, I believe, that the Ape Man first bashed somebody with in the movie and then, grunting with ecstasy at having achieved the first proper murder, flung up into the sky, and whirling there it became a space ship thrusting its way into the cosmos to fertilize it and produce at the end of the movie a lovely fetus, a boy of course, drifting around the Milky Way without (oddly enough) any womb, any matrix at all? I don’t know. I don’t even care. I’m not telling that story.

Ursula K. Le Guin

I highlight these two quotes not just to convince you that you should go read everything by Le Guin (though you should) but because they were particularly resonant for me given the circumstances in which I read this particular Le Guin book. I was on paternity leave, taking time off of work to take care of my growing family and was feeling anxious about it. Why was I feeling anxious? As I discussed in my previous post, taking a lot of paternity leave is not as widespread as it could/should be in my workaholic field (or in American society in general), and I had some level of irrational paranoia that people would disapprove of how much leave I was taking.

The Le Guin essay helped to get at a reason for this paranoia: taking paternity leave is an act that, at least temporarily, prioritizes traditionally feminine roles (caring for family, staying at home, domestic life) over the more “masculine” roles (being the primary earner, going to work, prioritizing career, etc.) that I have been taught that people expect from me, even if I would prefer something more balanced. And as Feeling Good taught me, I’m overly susceptible to letting my mood get wrapped up in speculations about what people think of me.

It’s not just paternity leave; Le Guin’s framing of our cultural misogyny in terms of bias toward “heroic” or “yin” or “masculine” traits resonates in other ways.

In the section of Feeling Good that tries to help the reader overcome the obsession with achievement, there is a fictional dialogue that pits a chronic overachiever against their former high school classmate who is happier and less addicted to achievement. The overachiever went to a prestigious school, got a PhD and has a lucrative, jet-setting, influential job. The more well-adjusted person is a high school teacher and coach with a family and a happy, more locally-oriented life. The point of the dialog is to take the idea that achievement (traditionally defined) makes a person more worthwhile to its ugly logical conclusion to show just how absurd it is, so the overachiever comes across as a completely unreasonable jerk.

Unfortunately, although it’s not a perfect match, I do see some of myself in that jerk. Even though the overachiever in the dialog is supposed to (and does) come across as an awful and unpleasant person, I’m ashamed to admit that there is a part of me that still thinks they have a bit of a point. It whispers in the back of my mind that, really, if you think about it, your life is more worthwhile if you are famous and influential and achieve things that will last long after you’re gone.

And this brings us back to the bias not just toward masculine traits, but “heroic” traits. A hero is someone who is famous and influential, whose actions changed the world, about whom stories are told. In short, a hero achieves a sort of immortality. Conscious or not, I think that taste of immortality is why our society has a bias in favor of these traits.

(I feel like I’m lacking the appropriate words here. “Heroic” has positive connotations, but what I want is a word that means roughly the same thing but is more neutral, because my whole point here is that equating “heroic” traits with positive, and therefore implicitly saying that “non-heroic” traits are negative, is a big part of the problem. Since language is failing me, I’m going to keep using “heroic” as shorthand. So, just pretend I have found a less-loaded version of the word and am using that instead.)

Humans learn by telling stories, and almost every story that we tell reinforces this bias, to the point that it becomes a real challenge to conceive of stories that really center on the “yin” attributes. Le Guin talks about this challenge, and I think her conscious effort not to tell variations of the same old heroic, masculine story, while still working in the fantasy and sci-fi genres that are so dominated by that story, is a large part of what makes her stories so refreshing and distinctive and interesting. (It helps that she’s a good enough writer to pull it off…)

Alas, not all authors are Ursula K LeGuin, so we exist in a culture that is steeped in stories that almost all reinforce the same traits. Reflecting on myself, and my own motivations, it’s hard to deny the influence, and it is also hard to deny that a lot of the angst I’ve been working through in the last few years has been a process of breaking through those patterns of thoughts and values and acknowledging that I am in a stage of life where, essentially, my focus is shifting from “yang” to “yin” and that that’s okay.

Though I don’t love to admit it, part of my desire to become a scientist was the alluring myth of the “great scientist” whose amazing contributions to science not only advance our understanding of the universe, but also earn a place in the Pantheon of great scientists. Of course in reality, science is a collaborative effort where most big discoveries are made by teams, but that doesn’t fit the narrative. That doesn’t provide the story with a singular hero.

Not only is science a team effort, I have also discovered that I don’t really like being the leader of the team. I’m much more comfortable and effective in a supporting role. For example, my work to improve the accuracy of ChemCam’s measurements feeds into almost every paper and discovery the team has made. The cumulative impact is almost certainly greater than if I had focused my efforts on leading a few scientific papers. And yet it has been really difficult to come to terms with the idea that I prefer doing “behind the scenes” work. I feel guilty that I am not writing amazing papers that end up getting all the attention of other scientists and the press. There’s a part of me that is still the anxious grad student, irrationally worried about what my advisor would think of my path and my preference for the less flashy work (there’s that approval seeking again). I hate that I feel a pang of jealousy when friends publish big, attention-grabbing papers. A part of me feels like a failure for not living up to the “great scientist”myth. The bias toward “heroic” or “yang” traits, toward constant striving for the next big achievement, is strong.

It shows up in my goals for the future as well. I’m not content to just want to be a good science communicator, there’s a part of me that will see it as a failure to be anything less than the next Carl Sagan. I’m not content to just try to write a book, I’ll be a failure unless I am the next George R.R. Martin. Of course, this part of me is almost entirely counterproductive. It has not spurred me to make great strides in either of these areas, it just needles me enough to attempt things and then abandon them as I stress out about the impossible expectations I impose on myself. It maintains a constant cycle of anxiety and disappointment in myself, but never gets channeled into a truly motivating force for long enough to break free and rise to the level of something positive like inspiration. My hard drive is littered with fiction and nonfiction writing projects abandoned in the first chapter. Heck, even this blog has a good number of aborted posts in varying states of completion, in large part because of the unrealistic expectations I set, and the paranoia about what people will think. (This blog post came perilously close to being one of them.)

The good thing is that with the perspectives afforded by Feeling Good, Dancing at the Edge of the World, and more generally the realignment of priorities that comes with maturing and having kids, I am gradually starting to move toward a more balanced attitude.

A good example of this is how I feel about being an astronaut and human space exploration in general. In college when people asked me if I would go to Mars if I was given the chance, I said yes with minimal hesitation. I even considered applying to be an astronaut a few times. But as I have gotten older and built a family and a life and grown to appreciate the Earth, my answer has changed. The temptation is still present – the bias is strong – but it’s no longer an easy decision. I have a lot more to lose. My default answer would now be “no” and it would take convincing and a lot of caveats and guarantees to change that to a “yes”.

A corollary to that is how my attitudes toward building a Mars base have changed. For a long time I was strongly in favor of it, both scientifically and as an “insurance policy” in case of a global catastrophe here on Earth. Now I see the idea of Mars as a “lifeboat” for Earth as deeply flawed and problematic. It provides a comforting fantasy as if it is a valid option, and people cling to it rather than facing the more important but more difficult challenge of changing our society so that we become good stewards of the wonderful planet we live on. People gravitate toward the “yang” option (exploration, colonization, risk, heroism) and shun the “yin” option (staying where we are, taking care of our home). We’re sitting here destroying the literal paradise that is Earth and saying, “Don’t worry, the billionaires will save us. With their rockets we could maybe eke out a miserable, dark, cold, dusty, claustrophobic existence in underground shelters on Mars,” as if that’s a solution.

Anyway. I’m getting off track. The point is, my perspective on things is changing, and one way to frame that change is as a shift from thinking that is strongly biased toward the “heroic”/”masculine”/”yang” traits to an attitude that is hopefully more balanced. I don’t need to be the great scientist, I am happy to support others. I don’t want to colonize a new world as much as I want to take care of our home. I am not that interested in jet-setting around the world, I’d rather stay home and enjoy time with my family.

A major theme in this shift of perspective can be summed up as coming to peace with the idea that I am not exceptional, and that is ok. To be clear, I’ve never had the kind of self esteem that allowed me to go through life thinking “I’m exceptional.” But despite that, I have spent a lot of angst convincing myself that I need to make a mark of the world so that when I’m gone there will be some evidence that I lived. It’s that lure of the immortality of the “hero.”

I’ve achieved some things that I’m proud of and my name is on a number of scientific papers that will hopefully be read for a long time into the future. Or if not read (let’s be realistic), then at least they’ll exist. There will be evidence in the world that I existed and did a certain type of science. But when push comes to shove, I’m a pretty boring, normal, privileged white dude. My life is mostly like the life of millions of others. When I am gone, my friends and family will miss me, but then they will go on with their lives and that will be it.

There’s a flaw in the sort of thinking that says that you’ve only left your mark on the world if people remember you, or if you did something that has your name on it. That’s a very “hero-biased” way of looking at things. Sure, writing the great American novel or making a major scientific discovery or walking on Mars or becoming president or any number of other ways to be famous and influential can guarantee that you’ve left some sort of mark, but that’s not the only way.

The truth is that we are all constantly making our marks on the world, whether we, or others, recognize it. We should think of our influence not as a discrete achievement or event that plants a flag and announces “here is my legacy” but more like concentric ripples, expanding away from ourselves into the world as we move through our lives. Everything we do has an influence, and the world is too large and chaotic to know when any given action or choice will go on to have a profound effect and when it will amount no effect at all. All we can do is try to make good choices, be generous with our time and our resources and ourselves, and try to leave the world better than we found it.

I’m not saying that we should not pursue big goals, nor am I implying that simply being a good person is sufficient to effect positive change in the world. I’m saying that the amount of recognition that we receive for the things we do has little to do with the significance of the legacy we leave when we are gone. I can work hard and get recognition for achieving major goals like publishing scientific papers and writing books, but it’s entirely possible (and perhaps more likely) that the greatest impact I’ll have on the world is through things that get much less recognition like raising my kids, donating to good causes, and doing political volunteer work.

More important than recognizing that I don’t have to do things that get recognized by others to leave the world a better place is the recognition that no matter what I do, big or small, my legacy will be ephemeral. Here I’ll bring in another book I recently read: Conqueror, by Conn Iggulden. It’s the 5th book in a historical fiction series about Genghis Khan and his successors. I was not expecting to find insight into the topics of this essay in a book about Mongol warlords, but books can be surprising that way. Conqueror focuses on Kublai Khan’s rise to power, and the final lines of the book are Kublai talking to his son:

“I would like to change the world,” he said.

Kublai smiled, with just an edge of sadness in his eyes.

“You will, my son, you will. But no one can change it forever.”

Conqueror, Conn Iggulden

Maybe part of this process that I’ve been going through, this shift in perspective, is a growing acceptance of the fact that life is ephemeral and a realization that trying to deny that fact is the recipe for a lot of pointless angst. Taken the wrong way this could be seen as nihilistic and depressing, but it’s actually kind of liberating.

I have been trying to pay attention to what actually makes me happy and here’s what I found: happiness comes from the ephemeral, from living in the moment, from being so caught up in the present, in the sensations, the feelings, the task at hand, that self-consciousness falls away. You can’t think your way to happiness. You can’t set it as a goal to achieve.

This is not a particularly new insight. None of this post is, really. But it’s one thing to hear some of these things in the form of quotes and platitudes and another to really internalize them. To use a physics analogy, it’s the difference between being given the equation and deriving the equation from first principles.

Looking back over this post, I worry that it comes across as implying that “masculine”/”yang” traits are toxic and “feminine”/”yin” traits are good. That’s not my intent. It’s good to have goals, to try to achieve great things. But the point is that our culture, our stories, my educational background, my professional life, all have a strong bias toward the “yang.” Toward constantly striving to live up to the “heroic” ideals. This often leads to neglecting the richness of the “yin” side of life, which is a recipe for the anxiety and depression that I’ve been struggling with.

I’ll end with one more relevant quote from a book I recently read. This time from “A Little Life” which is one of the best books I’ve ever read but is also devastatingly sad. It deals with what makes life worth living even in the face of horrible suffering, and at one point the main character thinks:

It had always seemed to him a very plush kind of problem, a privilege, really, to consider whether life was meaningful or not.

Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life

This quote puts its finger on one of the reasons I feel uncomfortable about these long, over-earnest, self-indulgent, pseudo-philosophical blog posts. I have a wonderful life, and it is because I don’t have to do things like work three jobs or worry about whether my family is safe that I have the luxury of analyzing all the reasons why I sometimes feel anxious for no good reason. It makes these blog posts feel embarrassing and faintly obscene even though (or perhaps because) they do capture and help me process the thoughts that rattle around in my head. So, just for the record, I understand that posts like this warrant at least some eye rolling, especially from people with real problems.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for letting me indulge in this privileged rambling. This post in particular was difficult to write. It ended up far longer, and took far longer to write, than expected. It makes me uncomfortable to post this, but that discomfort probably means I’ve hit upon some important themes that are worth posting. Bottom line, here are my take-away lessons:

  • My life is shifting from a focus on achievement and a general bias toward “yang”/”heroic” type traits to a focus on home and family and a greater emphasis on the “yin” side of things.
  • Despite deeply ingrained biases in culture, stories, professional settings, etc., the shift toward a more balanced life is not only okay, it’s healthy and good.
  • That said, some of my anxiety comes from the conflict between that cultural bias and my shifting priorities.
  • Stressing out about leaving a legacy through my actions is just a recipe for anxiety. Life and everything in it is ephemeral, and fighting against that truth is a losing battle. Better to focus on living in the moment, accept what is happening in that moment without judgement, and do things because I enjoy the process rather than to achieve some lofty goal.

The Purpose of a Gun

What is the purpose of a gun?

It’s a  question I’ve been thinking about a lot since the Las Vegas massacre, and has come to the fore again with the massacre in Parkland and the national discussion about gun violence that has followed. It’s a simple question, but it’s one that I think doesn’t get enough attention, because the answers get to the heart of the gun debate in the United States.

The simple answer to this question is that a gun is a device for propelling projectiles at high enough velocities to kill animals at a distance. More specifically, many guns are for killing human beings. That’s what guns are designed to do. But when I ask about the purpose of a gun, I don’t mean “what do they literally do?” I mean, “why do people buy them? Why do people think they need guns?”

Many gun owners will say that they own guns for defense. They want to protect their property, themselves, and their families from harm. Others will say that they own guns for hunting: killing animals for sport and/or food, and all of the culture and traditions that go with that.  Polls show that those are far and away the two main reasons people own guns. Of course, guns serve another purpose as well: they are used in war for killing people. Our species has put a lot of effort into finding better ways to kill each other, and modern firearms are one result.

So, guns are for self defense, hunting, and war. But guns are more than just simple tools. Guns have a deep cultural significance that other tools don’t. People get emotional about guns. Why is that?

It helps to look at those three purposes more closely. Self defense, hunting, and war are intimately linked with our culture’s ideas of masculinity. The “man of the house” is traditionally responsible for keeping his wife and kids safe. Hunting is a manly thing to do: it is a rite of passage for boys to go out hunting with their fathers, and bringing home meat to feed the family again plays into the idea of the man’s role as provider for the household. And soldiers are seen as the epitome of masculinity, taking the man’s role of defender of the family and expanding to to defender of the country. Historically, killing has been a man’s job.

The purpose of a gun in modern American culture is not just as a tool, but as a talisman of masculinity. A fetish, worshiped for its power to confer masculinity on its wielder.

Couple the gun’s near-mystical status with a culture that is deeply misogynistic, where men seek to distance themselves from anything that seems even remotely feminine. The easiest way to insult a man in our culture is to question his masculinity, to imply that he is in some way woman-like. Men are taught that they must constantly prove their masculinity to themselves and each other, so what better way than to acquire guns? Surely nobody can question my masculinity if I own an arsenal of military-grade weapons.

At the same time, expressing any emotion other than anger is seen as feminine and therefore forbidden to any self-respecting red-blooded man. Boys don’t cry. Boys are supposed to like gym class and play sports so they can prove their physical prowess against other boys. Boys are not supposed to like poetry or drama, because those activities involve openly sharing emotions other than anger.

That said, our culture is changing fast. Women are breaking down barriers everywhere you look. Same sex couples can get married. Nerds are cool. The #MeToo movement is exposing rampant sexual harassment and men who have long gotten away with it are finally facing consequences. We had 8 years with an African American president. Cherished bastions of popular culture like Star Wars and superhero movies are having success after success by featuring women and people of color.

There’s a saying that goes: “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” Right now a lot of white men, raised in a hyper-masculine culture, are seeing these shifts and feel like they are under attack. Plenty of men are able to adapt to the changing culture and celebrate it, but there is a segment of the population who instead double down on toxic masculinity. They perceive a threat to their way of life, and in response they acquire arsenals and continue to repress emotions to prove their masculinity at any cost.

There is another facet to guns that also comes into play here. Not only are they powerful symbols of masculinity, but guns offer the illusion of control. It is terrifying to think of an armed intruder breaking into your house and threatening your family, so many people want a gun so that if such a situation arises, they will not feel helpless. They can take control of the situation rather than wait for the cops to arrive. Studies show that having a gun in your house actually puts your family at greater risk, but it feels like it does the exact opposite. Likewise, the idea of a mass shooting is terrifying, and makes people feel helpless. You hear gun advocates say that they want to carry weapons to prevent such attacks, that if we just had more “good guys with guns” then we’d be safer. What they are really saying is that they cannot deal with feeling helpless if such a situation were to arise. By carrying a gun, they feel like if they found themselves in an attack, they could do something about it. This is of course not backed up by reality, where having numerous armed civilians in a shooting is likely to just add to the chaos, cause additional unwanted injuries, and make it much harder for law enforcement to do their jobs effectively. But the idea of having a gun is comforting because it gives an illusion of control.

So what we end up with are heavily armed, emotionally stunted, white men who feel like their way of life is under attack, and turn to guns as a way to reassert control. It’s the perfect recipe for gun massacres.

It is obvious that this country needs better laws to make it harder for dangerous people to get their hands on weapons that make killing easy. But I think it is equally obvious that gun violence in this country is also a byproduct of a deeply toxic culture of masculinity, and that if we want to curb the violence we need to work hard to change that culture.

Patriotism, Genre Fiction, and Criticizing What You Love

In both genre fiction and politics, our culture is struggling with the idea that you can criticize something that you love.

When someone points out that many video games are disturbingly sexist, or that Lord of the Rings is kind of racist, or that the Avatar movie perpetuates the “white savior” trope, are they no longer a fan of genre fiction?

When someone points out that the United States is the only country out of the 25 wealthiest nations that lacks universal health care, or that black people are disproportionately incarcerated and killed by police, or that our wars in the Middle East are responsible for the rise of ISIS, are they no longer a patriot?

In both cases, I say that thoughtful criticism is a deeper, more meaningful expression of love than blind enthusiastic support.

Let’s take Game of Thrones as an example. I love Game of Thrones. The books are among my favorite books of all time. They’re vast and deep, with well-developed characters with unique narrative voices; exciting, twisty, satisfyingly complex plots; epic, vivid worldbuilding; and they signal a profound shift in the fantasy genre, subverting the tropes of the genre established by Lord of the Rings and beginning the modern era of more “grimdark” fantasy. Likewise, the show is excellent: visually stunning, well-acted, and it brings the books that I love to life in a way that allows many more people to experience them. Not only that, but the show has been a revolution in terms of getting excellent genre fiction onto television, demonstrating to TV channels that compelling, adult-oriented stories can be told through genre fiction, and that audiences will eat it up.

But I will readily admit that both the books and the show have major problems too. The show is famous for its gratuitous nudity, and there have been several notorious examples of changes to the original book where main female characters are raped or threatened with rape. There is also a problematic “white savior” vibe to much of Danaerys’ story line. I would argue that the books are somewhat better, but there’s still a whole lot of rape and threats of rape, which is often defended with the old “historical accuracy” argument, because apparently dragons are plausible but a medieval society that isn’t quite so horrifically misogynistic is not.

There are those who see comments like those in the last paragraph and reflexively condemn them. How dare some “social justice warrior” criticize the genre they love? Why can’t people just enjoy things without picking them apart and over-analyzing everything? Why do these SJWs have to ruin everything by insisting on political correctness? They’re clearly not real fans. They clearly hate the genre.

For those who have been paying attention, this conflict came to a head in the video game community with the “gamergate” fiasco a few years ago. Women who dared to point out that video games are full of a disgusting amount of misogyny were harassed by an army of angry, mostly white, mostly male gamers who felt that their favorite hobby and its fundamental culture were being unfairly bashed. The conflict rapidly escalated to doxing (the release of private personal information), lost jobs, lost homes, and death threats.

Later, in the speculative fiction community, a similar conflict arose when the “Sad Puppies“, a group of angry, mostly white, mostly male, readers stuffed the ballot for the Hugo Award. They were supposedly fighting back against their perception  that science fiction and fantasy were being ruined by SJWs trying to force everything to be politically correct and shoehorning women, people of color, and LGBT people into fiction, rather than trying to tell good old fashioned apolitical stories. (It apparently did not occur to them that it is possible to tell great speculative fiction about people who are not white straight men, or that all fiction carries with it political baggage.)

And then, of course, there is the 2016 election, where a group of angry, mostly white, mostly male, voters were apparently so appalled that we had a black president, and that a woman dared to run as his successor on a platform of inclusiveness and tolerance, that they instead voted for an unqualified narcissistic idiot. Trump’s campaign and its “Make America Great Again” slogan catered directly to the perception that criticizing our country is unpatriotic, and that somehow making things better for people who aren’t straight white men undermines what makes our country great.

But here’s the thing that the gamer-gators, sad puppies, and Trump voters don’t understand: unlike them, we don’t criticize from a place of hatred, but of love.

Sci-fi and Fantasy are supposed to push the limits of imagination, so why is it so hard to imagine that young women and people of color could be the heroes in great adventures? Video games allow the player to escape the real world and experience being powerful and “the chosen one”, so shouldn’t players be allowed to leave behind racism and misogyny when they enter the game world? And the United States is supposed to be a country where all people have unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, so shouldn’t we strive to uphold that ideal? Shouldn’t we point out where our great country does not live up to its promise for all of its citizens and then work together to form a “more perfect union”?

When you’re raising a child, you don’t praise them when they are behaving badly. You set high expectations and then help them to live up to those expectations. Why is it so hard to apply the same logic to the other things we love?

Whether it’s genre fiction, video games, or the United States of America itself, what we want is for the things that we love to live up to their true potential. To me, this is a much deeper, more meaningful way to show your devotion to something than blindly singing its praises and ignoring its flaws.

 

The Fight of Our Lives Has Begun

I know. Things are looking pretty grim these days.

The new administration rode a wave of nationalist and racist rhetoric to power and kicked off with an inauguration speech centered on the anti-semitic phrase “America First.” They vowed to publish a weekly list of supposed crimes committed by immigrants, drafted plans to have the military review what students are learning in school, and their official press briefings are  full of blatant lies, part of a broader campaign to gaslight us into questioning whether facts even exist. The president himself continues to work to undermine public trust in the free press, the electoral process, and even the judiciary branch. Government agencies are being censored for statements of fact. There is talk of the president establishing his own personal intelligence agency, and he has appointed a political adviser (and vocal white nationalist Nazi-sympathizer) to the National Security Council while demoting the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

It is no longer hyperbolic to compare recent events to the rise of fascism in the 1930s.

On top of all that, the cabinet is being stuffed with billionaires with a combined net worth greater than a third of Americans (or the GDPs 70 small countries), many of whom seem to be hand-chosen to be as destructive as possible to the departments that they will lead. Our new Secretary of State will be an ex-oil CEO who is friends with Vladimir Putin, the man who meddled in our election to get Trump elected. The nominee for Secretary of Education has stated that she sees education reform as a way to “advance God’s kingdom.” The nominee for attorney general was deemed too racist for a federal judgeship in 1986. The nominee for secretary of health and human services wants to dismantle the Affordable Care act, denying insurance coverage to millions. And on and on and on.

Meanwhile, Republicans are striking while the iron is hot, pushing their own awful legislation at the national and local levels, and exhibiting such breathtaking hypocrisy regarding the supreme court position that became vacant with almost a year left of Obama’s second term that thinking about it too hard renders me incapable of coherent speech.

In the face of all of this, depending on your political persuasion it’s easy to either dismiss the ongoing freakout among liberals as overreaction, or to become overwhelmed and just give up.

We must do neither.

Believe me when I say that I sincerely hope that things won’t be as bad as they seem, but lives – and arguably, the foundations of our government – are in peril right now, so I’d much rather overreact than be complacent.

Believe me too when I say that I am living on the edge of being overwhelmed by all of the bad news every single day. I understand that feeling and the temptation to just tune out, look away, and hope for the best.

After all, none of this was supposed to happen. It was supposed to be self-evident that truth matters, that facts are real, that other human beings are deserving of our empathy rather than our hatred. We took for granted that a presidential candidate so mendacious and morally bankrupt, so openly racist and misogynist and ignorant could not win the nomination, let alone the election. That he did shines a harsh light on the flaws in our electoral process and our culture as a whole, and his actions in the first two weeks of his presidency reveal that the very edifice of our government is not as sturdy as we once thought.

It’s easy to despair, but despairing won’t make this better. It is clear that we can’t just count on progress to happen. It is time for us to stand up and fight, and despite the doom and gloom associated with the last couple weeks, I am also encouraged to see that people are doing just that.

It began with the amazing Women’s March, and continues with acts of resistance large and small. Lawyers working pro-bono in airports to help travelers stranded by the anti-Muslim ban. Strangers working together to erase Nazi graffiti on the subway. Tens of thousands planning a March for Science. Acting attorney general Sally Yates refusing to enforce the ban. The national parks service standing up for truth.

Just last week I attended my first political activism meeting ever, and I know I’m not alone. Other friends of mine are doing the same, or even organizing their own groups. Members of congress are complaining that they are being swamped by all of the phone calls they’re getting.

We must fight. And we must keep fighting every step of the way. We may have lost the white house due to the quirks of the electoral college, but we won the popular vote by more than 3 million. We are the majority. We have facts and human decency on our side. The Republicans won the latest battle, but they are going to lose the war.

There’s no doubt that it’s going to be a rough few years, but I sincerely believe that if we fight, what we are experiencing right now will not be the beginning of a right-wing authoritarian regime, but the dying gasp of a toxic brand of politics that has been growing and festering for decades. The demographics of this country will continue to shift in our favor, and most people, even if they don’t identify as liberal, agree with liberal policies once they hear them. Trump’s election is horrible, and the policies that the white house and the Republican congress will put into place are going to harm our country and ruin countless lives. But I think this will also serve as the catalyst for a new era of left-leaning grassroots activism that will first minimize the damage done and then carry on to steer the country to become that “more perfect union” that president Obama always talked about.

For that to happen we must commit to our duty as citizens to speak out any way we can. Our resistance must not fade once the flurry of confirmation hearings and shocking executive orders dies down. Republicans are counting on us losing the interest and will to continue resisting. They think of liberals as spineless, poorly organized, easily distracted and discouraged. We must prove them wrong. We must accept the fact that this fight doesn’t end in a few weeks or months. This fight is going to continue for the rest of our lives, but if we can work together and keep up the pressure, we can do our part in bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice.

We are the majority. We need to act like it. Stop second-guessing and questioning ourselves, stop playing nice in congress, and start fighting for what we know is right. We are going to face losses in the near term, and there will be times when each of us needs to step away from the news for a bit, take a mental health break and refocus. But the key is, once recovered we have to jump back in.

Keep calling.

Keep writing.

Keep protesting.

Keep resisting.

We are strong. Individually it may feel hopeless, but together our voices are too loud to ignore.

 

 

Orange is the New Black is the best show on TV

Yes, better than Game of Thrones. Those of you who know me and how much I enjoy Game of Thrones will recognize what it means for me to make a statement like that, but I just finished watching Season 4 of Orange is the New Black (OITNB) and it blew me away. Some shows are good at first but fizzle as they use up their source material and have to start inventing their own. OITNB is the exact opposite: Season 1 is easily the weakest because it tries to sort of follow the premise of the book that inspired the show. It focuses on Piper Chapman, the naive young white woman who finds herself in jail for transporting drug money a decade ago.  But it rapidly becomes clear that Chapman is actually the least interesting part of the show.

Each episode, in addition to the multiple different plot threads that are taking place in the present, we get to see the backstory of one of the inmates (and guards). What their life was like, and how they ended up in jail. Episode by episode, characters who at first are just bit parts or stereotypes or antagonists or the butts of jokes are fleshed out into real people. And it’s worth pointing out that most of the characters on this show are women of color. The show is unrivaled in its ability to focus on demographics that are usually neglected in TV and movies, and the ensemble cast is amazing.

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By telling the stories of such a diverse group of characters, OITNB is also able to touch on a wide range of real world issues and transform them from something abstract into concrete, often emotionally wrenching stories. Here are a few of the issues that I can think of off the top of my head that the show touches upon:

  • Privatization of prisons
  • White privilege
  • Racism
  • Drug addiction
  • LGBT rights
  • Mental health
  • Rape and consent
  • Veterans issues
  • Liberal guilt
  • Police violence
  • Sexism
  • Freedom of religion
  • Employment for former convicts
  • Overly harsh sentencing for nonviolent crimes
  • etc.

What I really love is that while one or another of these issues might take center stage on any given episode, the other ones don’t just go away. This is a show that recognizes that in the real world, these things don’t happen in a vacuum. They are all interconnected, and that makes them that much harder to deal with.

With so many heavy issues, OITNB could easily veer into such a dark place as to become unwatchable. But instead, through possibly the most masterful use of comic relief I have ever seen, it manages to balance its dark and often depressing themes with moments of genuine laugh-out-loud humor. The show is often listed as a comedy, but I would not go that far. It’s primarily a drama. If you’re anything like me, watching this show will leave you emotionally devastated at times. But there is humor there too, in just the right amount.

Especially for someone like me with an interest in writing , OITNB is like a master class. I am seriously considering re-watching some episodes and taking notes. Each episode is crammed with multiple intertwining threads of story, with a host of amazing well-rounded diverse characters, touching on important real-world issues, while also managing to be truly entertaining. And the episodes together form excellent season-long story arcs with dramatic conclusions (and, of course, cliffhangers). I would say its only real weakness is that too many of the guards are pure villains, but even then there are other guards who are well-developed characters so it’s not just that all the men in the show are evil.

If you have not watched Orange is the New Black, I cannot recommend it enough. If you tried a few episodes and stopped, I would urge you to try to get to the second season, where the focus begins to shift away from Piper more. So far every season has been better than the last, and the fourth season was so phenomenally good that I want to grab random people by the shoulders and shake them and make them watch it. Since that would probably not go over very well, this blog post will have to do!

 

Book Review: Outlander

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I had heard a lot about Outlander, the famous romance novel involving a nurse from the 1940s who travels back in time and falls in love with a handsome Scotsman. Many of my female friends love the book and its sequels, and I heard the TV show being lauded as Game of Thrones, but for women. So I thought it would be educational for me to read the novel and see what all the fuss was about. I’ve never really read much in the romance genre, which always seemed like a shame because surely there’s some good stuff there that I am missing out on. Outlander is often given as an example of a great romance novel, so I figured I should try it.

Before I go on, I want to acknowledge up front that I’m decidedly not the target audience for Outlander. I get that. That was actually part of the appeal: so much fiction is written with “white straight male” as the target audience that I wanted to see what it would be like to read something that wasn’t “for me”.

Sadly, I have to report that I really didn’t like it very much, and I am shocked that women do.

The first half of the book was fine. I read it in one huge gulp while traveling overseas, and while the writing wasn’t amazing, it was a pretty good story. But then two things happened. First, I wasn’t traveling anymore so my chunks of reading time were much more fragmented, meaning I could only read smaller passages at a time. This always leads to me being more picky about the quality of writing, no matter what I’m reading. When you aren’t fully sucked in, it’s easier to spot the odd word choices or sentences that fall flat, or minor inconsistencies. But more importantly, at around the halfway mark in the book, Jamie the sexy Scotsman beats the main character with a belt. And then, within a matter of days, she has basically forgiven him. And then he rapes her (but it’s ok because after she says “No, Stop, please, you’re hurting me!” and he keeps going and says he “means to make you mine” and that the marriage vows included the provision that she must “obey”, she eventually says “yes”, so it’s definitely just kinky sex that leaves her battered and bruised definitely not rape). And that was when the book lost me.

From the way the book is written, it’s clear that this incident is supposed to be forgiven and Claire (and therefore the reader, because Claire is very nearly a blank-slate of a character upon which the reader is supposed to project herself) falls madly in love with sexy Jamie the sexy Scotsman. But for me, the moment he beat her and then raped her, the logical behavior on her part would be to try to escape as quickly as possible and go back to her loving husband in the present. You know, the one she chose voluntarily and who does not abuse her? The book from that point on should have been about getting away from this barbaric man, and this barbaric time period and back to the man who she supposedly loves. But nope. She goes to the standing stones that sent her back in time and then decides that she’d rather not go back to 1945 and all of its relative safety and comfort. Her husband in the present, Frank, is a slim academic type who Claire finds ever so boring as he goes on and on about his historical studies. Nothing is so unappealing as an intelligent man who is passionate about his academic pursuits. Much better to stay in the past with Jamie, the big, buff, virile Highlander whose favorite pass-times are (1) finding any excuse at all to be beaten (seriously, like half of this book is about all the times Jamie was beaten in the past, or gets beaten in the present, or is recovering from being beaten, etc.), and (2) sex.

Also, let’s talk about the antagonist in this story “Black Jack” Randall. In what is surely the most subtle subliminal message ever, the bad guy looks just like Claire’s husband from the present! Hmmmm! “Golly, I wonder if she will go back to her pathetic, skinny, nerdy husband who also happens to look like the vile, raping, antagonist?” How do we know he is not just a rapist, but the bad kind that we hate? (because it’s already been established that beatings and rape are ok as long as the victim deserves it and eventually stops protesting) Why, because he’s a homosexual of course! By my count there are two gay men in this book. One is a minor character who, of course, molests little boys. The other is the antagonist, Jack Randall, a pathetic and evil man who gets off on torturing and raping Jamie toward the end of the book.

For most of the book, Claire is an extremely passive and boring character (the better to allow the reader to project onto her).  She goes from place to place, obeying what others say, listening in on important conversations without being part of them, making very few decisions for herself. At the end of the book I was excited that she was finally taking initiative in attempting to save Jamie, reversing the damsel in distress trope by having the woman save the man. But of course we can’t have that, so she ends up being held at knifepoint and Jamie saves her by giving himself up as a plaything for the bad guy. Then Claire gets tossed out in the snow, and in a ridiculous scene, wins in hand-to-hand combat with a starving wolf by breaking its neck against the corner of a building (I mean, I know WWII nurses were tough, but come on). And then she gets rescued by some men, who then actually rescue Jamie, somehow, through a plot involving unleashing a herd of cattle in the dungeon? Oh and she kills a man by severing his brain stem with a knife. Because that’s easy to do for someone with very little training or strength.

And then at the end of the book, they flee to Normandy, and Claire (a) very nearly converts to Catholicism for some reason (mostly so that there can be a scene where a priest hears her confession and absolves her of any guilt about leaving her loving husband Frank behind in the future), and (b) cures Jamie of his severe bacterial infection AND his PTSD by sending him into an opium-induced hallucination where he thinks that she is the bad guy, and he fights her, and then they end up naked on the floor? Yeah, I don’t know what that was all about.

And finally, the book ends with some sexy sex in an underground hot spring and the revelation that Claire is not infertile, as she once thought! The powerful sperm of the sexy Scotsman, clearly superior to the sperm from her boring, skinny nerd husband, managed to impregnate her. Hooray!

Phew. Ok, so clearly I didn’t much like this book. The only reason I kept with it is because I wanted to see what all my friends saw in it. Maybe my problem is just that I’m the opposite of the target audience, but I really can’t comprehend why so many of my feminist female friends like this book. And just to be clear, I don’t mind the loving detail used in describing how sexy Jamie is: I expected that and it didn’t really bother me. Certainly plenty of books that I read are guilty of the opposite: describing female characters in great detail (making sure to mention something about breasts), and then oh yeah also there was a dude standing next to her and he was tall or something. And it’s not even that the writing is mediocre: I read plenty of fantasy and historical fiction books with just so-so writing. It really all comes back to the fact that I don’t get how a relatively modern woman is supposed to just forgive a man who beats her with a belt for “disobedience”. I don’t care how handsome or charming or honest or self-deprecating he is, or how much he tells you about all the times he was beaten as a kid (har har, isn’t it cute how he got beaten so much because he’s stubborn and disobedient? After all, “boys will be boys” and the only thing to do about it is beat them. PS: Claire, Jamie wants to make it clear that if you have kids he’s totally beating them too.) If this book is supposed to be a woman’s fantasy (and for the vast majority of the book it clearly is), then why make the love interest beat her and rape her? I just don’t get it. I’m very uncomfortable with the potential conclusions that could be drawn from that. But then, I don’t understand why so many women apparently enjoy reading 50 Shades of Gray either.

In any case, let’s just leave it at this: I’m glad to be done with this book and very much looking forward to reading something new.

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