11.30.2016

before the flood: good information but ultimately a weak message

Tonight we watched "Before the Flood", Leonardo DiCaprio's film about climate change, which I had heard such good things about.

It's well done, and is chock full of appropriately terrifying and depressing information. But in the end, the film delivers yet another "it's up to each of us" message, focusing on individual actions, rather than systemic solutions.

Early in the film, we hear that discussions of climate change used to focus on individual solutions -- change your light bulbs, bring your own coffee mug -- but now we know that's not enough. Yet in the end, the film concludes: "Consume differently: what you buy, what you eat, how you get your power." Vote for people who promise to do something.

After seeing miles of gray, dead coral reef, rainforest devastation in Indonesia, and the monstrosity of the tar sands, "consume differently" is an empty platitude. And how you get your power? Most of us have no choice about that.

Sure, eat less meat, carry your own coffee mug, take public transit, if the option exists in your area. You'll create less landfill, you'll make more conscious choices, and you might inspire others to do the same. Just don't think that you're making a dent in climate change. A dent? Not even a scratch.

"Before the Flood" might actually produce the opposite of its intended effect. Upon seeing this film, I think many or most viewers would feel that climate change is so huge, so widespread, and so advanced, that there is nothing we can do, so we should just live our lives, and try not to think about it. The optimistic NASA scientist interviewed towards the end of the film says that if we all stopped using fossil fuel, the earth will be able to heal. So if the impossible happens, we'll be OK? Not a lot of hope there.

Tar sands, fracking, palm oil production, deepwater drilling -- all of this is driven by profit and an economic system that demands so-called growth. In other words, the root cause is capitalism. It will never be more profitable to conserve and protect than it is to extract and destroy. So until our world is motivated by something other than profit, the destruction will not end.

The one thing that may achieve our goal is barely mentioned: massive, sustained protest. The kind of protest we are seeing right now in North Dakota, on a much larger scale. Because, as Mario Savio said, there is a time.
There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!


I thought of Mario Savio tonight. Although my heart and soul are against the gears, and always have been, I cannot say that I put my body upon the gears. I can only say I support the people who do, and I am ready to do so when the time comes.

11.29.2016

fidel castro, 1926-2016

More than any ruler I can think of, Fidel Castro defies our insistence on seeing leaders as solely either good or evil. As this excellent assessment in Social Worker (UK) puts it, "History must judge him both as the freedom fighter whose defiance humiliated US imperialism and as the ruler of a repressive, unequal society."

Castro was an inspiration to freedom fighters the world over, including Nelson Mandela. Mandela, we should remember, was formerly branded as a communist terrorist, and later lionized as a cuddly hero, without having changed his tactics or beliefs.

I'm told that coverage of Castro's death by US-based media focused on the celebrations of Miami's Cuban exile community, which is exactly what I'd expect. Remember the images of Arab children celebrating the 9/11 attacks -- images that turned out to be several years old?

I don't doubt that wealthy Cubans, whose unchallenged power and prestige was toppled by a socialist revolution, despise the man who brought them down. But the mainstream US's enduring hatred for Castro has nothing to do with sympathies for the Cuban ruling class. Castro is the world leader who the US couldn't assassinate, couldn't buy off, and couldn't control. Patrice Lumumba, Salvador Allende, Mohammad Mossadegh, Jacobo Arbenz, Ho Chi Minh, Joao Goulart, Juan Bosch, Jean Bertrand Aristide -- if you don't know the names, look them up. You can go back as far as Queen Liliuokalani. Castro was the one that got away.

Castro was also a dictator. Cuba suppressed dissidents, segregated and brutally punished LGBT people, and had virtually no free speech. Saying "So-and-so did that, too!" is not an appropriate response. For a socialist to rationalize oppression because it originated on the left is shameful and indefensible.

At the same time, this is still true.


The best eulogy of Fidel Castro that I've seen was written by the great Eduard Galeano, in his 2010 book Mirrors. Here's an excerpt, courtesy of Raiot.
His enemies say he was an uncrowned king who confused unity with unanimity. And in that his enemies are right.

His enemies say that if Napoleon had a newspaper like Granma, no Frenchman would have learned of the disaster at Waterloo. And in that his enemies are right.

His enemies say that he exercised power by talking a lot and listening little, because he was more used to hearing echoes than voices. And in that his enemies are right.

But some things his enemies do not say: it was not to pose for the history books that he bared his breast to the invaders’ bullets,
he faced hurricanes as an equal, hurricane to hurricane,
he survived 637 attempts on his life,
his contagious energy was decisive in making a country out of a colony,
and it was not by Lucifer’s curse or God’s miracle that the new country managed to outlive 10 U.S. presidents, their napkins spread in their laps, ready to eat it with knife and fork.

And his enemies never mention that Cuba is one rare country that does not compete for the World Doormat Cup.

And they do not say that the revolution, punished for the crime of dignity, is what it managed to be and not what it wished to become. Nor do they say that the wall separating desire from reality grew ever higher and wider thanks to the imperial blockade, which suffocated a Cuban-style democracy, militarized society, and gave the bureaucracy, always ready with a problem for every solution, the alibis it needed to justify and perpetuate itself.

And they do not say that in spite of all the sorrow, in spite of the external aggression and the internal high-handedness, this distressed and obstinate island has spawned the least unjust society in Latin America.

And his enemies do not say that this feat was the outcome of the sacrifice of its people, and also of the stubborn will and old-fashioned sense of honor of the knight who always fought on the side of the losers, like his famous colleague in the fields of Castile.

11.12.2016

what i'm reading: welcome to the goddamn ice cube

Canadians might be disappointed to learn that Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North is not about Canada.

We sometimes refer to Canada as the Great White North, but the Canada that most Canadians inhabit has little in common with the stark landscapes that author Blair Braverman called home. In the northernmost reaches of Norway or on an Alaskan glacier, these are lands of stark conditions -- brutal cold, perpetual darkness, and little in the way of creature comforts. They are also places of great natural beauty. Often, too, a rough world with very few women, where sexual violence always hovers as a possibility.

Braverman grew up romanticizing The North and craved it as her proving ground. She seized some opportunities and created others, to test herself in the The North that she dreamt of.

In Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube, we travel with Braverman to a tiny village in the north of Norway, where she works to fit in with an insular and unwelcoming local culture, to a Norwegian folk school where she learns to dogsled and survive under extreme conditions, and to a glacier in Alaska (the "ice cube" of the title), where she works as a tour guide and dogsledder.

These adventures alone would make an interesting and entertaining book. Braverman's clear, sparkling prose makes a fast and easy read. But Braverman brings another layer to her adventure story: the treatment she encounters as a young woman in a hyper-masculine world.

As an exchange student, Braverman is bullied, demeaned, sexually menaced, and finally assaulted by the father of her Norwegian host family. Frightened and without support, Braverman takes the all too common route: she blames herself. Then she takes that blame and self-doubt, and an ever-present (and not unfounded) fear of sexual violence, with her on her northern journeys.

Braverman blends these threads into a coming-of-age memoir, a travelogue, and an adventure tale.

I love dogsledding and the North from afar, so I was in awe -- and more than a little envy -- of Braverman's adventures. Her descriptions of driving a dogsled through a blizzard whiteout, or taking care of tourists stranded on the glacier, are true page-turners. At the same time, her descriptions of her dogs, and her love for them, bubble with honesty and enthusiasm. Her reflections on her relationships -- with a boyfriend who bullies her, with an elderly shopkeeper who becomes her chosen family, and finally, with a true partner -- are insightful and articulate. Braverman has a great ability to bring out one or two sparkling details that paint a vivid picture, without slowing the pace or getting bogged down in dense descriptions.

I had only one criticism of this book. The narrative jumps between different times and places. In general this would be fine, but with flashbacks and flash-forwards within flashbacks, I was often unable to follow the sequence of events. Was this before or after Alaska? Is this a subsequent trip to Norway or the same one? I couldn't piece together the timeline.

That's a flaw, but not a deal-breaker by any means. I just stayed in the present and didn't worry what happened when. By the time Braverman is ready to mentally and emotionally graduate from the tests she has chosen for herself, I was cheering for her all the way. And I hope it's not a spoiler to say the book has a poignant and very happy ending.

president trump: what didn't just happen

Since I'm making an effort to put more of my thoughts here, I'm gathering up a bunch of my Facebook posts and responses. If we know each other on Facebook, apologies for the repetition.

I find much of the analysis and commentary I've seen about the recent US election to be quite strange. Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States. That happened. Here's what didn't happen.

1. "The United States is a democracy. The people chose Trump, end of story."

60,467,601 US voters chose Hillary Clinton.

60,072,551 US voters chose Donald Trump.

More than 100,000,000 Americans eligible to vote did not vote.

More than 5 million Americans cannot vote because they are either incarcerated or have been incarcerated, and thus have been disenfranchised.

There has been rampant voter suppression and vote fraud in both the primaries and the general election.

The United States is also a democracy if you close your eyes and stop up your ears.

Some views on winning the vote but losing the election from: The Guardian, The Independent, and The Atlantic.

2. "If only it had been Bernie!"

Bernie Sanders was never, for one moment, going to be the Democrat nominee. He was not leading a revolution, he was not even leading a movement. If he wanted to do those things, he would not have been running as a Democrat, and he would not have voted in line with the Democrats 98% of the time during his Congressional career. His role in the race was to bring in the left-of-liberal vote and that's what he did.

However, if Sanders had been the Democratic nominee, where would he have gotten more votes than Clinton? In Vermont, and possibly in New York and California -- i.e., states that went to the Democrats anyway. Because of the electoral college and the winner-take-all state-by-state system, recent presidential elections come down to a small number of swing states. I see no evidence that a more progressive candidate would have succeeded where Clinton failed in key swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and North Carolina.

"If only it had been Bernie" assumes that a sizeable number of voters with strong progressive values opted to stay home in large numbers, rather than vote either Democrat or for a third-party candidate. This is possible, but not likely. Voters progressive enough to vote for Sanders likely would have voted to stop Trump.

"If only it had been Bernie" posits that a Jewish socialist born in New York City, a long-time representative of the liberal state of Vermont, would have carried the key swing states. Let's just say this strains credulity and leave it at that.

I do want, have always wanted, a progressive candidate to take on the Republicans, someone who actually offers a different vision of the country's future. By running as a Democrat, endorsing Clinton, and urging his supporters to vote for Clinton, Sanders demonstrated that he was not that candidate and never was.

3. Hillary Clinton is a good, strong, liberal woman of the people, and she deserved to win. She lost because of sexism and misogyny.

There's plenty of misogyny to go around, but the sexism smokescreen isn't big enough to hide Hillary Clinton's monstrous record.

Thomas Frank, writing in The Guardian:
She was the Democratic candidate because it was her turn and because a Clinton victory would have moved every Democrat in Washington up a notch. Whether or not she would win was always a secondary matter, something that was taken for granted. . . . And so Democratic leaders made Hillary their candidate even though they knew about her closeness to the banks, her fondness for war, and her unique vulnerability on the trade issue – each of which Trump exploited to the fullest. . . .

To try to put over such a nominee while screaming that the Republican is a rightwing monster is to court disbelief. If Trump is a fascist, as liberals often said, Democrats should have put in their strongest player to stop him, not a party hack they'd chosen because it was her turn. Choosing her indicated either that Democrats didn't mean what they said about Trump’s riskiness, that their opportunism took precedence over the country's well-being, or maybe both. . . .

Clinton’s supporters among the media didn’t help much, either. It always struck me as strange that such an unpopular candidate enjoyed such robust and unanimous endorsements from the editorial and opinion pages of the nation’s papers, but it was the quality of the media’s enthusiasm that really harmed her. With the same arguments repeated over and over, two or three times a day, with nuance and contrary views all deleted, the act of opening the newspaper started to feel like tuning in to a Cold War propaganda station. Here’s what it consisted of:
- Hillary was virtually without flaws. She was a peerless leader clad in saintly white, a super-lawyer, a caring benefactor of women and children, a warrior for social justice.
- Her scandals weren’t real.
- The economy was doing well / America was already great.
- Working-class people weren’t supporting Trump.
- And if they were, it was only because they were botched humans. Racism was the only conceivable reason for lining up with the Republican candidate. (See original for links.)

The even larger problem is that there is a kind of chronic complacency that has been rotting American liberalism for years, a hubris that tells Democrats they need do nothing different, they need deliver nothing really to anyone – except their friends on the Google jet and those nice people at Goldman. The rest of us are treated as though we have nowhere else to go and no role to play except to vote enthusiastically on the grounds that these Democrats are the "last thing standing" between us and the end of the world. It is a liberalism of the rich, it has failed the middle class, and now it has failed on its own terms of electability.
Jeffrey St. Clair, Counterpunch:
The DNC spent more time conspiring to defeat Bernie Sanders, than they did the Republicans. They absorbed nothing from the Sanders campaign, from the issues that resonated with his followers: a corrupt system fueled by corporate cash and militarism, working class people demeaned and ridiculed, the American youth burdened by debt with no opportunity for advancement, blacks and Hispanics treated as political chattel, captives to a party that demands their loyalty yet does nothing for them. The Clinton team vanquished Sanders, paid him off and then marched on arrogantly toward their doom.

Clinton herself showed a singular lack of courage to the very end of her campaign. She couldn't even speak out against the brutalization of tribal people in North Dakota defending their water and burial grounds against the mercenaries of Big Oil. How could anyone look at her silence in the face of those ongoing atrocities and believe that she'd ever stand up for them?
Robert Scheer, Truth Dig:
What you have is a defeat of elitism. Clinton's arrogance was on full display with the revelation of her speeches cozying up to Goldman Sachs—the bank that caused this misery more than any other—and the irony of this is not lost on the people who are hurting and can't pay their bills.
4. People voted for Donald Trump because they are racist, homophobic, xenophobic, and ignorant.

Many Americans are indeed all of those things, and obviously Donald Trump appealed to voters on that level. But Trump was able to fashion those beliefs into a campaign because of the Democrats' abandonment of the American working class.

Sorry to Godwin here, but remember how we all learned how post-WWI Germany was in the throes of a gargantuan economic crisis, and that Hitler was able to blame all that on the Jews, by tapping into a hatred that was already there? Does this not ring a bell?

Do not underestimate the economic crisis in the United States. People are not just unemployed -- they are without hope. No party has been willing to change the laws that allowed corporations to move operations to countries without environmental and labour protections, with an ocean of cheap, surplus labour, and to pay no taxes while doing so. The election finance system ensures that any attempt to change this would result in political suicide. So what used to be the middle class tries to scrape by on sales commissions, retail and fast-food, and what used to be the working class is just plain poor.

For decades Americans have seen their prospects for a decent life evaporate, and the Democrats, once considered the party of the working class, did nothing but help that happen, caring more about its corporate masters than ordinary voters. The white working class was primed ready to see their bigotry legitimized, and their suffering answered with scapegoating. It's much easier to point a finger at "those people" than to do the hard work of rebuilding the manufacturing sector.

Donald Trump didn't invent that ugly stew of bigotry. We all know that. But the Democrats' abandonment of the working class created the anger and frustration, and the vacuum of hope, that paved the way for Trump.

People are suffering. They have been suffering a long time. The Democrats have been ignoring their suffering. And now they -- and the American people -- have paid a very high price.

Joshua Frank, Counterpunch:
...no matter what bullshit excuse Democrats come up with for Hillary's historic embarrassment, they have only themselves to blame. She lost because she deserved to lose. She ran an awful campaign, mired in controversy, and was unable to excite voters to the polls. She believed neoliberalism could carry the day, but she was wrong. The DNC was wrong. The establishment lost because the establishment deserved its fate.

By no means does this imply Trump will overthrow the status quo, it only means the outsider Trump was better able to exploit the boiling rage of middle America. All the workers who were undercut by Bill Clinton's NAFTA. The hundreds of thousands that never rebounded from the Bush recession. Trump provided an outlet of hope for these lost souls – a fabricated hope no doubt, but hope nonetheless – gift wrapped in rage. His mastery of social media, of vindictive and racist rhetoric, helped him gut the provincial electorate.
Richard Moser, Counterpunch:
The Democrats were oblivious to the deep discontent among the American people because that simply does not figure into their clever and cunning calculations. Why should it? Fear, lesser of two evils, scapegoating, palace politics — all these things worked in the past, didn't they?

So all the discontent and unhappiness from years of economic distress fed right into the only other choice. We have the "great two party system" don't we? Both Democrats and Republicans insist there is no alternative. ...

The Democrats run a candidate who spent eight years in the White House, crow about her experience, even when the experience included the fact that Bill Clinton was IMPEACHED and widely viewed as a bum. The Democrats embrace a family dynasty the includes one of the two presidents in all of American history impeached by the House of Representatives. Good choice!

This has to be one of the most amazing proofs that the Democratic Party echo chamber is truly deafening.
Robert Scheer again:
The people Hillary Clinton derided as a “basket of deplorables” have spoken. They have voted out of the pain of their economic misfortune, which Clinton’s branch of the Democratic Party helped engender.

. . . It’s a repudiation of the arrogant elitism of the Democratic Party machine as represented by the Clintons, whose radical deregulation of Wall Street created this mess. And instead of recognizing the error of their ways and standing up to the banks, Clinton’s campaign cozied up to them, and that did not give people who are hurting confidence that she would respond to their needs or that she gave a damn about their suffering. She’s terminally tone-deaf.

So too were the mainstream media, which treated the wreckage of the Great Recession as a minor inconvenience, ignoring the deep suffering of the many millions who lost their homes, savings and jobs. The candidate of Goldman Sachs was defeated, unfortunately by a billionaire exemplar of everything that’s evil in late-stage capitalism, who will now worsen instead of fix the system. Thanks to the arrogance of the Democratic Party leadership that stifled the Sanders revolution, we are entering a very dangerous period with a Trump presidency, and this will be a time to see whether our system of checks and balances functions as our Founding Fathers intended

Make no mistake about it: This is a crisis of confidence for America’s ruling elite that far surpasses Nixon’s Watergate scandal. They were the enablers of radical deregulation that betrayed Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s contract with the American people in the wake of the Great Depression. The people are hurting, and regrettably, Trump was the only vehicle presented to them by either major party in the general election to register their deepest discontent. The Trump voters are the messenger; don’t demonize them in an effort to salvage the prestige of the superrich elite that has temporarily lost its grip on the main levers of power in this nation.

Thankfully, the Clinton era is over, and the sick notion that the Democratic Party of FDR needed to find a new home in the temples of Wall Street greed has been rudely shattered by the deep anger of the very folks that the Democrats had presumed to represent. That includes working-class women, who failed to respond to the siren song of Clinton, whom the Democratic hacks offered instead of a true progressive like Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Yes, we need a female president, but not in the mold of Margaret Thatcher.
Scheer, I should note, believes that Sanders would have defeated Trump in a progressive populist versus neofascist populist showdown. If Sanders was not actually a Democrat, I might have believed that, too.

Michael Laxer, The Left Chapter, "The wages of liberalism is Trump":
Much of the worst damage actually happened under Democrats. It should never be forgotten that it was Bill Clinton who helped to destroy the American liberal post-war state. Nor the role the Clinton Presidency played in the passing of sweeping and deeply racist crime bills that imprisoned and also disenfranchised millions of people-of-colour in the United States. . . . .

It was bizarre, as so many apologists for Clinton and the Democrats did, to go on about the alleged achievements of "incrementalism" or Democratic governance when it is easy to prove that the United States has gone dramatically to the right in every meaningful economic sense and when inequality is greater than it has been since the 1920s.

This did not change in any real way at all under Obama, a fact that is easily demonstrated.

Liberals and social democrats have failed workers and people living in poverty so spectacularly that it is impossible to overstate the extent.

This is a day-to-day lived reality for staggering numbers of people and telling those who might well be inclined to support something that rejects what has happened around them that your candidate and party are singularly qualified to stay the course due to their experience over this time in having done so, was both typically liberal and the worst form of political folly. It was a blind and bizarre self-defeating arrogance, that was profoundly, truly, madly, deeply foolhardy in its timing.
(Thanks to Allan for collecting these.)

5. We know what lies ahead.

In fact, we don't. This may have been merely an upset in the polls. Or it may be a sea change in US politics. I don't know what's coming and neither do you. That's why we're all so afraid.

11.11.2016

11.11

Anthem for Doomed Youth
by Wilfred Owen
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.



Dulce et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori
.

11.09.2016

a dark and frightening day

I've spent the past several months reassuring my co-workers and baldly stating on Facebook that Donald Trump would not become President of the United States.

The lesson for me and for many of us: never underestimate what angry, alienated people can be led to do. The racism, hatred, and violence that is always present in the United States, decades of hopelessness and downward mobility that have gone completely unaddressed, and a demagogue fearmonger unafraid to pander to the lowest strains of American life: and here we are.

It would appear the system is less rigged than I thought. I thought the corporatocracy that controls the US would not allow this to happen. I thought Trump's presence on the right -- a huge boon to Democrats by shutting down left-of-liberal resistance -- would also drive moderate Republicans to vote Democrat. If either of these scenarios came into play, they were not of sufficient magnitude to overcome the popular discontent and desperation.

I fervently hate the Democrats and would not have voted for Clinton (and it wouldn't have mattered if I had), but the Democrats are a known quantity. I know what they do. They make war on foreign nations, they deport immigrants and refugees, they superficially (and sometimes meaningfully) support reproductive rights and LGBT rights. They are moderately liberal on social issues, and far-right on both military and economic issues. They are a party of cats, and I expect nothing for the mouse beyond the occasional crumb.

Trump, however, is an unknown. No one knows how far this will go, and whether enough resistance can be mounted against it.

10.29.2016

what i'm reading: the underground railroad by colson whitehead

Colson Whitehead is a literary genius. In The Underground Railroad, he has found a way to tell the story of 400-plus years of African-American oppression without delivering an awkward march through history, and without using characters as billboards for ideas.

Instead of linear time, Whitehead employs a geography of time: different eras, different historical moments, occur simultaneously but in different places, all the locations connected by an underground railroad.

At one stop is something very like the Tuskegee Experiment and the "Mississippi appendectomy". At another stop, minstrel shows, the mania of genocidal lynching, and the realities of Fugitive Slave Act. At another, the vision of Greenwood, Oklahoma and other all-black triumphs like it, and the spectre of its demise.

These simultaneous realities are linked, not by the Underground Railroad of myth and metaphor, but an underground railroad. As every reviewer of this book has pointed out, Whitehead imagines an actual railroad, at once a clandestine mode of transport, and a symbol of the subterranean struggle for freedom and justice.

Through his invented geography, Whitehead comes as close to the heart of the horror of slavery and its many legacies as anything I've ever read. The physical truth, the emotional truth, the psychological truth -- all are laid bare, revealing the United States' foundation of stolen land, human chattel, and brutal subjugation, and how that has played out over decades and centuries.

Whitehead doesn't sanitize slavery, but neither is this book a catalogue of grotesque violence. There's violence enough -- Whitehead doesn't flinch from it -- but he doesn't force the reader into torture porn, as graphically violent books often do.

To call The Underground Railroad historical fiction would be to diminish it. Whitehead is the consummate genre-shifter, never writing the same type of book twice; actually never writing a "type" at all. The Underground Railroad comprises elements of historical fiction, slave narratives, immigration stories, westerns, alternative histories, and magical realism. There's bits of Gulliver's Travels, of The Odyssey, of The Inferno. This review in The New York Times references one I hadn't thought of.
Throughout my reading, I was repeatedly reminded of a particular chapter from García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” to whose handling of time Whitehead seems to owe quite a bit. In that chapter, the infamous massacre of the banana plantation workers is denied by the official versions of history and soon forgotten. But one character knows what he saw — thousands of dead traveling toward the sea on a train — and goes around trying to find someone who will remember the story. He doesn’t: People always get things wrong. In a sense, “The Underground Railroad” is Whitehead’s own attempt at getting things right, not by telling us what we already know but by vindicating the powers of fiction to interpret the world. In its exploration of the foundational sins of America, it is a brave and necessary book.
In reviews and interviews, much has been made of Whitehead's imaginative invention of an actual underground railroad, but what sets this book apart is not fantasy. Whitehead uses this magical element to confront the reality of American slavery, inviting us to consider it anew. In The Globe and Mail, Andray Domise writes:
But other misunderstandings, stubborn and pernicious, have managed to warp much of white America’s perception of slavery – that it was a matter of wage theft, that slaves were mostly treated and fed well by benevolent masters, that the Irish were treated in a similar fashion to black people. Whitehead’s novel is both speculative fiction and an inversion of these comforting fables. One in which the United States’ crimes against the Black body are revealed and compressed into the narrative of a young woman’s escape from bondage.
The Underground Railroad is a powerful and beautifully written book. Of course it's deeply disturbing, but I hope that doesn't dissuade readers from picking it up. In this age when blatantly false histories spread virally, this is a book that needs to be read.

Also, it's Colson Whitehead. Here I am again, raving about another book by Colson Whitehead. Here are my posts on: Sag Harbor, Zone One, Apex Hides the Hurt, and John Henry Days. Turns out I didn't review Colossus of New York, I only quoted from it: here and here (this blog was two days old at the time). And I read his first novel, The Intuitionist before this blog existed.

10.24.2016

i look forward to the day when no one wears a fitbit anymore

What did people do before Fitbit? Without their adorable little bracelets, how did they get enough exercise? Never mind that, how did they manage to live?? All those lonely, barren years, decade upon decade, people running, swimming, cycling, lifting, walking -- without a Fitbit. Can you imagine? It breaks my heart just thinking about it.

Pre-Fitbit, I often didn't know if people were exercising at all! Imagine! I might be speaking to someone who was getting enough exercise, and I wouldn't even know it! Unless the subject came up, I wouldn't know how many steps they had walked that day! What a scary thought.