Our Enemy Is Isolation

Justin Davidson, reporting for New York magazine, writes about the widening split between urban and suburban voters (http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/04/the-urban-rural-divide-matters-more-than-red-vs-blue-state.html).

One odd paragraph stands out, however:

It’s not clear what accounts for this political force field that weakens with every mile from City Hall but that’s carried from center to center along transit lines. Do people with strong political views choose to live in like-minded communities, or do the places people choose to live form their opinions about how society should work? Which comes first: real estate or ideology? Either way, the dynamic behaves like an ideological centrifuge, distributing liberals and conservatives in complex but not random patterns.

From reading Davidson’s own article, or applying basic common sense, it seems pretty clear what accounts for deep-seated conservatism, and that’s isolation. If you travel by car and live in a single-family house (or gated community, let’s call that a “home-let”), then your interactions with other people are likely limited and largely avoidable. The freedom afforded you by your remove might even allow you to go out of your way to avoid mixing with people around whom you feel uncomfortable: you don’t have to shop at the supermarket closest to you, for instance. You can drive that extra five minutes in the other direction.

On the other hand, public transportation (like public school) day by day breaks down that fantastical “other.” While the stray bad experience–a mugging or other act of violence, a belligerent or deranged passenger–may still jade you in the short-term, the long-term effect of mingling with your fellow Americans–not just anonymously cruising past them in traffic or sending out unheard curses at whomever just cut you off–has a liberalizing effect. You can still hate those of different ethnicities, genders, or orientations, but you can’t do so anonymously, and the removal of anonymity–as seen when leaping from a water-cooler conversation to a message-board free-for-all–makes it a lot harder to do so. That’s the “political force field” that Davidson is describing: the more alone you are, the more entitled you are to everything around you, the more independent you feel, whether there’s any actual basis to that whatsoever. Of course these people retreat into conservative platitudes: they’ve already gone out of their way to physically cut themselves off from the world at large. What’s another psychic cut or two?

Is there Room for a Social Justice Warrior in the Future?

Amy Wallace writes in WIRED’s November 2015 issue about the battle for diversity in science fiction. I still don’t quite understand how such a outspoken group of authors managed to seize control of the nomination ballots, or how the voting panel (apparently it costs $40 to register to vote) so easily defeated these whitewashed proposals (with votes instead for “No Award,” but the argument itself is a familiar one. A group of purists attempts to remove any science-fiction nominees that don’t conform to their standards, claiming that it’s a matter of “quality” more than anything else. But whereas casting directors have a slightly firmer statistical ground (one that’s constantly eroding) to stand on when they suggest that minorities aren’t leads because they don’t sell as many tickets, that’s less of a concern when it comes to Hugo Awards, where the subjects in question have all already been published, and their works can be objectively read. I don’t dispute that there are definitely moves to publish a more representative swath of authors–just look at the controversy over Sherman Alexie’s attempts at inclusion for the Best American Poetry 2015–but this isn’t that. White, straight, male authors aren’t deliberately being overlooked; our depictions of the future (which as the article points out, is just an allegory of the present) are simply changing, and it’s crazy to see people try to argue against it. (I mean, wasn’t part of the fun and daring of the original Star Trek in its somewhat progressive treatment of characters? Embracing aliens, minorities, etc.?)

There’s definitely room to critique N. K. Jemisin for shoehorning in bisexual or gay subplots into her latest novel, The Fifth Season, especially when there are already so many good parallels regarding how the much-feared (and powerful) orogonists are treated and controlled by society. But that novel also daringly swaps between three narratives (connected in a way that I don’t want to spoil) and even goes so far as to play with second person for one of them, and the one small issue some might have with her writing (and it’s not as if other Hugo winners haven’t had equally all-flash sex scenes that titillate more than propel the plot) shouldn’t detract from everything else. This is not a novel, in other words, that is just dabbling in science-fiction because it’s somehow “easier” to win an award there than in another category–this isn’t the Emmy Awards.

Moreover, that’s not really even the argument that the opposition to Jemisin et. al. is making. You’ve got people like Theodore Beale who are literally calling Jemisin “an educated, but ignorant half-savage” and attempting to then say that he’s just being “provocative.” But when someone announces that “We should run a train on that bitch,” maybe it’s time that we look at the language of the opposition more than that of the respectable, published authors who they are calling out in the most trollish ways. Personally, I prefer George R. R. Martin’s response: “The reward for popularity is popularity. It’s truckloads of money. Can’t the trophy go to the guy who sells 5,000 copies but is doing something innovative?” This is why I preferred the off-Broadway Obie awards (and the off-off Innovative Theater Awards) to the popularized Tonys; it wasn’t always about the slickest production values, the most “traditional” or tour-able productions–it was about the ability to conjure up something of meaning, sometimes with next to no resources, and to make an audience stop and think. Perhaps the Hugo Awards, like this year’s semi-protested Oscars, are doomed to be a meaningless award, replaced by Martin’s newly proposed (and more inclusive) Alfie Awards. But the idea that this is all about social justice is nonsense; in science-fiction novels, robots are often speaking for themselves. In the present, these books are more than capable of doing the same.

In the End, We Become Them

Andy Greenberg’s piece for WIRED (April 2015) on the struggle to smuggle information into North Korea is very readable. But while the cause is obviously just–expose an indoctrinated people to the reality of the outside world in the hopes that they will revolt against their oppressive, tyrannical government–I wonder just a little bit if the means (propaganda) aren’t committing the exact same sin of omission, in the fact that we’re carefully curating the sort of contraband that we ship into North Korea. Yes, we’re offering them a different window, and that’s good, and perhaps full exposure might send the wrong message about our values–but isn’t the point that we should be letting people decide? It’s the same issue we face in America: those who watch and read the news, even FOX, are ostensibly more educated and perceptive to what’s going on in the exterior than those who live in insulated bubbles–but it’s only by confirming and deepening this understanding of “facts” through real-world experience and other first-hand sources that we actually learn what the world is actually like. (And even then, not totally.)

Besides, who are we to determine what exactly will be the tipping point for a North Korean? Would we ever have expected that Friends, of all shows, would be the thing that made people more welcoming of Western values? (Maybe the unspoken racism appeals to them.) Or that Titanic would be so inspiring– as Yeonmi Park puts it in the article, “In North Korea, they had taught us that you die for the regime. In this movie it was like, whoa, he’s dying for a girl he loves.” It’s a bit discouraging, then, to read that North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity (led by an escaped North Korean who used to work for their thought police, confiscating contraband) actually screens media for a “defector focus group” in order to better “smuggle in the materials with the most impact.” On the one hand, I see the need not to waste valuable resources smuggling in content that won’t spur the population to act, but at the same time, shouldn’t this be the people’s choice? And aren’t resources being spent, after all, airing Superbad to these testers instead of just casting it out, message-in-a-bottle style on a USB drive, and seeing what happens? Some of our products definitely make America look stupid, but if we’re honest and open enough to show that–to show all of that–isn’t that a point in our favor, especially if we’re comparing that to the secrecy and closure of the punitive North Korean government?

If WikiLeaks chose which data to release, or offered to compromise with governments by continue to censor material that was especially sensitive, wouldn’t that massively devalue the site itself, given how difficult trust is to earn and protect? Same too, perhaps, with North Korea: let’s find a way to get them access to everything, and let them figure out how to use it.

In trying to understand why smart Establishment-conservative commentators…so uniformly underestimated Trump’s appeal among Republican voters for so long, you have to start by assuming that they were in denial…about how his baser instincts might appeal to some in their party’s angry base. But insularity may have played as big a role as denial. Most Republicans are not racists, and race is hardly the whole Trump story, yet it’s not clear that the elites got any of the story.

This is Frank Rich, writing in New York‘s 3/21-4/3 issue, but I have to wonder how he reaches the assertion that “most” Republicans are not racists. If you’re willing to support Trump–a man who cannot immediately denounce the KKK, lazily stereotypes and targets Mexicans and immigrants, and calls for protestors to be beaten as they once were in the good old days of the openly racist ’60s–then you are a racist. That’s the entire story. It doesn’t matter what else Trump might stand for (and that’s hard to tell); this one issue should be enough to disqualify him. No matter how much the Republicans might want to sweep all three branches, to appoint new Supreme Court justices, to push through legislation, if they’re willing to even temporarily support a racist to make it happen, then they, themselves, are racists.

One of the great things about Trump’s campaign–really, the only great thing–is that it strips Republicans of their ability to feign ignorance or insularity, to suggest that their hands are tied when it comes to abortion reform (because of Roe v. Wade) or that they’re being stymied by those elitist bastards on the other side, smeared unjustly by the media. They’ll still try to play the victim–many Republicans could benefit from a second career playing soccer–but it should be nakedly apparent that in supporting Trump, they’re condoning racism. And those who don’t see that? Well, they’re racists.

For the LULZ, or, Publishing Today

Popular Science has never really been an in-depth journal–you can tell as much from the name of the publication, which emphasizes the “popular” aspects far more than the “science.” Don’t get me wrong, they sneak a lot of interesting DIY projects in there, and there’s plenty of cursory information about upcoming developments if you want to move on to something slightly more complex like WIRED, or an actual scientific journal. But I couldn’t help but laugh at this particular bit from their Future of Money issue (January/February 2016):

I even visited a strip club, where I convinced the exotic dancer to create a Bitcoin wallet while I watched.

First off, there’s something deeply creepy about the way the author Kashmir Hill (who goes uncredited in the print issue) uses the phrases “convinced” and “while I watched.” Then there’s the classic language used for “strip club” and “exotic dancer.” Now, there’s a valid point to be made about how Bitcoin is so accepted now that you can even use it in an establishment that Popular Science presumably views as lowest-common denominator (i.e., stupid, technologically backward). But the way it’s presented as a one-line throwaway (and, of course, it’s the pull-quote for this page-long article) speaks to the luridness of the publishing industry. (An irony not lost on me, considering that I’m pulling out the same line for comment.)

If the stripper’d already had a Bitcoin account, I’d be totally behind this article; the fact that the journalist had to set him/her up with one suggests that the author manipulated things in order to get a nice line (and an amusing thing to put on an expenses invoice). This doesn’t speak to a changing economy or industry, then, so much as a one-off stunt that a journalist was supposedly able to convince a dancer to agree to. (I’m guessing that the club itself didn’t allow Bitcoins to be used in payment for drinks or anything else.) It feels exploitative, and while it’s apropos of something, that something’s as artificial and soulless as it gets.

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