Book Supplemental: Smash Implicit Bias

Way back in the early days of blogging I was a big fan of the late Steve Gilliard and his News Blog and I checked on it daily. He was one of the founders of the leftwing blogosphere as it exists today. At some point in my regular reading of the blog, I can still remember very clearly, I ‘realized’ that Steve Gilliard was African American. And then, to my personal horror, it dawned on me that the only way for me to ‘realize’ Gilliard was African American was to have assumed he was white. There was no reason for that assumption whatsoever. None. The only, the only, reason for me to make that assumption was that in my own implicit bias the default person, or at least the default authoritative person, was white. It was what my mind filled in absent other information.

Now, to other white folk it may seem that this is not the worst form of implicit bias. There are much more racist ways to be. Except that this type of bias is insidious, it’s in many, many Americans, and its part of what lets the other aspects of racism flourish. Because defaulting to white, and usually male, means that white guys are people while others are Latinx people, or female people, or Muslim people, or African American people, or any other descriptor. It lets those of us who are stuck in that mindset to not even notice if we’re in an all white space, but be hyper-aware of anyone who isn’t a white male in the area. It’s what leads white people to drastically overestimate numbers of Muslims or other immigrants and races. It’s what lets newspapers write about working class voters or faith-based voters or rural voters forgetting about the large numbers of people of color in each of those populations. Its what lets people argue that fighting for equal rights is ‘identity politics’ but talking about reverse racism and halting immigration is just normal politics. It is a dangerous, and common, piece of bias that we need to fight wherever we can, including in our own consciousness.

I was reminded of this experience of mine while reading The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin. Because while I try to take in authors from a variety of backgrounds and viewpoints, lets face it. Fantasy is still pretty white. This is changing, and while there have been and are plenty of fantastic sci fi and fantasy books by authors of color, much of the pure, set-in-an-entirely-different-world, fantasy skews white. The Fifth Season doesn’t. It includes a wide variety of colors and hair types and looks, and they all just are there. The strict caste system in the world of The Stillness isn’t based on looks, so there are no prebuilt, current-Earth assumptions to slot people into. And I found myself with that feeling again. My mind trying to default to the white of a fantasy world that I am too used to, and being jerked back into the story I was in, instead filling in the dark, dreadlocked hair and deep brown, or olive-pale, or golden tan, skin of the people in the world that Jemisin has built. And while I’m disappointed in myself for how far I still have to go, it was a welcome feeling, to have my own implicit biases broken down bit by bit.

And this is why it is important to read everything, by everyone. Why diversity in the books kids read is important, for them to see people represented a thousand different ways while they’re still learning empathy from the books they read. Why woke white folks need to not just read Invisible Man and Kindred (as amazing as they are) but branch out. We need to read books with people of different colors and races just existing, living in fantasy worlds, or doing magic, or any number of other things. Because it’s harder to hold on to our biases when we see them challenged in every way.

Advertisements

The Fifth Season

the fifth seasonThe Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin

It is difficult to review a book like The Fifth Season. Difficult because, having read several reviews before I even picked up this book, I am well aware that nothing I write will possibly capture the amazing intricacies of the world that Jemisin has created. Nothing will convey how truly amazing and immersive and brilliant this work is.

The world is ending. Personal tragedies that feel as if one’s world is ending, yes, but also the world is ending. Although not everyone realizes it yet. The book begins with these endings, as someone spreads his hands and opens a rift down the middle of Yumenes, the central city, a rift that goes through the central continent and leads to as yet untold disaster but will certainly usher in a Season, the lengths of which no one is prepared for. And at the same time, one person, Essun, is dealing with the end of her world as she realizes her husband has murdered their son and disappeared with their daughter.

The Stillness is so named in defiance of the world, as it is anything but. Regularly rocked by earthquakes, volcanoes and other tectonic activity, the Stillness is used to Seasons—apocalypse level activities that come every few years or decades or centuries—and have prepared as they can, with rules in place for when a Season occurs, stores of goods kept in each home and city, and, most importantly, harnessing the orogenes, people with the ability to control the earth and rocks who are feared and needed and kept under an elaborate system of controls. And at the same time throughout this world there are artifacts of past civilizations, ones that had clearly lasted through the length of more than one Season but have now been wiped away thoroughly, their artifacts referred to as those of DeadCivs. And StoneEaters, a humanoid race about which not much is known.

The Fifth Season jumps around in time and place, following the point of view of three main characters, Essun, the woman who has found her son killed and her husband and daughter missing, Damaya, a young girl who has been discovered as an orogene and is sent away from her village for training and exile, and Syenite, a well-trained orogene. Through these stories, which weave together in surprising ways, we learn more and more about the current society, the Sanze Empire, and the dark ways that the empire has enslaved and dehumanized some in order to provide the illusion of security for others, and the question at the center: does it have to be this way? And, related, even if this is the only way for stability, is it okay? Can some people be entirely turned into means, and thrown away as people? Can this ever be right? It is a fantasy story that deals not only with the aftermath of the apocalypse but also the question, should the apocalypse happen? And, honestly, there is so much more that I want to say but I can’t because this is a story where spoilers would actually matter.

The amount of world-building that has gone into this story is formidable. And, what is even more amazing to me, the world building made me want to learn more. I fully read both glossaries at the end, the supplemental dictionary and the explanations of all the past Seasons referred to. And I am one who enjoys fantasy books but would rather clean the bathroom than have to read even one chapter of The Silmarillion. Fifth Season was also amazingly creative, intentionally playing with tropes and assumptions throughout, purposefully challenging the world we would come in with. Gender and sexuality are not a ‘thing’ in Fifth Season, with non-binary characters slotted in with no shock around them, and the ideas of ‘good’ color and hair and other markers being moved around to different categories and different castes in this story, with the purpose that the oppression will be happening around lines that are developed for this society and that we can’t easily put our own experiences onto.

This is the first of a trilogy, with Jemisin being the first author ever to win three Hugo awards in a row for the three books in a trilogy, and I can see why it has won all the accolades that has come its way. This is a rare book that feels of itself, truly different and set apart from others, and the writing is simply amazing.  The Fifth Season has stuck with me since I read it and left me thinking of little else.  It is a fascinating piece of literature.

Out of Sight

out_of_sight_finalOut of Sight, Erik Loomis

In the 1990s, one of the primary issues on a college campus or with active high schoolers was outsourcing and globalization. United Students Against Sweatshops held sit ins, demonstrations, and boycotts and forced Nike and other companies to at least pretend to care about allegations of worker abuse. Marches against globalization and worker exploitation happened around the country. In 1999, the Battle of Seattle, massive protests against the World Trade Organization, made many of us think a real change was in the air. When I started college that year, globalization, trade and outsourcing were all anyone were talking about. Then, 9/11 came and all other issues were pushed to the side. As I’ve referenced in other reviews, in many ways we are paying now for how that badly needed discussion was interrupted.

As evidence of how little many of us now care—or possibly how little we think we can do—when the story of Foxconn workers committing suicide broke it was barely a blip before we all moved on and continued buying iPhones and iPads. Although the company did put up suicide nets. When a fire in a Bangladeshi clothing factory killed 1,134 people there were a few moments of lip service. But it was hardly a call to action, or a call to change.

Erik Loomis, a labor historian and writer at the fantastic Lawyers, Guns and Money outlines how the outsourcing of labor is to avoid not only regulation, but also any blowback for their practices. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City at the turn of the century was a galvanizing force for reform in the United States, but it was witnessed by many people in the city. Tragedies a world away blend in to all of the other tragedies we read and hear about every day. Instead, they are in the news and then we pass on to other things. Additionally, the implosion of labor in the United States, also due to this outsourcing, means the very concept of factory and shift work is foreign to many of us. We assume it’s terrible and don’t consider what reforms can be put in place. We have no connection to or feeling of solidarity with these workers. And the complicated thicket of regulations and shell companies make it even more possible for this to happen.

Out of Sight is a call for us to care about these activities once again, and to look to what can actually make a difference: laws and regulations. Boycotts and personal purity are not enough to change the current structure. There are simply too many bad actors for us to judge, and the complicated structure of global trade regulations and shell companies make it nearly impossible for the layperson to determine who should be held accountable anyway.  I, a person who cares very much about labor issues, am not going to be able to do spot checks on factories in Dhaka. I can’t look over Gaps books and determine who their suppliers are and how they work with them. And the sheer number of products make it impossible as well—maybe I could find an electronics supplier who treats workers decently (doubtful), but where do they source all of their materials? Are the processors prepared at a factory with a union and strong minimum wage? What about the people who mined the minerals.

Ultimately, trying to change this by making the proper purchases is more about virtue signaling and demonstrating how pure we are than actually making a difference. True change comes when we take to the streets, when we demand change, and when we support unions and organizers fighting for what the workers need. The labor union has been in decline for decades, and the discussion on outsourcing and globalization is two decades overdue. It’s time to demand change.

In the 1990s, one of the primary issues on a college campus or with active high schoolers was outsourcing and globalization. United Students Against Sweatshops held sit ins, demonstrations, and boycotts and forced Nike and other companies to at least pretend to care about allegations of worker abuse. Marches against globalization and worker exploitation happened around the country. In 1999, the Battle of Seattle, massive protests against the World Trade Organization, made many of us think a real change was in the air. When I started college that year, globalization, trade and outsourcing were all anyone were talking about. Then, 9/11 came and all other issues were pushed to the side. As I’ve referenced in other reviews, in many ways we are paying now for how that badly needed discussion was interrupted.

As evidence of how little many of us now care—or possibly how little we think we can do—when the story of Foxconn workers committing suicide broke it was barely a blip before we all moved on and continued buying iPhones and iPads. Although the company did put up suicide nets. When a fire in a Bangladeshi clothing factory killed 1,134 people there were a few moments of lip service. But it was hardly a call to action, or a call to change.

Erik Loomis, a labor historian and writer at the fantastic Lawyers, Guns and Money outlines how the outsourcing of labor is to avoid not only regulation, but also any blowback for their practices. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City at the turn of the century was a galvanizing force for reform in the United States, but it was witnessed by many people in the city. Tragedies a world away blend in to all of the other tragedies we read and hear about every day. Instead, they are in the news and then we pass on to other things. Additionally, the implosion of labor in the United States, also due to this outsourcing, means the very concept of factory and shift work is foreign to many of us. We assume it’s terrible and don’t consider what reforms can be put in place. We have no connection to or feeling of solidarity with these workers. And the complicated thicket of regulations and shell companies make it even more possible for this to happen.

Out of Sight is a call for us to care about these activities once again, and to look to what can actually make a difference: laws and regulations. Boycotts and personal purity are not enough to change the current structure. There are simply too many bad actors for us to judge, and the complicated structure of global trade regulations and shell companies make it nearly impossible for the layperson to determine who should be held accountable anyway.  I, a person who cares very much about labor issues, am not going to be able to do spot checks on factories in Dhaka. I can’t look over Gaps books and determine who their suppliers are and how they work with them. And the sheer number of products make it impossible as well—maybe I could find an electronics supplier who treats workers decently (doubtful), but where do they source all of their materials? Are the processors prepared at a factory with a union and strong minimum wage? What about the people who mined the minerals.

Ultimately, trying to change this by making the proper purchases is more about virtue signaling and demonstrating how pure we are than actually making a difference. True change comes when we take to the streets, when we demand change, and when we support unions and organizers fighting for what the workers need. The labor union has been in decline for decades, and the discussion on outsourcing and globalization is two decades overdue. It’s time to demand change.

Station Eleven

station elevenStation Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven is the kind of beautifully, lyrically written and fully realized book that you want to just sink into entirely. After a few paragraphs, you can be completely immersed and surrounded by the world that Emily St. John Mandel has created. You know those Audible commercials about the stories that surround you? That’s a lot what reading this book was like.

St. John Mandel has written a beautiful book about the apocalypse, in this case a rapidly spreading flu that is 99% fatal if not more, and what comes after. It follows several different characters before, at the very beginning of, and 20 years after the outbreak, all characters connected in some way with Arthur Leander, a famous actor who dies of a heart attack while performing King Lear the night the flu outbreak begins. The primary character driving the story is a child actor, Kirstin Raymonde, who is eight when she watches Arthur Leander die on stage and the world falls apart. Twenty years later she is now part of a Shakespearean theatre troupe, The Travelling Symphony, and one of the few possessions she has left from before is a collection of two comics Station Eleven.

The book is less concerned with the immediate aftermath but in connections, the way people move through life, and in how society can reform, pick itself up and start to put itself back together. The Travelling Symphony has painted “Survival is Insufficient” on one of their caravans (and yes, it is remarked that it’s from Star Trek) and this spirit infuses the book. St. John Mandel is less interested in the survival part of the apocalypse, although it is touched on in a few parts, than in the rebuilding of society.

The part where we put everything back together is shown in a few small ways. The theatre troupe is one of them, with the reception they receive in most towns demonstrating how desperate for art and entertainment the survivors are. The book jumps forwards and backwards in time, with parts being an interview with Kirsten in a town where the librarian has decided to restart a newspaper. At one point Kirsten and a friend she’s walking with encounter a man who agrees to share water and food, and she reflects that even ten years ago this would not have been the case, as people were still so much more mistrustful of others. And while there is some information shared of the first few days and weeks after the outbreak, it’s not the focus, with Kirsten often reflecting on how grateful she is that she cannot the remember the first year after.

All in all, this was a gorgeous book. It’s beautifully descriptive, with the scenes of Station Eleven, the comic book which circles through, written in such a way that I longed to see them. The story itself is spellbinding, with each new side story and character absorbing me entirely. It’s a love letter to society and existence and high and low culture, a creative take on the apocalypse, and well worth your time to read.

Thieves of State

thieves of stateThieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, Sarah Chayes

Here is the problem with complete and total corruption: if there is no fairness, no way to just go about one’s daily life without being hassled or assaulted, no de facto rules, then what possible reason is there to follow the de jure rules. And if there is no stability and predictability to life, how incredibly tempting is it to go along with and follow someone who promise that they will bring stability back, that they will make it possible for an honest person to have a normal life?

Based primarily on her own experiences in Afghanistan, in Thieves of State Sarah Chayes makes a powerful argument that it is this aspect of corruption that gives fundamentalists and extremists an inroads, and that the US either turning a blind eye to, or actively supporting, corrupt regimes is a dangerous practice. From her time in Afghanistan, working with Afghanis, Chayes remarks how people responded to the corruption that surrounded them by expressing, if not support exactly, a certain sympathy, say, for insurgents attacking the police or the government. The every day people most assuredly did not think that the government was there for them. From her personal experience, though, Chayes branches out, exploring historical literature on the issue, and the tie between corruption and fundamentalist rebellions currently occurring throughout the world.

Chayes’ argument is powerful, and I don’t think anyone can argue with her that corruption is, at the least, a very, very strong contributing factor to people turning to extremists. After all, there is no reason to protect an institution that you see as fundamentally against you, and impeding your daily life, and no peaceful way to try to change an institution that is corrupt and unresponsive to ordinary people. And she explores the ties to extremism seen in Uzbekistan, which has always had a cultural but not particularly religious Islam but now sees fundamentalism as a response to the corruption in Tashkent, and Nigeria, where people are turning to both Boko Haram and the Pentecostal Churches growing in power to take on the corrupt government. And, of course, there is a strong focus on the governments the US has propped up in Iraq and Afghanistan that are rife with corruption.

Chayes also makes the compelling point that it is incredibly difficult for outside, western organizations to fix this as we are seen as so completely tied to the corrupt regimes we have supported or turned a blind eye to. Liberal democracy loses any veneer of legitimacy when it is connected with a fundamentally corrupt group, a ‘vertically integrated crime syndicate’, as she describes Afghanistan. I must say, I find some interesting parallels there and what we see happening in our Western democracies. There is a comparison to be made between the way democracy has lost legitimacy in places where it is tied with corrupt regimes and the arguments that are made by Robert Reich in Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism. Here Reich argues in part that people who are left behind and feel the system is rigged (which it is) are more inclined to turn towards fascists and extremists when they see the more left wing or moderate politicians tied to corporations and others and unable to produce change. In both cases, we are hampering ourselves and losing all legitimacy in the name of political expediency.

While this is a very important book, I would say, in terms of considering drivers of change, I think it also hampered in some way. It isn’t unusual for a book making an argument on the important issue to overlook other issues, but Chayes did lack an exploration of other drivers, or what factors might make corruption actually turn into an insurgency or make people turn towards extremists. After all, there is not a 1:1 correlation between the most corrupt countries and the places where terrorists are the strongest. North Korea, for instance, is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, but also one of the ones with the strongest state and among the most stable—although that stability might be balanced on a knife edge. Haiti is also in Transparency International’s bottom twenty and while it’s not the best place, it also doesn’t feature a massive insurgency. So what else leads to the tipping point there?

As the book went on that part, the lack of a null hypothesis to compare to, started to nag at me. I wanted some charts; I wanted some discussion of what the corruption tipping point was and if it’s corruption perception or actual corruption that makes a difference.  And how does this play into, compare or contrast with the idea that its resource scarcity that drives more conflict—the old ‘economic insecurity’ argument.

Despite this, though, I thought this was a fascinating book, and a worthy inclusion in any discussions of peace and conflict and considerations of a failed state. By and large, issues of governance do not get nearly enough attention in peace and conflict and development work, and yet they are absolutely essential. All the aid in the world will never help a country grow if you don’t address underlying policy issues and build up the state, something too often overlooked by aid agencies. And our own government is far too willing to either actively abet corruption if we think it helps our interests or turn a blind eye, when we need to be rooting it out.*  And the arguments around protecting the legitimacy of the UN and western governments as a need to address corruption are very persuasive as well. I don’t think Thieves of State has all the answers, but it’s certainly one that should be read and is a very important addition to the topic.

*Not to mention our own many, many failings in this area.

Library Book Sale, Pt. 3

♫ We’re having a book sale, a library book sale. We certainly can, can-can. ♫ *Ahem* Sorry, I can’t help but break out into song when it’s time for the library book sale. And by the way, yesterday I found a salamander and today was the library book sale, so everything’s really coming up Milhouse this week.

But enough about my exciting week. (I think it was a valley and ridge salamander, I know you were wondering about that.) Let’s get to some exciting books.

library book sale

One Hundred Twenty-One Days, Michèle Audin. I don’t really know anything about this book except it’s by a mathematician and involves codes, politics, science and European poetry, and looked pretty interesting.

Good Omens, Neil Gaiman &Terry Pratchett. I’ve been working my way (slowly) through Discworld and I’m a huge Terry Pratchett fan. Neil Gaiman is an unforgivable gap in my literary education. I’m quite looking forward to this.

A Poet of the Invisible World, Michael Golding. I’m not ashamed to admit that I picked this up largely because I thought the cover was so pretty. It’s described as a magical spiritual novel, which means that I’m either going to love it or find it ridiculously superficial and be disappointed.

The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene. Graham Greene is one of the best novelists of the 20th century, and the old paperbacks are only 50 cents at these book sales which almost seems wrong. I think this is his most straightforwardly Catholic one, so I’m wondering how that is—usually the books deal a bit more in ambiguity.

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015, Joe Hill (ed.) I do love the Best American series. If you’re ever wondering what to pick up, you really can’t go wrong with something from this collection. Incidentally, they’re always at the library book sale so I just pick up whatever year for $2 and have never bought one new, but the 2018 collection is edited by N.K. Jemisin so I might need to make an exception.

Fardwor, Russia! Oleg Kashin. A satire from 2010 Russia by a Russian journalist and activist who is also a fierce Putin critic. I’ve read a lot of books from the Soviet Union and right after, but I don’t think I’ve read any in current years.

The Once and Future King, T.H. White. My mom loves, loves, Arthur legends, I watched The Sword and the Stone at least 100 times as a kid, and the much less well-known Mistress Masham’s Repose is one of my favorite books and my copy from childhood is falling apart. I don’t know how my mom let me grow up with never having read this, but I intend to rectify her oversight.

The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin. A travelogue by a British author and journalist and his time in the Australian Outback, particularly meeting with Aboriginal peoples. This is a region I really don’t know much about, and I’m looking forward to learning more.

The Classic Slave Narratives, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (ed). Slavery and its legacy is a part of American history that we should never allow to be forgotten and minimized. Any slave narrative—or even an excerpt—I’ve read before has stuck with me, and I’d make them required reading in all schools if I could.

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein. This has been on my want-to-read list for a while and the only reason I hadn’t read it yet is because it seemed the type of book I’d want to own rather than borrow from the library. As it’s from 5 years ago, I expect to read it and chuckle bitterly about how naïve Klein was as I imagine everything we’re seeing now is much worse than was predicted even here.

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East, Gerard Russell. As an American I’m always amazed as I learn how many cultures and religions have survived and exist throughout the middle east and southern Asia. It’s amazing how much history exists in the rest of the world; our continent is so young.

And that’s it! Now I just have to find a place to put all these and time to read them.

Dictionary of the Khazars

dictionary of the khazarsThe Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel (male edition), Milorad Pavić

The Dictionary of the Khazars, focused on the supposed conversion of the Khazars, an actual lost people who had been in southeastern Europe from roughly the 6th through the 10th centuries, is framed as an attempt to recreate previous dictionaries of these people. The book itself takes place in a surreal dream world where none of the words make sense as written yet feel as if they do. In the book one person dies because she has deadly words written on her eyelids each night to ward off attackers. She accidentally blinks before they are cleaned off while between two mirrors, one too fast and one too slow, and so sees the deadly words. Dream hunters travel through each others dreams and collect people and information. One person’s quirk is that they regularly borrow days from the future and swap them with their Tuesday, making everyone feel off balance when they see him.

What the book is most interested in, though, is the many ways different people experience the world, the impossibility of knowing the truth, if there even is one truth, and that no one can have the same perception. The Dictionary doesn’t just deal with an unreliable narrator but with an unreliable world. There is a male version and a female version of the book, mostly the same but with a few crucial lines changed. (I read the male, since my brother gave me his copy, but the proper way would be for us each to read our copy and compare.) The book is divided into Red (Christian), Green (Muslim) and Yellow (Jewish) with different entries and slightly different stories. The main event in the book, when the Khazar kagan invited representatives of the three main faiths to attend and convince them which religion to convert to, has a different result in each book, with each claiming the Khazars converted to their faith, with the crucial argument being made by Princess Ateh, a person with many different potential identities.

Outside of even this, though, the thread of uncertainty and unknowing is woven throughout. We are told that in the Khazar capital there is a place where when two people cross paths they assume each other’s name and fate and live out each others lives. That we cannot fully know anything through language because verbs are from God and nouns from humans and all letters and words are unequal and the forces shine at different times. That we learn different things when a masculine or a feminine wind blows. And crucially, that the truth of the Khazars can only be discovered when all three dictionaries are compiled, as one will never give the full picture or the full truth.

And in the story of the Khazars Pavic also explores the tales of the Slavic people, painting a picture of the uneasy cosmopolitanism that existed in Eastern Europe and at the borders of Asia. Pavić himself has said that the tale of the Khazars is the tale of all cultures trapped between empires and between the great powers, uneasily aligning themselves with others and hiding their culture as best they can in that imposed by the powers of the day, demonstrated most powerfully in the discussions in all three sections of the book of how Khazars hide themselves except to other Khazars, and sometimes even then, and act differently in the lands of the Greeks, the Saracens, or the Jews.

Mostly, though, this is about the many different ways each person and each culture and each language perceive different events. It is about the challenge and futility of knowing the past. It is about how nothing in reality is as it seems. It is about how knowledge changes us and we change knowledge, and how the act of reading is itself an act of creation. It is about the unreliability of our perceptions and the deep meaning and meaninglessness of what divides. And the futility of relying on others, even a dictionary, to provide our answers. For, “…each reader will put together the book for himself, as in a game of dominoes or cards, and, as with a mirror, he will get out of this dictionary as much as puts into it, for, as is written on one of the pages of this lexicon, you cannot get more out of the truth than what you put into it.” –The Dictionary of the Khazars