Sunday, January 3, 2021

Book Review: Animal Resistance in the Global Capitalist Era

 

Image: The cover of the book is a vintage painting of an escape elephant running through village streets. The large grey elephant stands at the center with her mouth open and trunk raised into the air. All around her are people running or jumping out of her way. To the right, a woman carries on child while dragging the other by the hand. In front, a man in a navy blue coat is nearly falling over. People watch from the sidelines and there is a buggy in the background. To the left of the image (the elephant's right) is what appears to be a worker chasing after her. The bottom of the cover has a light mustard color band with the title of the book in white letters. Below that in black small letters on a white background is the author's name: Sarat Colling.

My attention is immediately drawn to any discussion of animal resistance against oppression. It seems to be a woefully neglected area of discussion, even within the varying human-organized movements that exist to act on behalf of and in solidarity with other animals. Even the furthest left, most radical animal activists often still refer to other species as voiceless, innocent, monolithic victims that need saving rather than participants in their own stories of liberation. Sarat Colling's  "Animal Resistance in the Global Capitalist Era" is a scholarly work that tackles the topic of animal agency and resistance head on and with style. Having read a lot of academic works on this subject, I can say that not only is Colling's work well researched, theorized, and informative, it is also entertaining and offers a glimpse of hope even among such dire circumstances. The fantastic use of images throughout the book of everything from memorial statues of escaped and liberated animals to paintings that have been done of them over the centuries exposed me to many things I never knew existed. They also complemented the text very well as part of making this book more than simply a hardback printing of someone's graduate thesis.

Critiquing the idea of "voiceless" animals right off the bat, Colling states, "...by recognizing animals' embodied and political voices, we acknowledge their subjectivity and remain open to the possibility of their participation in and impact on social and political realms." However, Colling goes much further than "remaining open" to the idea and uses a long history and a variety of analyses to drive these points home. There is also a decent amount of groundwork for these ideas in her critiques of other flaws in the ways humans think about other animals such as how people fetishize wildlife when it suits them, then turn on a dime and attack rewilded animals or wildlife in general when it does not. Many people support wildlife protection solely for the reason that they want to continue exploiting said species. Many of these people also see animals who have escaped imprisonment and exploitation with fear and annoyance, often expecting someone to kill/recapture them, or decry any sort of sanctuary for animals as "wasteful." They do not blame those who put the animals in the situation to begin with, only the animals for daring to escape said situation and being a nuisance. I am sure one can imagine how we use this line of thinking against other humans as well. Colling also discusses the divides between humans and domesticated animals humans often see as objects vs those they see as individuals. An example would be their love of a family dog or cheering for an escaped cow that makes the news before sitting down to eat the flesh of another cow killed at the same slaughterhouse.

I used to write regularly about animal agency and resistance among other topics in the very unprestigious form of an old personal blog that was not good enough to warrant archiving. As a result, I had a ton of google alerts set up to tell me every time animal escapes and other forms of resistance were reported on or written about online. Back then, the internet was not used as much as it is now for reporting, yet I still got multiple alerts every day- so many that I needed to get them in digest form so as not to be completely overwhelmed. On top of the general reports, any time I saw someone writing about animal resistance analytically, I devoured what they had written. Any time I found a book connecting the struggles of humans to that of other animals in ways that fostered solidarity, intersectionality, and/or collective liberation- depending on how you define and relate to those words- I did my best to get my hands on it. Colling does reference a lot of these books and authors (Jason Hribal, Jeffrey St Clair, Aph Ko, Pattrice Jones, Carol Adams, and many many others) in her work, which is not to say it was redundant. Much of it was a good refresher as well as an excellent organization of decades of information put into one space. What I had not realized though is just how far back extensive discussions of animal resistance had gone and how far reaching the implications were. So, while this book does tie everything together in relationship to the "global capitalist era," Colling also provides a lot of history outside this in quite a small space. That is to say, this book is well edited and efficient allowing one to gain a lot from its somewhat short length.

What Colling also brings to the table for me is a strengthening of the idea that resistance matters. The world can often feel defeating, especially when we stay around long enough to see how much oppression manages to change shape every time liberation makes an advancement. The author manages to acknowledge the growth of many industries that terrorize, exploit, and slaughter animals (due to everything from population growth to globalized capitalism) while also making the convincing case that the great many kinds of resistance and struggle that other animals enact against their own oppression are indeed effective and far reaching. The publicized escape of a circus elephant like Tyke manages to change the law, awaken many people to the plight of circus animals, cause people to see animal performers as individuals, and many other longer lasting impacts. Colling describes how one woman credited the escape of Emily the cow from a slaughterhouse with her own decision to finally leave an abusive relationship. The self-liberation of a cow or chicken from a slaughterhouse truck or kill line can wake up an entire city or country to the idea that the animal is an individual with not only a desire to live and be free of suffering, but bravery, resistance, planning, thoughtfulness, and luck depending on the eventual outcome of their scenarios. (These range from happy endings like sanctuary living and the radicalization of many animal advocates or horrific ones like long fights legally and financially with animal exploiters that will do everything they can to secure animals' place as property and to take their lives even if they can't even profit from the individual anymore.) Even the animals unfortunately fall into the latter category, their action often inspires change for others in their plight. Colling's expansive analysis shows that every bit of resistance can put a dent in the armor of oppression and supremacy, especially if the news of that resistance is far reaching- much like any sort of activism or action taken on behalf of the liberation of self and/or others.

The book also includes indepth discussions over the centuries of how different forms of liberation have intersected with one another either intentionally or not. It's a common line from animal industry PR executives that animals who resist or escape are simply confused or "psychotic," (an ableist intersection Colling also discusses in depth.) This becomes far more difficult for them to get away with when one is informed of a great many instances where animals not only broke themselves out of enclosures, but also traveled to other enclosures both within and outside their own species in order the liberate other animals. Though not mentioned in the book, it seems relevant to include that even in the oppressive and deadly realm of captive animal laboratories, rats will forego certain rewards and advantages in order to free another rat from imprisonment. These sort of things happen all over the place where animals are held captive. On the other side of the coin, sanctuaries show how many interspecies friendships come to be when animals are given a safer and more secure place to do something more than hang on to survive. It is not only humans who befriend other animals or cats and dogs that befriend one another, animals all over the spectrum have created relationships from friendship to organizational and arguably tactical relationships. Colling shows how often they show direct, well thought out, measured, and planned actions for their and others liberation rather than being limited to some sort of cartesian reaction that zoo, circus, animal agribusiness, and other industry reps would like you to believe. We also know that not only do humans help other animals, other animals both in the wild and of interdependent domesticated species have made the decision to help humans. This is especially intense to think about when we remember the power dynamic that often* has humans in the position of power, especially in domestication scenarios.

*I struggled to decide whether to say "often," "usually," or some other word here instead of "always" in order to leave room for scenarios such as that of colonization via conservation orgs who commit genocide of indigenous people in order to "conserve" some species of wildlife, usually who are endangered because of non-indigenous people and colonization. Also, to include how some (usually white) people will elevate a the ethical status of a dog on instagram who they have never met above a Black person in their own damned neighborhood. There are quite possible ways to care about everyone involved, but those in power choose to pin oppressed groups against one another or use one oppressed group as a smokescreen or token in order to oppress another group.

Overall, this book does a good job of weaving collective liberation throughout its stories and analyses of animal resistance. Colling discusses colonialism, ableism, gendered oppression, racialization, and other dynamics that occur when humans interact with each other and with other animals. She makes connections between how colonialist borders have an intertwined and damaging effect on both marginalized humans and other animals. She discusses the gendered ways humans exploit and assign value to other animals. She discusses the racialization of humans using the exploitation and oppression of other animals as a vehicle and excuse to harm humans pushed into the category of other, while also forcing racialized humans to do the dirty work of abusing and killing animals (such as the traumatic and dangerous work of slaughter and "processing.") Tying these together, the author discusses the myriad of ways that capitalism strengthens existing oppression of humans and other animals, breeds new insidious forms of said oppression, and continuously allows all ill effects to grow and worsen over time while creating the illusion that forced participation in such oppression is consent.

On a personal level, I have to be very careful with books like this. In short, I have a pretty significant trauma history that my brain has not adapted well to in regards to what I have experienced regarding the exploitation, abuse and suffering of other animals (and humans.) I no longer watch undercover videos or read books and see documentaries that are long portrayals or descriptions of animal suffering. This puts me in a tough situation at times because sometimes brilliant assessments and critiques are couched within those texts and videos. I did take my time reading this book, and Colling does indeed give details of harrowing scenarios regarding other animals' suffering. However, there is something about the way she put it all together which made the book not only bearable, but empowering, inspiring, and offering a feeling of hope grounded in reality. Colling manages to avoid both the trap of "trauma porn" as well as the trap of false hope and misinformation. She manages to be unapologetic and direct about the agency and deserved liberation of other animals while also providing a sound framework for these ideas that even those not on board will have a difficult time ignoring if they actually engage with them. I coated the entire book with page flags and will undoubtedly come back to it for quotes, images, citations, and refreshers. This book is an excellent edition to the field of animal studies as well as to more general knowledge and activist applications.

This was also posted to my goodreads.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Book Review: In Defense of Looting

Image: the cover of the book has an off-white background with an image of a large crowbar in the center. Beneath the curve of the crowbar is the title of the book. To the left and lowercase letters is the byline, "a riotous history of uncivil action."  Across the bottom near the lower tip of the crowbar is the author's name in bold letters.

I've been dealing with some issues since losing internet, changing cellphone carriers who all suck, and blah blah blah so I'm writing on my phone with hands full of tremor and coordination issues and thus not doing a great job with reviews. 

The shorter version (than Vicky Osterweil's In Defense of Looting deserves) of this is that I liked Osterweil's overall thesis, but I think the title may be more accurate as, "in defense of rioting" or "in defense of property destruction." The looting history including people looting themselves from situations of slavery and imprisonment was an interesting way of putting things. I think the books flaw is that it romanticizes certain things a bit too much and flattens out situations of civil unrest and illegalism as being unified and automatically liberatory when the reality is, it's complicated, messy, and it depends on if the tactics were advantageous for various situations. 

With how much people all over the political spectrum rewrite history and pretend all movements have been won by unicorns, puppies, kittens, hugging cops, and voting, maybe a little romanticism for the violent nature of all effective revolution balances it out. 


Saturday, November 14, 2020

Book Review: Undrowned

 

Image: The cover of the book is a teal background. In a short red rectangle at the top, center, in white capitalized letters, it says "emergent strategy series." Across the top, 1/3 of the way down the cover is the title of the book in capital yellow letters with a 3D texture where the front of the letter is stylized with thin black lines. The text is underlined with illustrated waves. Below that is a stencil in dark blue of three dolphins circling one another. Below that, in white letters is the second part of the title, "black feminist lessons from marine mammals" in white letters also underlined by waves. Across the bottom in yellow letters is the author's name: Alexis Pauline Gumbs.

My immediate impression upon beginning to read Alexis Pauling Gumbs', "Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals," was that I could tell that the author is a poet. I have read a lot of books which focus on the intersections or overlaps with human experiences and that of other animals. Most of these come from a scientific or critical theory standpoint, which is a very different place than where this book comes from. Gumbs' poetic and abstract approach to discussions of human and marine mammal experiences is one I had not encountered before. I like that she mentions not being objective in the introduction as it is true that nothing humans ever do is completely objective. I share her criticisms of how scientists use "language of deviance and denigration" in studies of other animals as a good example of this. While scientific approaches take a great many measures to promote a more objective approach and this should definitely never be ignored, these things are often filtered through a subjective lens- one in which many human scientists- especially those invested in captive animal exploitation/research- create a narrative which reinforces human supremacy over other species. Don't let my paragraph here fool you, though. This is not really a book about science or why animal liberation is important. It is a book of meditations that are inspired by facts the author has learned about marine mammals. I admit, I didn't fully realize just what a woo woo sort of book this was going to be. It's clear in the blurb that it's a meditation, not a science or theory book though, so that's on me. 

Although I have read and enjoyed Gumbs' writings in a variety of books and places, I did not fully realize just how much she has been involved in creating. She is, "a founding member of UBUNTU... a member leader of Southerners on New Ground, member of the founding vision circle of Kindred Healing Justice, a founding member of... Warrior Healers Organizing Trust, and a member of SpiritHouse," and other projects and initiatives. Having followed some of these and learning more about others, this is quite the impressive resume.

Undrowned is divided into different chapters, each of which is its own meditation. While the author claims to have written the book so that the reader can read non-linearly or skip around, I decided to read it cover to cover. The experience was interesting and I imagine someone choosing to take more time with it or use it as a meditation-a-day/week/etc text would have a different experience. So there's a bit of versatility there. 

Gumbs refers to herself as a "marine mammal apprentice" and admits to being a beginner regarding the topic. This will show at times to those of us who have read a bit about these animals already. But, as a result, it simultaneously makes the book accessible to a much wider audience rather than limiting it to PhDs as some books focused on certain topics do. Gumbs also uses fairly accessible language in this book which also makes it able to be read more widely. I will admit, a lot of this book was not really my thing. I am not a spiritual person, I don't do meditations, etc but there was also a lot in this book that appealed to me- particularly the "End Capitalism" chapter and others with a more praxis sort of focus.

My criticism of Gumbs work would be that she tends to create a hierarchy of animals in a way that I don't think she intended. She refers to "advanced marine mammals" in the beginning of the book, but never really defines what this means. Many of the lessons that she urges the reader to learn from marine mammals can also be taught by a great many fish species which make up a far larger portion of marine life than mammals. (I recommend the book "What a Fish Knows" if you want a better understanding of this.) But, fishes are treated- likely unintentionally- as disposable objects in some parts of the book. The book's focus is marine mammals, so I am not saying that the book should have focused on fishes. I'm saying that it falls into the same trap many humans' love of other animals falls into- it becomes limited to or more focused on animals humans (incorrectly) think are more like us and animals not traditionally used for food in the west. For instance, in discussing the commercial fishing industry and why it must end along with capitalism, the reasoning is mostly based on how it accidentally kills marine mammals and how it affects the environment for humans and marine mammals. The prime victims of the fishing industry- fishes by the trillion plus every year- are a side note if that. Even from the perspective of only caring about marine mammals and humans, destroying the fishes destroys both of those people and we're already looking at saltwater fish extinction by 2048 if we keep going the way we are going. There is also a bit of a noble savage trope where she positively discusses the owner of one of the largest commercial fishing operations in their country being Maori and their taking a couple welfare steps for marine mammals. This comes across a bit as if Maori people are monolithic and that saving a few dolphins somehow vastly separates this capitalist venture from that of other commercial fishing operations- even if said commercial fishing is harming the most marginalized of Maori people. She does mention her conflict in this and struggling to know when to give credit, so I get what she was trying to do there. But, I really hoped for a more nuanced look at marine life rather than the same old anthropocentric binary of the minority of "advanced" marine life vs everyone else.

So, all of that criticism is to say that this is definitely not an animal liberation book or a scientific book. I am not saying Alexis Pauline Gumbs is not for animal liberation personally, (I actually think she might be ethically vegan, but I am not sure.) I am just saying that this book is a meditation book for humans inspired by, and is sometimes a brief ode to, marine mammals. The focus is on the reader. Nonetheless, I am glad to have read this book. It tackled these topics in new ways I have not seen before and that is always a good thing. I think fans of Gumbs work- both poetry and activism- will find something they enjoy and learn from within it.

This was also posted to my goodreads.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Book Review: How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America

 

Image: The cover of the book is a mottled white background with lettering in the style of being hand written with marker in black. Across the top in two rows is "Kiese Laymon." Next to Kiese, in smaller letters is "Essays by the award winning author of heavy" and written sideways, "revised edition." The other 2/3 of the cover is blank in the center with the title of the book written around the edge in a square, changing position and direction as it turns each corner. There are accents of light blue, yellow, orange, purple and green on some of the letters while others are only black. Along the bottom in smaller letters is the quote, "I was stunned into stillness." -Roxane Gay.

Kiese Laymon's "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America" is the revised edition of a book by the same name first published back in 2013. You may be thinking that this means it's a reprint of essentially the same book, perhaps with a new introduction or footnote here and there like so many revised and new editions end up being. That is not the case. If you read the old version, you did not read this book. Laymon went through hell to have his voice heard and for the ability to write and publish his work without it being torn apart in the worst nonconstructive ways. This resulted in a fight to get his own work back from the publisher, which ended with him paying them 10 times what they paid him for it. Many of the writings in the book surround current or recent events such as existing in a post-covid-19 world and living under Trump's reign of terrors, while others draw from the original.

From the start, this book is composed of amazing, honest, powerful, and poetic writing. Reading the struggles that Laymon has had just to exist as a Black southern writer is disheartening and seeing him succeed is a blessing. Being that I consider him to be one of the best writers alive today, I am left wondering just how many others we miss out on hearing from due to similar experiences to that which Laymon details in several essays of the book. Along with the barriers to writing and publishing, Laymon describes many other experiences in which being a Black, southern writer is at the center. Laymon is misled, scammed, and repeatedly told that the only way to make it anywhere as a "real black writer," is to tamper down or disappear "racial politics" and to frame any that remain with whiteness at the center. I was left wondering throughout the book what those editors and publishers are thinking now. 

Outside of publishing struggles and successes, Laymon touches on many more topics and experiences. These include that of his and others youth, adulthood, family, friends, police, punishment, freedom, enjoyment, liberation, and many others. There are a few moments where Kiese comments on peoples bodies in ways that make me bristle, but with how open he has been about struggling with eating disorders, it makes sense in that light. One of my favorite entries, "Echo: Mychal, Darnell, Kiese, Kai, and Marlon," surprised me because I am usually not a huge fan of reading printed conversations between people. But, this entry composed of letters sent to one another by the group was moving in big ways. So many different types of people shared their experiences and wisdom. Laymon also touches on common topics that exist around struggles of racial oppression, such as violent encounters with cruel. racist cops regardless of (lack of) wrongdoing, sexual assault survival, the struggles of Black men and women and how they differ, domestic violence and abuse, mental health and addiction, struggle to get an education regardless of exceptional merit, and others. Laymon's handling of these topics however stands out in truly special ways. He has a way of making the story telling and conversations feel fresh and about as real as the written word can. "Our Kind Of Ridiculous," is affecting in big ways I can't really describe. I can feel Laymon's writing when I read it despite coming from a very different demographic and history.

One of the things I like best about Laymon's work is his ability to capture nuance and the utter messiness of human beings. There are no one-dimensional characters living in Laymon's books. He writes about human beings and the realities of life in all of their glory, terror, banality, and joy. He is truly one of the most honest writers out there. To combine such honesty with such talent is quite a feat worthy of praise.

This was also posted to my goodreads.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Book Review: Unity

 

Image: The cover of the book is a blocked color illustration of an eyeball with a hexagon shaped pupil. It is white with a teal and yellow striped iris and dark blue pupil. Fading out from it are the colors dark teal to light to duller yellow to bright yellow. In circles around it in three layers part cut off at the edges of the book are cutouts of human stick fighures similar to paper dolls all holding hands around the center. There is a bright yellow stick figure in the center of the pupil. Across the top of the eye is the title of the book in bright yellow letters and across the bottom is the author's name: Elly Bangs.
 
One thing I can say for sure about Elly Bangs is that she is not short on creative and interesting ideas. Her first novel- Unity- is quite the showcase of these ideas. It is difficult to describe this book in a review without giving spoilers, but I am going to do my best. In the afterword of the book, Bangs tells us that she started Unity in high school 18 years ago and that the book kept evolving and transforming as her life did. I can see these kinds of themes throughout the book among the multiple, interconnecting elements. There were a lot of things in this book I had not seen or read before, or at least not in the way Bangs wrote them. There are cyberpunk, post apocalypse, dystopian, futurist, and many other science fiction subgenres that all meld together. This is a strength of the book. The story is interesting and full of twists and turns. Some of the bigger reveals towards the end are unique and multidimensional in ways that are engaging and entertaining. You can definitely see leftist political persuasions throughout (which I am all for, if that's not clear,) including diverging ways that certain leftist thoughts can become dangerous- particularly those that are authoritarian or pseudo-leftist power grabs.

Where I struggled with this book is that there were so many ideas that it sometimes felt as if none of them was fully fleshed out before the next was created. I can see how 18 years of different ideas ended up in the same book. It's not that all of the different things don't fit together- though there are times where I was left wondering why certain things survived apocalyptic collapse intact while others did not. It's more that I was often trying to figure out what was what up until the end. Since the book changes perspective between first person narratives of different characters to the occasional third person narrative, it is important that these characters be distinctive enough from each other. Their life experiences definitely are.  But, there were many times where I found myself asking, "wait, who is talking right now?" and flipping back a couple of pages. Now, this could be because I happened to read this book during one of the more tumultuous times in my personal life leading me to have a flawed attention span. But, I do think that also, I often found it hard to tell the narratives and internal dialogues of Danae, Naoto, and Alexei in particular apart. These are very different characters who all sound very similar during their personal narratives. We learn more about "Borrower" as the story goes on, and it fits into how his narrative sets itself apart a bit more. Many of these characters are referred to by completely different names at different times which makes their distinctiveness more important.

We also have multiple villain or villain factions (3-4 depending on your perspective) in the story, all of which seek to capture or connect with Danae. Each one has an interesting premise, but again often feels unfinished. We learn more about them as the story progresses but they still remain a bit shallow to me. I would have loved to see this book take on fewer ideas and expand on each one a lot more. Or, to create a series of books where all of the ideas get to remain and be built upon over time.

During the last stretch of the book where various villains intentions and worldviews are revealed, there are a lot of interesting explorations of uniformity, power, authority, misanthropy, technological progress vs detriment, and the all around messiness of what it is to be human. I liked that two of the bigger reveals involve characters that represent two sides of the same coin, but for different reasons (I know this is very vague, but I don't want to spoil the most interesting parts.) Learning why all of these people were seeking Danae and the technology contained within her was interesting. The epilogue, though, was not my favorite. There is a moment with Danae and Alexei who once again are doing very similar things despite being very different, and there is a message that the author clearly wants to convey- about allowing humans to be flawed- that I think is an excellent message to end the book with. The vehicle for this message was what I really did not like, and the way it played out was another way in which a shallowness permeated something that could have been further developed into something very interesting.

I think that Elly Bangs is overall a good writer with fantastic amounts of creativity and imagination. I would definitely be interested in reading her next novel. I think this is a good start and I also think she can give us a lot more.

This was also posted to my goodreads.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Book Review: Unflattering Photos of Fascists

 

Image: The cover of the book's left 2/3 of space is a photo of a fascist white supremacist rally attendant. He has white skin, a blue button down shirt, a padded grey helmet, a face covering with a cartoon smile with pointed teeth on the front, and mirrored ski goggles. In his left hand, he is holding the sticks of two american flags. Behind him is the branch of a tree and a ground covered in brown leaves. On the right third of the cover is a dark grayscale tesselation of american flags. On top in red letters is "unflattering photos of fascists." Below that in white letters, "Authoritarianism in Trump's America." And below that in blue letters, "photos by Jeff Schwilk, Edited by Christopher Ketcham, Essays by Christopher Ketcham, Jeff Schwilk, Paul Street, Shane Burley, Tizz Bee."

I have to admit that the first time I saw "Unflattering Photos of Fascists," I laughed out loud. It wasn't because I find fascism funny. It was pure schadenfreude, finding joy in the humiliation of a group of people whose beliefs, actions, and ideas I despise. I quickly became apprehensive, though. While the title of the book seems to take care to use wording that doesn't latch onto any oppressive insults, it is all too common for leftists to resort to attacks on size, health, ability, age, and other attributes about people that not only cannot be helped, but are attributes people on the left share equally. Sure, there can be a sweet irony in a member of a group claiming to be the master race not looking like the pinnacle of perfection he claims to be. However, this often overshadows the real dangers of fascism and white supremacy. When we devolve into body shaming, ableist, ageist, and other oppressive insults, we're actually punching down, as use of those things as insults harms the most vulnerable people of those groups across the political spectrum.

All of that said, I was pleased to see that the book did not do this. The exception is that the word "blind" is used as an insult twice in the book. While this is ableist, it is extremely common across the board. The word "unflattering" can describe just about anything. The photos in the book feature a variety of fascists (though, as you can imagine, not a racially diverse one which is an impossibility.) Across the board, these photos are unflattering because they show the actions, behavior, and belief systems of white supremacist people and groups to be abhorrent. Their costumes, sign choices, unabashed fascist pride, and frequent ignorance are the focus of the book. 

While the photos of these people can cause one to laugh, scoff, and shake one's head, they do not result in a book that is making light of fascism. The title grabs your attention, while the texts after the photos lead the reader on a short journey through recent fascist and white supremacist activity in the USA. They begin with a glossary of different symbols and names of groups currently active in the USA. It could have been a bit more expansive, but is helpful nonetheless- especially to someone unfamiliar with how many groups use symbols and names to exist as dog whistles for nazism while avoiding more widely recognized items such as the nazi swastika.

If you're looking for an unbiased book that takes a "both sides have merit" approach, you can probably tell from the title that this is not that, and rightfully so. We begin by hearing from photographer Jeff Schwilk who tells the story of a homeless punk he knew who was brutally beaten and murdered by Nazi skinheads posing as SHARPS. Later Schwilk himself was stalked and harassed by white supremacists in destructive and violent ways. 

 Paul Street's essay following Schwilk's is so insult laden, it is annoying at first. Yes, we are all here because Nazis are bad. But, the more powerful parts of his essay come when he calms down with the creative cursing and gets right into just how insidious these groups are. Especially important is the callout of neoliberals and how their behaviors and constant descent further to the right have helped embolden existing white supremacist groups along with Trump. The essays in this book do not in any way claim that this all began with the 2016 election, nor do they discount the rise of Trump as a motivating factor lifting up these groups.

Shane Burley and Tizz Bee turn their focus specifically on Oregon. Oregon is thought of by many to have a very "granola" persona as the authors put it. But, in reality, white supremacist groups have existed quite strongly throughout the state. Burley focuses more on their recent history, while Bee focuses a bit more on the antifascists aspects (though both essays include both elements.)

Overall, a short read with quite a bit of info for it's size. I also really enjoyed the graphic design and formatting of the text in the print version of the book. It surprised me a bit, looking like a book of casual ridicule on the cover, but delving much deeper into the subject matter within. I could see it on a coffee table or in your friendly neighborhood anarchist section of your bookshelf.

This was also posted to my goodreads.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Book Review: Dare to Speak

 

Image: The cover of the book is a white background with the title in large black bold letters taking up two lines. Across the word "speak" is a stretch of red tape. Across the top in red smaller letters is the author's name and "ceo of pen america" and across the bottom is, "Defending Free Speech for All."

Whoooh, boy, is this one going to be a doozey- and not in a good way. I virtually picked up "Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All," from the library because it was available and I needed something to pass the time until my intended books became free. Before this, I had never heard of Suzanne Nossel, nor her organization PEN America of which she is the CEO. I knew going in that I might not like it as much of the free speech discourse these days comes from white supremacists or white neo-liberals who want to protect white supremacists. (For those who do not know, I use the term liberal here to refer to liberals in the USA who see themselves as one of only two political options and sometimes think they are leftists when they actually occupy the center-right wing these days while most conservatives in the USA occupy the far right wing.) I did not realize just how much I would detest this book. I tried to keep an open mind and I finished it for one reason: no one can claim I took away her "free speech" before reviewing it.

The first thing you need to know is that Nossel is a liberal white cis Jewish woman who is also a Zionist. The oppression you will see given the most attention and direct reference in this book is anti-semitism. Anti-semitism should absolutely be included in a big way within these discussions. However, as time passed, it became clear that either consciously or unconsciously, Nossel can only really see oppression that would affect her personally. Furthermore, despite having multiple sections calling out the problems with exaggerated responses to overstated harm (something I agree with,) she also calls any critique of Israel and any Palestinian liberation activism anti-Semitic. She does this multiple times, so I am sure that I am not just misunderstanding a one off comment. I was able to tell the exact demographics that Nossel came from before I looked her up based on her writing. She also uses multiple examples of her complete cluelessness and inability to see oppression that does not affect her- even if people are telling her directly and explaining it.

The most glaring examples of this are, once again, multiple anecdotes about Black women coming forward to talk about quite obvious racism either overtly or in the form of microaggressions. Every time, Nossel openly admits to not believing what happened was racist and needing these Black women to walk her through it and explain to her even further why something is racist. This is not the only instance of this kind of thing. So, Nossel not only calls liberation movements antisemitic by default, she also defaults to NOT believing victims of racism and misogynoir until they make a massive case about what should be blatantly obvious to someone who is the CEO of a freeze peach organization. She does mention how she eventually is convinced, but it exemplifies a long pattern of her contradicting herself in almost every argument she makes, most of the time defaulting more to protecting the oppressor and calling for limitation of the speech of the oppressed ironically enough.

Another glaring issue that shows the privileged viewpoint that strengthens Nossel's unawareness of reality is how she will make a statement, then claim she "sees no evidence" to the contrary. One such argument is that racist or other oppressive speech does not have any lasting impact on the targeted population. Are you serious? The only reason she "sees no evidence" of the harms of oppressive vitriol is because she didn't look for it. There are extensive social psych and sociology studies on this. How anyone could think that protected white supremacist speech has no lasting impact is beyond me. Once again, a very troublesome (but unsurprising) stance from a white liberal free-speech-at-all-costs type.

Where else does she contradict herself or misinform you may ask? Well, to detail every instance would require this review to be close to the length of her book. Instead, I will focus on the remaining ones that made my brain explode in irritation and wtf-ery. One of my favorites is how she basically insists that the best way to fight white supremacist fascists is to give them a platform and it will either resolve itself or a "debate" will resolve things. Basically, let the white supremacists gather unfettered and they will go away- there is no evidence that this is the case. She invokes anecdotes where antifa, campus activists, and others had a huge hand in resolving, and boils the success down to "just let the nazis talk and, see, they will just go away!" Once again, she insists that having Nazis speeches and rallies on campus does not have lasting impacts in the negative for the targeted populations. She claims that the best solution to hate speech is giving them a platform and then using "counterspeech" to combat them. She argues that absolutely any belief or point can be successfully argued with the right words (yes, including white supremacy- I guess just use the right dog whistles and it will all be ok.) So, I disagree with this, but I thought, hey, I understand the argument and will continue to hear her out.

The problem is that she follows this with a section on all of the kinds of "counterspeech" that you should not use. No distruptions, no blockades, no protest that isn't 100% legal and state sanctioned, no interruptions, nothing that would in any way disrupt the platform of the Nazis or other harmful speakers. So, what counterspeech is the best antidote for hate speech? Very little apparently. As a result, Nossel does what many liberal freeze peach proponents do- they actually fight for the most deplorable people to have the right to speak while simultaneously taking away the speech of those most affected and kettling them into a little metaphorical free speech zone. She has a clear disdain for antifa actions, disruptive protest, and pretty much anything effective. If you aren't willing to sit a nazi down to tea and have a logical discussion about why genocide is bad, you're an enemy of free speech and freedom.

There's more. In her discussion on hate speech she talks about hate crimes. Who better to be the arbiters of justice and stopping hate than... the police? There is not a single mention of how often cops are the ones who commit the hate crimes. There is no mention of the problems with racism and other oppression at the hands of police. She discusses them as tools and heroes in the fight against hate. Ok, when is this happening? I will not hold my breath (unless a cop forces me to, I guess.) Her romanticism of the police is matched by her fawning over the founding fathers, not realizing the irony that the laws she invokes where not written with her included and definitely were not written with Black women included. When a Black woman says to her at an event, "the first amendment was not written for me," Nossel once again doesn't get it and needs to be dragged along wherein she still doesn't really get it. In true white liberal fashion though, she does manage to repeatedly quote Martin Luther King Jr out of context, sticking to the quotes white people like, and ignoring the ones that would have called out this book for the mockery that it is. If you want to talk about the importance of free speech, maybe don't glorify slave owning white fathers of genocide. 

The sad thing is, there are some good ideas here. Criticism of callout culture, especially when misdirected due to false information, the problems with overstating harm and calling any disagreement "violence," how any restriction of free speech can possibly be used against marginalized people, and so on. This book could have been a decent exercise of, "I disagree, but I hear you." Instead, it just left me feeling happy that it is not a popular book and hoping that the contradictions and misinformation do not spread outside its pages. 

This was also posted to my goodreads.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Review: The Sandman

Image: The audible book cover is an illustration of Dream/Morpheus from The Sandman. He is shown from the waist up with his right hand held upward, bent at the elbow. He has fabric draped over his right shoulder and across his torso from there. He stares directly at the reader. He has very light skin, dark, straggly medium length black hair, and black eyes, the left of which glints brightly like a star. Across the top in white, sans serif letters is, "audible original."  Across the center is the title in stylized letters with the authors names below it. In the bottom left corner is "DC" enclosed in a circle (the DC Comics logo.)

It feels strange reviewing the Audible production of Neil Gaiman's "The Sandman" in the book category. Not because it is an audiobook, but because it is more than that. It reminded me much of what I imagine an old school radio play would have been like in the years before TVs were a fixture in many households. I was cautious at first. Having read all of the comics a very long time ago, I wasn't sure I remembered enough to be able to follow an audio version. But, they managed it quite well and I think I even ended up liking it more than I liked the comics- which is really saying something because the art in the comics is a huge draw for reading them. I still encourage people to check out the print versions. Dave McKean's covers alone make that worth doing.

Like any good goth industrial kid (and adult,) having read The Sandman series felt like a bit of a rite of passage. I will admit, it's honestly not my favorite thing in the DC Vertigo universe. I lean far more towards loving science fiction than I do this kind of fantasy. But, Neil Gaiman's forte is fantasy and he does do it well. I can appreciate that. Thus, I was happy to experience this story again in audio form. Something I realized while listening is how much the Sandman series included gay characters. This was pretty revolutionary at the time and still is to a certain extent. There are both women-loving-women and men-loving-men couples that appear as extras or minor characters in the story.

Gaiman is the narrator of the first installment of The Sandman (in what I hope ends up being a series,) and his voice fits very well with the whole atmosphere. He actually sounds a bit like the late Alan Rickman to me. I am showing my USAmerican ignorance, but they both have a similar distinct sort of British accent and I am not sure if it is just personality or location derived (or if I am not hearing it correctly at all.) The rest of the casting (boasting a great many big names) was also really great- particularly James McAvoy as Dream/Morpheus and Kat Dennings as Death. McAvoy captured Dream's complex, over dramatic, salty, vengeful personality well and Dennings' version of the kind, gentle, and laid back Death is just how I would have imagined her. 

Unlike most audiobooks, this one comes with a fully immersive set of sound effects and music to enhance the experience- which is a creative move to replace the visual aspect of comic books. This is what truly elevated it from audiobook to radio play for me. It helped to really visualize and feel immersed in the happenings of the story. I am going to refrain from an indepth review of the story due to comics having more of a production than a story alone. Overall, I hope they continue doing this for the rest of the series. 

This was also posted to my goodreads.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Book Review: Anarcho-Blackness

 

Image: The cover of the book is a black background with a bold font with an ombre color that morphs from red to orange, yellow, and green. Across the top is Anarcho, bending down the right side is blackness. About a third of the way down, bent halfway through the sentence again is "notes toward a black anarchism." On the bottom left corner, in smaller letters that morph from red to pink is the author's name: Marquis Bey.
 
It seems like the perfect time for a release like Anarcho-Blackness: Notes Toward a Black Anarchism by Marquis Bey. With all of the inspiring and brave uprisings for racial justice currently going down, (and the usual false painting of anarchism being composed solely of rich white kids breaking windows for no reason,) amplification of the voices of Black anarchists is critical. When I saw that AK Press was going to be putting out this title, I got pretty excited. There is not nearly enough exposure of the words of Black anarchists out there. The writer is trans as well and thus, I knew this writing would likely be inclusive of all or many issues undeniably intersecting with Black anarchist theory and practice. As a result, I may have set my expectations too high. What I did not realize is that this book is a heavily academic text that perhaps could double as a graduate thesis. When I say academic, I don't just mean exploring theory, I mean it left me feeling at times like I wasn't smart or educated enough to grasp what Bey was saying. 109 pages of text took me quite a long time to crawl through as I found myself reading and rereading sections to make sure I grasped what was said. At other times, I felt that the book was having similar results of other academic texts I have read which is to say that it uses a lot of big words, huge quotes, and lots of gender studies language to say something that could be said in a simpler, more accessible manner. That is not to say that this book doesn't offer anything. Just know that, going into it, one should not expect a book designed to be accessible to most audiences- including perhaps marginalized Black people without access to college that Black-anarchism is supposed to liberate. It can however add something to the field of critical feminist, race, and anarchist studies. The review of literature it provides alone is reason for that.

Bey quickly discusses intentions for the text which are not to force labels onto Black activists and theorists even if their actions and theories fall in line with anarchism. The text leans more towards a gender and race studies lens in which Bey persuades the reader to understand why anarchism is linked to Queer and Black feminisms. Bey mentions that As Black As Resistance (also put out by AK Press,) was an inspiration for Anarcho-Blackness. As Black As Resistance is one of my favorite anarchist texts of all time and while it can also be heavier academic reading, I found it to be much more accessible and better constructed than Anarcho-Blackness. You will find a lot of Zoe Samudzi quotes throughout Bey's work and rightfully so. As I mentioned before, Bey offers a good review of much of relevant literature out there. I was a little perturbed to find a Gandhi quote opening the book due to Gandhi's history of anti-Black racism. From then on, though, the reader will find a lot of quotes from various anarchists, feminists, activists, and theorists throughout. I put a ton of page flags on the pages, much of the time to mark quotations from other texts. 

Since the book is a collection of "notes toward a Black anarchism," the reader will find essays focusing on specific topics such as activist history, Black feminism, gender and Queerness, and so on. I found the final chapter in the book to be the most accessibly written. I always find myself on a seesaw of thoughts regarding academic texts like this. I absolutely believe there is an important place for critical studies and I do not believe that all texts need to be accessible to all readers. But, when a text focuses on the struggles of the most marginalized people in society, something feels a little off if said people can't access the text. I have a B.S. and have done my share of reading and writing papers and thus, I assume that if I struggle to grasp something, someone less educated and practiced than me may also struggle. That said, I have developed cognitive difficulties over time due to disability, so perhaps it's more accessible than I realize. There is, however, also something to be said about texts that require full attention, rereading, exploring citations, and so on, and how the reading process of those can be more involved in a good way. So, this text is an example of the latter. Perhaps those who would benefit most from this are academics or those who frequently read academic texts, particularly in gender and critical race studies, who need a better understanding of how anarchism fits into that. For those already more on board with this idea, I recommend going for As Black as Resistance by Samudzi and Anderson instead.

This was also posted to my goodreads.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Book Review: Hood Feminism

Image: The cover of the book is a white rectangle placed over top of a minimal illustration of several brown skinned women mostly made up of color blocks for hair, head, and body. Cut out of the white rectangle like stencils are the words "Hood Feminism" in large capital letters across the top half and the author's name in smaller cutouts across the bottom. In the center, in a capital letter written font is "notes from the women that the movement forgot."

Hood Feminism should be everyone's feminism. In reading this book, I can't see how anyone could think otherwise. Yet, Mikki Kendall's brilliant and accessible text had to be written for a reason. Mainstream feminism and/aka white feminism often focuses on a few key issues that affect white women while ignoring or even speaking against liberation around issues that disproportionately affect women of color and other marginalized people. Kendall explains that books like this are often written/published ABOUT women like her instead of BY women like her.

Kendall hits you hard from the start of the book with unapologetic story telling and historical analyses. She tells us she is "the feminist people call when being sweet is not enough." Some readers may remember some of the hashtags she started that stirred things up such as #solidarityisforwhitewomen. She tells us that this book will not be an easy read. She is not afraid to be blunt, direct, and passionate- something we need more of (and need more people to be open to.) Kendall also uses this book as a mini-memoir of sorts. She peppers little bits and pieces of her own lived experience throughout the text before moving on to the next big topic. There is a balance to this, she doesn't overdo it like some authors do, but the information she shares is intense. It seems like the book also may have been a vehicle to work out some of her own trauma. I think this adds to the book, making the abstract personal.

One of the best things about Kendall's text is that Hood Feminism is for ALL women and focuses on ALL of the Black women, other women of color, disabled people, trans people, and many other people forgotten or pushed to the side by mainstream feminism. This is not just a book for a single demographic who experiences one or two types of oppression but no others (a pretty small amount of people if you think about it.) In every section she brings up how not only cis het abled etc women of color are affected, but how disabled Black women, poor trans women, undocumented immigrant women, and so on are affected. If we focus on the issues that hit these people the hardest, it automatically trickles up to everyone else. As Kendall aptly states, "Black women are the canary* in the coal mine of oppression." 

In different sections of the book, Kendall details why and how feminists need to focus on a great many struggles that are often seen as part of other movements (or not seen at all.) Food security, housing security, gun violence, eating disorders, mental health, the inclusion of sexual harrassment and violence in police brutality resistance, healthcare outside of abortion- including the right to have children and not be sterilized, disability justice, trans liberation, and others. I have read a lot on these topics, but this book brought so much to the table. The way Kendall explains things truly puts them in perspective. For instance, I am a disabled transgender person who spends a lot of time at medical facilities. When the author discusses trans people in healthcare, she describes us as often being forced to provide "free education" to doctors on irrelevant topics to our visit, then WE are billed for it. Having it worded like this made me have so many feelings. "Yes! Why AM I not getting free healthcare if I am spending hours doing research and providing the doctor with college courses?!" She also elegantly discusses ableism in pro-choice movements. She urges people to never use eugenics and suggestions that disabled babies shouldn't exist in arguments for choice and instead encourages us to focus on bodily autonomy and resource access among other things. Now, Kendall knows she is not the first to say these things. Yet, she puts them together in very concise and accessible ways. The book is rather short for just how much is packed into it. I often only see discussions of ableism in pro-choice rhetoric in academia or the occasional obscure disability anthology. Kendall is bringing issues on the sidelines into the center. And that is what Hood Feminism is all about.

This was also posted to my goodreads.
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 *Y'all know I can't resist calling attention to animal analogies. RIP to all of the canaries that were forced to die of carbon monoxide poisoning in order to protect miners before humans came up with automation and better detection methods. They are of the many ignored members of the working class in history. If you think about it, though, it is a good analogy for groups of women that have been sacrificed for other women to get ahead in the name of stopping oppression and suffering.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Book Review: How We Fight for Our Lives

Image: The cover of the book is a background of what looks to me like mixed red and gold paint, unevenly swirled around in an oval. On top of that, in a black hand painted uppercase font is the title of the book which covers most of the cover. Below that, in the same but smaller font is "a memoir, Saeed Jones."

I have mentioned before that I don't really consider myself a memoir person, though that seems to be changing as more voices are published. Memoirs tend to have to meet a higher bar in order for me to truly enjoy them. Saeed Jones' short memoir, "How We Fight for Our Lives," definitely met that bar. Jones has a very accessible way of writing about things while also managing to capture the complexities of existing within multiple dimensions of oppression and liberation as a gender nonconforming gay Black man. Jones' skills as a poet also are reflected in his writing adding to it being entertaining and gripping the whole way through. I could have read hundreds more pages and didn't want the book to end.

What strikes me most about this memoir is its honesty. Jones gives us a transformation story rather than a revamped history that some memoir writers put out. One of the most obvious coming of age transformations in the book is how Jones overcomes the shame pounded into him by society for being a Black gay man. He captures what it is like to hold that shame, to give into it, and eventually to fight it and turn it into pride. He captures the complicated discomforts of being young and naive and to then be taken advantage of by adult closeted/downlow child abusers who are sometimes the closest that isolated queer youth can get to community. This is not a linear journey though. Long after being out, he discusses more ways that society attempts to shame Black gay men in particular- even from the nice, well meaning college liberals. 

What begins as a history of both generous family support coupled with awful religious oppression moves forward in a liberation story. His mother is a constant source of support and is able to overcome her own struggles despite being brought up in a strictly Christian household, with her own mother that later asks God to "curse" her for being a Buddhist and letting her son "become" gay. 
Jones also captures what life after violent traumas is like. It's not often that I read someone able to vocalize the loneliness that comes with some of the experiences he shares in such accurate and vivid ways. 

Don't go into this thinking it's a trauma porn fest though. While Jones definitely overcame a great many struggles, the memoir is balanced. It includes enjoyable parts of his life as well as the ones that were devastating. He uses great analogies and poetic humor all throughout the book. I was purposely vague in certain sections because the book is short and I didn't want to end up regurgitating his entire story in my review. I definitely recommend picking this one up, regardless of where you come from.

This was also posted to my goodreads. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Book Review: Me and White Supremacy

[Normally I place a book cover and image description here, but blogger is deciding to make that impossible at the moment. I shall try again another day.]

"Welcome to the work."

Layla F. Saad's "Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor" is truly a gift to the world and especially to white people. This is someone directly affected by racism, misogynoir, and other oppressions (though she admits privileges of living outside the USA among others,) taking your hand, caring about your feelings, and also giving you an honest, no-nonsense education about how to combat white supremacy. I grabbed the audiobook version of this on a whim because it was available and was a racial justice book for white (and white passing) people that I had not read. I did not realize it was in workbook format, and am not on instagram, so I did not know it was previously and insta challenge. I was listening to it while doing other things with my hands that prevented me from writing down answers to all of the questions. This led me to quickly answering them in my head which is not good enough, so I will be returning to the print version of this book.

I should mention some things about my history with being a white person doing my best to fight racism. I am not looking for cookies here, you'll see eventually where I am going with this. So, like many white people, I have done a slew of racist things throughout my life that I am still embarrassed about (even though I know that all that guilt does is take up even more space with white neediness, so I am working on this.) I have made many mistakes while actively fighting racism and will undoubtedly continue to make mistakes (the book is very good at discussing this.) When I got serious about fighting white supremacy, I read a ton of books (and still do,) I started organizing and going to events, protests, and workshops and having real conversations with people close and not so close to me. I eventually co-founded an anti-white supremacy group that focused on helping white people with the lifelong journey of dismantling white supremacy within themselves that included study groups, conversation practices, organizing of events, and so on. I eventually became less involved in person due to my health and did a lot of secretarial stuff online for a while. Eventually stepped back completely due mostly to disability and stressful life stuff that I felt made it too difficult for me to participate well. I continued doing the regular upkeep within and outside myself on my own. All of this is to say that I would not call myself a beginner. And here's the point: Even though this book is focused on being accessible to beginners, I got a TON out of it. I think any white person at any phase of fighting white supremacy would get a lot out of this book, so please don't walk past it just because you've been around.

Saad encourages the reader/listener to come to the book with as fresh eyes/ears as possible. She encourages us to experience each chapter and concept as if we are for the first time. This was good advice that I did my best to follow. Something that I think Saad does especially well is realizing that, well, we white folks tend to be pretty fragile by default. When you grow up in a white supremacist system, you don't have to think about race and racism every second of every day like many BBIPOC (Black, Brown, Indigenous, and (other) People of Color) do. This results in us not having as much practice managing those emotions. We hear racism and white supremacy and unless we are full blown Nazis, we think of it as an egregious personal insult that we must defend against. Rather than telling us we're awful trash or coddling us like babies, Saad prepares us for the feelings and tells us why they are common, painful, and necessary.

"Here's to doing what is right, not what is easy."

“Antiracism work that does not break the heart open cannot move people toward meaningful change.”
Layla F. Saad,
Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor

I felt she was quite gentle and kind about this, but, no matter what, there will be white people who aren't ready for this workbook. Some of the reviews exemplify just that (in which angry white people act out every chapter of the book within their hyperbolic 1-star reviews while not even realizing it.) I was there in the past, especially in my youth. (By the way, young people who are already fighting racism and white supremacy, thank you for getting it so much sooner than I did and making the world such a better place.)

As I said, I got a lot out of this despite my past experience. I have read pretty much every book that she quotes in this. All of them are also books I would recommend. As a non-newbie, the sections that I got the most from were probably those on cultural appropriation and white apathy. (She even directly mentions that white folks who think they don't have to write down their answers or do the work are practicing a form of this.) Called in. This is when I made the promise to return to this book later. I also think that for others, this book is set up really well as both a beginners course and a continuing education course. I imagine that I could come back to it in 10 years. While some of our language for things will likely have evolved, the prompts and questions will still be valid.

Saad also mentions that this book is for white passing people of color, but stresses that their experiences will be very different than that of white people. At times she addresses them separately from white people in order to stress this. I can't say if she does this perfectly being that I'm white, but she did seem to put a lot of care and thought into addressing them as a separate group.

This book is quite short, but nonetheless, Saad manages to introduce a huge amount of information. She stresses that each person can tackle this at their own pace- day by day and week by week like she has it set up, or faster and slower. I listened to it all quickly which is another reason to return. Were there a couple things I don't totally agree with? Sure. Very small ones that are gripes over the evolution of word meanings. For instance, the original meaning of gaslighting was used to describe an intentional form of lying and scheming in order to disorient one's victim (often of intimate partner or family abuse) in order to harm and control them. Saad uses it basically to describe any disagreement white people express about people of colors' experiences. Many social justice people have grabbed onto the term and used it in a variety of ways outside the original abuse definition. I think this evolution of the term can water it down. It continues to be spread further and further as I have also seen radicals use "gaslighting" as a description for anyone who disagrees with them at all, even while sharing their own experience of oppression. As a result, I think when abuse victims try to discuss how gaslighting feels in its original definition, people don't understand what we mean. But, words evolve and there is a very real phenomenon of silencing of BBIPOC both intentional and strategic as well as unintentional and ignorant. Both can have the same horrific detrimental effects, so maybe I need to accept these new definitions.

The other thing I disagree with is that there is the suggestion that white people are giving up everything by giving up white privilege. I disagree that we only have something to lose. White privilege, entitlement, and other forms of supremacy actually rob us of real and authentic experiences and relationships with our BBIPOC friends, lovers, acquaintances, coworkers, etc. It's also a lot of work to run away from accusations of white supremacy the way many white people do. In my opinion, while the lifelong work of fighting white supremacy is very hard work, it can also provide quite a lot of relief. Saying, "I'm sorry I did harm, thank you for telling me, here is what I heard, here is what I will do better, I am open to anything else you have to say and am also ok if you don't want to say anything else," is actually not as hard as people think once you overcome the fear. It is a hell of a lot easier than writing facebook novellas about your black friend who said you're cool and how you voted for Obama and how you're a good person because you went to a protest at your library or whatever.

These disagreements are of really small parts of the book- a few sentences. I am really only mentioning these disagreements to combat some of the aforementioned white people 1-star reviews claiming that people are afraid to disagree because they'll be called racist. No, social justice people disagree all of the time. We spend hours, days, months, years disagreeing. It's gonna be ok, I promise. Give the workbook another shot, will you?

Anyway, white folks, please read this, reread this, and if you are able (and if not, can have someone help you,) please do the workbook part, too. Even better, organize a white people study group where you can go through the book together and support each other. There are other formats for groups you could organize before and after this as well. Make sure you listen to BBIPOC, realizing they are not a monolith and will have many different- sometimes conflicting- things you will need to navigate the best you can. But also, don't lean on them for venting and processing your racist issues unless they explicitly ask you to and give their permission. And, for real, try really hard to hear the words "racism" and "white supremacy" as prompts to learn and do better rather than as terms to run from as perceived insults.

As I was writing this, I had the privilege of seeing this, in which Kimberly Jones gives us 500 years of history in 7 minutes. So, go watch that in the meantime.

This was also posted to my goodreads.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Book Review: Deciding for Ourselves

Image: The cover of the book has a scrapbook type of style to it, complete with scotch tape pieces holding down images (which I initially reached for and attempted to peel off, thinking I had put them there!) The background that can be seen around the edges is an ombré of pink fading downward to yellow, white, blue-grey, and finally black. Taped on top of this are three clips of the same photograph on top of one another. In the image is a very large group of people standing with their fists raised in the air. There appears to be a large quantity of women and children making up most of the people. The photo is stylized with a low contrast ombré overlay of orange fading down to pink, red, and purple. In hand written black marker style font, the title of the book is written in cursive with each word placed on each photo panel. Printed in small white letters going down the right side is "the promise of direct democracy," and below that in the same letters, the author's name.

Deciding for Ourselves: The Promise of Direct Democracy, edited by Cindy Milstein, gives us something we don't see enough of in our worlds of utopian ideological purity politics. I don't necessarily mean that as a negative or positive, but simply a realistic statement. Some politics and ideas should never be compromised. Yet, as history and the present continuously show us: the everyday grind of existing in this world with each other, especially in the long term, is far messier than the way we envision a better world to be. In this text, Milstein has gathered an international selection of people's writings on self-governed spaces that have existed or currently exist. The formats range from interviews between organizers to clips of stories and the essay format you would expect from this type of book. There is also a small amount of poetry by Milstein at the beginning and end of the book. I was not a fan and prefer her writing in other mediums far more. I am not a poetry person in general though, so perhaps I don't know what I am talking about.

"Deciding for Ourselves" is not another book on what these spaces are or why self-governed space are needed. Instead, it offers real-life praxis from many areas throughout the world. Off the bat, in the introduction, Milstein talks about this messiness and the complicated nature of true community. She describes self-governed spaces as beautiful and necessary as well as fragile and complicated. The movements and communities detailed in the book are written about in various stages from very new to long-lived to destroyed. She also mentions that the entries are often from people who do not speak English at all or as their first language and takes credit for any miscommunication. As far as I could tell, the translations and editing were done well. I suppose time will tell if someone were to come out and say, "that is not what I meant," but it seems like she communicated closely with each contributor.

It was interesting reading this book, (albeit slowly due to everything going on,) in the current climate of a pandemic existing simultaneously with one of the most brilliant uprisings in the USA that I have witnessed in my 37 years of life. Sparked to action by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the constant stream of other victims of murderous police, there have been huge masses of people out there every day, defending Black Lives and fighting the violent authoritarianism of police and governments. Among the people in Costco getting into fist fights over toilet paper, there have also been people (some of whom had never considered themselves radical) building effective mutual aid systems to make sure people have their needs met throughout this pandemic. People have been setting aside conflicts and working together, including anarchists working alongside unlikely allies to gangs declaring truces and uniting in struggle. Reading this book has me asking myself frequently- what happens when the protests and pandemic end? How can we keep these things going?

One of the news sources that is actually trustworthy during all of this is Unicorn Riot. So, I was pleased to read an entry with one of the founding members of the alternative media outlet- Niko Georgiades- discussing Greek self management. The entries in the book by contributors other than Milstein that I would count as my favorites are: "Pan-Africanism, Social Ecology, and Intimate Direct Democracy," by Modibo Kadalie in conversation with Andres Zonneveld, "Christiania: A Free City in the City of Copenhagen," by Asbjørn Nielsen, "'Only with You, This Broom Will Fly': Rojava, Magic, and Sweeping Away the State Inside of Us," by Dilar Dirik, and "Pirate Ships, Stormy Seas, and Finding Solid Ground: The Quartier Libre des Lentillères," by Natasha King. That said, I put a ton of page flags throughout the entire book. All of the entries are excellent.

Some of the themes that are explored are so important and are things that can easily divide communities to the point of fracture and complete breakdown. These include issues like social and ecological interactions, drug use and addiction, cultural differences, interactions between people in a space for politics alone (for instance white cis male anarchists from middle or owning class backgrounds squatting) and people in a space out of necessity (such as homeless people, refugees, those marginalized into a life of trauma and poverty,) communities in conflict (such as gangs or others with different ideologies,) avoiding restricting definitions and labels, being open to constant change, and the capacity for "ordinary" people- who may never have seen themselves as activists- to organize and revolt. All of these themes and more were explored with real life examples of people making really tough stuff work as a community as well as when communities failed. Basically, truly cooperative communities are full of messy struggles that defy definition. But, in that messiness, truly beautiful, necessary, and successful things can exist- showing us that a better anti-authoritarian world is indeed possible. 

I kept asking myself: Where can I and others bend on our beliefs without breaking the core important issues at the center? How can people with very different needs and desires best share space? How can we continue to cooperate when there are major conflicts and disagreements? What happens to people who are kicked out or barred from joining? How can we make these things accessible to the most marginalized of people? How can we make expensive accessibility methods exist or utilize outside structures when necessary? These and many other questions exhibit the book's successful execution of starting real-life conversations about real-life struggles.

Another less important note, I really love the cover and interior design of the print book done by Crisis. I am not sure if the ebook was able to include any similar formats, but it definitely added to the experience of reading for me. So, it's definitely worth picking up the print version if you are able.

This was also posted to my goodreads.


Book Review: Exhalation

Image: The cover of the book is a black background with scattered white specks that are or resemble stars in the night sky. All of the letters on the cover are disintegrating at parts into said stars. Across the top is the title in large capital very light blue letters. There is small text across the top too blurry to read. In the center of the cover is the word "stories" in smaller letters. Across the bottom is Ted Chiang's name in larger capital letters followed by another string of small text too blurry to read.

Exhalation: Stories, by Ted Chaing, sets itself apart from many other short story collections. Usually, collections like this have one or a few bad or boring stories in them. This is not the case here. It is clear that Chiang's usual method of sticking to short fiction has made him a master of it. Even the stories that bent in a way that is usually not my taste were so well written and engaging that I remained immersed. The book also has something I don't see a lot of- the inclusion of author's notes at the end of each story. These little anecdotes were very interesting. Learning Chiang's inspiration and thought processes in writing were a welcome transition between stories.

My favorite story in the book was also the longest. The Lifecycle of Software Objects is one of the best AI stories I have ever read. What makes many of Chiang's stories interesting is the very human (or sentient) elements he adds to it. He captures everyday life and long term results of big decisions we make throughout our existence. This particular story takes a look at evolution of AI life forms over time within the realm of human interactions with AI and with each other in the time of late stage capitalism, increasing automation, rapid obsolescence of technologies, social and sexual consent, and many others.

Other themes include time travel, the unreliability of memory, the gray areas of technologies that can both help and harm us, alternate histories, determinism, materialism (the philosophy/physics version) vs creationism, and others. In every one of these themes, no matter how common in science fiction, Chiang managed to explore them in original and interesting ways. I am glad this collection exists as it was a great introduction to Chiang's work for me.

This was also posted to my goodreads.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Book Review: Until the End of Time

Image: The cover of the book is a time lapsed photo of a landscape showing the movement of the stars across the sky. The bottom third of the image is water with dark through light blue reflections and a single yellow white light shining down right of center from a light on the horizon. Above that is a mountain rainge of dark blue with black upper edges. Behind that is the sky with hundreds of thin lines moving in a circle around the center. In large white capital letters across the top is the author's name, below that in much smaller letters is "author of The Elegant Universe." Below that, in large letters again is the book title. Across the bottom is the byline: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe. There is also a white sticker reading "large print" on the lower left side.

Brian Greene is by far one of my most favorite science writers and speakers. You can always tell that he is extremely passionate about education and trying to make very difficult to understand concepts more accessible to the layman, and more fun. His books often have a range within them where  readers can skip around to an extent based on their education level. "Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe" has a similar formula, but is different in some major ways. It is by far Greene's most philosophical book that I have read and includes the most diverse range of subjects and discussions. Sometimes it works for him, but it pains me to say that sometimes, it really doesn't. I was very excited when I saw that Greene was putting out a new book. It has been 9 years since his last (which I also enjoyed) and I was looking forward to all of the scientific discoveries and updates that have happened since then. He does do a bit of this in gratifying ways. If the book were cut down to about the size of a novella, it would have been great.

The book starts off strong, the first few chapters capturing concepts that you expect from the title and description of the book. It is accessibly written and it made me familiar enough with things like entropy. This allowed me to understand what another reviewer meant by their witty comment that the book unfortunately increases in entropy as it progresses. The book becomes an odd sandwich where the beginning third and end section are in line with what the book promotes itself to be. In the middle, we get Brian Greene's musings on different subjects that interest him outside of his field of expertise. Some of them loosely align with the book's focus and demonstrate some understanding of the topics, others do not. The most enjoyable parts are Greene's writing style and his expressions of passion and wonder about the world. The biggest flaw in this section is that it is not well researched enough.

I can't fault anyone working in academia too much for this. Requirements for more and more specialization and the sheer amount of information out there makes it very difficult to adequately consume enough about other fields. This is why I wish Greene would have left these sections out. Other reviewers with a different education than me expressed issues with his discussion of evolution and other topics, so I am going to focus more on one I have read a ton about. I have both scientific issues and issues of mere disappointment in Greene's discussion of other animals. Greene is an ethical vegan who went vegetarian as a child and then vegan after a visit to Farm Sanctuary in NY. Now, there are plenty of ethical vegans who still struggle to understand other animals, often viewing them all as a uniform group of innocent voiceless children, which is far from the vast and complex realities of other animals lives and experiences. I guess I expected someone with Greene's intellect and ethics to give us a bit more in his discussions of nonhuman animals. I think he's either the kind of vegan that doesn't care if anyone else is or he is afraid- like many vegans- of coming off as the crazy, preachy, mood ruiner. Nonvegans often respond by shutting down or attacking vegans- even the most polite, passive, and educated ones. This might throw a wrench in the gears of his intention to make his books accessible to as many people as possible. But, when I saw him veering off into other directions, I really hoped he would approach discussions of other animals with more care and use his platform in a way that was more in line with his ethics.

So, what exactly did I take issue with? He refers to other animals as "it" which is very common in speciesist human language, but I still always try to point it out. His discussion of animal language and communication shows a very outdated understanding of the subject. It is true that human language is unique. What he missed is more recent information, a long history of research, newer theories, and an expansion of the definition of language suggest a likelihood that many other animals do have language, we just aren't adept at listening to or understanding it (despite some of them actually learning our languages.) Some of his quotes from long dead scientists are ancient and even downright demeaning. He also highlights extremely cruel nonhuman animal studies from the past with excited passion while making no mention of the ethical horrors or the point of view of the animals tortured and killed in said studies. From the average science writer writing a very specific type of book, I may expect this. But, in something this philosophical written by an ethical vegan, I wanted more from him. I kept waiting and waiting and the moment of gratification never came. I could write a ton more on this in detail, but I've already digressed enough.

The last third-ish of the book gets back to his area of expertise, which was more enjoyable. It was still a bit more disorganized than he usually is, but it still taught me a lot and I made a lot of highlights. It is also the most difficult to understand section for a layman. He packs a lot of information into a small amount of space which left me wishing that he used the space in the center of the sandwich to elaborate more on what was at the end. 

Overall, I don't regret reading this book by any means. It's just definitely not his best. So, if you are new to Greene, don't start here. Even if his older works have an outdated section here or there, you'll still learn a lot more from "The Elegant Universe" than you will from this book. If you're familiar with Greene, you may want to skip around a bit.

This was also posted to my goodreads.