Thursday, April 28, 2016

This blog has moved

I am no longer posting on this blog.  Please visit & follow me at my new website:

Monday, February 29, 2016

Three Reasons to Worry About President Trump

Professor Helmut Norpoth of Stonybrook University says Donald Trump has a 97% chance of being the next president. That's if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, which all the major US media have declared an unstoppable outcome. If Bernie Sanders should pull out an upstart victory (a result predicted by a Reuters poll that went unreported in the mainstream US press)? Norpoth says Trump's odds go up to 99%.

Most of my friends say it can't happen. I'm not sure why. Seems that they have an irrational belief in the rationality of the US electorate, or at least of the US political class. Neither, in my opinion, is well founded.

Professor Norpoth has, according to himself (and Fortune magazine), accurately predicted the outcome of every election since 1912, with the technical exception of 2000, when his statistical model predicted a Gore victory. 

But of course, we know what's wrong with that exception.

There's a school of thought that says this election is so wacky that a statistical model based on past primary results is irrelevant. That might be true, it might not. But let's just assume Mr. Norpoth is right and Trump is the next president, which is by no means a long shot. How worried should I be about what that means?

A. Very worried – make an exit plan (Denmark, anyone?).
B. Not worried – they're all the same.
C. Impossible to tell because no one knows what Trump really stands for.

I pick A, but not because both of the other rationales are not accurate. Here's what we know.

1. Unlike Rubio and Cruz, Trump is not a right-wing ideologue. He's pro-choice (, in favor of some form of universal health care, and might even secretly be pro-gay. Well Mitt Romney was pro-choice too, until he was running for president, and was the architect of one of the most successful universal health coverage examples we have. What people like that have said in the past doesn't really matter once they start running for president.

2. The enemy of my enemy is not my friend. Yes, Trump opposes free trade agreements, but not because they give too much power to multinational corporations or because they're going to be bad for international labor. He doesn't want to see smaller countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America have the opportunity to develop with democracy and without displacement. Trump says he doesn't want people dying on the street. Well Gavin Newsom, former mayor who brought “care-not-cash” to San Francisco, didn't want people dying on the street either, he wanted to move them somewhere else to die. No one wants people dying on the street. Trump says his great new plan to make sure everyone has health care “is not single-payer” and won't cost any money. Which means he has no plan. Just because Trump talks about “a few people on Wall Street” who are not paying enough taxes, I can't ignore the fact that apparently, 20% of his avowed supporters think slavery should not have ended. Or that he didn't want to refuse the endorsement of former KKK leader David Duke without doing research because "I know nothing about white supremacists."

3.  No one keeps their campaign promises, or even intends to. Remember, “On Day 1, I will shut down Guantanamo”? Remember, “I can end the ban on gay soldiers with the stroke of a pen”? Contrary to claims by Trump and Romney, the president doesn't get to eliminate Obamacare or abortion rights. There is this little thing called Congress and this slightly bigger thing called the Supreme Court.

Campaigning is by definition lying. Hillary Clinton was mercilessly hazed a couple weeks ago for saying she “tries not to” lie. Any ten-year-old, said Stephen Colbert, with a live 10-year-old to prove his point, knows that when asked, “Have you ever lied?” the only answer is, “No, never.” By the same token, voters don't want to hear, “I will attempt to get this or that bill through Congress, although I realize the odds are against my being able to accomplish it.” Maybe back in Calvin Coolidge's day or something, but in the age of television and Twitter? No way. You're supposed to promise the moon with a wink. Trump is great at that because it's how he's made his fortune. Or several, some of which he also lost, but we're not supposed to talk about that or even notice it.

Trump will not be building any walls on the Mexican border, with or without Mexico's money. He will not be deporting 11 million immigrants or even banning Muslims, although that he might manage because honestly, it has not been very easy for Muslims to get visas for a long time now. He won't be creating great jobs for US workers, forcing China to stop devaluing its currency or making America great again.

So all those angry white guys (and gals, sad to say) who are voting for him in droves are gonna be mad. Even if he were doing what he said he would do, they'd be mad because even if someone really tries to fulfill their promises, changing social policy takes a long time. Economies do not turn around at the stroke of a pen. If Trump (or Sanders) did all the wonderful things he says he is going to do, it would probably take a couple or more years before people who have been out of work for a long time started getting hired. And what is Trump going to fall back on to keep that formidable anger and sense of betrayal from landing on him?

Misogyny and racism. Trump's not an ideologue but he is a macho, woman-hating, racist. A lot's been written and said about his “tough guy” act, and how important this aggressive form of machismo is to his appeal. (For an amusing example of this literature, check out Friday's Washington Post article, “Has Donald Trump Actually Punched Anyone?”.) We've seen how he has wielded vile sexism against Megyn Kelly (someone I don't normally feel that much sisterhood with) and Hillary Clinton and racism against Jorge Ramos and President Obama. There's the comment about how he would like to date his daughter and and the more basic one, allegedly made to a friend and quoted by New York Magazine, “You have to treat 'em [women] like shit.” There's his fat-shaming of Rosie O'Donnell and others), and the simple fact that he owns the Miss Universe pageant. The list goes on and on.

We also saw how Arnold (“Girlie-Man”) Schwarzenegger, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush utilized the swagger to distract people from what they were not doing to improve their lives. We can expect more wars, more militarized policing, more ruthless rhetoric about people who aren't making it. The divisions that gave us a weekend of stabbings and Klan rallies in California and the murder of Sudanese immigrants in Indiana will intensify, as will verbal and physical abuse of women and kids. And unfortunately, it works. When white men have nothing else to feel good about, feeling like part of the biggest, baddest, toughest team on the planet seems to appease them. And eight years of that I cannot abide.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Who Killed Fiction (and Why)?

If you want to feel really good about your community, publish a book.
That's what I learned last year. I thought releasing my first novel, after such a long process, would make me feel good about myself. But instead, it made me feel good about other people. I have been so gratified and amazed by how eager people are to help me, how much they want to see me succeed. I do believe that is in part because I wrote a good book, and because people see it as useful to social justice movements, specifically to justice for Palestine. But many people reached out before they'd ever read the book, and that includes people I never thought liked me, people I've had ambivalent political relationships with over the years, and even some people who don't agree with my politics on Palestine. Coworkers bought multiple copies to give to their families and friends for Christmas presents, while some of my good friends had private book signings (Tory bought more books than we sold at the Modern Times reading). Local bookstores have promoted it and let me know when there were problems in the supply chain.
I've also gotten some wonderful nuanced feedback from writers I respect, which will help me as I delve into Book 2 of the Rania & Chloe Palestine mystery series (pleased to have editor Elana Dykewomon back on board for Murder Under the Fig Tree). I've gotten used to talking about my writing process, how art differs from life, and had opportunities to reflect deeply on the events in my life that led to embarking on this project. I even remembered what I was working on before I went to Palestine, and made a commitment to get back to it before too long.
One of the less encouraging things I've learned is that fiction is out of favor in US culture right now. I've been surprised by the number of people who have told me, “Oh, I don't read fiction.” I'm not sure how I missed knowing this, since as early as 2004, commentators were reporting that “Although fiction still sells in great quantities … the attention of publishers and booksellers has moved elsewhere. Everyone in publishing agrees it is getting harder to sell a new novel, even by a distinguished name, in this country; book buyers seem interested only in non-fiction.” “The top 10 non-fiction books on the bestseller list always outsell the top 10 fiction books, save an occasional mega-seller,” wrote Anthony Chatfield in 2007.
Blogger Scott Esposito suggests that this trend reflects a desire for instant gratification: nonfiction offers the appearance that we've made an immediate gain in terms of useful knowledge. Another reason nonfiction might work better for people in this overscheduled information age is that it's easier to pick up and put down, or read parts of, requiring less commitment than a novel. Who, after all, really read Thomas Pickety's bestseller on capitalism from start to finish? I really liked Patrick Cockburn's The Rise of the Islamic State, but it didn't exactly make me miss any bus stops because I had to find out how it ended.
At the same time, alarm bells have been sounded by those worried about gaps in our kids' education – the same ones unwilling to address the elephant in the room, poverty. Researchers claim that high numbers of graduating students “may be able to compute a math problem or analyze a short story but they can't read a complex non-fiction text.” To remedy this perceived weakness, the Common Core Standards “calls for a shift in the balance of fiction to nonfiction as children advance through school. According to the CCSS guidelines, by the end of 4th grade, students’ reading should be half fiction and half informational. By the end of 12th grade, the balance should be 30 percent fiction, 70 percent nonfiction across all subject areas.”
I seriously question whether students can in fact analyze a short story if they can't “read a complex text.” The key words “analyze” and “complex” are not defined, at least not in any of the metareports I looked at; I didn't see the original data, which is attributed to the creators of the ACT college readiness exam. If by “analyze,” we mean anything beyond describing what happened (which is not analysis, but reporting), analyzing a work of fiction should require more complex thinking than reading even the most difficult nonfiction work because the information in a remotely well-written nonfiction text should be communicated directly, while the themes and lessons of fiction must be intuited or derived by careful attention to the symbolism of events and characters. A more likely explanation of the disparity between students' ability to analyze fictional versus nonfictional texts, if it exists, might be that the fiction they are reading is chosen, by themselves or their teachers, for its relevance to their lives, while the nonfiction is simply presented as information they need to know.
I remember when I was in graduate school complaining to my teacher, the always brilliant Michael Rogin, that I couldn't remember dates and characters in history.
Can you remember the plots of novels?” he asked.
Sure,” I replied. (The same might not be said today, when I can easily read half a mystery before realizing I've read it before. But that might have more to do with the books than my failing memory.)
That's because you attach symbolic significance to the events in the story. If you can do the same with historical events, you'll remember them too.” It was good analysis, good advice and it helped me become a better nonfiction reader. It might well work for students who are having the same trouble today. More to the point, if the “complex texts” are about things they think they need to know about, they will probably figure out a way to understand them.
The solution may well be worse than the problem. A series of studies that came out a few years ago found that reading literary fiction increased readers' empathy. One study used “a variety of Theory of Mind techniques to measure how accurately the participants could identify emotions in others. Scores were consistently higher for those who had read literary fiction than for those with popular fiction or non-fiction texts.” Of course, once again, key words like “literary” and “popular” fiction are not defined. Examples of the literary works included books by Don DeLillo, Charles Dickens and Louise Erdrich, while popular fiction included Gillian Flynn and Danielle Steele. One hypothesis about the difference was that the characters in the popular works were not as well defined. I might offer some other hypotheses regarding Gillian Flynn (a friend and I just watched “Gone Girl” on TV) – such as that her characters are so unpleasant, one would not really want to get inside their emotional worlds. And yet, as I have previously mentioned, Flynn is often included among genre writers who have “crossed over” (a review of her book, Sharp Objects, says, “this is more literary novel than simple mystery”).
I haven't seen studies proving this, but I don't need any to know that fiction also helps us stretch our imaginations. Reading fiction is essential to the creation of revolutionaries, because if you can't imagine something that doesn't exist, you cannot help to create it. Is that perhaps a reason why these education reformers are so determined to limit the time that kids spend exercising their imaginations? Or is it simply that their own imaginations are so starved, at this point, that they can't remember the joy of being transported into another place, another time or another person's reality?
I went to see 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens" the other night. I enjoyed it, especially the 3D effects. But there was a lot less to the story than in the 1970s episodes, which is not saying that much. There's almost no character development; it's two hours of nonstop battle scenes. The best mainstream movies I saw last year, “Spotlight” and “Trumbo,” along with some I didn't care for like “Bridge of Spies,” were barely fictionalized versions of true stories. Among the 12 top grossing films of 2015, nine were installments in multi-film franchises, two were based on old television shows, one was based on an alleged true story and one was a remake. Only two, “Inside Out” and “The Martian,” were original fictional narratives.
Those of us who write fiction might need to start fighting for its place in our culture, for the sake of the culture as well as ourselves.
Murder Under the Bridge has gotten some excellent reviews.
I've also done quite a few interviews on radio and even one on TV. If you're interested, you can find some of them on my website.
I will be reading in Washington, DC on January 16 (Politics & Prose, 1:00 pm), Richmond, VA on January 19 (Fountain Books, 6:30 pm) and Portland, Oregon on January 22 (Another Read Through, 7:00 pm). More information.  If you're in one of those cities and can't make the reading but have time to get together, please email me.