Friday, May 25, 2007

"The Assault on Reason," by Al Gore; Politics of Substance? Seriously?

I'm sure there've been lots of great things going on downtown this week, there always are. There've probably been gallery openings galore, movies here there and everywhere, bands playing up a storm, and I hear the weather hasn't been half bad either. So I hope you've been having a great time with it all. I wouldn't know much about any of that though . I've been holed up inside all week, busy with my favorite new toy, Al Gore's latest book, "The Assault on Reason." Right this second, I'm so in love with our once, and if you ask me, hopefully future, next president, that I'd even consider having his babies, and
I'm really not the kind of girl who suffers from baby cravings, generally speaking. But I'm pretty sure the odds of Tipper quietly stepping aside on my behalf are minimal at best, so I'll take what I can get. And what I can get, in this instance, "The Assault on Reason," is a more than adequate consolation prize.

I didn't always feel this way about Al Gore. Not even close. Back in 2000, like a lot of other people, I thought he was kind of just fine. Better than that other guy, but not anything to get all excited about. I didn't do anything crazy like voting for Nader, and I wasn't one of those people going around saying things like "Bush, Gore, what's the difference?", the differences were abundantly clear to me, even then, but I just wasn't that into him. That all changed when I heard the speech he delivered on Jan. 16, 2006, Martin Luther King Day, at Constitution Hall.

In that speech, Gore became the first national political figure to call into question, loudly, passionately, and cogently, the attacks the Bush administration had been making on our constitution. Finally, in that moment, I heard someone saying out loud, on TV, all the things I'd been thinking and talking about for the past five years, and doing so incredibly well. It was one of the best political speeches I'd ever heard. Since then, I've been ranting about it to anyone who'd listen, and watching Gore's every move, looking for any clues they may offer as to his plans for 2008. And of course, he insists he isn't running, but then again, he's not not running either. He may just be trying to kill me.

I'd vaguely known he had a new book coming out this month, but had assumed it was going to be another about global warming. And granted, he's right about that, and it's all very important, but, to be honest, it's a little boring to me at this point. So I was not so much planning to rush out to the bookstore and grab the first copy I could get my hands on, of another book about the melting glaciers and boiling oceans. If I were a better person, I'm sure I'd have an inexhaustible interest in all of that, but I'm just being honest here. Save the planet, I'm all for it, even glad to help out if I can, but I don't really want to read about it anymore right now.

I did end up rushing out first thing Tuesday morning for "The Assault on Reason," though, because it's not about global warming after all. It's about, well, as the title suggests, the alarmingly diminished place of reason in our public discourse, and, ultimately, the slow disappearance of our public discourse altogether. Once again, Gore's gone and gotten at the very things I'm ranting and raving about all the time.

For a political geek like me, "The Assault on Reason," was a real page turner. Once I picked it up, I really did not want to put it down until I was all done. Gore asks the important question of how we as a nation have allowed our public discourse to arrive at this point, of so little debate, so little reason, and so much fear and secrecy, and offers some compelling answers.

There are moments, though, when "The Assault on Reason," feels almost like two books crammed into one. First, there's the more abstract question of American political life and public discourse, it's history and future, which is certainly worthy of a book of it's own. Then, there's the very specific subject of the Bush administration, and the ways in which it's policies and practices have pushed us in certain directions. Again, a topic that could fill shelves full of books on it's own. One thing is very clear, Gore has really just about had it with Bush, and his lawless ways, and the impunity he's enjoyed.

There's not much in the way of new information about Bush and company, but given the inexplicable timidity of our media these days, there is something incredibly refreshing about having it all laid out, clearly and cleanly, page after page, with footnotes and everything. Fact after indisputable fact. Here's what was done, here's what was not done. Iraq, Cheney's energy commission, 9/11 warnings, on and on. Fact based writing. Lovely stuff, that.

More interesting to me, ultimately, are Gore's thoughts on how America has allowed itself to arrive at this point. As he notes in his introduction, "It is too easy - and too partisan - to simply place the blame on the policies of President George W. Bush. We are all responsible for the decisions our country makes." And somehow, or other, an awful lot of us, at some point along the line, decided that was more responsibility than we wanted to handle, and bowed out, not all that gracefully either.

Gore, for the most part, pins the blame on TV's having taken the place of print as the main media outlet for news. In addition to everything we usually hear about television news being entertainment driven, profit driven, biased to the right, left, wherever, and just plain bad, Gore argues that print media, back in the revolutionary day, was more interactive than television. That, I'm not so I'm convinced of. I'd like to believe that any old literate citizen could, once upon a time, walk into a newspaper office with a well reasoned opinion piece, get it printed up and disseminated to his or her peers, but I'm pretty skeptical on that one.

The larger point he's making, though, is that our public political discourse has somehow stopped being much of a two way street. Information comes at us, through our televisions, radios, and even through our newspapers, but we don't have much of a chance to talk back in any meaningful way, nor are we really doing much talking to each other. The solution Gore offers is a utopian vision of the internet, with it's low bar for entry, citizen journalists, and the possibility it creates for anyone, anywhere in the world to communicate with anyone else, at least in theory. I'm big fan of the internet too, but I'm not so sure I'm buying it as the big solution to this particular problem either.

While Gore's critique of television as a one way medium is certainly valid, as is his suggestion that people will feel less attached to a political process in which they feel they have no means of engaging in dialogue, is spending more time at home alone with our computers really the answer? Gore ignores the extent to which television was, and remains, an isolating influence on American culture. Rather than going out into shared public space, looking for company, conversation, and entertainment, we started spending more and more of our time at home, alone, with our TV screens. Granted, the internet does put us in front of interactive screens, but a screen is not another person, the quality of the interaction will never be the same. It remains a very private sort of discourse, never truly becoming public, subject to the scrutiny of witnesses, and the clear light of day.

All that TV we're watching isn't doing anyone any good, it's true. But bringing one more illusory companion into our solitary lives won't help matters much. An return to a culture of actual public discourse, between people, in public, however, might go a long way towards setting things right. All of that said, I give Gore tremendous credit for being the person to begin this much needed conversation, to publicly acknowledge the presence of something very, very wrong here, something deeper and more widespread than the actions of a single White House resident, however intellectually dishonest and morally vacuous that resident may be. Though he states the many cases against Bush, he refuses to fall into the easy trap of blame, and so denies his reader that safety net as well. Gently, Gore reminds us of our own ultimate accountability for what is done in our name, and of our responsibility to reinvigorate our public discourse, one way or another.

And on that note, I think I'll take my own advice, and go find out what's happening outside right now myself. There's a book signing in Union Square today that I’ve been thinking I ought to check out!

Friday, May 11, 2007

Once Upon a Time Downtown; Witches on Wall St. & Rubyfruit in the Village

I watch CSPAN the way normal people watch ESPN, complete with yelling back at my tv and the occasional drinking game. So when someone whose opinon means a lot to me says that,,when I write about politics, while he might agree with my opinions, admire the logic or the thoughts expressed, he can't find the same connection with my words he does when I write about almost any other thing, because he is not a very political person, I have a hard time understanding what it is he means,. It's something he's tells me often enough. But whenever he says it in reference to my writing, I find myself surprised, in defiance of all reason. Partly, I suppose, because being such a ridiculously political person myself, the idea of someone who isn't, is as alien to me as those people who do calculus for fun, or the ones who don't eat sugar. I know they're out there, somewhere, I've even met a few . But I still have trouble believing they exist. So there is that.

More than that though, I try to write, most of the time, about the things that matter most to me. Otherwise, really, what's the point? So when I do write about politics, the writing itself doesn't feel any different from writing about any of the other things that make their way onto my pages, from my dogs. and my relationships, to life, death, sex and sanity, and the ways they all roil around together in my head, our downtown neighborhoods, and the whole big world at large. Writing about politics, for me, is part and parcel of all of that. The work of the writing itself feels just the same. Those times it doesn't, no matter what the subject is, when it comes too hard or too easily, or from the wrong place altogether, I know something's just not right. . So, when the writing has gone more or less the way it goes when it goes well, it comes as a surprise to hear from any reader that the reading of the finished piece feels somehow different from the reading of any other, just because of what it happens to be about. Maybe what I'm trying to get at here is simply that, for me, the political doesn't exist within its own cleanly defined category, neatly cut off and held apart from the personal. For me, the political feels very personal, so much so, I can't imagine trying to tease the two apart, to figure out where one begins, the other ends.

Flip that around, and you get the old seventies feminist slogan, "the personal is political." Hearing it today, we hear a reminder of the unintended repercussions all of our small everyday can have, on the lives of people we will likely never meet, and the continued existence of our neighborhoods as we know them. Spending the extra dollar on a bag of fair trade coffee, or going a block out of my way to East West books instead of Barnes and Noble, can feel like such inconveniences, in the moment when I have to choose. It's so easy to forget, at least it is for me, that these small things matter, that I am just one person on a planet teeming with its billions, and that whatever might be easiest for me at any given moment, is not necessarily the best thing, for anybody else. Not for the Ethiopian coffee farmer, chances are, or anyone trying to keep an independent bookstore going in the West Village, in spite of all those Barnes and Nobles everywhere All of that is true. It's real and important, and much too easily forgotten. But it's not much to do with what I mean.

And even though it's what we think of when we hear that phrase these days, it isn't really what those seventies feminists meant by it in the first place either. Rita Mae Brown, racking up degrees at NYU, and writing her raucous first novel, "Rubyfruit Jungle." A group called WITCH, the Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, declaring capitalism the true oppressor, and putting in a surprise appearance on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, dressed in their witchy best, one afternoon in 1969. Kate Millet in her studio on the Bowery, working away in quiet anonymity on art, life, and doctoral dissertation, until that dissertation was published as "Sexual Politics," and became possibly the least likely bestseller in the history of books. Shulabeth Firestone and Ellen Willis meeting with their Redstockings and issuing manifestoes from a lower east side apartment. All of these women, and many more besides, making their homes downtown, talking, thinking, and arguing \, about all the possibilities they saw before them for taking the world as they'd known it apart, examining it carefully and closely, piece by piece, and using everything they'd learned, trusting everything they felt along the way, to help them in the hard work of rebuilding something unimaginable, something altogether new and different from the world in which they lived. When they said, "the personal is political," questions of shopping weren't really foremost in their minds.

They were thinking more about their growing recognition that many of the problems women experienced as personal, their bad marriages, financial woes, the impossibility of finding childcare that kept them feeling trapped at home, had causes more political than personal, and so would ultimately require political, not personal, solutions. With that came an understanding of each choice made, each step taken, as in one way or another an act of acquiescence or resistance to the dominant hegemony of the day, that self-sustaining narrative of class, race, gender, and above all power, and the great lengths to which it goes in its efforts to entice us all to choose it over ourselves, and over one another.

They were right, of course, the personal is political in all of those ways too. How brave they were, to even begin asking the questions they did. And how optimistic to suppose we'd be up to the challenge. What's more terrifying, after all, than the possibility that the stories into which we fit so neatly, the options with which we've been presented for longer than we can remember, by those who truly love us best, are nothing but a fraction of what's out there in an endless universe, have perhaps been offered less for any benefit they'd bring to us, than for the sake of minimal disruption all around, and leave us not an inch to spare for taking anything apart, deciding what's unnecessary, and putting whatever's left back together in some way the world has never seen before? Terrifying most of all, because once you do start asking those questions, it's just about impossible to stop pestering yourself about them, until you've come up with some kind of answers. And the answers never turn out to be the ones you'd hoped for, never offer you an easy out. .

It's heartbreaking, really, thinking about those women, walking down sixth avenue doing their errands, sitting in Washington Square on a sunny day, and having so much faith in us, our willingness to take a step away from what feels like such solid ground beneath our feet, and find our what it's like to walk instead on something that looks thin as air.

That gets much closer to what I mean, when I say the political is personal. It has to do with willingness. Willingness to ask the scariest questions, take the riskiest chances, and take responsibility for whatever happens next. It also has to do with my Buddhist practice, undisciplined as it often is. Buddhism teaches the interdependence of all sentient beings, the illusory nature of individual identity. So long as any one of us is suffering, we all are. There are only so many options open to us, in a world so big, if we have aspirations of easing any of that suffering, and don't happen to be Bill Gates. Political engagement offers one way of acknowledging our responsibility to one another, of doing what little we can to make a world we want to live in, rather than allowing it to make us into what it needs. And that all feels very personal to me.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Layer Cake, in Letters: "The Mistress's Daughter," by A.M. Homes

“As a child, I was obsessed by the World Book Encyclopedia, the acetate anatomy pages, where you could build a person, folding in the skeleton, the veins, the muscles, layer upon layer, until it all came together.” This graceful sentence, coming as it does early on in A.M. Homes’ new memoir, “The Mistress’s Daughter,” has delighted me, all by itself, brought me into a text that continually surprised me, and returned me to one of my favorite writers, all in one fell swoop. That’s a lot of work for one sentence to do, and to do so very well. So I feel like I should begin by thanking Homes for having written it. The whole book does some astonishing things, but I keep coming back to that one line.

First off, was the shock of recognition. It’s nothing so shocking, really. I’m sure plenty of bored suburban kids across America have put in their time with those World Book pages, folding and unfolding them, this way and that. But for just a moment, I felt the stiffness of those pages, against the others in the volume, heard their crackle as they folded in and out, and nearly yelled out loud, “Me too! Me too!”

Then there’s the contribution it makes to the spare structure of Homes narrative. "The Mistress's Daughter" is about a lot of things. Identity, storytelling, family, and language among them. It takes as its point of departure the author's less than storybook reunion with her birth parents when she was in her thirties, living on Charles St., and becoming successful as a novelist. Thanks to this sentence, and others like it, I didn’t need much in the way of direct description of the life she’d led with her adoptive family. I got it. It was somewhat privileged, it was sometimes boring, it was all in all pretty good, though not without it’s problems, some of which she does in fact delve into. But much more than that would have distracted me from the heart of the story being told, much less, and I’d likely have wondered what it was she had to hide.

Finding it so early in the book, on page seven, to be exact, was important for me too. I hadn’t quite made up my mind about “The Mistress’s Daughter,” yet. It is so many things about which I am ambivalent. To begin with, it is a memoir. When they are good, well, they can be very, very good. But when they are bad, they’re really quite horrid aren’t they? And, possibly worse yet, it’s an adoption memoir. I remember reading “The Search for Anna Fischer,” when I was little. It was one of the first such books, possibly even the very first, and is often credited with jumpstarting the adoptees rights movement. I remember it’s having been part of a Reader’s Digest condensed anthology that I was carting around one summer. Who knows where that thing came from? I remember reading it at the lake, and in some doctor’s waiting room. Most of what I remember about the story itself, is a lot of some poor woman trying to get people to give her information they had, but weren’t allowed to give her, which I thought was stupid and unfair, but not terribly interesting, and then an anti-climactic meeting with her birth mother. Having finally asked my parents so many times if they are really, truly sure I don’t have any DNA but theirs that even I suppose I must believe them, adoption memoirs hold even less appeal for me.

The title, “The Mistress’s Daughter,” was intriguing, obviously, but almost too much so. As though perhaps someone in Viking’s PR department had been charged with coming up with a titillating title to boost sales of a mediocre book. Things like that do happen sometimes, you know. Then there’s Homes herself, a writer about whom I’ve been squarely on the fence for years.

Do you remember that nineties literary trend, so trendily referred to as, “transgressive fiction”? The best known work of “transgressive fiction" would probably be Brett Easton Ellis's novel "American Psycho," later adapted into the film starring Christian Bale, in which a questionably reliable narrator by the name of Patrick Bateman enjoys impressing us with his knowledge of eighties era designer labels, sexual prowess, and creativity in dismembering women. Transgressive fiction could have meant all kinds of things, but mostly, it turned out to be a convenient label for books dealing in transgressions upon the usually female body, with literary aspirations thrown in. It was a marketing ploy cleverly disguised as a literary movement, or maybe a literary movement co-opted and creatively transgressed upon by marketing departments until it found itself at the bottom of some river, in a million little pieces. But I digress. A few of those books lived up to their literary aspirations, maybe even managed to commit some more interesting sorts of transgressions. One of those was "The End of Alice," by A.M. Homes.

I loved everything about "The End of Alice." It's an impossibly beautiful book about unimaginably ugly things. I loved the language, the structure, and narrative. I loved the ways in which it surprised me, and the simple fact that it did. I loved the unclassifiable follow up, "Appendix A: An Elaboration on the Novel 'The End of Alice'". I loved the sense it gave me that the writing I wanted to do myself was possible, and that someone else was out there thinking about words and stories, and even about bodies, in a similar sort of way. I loved that book.

Which, of course, led me to read more of her books. But it just wasn't the same. It's not that there's anything wrong with "In A Country of Mothers," or "Jack," or "Music for Torching," or any of the rest of them. They just haven't done for me whatever exactly it was "The End of Alice," did, haven't given me that same gift. And so, unfairly I'm sure, but that can't be helped, reading each has felt in some way like a betrayal. As if, having shown me that she could write something that spoke to me so clearly, Homes owed it to me to keep it up, and was simply choosing not to deliver the goods. The reading of someone else's words is really such an odd sort of intimacy, isn't is?

So, there I am in the bookstore, doing the thing I do, where I read the first few pages of a book, and only buy it if I cannot possibly imagine living happily without completing it. There being, after all, so many books, and so very little time, not to mention money. I'm giving "The Mistress's Daughter," it's chance. And I come to that sentence. "As a child, I was obsessed by the World Book Encyclopedia, the acetate anatomy pages, where you could build a person, folding in the skeleton, the veins, the muscles, layer upon layer, until it all came together." Not only did it tell me this was most definitely the book I wanted that day, it made me wonder if my A.M. Homes, the one I'd loved so much, once upon a time, might not have come back to me. And so she has.

There is something I love about the language of the body. The solid sounds of the words we use to describe something so fragile, broken down into its very smallest parts. The ironic abstraction of a skeleton on the page. Perhaps the best thing Homes' sentence does is to provide her reader with a key to "The Mistress's Daughter". I'll give you a hint: You don't always need layer upon layer of acetate anatomy pages to build a person. Sometimes, the way words and pages layer themselves up along the way will do the trick just fine.

Yours, Mine, and Ours... What exactly is the difference anyway?

The West Village probably shouldn't feel like such a cozy nook of a neighborhood, given how many people are always moving in and out. All those NYU students coming and going all over the place, recent grads who'd heard "the village," was the place to be, but realize within 6 months or so that Brooklyn, or maybe the Upper East Side, is the place they can afford, the long time renters getting priced out and moving east or up, or who knows where, and new people coming every single day. The thing about the West Village, though, is that when you live there, you almost never need to leave, unless, of course, a job requires you to do so. Otherwise, where else would you ever want to go? Really? I can't remember the last time I went much above Union Square, below Houston St., or east of the Bowery, unless I was heading out of town entirely. I do like the Natural History Museum, and the Met, I'll go uptown for those two, but I think that's pretty much it.

Living here, it's hard enough maintaining any real connection with the rest of the city, let alone with the other inhabitants of that huge place called America. We just don't have much in common with them, do we? They wear pastels, and shop at Wal-Mart. They value things like a good night's sleep, and eating breakfast. They are the ones responsible for both the Simpson and the Duff Sisters' celebrity. They drive SUV's and live in actual houses with backyards. We live in apartments the size of their SUV's, if we're lucky, and think of our fire escapes as private terraces. We walk everywhere, or take the train, and get to feel superior about our independence from the petroleum economy. They come to New York expressly for the purpose of asking me for directions to stores they'd have e no trouble finding back in their hometowns. I could be mistaken, but I'm pretty sure there's a Gap in every mall this country has to offer.
More importantly though, we don't seem to think about anything the way those people out there do. CNN tells us we live in a divided nation, shows us a map made up of sharp red lines and hard blue angles, footage of angry protestors at funerals, proud little boys dressed up in soldiers uniforms they cannot possibly be old enough to wear. A woman with pink cheeks and brown curls assuring an interviewer that yes, she absolutely does believe God hates. Their world feels nothing like mine. Down here between west 14th and Houston, give or take a block or two, we're afloat in a soft, warm sea of indigo agreement. If anybody's waiting impatiently for the Rapture, over on Perry St., worrying just a little bit about being left behind when that great day finally dawns, well, he's keeping it to himself for now.

Of everyone I know in the West Village, I can think of exactly one self-identified conservative. One. A lawyer, I believe. Even she is the kind of conservative who makes me disconcertingly nostalgic for the Reagan era. It's possible to have a reasonable and interesting conversation with her about things like the Iraq War, or the budget deficit. She's not interested in the radical religious right's agenda. She's an old fashioned conservative, focused on fiscal responsibility and military strength. I disagree with her opinions, but they are not those of an insane ideologue. Conservative though she calls herself, this woman has nothing in common with the people currently occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Tucked away here in our village, surrounded by like minds, all the happy lesbian undergrads, the shaggy guys with their sunglasses and guitars, the all night lights of the sex toy stores all over Christopher St., it's often almost inconceivable that anything they might be doing in America, or even just down in D.C., could ever touch us here. They might have some problems, out there, it's true. But us? Here? Nothing really changes here, we'll be o.k. These are the things we say to ourselves, and to each other, aren't they? When elections don't go our way, when the housing market starts to crumble, when the economy starts looking dicey. It's nothing to do with us. And who can blame us? Who doesn't want to feel safe? That's what so many of us came here for in the first place, I think. So we could feel safer than we had, one way or another, growing up out there in America. And then there's the sense I have sometimes, and I don't think I'm the only one, though this isn't something we talk much about, this feeling that America didn't really want me, that I was just a little bit too something, too loud, too smart, too crazy, too confused or too confusing, or maybe just too much, I don't know, for America's liking. So I skipped out on America, and I wound up here instead. Here, I finally felt safe.

Nothing good lasts forever though, does it? Every so often, something happens to jerk me right back into America, remind me I've never really left. No matter how I feel, who, and where, I am remain the same. I'm an American in America, like all the rest. It's certainly much nicer to feel safe, but the dangers we're dealing with these days are altogether different, and if the safety isn't real, well, what's the point in that? All the differences about which we are so insistent become meaningless when confronted by the fact of citizenship shared. Distance, metaphorical or literal, can't push you beyond the borders you're willing to cross.

There's a long, sad list of Americans whose home proved their undoing, but just one who's reminding me of this right now. Jose Padilla, remember him? He was arrested by the FBI in Chicago's O'Hare airport in 2002, getting off a flight from Pakistan. He was then declared an enemy combatant and transferred to military custody, held in solitary confinement for the next three years. An American in America, he faced the prospect of indefinite detention, was denied access to legal counsel, the right to confront his accusers, the right to a speedy trial by a jury of his peers. Why? Because Donald Rumsfeld said so, more or less, that's why. That was all it took. I've known the basic facts of this story for years, you probably have too. Whenever I stop to think about them though, give them just the briefest moment to sink in, I am stunned by it all, all over again. All the power this government has, and our protections against it vanished somehow, while we were busy with other things.

By 2005 Padilla's petition for a writ of habeus corpus made its way to the supreme court. At that point, the government transferred him from military to civilian custody, adding him to an existing indictment in Florida's federal court. This conveniently allowed them to avoid a confrontation with the Court and a potential ruling definitively prohibiting such treatment of American citizens in the future. The charges Padilla and his co-defendants face are in no way related to the dirty bomb allegations which prompted his initial arrest. The evidence against them includes allegedly coded wiretapped conversations about going on "picnics," so they can "smell fresh air, and eat cheese." Sounds pretty sinister to me. Then there's something in there about a zucchini. It's all pretty nonsensical, and would be laughable, if the first act hadn't been so bleak.

And if it didn't force us to remember that we're still in Kansas after all, still Americans, still in this America we have somehow created for ourselves. Just as we are all equally vulnerable to the power of this state we've made, we are also all equally responsible for the fact of its existing as it does. None of us, in this America, is as safe as we deserve to be, not even on Bleecker st., nor are we innocent. Those other people out there, the ones we'd like to blame, they are our own, like it or not and we are theirs. And nobody is innocent. We can protest as loudly as we like, wear the t-shirts, march with the banners, proclaim, "Not in our names!" but it is. Every bit of it is. It's all in your name, and it's all in mine.