Friday Roundup: Trump Days by George Saunders

Susan DeFFriday RoundupLeave a Comment

I admire George Saunders as an author not just for his immense artistry but for his moral vision–one that, to my mind, always seeks to balance empathy for the individual with a clear-eyed critique of society. Who better to assess the state of the Union in this immensely divisive election year?

Apparently, the New Yorker felt the same, because they sent Saunders on assignment to a Trump rally, where he proceeded to engage with Trump supporters on a wide range of questions, from immigration to welfare, as well as with Trump protesters.

At this rally, Saunders sees the ugliness on the left as well as on the right. And as any fan of his work would imagine, no measure of absurdity is lost on him–there’s a kind of humor to this article as well as insight and despair.

If you are, as I am, a sentimental middle-aged person who cherishes certain Coplandian notions about the essential goodness of the nation, seeing this kind of thing in person—adults shouting wrathfully at one another with no intention of persuasion, invested only in escalating spite—will inject a palpable sadness into your thinning, under-exercised legs, and you may find yourself collapsing, post-rally, against a tree in a public park, feeling hopeless. Craving something positive (no more fighting, no more invective, please, please), forcing yourself to your feet, you may cross a busy avenue and find, in a mini-mall themed like Old Mexico, a wedding about to begin. Up will walk the bridesmaids, each leading, surprisingly, a dog on a leash, and each dog is wearing a tutu, and one, a puppy too small to be trusted in a procession, is being carried, in its tutu, in the arms of its bridesmaid.

And this will somehow come as an unbelievable relief.

Saunders describes how the conversations he was having with Trump supporters changed when they went from talking about something in the abstract (say, immigration) to something concrete (say, a kid brought here as an infant by her parents, illegally, and her tough choices as a young adult). He notes that the tenor became far more civil; they became two people honestly trying to figure out how to help this hypothetical person without violating their own beliefs.

Which speaks to my own experience as an American. I grew up among conservative people in Michigan and lived among them in Arizona, and while I find many of the sorts of opinions they espoused antithetical to my idea of a civilized society (particularly on the subject of social services for the poor), I consider these people generally good at heart.

Which is why it has been so hard to believe those same people would support a man who has shown himself over and over, to be a bully, a bigot, and a toxic font of hate–the sort of person who thinks it’s funny to make fun of a disabled journalist.

To see that happening in this country has led me into much the same territory as Saunders, which is to wonder if what seemed impossible even five years ago might be true–that I might see the dissolution of the union within my lifetime.

The wheel of history is turning. Can the center hold?

Here’s the link to the article:

Political Interlude: An Open Letter to My #StillBernie and #NeverHill Friends

Susan DeFpolitical interludeLeave a Comment

Today, Robert Reich posted the picture above–which, in light of Bernie Sanders’s recent endorsement, sums up my feelings exactly. But not all of my friends feel the same, especially those younger and to the left of me (which is really quite left indeed).

I think there’s a great danger in assuming that everyone who’s on the other side of the political spectrum from you is the same, and in taking a singe-issue stance. Believe me, my friends on the left, I was just as bummed as you were when Obama came out pro-surveillance, pro-drones, and pro-TPP. But that doesn’t make him George W. Bush.

I’ve had pro-Hillary friends post things like, “Show me how Hillary’s policies are substantially different from Obama’s or STFU.” And I think there’s some wisdom in that: Barack is a far more inspiring speaker, and he’s not an old-school operator like Hill, not nearly so entrenched in an increasingly corrupt political system.

But in terms of their policies, they’re not so far from each other, and as far as I can tell, that’s what my leftist friends resent: they feel betrayed by the fact that Obama turned out to be a centrist, and that the center of the American political system has drifted so far to the right. They want to rebel by voting for Bernie or no one, and now they feel betrayed that Bernie has endorsed Her.

First, I’d like to make it clear where I stand: I believed Bernie Sanders when he told us it would take a political revolution to make his policies reality, because no president could possibly do what he promised without a majority in Congress on his side.

Second, I believe him when he said, in the course of his email officially endorsing Hillary,

In terms of the presidential election this November, there is no doubt that the election of Donald Trump as president would be a devastating blow to all that we are fighting for. His openly bigoted and pro-billionaire campaign could precipitate the same decades-long rightward shift in American politics that happened after the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. That rightward shift after Reagan’s election infected not just politics as a whole but led to the ascendancy of the corporatist wing of the Democratic Party–an era from which we are still recovering.

I cannot in good conscience let that happen.

I cannot either, and for some reason, I had assumed that more of my fellow Bernie supporters would be with me on this–especially when the Republican National Committee has moved toward adopting what the New York Times calls “a staunchly conservative platform that takes a strict, traditionalist view of the family and child rearing, bars military women from combat, describes coal as a ‘clean’ energy source and declares pornography a ‘public health crisis.’”

It’s also a platform that all but declares open season on gay and transgender people–which has led close gay friends of mine with roots in the Midwest to tell their friends and family, in no uncertain words, that a vote for Trump will endanger them and those they love.

These are the same people I’ve seen kindly and open-mindedly engaging conservative friends and relatives on everything from women’s reproductive rights to drone warfare. These are not knee-jerk liberals. And they are scared for their lives.

I’ve seen the same thing from Hispanic friends on Facebook. Again, from people with close conservative friends–people who may be pretty conservative themselves, in terms of “traditional family values.” It’s clear that they too are scared for their lives, and for those of their family members.

My far-left friends are no fans of Trump, so they believe that the only way they can live in accordance with their consciences is simply not to vote at all. They believe that the line about “not voting at all is a vote for Trump” is no more than corporate media propaganda.

Of course corporations of all types would love to have Hillary in office; she plays the game the way they’re used to having it played (not unlike our disappointingly moderate friend, Barack Obama). And yes, she’s a hawk. Yes, she “moderated” her position on gay marriage and a host of other things when it became politically expedient to do so.

But Trump, as far as I can tell, is a person possessed of a mental disorder that does not allow him to process information that does not agree with what he already believes. This is a condition we all have to a certain extent, but at a narcissistic extreme, and I can think of nothing so dangerous to the future of our country as a man this unintelligent, unkind, and unthinkingly bigoted in the White House–if for no other reason than what will undoubtedly erupt during such a presidency from similar elements of the populace.

Open season indeed.

However, I know how stubborn you are, my far-left friends. You are people of principle, ones who have never taken the easy way out, and I love you for it.

I know I will not convince you of my position, just as you will not convince me of yours. But if all the millennials and lefties who voted for Obama don’t vote in November, it really will be the equivalent of voting for Trump.

Because hoo boy, is the right is ALL fired up about this “fascist Muslim liberal” that country accidentally elected (twice), and you can bet your bottom dollar those old folks will not be sitting this one out, however much Trump might alarm them.

So friends, I’m asking you to prove me wrong–not by voting for Hillary, but by voting. Period.

Bernie was right when he said no president can do it alone. Really, presidential politics is pretty much a cult of personality–it’s Congress that has the real power. So go ahead and leave your preference for president blank–or hey, vote for Jill Stein. (She’s awesome. I attended a day-long climate protest with her in May, and she was down there in the trenches with us, breathing the acrid air of the March Point refinery; I love her for that.)

But vote down the ticket, and vote for Berniecrats like Lucy Flores (NV), Zephyr Teachout (NY), and Pramila Jayapal (WA)–vote for the ones who were principled enough to endorse him. (You can find a complete list here.)

And if you don’t live in a state where any of these individuals are active candidates for public office, consider phone banking and working on GOTV efforts on their behalf.

Yes, we may yet wind up with what the good people of Scotland have termed a “mangled apricot hellbeast” and a “bloviating fleshbag” (among other things) in the highest office of the land. And if so, we’ll no doubt see the darkest shades of America’s bloody past step out into the light of day, visiting violence with impunity upon those we love.

But we will at least have kept Drumpf from enacting the sort of policies his fevered brain seems to favor (like building “The Wall,” punishing ladies who get abortions, and keeping Muslims from wearing “hibby-jobbies“). Much the way the conservative right has kept Obama from doing much more with his time in office than giving fist-bumps to the janitor and playing hide and go seek with kids.

In solidarity (and dissent),


Monday Muse: Fire Logic by Laurie J. Marks

Susan DeFMonday MuseLeave a Comment

Every now and then, you read a fantasy novel that’s so wise, so smart, so affecting and downright addictive that you find yourself whiling away the hours until you get to read it again–but when you near the end, you tend to slow down, not wanting it to end.

Fire Logic by Laurie J. Marks is such a novel. Thankfully, it is the first of a series.

Zanja is a kind of ninja warrior in Shaftal, a world that has been conquered by the warlike Sainnites. She is the last surviving member of her tribe and a “fire blood,” one gifted with vision and insight, as well as a skilled diplomat. Over the course of the book, she falls in love with Karis, the giantess earth witch who may or may not hold the key to lifting their kingdom and culture from the ashes–but only if Karis can get herself off the all-consuming drug called smoke, which was one of the many horrors forced upon her as a child as a way to control her vast power.

I know of no fantasy novel more astute not just in its world building but its world making, and by that I mean its command of the many ways that human psychology and culture are woven together in the complex tapestry that makes “the hinge of history.”

And while the conceit of the different elemental powers will at first seem familiar to fans of the genre, the different modes of seeing, being, feeling, and decision making endemic to each elemental power in this world have the ring of deep truths, as if the author looked into the entire range of human personality theories and perceived even truer patterns.

Though there’s plenty of combat here–this is, after all, the story of how a race of people was conquered, and then rose up against their conquerers–it’s never glorified. (I appreciated in particular the author’s focus on the sheer gore associated with war, which I have rarely if ever seen addressed in fiction.)

And in the end, this is a story of peacemaking–in part because our protagonist is one given to the gift of insight, which means she can see deeper, farther, even unto the heart of the enemy. In this regard and in many others, the book strikes me as in conversation with the work of Ursula K. Le Guin, who has worked so hard to show us the tricky and difficult ways that atrocities can be redressed and peace won without engendering a cycle of further bloodshed.

And like Le Guin, Marks strikes through to the human heart; in the end, I found myself really quite moved by the love story at the book’s heart.

That elusive combination of intellectual and emotional satisfaction is what I strive for in my fiction, and Marks absolutely nails it. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this series.

The anniversary edition of Fire Logic is available from its publisher, Small Beer Press (it was originally published by Tor):

It’s also available from Powell’s and the (necessary) evil empire, Amazon.

The Story Behind the Story: Concentric

Susan DeFThe Story Behind the Story, UncategorizedLeave a Comment

Have you ever thought back to when you were a teenager and wondered where you thought you’d be at the age you are now? And if so, what do you recall?

The short story I’m releasing this month to my Patreon subscribers, “Concentric,” is about a woman the age that I am now (late thirties). I wrote it when I was an undergrad, and I think it reveals a lot about where I thought I’d be at this point in my life.

In some ways, I was right: Like the protagonist of this story, I’m married to someone I really love, and just as in the story, our house is filled with reminders of our memories. And just as in this short story, the question of children is central at this point in my life–though in “Concentric,” the protagonist is grappling with whether or not to have kids, while my question is more the how and when of adoption.

But unlike the protagonist of this story, I did not wind up teaching college, the way I thought I would, nor do my husband and I own a house–both of which I cannot help but see as the result of economic factors I could not possibly have imagined in 1999.

Fiction is fiction, of course, so there’s also plenty in this story I put there simply to create conflict–namely, the sort of mysterious nervous breakdown the protagonist has gone through and subsequent reordering of her life.

But reading back over this story–a version of which was published in Voicecatcher last year–I’m reminded that many people who study neuroscience as it applies to the arts believe that the evolutionary purpose of story is to prepare us for threats we have not yet faced.

In the concerns of this story, I see my young self doing just that, trying to anticipate and work through threats that seemed far off (and in some ways seem far off to me still), such as the death of my mother.

What a pleasure it is to look up from this time-capsule and realize that the world is still beautiful and mysterious; my mom is still alive and well; and my husband and I will be entering an adoption pool this summer, one way or another.

House or no house, academic job or not, my life turned out in many ways better than I could have imagined.

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