Some Timely Reading

I’d wanted to write about craft today, in conjunction with a workshop I’m taking at the Writers Studio. However, in light of Donald Trump’s illegal, immoral and un-American ban on refugees entering the United States, I’ve decided to focus on other fiction instead. Dystopian fiction. Fiction perfectly suited to today’s “post-truth” environment and the Trump administration’s “alternative facts.”

1984 by George Orwell
1984: the best-known dystopian novel.

First up: George Orwell’s 1984, the dystopian novel. It gives me some hope to tell you that the paperback version is temporarily out of stock at Amazon; I’ve linked to the Kindle version instead.

There are very good reasons why so many people have felt compelled to read or re-read this book—its depictions of the obliteration of objective truth and the destruction of fundamental human rights are very much in keeping with Trump’s first week in office.

Next, two classic alternative histories portraying a fascist America. It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, originally published in 1935 (and also out of stock at Amazon), still retains the power to shock. So too does Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004), which describes a fascist American government run by Charles Lindbergh. It too is out of stock. With hate crimes on the upswing and swastikas popping up around the country, you’ll find both books resonate strongly.

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Brave New World has entered the language.

After 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World may be the best-known dystopian novel. Amazingly, the paperback version is currently available. This is a masterful portrait of psychological manipulation writ large, at the service of a totalitarian state. Helping to preserve order is a wondrous new antidepressant and hallucinogenic drug, soma. Today’s American equivalent would be opioids in the impoverished rural areas and social media among the chattering classes.

Finally, a title of special interest for those who participated in the Women’s March on Washington: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. This 1985 novel concerns the subjugation of women in a totalitarian theocracy. Many would argue that Mike Pence and the desire to destroy Planned Parenthood are steps in that direction.

In this dark time, it’s heartening that many Americans can see the distortions and deceptions of Trump’s administration reflected in classic titles. Together with the continuing protests around the country, it suggests that resistance may eventually produce change.

What Should Happen Next?

When you look at the map below, it’s easy to draw mistaken conclusions from the 2016 election results. At first glance, one would think “Red” voters outnumber their “Blue” counterparts by a 50-1 margin. Yet we know there were nearly three million more blue votes than red.

2016 election results
2016 election results by county, sans Alaska. Source: New York Times.

Similarly, you would suppose most blue voters are to be found on the coasts, while the interior of the country is painted conservative red. This is generally true, yet there are blue counties in every state on this map, and red counties alongside the two oceans.

The Daily Stormer website, an “alt-right” (read: neo-Nazi) hangout that describes Manhattan as “Shekel Island,” looks at the map above and decides the United States should be partitioned into separate countries. “Do we really want a vicious cycle of the coasts and the core fighting one another to convince a few border regions to flip one way or the other every four years?” the site asks.

It’s a valid question. I come at the issue from the left rather than the right, but I agree with the assessment that the one-step forward, one-step back routine has become counterproductive. America is now so divided that it is difficult to imagine this ever changing, at least under our current antiquated system. Trump showed no inclination to even try and unite the country in his “America First” inauguration speech—he is continuing to play to his base. In response, huge crowds in Washington and elsewhere around the U. S. (and the world) are voicing their opposition today. You do this, I do that. Now I’m up, now I’m down.

You could argue with Martin Luther King, Jr. (paraphrasing the American Transcendentalist Theodore Parker) that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But that arc is very long indeed, and for now we seem to be stuck in place, at best.

The idea of secession, long a politically taboo topic, is beginning to percolate around the country, particularly in California. I personally think it would make more sense for California and other progressive states (New York, New England, the Pacific Northwest) to band together, rather than California going it alone. Yes, I know this reads like a far-out fringe fantasy and I do realize that the obstacles to realizing such an ambition would be immense.

But consider what’s happening in America. Does it really make sense for progressives to start over at ground level with the goal of returning Democrats to office in 2018 and 2020? Even if this were successful, the seething anger and confounding ignorance that took Trump to Washington would remain and the political back-and-forth would continue, ad infinitum.

There has to be a better alternative.

Fiction in the Post-truth Era

“Truth is stranger than fiction,” the saying goes, and this poses a real challenge for fiction writers. More so than ever today, in our post-truth era. Yet it’s a challenge that’s being met, often brilliantly.

Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley.
Post-truth and reality in a modern thriller.

Noah Hawley offers an excellent example. Not only is Hawley a gifted novelist—his latest, Before the Fall, made the New York Times 100 Notable Books list last year—he is a masterful screenwriter as well, as exemplified by the first two seasons of “Fargo” in particular.

Much of Before the Fall concerns the 24-hour news cycle and the ways in which appearance vies with reality. In fact, the novel’s denouement revolves around these issues. But the book is such a gripping, suspenseful read that you’re only concerned with turning the pages. The issues raised do resonate after you put the book down, though.

Fargo
“Fargo,” from FX. Photo: Backstage.com

The story (not the plot) is similar in “Fargo.” Set in the Upper Plains, the series contrasts the (mostly) polite and plain-spoken people who live there with the violent and chaotic spin of American social and political change. It does not do this overtly; both seasons are set in the past. Yet it’s there, and you become aware of it as you go along.

In both the book and the TV series, Hawley does what writers are supposed to do: dig inside his characters to present their truth. That’s one thing that has not changed in our current climate and it means that truth continues to have a bright future—at least in fiction and film.

Keep Control of Your Life

I voiced concern, in a recent post, that progressive Americans were exhibiting a strange passivity as the inauguration of Donald J. Trump approaches. This reluctance to engage with the profound transformation confronting the nation is understandable on one level—it’s painful. Yet resistance across a broad spectrum of American life is essential if the very worst is to be avoided. Mass surveillance is one of these areas. You can take a stand and help reduce its impact.

ProtonMail is free encrypted email.
ProtonMail is free encrypted email.

The NSA and other agencies have amassed enormous power in recent years and that power is likely to be more aggressively displayed after January 20. Too many people have displayed a resigned helplessness in the face of this sinister development for too long. American citizens are entitled to lead private lives. Don’t think, “If I’ve done nothing wrong, I have nothing to worry about.” You have plenty to worry about—we all do.

If you’re on Facebook, that part of your life is an open book, obviously. (Corporate power is on the verge of expanding exponentially as well.) If you send and receive your email as plain text or HTML, you can assume every word of every message you’ve ever sent or received is available to government investigators, along with any photos or other attachments in your email. Unless you take basic precautions, every website you visit can be listed against your name, along with the location you viewed it from and the date and time of the viewing.

Do you want everything you do online filed away in a government database? No? Then start taking some basic steps to resist mass surveillance. Do it now, before Trump takes office.

Email: You can encrypt your present email account using OpenPGP but this takes a degree of technical know-how. It’s a very solid solution, though, and if you’re game to try this article does a fine job of guiding you through the process. I use Enigmail on Thunderbird myself, but you can select other options, as the article makes clear.

If you’d like to choose a simpler path then open a free email account with ProtonMail, based in Switzerland and encrypted by default. Use it to email your friends, even if they don’t have a ProtonMail account. You can give them a passphrase so they can receive your encrypted email anyway. ProtonMail is encrypted end-to-end and on the server. The system is designed so that ProtonMail itself has no access to your data, and thus cannot turn it over to third parties like the NSA (plus, Swiss laws on privacy are much, much tougher than they are here).

Messaging: Use Signal, from Open Whisper Systems.

Browsing: If you must use a mainstream browser, use Firefox. It is open source and inherently more secure than the others. You can add to your security by using some key add-ons, such as uBlock Origin and Privacy Badger. If you want to be really secure, though, use Tor Browser.

The Tor Browser protects against surveillance.
The Tor Browser protects against surveillance.

These are the bare rudiments. If you care about keeping your life your own, do some research. The Surveillance Self-Defense project of the Electronic Frontier Foundation is a good place to start.

In order to resist the worst of what the Trump administration has in store, start by opting out of mass surveillance and encourage your friends to do the same. The more citizens who do this, the less likely we are to enter truly Orwellian territory under Trump.

What Are You Reading?

Are you reading at all? Too many Americans aren’t, at least where books are concerned. And that goes a long way toward explaining the current state of the country. After all, reading expands one’s mental horizons and encourages understanding and empathy, both of which are in short supply these days.

To underscore the need to read, the New York Public Library and others have launched a #ReadersUnite campaign on social media. You’re encouraged to post photos of the book(s) you’re currently reading, along with your thoughts on the importance of same.

I’m currently reading a novel called The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Australian writer Richard Flanagan.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan
Winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

It’s not directly related to our current situation, concerning as it does Australian POWs in WWII, but it certainly encourages empathy. It’s a well-written page-turner, as well.

I tend to organize my reading in lists, to try to keep things manageable (this doesn’t always work). The lists are divided into “Classic” (e.g., The Brothers Karamazov), “Current” (e.g., the book described above and other recent books, both fiction and non-fiction) and “Craft” (e.g., The Best American Short Stories series)— anything else goes into a free-floating catch-all category. I try to read at least a book a week and usually succeed.

Reading and writing go hand-in-hand — as an aspiring writer, I read a lot and as widely as I can. If you’d like to become more proficient than the average social media post at expressing your own thoughts and feelings, then pick up a book! Pick up many books and keep reading. You’ll be the richer for it.

Cassandra Watches the Ball Drop

Something I’ve been noticing lately, even among my brightest friends, is an eyes-averted tendency to focus on the narrow, the personal. The big picture is just too much to handle.

Yet celebrations are planned for the arrival of 2017. “Let’s forget our troubles and party” seems to be the attitude, and this is somewhat understandable. But only somewhat.

New Year's Eve, Times Square
New Year’s Eve, Times Square. Photo: Inside New York.

Just consider what we’re carrying into the new year:

  • An arguably illegitimate presidential election.
  • A demonstrably unqualified President-elect.
  • A hostile attack by a foreign power (including, as reported today, alarming hacks on the American power grid).
  • A President-elect who consistently praises said foreign power.
  • A new Presidential Cabinet of zealots and incompetents which is dedicated to the destruction of every key government agency (let’s hope the incompetents remain incompetent).
  • Right-wing control of all three branches of the federal government (once Trump takes office and a new Supreme Court justice is confirmed).
  • Republican control of most states as well, and an enfeebled Democratic opposition.
  • An American public which has been sundered in two, with one half unable and/or unwilling to distinguish truth from falsehood.

And this is but a sampling of what’s in store. It doesn’t exactly make for a happy new year’s outlook, does it?

However, there is one New Year’s tradition worth preserving, and that is the New Year’s resolution.

Here’s my suggestion: resolve to resist.

Consider the Source

Yesterday, the House Intelligence Committee produced a 33-page report claiming that Edward Snowden is in contact with Russian intelligence services. The report also claimed that Snowden was a chronically disgruntled employee who acted out of personal pique.

The committee had released a three-page summary of its report in September to counter the premiere of Snowden, a movie by the director Oliver Stone that portrayed him as a heroic whistle-blower.

Edward Snowden
Photo by By Laura Poitras / Praxis Films, CC BY 3.0, Link.

According to the New York Times, the full report was “not the result of an independent intelligence investigation by the committee. Rather, it was a review of the N.S.A.’s response to Mr. Snowden’s leaks and of the findings from an executive branch investigation. The committee said it did not conduct witness interviews, to avoid jeopardizing any future trial of Mr. Snowden.”

What’s more, key sections of the report remain redacted, including claims about Snowden’s contacts with Russian intelligence. As a result, today’s Times story notes, “the redactions made it hard to judge whether the report’s conclusions were merely a reiteration of the intelligence community’s contempt for Mr. Snowden or were based on new evidence.”

Considering that we’re talking about the current, Republican-dominated U. S. House of Representatives, a do-nothing body with obstructionist policies which have contributed mightily to the dystopian political landscape in store for us next year, I think the motivation for the report is obvious. While the summary was released to counter any positive effect from the Oliver Stone film, the full report is intended to argue against any possible pardon by President Obama before he leaves office (something that seemed unlikely anyway).

The post-truth machine is operating at full force here.

On the Brink

As I write this (on Monday, December 19), Donald Trump has just surpassed the 270 Electoral College votes he needs to become President. This, despite the news of Russian interference to tilt the election in his favor. This, despite the fact that his opponent had a popular vote margin of more than two and a half million.

Plenty has already been written and said about both factors. The fact that the popular vote winner has lost the presidency is nothing new; we only have to go back to 2000 and George W. Bush for another example. The Russian hacking is new, though, and it is highly disturbing for anyone who genuinely cares about American democracy. But not disturbing enough to make a difference, apparently.

The Russian connection, like Trump himself, has already been “normalized” with “Saturday Night Live” skits and jokes around the office. All the talking heads are still talking, and irony is still frequently called upon. The seriousness of the situation continues to escape most of us, most of the time.

Is America’s political nightmare so horrifying that, like death itself, we find it difficult to view straight on? Is it only possible to avert our eyes and twitter (pun intended) nervously at stupid skits and jokes? If so, things are about to get a whole lot worse.

A Work in Progress

Here’s a draft version of something I’ve been thinking about for a while.

“Symphony no. 8”

When we talk about the “Mighty Nine”
We could be talking about almost anything.
Maybe it’s baseball, the ’27 Yankees.
Maybe the Supreme Court, or a video game.
There aren’t many music classes
Left in the schools these days.

Suppose you do encounter Beethoven, though.
Suppose you listen to each and every symphony
And hear them all more than once.
Which would you then say
Moved you the most?
The “Eroica”? The Fifth? The Mighty Ninth?

For me it would be a different choice,
A work not played as often as the others.
A fiery work, but somehow also cold and isolated.
I’m referring to the glittering, self-contained Eighth:
A work that pierces ice-blue skies
To no applause on earth.

—Thomas Pletcher

Sneak Preview: 2017 TV Season

Big Changes Are in Store for Your Favorite Shows!

Writeside.com has learned that the Trump Administration has negotiated major changes with America’s TV networks and cable companies—plus streaming providers Netflix, Hulu and Amazon—to “bring prime time TV programs into closer accord with America’s values.”

Virtually every prime time program will reflect these changes. Here, for example, are some of the changes planned for the well-regarded FX series “The Americans.”

"The Americans"
“The Americans” title card © FX.
  • Rather than being set in the early 1980s during the Cold War, the upcoming fifth season will take place in present-day America.
  • Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, two Soviet KGB officers posing as an American married couple living in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., will come out of hiding and join their neighbor Stan Beeman at the FBI.
  • Paige Jennings, who had intended to follow in her parents’ footsteps, becomes an intern at the Trump White House.
  • Elizabeth and Philip join Stan in combating un-American bureaucrats at the CIA, who are alleging that America’s close ally Russia interfered with the 2016 election. Certain members of Congress who prove susceptible to these claims also become FBI targets.
  • Vladimir Putin will make a cameo guest appearance mid-season.
  • John McCain, who had been spearheading efforts to prove Russian interference in the election, is poisoned with polonium-210, a radioactive isotope. Elizabeth and Philip are seen hovering near his hospital bed.
  • At a news conference in the season’s final episode, President Trump makes his own cameo guest appearance. He is asked if Russia is responsible for the McCain poisoning. “That’s ridiculous,” the President replies. “Besides, I like senators who haven’t been poisoned with polonium-210.”

President Trump has announced that he will serve as executive producer for “The Americans” next year, along with “The Apprentice.” The President also referred to some “fabulous” changes in store next year for “PBS News Hour.”

“We’re going to bring back that fantastic two-woman anchor team,” the President said, alluding to the duo of Judy Woodruff and the late Gwen Ifill. The program’s new 2017 anchors will be Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Palin.