Tuesday, June 28, 2016

When JK Rowling Defends The Death Eaters

From L to R: Angela Eagle, Hilary Benn, Alan Campbel, Tony Blair, Lord Mandelson, Ed Balls

Like many of my fellow readers, the Harry Potter series has a special place in my heart. I came to it late in life, in my mid 20s, but I was still drawn into the lives of Harry, Hermione, Ron and all the different characters and plot lines that made up the 7 part epic adventure in wizardry and witchcraft.

And one of the greatest things about HP is the anti-racist current running all through the books. For the uninitiated, the two sides of the conflict in the HP wizarding world are those who want to have good relations with the non-magical (muggles) and those wizards and witches who see muggles and wizards born of muggles (derogatorily referred to as mudbloods) as inferior and deserving of a lower place in society.

That the former are the heroes and the latter the villains, it is a powerful message of inclusion that children and adults reading the books take away. It is one of the reasons I will eagerly give the HP books to my kids when the day comes.

Damn, I even named my dog Dobby, so to say the least I'm a big fan.

my dog

Rowling has also on several occasions spoken out against racism, chastising bigots upset that Hermione was being played by a black actress in a recent Harry Potter play, and vocalizing anger toward the racist vitriol of some of the Leave EU campaigners.

And although her anti-racist bravado is commendable, we are beginning to see the limits of Rowling's  liberal anti-racism.

Earlier this year Rowling published a four part story on her Pottermore website called "History of Magic in North America," which received blustering critique for culturally appropriating myths and legends of other peoples and twisting their meaning to fit her narrative.

Google "Rowling + Native Americans" and see the anger, with many calling the story insensitive if not outright racist, many Native Americans expressing their exhaustion of Western writers feeling the entitlement to take important elements of their pasts and their cultures and retelling them in ways that they were not meant to be conveyed.

But as far as I can tell, Rowling has ignored the criticism only trying to quell concerns that some of the spirits she depicts are evil, as if that is the only point people are concerned about.

A white liberal confronted with issues of cultural appropriation is a site to see, how obtuse they can become in the face of legit concerns from a group she felt so comfortable depicting without any regard for the consequences of doing so.

And as we saw in the last day or so, entitlement is something Rowling has plenty of.

So a bit of a background...

It has been barely a year that radical campaigning anti-war Member of Parliament Jeremy Corbyn won a landslide victory for the leadership of the UK Labour Party, shocking everyone (including himself) as the membership of the party, tired of the old Blairite hacks, decided it was time for a good old principled socialist to lead away.

Without surprise, the right wing Bitterites (as they have been referred to) have been bitter, upset that the rabble of the membership would reject their expert judgement that had overseen the loss of 5 million votes since the 1997 election and two straight defeats at the polls. As such, the Bitterites have been plotting since day one.

Actually, even before JC won, Lord Mandelson tried to quash the leadership race to keep Corbyn from winning.

This week, after the Leave side won the EU referendum, the cabal around Mandelson and Hilary Benn chose to to use this moment of political uncertainty to orchestrate a coup and force Corbyn to resign, culminating in today's vote of non-confidence by the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Problem for the coupsters is that Corbyn is massively popular among the members of the Party and even if he accepted the vote (which he hasn't) he'd likely win an even larger majority than last time.

Rowling has taken to twitter in full support of the coupsters sadly.

Her tweets have compared Corbyn's supporters to fascists (particularly irked that some people at a pro-Corbyn rally yesterday called the Blairites vermin), retweeted posts from coupsters, including effusive praise for Hilary Benn, all in the name of "save Labour."

There is a lot of rich irony here.

While there maybe some debate about the use saucy and angry language on demos  (although there is serious doubts cast about some of the accusations--see here) then shouldn't we have similar look at those who are supporting Corbyn's ouster.

With Rowling's outrage about the racism that has appeared post-EU referendum and her likening of the left to fascists, lets look at the people she is supporting behind the coup.

Firstly, there seems to be really tight connection between those trying to retake the leadership and the old Blairite rulers. As the Canary reported today, the leading voices all have tight connections to Blair's former spin doctor Alistair Campbell, whose PR company may be coordinating the communication strategy of the coup.

By now most of us know what Blair did. He lied to Britain and engineered the UK's participation in the war in Iraq, a conflict that has already killed millions, and destabilized an entire region, fermenting the growth of ISIS and producing the refugee crisis in Syria.

The war in Iraq was illegal.

Blair is a war criminal and we are about to finally get the Chilicot Report that will detail how Blair and others deceived the world to justify going to war.

But even if Blair is behind the coup in some way, can we lay all his crimes upon those leading the coup now?

Well maybe not, but the major players were around when the vote on Iraq happened. The likes of Hillary Benn, Alan Campbell, and Corbyn's likely challenger Angela Eagle all voted for the war.

But the Iraq war was a long time ago...is it the only litmus test we have?

How about immigration and responding to racism! Rowling seems sincerely worried about the increase of racism among the British populace. Maybe the coupsters offer a better response to this than their judgment on Iraq.

Sadly, no they don't. First we can look at the last UK election and the brain trust of the Labour Party choosing to produce material like this to appeal to concerns:

This would also be kind of racist, wouldn't it JK?

And it didn't end there. During the EU referendum one of the vocal opponents of Corbyn Ed Balls (and spouse of Yvette Cooper, one of the defeated leadership candidates who voted today against Corbyn) wrote this in The Daily Mirror:

"We need to press Europe to restore proper borders, and put new controls on economic migration."

This is part of the criticisms of Corbyn, namely that he isn't willing to accept or appeal to the xenophobia that drove many to vote Leave. Instead, Corbyn wants to challenge it head on and rightfully point out that the reason people have lost their jobs and seen their NHS suffer is not because of immigrants and refugees but because of policy decisions of successive Tory and Labour governments.

Instead the coupsters would rather go back to a party that plays to peoples prejudices and that supports aggressive imperial policies.

How one supports this and sees this course as somewhat more sensible and better for immigrants in the UK is baffling.

If anything, capitulating will feed into the Little England mentality that Rowling is crying out against.

Supporting more wars like Iraq will only further the marginalization of immigrants.

The path of the coupsters isn't to save Labour...it's about further entrenching the othering of immigrants in England and offering no real political alternative that points to the failings of thirty years of neoliberalism as the root cause of the problems people are grieving about.

To bring this back to Harry Potter, Blair is Voldermort in this story and the leaders of the coup are his death eaters. That Rowling has thrown her support for them and their racist, neoliberal and imperialist approach to governing (let's call it what it is), is pretty shameful.

To Be Blunt: JK Rowling siding with the Labour Party coupsters against Jeremy Corbyn is a repudiation of everything the message in HP was about.

So I say this, in the real world we don't have Dumbledore to rally around but we do have Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn, the most principled politician one can imagine, who has always spoken out for the downtrodden, who has offered policies that would benefit the worst off in society, and who hasn't rushed to embrace prejudice for political expediency.

Corbyn brings with him all the leadership qualities that Dumbledore does in the Harry Potter Series.

So lets take our lead from Rowlings books and not from her horrible tweets. Let's rally to JC's side and not let death eaters, or Ministry of Magic apparatchiks, undermine the cause of good.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

What To Read This Summer

So this year has seen one juggernaut after another in terms of books and there are plenty of big summer books that I will be picking up. I know for many folks summer is when people have time to read and are looking for good summer reads. So I am providing options for those compiling their lists. Below find a variety of books, some chunky sagas and others light beach reads...and if you have other books you are picking up let me know.

1. Barkskins by Annie Proulx. I am late to the Annie Proulx game, most famous for writing the short story Brokeback Mountain and the Pulitzer winner The Shipping News. Her latest is a 700 plus page saga that traces a family French Canadian loggers from the late 1600s to the present, touching on important issues about our relationship to nature and the role we have played in the current ecological crisis. It's getting tons of praise. If you want one of a door stop of a book to keep you busy this summer this is it!

2. I have yet to read Joe Hill, Stephen King's son who has built a solid writing career that quickly came out of his father's shadow. This year saw the release of The Fireman, another 700 page epic about a world where people spontaneously combust and a hero seeks to save the species from the burn. I have my copy already and think this will be a good one to pound back while lying in the sun in my backyard.

3. Homegoing is the debut novel of 26 year old Yaa Gyasi and is another multi-generational tale starting in 18th century villages in Ghana that takes the readers to the slave holding South, the Civil War and 20th century Harlem. The buzz has been deafening for this one and Gyasi has managed to keep it succinct (305 pages). This is one of the 'IT' books this year so if you want to show off your bookishness walk around reading this one this summer.

4. For some lighter reading, pick up Manuel Gonzale's The Regional Office is Under Attack! I am currently listening to the audiobook and it is hilarious and something completely different. The story lays out as a history of a now gone organization (the Regional Office) that is some sort of spy/assassin/cult body that is being attacked by disaffected former members keen on stopping the Regional Office before it grows too powerful. It's clever, fast paced and something perfect for the beach.

5. Viet Thanh Nguyen recently won the Pulitzer for his debut novel The Sympathizer, which I recently finished and am still digesting. This is a heavier read, following the tale of an unnamed Communist spy infiltrating the Southern Vietnamese military as it flees to the United States after the victory of the Viet Cong in 1975. There are so many profound issues being dealt with: conflicting and shifting identity, torture and war and the resentfulness and anger those infuse among the participants. In Nguyen's writing you feel the work of Graham Greene, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrisson influences, it really comes off as an ode to some of the great writers of the 20th century. This was a pretty impressive effort and I hope more people pick it up.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Shifting Our Gaze of the Manson Family: Emma Cline's The Girls

There have been few 2016 debut novels that have generated as much noise as Emma Cline's The Girls, set to be released on June 14 to much fanfare. Cline had published a few short stories and personal essays that she parlayed into a $2 million dollar three-book deal with Random House, the first of which is loosely based on the Manson murders in the late 1960s.

I have serious misgivings for these kind of huge advances for young authors, since every huge pay day that goes to one hotshot up and coming author would be better spent, in my opinion, on a wider pool of writers. There is no guarantee that the big ticket item will live up to the enormous advance and I assume it also puts an inordinate amount of pressure on the writer to produce something amazing. I'd suggest that last years version of this phenomena (Garth Risk Hallberg's City on Fire) turned into a somewhat unwieldy and overly long work because of some internal pressure to produce a big meaty book worthy of a seven-figure advance.

Being the bookish nerd I am, however, Cline's book was still on my radar and I was pretty stoked to receive an advance reader copy from Netgalley. 

And thankfully, Cline has managed to produce a powerful and unique book that not offers a provocative alternative depiction of the Manson murders in the late 1960s while exhibiting Cline's mastery of the writing craft. 

The Girls is told from the perspective of a fourteen year old Evie, whose sexuality is beginning to flourish with confusing abandon while the stable structures of her world crumble. Her father has left her mother for a younger woman and her mother's attempts to enter the dating scene result in a neglect of Evie, who is allowed to wander from the domicile home without impunity. 

Evie befriends Suzanne and several other girls who have come under the spell of Russell Hadrick, a Charles Manson type figure, whose megalomaniac personality has convinced himself and others of his transcendent talents. Evie easily follows the girls to Hadrick's ranch and quickly becomes initiated into their ritualist customs. Through high dosages of psychedelics and frantic and intoxicating introductions to sex and music, his female followers rush to do Russell's bidding, even to the point of committing the most heinous of crimes. 

There are weaknesses in this book (which I will get too) but the strength is both Cline's exploration of what motivated the girls to rush to Russell's cause and Cline's amazing use of language to convey her answer: 

Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get. The treacled pop songs, the dresses described in the catalogs with words like "sunset" and "Paris." Then the dreams are taken away with such violent force; the hand wrenching the bottoms of the jeans, nobody looking at the man shouting at his girlfriend on the bus. 

Evie's own personal journey and her latter day recounts of what moved her to embrace Russell also beautifully convey what drove her and others like her to Russell's cult:

The ranch proved that you could live at a rarer pitch. That you could push past these petty human frailties and into a greater love. I believed, int he way of adolescents, in the absolute correctness and superiority of my move. My own feelings forming the definition. Love of that kind was something my father and even Taner could never understand, and of course I had to leave.

As fantastic as Cline's writing is there was a sense of a missed opportunity she had to write an even more profound novel that did not just casually touch upon the motivations of these followers but situated them in the tumultuous period of the late 1960s. 

As Michael Bourne's review of The Girls in The Millions, the  entire backdrop of the book is missing. The war, the civil unrest, the tearing apart of the tight nit social fabric of family are afterthoughts. Cline has been compared to Jeffrey Eugenides, but unlike Middlesex, Cline does not delve into the meatier subject matters that would have made her more insightful thoughts even more profound. Instead, we are asked to be carried solely by Evie's voice, which although enticing lacked the kind of social awareness that would have made it even more interesting.

All that said, this book is worth picking up. Cline is going to be an important writer for the next thirty years and I feel she has given us something to wet our appetites. The Girls showcases an immense talent and Cline will certainly write her great book in the near future. So go ahead and take a bit of the appetizer.