What’s wrong with relative obscurity?

Why is Blanch’s influence on Dune worth recognizing? Celebrating Blanch is not a means to discredit Herbert, whose imaginative novel transcends the sum of its influences. But Dune remains massively popular while The Sabres of Paradise languishes in relative obscurity, and renewed public interest in Blanch’s forgotten history would be a welcome development. […]

The history she produced is a minor masterpiece, an unabashedly romantic account of a conflict that continues to inform religious and political tensions in the Caucasus to this day. (It’s no accident that Chechnya was the geographic core of Imam Shamyl’s movement, or that the Murids’ austerely militant Islamic faith recalls the theology of modern fundamentalists.) Blanch was not a professional historian, and one suspects that an academic would have produced an altogether less satisfying account of this period. The climax of The Sabres of Paradise, a tension-fraught exchange of hostages between the Russian army and the insurgents, would probably be relegated to a few dry paragraphs in an academic tome. For Blanch, it occupies an entire chapter — a magnificent account of the trade of three Georgian princesses, kidnapped in a daring Muslim raid, for Shamyl’s firstborn son, captured as a boy and raised to manhood in the court of the The Great White Czar.

–Will Collins, The Secret History of Dune

Though it’s probably beyond the scope of this kind of review, I wish Collins had dug further into the comparative stylistic cues of these two books. At least half of the review traces the direct influences on Herbert’s lexical and structural borrowings, while the latter half never really explicates what makes Lesley Blanch’s prose so masterful. On the one hand, I feel like Collins wants to recommend The Sabres of Paradise on its own merits as a literary historical work. On the other hand, the entire structure of his review suggests that, without considering its influence on a much more canonical work, Blanch’s minor masterpiece is more minor than masterpiece — and thus more or less justly overlooked. Collins’s description of the climax, for instance, gives me no sense of how Blanch depicts it or why it’s so successful in transforming a minor historical moment into a narrative climax of transcendent significance.

In writing about literary history, it seems to me that there’s no shame in simply acknowledging that a minor or mostly-forgotten work is made more interesting by its influence on a major, more canonical work. Such minor masterpieces are often fascinating and well-written in their own right, but I don’t see the need to pretend that, by themselves, they’re more than that. At the end of the review, Collins analogizes the influence of Blanch on Herbert to the influence of Edward Gibbon on Isaac Asimov. I get the point, and it’s fair to a certain extent, except for this: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was and remains fairly widely-read, and was certainly close to canonical among intellectuals for more than a century. Anyone interested in the history of civilization qua “civilization” has heard of it or read at least a part of it. And it’s supposed to be damn good. It didn’t just influence the Foundation series; it influenced the entire field of historiography, and as a popular account of the collapse of the Roman Empire, it has had an incalcuable impact.

Collins can only claim for Blanch a sizeable impact upon a single science fiction series. Based upon his review, I’m persuaded that said impact was, indeed, sizeable. But Lesley Blanch is not Edward Gibbon, and it is no sleight to acknowledge that she’s not. Guiding the mind that conjured Arrakis is actually pretty cool. Given the sheer volume of written material that is forgotten by literary history, making into the footnotes is not unimpressive. Perhaps we should value the footnotes more instead of trying to give every minor masterpiece its own chapter heading, which is flatly impractical. After all, being relatively obscure is better than being totally forgotten.


The golden bricks

If the ability to read, and think, critically is the primary currency secondary education needs to invest in, then the disfigured mathematical percentage of how many students read how much becomes less important. I’m not sure it really matters if students read all of The Great Gatsby, or Their Eyes Were Watching God, or The House on Mango Street, Macbeth, etc. Of course it’s nice if they do, and it’s nice if they go out into the world with a complex sense of Gatsby’s dream, of Janie’s epiphany, of Esperanza’s journey, Macbeth’s predicament, etc., but I think it’s more important that they know what reading looks like, that they know it as an act of meaningful aggression. We’re not in the business of creating English majors, nice as it would be to fill the world with such people. But until Birnam Wood do come unto Dunsinane, I’ll take empathetic, critical thinkers as a stop-gap. Reading in high school is not about, or shouldn’t be about, numbers of pages; it should be about a way of thinking, a way of seeing. For that, we can focus on certain passages, the certain, crucial passages that most books build to—the golden bricks. As teachers, we can fill in the rest of the building. It’s the skill of reading itself that’s the important thing, perhaps the only thing.

–Giles Scott, High School Reading as an Act of Meaningful Aggression

“They did everything except eat us.”

Every so often, I’m reminded how bad slavery was. Consider: For generations, Americans had the right to own other people as chattels. They could work them, rape them, torture them, and kill them with impunity. Earlier this year, I interviewed George Walker, a nonagenarian American composer. His grandmother was an ex-slave. She had had two husbands. She lost the first when he was sold at auction.

Walker knew this grandmother, very well. She never talked about slavery — ever. Except for one time, when her grandson’s curiosity got the better of him and he asked her about it. She uttered one sentence, only: “They did everything except eat us.”

That is the reality that the Confederates fought to preserve. That is the reality that they seceded from the Union to preserve. Dress it up all you want — states’ rights and all — but that is the core of it.

–Jay Nordlinger, Seeing the Confederacy Clear

Reflect, for a moment, on the fact that someone like Nordlinger has to put up with, as he says elsewhere in his National Review column, accusations of “moral preening” and “virtue signaling” for writing something like this: “I don’t care, frankly. I will not let my hatred of political correctness, and love of tradition, obscure the Confederacy or perfume its symbols. If that makes me a bad conservative — well, tough.”

Let that sink in. I mean, good on Nordlinger for writing that column, good on National Review for publishing it, and good on every other right-wing human being in America who has retained the capacity for moral judgment. But it is profoundly pathetic that Nordlinger can expect to be dubbed a “bad conservative” for acknowledging the plain fact that Confederate monuments are monuments to political evil. This is the reality of Trump’s America in 2017.

Only a kind of obsessive monoculture

Ms. Tippett: … I want to take a slight diversion, which I don’t think is completely a diversion, which is your love of science fiction and the way science fiction is in your fiction. And I also love science fiction, and my story is not your story, but I grew up in a very small town and went to Brown, which was like going to a different planet. And you came from Santo Domingo to central New Jersey; it was like a different planet. And for the very first time, when I was reading you, and the science fiction references keep jumping out at me, including “Fear is the mind-killer,” it occurred to me that science fiction is there for people who change worlds. What did you say a little while ago? You were talking, also, about that numinous world that — the sense that there are many worlds within the world. I just kind of wanted to note that. I mean — and it’s not an escape. It’s actually revealing or kind of opening your imagination to vast cosmic possibilities that aren’t immediately reflected in the world around you.

Mr. Díaz: Yeah, well, it could be an escape, but I do find science fiction to be — for me has been an excellent literary technology for understanding our many worlds, for understanding what’s been disavowed about our societies, for understanding our political unconscious. It’s really — science fiction is really good to think, man. And for some folks, the aliens and all the stuff about otherness is just surface titillation. For others of us, it becomes a source for theorizing about real-world alterity and alternate possibilities. And that’s the way I reacted to science fiction, in some ways. For me, science fiction offered the possibility of different ways of being and of ways of possibly overcoming the cage that surrounded us.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and another reference that I feel is kind of in the ether right now is this Whitman line of “I contain multitudes.” It’s come up a lot, lately, and you invoke that in the context of a question about what is America — that there are these multiple Americas. I wonder how your long view of time, your rootedness in the whole sweep of history, of your ancestors, of your people as the ground on which you stand in the present, how that speaks to you about multiple Americas and how to live with this, generatively.

Mr. Díaz: Well, I mean shoot. It’s a question that has bedeviled the New World and bedeviled societies for a long time. I mean shoot, we’ve got the Babel myth at the heart of the Bible, the idea that God struck down humans by making them more diverse. [laughs] Only a kind of obsessive monoculture would think that’s a terrible thing. But, you know, so it goes. I just — when I think about what is required for all of us to live on this planet, it’s going to be the kinds of solidarities and the kinds of civic imaginaries and the kinds of radical tolerances that we’re not seeing. We’re going to have to practice a democracy that we’ve yet to define or even lay down the first four bricks of. There’s nothing about our impoverished political systems, our imagined communities, that is going to be able to hold us together in the face of the coming storm of climate change. We need a lot more than we have. And the fact that so many of us are scared by our multiplicity shows you how much work we have to do.

Our multiplicity is our damn strength. There is no getting around it. People want to make it the danger. People want to make it the problem. No, it’s only going to be the problem if we don’t make it our strength. And you don’t want to be so fantastically reductive, but really, at an operational level, it’s really what it comes down to — either we’re going to embrace humanity and figure out how we can all live together and work together to overcome the damage that certain sectors of us have inflicted on the planet, or we’re not. And I, for one, think eventually there’s — I don’t trust our politicians. I don’t trust our mainstream religious figures. I don’t trust our business leaders. I don’t trust any of the sort of folks who already have power and have already shown us how little they can do for us, and they’re showing us their cowardice and their avarice — I don’t trust any of those people. But I do trust in the collective genius of all the people who have survived these wicked systems. I trust in that. I think from the bottom will the genius come that makes our ability to live with each other possible. I believe that with all my heart.

Junot Díaz in conversation with Krista Tippett

This is a fascinating, somewhat confusing exchange. Díaz and Tippett link sf to alterity, and they link alterity to the plurality inherent in systems of democracy. So far, so good. But Díaz alludes to the Babel story to illustrate the notion that humanity has struggled with multiculturalism for millennia. “God struck down humans by making them more diverse.” Hm, okay. If language is a metonym for all diversity, sure. And if scattering people to diverse areas around the globe equals “striking down,” I guess. But then he says, “Only a kind of obsessive monoculture would think that’s a terrible thing.” This is the confusing part. To which “obsessive monoculture” is he referring? Who sees what part of that as a terrible thing?

I suppose that Babel often serves as a kind of metaphor for irreconcilable breakdowns in communication. Fair enough. And we do, I further suppose, generally think of communication breakdowns as bad things. But that’s us: the generations raised to believe in the rightness of democratic politics. Weirdly enough, I wouldn’t take exception to Díaz labeling we 21st-century moderns as a kind of obsessive monoculture. But I don’t think that he’s doing that.

God’s reason for scattering the people is that if they succeed in building their city and its tower to heaven, then “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” There’s not much elaboration there. I’m confident that theologians over the centuries have spilled much ink and hot air over why God really confused humanity’s languages or the myriad things the story signifies. On the most basic level, it simply seems that God did not think it good that humans find nothing to be impossible, and it’s worth meditating on why God would place barriers in front of people reaching for radical possibilities of self-definition and agency.

This kind of meditation is something sf is really good at. And one might even generalize that stories modeled on the story of Babel tend to emphasize the hubris, avarice, and cowardice of leaders who want to place themselves on the same plane as God at the expense of common people and the natural world.

That still doesn’t help me understand which “obsessive monoculture” Díaz refers to or precisely why invoking the Babel story helps us understand why it would view multiplicity as such a terrible thing. Perhaps he meant nothing more than to imply some sort of intrinsic correlation between the Bible and fear of the Other. But, you know, so it goes.


“My imaginary life was very white.”

I grew up loving epic fantasies, and almost all of them were written by white men. With white, mostly male, casts. When you’re a kid, you don’t always think about what that means, but you do as you get older. I was deeply immersed in Chinese culture in my community and my family growing up, so how come when I was writing fiction as a kid, all my stories were about white people? Even though my personal life was incredibly diverse, my imaginary life was very white.

–Marjorie Liu, from her recent interview in The Atlantic

Committed to the label

I asked both Barber and Pope of Brigham Young what their thoughts on American politics are now that Trump has been in office eight months.

Pope argued in an email that there has been too much emphasis on polarization and not enough on partisanship.

While elites — elected officials and party activists — are ideologically polarized, the best the general public “can manage is a kind of tribal partisanship that does not really reflect the content of the elite discussion,” Pope wrote:

Citizens pick a team, but they don’t naturally think like the team leadership does. And when Trump tells Republicans to think in a new way, lots of people happily adopt that new position because they were never that committed to the old ideas anyway. They’re just committed to the label.

–Thomas B. Edsall, Trump Says Jump. His Supporters Ask, How High?

The valence of the bloody heirloom

An analysis of exit polls conducted during the presidential primaries estimated the median household income of Trump supporters to be about $72,000. But even this lower number is almost double the median household income of African Americans, and $15,000 above the American median. Trump’s white support was not determined by income. According to Edison Research, Trump won whites making less than $50,000 by 20 points, whites making $50,000 to $99,999 by 28 points, and whites making $100,000 or more by 14 points. This shows that Trump assembled a broad white coalition that ran the gamut from Joe the Dishwasher to Joe the Plumber to Joe the Banker. So when white pundits cast the elevation of Trump as the handiwork of an inscrutable white working class, they are being too modest, declining to claim credit for their own economic class. Trump’s dominance among whites across class lines is of a piece with his larger dominance across nearly every white demographic. Trump won white women (+9) and white men (+31). He won white people with college degrees (+3) and white people without them (+37). He won whites ages 18–29 (+4), 30–44 (+17), 45–64 (+28), and 65 and older (+19). Trump won whites in midwestern Illinois (+11), whites in mid-Atlantic New Jersey (+12), and whites in the Sun Belt’s New Mexico (+5). In no state that Edison polled did Trump’s white support dip below 40 percent. Hillary Clinton’s did, in states as disparate as Florida, Utah, Indiana, and Kentucky. From the beer track to the wine track, from soccer moms to nascardads, Trump’s performance among whites was dominant. According to Mother Jones, based on preelection polling data, if you tallied the popular vote of only white America to derive 2016 electoral votes, Trump would have defeated Clinton 389 to 81, with the remaining 68 votes either a toss-up or unknown.

Part of Trump’s dominance among whites resulted from his running as a Republican, the party that has long cultivated white voters. Trump’s share of the white vote was similar to Mitt Romney’s in 2012. But unlike Romney, Trump secured this support by running against his party’s leadership, against accepted campaign orthodoxy, and against all notions of decency. By his sixth month in office, embroiled in scandal after scandal, a Pew Research Center poll found Trump’s approval rating underwater with every single demographic group. Every demographic group, that is, except one: people who identified as white.


“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” Trump bragged in January 2016. This statement should be met with only a modicum of skepticism. Trump has mocked the disabled, withstood multiple accusations of sexual violence (all of which he has denied), fired an FBI director, sent his minions to mislead the public about his motives, personally exposed those lies by boldly stating his aim to scuttle an investigation into his possible collusion with a foreign power, then bragged about that same obstruction to representatives of that same foreign power. It is utterly impossible to conjure a black facsimile of Donald Trump—to imagine Obama, say, implicating an opponent’s father in the assassination of an American president or comparing his physical endowment with that of another candidate and then successfully capturing the presidency. Trump, more than any other politician, understood the valence of the bloody heirloom and the great power in not being a nigger.

–Ta-Nehisi Coates, The First White President

Our love affair with dissent

What’s interesting about Trump is that he won, not that his strain of politics is new. It’s always been around. Let’s not go wild trying to figure out what happened: The crazy train of American history happened. The lineage that winds from Andrew Jackson to Tom Watson to Joe McCarthy to George Wallace to Pat Buchanan to Trump is not just “conservative,” nor is it just “working class” in any way an intellectually driven conservative or Marxist or liberal would recognize or celebrate. The conservative/liberal divide is a deeply tenuous construct. Looking for a populist savior, however, is bedrock Americana.

Historians need to reconcile their intellectual frameworks with a “real-world” America that is a messy stew of populist, communitarian, reactionary, progressive, racist, patriarchal, and nativist ingredients. Any historical era has its own mix of these elements, which play in different ways. We should embrace Thompson’s admonition to understand class as a continuing, sometimes volatile happening, and not be blinded by our love affair with dissent as a left-wing movement. Trump voters are dissenters, after all.

–Jefferson Cowie, How Labor Scholars Missed the Trump Revolt

A demagogue’s playbook

All propaganda must be popular and its intellectual level must be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those it is addressed to. Consequently the greater the mass it is intended to reach, the lower its purely intellectual level will have to be… The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.

The above excerpt is from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (1925/26). Richard J. Evans quotes it in The Coming of the Third Reich (2003; p. 168), along with this: “The people in their overwhelming majority are so feminine by nature and attitude that sober reasoning determines their thoughts and actions far less than emotion and feeling.”

Politics of ruin

Every dystopia is a history of the future. What are the consequences of a literature, even a pulp literature, of political desperation? “It’s a sad commentary on our age that we find dystopias a lot easier to believe in than utopias,” Atwood wrote in the nineteen-eighties. “Utopias we can only imagine; dystopias we’ve already had.” But what was really happening then was that the genre and its readers were sorting themselves out by political preference, following the same path—to the same ideological bunkers—as families, friends, neighborhoods, and the news. In the first year of Obama’s Presidency, Americans bought half a million copies of “Atlas Shrugged.” In the first month of the Administration of Donald (“American carnage”) Trump, during which Kellyanne Conway talked about alternative facts, “1984” jumped to the top of the Amazon best-seller list. (Steve Bannon is a particular fan of a 1973 French novel called “The Camp of the Saints,” in which Europe is overrun by dark-skinned immigrants.) The duel of dystopias is nothing so much as yet another place poisoned by polarized politics, a proxy war of imaginary worlds.

Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness. It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonition is: Despair more. It appeals to both the left and the right, because, in the end, it requires so little by way of literary, political, or moral imagination, asking only that you enjoy the company of people whose fear of the future aligns comfortably with your own. Left or right, the radical pessimism of an unremitting dystopianism has itself contributed to the unravelling of the liberal state and the weakening of a commitment to political pluralism. “This isn’t a story about war,” El Akkad writes in “American War.” “It’s about ruin.” A story about ruin can be beautiful. Wreckage is romantic. But a politics of ruin is doomed.

–Jill Lepore, A Golden Age of Dystopian Fiction