Book Highlights of 2013

I feel obliged to post something about the year as it comes to a close, so I chose a quick roundup of the books I read this year that left me feeling refreshed, challenged, stirred up, confused, and touched.

Consider Phlebas, Iain M. Banks

This one makes me sad. I had known for years that Iain M. Banks was a major figure in science fiction, but I hadn’t read any of his books. I remember passing by Matter with its mysterious yellow cover at the Borders where I used to work years ago, but for whatever reason I didn’t pick it up.

So when I learned that Iain M. Banks was dying, it served to push me to finally see what all the fuss was about–and I was blown away. Trying to start at the beginning, I got Consider Phlebas and dove in and was hooked immediately and didn’t really pay full attention to anything else until I had finished.

I could go on and on about the worldbuilding, the deft handling of interweaving viewpoints, the way every character came alive. There were parts I loved less–the cult on the island–but it still stays with me more than the other Culture books I subsequently gorged myself on. I am the Bora Horza Gobuchul.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K. LeGuin

Unlike with Iain M. Banks, I was familiar with Le Guin. I read The Left Hand of Darkness and Lathe of Heaven years ago and read “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and the Earthsea books even more years ago. But The Dispossessed was new.

And while I loved all of it, the part that meant the most was when Shevek, after embarrassing himself thoroughly, drunk, at a party, wakes up the following morning and comes to terms with who he is, what he is doing, and what Urras is doing to him. The low point of the character is so revealing and yet so simple and captures in a crystal that moment when Shevek can choose who to be.

We, Evgeny Zamyatin

I found this book on a list of suggested readings from China Mieville. And it was fascinating. Part of my fascination was meta-textual–seeing how the really existing circumstances of the author’s world (We having been written before most of the totalitarian hellscape type Soviet stuff happened) left a wide open field for speculating. Contrast with The Dispossessed, for example, where the political situation on Urras reflects on some levels the political situation of its time. We felt crazy, wide open, strange, beautiful, and unhinged.

I loved the narration of a totalitarian cog becoming self-aware, learning to dream, learning to love things as an individual despite all his instincts and training. And of course the ending is powerfully miserable.

Select List of Meritocracy Requirements

Because it was on my mind, I started working on a list of what would be required for United States society (or really any society, I guess) to be a meritocracy. Partly I was inspired by an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates I read a while ago.

And partly I was inspired by the claims in some political discussions I’ve been having that we need to make sure there’s “equality of opportunity,” but that we mustn’t try to guarantee “equality of outcome.” (Which is a ridiculous straw man–no country/society has ever tried to enforce equality of outcome–the Soviet Union had people with different jobs and circumstances.)

But so the idea of “equality of opportunity” seems to me connected with the idea of meritocracy. Everyone starts the race at the same line, and then the outcome is fair, whatever it may be. Hiding somewhere behind or within this is the idea that what a given person has is theirs, that redistribution is never acceptable.

But that step is really a leap–because even putting aside the considerable problems* with meritocracy as a system, it is clear we do not live in one. And so this idea that what a given person has accumulated belongs to them based on merit is false even as it also wouldn’t be a good argument even if true.

Okay that’s a long introduction to explain why this is on my mind. Here’s the beginning of the list of steps we would need to follow to make the United States a real meritocracy:

  • Every newborn would start with the same amount of money, no more, no less. Inheritance of any kind would become illegal. The money could be held by the federal government like Social Security; it could pay out in regular, equal installments for everyone.
  • Every newborn would have received equivalent prenatal health care, and would receive equivalent postnatal health care. Obviously good quality healthcare would be preferable, but meritocracy would only require that the care be equivalent.
  • Every child would receive the same educational foundation. Obviously there would be small differences, but the idea would be to give everyone an equivalent starting point. This would require federalizing the education system and equalizing the budget per student for all schools nationwide. Probably abolishing private schools or else folding them into the new system somehow.
  • Every child would have the same early home/family environment. It would be best for this environment to be supportive and enriching, but meritocracy only requires that the situation be equal. Of course this would require some pretty heavy lifting on the part of the state to achieve anything close to the ideal, as there are many different kinds of families and many different challenges they face. For instance, the state would need to support single-parent families to such an extent that the children would have equivalent experiences to dual-parent families–or else all families would be required to be single-parent.

Now, that’s already an insane amount of societal change and expense. The money could really only come from either (1) substantially expanding the national debt or (2) instituting a wealth tax. And we’ve only talked about newborns and children.

Another interesting question is: When do we consider the “race” to begin? I don’t think it makes any sense to expect a 1-year-old to exhibit merit in the way we’re talking about. And, in today’s US, differences between 1-year-olds are pretty much all attributable to the health care they’ve received and the home/family environment.

I guess my point here is to underline how much we do not live in a meritocracy at the moment. Which is important because of the frequency with which I encounter the argument: Redistribution is bad, because I earned what I have–we need to guarantee equality of opportunity, but we mustn’t try to achieve equality of outcome. We are nowhere near equality of opportunity, and it would take a ton of redistribution to get there.

*From the same Ta-Nehisi Coates article (discussing Chris Hayes’s Twilight of the Elites):

In Mr. Hayes’ rendition, we like to tell ourselves that we live in a world where entrance of the elite is earned by sheer merit — hard work and talent — when invisible hands play a larger role in social advancement than we would like to admit. Mr. Hayes argues that a pure, self-replicating meritocracy is a myth that must always devolve into oligarchy. Thus, allegedly non-biased, objective, presumably meritocratic systems devolve into a test of who can afford prep materials.

Free Speech in a Free Market

Phil Robertson (no relation–the only ducks we hunted in my household were electronic*), who appears on the popular A&E show Duck Dynasty, said some things:

It seems like, to me, a vagina — as a man — would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical[.]

Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.

Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers — they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.

I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once … Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field. … They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’ — not a word! … Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues[.]

This is all pretty dumb. A straight man who finds the idea of gay sex unappealing–well, duh. But instead of thinking: Well, I don’t find gay sex appealing, but maybe gay men do, he attributes his confusion to the illogicality of sin. And on from there–he expresses his biases, but claims a universality for them based on his understanding of Christianity. (A far cry from Pope Francis’ “Who am I to judge?”) Also put me down as unconvinced of the idyllic happiness of pre-Civil Rights Act black Southerners.

But you know, he said what he believes, it’s a free country.

And A&E exercised their own freedom:

We are extremely disappointed to have read Phil Robertson’s comments in GQ, which are based on his own personal beliefs and are not reflected in the series Duck Dynasty, … His personal views in no way reflect those of A+E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community. The network has placed Phil under hiatus from filming indefinitely.

As a private company, A&E is free to hire, fire, lay off, or I guess “put under hiatus” an employee–assuming Phil Robertson isn’t in a union (ha ha!).

But this series of events has some people leaping to the barricades. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is shocked:

Phil Robertson and his family are great citizens of the State of Louisiana. The politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with. I don’t agree with quite a bit of stuff I read in magazine interviews or see on TV, … In fact, come to think of it, I find a good bit of it offensive. But I also acknowledge that this is a free country and everyone is entitled to express their views. In fact, I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment. It is a messed up situation when Miley Cyrus gets a laugh, and Phil Robertson gets suspended.

Sarah Palin is so mad she’s dropping consonants:

Free Speech is an endangered species. … Those ‘intolerants’ hatin’ and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.

But so now my question is: Aren’t these the people who say that corporations have free speech rights, and who are about to argue at the Supreme Court that they have religious freedoms as well? If A&E has such freedom of conscience, how can we blame them for, you know, exercising it?

Or, to look from another angle, 21% of LGBT employees “report having been discriminated against in hiring, promotions and pay.” And yet, I do not recall Bobby Jindal and Sarah Palin objecting to cases of anti-LGBT discrimination.

Instead, it seems like there is a group of people who would like certain views to be privileged. A certain interpretation of Christianity must never be criticized. But free speech doesn’t guarantee any privileges beyond itself–you can say what you like. Phil Robertson has not been charged with any crime. If A&E feels that his comments make him a poor fit for his current work situation, well, that’s their prerogative. No constitutional issue I can see.

*Who am I kidding, I was mostly laughed at by the dog.

Monsters as Emblems of Tension

I sometimes think of different monsters and the tensions they tap into. China Mieville has warned against such pursuits (“Monsters demand decoding, but to be worthy of their own monstrosity, they avoid final capitulation to that demand.”)

But still, vampires clearly have something to do with at least two loci of tension: they represent sexual desire, particularly the awakening of female sexual desire, and they have something to do with class. Vampires are aristocratic and immortal, the embodiment of concepts like inherited trusts. Perhaps their sexual appeal is linked to this–the hunger we have for the power and wealth aristocrats accumulate.

Werewolves feel like embodiments of the urge to let loose and go wild. The removal of suppression, figured as the return of an animal part of our natures. I feel like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are near this, too–although with them there is the idea that trying to tap into this primitive/primeval/primordial source of human vitality risks causing you to lose yourself. But anyone who has felt the urge to strike someone in a moment of anger understands what is happening when a werewolf transforms.

Zombies, though. For a long time I had no idea what to think about them. They are so hot right now, of course. But lately, I’ve been toying with the idea: Zombies are the stupidity of other people. When I watch Black Friday shoppers straining at the doors, and wonder, What would drive someone to do this?, it is a short jump to fear–fear that there can be no reasoning with a mass of humanity like that. The unit of zombies is not One Zombie, it is One Mob of Zombies. And we know that experience of becoming one with the mob. And we know the experience of being in the minority and realizing our ideas, our thoughts, our preferences count for nothing.

There are tons of others. The above partly explains why I am not a huge Twilight fan–the vampire and werewolf characters have lost, for me, some of their power along with the rules and links to human tensions. It also probably explains why I love I Am Legend so much, because it turns the usual scenario on its head, and the zombies* are revealed (spoiler) to be “human” after all.

*I know they are called and considered vampires traditionally, but the way they act, the way they travel in mobs–to me, they are zombies.