BACK TALK ———————————————————— Hot Topic – Reduce Fires in the Amazon with Jobs

   The fires in the Amazon throughout Brazil and Bolivia reveal the inability of environmental activists, climate change organizations, and worker groups to forge effective alliances. Most of these fires started around logging, mining, and ranching operations—big money industries that extract billions in natural resources. Their imperative is to make more money, not to preserve the basics necessary for human societies. They want forests cleared and pay poor people to do their illegal work.

   These operations of extraction have roots that trace to the early 1500s, when Europeans started to divide and industrialize the natural resources in South America. The Portuguese and Spanish arrived, followed by the English, Dutch, and French. They viewed the colonies as places for extracting gold, silver, sugar, coffee, and other returns on land investments. That model depended on slave labor. When indigenous peoples refused to work and disappeared due to a variety of causes (running to remote regions, epidemics, cruelty and massacres), the Portuguese and Spanish built an Atlantic African slave trade. The English and French intensified that slave labor regime.

   Current situations with logging, mining, and ranching have to be understood as the legacy of colonial extraction as well as a modern practice of global corporations. So they have to be understood in terms of labor. These sprawling industrialized operations reach far beyond and destroy ecosystems faster than what anyone could have imagined 50 years ago, let alone 500 years. But some basic principles are consistent—the labor remains exploitative, cruel, and serves remote investors far more than the local communities. Cut off two sources of that labor: the desperation of poor people to survive and the drive of working people to have stable jobs.

   Poor working people need income if they do not have arable land or other access to resources. They will take jobs with regional managers for these massive operations, often men of a similar ethnicity who appear to offer good things. Environmental activists and climate change organizations that press for immediate fire control and industrial bans cannot fight the illegal and widespread destruction until they create viable and meaningful options for the working poor. They do the hard labor, including the burning and cutting of the Amazon forests, for these immense extractive corporations with investors from around the world.

   Residents can understand the catastrophe; global outcry can condemn the industries; political elites can obstruct Brazil’s president; climate change scientists can expound on the data; governments with revenues can pay for firefighting. All necessary in the short term—then working poor people need sustainable economic development. The indigenous peoples understand and assert these interconnections, so they block industrial equipment, demand government oversight and protections, and actively preserve their social and cultural practices that give their communities sustenance and survival in all ways.

   We cannot mimic or appropriate the ways of indigenous peoples. But we can shift our organizing to their model, with its sustainable living practices for everyone. That includes reliable ways for working poor people to have meaningful existence. Not temporary training, not random grunt work or Sisyphean cleanup jobs—sustainable meaningful work in local farming, renewable energy, public transportation, environmental conservation, ecosystem rehabilitation. Such efforts will take a massive coalition that encompasses unions and worker groups, a substantive plan, relentless outreach to rural villages, a platform to oust the current right-wing Brazilian government, and increased taxes as well as private fundraising.  Corruption will happen, as it always does—then correct and move forward with decades of consistent efforts to sustain the links between jobs for working poor and nurturing the Amazon rainforests.

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BACK TALK ———————————————————— Hot Topic – Puerto Rico’s Governor: An Island and U.S. Issue

   Most mainland non-Caribbean folks do not understand the recent events in Puerto Rico.* Some of this lack of understanding arises from decades of decisions in the U.S. federal government to not include colonies in daily press releases and major policy proclamations. In dozens of offices throughout the federal bureaucracy, however, hundreds of U.S. clerks, analysts, directors, and political representatives make decisions regarding current colonies: Puerto Rico, Guantánamo in Cuba, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Northern Mariana Islands.**

   In the case of each colony (sometimes called territorial possession), the U.S. government has determined the form of governance. Although Puerto Rico had an autonomous constitution and government within the Spanish Empire, the U.S. ended that system in 1898 and imposed a series of U.S. military generals as governor. From 1900 to 1946, U.S. presidents appointed mostly civilian men from the mainland, with some Puerto Rican men serving as interim. Jesús T. Piñero was the first Puerto Rican man appointed by a president and served from 1946 to 1949. That year, the U.S. government in collaboration with Luis Muñoz Marín and the Partido Popular Democrático/Popular Democratic Party (PPD) arranged for the first gubernatorial election.

   Muñoz Marín served as governor for four terms due to his lifelong political and economic activism in Puerto Rico, his regular contact with elites in the U.S. government, and the dominance of the PPD. As with all systems of governance, elites overlapped and cooperated as well as competed and debated. The elites in the Puerto Rican insular government did not arise from a blank void, but rather from decades of U.S. colonial relations that had intersected with and adapted Spanish imperial hierarchies of race, gender, class, and status. Elected insular governors have been white Puerto Rican men from affluent families, except for one white woman, Sila María Calderón.***

   Residents of Puerto Rico and their loved ones in diaspora have repeatedly attempted to claim more autonomy or independence for Puerto Rico. Their political disagreements and decisions must be engaged and made by them—but mainland non-Boricuas have an obligation to understand. While Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s corrupt dealings, autocratic administration, and derogatory communications are his own, the institutional position has been constrained and manipulated by the U.S.

   The U.S. federal government constructed the island government, and U.S. investors and corporations have benefited from the colonial possession. Puerto Rico has been a site of investment experimentation and tax exemptions since 1898. The U.S. exempted the island from many tax, labor, and environmental regulations, allowing sugar investors, apparel corporations, defense contractors, and pharmaceutical companies (to name a few) to do things in Puerto Rico that they were not allowed to do on the mainland—all while evading tax obligations and shifting money through the Caribbean. Some members of the insular government were entwined with the politics and finances of these colonial arrangements; some members contested them.

   Current demonstrations, with their demands for access to power and challenges over who has gained that access based on intersections of race, gender, and class, emerged from 120 years of U.S. colonialism. The unfolding events are both an island and U.S. issue that should be understood by people on the mainland. Not so we can make decisions for Puerto Rico—residents need to do that. But so the vested interests of many linked mainland-Puerto Rican-Caribbean corporations, finance banks, investors, shipping lines, bureaucrats, and elite politicians cannot keep making decisions without full visibility and accountability.

* Some Puerto Rican activists now call the archipelago of Puerto Rico “our mainland,” but I will stick to academic geography terms to avoid confusions.

** The U.S. had possession of other colonies during the past 150 years as well.

*** Meanings for race categories are different across regions, ethnicities, and eras. People considered “white” in the Caribbean today might not be considered “white” in the U.S. mainland. This reveals how notions of race are very potent but also created by societies and their histories.

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BACK TALK ———————————————————— Cash Topic – Asian Women Make Nike Sneakers

   You know who really matters in all the regular controversies that Nike stirs up around its sneakers.  (Its advertising and marketing division has been perfecting these tactics since the 1970s.) The Asian women who work in the factories making these shoes. They are the living laboring women often making seventy to ninety cents an hour and cranking out shoes that sell for hundreds of dollars.

   Their labor and the sneakers reveal how capitalist enterprises are not about profit. Profit is not enough. Profit is not the point. Capitalist enterprises are about extracting value for the elites of the system. These elites of capitalism are transnational—meaning not only that they are global but also that they and their capital, their cash and assets, move across borders on a regular basis without much limitation.

   Mark Parker is one of these transnational elites. After being promoted to CEO of Nike in 2016, Parker’s compensation tripled to over $47.6 million. $33.5 million of that compensation package came from stock rewards. His goal is to boost Nike sales from $32 billion in 2018 to $50 billion by 2020. This goal drives all of Nike’s tactics.

   Colin Kaepernick is also a transnational elite. Not at the level of Parker, of course. But he, along with the capital from his endorsement deals and his investment portfolio, travel the globe as necessary, without dealing with border patrols or fences. In 2016, Newsweek estimated Kaepernick’s worth at $22 million.

   The Asian women workers are not transnational elites. They cannot travel. They are rooted by their status, class, and gender—locked into coercive labor making Nike sneakers.

   Parker coordinates the Nike staff of designers, marketers, and publicists to sell sneakers not for profit but for maximum extractive value. They hire Kaepernick to sell sneakers, not for any other reason.

   And Kaepernick gets managers and stylists who coordinate his contract and publicity. He has a team of attorneys to sue the NFL for unfair labor practices in relation to his charge that owners blocked his potential for contracts worth tens of millions of dollars. In the mean time, he has a multi-million dollar deal with Nike publicity.

   I am not saying Kaepernick does not have his own substantive political ideology regarding race and violence in the U.S., and I am aware of his philanthropy. My point is to set him and the debates about $200-500 sneakers into a larger economic context. My point is his position in the capitalist enterprise, which often gets ignored in our consumer capitalist, brand obsessed society.

   The women cannot even organize as workers without severe consequences. They have no minimum wage laws. They do not have resources for stylists and attorneys. They cannot just sell houses and move to others. As these women workers get called into the factories of China and Vietnam to make more shoes for a few dollars a day while people debate sneaker design, I want to focus on the trail of capital value. Who gets the capital and the power?

   Kaepernick is one of the beneficiaries, a transnational elite via his citizenship, geography, gender, and status. It does not make the critiques of his political ideology regarding race in the U.S. any more or less legitimate–but it does raise intense questions about why and how he and the rest of us use consumerism to address such serious politics and histories. Maybe overpriced sneakers made by exploited women are not the answer.

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BACK TALK ———————————————————— Cash Topic – Get to Know Neoliberalism

The dismantling of neoliberalism could create a bridge between workers, writers, labor and justice activists, environmentalists, and scholars. The efforts could lead to new lobbying groups and policy proposals just as the dismantling of the New Deal and Great Society spawned neoliberalism. Two problems stand in the way: the word “liberal” appears and pushes many Americans into a knee-jerk rage, and even experts have not defined the ideology.

So, many working people express frustration and anxieties about the current economy. Scholars and experts with similar concerns critique neoliberalism. And we need a bridge between these two conversations.

In August 2017, Nathan Heller of the New Yorker called neoliberalism “a fashionable bugaboo.” But neoliberalism is not a made-up fear. It is a recognizable and persistent set of practices from the past 35 years whether we call it by that name or not. Anyone interested in economic equity must translate neoliberalism into a vernacular and pull apart the knot of economic exploitation swirled with inspirational rhetoric.

In America, we have to address the word “liberal.” When I teach twentieth-century history, at some point I bring in “liberalism.” I know the intricate scholarly debates about what I outline here in accessible strokes. But I want to keep it smart and plain.

Imagine the words liberal, classical liberalism, regulatory liberalism, and neoliberalism on a whiteboard. I put a red X through “liberal” because we are not using the American pop media meaning. Since the 1970s, the word has become tied to ideas of generic leftists, the Democratic Party, and certain political-social groups like civil rights, tree-huggers, and feminists—easier if we remove it.

Let’s keep it simple and agree “liberalism” is a philosophy of the late 1800s that emphasized individual rights, individual votes, individual contracts, deeded property rights, capitalism, market mechanisms, and commercial trade as the correct way to organize society. Many indigenous, nomadic, and communal societies did not organize this way.

Socialists, communists, fascists, and others did not support liberalism. When they pushed hard against it during the massive depression of the 1920s-1930s, the U.S. government under President Franklin Roosevelt proposed innovative policies that became “regulatory liberalism,” with increased government interventions in capitalism and its markets (also New Deal liberalism, embedded liberalism).

Its approach, which some complained went way too far, was often contrasted to good-ole “classical liberalism.” But a return to that was not acceptable to some U.S. and European men—major corporate families like the DuPonts, conservative economists, and finance executives. Shrinking 50 years of complex history into a summary: they began meeting in the late 1930s to replace regulatory liberalism and articulated an extreme ideology called “neoliberalism.” In the 1980s, neoliberal politicians and economists came to dominate U.S. and British governments.

This is neoliberal ideology: the individual and the market are the moral and most productive centers of rights and responsibilities. Therefore, all political and economic policies should get out of the way of “the individual” and “the market” and maximize conditions for their “free” operation. In idealistic form, the individual is a neutral person, free to make limitless choices in the market.

Neoliberalism has profound emotional appeal because it’s basically the inspirational hero narrative, beloved in American culture, set in economic terms.

In practice, neoliberalism appears as deregulation, austerity, privatization, “free trade,” and “flexible” employment. Any collective public efforts on behalf of workers, consumers, or shared natural resources as a whole are not welcome.

There are irreconcilable contradictions, like the market does not exist as a natural force, like gravity. The market is people making government policies, laws, rates, agreements, and prices mixed with human behaviors often driven by envy, fear, and prejudice. And workers seem to bear the “risks and rewards” of an “efficient economy” driven “purely by the market,” but investment bankers only bear the rewards because in losses they are protected as a group by layers of complicated financial products.

The utopian neoliberal ideology also ignores basic historic conditions: ethnic, religious, and racial bigotry; patriarchal arrangements; discriminatory practices like nepotism and cronyism; unflagging corruption; centuries of wealth accumulation by certain groups; colonialism; the advantage of legacies like affluent relatives who attended prestigious universities, secret societies, private clubs, and fundraisers.

So the results of actual neoliberal economics include a perpetual distribution of both income and wealth upward to the elite via regressive income taxes, cuts to capital gains and other wealth taxes, deregulation of investment banking, the dismantling of protections for worker organizing, a disinterest in innovative labor policies to address expanding contingent employment (from Uber and Starbucks to adjunct professors and freelance IT professionals), and the “opening of developing countries” to foreign investment. Neoliberalism in practice has had no proven results in improving conditions for working people or stabilizing the middle class.

Yet neoliberalism has dominated since 1980. Its utopian ideology, infused with the hero narrative, has buoyed its practices despite the clear losses and instability they generate for most working people. Permeated with upbeat cultural lines, neoliberal policies appeal because advocates use words like individual, liberty, choice, freedom, efficiency, and entrepreneur. Sounds fantastic! But the enchanting cultural lines obscure plain-old, predictable exploitation. It’s not a conspiratorial trick. Notions of the individual, choice, and freedom have always been part of American society. They then fused with and helped to foster neoliberalism in practice.

I suggest a healthy skepticism, questions like freedom for who, choice of what, efficiency for what benefit, flexibility for what purpose, and what percentage of Americans become millionaire entrepreneurs? Talking heads that critique “Wall Street” do little to puncture the neoliberal cultural lines. Who doesn’t love the idea of a plucky hero working his or her way to glorious financial success? We have to pull out the neoliberal cultural lines to get at the economic and political parts and start a shared conversation between frustrated working people, activists, and scholarly critics of neoliberalism.

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BACK TALK ———————————————————— Life Topic – Middle-Aged Grad Student

May 14, 2013. The end of my first year in a history Ph.D. program.

I did my undergraduate years in a gloriously “traditional” manner. Eighteen, freshman year, assigned to a dorm with a roommate–luckily we fell into the lifelong friends category. We had another girl (although I would have said “woman” back then) who often stayed with us because she and her two roommates fell into the stone-cold adversaries category. I bought a meal plan and remained on campus for my part-time job, my room-and-board, my classes, my friends, my social life, my relaxation, exercise, love life, etc. etc. The college was the town.

I did my master’s program in a “mostly-traditional” manner. Twenty-six years old. Two years in a quirky, tiny apartment in the groovin’ downtown of a small city, just big enough to have two colleges and three “parts of town.” I met people who were not attending grad school and built a social network off-campus. I took road trips and threw together dinner parties and card nights with red wine. I devoted almost every moment to either my studies or my fun–I had no other real demands. I was a funded grad student in my twenties in my nation-of-origin doing research in a department with no Ph.D. students–so I got lots of support and guidance and attention. Academia magic.

I am doing my Ph.D. in a thoroughly “nontraditional” manner. Forty-three years old and a homeowner. I’ve been teaching at a community college and alternative schools–surrounded by the tumult and pressures of 21st-century democracy and education. I failed to anticipate the extreme nature of my nontraditional-ness and the extraordinary dissonance it would trigger when I entered a niche still entrenched in tradition.

I am older than a few professors in the department, which causes some weirdness since I feel collegial with them rather than subordinate. I drive several miles to campus from my house–I have other priorities in my daily life. Family, mortgage, bird nests in the attic, dog vomit in the living room, adult obligations like my friends’ birthday and graduation parties for their kids, multiple insurance premiums, and sales at the grocery store so I can stock up on a particular pantry item. Simple comforts have become more important than grand ambitions or riotous fun. I like playing in the garden, finding lady’s slippers on a hike in the woods, throwing together a crazy cheese and olive platter with my man, clean towels after a shower, sitting under an umbrella on a sunny day.

I’ve also been teaching for almost 20 years. So the usual TA anxieties about grading, undergrads, and authority flutter past me like gnats. I’m not a peer to those TAs… I could be a mentor. But I’m not a mentor because they’re third-year grad students. I’m also 15 years older and did not follow any established path, as many of them are in the midst of doing.

I also know the vicious truth about graduate research because I left academia and worked in the rest-of-the-world. Grad research does not mean anything to 98.2% of the U.S. population. Those students who travel from high school/private school to college to grad school to post-doc fellowship to university teaching have an absolutely different perspective on prioritizing research vs. teaching (vs. other duties… since many Ph.D. students will not become professors or even teachers). I value, celebrate, and advocate liberal arts & sciences education with all the enthusiasm I’ve always had. Such education explodes the mind, shifts lenses, and transforms individuals. Research–in conference papers, academic journals, monographs, and textbooks–serves a critical role in that formal education… but it mostly stops at the border between college and the rest-of-the-world (some policy and documentaries are the exception). If humanities academics want to be relevant beyond the niche of their peers and the liberal arts & sciences, they will have to conceive of research and its dissemination, teaching, outreach, and media in new ways. But grad research continues in a traditional manner…

So the grad school system remains aligned with a 19th-century model of a top-down master-apprentice relationship–based on an economic system (with its gender, race, learning, and product traditions) that has little relevance to the more fluid realities of the current economy or to the brutal conditions of the academic job market. Most Ph.D.s (especially in the humanities) will not become tenure-track professors… then they are not actually apprenticing. Right? I find my nontraditional-ness highlights such inadequacies, embedded in the stubborn notion that a 200-year-old apprenticeship model can provide (1) the teaching skills required for the 21st century and (2) an awareness of the full range of possibilities for the job search. The democratizing of education (the variety of students, backgrounds, technologies, ages) also pushes at a model developed for the elite of 19th-century European cities.

I have found ways to make peace with my nontraditional-ness. Younger students have also discovered ways to relate to me without assumptions. (Often the assumptions were paradoxical: I was old so I must be married with kids–but I was a grad student so I must want to complain about the undergrads’ lack of interest in the course material, which I actually see as typical of contemporary American adolescence.) Nothing about grad school itself has fostered these unique dynamics for the young students or for me. Instead, they wedged through the cracks, sought the openings. A way to grow and spin.

But I do recommend more middle-aged students in grad schools. Such demographic change often pushes reform.

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BACK TALK ———————————————————— Culture Topic – Franchise History

David McCullough is the grandpa of popular American history.  He is mild-mannered, charming, and confident but not self-important.  He lacks the hard arrogance of Gore Vidal, the practiced moxie of Stephen Ambrose, the manic striving of Doris Kearns Goodwin, or the nerdy self-congratulation of Ken Burns.  So criticism feels spiteful.  However, while 1776 represents another fabulous success for the McCullough franchise, it is yet another disappointment for those readers on a quest for substantive popular history.

The hard split of the history market into two severe categories, “popular/commercial” and “academic/scholarly,” has obscured broader possibilities for historical authors.  Attacking 1776 as entertaining, consensus history wrapped in a traditional, reductionist, over-dramatized narrative will not solve that problem.  But capitulating to the massive power of the commercial market and blindly celebrating the book as the pinnacle of pop history is not satisfactory either.

Instead, historians should confound that rigid split and open the book debate to include, at the very least, the four categories mentioned here.  Fiction and filmmaking, both disciplines as broad as history and as fuzzy in their credentialing, have managed to provide respected and celebrated alternative literary, experimental, and independent outlets even though mega-blockbusters capture (and will always capture) most of the mainstream market (meaning—yes—Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Rave Cinemas, the major corporate publishing houses and Hollywood studios, the reviewers for major newspapers and magazines, and most audiences).  Many literary authors and experimental filmmakers have utilized independent outlets or created their own venues.  They cannot pay the bills with their publishing or ticket sales, but most do not expect to achieve that level of financial success.  They want to be read or watched—and a few manage to poke up through the cement of the mainstream.

For the sake of this blog, I’ll outline basic parameters for four historical categories.

Traditional Popular History (TPH) includes any books written using historical research but without the inclusion of historiography or specific citations.  These authors emphasize plot and resolution over analysis and challenging themes.  Plot and narrative construction are both patterned on conventions of the19th-century novel and biography, so the protagonist appears as a recognizable hero.  Anecdote infuses the story with details rather than with complexities. 1776 fits firmly, successfully, and unashamedly in this category.

Alternative Popular History (APH) encompasses books that also use historical research but integrate historiography, source information, or research discoveries in creative rather than academic ways.  However, the books usually lack citations or a set thesis.  These authors (Sarah Vowell, for example) will sometimes foreground thematic concepts, symbolism, experimental narrative structure, or character fragmentation, which diminishes the importance of linear plot and pacing.  Some authors might also choose to write an entire book about one piece of evidence, like a diary, map, or image, explored in an imaginative way (such as a Rashomon-style of multiple perspectives) while still attempting a level of narrative cohesion if not direct linearity.

Imaginative Academic History (IAH) has already developed a solid foundation.  These authors rely on rigorous academic scholarship and a broad understanding of the academic field.  They have extensive graduate training and use its practices.  Yet their writing relies on voice, imagery, and questions of narrative authority—and often grants these parts of the text as much importance as persuasion and argument.  Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale offers a prime example (and it is interesting to note that Ulrich earned her M.A. in English literature before her Ph.D. in history).  A Midwife’s Tale utilizes a particular narrative device and directly includes the author’s experience while also relying heavily on scholarly research and academic rules of evidence and citation.  The Story of America by Jill Lepore takes another unique approach.  Instead of one, single-line narrative, she uses multiple narratives on the theme of “origin” to reveal not only historical connections within the United States, but also the depth of American reliance on storytelling as a tool for mediating democracy.

Traditional Academic History (TAH) follows an established formula dependent on a thesis statement clearly presented with evidence cited in every usage.  These authors place an emphasis on accumulating significant information and extensive details to create a new perspective or to add new knowledge to the discipline of history.  The focus of the writing is on organization, clarity, and persuasion rather than entertainment.  These monographs and articles serve a uniquely professional and academic function, like jet-engine manuals or annual corporate audit reports.  They are primarily relevant to those actively in the profession, but a few of their larger concepts and specific terminology seep into popular usage.

In 1776, McCullough makes no attempt to move outside his established role as grandpa of popular history.  He is a franchise at this point, like James Patterson or Jackie Collins or James Cameron.  These people decided to be franchises, and they were successful—so corporations are willing to invest in repeat performances.  1776 stakes another celebratory flag on the Amazon sales page for McCullough, and he deserves it.  He knows his audience, he understands basic historical research, and he uses both to achieve major sales in the commercial market.  As with best-selling genre authors (mystery, romance, thriller), he relies on formula and recognizable voice combined with just enough imagination and a gloss of newness (like “new” sources or a “new” kink in the interpretive angle—in the case of 1776 it’s that Washington represents a fallible yet still phenomenal hero).

Historians who write Traditional Academic History take the same approach.  They know their audience, they understand sophisticated historical research, and they use both to achieve success in the academic market and hope the effort earns them a tenured position.  The rigorous demands of this category do not limit these historians’ success but rather the size of their audience.  Literary authors and independent filmmakers accept that their artistic and intellectual choices reduce their potential audience—traditional academic historians must make the same realization.  And for me, it is always more enjoyable to listen to an author read at a bookstore or a filmmaker share at a festival when they are realistic without bitterness, but always with passion for their creations.

As many book reviewers and historians have noted, McCullough created another of his masterpieces and enriched his franchise with 1776.  The book shares odd details and conjures terrifyingly tactile sensations of life in army camps or on long hikes through cold, dark forests.  McCullough uses his imagination for some of the subtle details, but he relies on intensive research in letter collections, diaries, and some archives to illuminate the historical figures and military maneuvers.  And academic historians know to expect these things from him.  We do not need another review stating the obvious, but 1776 can serve as a platform for expanding the conversation about history books.

Not every author will become a franchise, not every author wants to be one.  Literary writers and independent filmmakers understand this truth.  Historians need to accept it, and if they choose to write either Imaginative or Traditional Academic History and find success—stop complaining about the lack of sales, and celebrate.

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BACK TALK ———————————————————— Life Topic – To-Do List for a Young Writer (Thinking of Buying a House)

– Do not by a house that’s been empty for more than three months: mice, dried-out pipes, cracked washers, tree roots, maple seedlings, burrowing bugs, and nesting birds. Nature is resilient. It’s the stability of our human society that’s an illusion, human structures that teeter on the edge of decay. Just one season and that lot has been reverting to a more natural state.

– Do ask everything that pops into your head. Writers have ideas, we let our imaginations crawl into corners and peep into dirty human motivations. The ideas and questions might seem bizarre, but ask. Sellers are not obligated to tell you as much as you think. Write down every little question and write every one in both past and present tense. Write them multiple times in multiples ways–you got this skill. Then send that long list of all the questions in all the tenses by email or hard copy to the seller before you pay for a home inspection. If you ask sellers directly, they have a legal obligation to answer. Demand details. Be as picky with these questions and answers as you would if an editor sent you back a short story to check before publication. Line by line, word by word, comma by comma. E.g. Is there asbestos in the house? Was there ever asbestos in the house? Is the sewer main line clear? Has the sewer main line ever been cleared?

– If the house is older or doesn’t contain any serious renovation–but then, hey, there’s one room or one ceiling or one part of the basement with totally new work, be suspicious. You know sloppy writing, when you or another writer slaps some lazy deus ex machina into a story to fix a major problem. Bad writing is bad writing, and only hard work in the structure of the whole piece can fix it. It’s the same with construction. If it’s out of place, ask when, where, why, and for what purpose. What’s it hiding? What really needs to be done?

– Visit the house at various times of the day and night. Where does the light fall, what are the noises. If you like to write at night with the starry sky, make sure neighbors don’t have a couple outdoor spotlights illuminating a two-acre diameter around their garage. If you like to write in the morning sun, make sure the knot of trees and mildewy arbor vitae drooping over the neighbor’s fence doesn’t block your office–no matter how wonderful it looks on the inside.

– Look up the word “efflorescence.” Know it, inspect for it, avoid it. Or you will spend too much time in your basement fiddling with a dehumidifier and online researching drainage ditches rather than writing.

– Junk is surprising. It always masks more junk. A house with a basement, garage, and shed full of old doorknobs, broken shutters, drippy paint cans, moldy boards, scraps of metal screen, rusty grills, styrofoam planks, and musty tins of nails and screws might be a bargain. But it is also an optical illusion. Under all that crap is more crap. And more crap. And more crap. And several writing weekends lost.

– Even if you hike, garden, camp, or compulsively clean, when you move into a new house–buy a respirator mask for scrubbing and moving. We live in an atmosphere of funk and ozone. Don’t inhale it, don’t act tough. Don’t be afraid of looking like a word dweeb in a mask, too frail for the hard hands-on labor of brooms, mops, rags, chemical cleaners, concrete, cobwebs, and sawdust. Or a good chunk of your writing time might slip away as you loll in bed recuperating from all those nasty bits in your lungs. On the other hand, if you want to enrich your next description of a character struggling for breath, feeling the truth of her tiny mortality and absolute alone-ness with each wheeze, don’t get a mask.

– Use the PennySaver, Craigslist, and the free local papers. Search out free or cheap help the same way you search out free or cheap submission opportunities. People will give you estimates on the strangest jobs–filling, sanding, and staining/polyurethaning all those empty cable and phone line holes left throughout the house. People will happily and with gratitude carry sawed-up old floorboards full of nails out of your house and into theirs. People will battle to pay $20 for a twenty-year-old chest freezer. People will give you stories as they help you with all this housework.

– The old saying “Good fences make good neighbors” depends on the ‘hood you live in. And the type of fence. Sometimes a six-foot solid stockade fence is the best plan, sometimes it gets you ostracized from the random street and sidewalk chatter. Explore your setting and the logic of that world before you make the fence call.

– If you want to be a writer, live life and ask for help with your craft. If you want to be a homeowner, live life and ask for help with the chores and repairs. If you want to be a writer who owns a home, those are your life.

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BACK TALK ———————————————————— Life Topic – Moments of Grace

In 2011, I was teaching an “adult transition to college class” for a special program at a community college.

If you want to see a true and pure slice of America–America in all its glory of conglomeration, weirdness, exuberance, achievement, and commotion–visit a community college. The word “community” actually means what it says in this case: everyone in the area, from all different backgrounds, in some type of sync for some vaguely shared goal. In this case, formal education. Everyone and anyone.

In the fall of 2010, a reticent young woman who moved to western Massachusetts from Cambodia showed a knack for camera work and an interest in digital editing. I was impressed with her audacity–she used a digital still camera to secretly record all of us on our last day of class, made a video with creative cuts and music, and then told us by handing out DVDs.

So I made up my own production company, French Fry Productions. And asked if she wanted to make a video of this semester’s class. It took some negotiating. I think she wanted to believe I was joking. At one point, far into the process, her nephew downloaded a virus onto her laptop; she had to re-format and lose the file. Or at least that was her explanation for the delay…

She made this video with promotion in mind, the promotion of education for people who didn’t think they would go to college. Students who need not only academic preparation, but also cultural initiation. Because college is its own culture, with distinct jargon, conventional practices, accepted creative and intellectual products, and behavior patterns that are passed along. (I remember the pummeling of my own initiation, just a year after my father’s death, 17-years-old at a summer program in Boston. Surrounded by heirs to distinct privilege and bearers of international ambition, I flailed my way through the process of registering, getting syllabi, meeting professors, and walking across the yard to the cafeteria. I learned to cast away my parochial suburban habits–I was self-possessed yet pliable, dominant traits of the striving adolescent.)

I realized after a semester of teaching the “adult transition to college class” that psychological reinforcements help students flourish as well. Most have not had positive experiences with formal education. They harbor deep secret personal anxieties which can be triggered by stress from the unknown and the pressure of college deadlines. Fear of success with its expectations can sabotage as easily as the fear of failure with its despair or simple familiarity. I write prompts on the board like “What are external obstacles to college? What are internal obstacles?” and they brainstorm and we discuss.

The students who stay, those who believe formal education is worth everything or those who come to the decision they will transcend into anything they might become in this world–they develop trust in me and each other, and their willingness allows me to share my own terrors (granted from the safety of my instructor position and advanced degree).

This reciprocity, this soulful contact amidst the daily grind of paperwork, attendance sheets, and repetitive instruction, gives my life such moments of grace.

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BACK TALK ———————————————————— Culture Topic – Tanya Hamilton Brings (Black) Power

I recently watched the independent film Night Catches Us–and yes, I intentionally use the word ‘film.’ I’m not a snob about watching movies. I’ll watch about anything (I made it through most of Sex and the City 2), but I am a believer that analysis and discussion is what makes any culture–pop, commercial, or high–interesting. And in this capacity, clear distinctions can be made between independent films versus Hollywood movies versus foreign films. One is not inherently better or more worthy than the others, and they can all be abused.  But there are differences.

Night Catches Us is a film, and it blew my mind in all the right ways. Anthony Mackie is on frickin fire. Smoldering intelligent strong righteous sexy fire.  And you’d think after all the attention for The Hurt Locker, he might have pulled a bigger spotlight onto Night Catches Us.

But this film is challenging as well as entertaining. While I consider that the perfect combination, most American moviegoers are not so interested in the challenge part. Especially any challenge about America’s racial history and its insistent legacy. (Most aren’t interested–I’m not being nitpicky or oversensitive. That’s the way it is.)

So while Night Catches Us entertains, it doesn’t pander. It’s about serious themes.  The influence and sting of family. The way our past can be both comfort and baggage. The ability for anyone, given the opportunity, to abuse power.

And most forcefully, it is about the persistence of police violence against black men, the relentless antagonism it stokes, the family rifts it exacerbates, and how black women find ways to manage with it all.

It is so smart. It is deep and intriguing. It is entertaining and contains a mystery that must be uncovered–who snitched?

But Night Catches Us didn’t get the mainstream attention it deserved.

Maybe Winter’s Bone took whatever mainstream attention rough little indie films could chisel away from the sparkling award circuit. (Because both are good films that tell stories of family and our inability to totally ditch it, or its past.)

Maybe Winter’s Bone gathered more attention because it’s about poor white people and their infighting–rather than about politically active black people, their infighting and their fight. Winter’s Bone doesn’t critique the system as much as explore an unseen part of it. Night Catches Us critiques the system while revealing complex layers.

That’s what makes it a film. It can be discussed many times. Weeks later.

For example, I love the director’s use of a Black Panther comic. It isn’t just a comic–it’s a repeating metaphor with the viewer roped in the same way as Iris and Jimmy (two young characters, each impressionable in different ways).  Then the comic comes alive on screen, as it does in their imagination. Planting its seeds. And we, the viewer, believe that the Black Panthers made those drawings of black men with guns going after pigs in cop uniforms.  But the Panthers didn’t. The comics were planted by the Feds.  By COINTELPRO. But we are tricked, like most people were. Then the viewer gets to walk away. However, the black men and women who romanticize that imagery–like Jimmy does–get jailed, hurt, or killed.

Black men and guns is an American issue. It goes back to the 1600s. It goes back to slave laws.  It goes to Nat Turner and Marcus Garvey and Rob Williams. It goes to the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam and MOVE, and also to NWA and gangsta rap and Boyz N the Hood.  It goes to the rise of the black cop and Amadou Diallo and thug imagery and The Wire and Hurricane Katrina.

But the issue of black men and guns has been separated from textbooks and from the NRA. Instead we’ve been fed simplistic images, like the COINTELPRO comics and COPS television show. We don’t hear complicated conversations about power, rights, access, confidence vs. pride, the limitations of revolution, and the intransigence of institutional violence. Night Catches Us feeds the viewer these challenges with a big spoonful of suspenseful, entertaining sugar. Tanya Hamilton (writer/director) did this drama right. Raw, passionate, intelligent.

And if you didn’t get everything in this blog, I hope it makes you curious enough to watch the film and re-read my random thoughts.

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BACK TALK ———————————————————— Culture Topic – The Next Tolstoy

People have granted Jonathan Franzen enough attention. I mean, someone actually compared Freedom to War and Peace. Yes, the cliché lives–and the comparison remains as unfortunately abused as ever (honestly, 21st-century upper-middle class America can never provide the intense characters, events, and conflicts of 19th-century Russia).

Franzen appears in all the magazines and at every major New York lit event. His name flits across essays and public radio. The man does not need any more press or publicity.

But I must add this comment: based on Franzen’s two most recent novels, he’s Nicholas Sparks for the over-educated, affluent, white American crowd. Family, love, sex, separation, arguments, humor, and melodramatic moments of reconnection and redemption–packed with just enough college references, alternative careers, advanced vocabulary, and a smidge of loose ends.

He made this move intentionally. Franzen was once a striver for the postmodern set–that was the 1990s. In the 2000s, The Corrections and Freedom maneuvered him to the center of the literary mainstream. He decisively shifted away from writing that used the novel to push and explore language, artistry, and the limits of story. And toward writing that uses the novel to tell traditional stories peppered with conscientiously simplified, unthreatening postmodern tics. It’s like American suburban teenagers running around in Che Guevara t-shirts. They’re wearing a consumer representation of rebellion–they aren’t rebelling. It’s just so much easier than actually rebelling though.

This approach sells more books while still attracting critics and literary readers, who demand the appearance of intellectual challenge within the pleasure of seamless, naturalistic narrative. In Franzen’s own interview patter, he’s become “more interested in story”–a novelist’s way of saying more plot-driven and commercial.

Franzen accelerated down this path during the Oprah Book Club Smackdown of 2001 (no, not the “you betrayed millions of readers” guy–he’s a different media manipulator). Oprah chose The Corrections for her book club. Of course the publisher and Franzen accepted the pick and issued new books with the OBC stamp. Only then did Franzen make some comment about the womanly appeal of Oprah and how he felt uncomfortable with the book club. So Franzen got his name all over the media plus got out of his appearance on the daytime talk show (he would’ve felt so tacky and dirty afterward). Very savvy–popular sales and literary cred all bound into one neat package. (But in 2011, it’s Oprah’s last season. Freedom was chosen as the momentous final book, and Franzen expressed appreciation for the historic acknowledgement.)

I am not arguing against Franzen per se. I’m just saying let’s call it like it is. Franzen has gone the way of Grateful Dead posters, girl power, and Miramax. He’s softened the most radical elements of his fiction for the mainstream–it’s where the audience, income, and speaker fees reside.

I don’t particularly enjoy avant-garde or experimental or postmodern or whatever theorists are calling bizarre fiction these days. (As a teenager, I preferred the Rolling Stones to the Ramones, even though intellectually I understood the value of the Ramones’ art and music.) But I guess I have greater respect for authors who take sincere creative risks. I also have great respect for authors of traditional fiction who are obviously writing from their own authentic artistic place without self-consciousness–like Alice Munro.

All that said about “Franzen the Famous Author”–he is a good writer, has a fabulous head of hair, makes an effort to raise attention for women authors, and does amazing work on behalf of birds and their habitats.

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