identifying the enemy | 2018.07.23

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck | Review

Steinbeck, John_The Grapes of Wrath

Publication: The Viking Press, 1939

Genre: Historical Fiction, Political Fiction

Pages: 455 | 20 hours 43 minutes

Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, Audiobook, eBook

Source: MCL

After reading this one, I found myself disturbed by the political implications. What just happened? What was Steinbeck trying to say through this story, exactly?

Gloom and doom seem close to the heart of the novel for sure. Is this book about the value of being allowed the space and resources to pull oneself up by one’s own bootstraps? Is it about socialism, the text and plot both serving, as is often proclaimed, as a truly American socialist’s battle cry? Is it perhaps jointly about how economic trajectory, no matter the founding governmental structure or theory, will ultimately always get in the way of the goals of communal, socialistic living while simultaneously destroying the great “American” ideal of individual-made success? Is Steinbeck saying that both capitalism and socialism are doomed each by turn? Capitalism because the machine of the invisible hand in this book became the disease that killed the aspirations of the individual, and socialism because the governmental plans to revitalize the economy in the 1930s failed so devastatingly?

There can be no doubt, in my conjecturing opinion, of the timelessness that Steinbeck achieved in this novel. And I’m guessing that is because the types of questions noted above are still up for debate even in the political climate that the United States is struggling with today. For example, our current incumbent was chosen because he spoke to the depression and self-styled oppression (let’s come back to that in a bit, shall we?) felt by many of the working class of our “great” nation (at least this seemed to be evidenced by interviews with a number of his supporters before his election).

Surely, The Grapes of Wrath has everything to do with showcasing the demise of life for the community-supported (and in turn, the free-to-be-independent, I’m going to argue) field worker, farmer, shop owner, and others like them. But I believe the conversation has become confused within our current state of quick and lightning-reactive politicos. (This is an extremely complex web, so your patience in my attempts at untangling is appreciated.)

In our current political environment, the would-be independent and self-sufficient, frontline workers, who supported the agenda of the current head of state, repeatedly speak about being tired of having to step aside in the name of giving room to people that the “other side” of the argument calls marginalized. Many of the frontline workers in our country have turned the screw of confusion even further by arguing that these same individuals who they refuse to call truly marginalized are marginalized only because they don’t belong within the borders of the United States of the great and wonderful America. As a result, the small business owner, the frontline worker (no matter your original nationality or political heritage), and anyone else feeling dissatisfaction at whatever short end of the stick the system has handed them are pointing fingers of blame at each other while ignoring the systemic root causes for their own discomfort and tribulations. We are fighting amongst ourselves to show who is the most marginalized to spite the system of “greatness” the other side is aligning themselves with.

It’s interesting that what makes a country great, just like with literature (Steinbeck’s book often being touted as the great American novel . . . and, well, sure!), can be predicated on opposing ends of a very wide spectrum. Again, this web is complex in its intricacies, no doubt, making “the enemy” a difficult fucker to adequately identify.

In Steinbeck’s novel, the enemy, that dark and inevitable force of destruction that made the book’s main characters homeless and drove them to the very edge of the Pacific Ocean was comprised of the banks backed by the often faceless system of capitalistic grasping and bulldozing for perpetual growth, growth, GROWTH! Ursula K. Le Guin (sorry to go on and on and quote her yet again) talks about the need capitalistic economies have for this type of self-engorgement. She quite pointedly states, “Capitalism is a body that judges its well-being by the size of its growth. Endless growth, limitless growth, as in obesity? Or growth as in a lump on the skin or in the breast, cancer? The size of our growth is a strange way to judge our wellbeing.” (If you’re interested, this comes from her essay “Staying Awake While We Read” in her book sold under her adjoining novella Wild Girls.) So is socialism the answer, then?

Socialism is predicated (in my estimation) on giving the individual space to create their own definition of success within the support of a strong community. Whether such individual success has anything to do with the amassing of wealth comes from such an absolutely subjective perspective, I feel. And I feel Steinbeck’s novel is arguing this also. Because if the individual is left enough space and is given enough resources, they can then be free to pursue their own happiness. The example I’m thinking of is seen in how the Nordic governments try to give their citizens the room and the resources to create their own success-definitions by allowing individuals to take care of each other within a strong community setting.

So how can we pursue our own happy success without throwing everyone else under the bus? Without engorging profits that rely on cutting out the working class? Do we offer our own breast milk to the starving homeless? Maybe. Or maybe we should also ask how we got here in the process. Let’s find out why the homeless. Let’s find out the current-state, systemic cause of why the working class feel so oppressed by the already marginalized. Let’s find out why we keep circling this same spiral of self-destruction. Do we dare even take on such a task? And how can we think about these aspects of our own troubled and oftentimes troubling society without shaking in our boots at the prospect of sharing the goal of growth without engorgement? Maybe we should be shaking.

looking over the fence of hatred | 2019.02.06

Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of A Former White Nationalist by Eli Saslow| Review

Saslow, Eli_Rising Out of Hatred

Publication: New York : Doubleday, [2018]

Genre: Biography

Pages: 288 | Audiobook: 9 hours 2 minutes

Formats: Hardcover, eBook, Audiobook

Source: MCL

I have the Portland Book Festival (previously and ever-enduringly known to native Portlanders as Wordstock) to thank for putting this book on my radar. On first review, the aspect of this book that impressed me most was the author’s ability to show not only the divisiveness of hatred-driven beliefs like white supremacy, but also how discussions that demand accountability can lead to change.

Saslow’s book, at its core, is a journalistic account of how a young white nationalist, Derek Black (son of white supremacy leader Don Black and protégé of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke) escaped his white supremacy roots to see the light of equality and inclusion. The story also explores the inner struggles (and rightly so) of Derek’s fellow college students as they tried to decide how to react to Derek’s presence on their New College campus in Florida. Many of these individuals had every reason, by the fact of their categorically “non-white” heritages, to hate those, like Derek, who were working to further white supremacy ideas. Yet, a few of these same students made an effort (after very careful consideration of the risks they might be taking in allowing someone like Derek to feel comfortable in his daily life) to include Derek in their circle of friends and to see him as a person with the potential for individual thought that might push him toward curious development.

While I found this astonishing, as I continued reading Saslow’s description of Derek’s journey out of hatred, the term accountability kept ringing in my mind. For it can’t be denied that Derek’s work during the time he was still an extremely active part of the white supremacy movement helped to push the harmful rhetoric of white nationalism into the mainstream of our current “patriotic” American culture.

In his introduction, Saslow explains Derek’s initial reluctance to provide interviews regarding his personal journey out of his white nationalist background. Then, in the wake of the Trump election, Derek found himself needing to be more publicly vocal against the racial prejudices he knew his past life had helped introduce into the mainstream of American opinion. While it may be difficult to reject the mantras of one’s youth, which can masquerade as comforting truths, it is arguably ten times as difficult to stand up against them in a public setting such as this book provides, not to mention the multiple news interviews Derek has given since he renounced his white supremacy upbringing starting with a letter published on the Southern Poverty Law Center website in 2013.

After marveling at Derek’s conscious decision to publicly reject his past ideas of hatred, I began thinking again about the bravery of those who helped him toward this radical change. We live in a society so quick to align, so quick to say, “You’re the enemy.” Saslow’s book, however, seems to argue that standing at impassible odds forever with our “others” only strengthens the lines of division to the point that the “us” and the “them” have no chance to see over each other’s fences. I guess we have to ask whether seeing past one another’s prejudices and opinions is the goal. When there’s a clear wrong being advocated, how do we make room enough to converse with those advocating for that wrong?

As stated above, Rising Out of Hatred is as much about Derek Black’s coming to the realization that the goals of his white nationalist upbringing are harmful, as it is about the people who had the patience to walk him through his transformation. And these were college students, no less, protégés in their own right to the millennial changes of societal awareness that have continued to push forward such awakenings as the #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and LGBT movements. These are the real rock stars of this book, I feel. For these individuals were willing to see Derek as a person beyond the lines of “the enemy” while still persistently demanding Derek reject his white supremacy ideas. Their persistence seemed one of the primary catalysts that eventually led Derek to his conversion, in a way.

Overall, reading this book made me realize I have some patience to learn in seeing my own ultra conservative family members (and all ultra conservatives, who I perhaps unwittingly equate with supporters of our current incumbent) in light of the people that they are and the reasons for their philosophical tendencies instead of as pure embodiments of an “evil other.” While I personally am not quite there yet, I hope that society will continue to learn from our up-and-coming generation the practice of constructive and open conversation as well as the power of daring to take accountability seriously.