The Underground Railroad

By Colson Whitehead

All Posts Contain Spoilers

The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad‘ is Cora’s story.  Cora is a slave on Randall’s Plantation in Georgia.  An outcast even among her fellow slaves, she has been a “stray” ever since her mother successfully escaped when she was a child, leaving Cora behind.  When her master dies and she is inherited by his sadistic younger brother, Cora is approached by Caesar, a fellow slave, with an offer to escape with him on the Underground Railroad.

The pair accept the help of a white tradesman from town, a station master on the Underground Railroad.  A thing of whispers and myth among slaves in the American South, Cora and Caesar are surprised to discover that it is a literal railroad, built underground, a network of tunnels under the slave states.  They take their first ride, emerging in South Carolina to the sight of skyscrapers (and our first clue that this is not a two hundred year old story).

Everyone loves ‘The Underground Railroad‘.  It won the Pulitzer Prize.  It reached #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List.  It received magnificent reviews; the four blurbs on the front of my copy are by the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, NPR, and Barack Obama.

Oprah loved it.

But I did not love ‘The Underground Railroad‘.  It’s quite good – good enough that there isn’t much point in trying to discern whether it is great, or merely very, very good.  It’s well-written and spare, effective and persuasive.  It has a novel premise, well-executed, stark and not overdone.

I appreciated these things.  But, when I put the book down, I found that it had left me cold.  I did not connect with it.

At least, I did not connect with it…at first.

Sometimes, you are the smartest person in the room – sometimes you are the only person brave enough not to drink the Kool-Aid.  But usually, when everyone around you likes something and you don’t, you’ve missed something.

I sat around for a long time, in bits and pieces over weeks and then months (I finished this book in September), staring at my computer and struggling to figure out why I didn’t love this book.  I was plagued by a sense that I was missing something, and I dreaded having to say out loud (in writing, no less) that I did not like it.  I tried to understand, to explain, why it is that the goodness (greatness) of a book isn’t enough to make us love it.  It isn’t fair that a book can be excellent and unloved, even by one person.  What more can we ask of a book, than that it be good?

And, in all that muddling, the book started to get to me.

Fictions which use alternative realities (science fiction, for example), rely on altered context for their effect.  By placing their moral or human conundra into totally unfamiliar contexts, or by radically changing one aspect of the environment, they throw the problems at the hearts of their stories into sharper relief.

But slavery is not a problem – it was a reality, an atrocity.  Rather, it was a long, unmeasurable series of atrocities, horrors visited upon real people, people just as real as you are.  These things happened.

The essential premise of ‘The Underground Railroad‘ is, what if slavery had not ended?  But slavery does not need to have been permanent to be overwhelming.  If you have already connected, on a visceral level, with what slavery was, then the fantastical extension of it into the present doesn’t teach you much.  And so, at first, ‘The Underground Railroad’ underwhelmed me.  It was jarring, upsetting, but, by being unreal, it lacked the monstrosity of actual slavery.

Alternative reality fictions work best when they show you something you would not have seen without them.  That slavery is was an abomination, that I had already seen.  The depiction was masterful, wrenching and beautiful, but I would have preferred to see something that I had not seen yet.

But, as thought more about it, my emotions started to catch on something.

In Whitehead’s imagination, the American South is not frozen in time; it has evolved, and each of the states of the South has also evolved, differentiated, developed their own brand of slavery to accommodate the particular needs of their economy, their people.

Georgia is brutal, primitive, indistinguishable from its antebellum self.  South Carolina has evolved a sinister, “progressive” state-run program wherein the state owns slaves and educates, houses, and pays them, all while secretly sterilizing them.  North Carolina has decided that it prefers an all-white world, and has outlawed blacks completely, lynching any that are found within state lines.

This was fascinating to me – this drew me in.  Perhaps because this aspect of the novel, more than any other, challenged to me to think more deeply about my own conception of American slavery.  Like many Americans, I have a life-long mental picture of slavery, taught to me when I was very young and shaded with depth and context as I got older, but never essentially re-imagined.  Now, partly that is because a re-imagining was unnecessary: what I was taught about slavery, that it was an atrocity perpetrated by Americans on Americans, an indelible stain on our history and a foundational sin of our nation, is correct.

And ‘The Underground Railroad‘ does not challenge this conclusion.  And, in fact, Cora’s story is this story, and that, I think, was why I did not emotionally register it, at first.  Here was another person ground under an evil system – there are only so many of these narratives we can meet before they feel familiar.

But the story of the states, each sickened and twisted by the continued existence of the institution, each elaborating on the essential evil in its own way – this was a new story.  And as I sat and stewed about the book, as the effect of the new story slowly took hold, Cora snuck in after it.

Colson Whitehead

I hadn’t connected with Cora because I was thinking of her as fictional victim of a real system, and what would be the point of connecting with her when there were so many real victims to grieve for first?  But, of course, I had completely missed the point: Cora is the fictional victim of a fictional system, the catastrophic future we avoided, but only just.  I needed to grieve Cora because of easily she might have existed.

And so, months later, I understood: the point of ‘The Underground Railroad‘ wasn’t to teach me that slavery was terrible – I know that, anyone who has morally developed past the level of a tadpole knows that.  ‘The Underground Railroad’ was trying to tell me that we cannot comprehend the institution of slavery if we negotiate with it as an evil that was – we must instead understand it as an evil that might still be, but for the narrowest of escapes.  Chance, the accumulation of millions of tiny historical accidents, pulled us away from evil – it was NOT our robust moral good sense, and so we must understand the evil as, in some sense, on-going.  Slavery was not given up unanimously and voluntarily, but had to be crushed by force of arms, and so, in some sense, it continues in the heart of our citizens.  

Which means that, in some sense, it continues.

Cora isn’t fictional, exactly – she just doesn’t happen to be real.  

I don’t know whether I love ‘The Underground Railroad: A Novel‘ now, but it has slowly hollowed me out over the past few months.  I have come around and stand a little in awe of it now – I feel as though I have been tossing around a toy grenade and someone just told me it was active, like I was being careless with something very powerful.

So ‘love’ isn’t the right word – ‘fear’ is.  I am afraid of ‘The Underground Railroad‘.  I sat and thought for months and discovered that I had been afraid all along.

Americanah

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

All Posts Contain Spoilers

It’s always interesting, being shown your own culture from the outside.  Depending on your inclinations, it can either be great fun, or, I sense, really not fun, irritating, wounding even.

Probably, the sense of the fun of the thing, the jolt of the change of perspective, that strange thrill of recognition of behaviors you know seen from a different angle, is directly related to your own personal distance from those behaviors: it’s neat to see your neighbors in the fun-house mirror, not yourself.

AmericanahBut that can’t be the whole story, because sometimes it’s even fun to see yourself, your own quirks and artifacts and preoccupations, examined by a mind which has not bought in to your norms, your assumptions.  It makes you uneasy, yes, but it’s still kind of mesmerizing, right?  In a slightly narcissistic way?  It’s like watching a video of yourself when you hadn’t known you were being filmed – do I really do that?  Is it that obvious?  Is that how that shirt actually looks?

Books about America are usually written by Americans (we’ve been very lucky that way).  Sure, every once and a while some acidic European will launch an attack at us from across the pond, but since they do it from a safe distance, and since their tone is always a little hysterical, it’s easy for us to ignore them.  We roll around here, enormous and convivial, and most of the culturally critical literature that we read comes from within.

And there is enormous value in criticism of Americans by Americans.  To put it plainly, we understand ourselves in a way no one else does.  But there is something bracing in reading about what we look like to transplants, immigrants, people who have come here, who have, in some senses, opted in to our systems and values, but who nonetheless see us as alien.  A good book which does that, shows us what it feels like to walk, as an outsider, among us, is really fun to read.

Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, from The Guardian

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie grew up in Nigeria.  She came to the United States when she was 19.  Her list of degrees and accolades is enormous – among other things, she is a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient (for the record, there is almost no single award which impresses me more than this).  She spent decades living and studying in the United States, now splitting her time, apparently, between Nigeria and the US.

And that’s what ‘Americanah‘ is about: it is about a Nigerian woman, Ifemelu who comes to the United States, studies, lives, becomes a writer, and returns home.  It is about what Nigeria is like, what America is like to a Nigerian, what it means to return home, how you love people who are like you, how you love people who are not like you.

And it’s about race.  Ifemelu rises to prominence in the United States as a race blogger, someone who writes about race in this country from the perspective of a non-American African, someone who is simply a person in her home country but, upon arriving in ours, discovers that she is now considered ‘black’.

Adichie is, I think, kinder to Americans than we deserve, essentially amused and frustrated by us.  White Americans (of which I am one) are, in her book, mostly well-meaning but oblivious, or irrelevant, or genteelly racist.  The incredible toxicity of the race divide in the United States, the deaths and incarcerations, shootings and violence and long economic oppression, all form the backdrop to this novel, but they are not foregrounded.  It is, at its heart, a love story, and I experienced it that way: as a story of two lives who wind around and around the world before they find their way back to each other.  Their racial otherness in other countries is part of their journeys, but ‘Americanah‘ is their story, not the story of civil rights in the United States.

One of the blurbs on my copy is from New York Magazine: “Adichie is to blackness what Philip Roth is to Jewishness: its most obsessive taxonomist, its staunchest defender, and its fiercest critic.”  I don’t know about everything after the colon, but the first assertion makes sense to me.  Roth’s books, though so much less humane, less lovely than ‘Americanah‘, are also about Jewish people rather than about Jewishness.  It is possible to connect with his protagonists as individuals, not merely as racial stand-ins, and their stories are wider than their categories.  Imefelu is like that – she is having a whole, complicated life, of which her blackness is but one part.

Americanah‘ is the kind of novel I really struggle to judge critically.  It comes down, I think, to the question of what novels, as an art form, are for.  Some novels, a very, very few, are Great Novels: when you read these novels, you have the constant awareness that you are in the presence of Art.  Sometimes, you enjoy them; sometimes, you don’t, but you always feel enriched, and virtuous, for having read them.  These novels have characters, but they are about Humanity.  For me, the best example of this kind of novel, the one I perhaps love the best, is ‘East of Eden‘, by John Steinbeck.

Then, there is another kind of novel, the kind where, as you read it, you aren’t aware of anything at all.  These novels are so absorbing that you get lost in them – you forget your own name while you read them.  I tend to fly through these novels, carry them with me everywhere, read them in line at the grocery store and in the bathroom during the work day.

But is magnetism, the ability to captivate your reader, the same thing as greatness in a novel?  These novels rarely, say, impress me with the beauty of their language (in fact, in order to be really absorbing, in some ways the language needs to not be great – if you notice a lovely sentence, you are pulled out of the narrative).  They do not employ sophisticated or subtle metaphor.  They don’t push the boundaries of the form.  They are excellent stories about fascinating characters, but maybe those specific characters are all they’re about.  Is that a Great Novel?

Jonathan Franzen is, for me, the best example of this kind of novelist.  I devour his novels, just blow through them.  I live in them while I read them – I find his world-building super thorough and effective.  But, when they’re done, they don’t stay with me at all.  I can remember only the barest outlines of the plot.  Are they Great Novels?  Or are they simply great reads?

Americanah‘ was like this for me.  I was glued to it.  I really cared about what was going to happen next; I was invested in the characters.  I loved the experience of reading it.  But there was no passage which will stay with me.  There is no beautiful description, no language to which I will refer again and again.  I don’t even remember, now, the name of the man Ifemelu loves, though I remember descriptions of him, I remember his story.

However, in some ways I expect that ‘Americanah‘ will stay with me more than other novels.  Adichie’s depiction of my country has lodged in my mind, and will tweak the boundaries of my perception a little, widen out my scope.  When someone shows you yourself from the outside, it’s almost impossible to unsee.  I guess I’m one of the people who finds getting a different glimpse of myself fun, even when it isn’t flattering.

Kill All Normies

Online Culture Wars From 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right

By Angela Nagle

Have you been feeling too good lately?  When you look around at the world, does it seem too happy, safe, and congenial a place for your liking?  Would you like to feel more dismal about the state of your country, your fellow man?  Have you been trying to quit the Internet, looking to be driven offline, perhaps in despair?

Then, boy, do I have the book for you!  It’s not long, just a svelte 120 pages, but don’t worry!  There is enough disgusting human behavior in those 120 pages to fuel your misanthropy for the rest of your life.

Kill All NormiesKill All Normies‘ is Angela Nagle’s brief exploration of the once-fringe Internet subcultures which came to play significant roles in the 2016 United States presidential election.  Nagle frames these broadly as extensions of a broader culture war, starting in the 1960s, which saw the transgression against normal social mores as a goal, rather than as a tool, of social change.

More granularly, ‘Kill All Normies‘ is a summary history of the online evolutions of the alt-right and identitarian far left movements in the United States.  She covers personalities, fora (Tumblr, Reddit, 4chan, &c), and specific events (Gamergate, Harambe).  She also explicates these phenomena within the cultural history of the United States, looks at how they relate to the political system in this country, and briefly discusses the critical texts which influenced them.  It is part history, part anthropology, part semiotics text.

And, from a humanist point of view, it’s gruesome.  If I didn’t think the end was nigh before I read this, I certainly do now.  Nagle covers, cursorily, the Manosphere, the Alt-Right and ethno-nationalism, Trump’s toxic Twitter army, Tumblr’s witch-hunty call-out culture, and the porny, hostile, insular world of 4chan.  I challenge anyone to read about those cultural infestations and still feel good about us as a species.

Angela Nagle
Angela Nagle

Nagle, it should be said, does not treat all these things as morally equivalent, and a denizen of, say, the Manosphere might take issue with her relative treatments (if he deigned to read books written by ‘holes’, that is).  She has a point of view, and she’s pretty upfront about it.  When she thinks something is revolting, she says so.  She openly deplores misogyny, racist rhetoric and attacks, threats, suicide encouragement, and homophobia.  She identifies as a feminist.

For all that, though, she is more even-handed than one might have expected her to be.  She faults both the left and the right for viciousness in the culture war.  She devotes an entire chapter to campus witch hunts from the left.

“At first, self-righteously or snarkily denouncing others for racism, sexism or homophobia was the most instantaneous and certain way to achieve social media fame.  Something about public social media platforms, it turned out, was conducive to the vanity of morally righteous politics and the irresistible draw of the culture wars.  But soon the secret was out and everyone was doing it.  The value of the currency of virtue that those who had made their social media culture capital on was in danger of being suddenly devalued.  As a result, I believe, a culture of purging had to take place, largely targeting those in competition for this precious currency.  Thus, the attacks increasingly focused on other liberals and leftists often with seemingly pristine progressive credentials, instead of those who engaged in any actual racism.” (p. 77)

“I often think the brain drain out of the left during this period because of the Tumblrization of left politics has done damage that will prove long-lasting.” (p. 80)

That Nagle has enormous contempt for this kind of hysterical, self-cannibalizing virtue-signaling is clear.  What is equally clear (in fact, explicit) is that she considers “actual racism” and misogyny much more dangerous.

“The alt-light figures that became celebrities during this period made their careers exposing the absurdities of online identity politics and the culture of lightly thrown claims of misogyny, racism, ableism, fatphobia, transphobia and so on.  However, offine, only one side saw their guy take the office of US president and only one side has in their midst faux-ironic Sieg Heil saluting, open white segregationists and genuinely hate-filled, occasionally murderous, misogynists and racists.” (p. 9)

I was at least passingly familiar almost all of the cultural phenomena Nagle references, and, when I wasn’t, she gives enough of a sketch that I was able to place the reference in context.  I also have some experience reading criticism, and so I was able to grapple with some of the unwieldy and vague critical concepts that Nagle handles pretty casually.  In general, though, ‘Kill All Normies’ favors breadth over depth, and readers who don’t have a passing familiarity with famous Twitter flame wars or Nietzsche might find the pacing of the text a little difficult to follow.

Another problem is that Nagle writes like a journalist.  She’s great when it comes to shorter, declarative sentences, but when she’s handling more complicated material, she over-clauses and under-punctuates, which can make it hard to trace her antecedents and follow her argument.  ‘Kill All Normies’ is a book you’ll read for content, not for style (although some of her dry asides are really great, like this:

“The left’s best critic of this disease of the left had just died and dancing on his grave was a woman who once blogged about baking bread using her own vaginal yeast as a feminist act.” (p. 117)

Or this:

“The Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW) movement is a straight male separatist group whose members have chosen (ahem) to avoid romantic relationships with women in protest against a culture destroyed by feminism” (p. 94))

But content is a excellent reason to read, and this is important material.  I appreciated ‘Kill All Normies’ mainly for two reasons:

  1.  Though I have managed to glean much of this information myself over the years, by being a relatively plugged-in person, I have not seen so much of it collected in one place, or organized at all well.  This is a reasonable, if not comprehensive, glossary of the culture wars raging around us all the time, and now that they have impinged on our political lives so dramatically, it is time to start thinking about them as a single phenomenon.
  2. I am, though leftist myself, happy to see Nagle approach the fringes of the left and the right as though they might be understand as part of single cultural battle.  Because we in the trenches think of ourselves as value-driven, we don’t tend to step back and look at trends of the battlefield itself, the way our weapons influence their weapons and vice versa.  Nagle’s book does this, and it was helpful to me.  I think her criticisms of both sides were fair, and proportionate to their sins.

However, appreciating a book and enjoying a book are two different things.  I learned something from ‘Kill All Normies‘, but it also ruined my week.  It is, at its heart, an exploration of a facet of my culture, a side of humanity in my time, which I find demoralizing: rancid, mean-spirited, venomous, and evil.  Even though it is a short text, an minute spent among the sort of bottom-dwellers who sent Anita Sarkeesian rape threats during Gamergate is like a year among the morally normal.  And one of the very frightening lessons of ‘Kill All Normies’ is that there are more people inhabiting the vile fringes of both sides than I, and perhaps you, had expected.

So it’s not a cheerful read.  It will probably make you feel worse about the world, about the people around you.  It’s the sort of book that makes you more suspicious, less trusting, and, in that way, perhaps a less good person for having read it.  This is not the fault of the author, obviously, but a logical result of the information that she is presenting.  And I believe that it is always better to confront the world as it is, not as we wish it to be, and if that upset us, well, bummer.  So I would recommend reading ‘Kill All Normies‘, especially if you are interested in understanding the cultural or political moment a little better.

But brace yourself, ’cause it’s ugly.

The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michelle Alexander

There are some books so good, so coherent and persuasive, and so morally urgent, that I don’t really feel comfortable reviewing them.  They speak better for themselves than I ever could, and I am tempted, in these cases, to simply quote them at length, to put their most powerful passages forward verbatim and stand next to them, with humility.

The New Jim CrowThe New Jim Crow‘ is that kind of book.  There is absolutely nothing I can write about this book that will be more effective, or affecting, than something like this:

‘…it is nearly impossible to imagine anything remotely similar to mass incarceration happening to young white men.  Can we envision a system that would enforce drug laws almost exclusively among young white men and largely ignore drug crime among young black men?  Can we imagine large majorities of young white men being rounded up for minor drug offenses, placed under the control of the criminal justice system, labeled felons, and then subjected to a lifetime of discrimination, scorn, and exclusion?  Can we imagine this happening while most black men landed decent jobs or trotted off to college?  No, we cannot.  If such a thing occurred, “it would occasion a most profound reflection about what had gone wrong, not only with THEM, but with US.”  It would never be dismissed with the thought that white men were simply reaping what they have sown.’ (p. 205)

Or this:

‘The profile [the drug-courier profile used by law enforcement during drug sweeps] can include traveling with luggage, traveling without luggage, driving an expensive car, driving a car that needs repairs, driving with out-of-state license plates, driving a rental car, driving with “mismatched occupants”, acting too calm, acting too nervous, dressing casually, wearing expensive clothing or jewelry, being one of the first to deplane, being one of the last to deplane, deplaning in the middle, paying for a ticket in cash, using large-denomination currency, using small-denomination currency, traveling alone, traveling with a companion, and so on.’ (p. 71)

Or this:

‘Examples of preconviction service fees imposed throughout the United States today include jail book-in fees levied at the time of arrest, jail per diems assessed to cover the cost of pre-trial detention, public defender application fees charged when someone applies for court-appointed counsel, and the bail investigation fee imposed when the court determines the likelihood of the accused appearing at trial.  Postconviction fees include pre-sentence report fees, public defender recoupment fees, and fees levied on convicted persons placed in a residential or work-release program.  Upon release, even more fees may attach, including parole or probation service fees…Failure to pay may warrant additional community control sanctions or a modification in the offender’s sentence.’ (p. 155)

Or this:

‘This means, for example, that a woman who knew that her husband occasionally smoked pot could have her car forfeited to the government because she allowed him to use her car.  Because the “car” was guilty of transporting someone who had broken a drug law at some time, she could legally lose her only form of transportation, even though she herself committed no crime…Courts have not been forgiving of women in these circumstances, frequently concluding that “the nature and circumstances of the marital relationship may give rise to an inference of knowledge by the spouse claiming innocent ownership.” (p. 82)

Or this:

“More African American adults are under correctional control today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.’ (p. 180)

I could go on all day – my copy of ‘The New Jim Crow‘ bristles with sticky notes. These passages give some small sense of the overall effect of this book: one of slow, suffocating injustice, a smothering and pervasive evil, the feeling that you are standing at the foot of a sheer and dizzying cliff, unclimbable and inescapable.  It is vertiginous and overwhelming.

It is difficult to recommend books which you know are going to be unpleasant for people to read.  It’s pedantic; you are essentially saying, ‘You ought to read this.  This is information that you do not possess and need to.  It’s won’t be fun, but it will be good for you.’  You are an adult telling another adult to eat their vegetables – it’s patronizing, and so I try not to do it very often.

And, in truth, there are very few books which I feel that all adults ought to read, as a moral matter.  I suppose that I don’t even think that all adults ought to read ‘The New Jim Crow‘, but I definitely think that all American adults ought to.  And I am confident that not a single one of them will ‘enjoy’ reading it; nevertheless, I believe that it contains information which it is morally and civically urgent that voting American adults possess.

The basic thesis of ‘The New Jim Crow‘ is: that the War on Drugs in the United States of America is a system of racial oppression, conceived and understood as such by its architects, that it is enforced in a highly discriminatory fashion against racial minorities, and has had the effect of creating and maintaining a racial underclass in this country.

Michelle Alexander
Michelle Alexander

Alexander’s logic is presented beautifully.  Her language is clear and unadorned.  Her argument is well-structured and well-sourced.  It is neither understated nor exaggerated.  She marshals an enormous amount of supporting information.  She is meticulous, and since every stage of her reasoning is credible, she is therefore wholly persuasive.  Her verdicts feel inescapable.

All of which make this book hard to read.  Her conclusion, the reality she describes, is catastrophic: painful and enraging and grim.  But what I most deeply want to communicate is that it is painful because it is true.  I believe her.  Her argument is sound; her evidence is crushing.

There are a lot of reasons why you might not want to read this book.  You might not want to sift through a lot of terrible evidence in order to reach a devastating truth.  You might reject her argument out of hand, might not wish to subject yourself to more liberal, America-hating, race-baiting, special pleading.  You might just want to read some beach fiction instead.  To these objections, I will say this:

lifetime-likelihood-of-imprisonment-by-race.png
From sentencingproject.org

We do not have the right to excuse ourselves from true information simply because it is unpleasant to consume.  And we certainly don’t have the right to avoid evidence because we do not wish it to be true.  I think we have an obligation to see the world as it is, even if it does not flatter us, or accord with our world view.  And we have no right to reject arguments we have not heard.  You may disagree with Alexander at the end of her book, but you may not disagree with her before, not with any integrity.

That’s why I read this book.  ‘The New Jim Crow‘ doesn’t show me a version of my country that I like, but that doesn’t make it a bad book, and it certainly doesn’t make it wrong.  And it wasn’t fun, but it was magnificent, and it was important, and I think it was true.  And that is all the justification it needs.