After the shock of Donald Trump’s victory, the question for liberals is: what now? Two new books are offering answers.
The US president’s first weeks in power have been marked by resistance both on the streets and in the courts. The Women’s March on Washington, DC was one of the largest demonstrations in American history and was followed by protests against the “Muslim ban” executive order. The ban was challenged in more than 50 lawsuits.
The problem with using the law to constrain those in power is that those in power are able to define the law. Understanding how far Trump intends to reshape the state is crucial in deciding how to oppose him. The positive outlook is to see him as just a bad president: ignorant and hateful, but part of the system and therefore susceptible to being constrained by it. The pessimist’s take is that Trump is a strongman leader who will bend or break democratic institutions to serve his ends.
The latter view is extreme, apocalyptic and – based on the evidence so far – correct. But not all thinkers on the US left have grasped the point. That, at any rate, is the lesson of What We Do Now, a collection of essays published in response to the election result.
Read the full article at the New Statesman
First published New Statesman, 24 February-2 March 2017, under the headline “The anti-Trump toolkit”
A Line Made By Walking is a sophomore novel that feels in one (but only one) way like a debut. Where 2015’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither was remarkable for the quality of Sara Baume’s sympathy with characters unlike herself – a damaged man, a wounded dog, both of them old-ish – the protagonist of Line is closer to the autofictional kind that many writers start with.
Frankie is Baume-like in age, sex and background: mid-twenties, female, and returned to the Irish countryside where she grew up after a student hiatus in Dublin. She is also, like Baume, an artist and struggling with it. In one scene that is a close parallel of a story Baume has told about herself, she has lunch with some old schoolfriends; the friends discuss their starter salaries and the lifestyles they expect to purchase, as Frankie stares into her “bowlful of unusual lettuces” and realises how little she has in common with them. For Frankie, the idea of a salary has never occurred. She is, simply, devoted to art.
Read the full review at the New Statesman
First published New Statesman, 24 February-2 March 2017, under the headline “The art of suffering”
In November, the British high-street bank Metro announced that it was expanding its gender and title options. Customers could now register as “non-binary” rather than male or female, and as “Mx” rather than Miss, Ms, Mrs or Mr. In some ways, this development parallels the rise of Ms in the 1970s, which was popularised by feminists who wanted a title that didn’t identify women by their marital status. In practice, Ms marks women by their political affiliation instead (if you’re talking to a Ms, you’re probably talking to a feminist) but, even so, its first intention was to conceal rather than reveal information.
Mx does something different. To declare yourself a Mx is to disclose something about yourself: that your identity is outside what has become known as “the gender binary”, and you are neither man nor woman but something either in between or entirely other. This is a statement about who you are, and it comes with an implicit understanding that not being able to make that statement – or not having it recognised – is damaging. As the father of one gender-non-binary teenager told BuzzFeed UK: “When . . . you don’t identify as male or female and you only see those two boxes, then you don’t see yourself there . . . You are absent. That must hurt, and that’s what makes me angry.”
Read the full article in the New Statesman
First published New Statesman, 17-23 February 2017, as part of the New Times feature
This week’s New Statesman is a special issue on “culture, identity and the cutting edge of change”. In it, you can read Caroline Crampton on podcasts, Deborah Cameron on language, Helen Lewis on media, Yo Zushi on smartphones, Felicity Cloake on clean eating, Ian Leslie on Netflix – every entry, in fact, is a match between a brilliant writer and a topic they can’t fail to be interesting about. Hence, I’m very pleased that it also includes my piece on gender and identity: “Why gender became the ultimate forum for self expression”. On newsstands now, or subscribe to get the magazine by post.
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Michelle Tea’s memoir Valencia, published in 2000, won the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Fiction. Reading Black Wave, you can understand the confusion: Tea’s work sits on a raw fault line between the real and the made-up. This new novel is about a San Franciscan lesbian (like Tea) who is an incomer from Chelsea, Massachusetts (like Tea). Called Michelle (like Tea), she is a writer of autobiographical volumes who worries about the ethics of autobiography (like Tea) and works dead-end jobs between getting laid and getting high in the scuzzy Mission District (like Tea).
In her introduction to the reprint of Valencia, Tea called that book “a bug trapped in emotional amber”. Is Black Wave just gummed up in the same moment? No, it isn’t. For one thing, that time and place are due for revisiting. San Francisco in the late 1990s was once a backdrop to Tea’s personal life. Now, it’s a synecdoche for the economic, social and cultural transformation of most of the world. The future hangs over Black Wave like exactly that – a black wave.
Read the full review at the New Statesman
First published New Statesman, 10-16 February 2017, p. 53, under the headline “Goddess of the underworld”
The best thing you’ll see in the cinema this year is a big man called DJ Dan looking down in horror as he realises that the thing slithering down his leg and onto his living room floor is his testicle, unleashed from its ballsack by the knife held by heavily pregnant Ruth (played by Alice Lowe). Or, if the death-by-castration of DJ Dan – an entirely appropriate response to his pick-up patter about the easiness of “fat birds” – doesn’t grab you, maybe one of the other grisly highlights of Lowe’s maternity-slasher movie Prevenge will.
You could choose Ruth sitting astride a man and ramming a gilt statue through his eye-socket; or Ruth butchering a chilly businesswoman who smirkingly explains at the end of a job interview that it just wouldn’t make sense to hire a woman who’s about to have a baby. And all of it is accompanied by the insinuating whisper of Ruth’s foetus, who seems to be talking to her from the womb, urging “mummy” to greater acts of violence. As Ruth’s gratingly sincere midwife tells her: “Baby knows what to do.”
Read the full post at the New Statesman
Pornography and sex education have a long, and unequal, association: obscenity laws have been used to quash information about sex and contraception, and sexploitation films have been framed as educational in order to circumvent obscenity laws. It’s always sex education that comes off the worst in this partnership, either banned by association or cursorily executed as cover. The latest manifestation of the latter version came from Pornhub over the weekend, when the video streaming site launched its “Sexual Wellness Center”.
Don’t, by the way, bother Googling it. Despite big coverage for the launch, and despite Pornhub’s SEO chops making the main site the number one result for “porn”, looking for “pornhub sex ed” serves a list of results like “Watch Big-tit Latina teacher gives her students a sex-ed lesson”. The Sexual Wellness Center itself doesn’t even make page one.
Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the site is a bad thing. Looking at it, however, its shortcomings are obvious. The entry on female reproductive anatomy, for example, informs us that the clitoris is “the erogenous ‘button’ for women” and declares it “similar to the tip of the penis”. It really isn’t: the clitoris, like a fun iceberg, is mostly below the surface. Funnily enough, the entry on male anatomy does not say that the penis is “similar to” a clitoris. Male bodies, of course, get to occupy the kingly position of the default from which women are a deviation.
Read the full post at the New Statesman