Jun 26, 2016

Brexit: Where We Are

Serafim is tired of scapegoating, dehumanisation, and the legitimisation of xenophobia and racism #CatsAgainstBrexit
I didn’t get a vote in last week’s referendum, but at least I contributed with a Cats Against Brexit photo. Poor Serafim is more tired than ever now.

I’m not going to apologise for yet another post about politics: for years now this blog has made it patently obvious that I don’t believe in a stark division between politics and life — or, for that matter, between literature, politics and life. But I wish, I dearly wish, that I could be writing about something else today. I can’t, though — not when this is the most devastating political event of my lifetime. Not when the possibility that this will ruin the life I’ve built seems all too real from where I’m standing. At some point last week I said I couldn’t wait for this to be over. How wrong I was. I’ve spent the last few days crying into cups of tea, venting on Twitter, and reading Adrienne Rich. It’s all I can do.

So, this is where we are:

  • Far Right Watch reports a 540% increase in incidents of racial hate speech and malicious communications in 36 hours, with an official statement to come in the next few days. The PostRefRacism Twitter account has been compiling reports of such incidents informally; other compilations, such as this one, are absolutely chilling to look at.

  • I don’t entirely disagree with the people who are pointing out that it’s not so much that every single one of the 52% of Leave voters will start harassing foreigners and racial minorities on the streets, but that the people likely to do so now believe that 52% of voters are on their side, and have been emboldened by this belief. Having said that, I also agree with whoever was saying that splitting hairs between actual racists/xenophobes and people willing to align themselves with them for political gain is utterly beside the point right now (apologies for not sourcing this properly; I’ve read too much these past few days and can’t remember what was where). The consequences are the same.

    I know this is difficult to react to and I completely trust that everyone I know means well, but if I have one request it’s this: please don’t say social media is distorting our perception; please don’t urge people to remember not everyone hates them. We know that, but we also know that this is happening. We need it to be made visible; we need our sense of reality not to be undermined. We need to be able to talk about it. Silence and isolation will get us nowhere.

  • “People voted Leave for many reasons”: and yet.

  • Throughout this whole process, I’ve been trying very hard not to be furious with people who ultimately want the same things as me — a fairer, more equal world where everyone is treated with dignity and respect. At the start of the Leave and Remain campaigns, I talked about feeling thrown under the bus by Lexit (left-wing exit) campaigners, who seemed willing to sacrifice the safety of immigrants like me for the sake of — what? A sense of ideological purity, maybe? Nearly everyone I know online changed their position after the brutal murder of Jo Cox at the hands of a fascist, when what we had been saying became undeniable. In people’s minds, this referendum was about immigration, and the flames of right-wing extremism were being fanned. A quick look outside my circles showed that some people remained undeterred, though. I’m trying to turn away from that fury and focus on the real beast this has unleashed, but it comes and goes. This letter perfectly expresses how I feel:
    Now, left separatists, answer me this: Have you considered the effect that Brexit will have on women who need to travel to Britain for an abortion because of Ireland’s draconian laws? Sure you say, the common travel area between the UK and Ireland existed before the EU came along, but there was nothing in the referendum to protect that. There is nothing to say that these arrangements won’t be removed, especially due to the fact that so many people who were born outside the EU have become Irish citizens. Even then, think of all the non EU citizens who live in Ireland who now will not be able to travel. And what if new regulations are brought in with regards to healthcare provision that remove the right to obtain an abortion from non-UK citizens? Have you considered any of these things?
    Now former comrades, do tell me if you asked yourself any of these questions or if the people whose lives you have willfully thrown into precarity are just pawns in your pseudo-Marxist chess games? Were you sitting in your offices with wall charts outlining possible outcomes based on the immutable science of Historical Materialism? Because if you have a plan, now would be the time to fill us all in.
  • There are many possible outcomes for this whole mess, and very few of them don’t terrify me. Among my worries is seeing whatever remains of the Left in this country go back to pandering to xenophobic scaremongering because they believe that’s the only way a General Election can be won. The more you legitimise a fascist worldview, the more you legitimise fascism. Don’t ask us to understand voters’ concerns about immigration. They’re wrong, and it’s time someone told them.

  • Thoughts on the sociology of Brexit, by Will Davies.

  • On being a brown-skinned Brit in a post EU referendum world, by Anita Sethi.

  • These are scary times for people of colour. It’s time for a big conversation by Lola Okolosie.

  • Hope: Lesbians & Gays Support the Migrants. ♥

  • Some interesting historical reading: Britain’s most racist election: the story of Smethwick, 50 years on.

    I’m desperately afraid, friends, and I need all the comfort and support you can spare. I’m finding it hard to cling to any hope.
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    Jun 17, 2016

    Links on a Friday: Fear

    This is the last weekend before the EU Referendum, when the UK will vote on whether it wishes to leave the European Union or remain a member. The outcome of this vote will have tremendous implications for my life, and for the past few weeks I’ve been in a state of permanent barely subdued panic — largely because I’m an immigrant (though a relatively privileged one, only subjected to a fraction of the hostility those who aren’t white Western Europeans experience), but also because I genuinely believe this spells bad news for everyone. The mere fact that this referendum is happening has legitimatised a political narrative that frankly terrifies me: one that scapegoats immigrants for the drop in living standards brought about by over six years of austerity policies. These were imposed not by the EU, as in Greece, but by David Cameron’s conservative government. If Leave wins, though, that’s the story that will have won. I’ve lost count of the number of times that people I know to be generally fair-minded and compassionate have told me in the past few weeks that “we have to admit that the country is full”, or words to that effect. That’s the extent to which this rhetoric has permeated public consensus. Anti-immigrant sentiments have never had a wider platform, and its effects show. The rules of acceptable discourse have already begun to shift. I can’t see how this will result in anything but a surge of the far-right, and an entrenching of racist and xenophobic attitudes.

    I’m very afraid.

    Next Thursday evening I’ll be in London, seeing Belle & Sebastian perform all of If You’re Feeling Sinister like I planned to months ago; I hope I’ll be able to enjoy it. Funnily enough, the last time I saw them live was the night of the General Election, when the current government obtained a majority; this is one of those things that make me glad I’m not superstitious. All this to say that there’s no point pretending this isn’t very much on my mind these days. Here are some links that explain why:

  • I drafted most of this post before Thursday afternoon, when Jo Cox, a Labour MP with a known history of activism on behalf of immigrants and refugees, was assassinated by a man outside her surgery, where she regularly met her constituents. Violent political rhetoric has consequences. This is where we are now.

    Did u think extremist political parties & open violence arise out of nowhere? My God no. They begin with leaflets and lies.

  • The mood is ugly, and an MP is dead: The leavers have lifted several stones. How recklessly the decades of careful work and anti-racist laws to make those sentiments unacceptable have been overturned.

  • ETA: The Politics of Hate by Dawn Foster:
    For years, politicians have sought to assuage racist views by arguing that it isn’t racist to be concerned about immigration, couching anti-immigration sentiment in vague economic concerns about ‘stolen’ jobs, but it often is straightforwardly racist. Pandering to racism and fascism emboldens these beliefs: tolerating the far right in a misguided attempt to shore up votes does nothing of the sort, but normalises hatred instead. Nigel Farage said on the BBC last month that ‘if people feel that voting doesn’t change anything, then violence is the next step.’
  • The unspeakable truth about racism in the UK.

  • ETA: Two Michael Rosen poems: “Fascism: I sometimes fear...” and “Miliband, UKIP and the ‘I’m not racist but...’ people”.

  • Here’s the comic I posted above in full. Humberstone shares my considerable misgivings about many aspects of the EU, but I appreciate that he doesn’t brush aside the uncertainty people like me are facing.

  • The Perils of Perception and the EU:
    The public have a number of significant misperceptions about the EU and how it affects life in the UK (...). We massively overestimate how many EU-born people now live in the UK. On average we think EU citizens make up 15% of the total UK population (which would be around 10.5m people), when in reality it’s 5% (around 3.5m people). Those who intend to vote to leave overestimate EU immigration more: they think 20% of the UK population are EU immigrants, compared with the average guess of 10% among those who intend to vote “remain”.
  • From the UK Statistics Authority statement on the use of official statistics on contributions to the European Union:
    As we have made clear, the UK’s contribution to the EU is paid after the application of the rebate. We have also pointed out that there are payments received by the UK public and private sectors that are relevant here. The continued use of a gross figure in contexts that imply it is a net figure is misleading and undermines trust in official statistics.
  • Polly Toynbee argues that “a leave vote will not solve people’s problems, and those feeling betrayed will lurch even further into racism and xenophobia”:
    Try arguing with facts and you get nowhere. Warn these Labour people what a Johnson/Gove government would do and they don’t care. Warn about the loss of workers’ rights and they don’t listen — maybe that’s already irrelevant to millions in crap jobs such as at Uber or Sports Direct. “We’re full up. Sorry, there’s no room for more. Can’t get GP appointments, can’t get into our schools, no housing.” If you tell these Labour voters that’s because of Tory austerity cuts, still they blame “immigrants getting everything first”. Warn about a Brexit recession leading to far worse cuts and they just say, “Stop them coming, make room for our own first.”
  • Gary Younge explains how we got here: because for half a decade, both main parties pandered to facile anti-immigration rhetoric instead of honestly discussing global inequality.
    Herein lies the most obscene perversion of this turn in the Brexit campaign. The very people who are slashing resources — the Tory right — and diverting what’s left to the wealthy are the ones rallying the poor by blaming migrants for the lack of resources.
  • From Nick Harkaway’s Letter to an old, old friend who is voting to Leave the EU:
    If what one wanted for Britain was a deregulated labour market with fewer rights for employees and fewer regulations upon banks and corporations, fewer environmental protections, a health service inexorably privatised to create a full-on healthcare market in the UK and other public services following suit, with the resultant influx of brigand capital and soaring inequality, then Leave could work really well. I’ve written post-Apocalypse stories and I’m uncomfortably familiar with that thought — the creation of a perfect oligarch island haven with great fashion and night life and tax breaks just two hours from Paris. But that doesn’t strike me either as a happy, prosperous nation or as the outcome you or most people will want from their Leave vote. It strikes me as a nightmare.
  • Laurie Penny: The EU is undemocratic and run in the interests of business. But it’s our least-worst option right now.

  • Dawn Foster and Jane Dudman on housing and leaving the EU.

  • Here’s the Trades Union Congress on how a Leave win could affect women at work.

  • Priya Atwal on the imperialist undertones of the Leave campaign:
    The espousal of such uncritical and misleading views about the history of British imperialism and migration is a truly toxic feature of the EU referendum campaign, and it constitutes a huge disservice to the British electorate on the part of its political representatives. The EU is definitely not perfect, it desperately needs reforming, especially if it is to tackle one of history’s greatest migration crises effectively — but by storming off in a misguided fit of arrogance and xenophobia, Britain is highly unlikely to achieve much.
  • How ethnic minorities are especially vulnerable to this clusterfuck.

  • I’ll finish with two links about other topics. First of all, I want to send all my love to everyone who’s afraid for other reasons. Here’s a link round-up of Queer Latino/a reactions to Orlando from NPR.

  • Lastly, Alexis Hancock wrote about How The Rhetoric of Imposter Syndrome Is Used to Gaslight Women in Tech. I have strong feelings about this, as I generally do about exclusively individual solutions to systemic problems, and their undertones of victim-blaming. Hancock does a brilliant job of articulating the issue: it’s not that women can’t benefit from developing their confidence, but my experience has also taught me that no amount of individual effort will stick without a healthy environment that doesn’t subtly devalue you at every turn. Internalising the problem can be deeply corrosive. It’s important that we acknowledge this, and make sure we’re not undermining one another’s sense of reality.
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    Jun 15, 2016

    Earthsea Revisited

    Date label on library copy of The Tombs of Atuan, with return stamps going back to 1972
    Date label on the copy of The Tombs of Atuan I read

    A few months ago, I felt the urge to reread one of my favourite fantasy series of all time: Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea. It’d been a long time since I’d last read them, and I confess I wondered briefly if I’d still like them as much as I did nearly a decade ago. As it turns out, I like them even better — though in slightly different ways, and for slightly different reasons. This, of course, is one of the pleasures of rereading: as Maureen so well explained in her post from earlier this year, it gives us the opportunity to commune with our past selves, and trace changes in our thoughts, values, and emotional states through the aspects of a work we respond to the most.

    I decided, this time around, to revisit the Earthsea novels that focus more on women’s lives, as they were always the ones that spoke to me the most. I do want to reread the others at some point, particularly The Farthest Shore, but it was The Tombs of Atuan, Tehanu and The Other Wind that were calling to me now. Last time I read them, The Tombs of Atuan and The Other Wind were my favourites, with Tehanu ranking as a somewhat distant third. Now it was the reverse — for the moment, Tehanu is my favourite Earthsea novel. Needless to say, this doesn’t mean I didn’t find them all brilliant: there’s such richness to them, such depth, and so many sentences that cause me to have to pause to catch my breath. What a writer Le Guin is.

    I remember why my younger self loved The Tombs of Atuan so fiercely, and why I love it still: it’s because it’s a story about a girl who has known great unkindness, to whom a great harm has been done, choosing not to embrace the darkness her life was supposed to be devoted to. I was especially moved by a scene near the end — one when, just after making it onto the boat that will take her and Ged to Havnor, Tenar becomes convinced she’s terrible because terrible things have happened to her. How awful; how familiar; how brilliantly portrayed. The scene ends with a letting go that feels almost physical — and although Tenar’s isn’t a struggle that could really be resolved in a single moment, it still resonates deeply. It’s a beginning, and the novel does it justice.

    Before the boat, though, and before leaving the powers of darkness behind, there’s this moment between Tenar and Ged, which I can’t imagine ever not being deeply moved by:
    “They would not let us get out. Ever.”
    “Perhaps not. Yet it is worth trying. You have knowledge, and I have skill, and between us we have…”
    “We have the Ring of Erreth-Akbe.”
    “Yes, that. But I thought also of another thing between us. Call it trust… That is one of its names. It is a very great thing. Though each of us alone is weak, having that we are strong, stronger than the Powers of the Dark.” His eyes were clear and dark in his scarred face. “Listen, Tenar!” he said. “I came here a thief, an enemy, armed against you; and you showed me mercy, and trusted me. And I have trusted you from the first time I saw your face, for one moment in the cave beneath the Tombs, beautiful in darkness. You have proved your trust in me. I have made no return. I will give you what I have to give. My true name is Ged. And this is yours to keep.” He had risen, and he held out to her a semi-circle of pierced and carven silver. “Let the rings be rejoined,” he said.
    Trust is a risk for both of them, and they embrace it with openness and care. Everything that happens next happens because of that initial leap.

    The fourth Earthsea novel, Tehanu, takes place many decades later. It shows a shift in Tenar’s relationship with Ged — one that couldn’t have happened until circumstances made it possible for the two to meet as equals. One of the things that stood out on this reread is how very concerned this novel is with powerless and what that means. Ged, having lost his magic and become physically frail, describes describes being afraid of men on the road when he’s travelling on his own. His vulnerability brings him great shame, but it is, of course, extremely familiar to Tenar. She’s a middle-aged woman who has lived all her life in a world whose gender politics are akin to our own, so of course she understands fear and helplessness. Part of what’s so interesting about Tehanu is watching Ged grapple with his fall from hegemonic masculinity. He moves from shame to acceptance, and in the process shows us that it’s not inevitable for men to respond to this with violence. I have a lot of feelings about the benefits of accepting a certain degree of powerlessness in this world, both because we’re frail human beings and because most ways of rejecting that cause such harm. But of course that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight disempowerment politically. This novel deals with the intricacies of this delicate balance with more skill than anything else I can think of.

    I’ve not even begun to do Tehanu justice — this is also a novel about surviving abuse, and healing in a context of love and care, of tenderness and openness, that allows trust to flourish. It’s lovely to watch Tenar and Ged come together, but it’s just as lovely to watch them treat Therru, the child in their care, with the respect she deserves. How brilliant Le Guin is at capturing the space between people, and the rich emotional currents that reside therein.

    And then there’s The Other Wind, an incredible novel about life and death and letting go, where Tenar finds herself thinking that Lebannen, the king she loves like a son, might yet break her heart. There’s plenty to like about this novel, but I was particularly touched by the alliance between Tenar and the Kargish princess Seserakh. Tenar insists that she be treated like a human being, rather than as a political opportunity or an inconvenience, and she holds the men in her life to this standard, even when they’re powerful and even when it hurts. It’s a reminder of what we can do for each other, and of what a difference a friend, and act of kindness, and a voice willing to speak up for you can make when you’re vulnerable and alone.

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    Jun 5, 2016

    Sunday Links: Surviving Capitalism (Reprise)

    Book pile: Black Boy by Richard Wright, In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri, Between Women by Sharon Marcus, Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman
    The current I-want-to-get-to-these-next portion of my TBR pile. We’ll see how it goes.

  • I love everything about this conversation between Laurie Penny and Moira Weigel, and now I desperately want to get my hands on Labor of Love:
    The tremendous emphasis placed on having “A Relationship” with a capital R — and “Defining the Relationship” — sometimes seems to lead people to devalue all other kinds of intimate connection, and lovers to treat one another worse than necessary. I like to think that all human interactions put us into relations with one another. And all relationships end — even if they last until death. That does not make them “a waste.”

    The cultural script that says that life, particularly female life, is still defined by a search for “The One” encourages us to devalue relationships that are crucial to our thriving — friendships and other forms of intimate connection. You see this in romantic movies and all kinds of pop culture representations — where, for example, your friends are a focus group you can dissolve once you have a mate.
  • Are You Successful? If So, You’ve Already Won the Lottery: “The human tendency to underestimate luck’s role has contributed to this troubling state of affairs by reducing the electorate’s willingness to support the public investments that make economic success possible.

  • Dawn Foster on Why We All Shared the Story About France’s Alleged Ban on After Work E-mails:
    People are as preoccupied with stories about their working lives as they are with their diets, hence why we see stories like the French email ban, the six-hour working day and even the Manhattan court typist repeatedly typing, “I hate my job” instead of working going viral: because most of us would like to work less but don’t feel we live in a secure enough economy and position to say or do so. Even if your boss doesn’t explicitly encourage you to be staring at the lit screen your iPhone from under your duvet at 2 a.m., there’s an implicit fear that if you don’t reply to emails and other colleagues do, you would be a shirker, someone not pulling your weight.
    I’m really grateful to work somewhere that doesn’t have this kind of work culture — I’ve seen what it’s done to people close to me.

  • Helaine Olen explains why buying coffee isn’t why any of us are in debt: “Giving up a latte or another such small extravagance in this environment wasn’t going to be enough. Yet the personal finance shills continued to tell people their problems were mostly of their own making.

  • A beautiful piece by Claudia Rankine on Adrienne Rich’s poetry: “One of our best minds writes her way through the changes that have brought us here, in all the places that continue to entangle our liberties in the twenty-first century.

  • From Libraries, over two generations:
    I saw those people there and we were on an equal playing field. They didn’t pay for their books either. We weren’t getting charity; we were just using the library.
    I think it would have felt harsh, if we hadn’t had that. It would have made life a little bit colder.
    There’s something about libraries which transcends even a love of books. They’re about a sense of society and your community.
    I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s true. It’s why the notion of libraries being free is essential. Because every community has — should have — a spread of incomes. Schools are no longer that melting pot; they’re not, they’re separated out more and more, with private education and grammar schools. But the local library can be that shared space, and maintained to the age of eighteen, at least.
  • I’ve been afraid, this month, and I’m so sick of fear. This explains some of the reasons why: “An exit now, on the terms set by UKIP and the Tory right, would mean a big lurch to the right, both in terms of economic policy and in terms of the process that is really driving this referendum campaign: anti-migrant racism, pandered to by the political establishment for decades.

  • Sarai Walker lists ten novels about women’s political awakening.

  • Jo Walton writes about Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning. I have to resist new books that aren’t available at my library until after my trip, but this is one I really can’t wait to get my hands on.

  • Speaking of books that sound absolutely amazing but I can’t get for now, here’s Kat Howard discussing her new novel Roses and Rot with Sarah McCarry:
    [O]ne of the questions that I started with was, okay, who would you risk that much for? Who would you be willing to stand against Hell itself, or the collected might of Faerie, or something great and terrible, with odds that you would almost certainly not survive? Like, that is a powerful amount of love. And it’s not that I don’t believe that a pair of lovers could have that sort of connection, but that’s a story that gets told a lot—almost every “I’m going to walk into Hell, and I am taking my person back out with me” is a story about lovers.

    But when I asked myself that question, the first person that came to mind was my sister. She was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer when we were teenagers. And she survived—she’s a beautiful, amazing human—but I remember feeling so helpless at the time, because this was someone I loved so much, and would have done anything for, and all I could do was stand by. And so when I knew I wanted to write this story, I knew I wanted to put a pair of sisters at the heart of it.
  • My new favourite songwriter Julien Baker discusses Being Queer, Southern, Christian, and Proud.

  • Lastly, here’s Robin Wasserman on the many uses of “girl”, how they’re dependent on context, and the cultural narratives they hint at.
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    May 31, 2016

    Beyond Human Nature

    The Art of Cruelty by Maggie Nelson
    It’s been a few weeks since I finished Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, and I’m still thinking about it. I knew as soon as I finished The Argonauts that I wanted to read everything Nelson has written, and The Art of Cruelty proved a perfect follow-up. It’s a book that deals with our fascination with cruel works of art, and with the culturally prominent idea that they reveal essential truths about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. I loved it because it’s more interested in broadening the range of questions we ask, in “shaking our habits of thought”, than in providing definitive answers; to paraphrase Nelson’s own articulation about the kind of writing and art she’s drawn to, it’s a book that creates space.

    Like all good criticism, The Art of Cruelty acknowledges that art is experienced differently by different people, or even by the same individual at different times: “not only do our work and words speak beyond our intentions and controls, but compassion is not necessarily found where we presume it to be, nor is it experienced or accessed by everyone in the same way, nor is it found in the same place in the same way over time. The same might be said of cruelty.” This touches on something that has long since been a preoccupation of mine: writing in such a way that acknowledges the possibility that different people will reach opposite conclusions about the same text, without requiring them to align one another with opposing values. This should perhaps be a given, but somehow it isn’t.

    One of the reasons why I’m interested in the discourse surrounding the art of cruelty is that it often makes assumptions about human nature that tend to go unquestioned explicit; unsurprisingly, this is one of the key concerns of Nelson’s book. The following excerpt is on the long side, but it is, I think, worth sharing in its entirety:
    The artist standing bravely in the face of the (inconvenient, brutal, hard-won, dangerous, offensive) truth, the artist who refuses to “evade facts”, or who can stare down “what the world really looks like”—what could be more heroic? Critics love the rhetoric used by artists such as Arbus and Bacon because it bolsters the sense that art and artists can rip off the veil, they can finally show us what our world is “really like”, what we are really like. I mean it as no slight to these artists (both of whom I admire), nor to the practice of truth-telling (to which I aspire) when I say I do not believe they do any such thing. Bacon shows us Bacon figures; Arbus shows us Arbus figures. This isn’t to say that Bacon’s paintings don’t tell us quite a bit about the human animal, especially when caught in a spasm of despair or carnage, or that Arbus’s don’t communicate quite a bit about the human animal in its freakiness, loneliness, absurdity, or abstruse ecstasy. Their works do all this, while also remaining products of their notoriously partial view of the world. There is absolutely nothing strange about this paradox, unless you’re looking to art to tell you “how things are”, rather than give you the irregular, transitory, and sometimes unwanted news of how it is to be another human being.
    I titled this post after a book that pushes back against the notion that “culture is but a thin veneer hiding our true animal natures”; in the years since I read it, this has only become more important to me. It’s not that I want to replace the idea that humans are naturally selfish and cruel with the idea that we’re unfailingly kind; it’s that I believe we are capable of kindness and cooperation; that we get to choose to strive towards it in small, ordinary, everyday ways; and also that there are consequences to leaving this out of our account of ourselves.

    If there’s anything we are by nature, it’s changeable and complicated; what we choose to emphasise is of course a matter of choice. This choice has implications for how I live my life: goodwill, I’ve come to realise, is absolutely essential to me, both in individual one-to-one relationships and in a wider sociopolitical sense. I’m moved by it, and I require the hope that it gives me. However, that doesn’t mean that when I choose to highlight our capacity for kindness and generosity, I’m choosing something slightly divorced from reality for pragmatic reasons — in order to comfort myself, so I can manage to carry on living in a cruel world. Choosing to highlight humanity’s darkness at the expense of anything else is every bit as much of a choice, and it creates a distorted picture — it’s just that pessimism happens to be the default, and is therefore the unmarked category.

    I have sympathy for those who default to it as a matter of self-defence — this is something I’ve been known to do at various points in my life, and I understand all too well being immersed in circumstances that make hope feel unsafe. What I resent, though, is the appearance of neutrality that envelops this pessimism, and most of all its aura of depth and intellectual respectability. It’s not uncommon to see hope dismissed as shallow or na├»ve, while anything that portrays human beings in an unflattering light is praised as clear-sighted and brave. This isn’t to say that I don’t find value in many works that show us at our worst, but not because they provide a glimpse of “how things really are”. The view, as Nelson says, is partial, and its interest lies exactly in that.

    There are, of course, ideological reasons for this disparity — pessimism does, after all, justify the core assumptions of neoliberal capitalism, our dominant political and economic system — but this is yet another reason why I resist it in every arena: in art, in politics, in cultural criticism, in life. I’ll end with another longish quote, as there’s no better articulation of the issue than Marilynne Robinson’s in The Givenness of Things:
    Cultural pessimism is always fashionable, and, since we are human, there are always grounds for it. It has the negative consequence of depressing the level of aspiration, the sense of the possible. And from time to time it has the extremely negative consequence of encouraging a kind of somber panic, a collective dream-state in which recourse to terrible remedies is inspired by delusions of mortal threat. If there is anything in the life of any culture or period that gives good ground for alarm, it is the rise of cultural pessimism, whose major passion is bitter hostility toward many or most of the people within the very culture the pessimists always feel that they are intent on rescuing. When panic on one side is creating alarm on the other, it is easy to forget that there are always as good ground for optimism as for pessimism — exactly the same grounds, in fact — that is, because we are human. We still have every potential for good we have ever had, and the same presumptive claim to respect, our own respect and one another’s. We are still creatures of singular interest and value, agile of soul as we have always been and as we will continue to be even despite our errors and depredations, for as long as we abide on this earth. To value one another is our greatest safety, and to indulge in fear and contempt is our gravest error.

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