Feb 21, 2017

How to Change the World, by John-Paul Flintoff

I figured I would round out my Resist List, as I like to call it, with some optimism and motivation. Flintoff is a British journalist and author who has spent years raising money for good causes and working towards real policy change at the governmental level. His argument is fairly simple: do what you can, when you can; make sure it's something you really care about and have fun doing; don't feel badly if it's something small - painting a beautiful picture that brings people happiness can be just as important as purifying drinking water or teaching a child to read.

I'm glad I read this after the relative doom and gloom of The Nordic Theory of Everything and Why I am Not a Feminist. There are a few journaling prompts to help hone in on what you really care about and what method might be most comfortable and effective for you, always keeping in mind that no effort or change for the positive is too small. For instance, I found that I care most about education because I think it's at the root of a lot of American society's problems, and that my best options for active resistance involve letter-writing and getting involved in local government. I'm not the most optimistic person, but I really did feel better after reading this. I have a game plan now, which should help keep me energized, and feel better about the little things I can do to make a difference. How to Change the World is a good, quick read for anyone who feels lost after the last year or so of enduring American politics...

Feb 15, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood

Sales for this modern dystopian classic have skyrocketed recently, and not just because a new TV adaptation is coming out. With Republicans catering to their anti-choice constituents and threatening to defund Planned Parenthood, in addition to a cabinet full of rich Christian white men (and one rich Christian white woman), women's reproductive rights are suddenly in question once more. As that old lady's protest sign exclaimed: "I can't believe I'm protesting this same shit again."

Our nameless narrator lives in a society drastically different from our own. I hesitate to describe it in much detail; one of the joys of science fiction is being thrust into an unfamiliar world and having to put the pieces together as you read, until you finally have one complete picture of that book's universe. Suffice to say: fertile women are a hot commodity, all women are suppressed and repressed, and Christian misogyny is the cause. This is an immensely powerful story about what can happen to a society when average people are too afraid - or too complacent - to speak out. Our narrator remembers the time before, her husband and her daughter and her job, misses it and them dearly, but is already frighteningly accustomed to her new life. She is voiceless and nameless property, a tool with one specific purpose, slave to a system that is built solely for her subjugation.

I don't love the writing style, if I'm being honest. It's a bit too stream-of-consciousness for me, rife with wordplay and free association, and the time periods switch back and forth frequently. That being said, I can't imagine this novel being as powerful if it weren't written in first person, which is the only way we can feel how utterly the narrator's circumstances have changed her as a person.

Atwood's inspiration was clearly the overthrow of secular government and establishment of religious law in countries such as Iran. This isn't science fiction, she's saying, this is happening, right now, right here on Earth, and it can happen here. This book is a warning; we need to fight to make sure it isn't a premonition.

Feb 12, 2017

Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, by Jessa Crispin

I probably need an advanced degree in rhetoric or sociology or philosophy to truly understand this slim powerhouse of a book and to do it justice in a review. I don't have any of those degrees, but I'll try my best regardless.

Jessa Crispin is, if you take the tenor of this book to heart, an angry woman. She's angry that women who label themselves feminists now denigrate the work done by radical feminists like Andrea Dworkin. She's angry that women who achieve money and power - the pinnacle of capitalist success - are labeled feminists simply because they have achieved parity in a man's world. She's angry that the self-help and -empowerment movement is taking feminism away from a movement that would empower ALL women, all people everywhere, in fact. She's angry that there is no room for dissent and disagreement within today's feminism, that monolithic ideology has replaced intellectual discourse and that when a woman dares to disagree, she is shamed and shunned and stripped of her "feminist" name tag.

The most salient thread that runs through these short essays is Crispin's dismay that feminism is now about finding equality within a morally bankrupt system, rather than tearing that system down and starting over again with something better. When feminism was redefined to mean getting money and power and success in romantic love, women betrayed their own movement. It's hard to deny that this is indeed the case. Women like Hillary Clinton and Sheryl Sandberg are automatically labelled feminists because they have reached up into The Man's world and grabbed money and power. But there is little digging underneath, no understanding that it's what that woman does with her money and power that makes her a feminist. Melinda Gates might be a good example; she's immensely wealthy and has spent much of her time and money on programs to help our planet's most vulnerable populations.

I'm simplifying, of course, partly for my own sake as I think about and parse out Crispin's brief but rhetorically rich manifesto. She is a much smarter woman than I, to be sure. The one thing I wish had been included is what her vision of that new, feminist society looks like, if she does indeed have a vision. It's easy to say we need to tear something down, and so much harder to determine what we can build in its place, and how.

Feb 7, 2017

The Nordic Theory of Everything, by Anu Partanen

In order to do this extensively researched, heartfelt plea for sanity in American policies justice, this review would need to be pages and pages long. Partanen, a native of Finland, fell in love with an American and immigrated to his country. Once ensconced in NYC, she enjoyed (and endured) the vagaries of American life: horribly expensive and insufficient health care, insanely expensive and failing public schools and child care, rock-bottom wages and non-existent parental leave - are you noticing a theme? Americans pay top dollar for nearly everything but get far less back for their money than the Nordic countries do. For example, we pay TWO AND A HALF TIMES what Iceland and Finland pay for health care but our life expectancy is lower and we have higher infant mortality rates. It's lunacy.

And how about the fact that free-market capitalism has apparently mandated that employers, not the government, help pay for benefits? How does that make sense? In Finland, as well as the other Nordic countries, the government (and yes, that means citizen taxes) pay for: universal health care, free public education up to and including university, mandated paid vacation time of at least 4-5 weeks per year, mandated paid parental leave for BOTH parents and protection from job loss, excellent public transportation, and extensive elder care. And for all this, they pay about the same in taxes as we do. None of this, high taxes for the wealthy included, prevents the Nordic countries from excelling in the free market. Entrepreneurship is just as, if not more, common there as it is here, because the risks and stressors of American life simply don't exist in these countries. What could you do, if you didn't have to worry about maintaining health insurance, or paying for your employees' insurance?

Partanen's arguments are all based around her Nordic theory of love: true freedom only happens when a person is unencumbered by ties of dependency on others. In America, children are utterly dependent on their parents and the accident of their birth to determine their economic status (and no, social mobility won't help them much, since about 40% of men born into the lowest income bracket stay in it); workers are dependent on their employers for (crappy) health insurance; spouses are dependent on their partners for financial stability; as we age, parents become dependent on their children to take care of them, both physically and financially. As Partanen points out, this is the exact opposite of freedom. Why do we insist on following a path that doesn't work, and ignore much more successful strategies to achieve wealth and happiness? It's so self-defeating.

I finished the book feeling, well, sorry for Partanen as she gained her U.S. citizenship. She left a land of stability for one of anxiety and stress. And given the current economic climate, the Nordic theory of love is looking better and better. I hope enough people come to their senses and use books like this to help make our country better.