Eric Schlosser (The Bat Segundo Show #515)

Eric Schlosser is most recently the author of Command and Control.


Author: Eric Schlosser

Subject Discussed: The 1980 nuclear missile accident in Damascus, Arkansas, drug use among the military after the Vietnam War, the Titan II’s continuous deployment even after it was unsafe, Fred Iklé, efforts to point out safety shortfalls in the military, the lack of locks on nuclear weapons, Permissive Action Links, Robert Peurifoy, Curtis LeMay, the real-life inspiration for Dr. Strangelove, Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis, LeMay’s bellicose attitude, 1960s defense culture, alternative perceptions of LeMay, LeMay’s attention to detail, checklists and operating procedures, a giant nuclear arsenal intended as a deterrent, limited vs. total war, Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, the influence of male attitude on deterrents, what we needed from LeMay during the Cold War, the risks taken by Strategic Air Command officers, recent safety mishaps with U.S. nuclear missile units, responding to speculation that LeMay wanted to start World War III, the history of the the Strategic Air Command, why the Command and Control system couldn’t factor in human exhaustion, how the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union caused unreasonable labor for servicemen, the difficulties of accounting for all nuclear weapons, Robert McNamara’s belief that mad decisions were logical at the time, the 1978 Titan II accident in Rock, Kansas, why there were so many mishaps with Titan II oxidizer, the RFHCO suits (and the astonishing wear-and-tear on this protection, which wasn’t replaced in many cases), blame directed at the workers, how systemic problems contributed to an unrealistic and bureaucratic view of Air Force servicemen, putting men into dangerous systems with defective gear, black electrical tape used to “secure” suits in missile silos, loose arming wires that permitted bombs to drop, an atomic bomb that nearly went off in North Carolina in 1961, the missing atomic bomb still entombed in Nahunta Swamp, the H-bomb accidentally dropped on Spain in 1966, why America’s military infrastructure still relies on aging B-52 bombers, the 1968 Thule Air Base B-52 crash, the importance of morale within workers who are tending to the most dangerous machines in the world, Kissinger’s efforts to get rid of the Titan II, the Single Integrated Operational Plan, Eisenhower’s deadly arbitration between the Air Force and the Navy, how the Strategic Air Command kept SIOP details away from Kissinger, bureaucratic rivalries, William Odom’s briefing on the SIOP, the interplay between Kennedy and Khrushchev, the lack of a direct line between the United States and the Soviet Union through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the effect of nuclear policy on diplomacy, miscommunication and unreliable back channels, the present nuclear risk in South Asia, the recent terrorist attack in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, the Peshawar church attack, Edward Snowden’s findings about the United States’s lack of information about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, conflict between India and Pakistan, why deterrence theory doesn’t apply to religious fanatics, how storage facilities are prime targets for adversaries and how this is a serious problem in Pakistan.


Correspondent: Much of the missile culture that you describe in this book is, to say the least, remarkably unsafe. You have this Arkansas Titan II mishap at Launch Complex 374-7 — the so-called Damascus accident — that forms the backbone of this book. It all hinges on a socket wrench that is dropped down a silo and pierces this fuel tank. And if that isn’t enough, you have oxidizer that permeates around the station, causes 22-year-old David Livingston to die and several men to be severely wounded. You have procedures that aren’t followed. You have the Propellant Transfer System team violating this careful two man policy, where you have two keys turning at the same time. We often see that in the movies, but this was, in fact, the policy during the mid-20th century and onward to activate the missile. So this leads me to ask. How did the Launch Complex adopt such a far from cautious approach to daily maintenance duties? How much of this was systematic? And how much of this was human error?

Schlosser: You know, our military was in pretty rough shape after the Vietnam War. And it’s a forgotten fact now because we have our precision-guided munitions and we go to war with one country after another. And we seem so completely dominant. But after the Vietnam War, there was major underinvestment in the military. There were terrible morale problems. Huge percentages of our troops in the Army came back addicted to heroin. And there were remarkably high levels of illegal drug use even in the Air Force. So in the book, I write about guys smoking pot on the missile site. Launch officers who have responsibility for launching intercontinental ballistic missiles smoking pot. In the book, I go into guys who are busted with LSD and cocaine who had nuclear weapons responsibilities. And that was part of the bigger culture of the ’70s. There was really poor morale. The Titan II missile that’s at the heart of this story was obsolete. It was supposed to be taken out of service in the late 1960s. In 1980, it was still on alert. It was leaking all the time. They didn’t have spare parts. So the accident I write about is precipitated by somebody dropping a socket in a missile silo and the socket pierces the skin of the missile. But in many ways, this weapons system was an accident waiting to happen. And in my criticism of some of the procedures in the 1970s and early 1980s, I really don’t imply a criticism of the ordinary servicemen who worked on these weapons systems. On the contrary. The book is about the incredible heroism of ordinary guys put in custody of nuclear weapons at a remarkably young age. I’m getting old enough now. So when I think of a nineteen, twenty, twenty-one year old person having custody of a thermonuclear weapon, it takes me aback. And those guys again and again in the Cold War had this responsibility. Maybe some of them were smoking pot. But most of them were quite serious about not wanting these weapons to go off and about making sure that we were safe from attack from the Soviet Union.

Correspondent: What’s fascinating is why so many young and inexperienced greenhorns would be given such responsibility for these missiles. I mean, that’s what boggles the mind. Especially since there were several other accidents. The B-52s that you have dropping bombs that thankfully didn’t have charged warheads. I mean, this is very serious. This isn’t asking regular people to go ahead and mop up the floor of a hangar. This is our system. And I’m wondering what conditions allowed this to perpetuate for so long, notwithstanding the heroism that you depict in your book.

Schlosser: The accident that is the central narrative of the book — the Titan II accident in Damascus, Arkansas — was unquestionably linked to understaffing, to poorly trained personnel, shortage of spare parts, an obsolete weapons system. But I write about many other accidents in the book. And in those accidents, they had extremely well-trained personnel. They had the most modern weapons imaginable. The best systems in place imaginable. But one of the big themes of the book is that we’re a lot better at creating complex technologies than we are at controlling them or managing them. And it’s hard to think of a machine that doesn’t mess up. From your toaster oven to your laptop to commercial airliners to commercial nuclear power plants, no matter how sophisticated the people and no matter how well-trained, it’s just beyond fallible, imperfect human beings to create something that’s infallible and perfect. And when you’re talking about nuclear weapons, you’re talking about the most dangerous machines ever invented. So it makes sense that those machines and the complex technological systems that manage them would mess up occasionally. But the consequences of one of those things screwing up is a lot more than if your toaster oven freezes up and catches on fire in the kitchen. And one of the reasons I wrote the book was, firstly, I thought the story of this missile accident was just unbelievable. And I thought the heroism of the guys who tried to save the missile was unbelievable. But I’m just trying to remind people that these things are out there. There are thousands of nuclear weapons right now that are ready to go. And people my age — I’m 54; I grew up in the Cold War — remember what it was like to live with this dread that there might be an all-out nuclear war any day. But half the people who live in the United States either weren’t born yet or were small children when the Soviet Union vanished. And there’s a historical amnesia. And most people just don’t realize these weapons are there. Now I’m not trying to create an existential dread in anybody. I’m not trying to create late night anxiety. But this is really important information. And people need to know it.

Correspondent: Well, even in the 1950s, you have this guy named Fred Iklé. He disseminates this RAND report on nuclear weapon safety and he outlines all the motivations that would cause someone to disobey orders and set off a nuclear weapon. His reports were disseminated, as you point out in the book, to the highest levels of the Air Force and the Department of Defense. You’ve got this guy Bob Peurifoy. He points to numerous safety problems as well. Your book, as we have established, documents several incidents in which safety is sacrificed for ease of intercontinental ballistic missile use in retaliation. Why was the top brass so recalcitrant against safety? Why were they so interested in taking shortcuts? I mean, it seems to me that it goes beyond a cultural problem or an institutional problem and into just pure recklessness.

Schlosser: Yeah. And that top secret report by Iklé was really cool to read. I mean, it was looking into the ways that not only mechanically these weapons could go wrong, but I think in one section of the report there’s a catalog of derangement, which is looking at what sort of psychological problems airmen might have that would lead them to deliberately set off a weapon, deliberately steal a weapon. And at the time that Iklé was writing, literally there were no locks on our nuclear weapons. There were no coded switches. So a pilot who wanted to take a weapon could just fly to the target in the Soviet Union, in the Eastern Bloc, or even in the United States and just drop it, if he or she wanted to do that. And Iklé’s report was important in one respect. It really encouraged what you’d think would be a no brainer, but nobody had thought of doing. Putting locks on the weapons. The locks that were eventually put on them — these coded switches called Permissive Action Links — they were effective. But to someone who really understood the innards of the weapon, in a few hours, they could just disable it. Robert Peurifoy is one of the heroes of the book. He’s a weapons designer at one of the weapons labs: the Sandia National Laboratories. He realized in the late 1960s that our nuclear weapons just weren’t safe enough and that during what is called an “abnormal environment” — I mean, you could argue that the whole history that I write about in the book is an abnormal environment. But at the weapons labs, they refer to abnormal environments as a fire, a subversion of a weapon, a plane crash, a lightning strike.

Correspondent: Amazingly, no acronym.

Schlosser: Right. He realized that our weapons were not safe enough in these abnormal environments. But it took him like a twenty year bureaucratic battle to get modern safety devices put in the weapons, which we now have today. But you would never build a nuclear weapon today in the United States without these sorts of safety devices. Ultimately, at the heart of the problem, firstly is a sort of bureaucratic mentality. Someone said recently to me, “If you want to understand how bureaucracies work, it’s better to be wrong than be alone.” So it takes somebody with some personal courage to stand up, willing to buck the bureaucracy, and be alienated from everyone else as a result. And there also has been since the very first nuclear weapon was deployed an internal contradiction, a tension between wanting the weapons to be as safe as possible and wanting them to be as reliable as possible and available for immediate use. If you wanted the weapons to be totally safe, you would never fully assemble them until you’re about to use them. But if you want to use them within 45 seconds or a minute, you need to have them fully assembled on top of the missile or inside the bomber and ready to go. So in the book, I talk about this internal tension between always wanting to be able to use the weapon and never wanting it to go out by accident. And again and again, throughout our nuclear history, the military preferred always to never. And some of it I can understand. These bomber pilots knew that if they got the order to go bomb the Soviet Union, they would be flying into an environment that no pilot had ever flown into before. Missiles would probably have already hit the Soviet Union. They would be flying into this atomic wasteland, in many ways, to drop their bombs and they were probably on one-way suicide missions to do so. And yet they were willing to do it. And it would be a bummer for them if they risked everything to take out a Soviet Union airfield and that weapon turned out to be a dud because there were too many safety devices on it. Having said that, I would have voted for greater safety. Robert Peurifoy, the Sandia engineer, felt like we could make the weapons reliable enough and still make them much safer. And eventually his view prevailed. But it took…

Correspondent: Decades.

Schlosser: Almost two decades. And I think it really hurt his career. He wound up being a vice president at this weapons lab. But he was ostracized. It hurt his career. And I think it was enormously stressful for him to live with this constant knowledge that one of our weapons might detonate and be trying to fight the system to make them safe. And he prevailed. But it was a pretty stressful job.

(Loops for this program provided by 40A, petitcrabe, Nebraskaboy12, chefboydee, danke, and mejiam, .)

The Bat Segundo Show #515: Eric Schlosser (Download MP3)

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Alissa Quart (The Bat Segundo Show #514)

Alissa Quart is most recently the author of Republic of Outsiders. This show is the second of two related programs devoted to the American epidemic of gravitating to mainstream culture in an age of limitless choice. (You can listen to the first part: Show #513 with Kiese Laymon.)


Author: Alissa Quart

Subjects Discussed: George Lucas as “independent filmmaker,” how the presumed amateur mediums of YouTube and Kickstarter have become dominated by established figures, Amanda Palmer’s exploitation of musicians, Marina Abramović’s exploitation of dancers, Tilda Swinton marketing herself as an outsider, problems with the term “maverick,” the problems with Dave Eggers’s “selling out” rant, why resisting “selling out” has declined in the last ten years, Branded, OK Soda, how alternative cartoonists defied corporations, the decline in ad parodies, Yahoo cracking down on Tumblrs with sexual content, the flat self, how the lack of privacy destroys existential possibilities, the online exhibitionist impulse, Marie Calloway and easily deciphered pseudonyms, the relationship between the professional and the amateur, the rise of Etsy, T.J. Jackson Lear’s notion of antimodern dissent, people who strive to be featured sellers, false feminist fantasies, stealth capitalistic wish fulfillment, how physical space of hobbyists is appropriated by digital companies, handmade status, parallels between Etsy and freemium video games, addiction to Candy Crush Saga, Team Fortress 2, Netflix as an elaborate scheme to mine entertainment data, the narcotic state of false entertainment empowerment, vegans and fake meat, sanctimonious parallels between an animal rights activist telling you to watching a stream of slaughterhouse videos and a supermarket chain which claims that it slaughters animals humanely, crying over a field mouse dying, animal rights futurists, how prescriptive dichotomies develop into mainstream tropes, morally ostentatious ideological positions, The Icarus Project, the fine line between being eccentric and in need of help, bipolar writers, Mad Pride, a thought experiment concerning healthcare, whether or not it is the outsider’s to constantly resist, nontraditional settings for psychiatric care, Wikipedia’s transphobia against Chelsea Manning, transfeminists pointing to the assumption that the decision to have children is an assumption for all women, #solidarityisforwhitewomen, blind spots of mainstream feminists, gender distinctions at Barnard, young people and privacy*, Snapchat, how outsider ideas become mainstream, a Comics Alliance review of Heroes of Cosplay, cosplay as the professionalization of fans, the Tron Guy, how body image is becoming more Hollywood with professional cosplay, Vimeo auteurs, viral videos about broken subway steps, corporations that use images of people against their will, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Star Wars Uncut, contemporary collective filmmaking of today vs. truly independent filmmaking of the past (John Cassevetes, et al.), how tastemakers saved Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, the entitled fan critic vs. the designated gatekeeper, the decline of auteurism, mumblecore, documentary collectives in the 1960s, designated advocates vs. fan advocates, Kickstarter and behavioral economics, what a true outsider is, Sublime Frequencies’s Alan Bishop, the discipline of only being influenced by the sensibilities you cultivate, Pitchfork, taste as the last recourse in a world with too much information, how the word “curator” has been inverted, Maria Popova, the obligation to be outsider in some way, NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour, Lev Manovich’s idea of data streams, and the limited cultural scope of hyperniche groups on Twitter.


Correspondent: When George Lucas made Star Wars Episodes I through III, he declared himself an “independent filmmaker.” Even though he was self-financing these movies for many millions of dollars. I also remember in 2011 when Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gorden Levitt were singing “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” and they released this to YouTube. They faced a great deal of criticism. YouTube is the amateur medium. Well, now we’re in a totally different ball game these days. Now we have crowdfunding. We have Spike Lee, Zach Braff, Veronica Mars on Kicktarter. And these people say, “Hey, it’s okay.” And what’s even more astonishing is that people are more accepting of this. And maybe, just to start off on what we’re dealing with here in terms of insiders and outsiders, why do you think that independent filmmaking has changed so that we now accept these people moving into the turf previously occupied by outsiders and people who were scrabbling together various resources to make different, eclectic art?

Quart: Well, I think right now we’re seeing coalitions of insiders and outsiders in a single person. So you have someone like Spike Lee, who is doing a Kickstarter campaign. He may have raised it by now. He was trying to raise $1.4 million. And then you have Amanda Palmer raising something similar on Kickstarter. Even more. And then you have actual true outsiders, or people who would have defined themselves as outsiders for many years, also using these same media. And it becomes, as I write in my book, a “republic of outsiders” — some which are arguably relying on their fans too much.

Correspondent: To the point of exploiting them, as Amanda Palmer is. “Hey, we’re going to have professional musicians play for free.” Which she’s received a lot of understandable flack for.

Quart: And I just saw recently Marina Abramović — the performance artist who had a big show at MOMA, quite famous. A dancer was complaining about being exploited for her labor in a crowdsourcing. Now there’s highbrow artists who are getting in on this kind of fan/star collapse and also monetizing the labor of people who are non-stars.

Correspondent: It’s interesting. Because I saw recently that Tilda Swinton went to Russia and is presenting herself as a total outsider. Of course, there’s her famous exhibit where she’s basically sleeping there. We’re now seeing a situation where mainstream people, or people who have dabbled between mainstream and outsider type of art, now feel this overwhelming need to define themselves as a rebel in some way. And yet they’re still reliant in many ways upon corporate cash or mainstream sources.

Quart: Or ordinary people’s cash.

Correspondent: Yes!

Quart: Or a friend’s cash.

Correspondent: And with crowdfunding. Yes.

Quart: Or a friend’s labor. And in a sense, the traditional selling out, where you’re relying on a corporation, can start to seem somewhat more innocent.

Correspondent: Well, why do you think that identifying yourself as an outsider is now a fundamental part of being? We can all sort of see through it. Especially when one tracks the general tenor or some artist’s voice. So why is this such a big thing these days?

Quart: Originally I was going to call this book either The Maverick Principle or Mavericks. And then there was the 2008 election. Sarah Palin and John McCain calling themselves “mavericks.”

Correspondent: “A real maverick.” Yes.

Quart: And then at some point Obama was even called “renegade.” So I think it’s really interesting. There’s a lot of use of language of the rebel/renegade. But part of what I did in this book was that I tried to include as many people who I considered — and I use this word advisedly — authentic outsiders, as well as people who are in this inside/outside thing like Amanda Palmer.

Correspondent: Sure. Well, one piece of writing you don’t actually include in the book, that I feel is actually germane to this argument, is Dave Eggers’s famous “selling out” speech, which he gave to The Harvard Advocate. And I still see it crop up all the time on Tumblr, where people constantly post it. And he basically says, okay, so the Flaming Lips appeared on 90210 and they performed their popular songs. But who cares? And he says, “Hey, I take money. Considerable thousands of dollars from Fortune Magazine. But I’m giving that away.” But what’s interesting about this, and what no one actually seems to think about in considering the Eggers rant, is that he’s not willing to hold himself accountable for how being indoctrinated in that kind of mainstream situation is going to affect his outsider nature or is actually going to compromise it in some way. And I’m wondering why this is such a compelling piece of text even almost fifteen years later, after it was originally disseminated. Why do you think people are still clinging to this notion of being an outsider or wanting to justify the fact that we’re all ensnared in this trap of having to…

Quart: As I said, the term “selling out,” which I considered an honorific when I was growing up. Or the opposite. Not selling out was honorific. Selling out was a terrible thing to do. I think the paradoxes of the term “selling out” have collapsed. And so you see people not even recognizing what that means. Now I’m going to start sounding like an old fuddy-duddy. But it’s not really a term that people really use or judge themselves by. It’s seen as a compliment. “Oh, I got Doritos to use my content that I created. Even though I’m just a fanboy.” Or “I got the latest hip-hop artist to use my remix in an advertisement. I’m so great.” So I think one of the reasons this document may hold appeal is that it’s a smart, well-heeled person kind of explaining what a lot of people are experiencing and addressing, if there is any, their lingering doubt. Is this a problem that I don’t even have this lodestone of selling out/not selling out anymore?

Correspondent: Why do you think that the notion of “selling out” became — when do you think the stigma was deflated? I mean, is this probably the last ten years, would you say?

Quart: I could feel it. I wrote a book. It came out in 2003.

Correspondent: You did.

Quart: Branded. And that to me was like — I didn’t even know it then, but I was seeing all these adolescents — I called it self-branding — who were defining themselves by the products they were consuming. Like “I am Coke. I am Pepsi. I am Abercrombie.” And I thought to myself, “Wow, this is just a teen thing.” But then the more I looked into it, these kids were growing up. And they were going to similarly retain that kind of identification. So I think a lot of it happened in the ’90s. It happened during the consolidation of corporations. It happened with the faltering economy. So people didn’t feel that they had the courage necessarily, even if they wanted to. To not define themselves by status markers. So I think there’s a multitude of factors that went into it.

Correspondent: You think people wanted to belong? And not really finding an absolute group, they turned to what corporations had to offer?

Quart: Yeah. I think it was just a surround sound culture. I mean, it is right now. We live in a screen culture where there’s endless pop-up ads, where our data is being mined. Where if I check out a jacket on a site, I’ll be seeing that jacket reappearing endlessly on my browser with every site I visit. In the early 2000s, when I wrote Branded, the line between advertorial and editorial in teen publications was collapsing. And that itself was a cause for dismay in media critic circles. And I wrote about it. “Oh no. They’re getting these advertising giveaways that are masquerading as magazines for teenagers.” Now everything they read carries promotional content. Magazines themselves are promotional entities. Again, the paradoxes of what selling out means have collapsed. And given the difficulties of the magazine and newspaper businesses right now, people don’t even focus on this that much. What content carries a commercial valence and which doesn’t.

Correspondent: But there was a time — like I think, for example, of OK Soda, where Coca-Cola hired Dan Clowes and Charles Burns to make this hip kind of design. I love this story. And they basically took the money and ran. I mean, there used to be a more honorable way of taking corporate money and pissing in their face.

Quart: Well, I think what you’re talking about is subversion, or subvertising. Remember all those terms that people used to use, and I loved? They don’t seem to be around so much anymore. Remember there was that moment. Well, it starts with MAD Magazine. Ad parodies? I mean, I don’t even see ad parodies anymore. It’s kind of weird.

Correspondent: Yeah! There used to be a rich culture in the ’90s and even in the early noughts. They were still, I think, flourishing even after September 11th. But I think something happened. And I guess I’m trying to ask you, Alissa…

Quart: What happened?

Correspondent: What was it? It probably, as you say, was post-2008 economic problems.

Quart: Some of them. 9/11 is a pertinent moment. Because you saw our President telling us to go shopping. It wasn’t “Have courage! Batten down the hatches!” It was “Go to the mall!” This is the way to be American. That was just one of many data points on that journey towards becoming an American shopper, not an American citizen.

Correspondent: One thing you didn’t really write about in this book that I think is possibly germane to this conversation is Tumblr. I mean, here is a situation where people think they’re being alternative on Tumblr. And very often, I see that they’re actually tailoring their posts so they can be liked or favorited and reposted elsewhere. And then on top of that, we had Yahoo recently purchase Tumblr. And they’ve started to quash down on certain blogs that actually have sexual content. And — I call them the Tumblrettes — the people who work at Tumblr, they scurry away when anybody has a more outsider or traditionally pugnacious reply in response to a cultural ill. Do you think that sometimes mediums such as Tumblr enable our worst impulses?

Quart: I mean, if we’re talking about companies buying other companies, we see that all the time. We see Goodreads being bought by Amazon. I guess in the ’90s, they would have called it mini-majors. Remember when independent studios were being bought? Miramax or Sony would purchase an independent company. Well, you see that happening a lot with companies that would be offering alternative platforms, that would be bought by companies that don’t offer those platforms. What happens, I guess, is that eventually there’s a neutralization of content. That’s another way in which outsiderdom is controlled.

Correspondent: But I think people have a choice to limit themselves or put themselves into some position where some moderating force is going to discourage them from truly expressing what’s on their mind. Clearly, there is something to be said about people’s choice of expression. I mean, they’re consenting to this. It’s not just evil corporate forces. And I’m wondering why that is.

Quart: I think, in the past, you used to see science fiction movies where people’s souls would be sucked out of their bodies by alien beings. And now we give away our information for the price of a five dollar badge online. For a sale item. There’s just such a level in a certain way. I call it the flat self. I mean, this isn’t in my book. But it’s something that I see a lot. And I guess it’s one of the incentives for writing a book like this, for people who are less flat. But for people who are willing to give away their information, their data — even the reaction to the fact that our information is being obtained against our will by all these companies and by our government. People are like, “Eh? Sure! I’ll give that away for 10% off!”

Correspondent: Well, what would be the typical flat self? Or I suppose a pernicious flat self? Since we’re on this particular metaphor. It seems to me it’s kind of an evolution of the dyed hair craze of people. As I grew up in San Francisco and Berkeley, you’d see people with dyed hair and punk T-shirts and they’d all look alike. Possibly more alike than a sea of corporate navy blue suits.

Quart: Well, there’s lots of ways to be a flat self. I guess what we’re talking about here is people who have, in some ways, are afraid and have succumbed to just a commercialized self that doesn’t have an interior life. So if you don’t think you have much of an interior life, the only thing you’re afraid of is if you’ve done anything wrong that people will see. You don’t really care about protecting the nature of your subjectivity. That’s not something that you’re concerned about.

Correspondent: A lack of an interior life is possibly part of this problem?

Quart: Perhaps. Or a lack of an interior life that you care about preserving.

* — Our Correspondent misstated the exact statistic. We regret the error and hope that the above link will set the matter straight.

(Loops for this program provided by Kristijann, 40A, ferryterry, and Boogieman0307.)

The Bat Segundo Show #514: Alissa Quart (Download MP3)

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Kiese Laymon (The Bat Segundo Show #513)

Kiese Laymon is most recently the author of the novel Long Division and the essay collection How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. This show is the first of two related programs devoted to the American epidemic of gravitating to mainstream culture in an age of limitless choice. (You can also listen to the second part: Show #514 with Alissa Quart.)


Author: Kiese Laymon

Subjects Discussed: Meeting people under bridges, Percival Everett’s Erasure, Mississippi teens who run away from narratives, throwaway culture, the importance of stories carrying you through the day, critiquing storytelling skills as a way of understanding the truth, alternative narrative identities as methods of accounting for unspoken national problems, how New York rappers spoke to Mississippi black boys, black Southerners as the generators and architects of American culture, active listening vs. culture as background noise, lyrics and storytelling, native Mississippians who aren’t familiar with the blues, the acceptable level of American cultural engagement, sorrow songs vs. the Ku Klux Klan, standing up for Mississippian culture, people who don’t care about the origin to the soundtracks of their lives, national cultural awareness through regional cultural awareness, tourist notions of regions through culture, New Jersey’s history of serial killers and crime, blind engagement with the South, the refusal to hear what people are literally saying to us, dying as a backbone for Mississippi music, interrogating death, Bessie Smith and the 1927 flood, Big K.R.I.T., running away from the gospel tradition, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, whether time travel stories require a moral equilibrium, America as a crazy-making narration that doesn’t want to accept how crazy it really is, grandmother roles, “How to Kill Yourself and Others in America,” being kicked out of college for not checking out Stephen Crane, how the act of committing everything to memory guides you through life, the desire to hold on to innocence, how Laymon’s early writing was denied and disapproved and disparaged, why all 19-year-olds are lunatics to some degree, satire and observation, the important of implicating yourself, Teju Cole, frat culture, sexism and classism, living with druggie roommates, when certain college kids aren’t incriminated and imprisoned (while others are), how bravery helps you make better decisions, individual guilt and societal guilt, the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, sanitizing the truth about racial inequality, the capitalist-commercial nexus and its impact upon airbrushing culture and narrative, why Obama cannot tell the truth, getting the President we deserve, “The Lost Presidential Debate of 2012,” “The Worst of White Folks,” how the state is trying to convince that we are good people (while the community tells the truth), Black Power and nostalgia, Stokely Carmichael, egomaniacal misogynists and ideological commitment, Martin Luther King and token Google Doodles, white folks who don’t share power, why we aren’t able to look at the sentences, interrogating mythology, superficial dissections of pop culture from white people (e.g., Slate Culture Gabfest), Miley Cyrus and the politics of twerking, white appropriation at the MTV Video Music Awards, Brooklyn gentrification, Robin Thicke, Justin Timberlake taking the Michael Jackson Award, society’s failure to implicate itself, how Bernie Mac, Michael Jackson, and Tupac were eaten alive by American culture, recklessness as spectacle, how Michael Jackson projected what we didn’t want to talk about, Tupac’s hologram at Coachella, living in a world surrounded by digital ghosts of sanitized cultural figures, Tupac’s music before Death Row and the downside of selling tickets, the label “Black Twitter,” white people on Twitter, #solidarityisforwhitewomen, important work that goes on without white people, the slipshod involvement of mainstream feminists, how race changes the moral focus, slavery and the Holocaust, and making deals with evil terms.


Correspondent: So let’s start with Long Division, which is truly a tale of two Cities. You have this kid named City. He’s in 1985. He’s in 2013. There’s a book called Long Division within Long Division. And this reminded me very much of Stagg R. Leigh’s My Pafology in Percival Everett’s Erasure. I’m wondering — just because we have to ask you how this book got started — to what degree were you responding, like Percival Everett, to limited literary representation of the African American experience? And how was this a way for you to explore versions of City in 1985 that you couldn’t pursue in the present day?

Laymon: That’s a great question. I think I had to make it a metafictive book, particularly because I wanted the characters to consciously and unconsciously be exploring not just the lit that came before them, but the literature that they read that came before them. So there’s a literary mechanism in place that I’m critiquing as an author. But I wanted to create two different Cities who are also dudes who are 14 and very aware of the lit that they read. And they’re really aware of canonical lit. So there are important scenes. There’s a scene in a principal’s office. There’s a scene in the library where I think that, with these two Cities, we can see them actually trying to become runaway characters. But if they’re going to be runaway characters, I had to position them as characters in some way fully aware of the lit that they’ve read, but not fully aware of the narratives that they’re running away from. So the narratives that they’re running away from are different from the books that they’ve read. And part of the book is that they’re trying to figure out what constitutes this narrative that they’re running away from. And as a writer, obviously, I’m thinking about a lot of African American/black Southern lit. Black Boy particularly. But I wanted them to be running away from literature that they read. Which is really important for me.

Correspondent: Well, I’m glad you mentioned that. Because at one point, City has to stay with his grandmother in Melahatchie, Mississippi. His reading library there is largely this kind of throwaway culture.

Laymon: Right.

Correspondent: Centered around classical books with a capital C and the Bible. And as you write, “I didn’t hate on spinach, fake sunsets, or white dudes named Spencer, but you could just tell whoever wrote the sentences in those books never imagined that they’d be read by Grandma, Uncle Relle, LaVander Peeler…” — his frenemy — “…my cousins, or anyone I’d ever met.” So this leads me to ask. I mean, why do you think that in the South, for these characters especially, that their notion of what it is to be alive is so rooted around books? To what extent were you limited in these areas? You and City? Why is that such an important definition?

Laymon: Well, you know, a lot of people have called Mississippi and particularly the South generally the home of American storytelling going way back to Twain and what not. And so story telling and story listening are part and parcel of our culture. Particularly if you grew up in a really religious gospel kind of household. I grew up in stories, but they were stories that were carried through music or language or stories you had to read in the Bible, and stories that my grandmother told me when she came home from work. Stories just carried the day. So I wanted to create two characters that were hyperaware of stories, of storytelling, and really critical of storytelling. The book starts with City critiquing LaVander’s storytelling ability. And LaVander is critiquing City’s storytelling ability. But by the time City gets to that library, what he’s trying to say is “I’m not being completely reactionary. I get that there’s some great cynicism in these books. But I don’t know what to do with the fact that these people never imagined anybody like me reading these texts.” And so for him, at this point, he really believes that audiences are the bedrock of sentence creation. Like to whom are you writing a sentence to? And so when he gets in that library — and it is throwaway culture in a way. So much happens in there. He sees himself for the first time on the Internet, right? He sees the way that he’s presented to other people. And I just wanted to create characters who were not too precocious, too smart, too witty, but in some way wholly aware that stories carry everything.

Correspondent: So what they read is almost an alternative identity that the United States as a whole can’t actually accommodate because of the many interesting questions of race that are in this book.

Laymon: Absolutely. And this is where literature is particularly important. Because with the references to hip-hop early on, hip-hop has been critiqued. I’ve critiqued it. Will continue to critique it. One of the things that hip-hop did, I think, early on for young black boys is that it was an art form that was made popular, that was talking directly to you as a fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen year old. At least you thought that. When you get geographically specific, you start to see that a lot of these rappers from New York weren’t talking to Mississippi black boys. But you felt that you were being talked to anyway. So one of the things that these characters are really trying to deal with is what happens to the characterization of a real person and a character who is so often not written to people who look just like them. And as we see early on in the book, we get this narrative imposed on them. And they’re trying to break out. And LaVander sort of does break out. But there’s a price to pay for that breakage. But it’s all about narrative creation.

Correspondent: Yes. I’m glad you brought up hip-hop. Because I wanted to talk about “Hip Hop Stole My Southern Black Boy” — one of the essays. You point to how black Southerners are “the generators and architects of American music, narrative, language, capital, and morality.” You point out that the South not only has something to say to New York, but it has something to say to the world. And I’m wondering why you think the world is so unwilling to listen. How much of this resistance to Southern innovation has to do with people who remain too caught up in some of these B-boy routines?

Laymon: I think the world is listening. But I don’t think the world knows what it’s listening to. You know what I mean? There’s no doubt the world is listening to really rock, R&B, and I would even argue funk that has its root in the Deep South. The world is listening to gospel music. The world is listening to blues right now that has its roots not just in Mississippi, but that Deep Southern, South Central culture. They’re listening. They’re dancing to it. They’re making love to it. They’re talking to it. It’s the music that scores our movies. But I don’t really think we know or, I should say, I don’t know if I fully know. I don’t think we’ve taken enough time to think about where that music actually comes. Like what people created, originated, innovated that music and why. Do you know what I mean? So I think to me that they’re listening. They have to listen. Because it’s everywhere. There’s no question.

Correspondent: But are they actively listening? I think that what you’re suggesting is that it’s music that plays in the background without people actually comprehending that there’s a lot of years and blood and tears that’s put into that music.

Laymon: No question.

Correspondent: And people are just not really curious enough to investigate that. I mean, I’m wondering if that’s a larger societal problem.

Laymon: Yeah, I think it is. I mean, this is what I’m saying. I don’t think we take the time to question the ingredients in art generally.

Correspondent: Sure.

Laymon: I haven’t been in many parts of the world. But as an American, I know that we don’t really take the time to consider what we’re consuming. And we definitely don’t take the time to consider the lives of the people who created the music. So even if we think about hip-hop, people who think they love hip-hop have no idea who Kool Herc is. People who think they love hip-hop have no idea who the people who helped create the culture actually were, what they did, and why they did it. So in some ways, it’s not specific to black American/Mississippi culture. But I do think that these particular stories that come out of Mississippi culture — it’s just ironic that the blues, rock, and gospel all come out of this really small part of our country.

Correspondent: I agree. But I’m wondering who to impugn here. (laughs)

Laymon: Well, I think we impugn everyone.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Laymon: And that’s a loose answer. But I was just in Mississippi for nine or ten days giving readings and stuff. There are people in Greenwood, Mississippi and Greenville, Mississippi — black people — who have no clue what the blues is. You know what I’m saying? And what I’m trying to say is that I don’t know what it is. But it is expiration that, because of my parents and because of my grandparents, we’ve had to go on. I’m saying that we don’t even want to go that road. Because when you go down that road, you don’t just find sound. But as you said, you find the experience. And you find complicity.

Correspondent: And if you listen very closely to the lyrics, you have all these amazing stories. Listen multiple times. There’s some cadence that you didn’t get.

Laymon: And also what’s important about the lyrics is that I think it’s really important to transcribe, to see the lyrics on the page. But what’s important about those lyrics are being spat or sung or, in some instances even before hip-hop, rapped. This kind of rhythmic hip-hopesque way of approaching music, I think, predates what we call hip-hop. I know New York people hate for me to say it. But what I’m saying is that it’s not just the lyrics. It’s how the lyrics are said and what irony has to do with the way those lyrics are being spat And I think it has so much to do with community. And these books, particularly Long Division, are, among other things, about community storytelling. And so what I’m trying to say is that I really think we need to think about the communities. The people, the stories, and the communities that are at the heart of all the music we listen to.

Correspondent: Well, I agree with you Kiese. But I’m wondering what is the acceptable level of cultural engagement that would actually allow the South to be understood and to be properly respected versus the reality of people wanting to have something in the background. I mean, is it reasonable to expect people to have that level of engagement? Much as I would also love to see that!

Laymon: I mean, it’s not reasonable to expect. It’s reasonable to encourage. And it’s reasonable to ask people to think more about from whence the music they listen to comes.

(Loops for this program provided by Kristijann, 40A, kristijann, Reed1415, and ShortBusMusic.)

The Bat Segundo Show #513: Kiese Laymon (Download MP3)

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Some Thoughts on Candy Crush Saga

Candy Crush Saga is a terribly addictive game designed to prey on the uncertainties of obsessive and compulsive people. If you possess little willpower or a stubborn determination to win, I urge you in the strongest possible terms never to download this monstrous app. You would be better off spending your time taking up chess or impossible bottle building, which both offer the solace of handling tangible objects.

The game involves manipulating candy on a screen to form rows, where the objects obliterate in a deceptively pleasing manner. The first ten levels are preposterously easy, feeling like a derivative form of Tetris or Bejeweled. But this is enough time for Candy Crush Saga to sink its cold steely talons into your sense of confidence. Because the levels after this become progressively more difficult. Sometimes you must ensure that objects from the top of the screen (“ingredients”) fall into their proper niches. Sometimes you need to make blocks of jelly dissolve by forming rows within these viscid masses. It’s a fairly stupid premise for a game, and yet the game ensnares you within its netting.

Soon you are using lives quite rapidly. Because each level has a limited number of moves. The game’s brilliantly treacherous way of making money is for a new life to replenish every thirty minutes. What this means is that you must wait once you’ve used up all of your lives. The other option is a Faustian bargain with your impatience: pay the ignoble ransom of 99 cents per life to get back in the game. Like many effective freemium applications designed to ensnare the closet addict, it requires tremendous willpower not to hand over your cash, your passport, or even your firstborn child.

This has proved quite profitable for the diabolical assholes who run this racket. It is estimated that they are raking in $850,016 each day. Gizmodo’s Ashley Feinberg was brave enough to write a confessional essay, pointing out that she has spent $236 on this game. That figure rivals a mildly out-of-control bar tab or a pleasant day at an affrodable bed and breakfast. I am sure that there are people in America right now excavating coins from the deep crevices of couches just to keep their Candy Crush Saga game going a little faster.

I wasted two hours of my life on Candy Crush Saga and I am still not quite sure why. The derivative music, badly looped, clanged inside my ears with all the subtlety of an army of percussion experts terrorizing me with a six gong battery. There are a few cut scenes involving an obnoxious girl who you are apparently collecting bits of candy for. I did not like this girl and did not understand why she required so much candy. Did she not have concerned parents? Perhaps some dentist who could steer her away from her dentine-destroying fixation? And yet I kept on going despite this poorly conceived narrative. You see, there’s this train that pulls you along from level to level. And I have always been very fond of trains. I hated the way the game preyed upon this affection.

Some outfit called King appears to be the software company responsible for this goddam game. I resent the cocky imperialism contained within the appellation. The company should have had the decency to call itself Scarface or Big Meech Flenory or Nixon. Because King has clearly adopted the business style of a smack dealer operating without honor.

There seems to be some consummate AI at work ensuring that the user will not win. Because if you are too slow or methodical, the game actually shimmers the wrong candy from time to time, suggesting that you move it. And because the game puts you into a narcotic state where you feel compelled to please it, you are constantly at war between the game’s slot machine-like aesthetic and your own rational thinking. There are psychedelic experiences that offer a more consistent state of being.

In the end, I was forced to uninstall the dreaded game. I began to imagine a future in which I was selling my body to feed my Candy Crush Saga addiction. Well, if one must become a puck bunny, then the stakes should be higher than shifting around animated candy.


Teddy Wayne, Miley Cyrus, and Jezebel: White Culture, Free Speech Entitlement, and the Fear of Engagement

“I don’t pay attention to the negative. Because I…I’ve seen this play out so many…how many times have we seen this play out in pop music? You know now. You know what’s happening. Madonna’s done it. Britney’s done it. Every VMA performance, anyone who perform — you know, anyone who performs. That’s what you’re looking for. You’re wanting to make history. Me and Robin [Thicke] the whole time said, ‘You know we’re out to make history right now.'” — Miley Cyrus, her first post-Video Music Awards interview on MTV News.


On August 28, 2013, I fired up my browser on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech. I was appalled. I was glad to see King recognized in a Google Doodle, but why were King’s words reduced to mere text? On January 16th, Google had celebrated Frank Zamboni’s 112th birthday with a game that allowed you to maneuver through an ice rink. On Valentine’s Day, you could click on a heart to rotate two Ferris Wheels. On February 19th, Copernicus’s 540th birthday was recognized with a slowly animated solar system. On June 10th, there had been an elaborate Maurice Sendak Doodle. Even Debussy’s 151st birthday ushered in an impressive animation set to “Clair de Lune.”

If the mainstream baseline of online culture could not be bothered to offer more than a perfunctory nod to King, what was the point in celebrating?

Days before, the Internet had been aflame with Miley Cyrus’s disastrous twerking at the MTV Video Music Awards. Beyond the trashy bombast, people were bothered by the cultural appropriation, with some commentators comparing the performance to a minstrel show. One of the smartest and most heartbreaking responses came from Tressie McMillan Cottom, who described one summer in which she and her then partner had been the only black couple during happy hour. White men and women approached Cottom with racist suggestions. She wrote about how the dancers behind Miley Cyrus fit into a wretched history of black female bodies as “production units.” She pointed out how “Cyrus might be the most visible to our cultural denigration of bodies like mine as inferior, non-threatening spaces where white women can play at being ‘dirty’ without risking her sexual appeal.”

I had thought that white culture’s worst impulses could be curbed for a day with a dignified celebration of a man who, unlike Miley Cyrus, made history for the right reasons. Wasn’t King worth more than a static image or a token acknowledgment? Even with the expensive rights attached to the speech, couldn’t Google, estimated to be worth more than $200 billion, have kicked in a few clams to use the audio in its Doodle? Why had white culture silenced one of black culture’s most indelible icons fifty years after the fact? Wasn’t King worth more than a Zamboni?

* * *

Lindy West has spent the past few years establishing herself as an outspoken pundit on rape jokes and comedy with Jezebel posts such as “Hey, Men, I’m Funnier Than You” and “How to Make a Rape Joke.” She was invited to appear on the May 30, 2013 episode of Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell to discuss her views further with Jim Norton. She suffered abusive fallout.

But white culture overlooked one vital element of this regrettable chapter. West did not appear on The View or The Colbert Report, but a television show hosted by an African-American, a show that also happened to be a smart and entertaining corrective to The Daily Show‘s predominantly Caucasian concerns. The show often discussed issues pertaining to race. What’s striking about West’s exchange with Bell is how she adopted a pugnacious tone towards the amicable host from the beginning:

Bell: And so I’ll ask the same question to you, Lindy. Do you think comics should say anything they want without consequences?
West: Uh, well, first of all, I think that question is dumb.
Bell: Thank you. Thank you very much.
West: Because…
Bell: (nodding his head up and down) Good start for me. This is feminist versus comic, not this comic [pointing to self]. Over there. [pointing to Jim Norton]
West: So sorry. Um, no, because, uh, everything has repercussions. So if you’re talking about legal repercussions, uh, yeah, I do not think that comedy should be censored. And we’re not here to talk about censorship. And I’m pretty sure we agree. Uh, what I’m talking about is the kind of repercussion where you choose to say something that, like, traumatizes a person who’s already been victimized and then I choose to call you a dick. And that’s the repercussion.

Bell asked a perfectly reasonable question for his television audience, many composed of African-Americans who may not have been acquainted with Jezebel, so that everyone could understand West’s position. What was West’s response? “I think that question is dumb.” She then asserted her privilege by stating that she had the right to call anyone a dick as a free speech repercussion.

On June 4, 2013, Lindy West posted a video and a blog post, in which West read a series of terrible threats that she received in response to her Totally Biased appearance. (The only reason the video hasn’t been embedded in this essay is because Jezebel hasn’t allowed it to be embedded at any other site, cheapening West’s response into pageviews and linkbait.)

The abuse directed West’s way was absolutely unacceptable. It revealed awful misogyny that will take a long time to shake from the American fabric. But this shouldn’t disavow West of her free speech position, which involves another person offering “repercussions” in response to a disagreeable position. Clearly, the people who fired off bilious invective took West up on her offer. The difference here is that West has painted herself, with considerable justification, as the victim. Nevertheless, in her post, West informed her readers who the “correct” people were to abuse. Of Jim Norton, West wrote that he had been “kind and thoughtful throughout this whole thing, so don’t be mean to him.” When comedians, who were understandably ired by West’s politically correct position, expressed umbrage, they too were implicated:

Local comics — whom I know and work with — have told me to shut the fuck up. One hopes I’ll fall down a flight of stairs. (He later apologized—to my boyfriend, not me.)

In other words, West was unwilling to hold herself responsible for her own remarks — which includes telling one of the classiest African-American hosts on television that his question was “dumb” — while simultaneously placing herself in an entitled position in which she was shielded from criticism. She could condemn standup comics who fired off rape jokes, but refused to consider the consequences of her own remarks or biases. (This behavior is quite similar to what Richard H. Cooper observed of Twitter celebrities in 2012, pointing to hierarchies in which the top tier “[dispenses] admonishments to proles who get impudent” while simultaneously avoiding introspection.)

On June 6, 2013, Bell aired a followup segment about the discussion (and its aftermath):

Bell: Thousands of men protested Lindy’s claim that rape jokes encourage a culture of violence against women. And how did they do that? By flooding her inbox with threats of violence against women. Yay! Men! We’re the worst! Come on, men, what are we doing? I feel gross being a part of a group this terrible. Is this what it’s like to be white?…Now people are saying that Lindy is against free speech. She’s not. She wasn’t even arguing against rape jokes. She was arguing against what many of you asshats are doing right now to her. Attempting to silence a woman by using threats and intimidation. Now maybe that point got lost somewhere in the debate. Personally I blame the moderator….All I’m really saying is that this Internet harassment has got to stop. And that’s why I’ve developed the new technology that will put an end to hate speech on the Internet. You guys have heard of CAPTCHA? You know, when you fill in stuff on the Internet? Yeah. Well, I’ve developed SHUTCHA. As in Shutcha Damn Mouth! Exactly. Yes. Basically, before you can send me any tweets, you have to fill out this SHUTCHA to prove that you have basic awareness of black people and black culture. For example, is this word spelled correctly? [“NIGER” flashed on screen.] If your answer is “no,” then I won’t be hearing from you and you’ll have to harass a local black in your area.

Bell’s SHUTCHA joke brilliantly pinpointed the problem with white culture: namely, its willful ignorance of black people and black culture. (This is also seen with such needless concomitant terms as “Black Twitter,” a catchall designate used by clueless white people to casually position African-American voices as some Other to be deprioritized and/or ignored). But because Bell had been put on the spot and was forced to stand up for Lindy West, he was unable to remark on the more severe problem of white culture’s appropriation of other cultures — what Kiese Laymon has referred to as “the worst of white folks”:

The worst of white folks, I understood, wasn’t some gang of rabid white people in crisp pillowcases and shaved heads. The worst of white folks was a pathetic, powerful “it.” It conveniently forgot that it came to this country on a boat, then reacted violently when anything or anyone suggested it share. The worst of white folks wanted our mamas and grandmas to work themselves sick for a tiny sliver of an American pie it needed to believe it had made from scratch. It was all at once crazy-making and quick to violently discipline us for acting crazy. It had an insatiable appetite for virtuoso black performance and routine black suffering. The worst of white folks really believed that the height of black and brown aspiration should be emulation of its mediocre self. The worst of white folks inherited disproportionate access to quality health care, food, wealth, fair trials, fair sentencing, college admittance, college graduations, promotions and second chances, yet still terrorized and shamed other Americans who lacked adequate access to healthy choices at all. White Americans were wholly responsible for the worst of white folks, though they would do all they could to make sure it never wholly defined them.

In other words, white culture believes that black people should emulate the very mediocrity that now forms its nostalgia-soaked identity. W. Kamau Bell is not permitted to push back at Lindy West without “repercussions,” but he is allowed to emulate her unexceptional intellectual position (“She wasn’t even arguing against rape jokes. She was arguing against what many of you asshats are doing right now to her. Attempting to silence a woman by using threats and intimidation.”) instead of expanding his shrewder and more sophisticated observations on male abuse and the racial dynamics of expression. Robin Thicke is free to rip off Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” and turn it into one of this summer’s greatest hits (“Blurred Lines”) and, because he too represents the worst of white culture, he audaciously files a preemptive lawsuit against Gaye’s family to prevent them from seeking damages against Thicke’s pellucid appropriation, claiming, “Plaintiffs, who have the utmost respect for and admiration of Marvin Gaye, Funkadelic and their musical legacies, reluctantly file this action in the face of multiple adverse claims from alleged successors in interest to those artists.”

In August, white feminist culture was challenged by Mikki Kendall with the Twitter hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, largely in response to the now disgraced Hugo Schwyzer:

It appeared that these feminists were, once again, dismissing women of color (WOC) in favor of a brand of solidarity that centers on the safety and comfort of white women. For it to be at the expense of people who were doing the same work was exceptionally aggravating.

The sole Jezebel blog post on the hashtag is a collection of the best tweets rather than bona-fide intellectual jostling with this very serious grievance. There is also this condescending note at the bottom of the post:

Update: The originator of the hashtag page, Mikki Kendall, has been incredibly influential to this conversation and should have been at the top of this list. See her speak more on the hashtag here. To have not included her in the original post was an oversight. Apologies to Ms. Kendall.

This apology isn’t enough. Because without real commitment to thinking and true acknowledgment of one’s blind spots, there can be neither influence nor meaningful conversation. There can be only white culture, inured from disagreement, that monopolizes the dais and remarks upon black culture with a flip elitist tone that would be offensively facile if it weren’t so damn risible:

White culture doesn’t just want to plunder the best of black folks for callow entertainment. It wants to ensure that black culture is never explicitly identified as black. It wishes to soften any sharp edges. It wishes to promulgate endless articles that, as the podcast The Black Guy Who Tips recently put it, fuck with black people. The disgraceful imbalance of free expression identified by Stokely Carmichael in 1966 is still essentially the same: “the only acts that white people can do is to stop denying black people their freedom; that is, they must stop denying freedom. They never give it to anyone.”

This is far more insidious than white culture’s mere copycat relationship with black culture, observed by Norman Mailer in the Fall 1957 issue of Dissent. White culture has moved beyond the willful scavenging and sanding of black culture’s best bits because it feels that it must hog the spotlight. White culture is terrified of engagement. In a complicated world of turmoil, white culture continues to cleave to a new political privilege, in which there can be no room for hyperbole, extremist rhetoric, and what Jon Stewart has wrongly identified as “insanity.” There is no space within white culture to cultivate independent, original, provocative, and non-ideological inquiry. But there is relentless racial assumption, limitless listicles, time-eating timidity through hate-favoriting and subtweets on Twitter, and dull depositories for white culture fantasies such as NPR, The Awl, Slate, McSweeney’s, and Jezebel.

White culture is never about taking a step back and allowing another culture to express itself. It is driven by an intuitive imperialism, one that it can scarcely recognize, that involves blaring its own cultural standards through a megaphone manufactured in another century. Indeed, white culture’s most prolific literary spokesperson, Joyce Carol Oates, is not immune from such xenophobic disgrace. Earlier this year, when she remarked upon the complicated political situation in Egypt:

Ironically, many of these sentiments led Jezebel‘s Katie J.M. Baker to urge Oates to stop tweeting. Was a 75-year-old writer revealing the worst of white folks? How long would this be tolerated from the Establishment?

Not long, as it turned out. On Sunday, The New York Times published a satirical essay by Teddy Wayne upholding the the same white culture stereotypes that Miley Cyrus had sought to “make history” with:

Explain that twerking is a dance move typically associated with lower-income African-American women that involves the rapid gyration of the hips in a fashion that prominently exhibits the elasticity of the gluteal musculature.

Some of white culture swallowed this up without batting an eye:

But a new and hilarious hashtag, #askteddywayne, started making the rounds on Twitter, fighting back against Wayne’s McSweeney’s-style essay with humorous qualities that had eluded the ostensibly professional writer:

Teddy Wayne sent apologies to some of his detractors in private. But as of Wednesday afternoon, he has not offered a public apology. He has switched his Twitter account from public to private.

White culture has been slow to recognize and atone for Teddy Wayne’s essay. The only outlets that have covered this scrape at length are The Root, The Inquisitor, Galleycat, and The Nation. Even more astonishing, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan expressed her enthusiasm that Wayne’s piece was #2 on the New York Times‘s most emailed list, without appearing to comprehend why (other than that it was “funny”):

Perhaps Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke, Teddy Wayne, some of the people who write for Jezebel, the editor at The New York Times who allowed Wayne’s piece to run, and the people behind the Google Doodles really don’t comprehend how their responses and appropriation of black culture represent Laymon’s “worst of white folks.” They have seen the battles play out. They are familiar with some unspecified pattern, much as those who listen to a radio program in the background without really listening to it are dimly aware that there is something important being communicated. But they cannot engage with black culture. Like Cyrus, they won’t “pay attention to the negative.” Because to do so would be to confess to their own mediocrity. To do so with grace and candor would be to share the stage. To find true humility and humanity. To learn something.

White culture has had a very long run. But the time has come for those who make it and comment on it to understand that there is more to appropriating culture than the great white lie of “respect and admiration.”


Norman Rush (The Bat Segundo Show #512)

Norman Rush is most recently the author of Subtle Bodies.


Author: Norman Rush

Subjects Discussed: Keeping a personal existential view of the world on one paper, utopian democracy, allusions to Ulysses in Rush’s work, Vico Cycles, the importance of the 2003 Iraq War protests (and why they have been forgotten), whether forms of liberalism have any legitimate application in the 21st century, the importance of physical space in Rush’s fiction, people who preserve language vs. people who are terrified of originality, how people express themselves, the origins of “in your wheelhouse” and “traveling fight,” comparing various drafts of a “plaid underpants” section in Subtle Bodies, carrying something in your head vs. writing it down, unsuccessful attempts to outperform geniuses, the specific cocktail chatter that led Elsa and Norman Rush to become Peace Fund co-directors in Botswana, draft resistance, amnesty, how an anti-establishment stance can you lead you into an establishment job, the virtues of insouciance, working with editor Ann Close at Knopf, invaluable oddities, personal aversions to semicolons, dialogue and punctuation, singing prose out aloud, Rush’s bygone ukelele skills, resisting the essayist and journalistic in fiction, Sherlock Holmes pastiches, being an anti-minmialist, the carefully designed reading pace of Mortals, limited word use in Botswana cable transmissions, why America is now crazier than Botswana, the three cartons of notes that Rush brought back to America, spending 15 years in the antiquarian book business, exquisitely unknown incidents in the history of the Western Left, the failure of the Socialists to come together on an antiwar platform in 1914, Rush’s stubborn focus on being an experimental writer and a poet in his early days, the anxiety of influence, measuring yourself against the impossible, the origins of Karen in “Bruns,” Patrick van Rensburg, having an indomitable vocabulary, how much Mating‘s Karen was influenced by Denoon, how Rush got to know his great literary friend Thomas Disch, being a genuine man of letters, Manhattan’s financial hostility to writers, finding creative ways to live in Brooklyn, parenthood in Subtle Bodies, connections between Nina in Subtle Bodies and Nan in “Near Pala,” ancillary subjects that propagate during writing, tales of masculine sadness throughout literature, David Foster Wallace, the limited makeup of today’s literary audience, Lena Dunham’s appreciation for Mating, comparisons between Mating and Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, characters defined by reading allegiances, the manuscript as a bomb, writing down what people have on their bookshelves, the sangoma in “Official Americans,” Morel in Mortals, why Rush’s characters are seduced by or drawn to charlatans, Rush’s father, religion and theosophy, the foundational aspects of what you are, spiritualism as an unavoidable part of being American, Rush’s “Americanity,” motives for burning a passport, why optimism is essential, parallels between Subtle Bodies and the great Edgar Wright-Simon Pegg film The World’s End, ideologues and the absence of identity, nostalgia as a panacea of anxiety, turning tropes into foundations for serious art, Rex from Mortals, flailing aspirants who write for The Awl, middling educated types, fiction as a place for failed forms of the self, dummy experimentalism, sections from Mortals that were dropped, cave art, the differences between expatriates and Americans who stay home, James Wood’s observations about Ray Finch’s interpretation of Joyce’s “The Dead,” the courage to inhabit an unseemly perspective, the reading Rush did while working as an antiquarian bookseller, fiction with numbered paragraphs, Hume’s influence upon Subtle Bodies, writing a book without a sustained perspective, the Kalahari Desert, the advantages of being overwhelmed with life you are not acquainted with, describing the landscape with waning movie metaphors, young people forced into scavenging from culture, the messianic qualities of 20th century Hollywood stars, the future of narrative, balancing the personal and the political, the importance of recognizing the evils of the world and not to be a fool, people who are increasingly duped in the digital age, facing an unreadable future, the Internet and political activism, and the future of social democracy.


Correspondent: I was curious about this. You were showing me these series of Venn diagrams that represents your existential view. I’m amazed that you could fit this all on one paper.

Rush: Well, actually, I’d need a much larger piece of paper to get the whole thing on. This is about current feelings about the way the world is going.

Correspondent: Are they negative or positive?

Rush: I’d say they could be described as apocalyptic, but in a piecemeal way. I’m not looking for a big bang, but I think serious trouble is coming. And I’ll explain what I mean by that in describing a lack of fit between what the evolved political institutions of our advanced capitalist world, capitalist republic, can deal with and the scale of the problems that are presenting themselves autonomously, outside of anybody’s control.

Correspondent: Well, maybe one way to kickstart this is to tie in a sentiment in Mating with what is going on in Subtle Bodies. In the early Circe-like part of Mating, you have Nelson Denoon’s speech for his solar democracy, Tsau. “Everything we want in a society is what we find brought out in people and the moment of insurrection. Spontaneity! Spontaneous hierarchy!” There are exclamation marks after all of this. “Self-sacrifice! Staying awake all night! Working until we drop! Audacity! Camaraderie! The carnival behind the barricades.” Well, in Subtle Bodies, you have this compound called The Vale. It’s a sprawling place. It’s just outside Kingston. It’s the home to activists. It’s reminiscent in some ways of the Martello Tower at the very beginning of Ulysses. And, in fact, you actually compare it to the Winchester Mystery House. As a South Bay guy, I got that little reference.

Rush: Oh, you’re South Bay.

Correspondent: Yeah. So my question to you is, well, based on what you were expressing earlier, to what degree was this your way of exploring a Vico Cycle in which America is caught within a perpetual moment of insurrection?

Rush: Well, that’s very acute. This is about one of the last flashes of the revolutionary impulse to make a significant change. In this case, stopping the impending invasion of Iraq. So it’s not about making a New Society in the old sense. In the way that Denoon was talking about. But it’s about a much more reduced yet still large objective. And that is basically a negative one. But stopping something from happening.


Correspondent: Well, it’s interesting. Because that Iraq War protest in 2003 is often forgotten by many of the people, like the Occupy crowd. I mean, there were regular people who attended these series of protests. And it’s kind of been swept under the dustbin of history. Is this one of the motivations to explore this in fiction?

Rush: Absolutely. And in fact, it was in its time the largest international demonstration in history. All countries, all over the West. Not only here. And it represented a high watermark of emotion left over from the Vietnam War, which had, in the minds of oppositionists, been stopped by exactly this kind of direct action and mass protest. And, of course, well, I don’t want to give away the end of the book or remind people too much about the history of it. But yes. And that’s another thing. I think the book is working with a kind of fading historical appreciation of what the last twenty or twenty-five years have really meant.

Correspondent: Well, let me ask you something. I mean, if societal ideals — as are represented in that Nelson Denoon speech — if they are constantly replenishing themselves in this new musk of want, what is the present state of revolution? How can fiction provide an answer or encourage or empower people to commit revolution?

Rush: Well, don’t hold back from the big questions. I mean, that is the question. Every serious writer is implicitly or explicitly asking that question. What is it that I’m writing about? What does it have to do with the seemingly autonomous evolution of increasingly less propitious circumstances to make change? And the answer to that is the central and most compelling question, it seems to me, for people who write novels which incorporate serious politics and political thinking into them. The answer keeps revealing itself as you write and as things change. I mean, one of the things that seems to be happening — one reason that this is such a fascinating and, in a way, dumbfounding moment — is that the three great propositions about how we should organize the world and life — that is to say, socialism, followed by its variants, social democracy, followed by neoliberalism — have all in their own ways collapsed and don’t exist as real options anymore. They carry on their shells. There’s a shell of socialism existing in pockets and enclaves around the world. There’s a kind of zombie social democracy operating mostly in Western Europe. And there’s neoliberalism, which is in a state of what you have to call a dispensational crisis. Because basic problems like inequality have not been solved. And in the meantime, coming from the outside is this continual costs in the environment of the systems we built.

Correspondent: But at the same time, Marxism has a lowercase m in Mating. So has there ever really been credence to any of these political systems? Why do we continue to gnaw at them if they are unimplementable in everyday society?

Rush: Oh sure. Actually with the ongoing collapse of socialism, the Socialist Project, one of the standard responses to that — and it’s happened in the past many times — is to take the socialist idea and incorporate it in tiny pieces. Tiny little enclaves. Make it work. Make a pilot model. Make it tiny. Make it small. That’s sort of what Denoon is up to.

Correspondent: I wanted to also talk with you about how space functions in your book. In Mating, you have this wonderful passage where Karen describes love as moving from one room or apartment to another, and each subsequent room or apartment is bigger and better. Also, we learn in Subtle Bodies that the Vale’s large space has become unwieldy, especially when you’re trying to snag some yogurt for breakfast. But what you just said about how America is compartmentalizing itself and how social democracy is doing that reminds me very much of the episode where Nina enters this closet and she hears these two men and you write, “She had gained nothing by putting herself in this predicament.” And I’m wondering if this is your wry way of suggesting that figurative space is the only space that we can trust in fiction, in life, or in politics.

Rush: That’s an interesting way to look at it. Actually, this is a case of her burning desire to know everything taking over her good judgment. And as a character, she is determined to know everything she can to relieve the unmerited suffering she sees of her husband’s milieu. So she puts her nose into everything in the place that they live.

Correspondent: In Mortals, Ray complains that “affray was one of those words that was vanishing from the language.” But in Subtle Bodies, you have Ned almost terrified with the imperfection of a pickup line such as “I stand here lonely as a turnstile.” Nina also says, “A pleasant despair of the region of the loins.” And she claims to be quoting something. But actually you can’t place the quote. So one must assume that it’s original in some sense. If your books represent in some way a history of the way that Americans express themselves, and I think we can say that they do, why do you think your characters have moved from preserving word choice — and, of course, we have the word games as well in the early days of these characters. Why have they moved from preserving language to being terrified of the original expression? I mean, why is this of interest to you? I’m curious.

Rush: I’m interested in knowing the way that people express themselves. What lasts and what doesn’t. It’s kind of a Darwinian process that has always seemed interesting to me. For example, why do we now say that something that is within your competence is “within your wheelhouse”? “In your wheelhouse.” Now the odd thing about that is, first of all, I don’t know where it started.* But it certainly has taken over every conversation. And I was unable, and Elsa too, to recall what preceded it. What did we say when were saying to someone that he was out of his field of competence? Or in it? What did we say? Not “his line of work.” No, that’s not quite right. But there is a kind of occlusion of ways of expressing states of being and possibilities that happens. And it’s happening faster now because the media are so ever present and so tightly connected to everything. It happens fast. But I ask you. What did you say before you said, “It’s not in my wheelhouse”?

Correspondent: “Not in my purview,” I guess. I don’t know. “Not in my bailiwick.”

Rush: “Purview” is not quite right. Because this has to do with competence. “Bailiwick” is closer. But anyway, ponder it. I don’t have an answer myself.

travelingfightCorrespondent: I mean, this leads me to wonder. There is one point in this book where you have a “traveling fight” occur. And I had never actually heard the expression “traveling fight.” And I became so obsessed with that notion of a fight moving from one place to another. And the only place I could really find it online was from a 1970s article in the Toledo Blade.

Rush: Oh my gosh. (laughs)

Correspondent: So this is interesting. They are so determined to use that term “traveling fight,” which comes from a place that they’re okay with. And yet when they’re actually trying to riff on their own phrases, they don’t want to relive the pleasure of those word games in their early lives. Also, I’m just curious about where you first heard “traveling fight.”

Rush: I can’t tell you. I know that it came up in some place along the way in my life and I’ve carried it around as a description. And then suddenly, when I needed it, there it was.

Correspondent: I found an early draft of the “plaid underpants” moment in Subtle Bodies between Ned and Nina that was published in the Los Angeles Review of Books. [NOTE: We have reconstructed Rush’s compositional revisions in the graphic at the end of this capsule.] What was curious about this is that the dialogue you have is almost the same, but there’s some interesting description in this early draft where Nina is a little more willing to judge Ned. The sentences here are “In the seventies, the boys had lived in a jokey plenum. Now a kind of fitful replay was emerging among them, extending even to Karl, who had a brain.” And in the book, you’ve added this passage where Nina describes how she likes “the permanent delicate subliminal trembling of the room.” And this leads me to ask you. To what degree are you discovering these characters in the early drafts? Has it been your practice to severely cut the degree to which your characters dwell on the past and concentrate on the present moment you are bringing to life as you’re writing it?

Rush: Yeah, that’s part of my struggle against saying everything. And you may know that the way I’ve proceeded in the past with books was to write a dossier for each individual character, so that I knew the life of the character up till that point and sometimes beyond. Just for my own reference. And that was a helpful way to proceed. But I do more of that in my head now than I used to feel I had to do on paper. But yes. I have cut down in favor of moving the action so that I can get to the next big thing.

Correspondent: Well, in terms of carrying something in your head versus writing it down, why do you think you’ve always had that packrat tendency to say everything? I mean, I’m looking here and, on the table, you have this massive and quite intriguing collection of files. So why do you think you need to say everything and you need to get it all down?

Rush: I could tell you part of the answer to the extent that I think is true, but there’s more to it. At the very heart of it, of course, there’s got to be something like fear of not having, knowing what you need when you need it. But on top of that is laid another impulse that I have when I write. And that is — it’s a kind of crazed Platonism. Because once you start a book and you set up your characters and you set up the situation and you discern the argument that is going to lie at the base of the structure, you — at least I’m speaking for myself — you have a sense that this is a copy of a perfect realization. There is a perfect working out of the plot. A perfect resolution. A perfect rhythm. Everything. There is a perfect embodiment. End point. Embodiment of the things that you set out to say. And that’s what I want to do when I set out. And this is all kind of philosophical more than I like to admit. But I’m looking for something that is like a realization like, oh say, Kurosawa gets in The Seven Samurai. When you get to the end of the uncut version, when you get to the end of that, you have fully and absolutely experienced what was intended from the very first scenes of the book to the end. Or the opera. Tosca. Or Ravel’s Boléro. At the end of it, you have had everything. It has completed itself. And I think it’s probably a self-destructive kind of impulse to be subject to. But that’s me.

Correspondent: Is it something you grabbed from Joyce?

Rush: Joyce is another example. Ulysses is. And that’s why there’s so much extra stuff in Ulysses. Because in his own not completely formed way, I see him as aiming for the same thing and achieving it in thunder.

Correspondent: But you’ve never really sought out to have Botswana reconstructed from the bricks you laid down in Mortals or Mating.

Rush: No. I thought I would never know enough really as a five year resident and student of an extremely complicated and interesting culture. I would never know enough to do that. That will be the work of some writer from that country in some time. But yeah, I was always very conscious that Botswana was a set in which I was privileged to place my people and my problems.

* — A Way With Words, a casual call-in radio program devoted to word origins and language (I have been a regular listener of this agreeable low-key show for more than a year and recommend it), proved instructive in answering this question on its March 5, 2011 installment. The term “wheelhouse” comes from baseball. According to the Dickson Baseball Dictionary, it involves swinging a bat when the ball is in your crush zone. A 2010 Daily Finance article reveals nautical origins. Its popularity in the last three years (which is on the downslide) can be traced to an episode of Glee, in which Darius Rucker told another singer that a song was not “in his wheelhouse.”

* * *

An earlier draft of the “plaid underpants” episode in Subtle Bodies was published on October 23, 2011 at the Los Angeles Review of Books. This has allowed an unanticipated glimpse into Norman Rush’s compositional approach, when we compare this earlier draft against the published version. Note how Rush’s dialogue remains mostly unmodified. But his description has undergone significant revision. Rush was kind enough to discuss this at length on the program. (Please note that Rush’s additions are in boldface. His deletions are in strikethrough.):


(Photo: Wyatt Mason, permission through Random House. Music: Kevin MacLeod, “As I Figure.”)

The Bat Segundo Show #512: Norman Rush (Download MP3)

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