Category : Ideas
Category : Ideas
Cole Stryker is most recently the author of Hacking the Future.
(PROGRAM NOTE: This episode’s introduction contains the first appearance of Jorge and Mr. Segundo in two years. As The Bat Segundo Show winds down, we will do our best to resolve numerous plot threads that were established years before in these introductions.)
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Revealing his new vocation and discovering unanticipated maturity.
Author: Cole Stryker
Subjects Discussed: Whether thinking people should pay attention to web culture, generational cycles and inevitable evolution, whether Pastebin and text files represent the future of the info leak economy, why people have no awareness of how vulnerable their personal data is, the increasing need for certain hackers to gloat or impress people, attempts to distinguish between different strands of Anonymous, 4chan and the Occupy label, hacking PBS, how one should understand Anonymous and the difficulties of investigating a group that doesn’t wish to be understood, political ethos, Fight Club, the inevitable trajectories of ideological groups, Steve Wozniak, hacktivists who started out as pranksters, the V for Vendetta aesthetic, attempting to pinpoint Anonymous’s ethos, the importance of preserving anonymous free speech, vicious Internet bullying, Jessi Slaughter, the question of seeking restitution against anonymous bullies, government and editorial control, government regulation vs. community management, when self-policing doesn’t work, Danah Boyd’s views on cyberbullying, Pew’s investigations into bullying, Megan Meier’s suicide, how the misnomer “backtracing” was appropriated, online harassment, online blackout protests of SOPA, Steam’s recent class action waiver, Firefox’s “do not track” feature, Facebook’s data collection, photo recognition tools like Orbeus which scan all details of a photo to determine user taste and patterns, not being able to encrypt our faces, the hacker Sabu’s transformation into an FBI informant, the difficulties of sorting out multiple online identities, the lifespan of the darknet, Bitcoin, and the next iterations of Anonymous and hacktivism.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I read both of your books. And in Epic Win for Anonymous, you describe web culture as “something so self-referential as to become virtually incomprehensible to those who do not live inside it.” You then point out in that same section how finding out about one cultural reference causes you to look up two additional ones that may have some meaning to that initial reference. And then, of course, you write that “it’s a skill that only today’s younger generation is equipped to grasp.” Larger issues, such as the Arab Spring and Wikileaks, that you mention in this book — this is sometimes aligned with Anonymous. But if the default icon is something like Nyan Cat or Pedobear, how can the present online generation be expected to understand, oh say, nuance of social issues? What’s the incentive for any thinking person over the age of 30 to get on board the online culture you so championed in the first book?
Stryker: Well, I think that the culture specifically to me is interesting because of the way that it enables everyone to be a producer, in addition to a consumer. And I think that the older generation can get a foothold by looking at sites like Know Your Meme, for instance. It’s a place where a lot of these memes are explained. And I don’t know. You kind of had a couple of different questions in there.
Correspondent: I tend to do that. Yeah.
Stryker: I guess one of them is how do older people understand what this is all about.
Correspondent: Or why should they?
Stryker: Or why should they? I think it’s important because this is the future of culture. I think that participatory mimetic culture is going to replace eventually mass produced entertainment within the next twenty years. I think that it’s becoming increasingly more difficult for companies to make money by producing big budget pieces of entertainment and it’s becoming increasingly cheap for fourteen-year-olds in basements to create compelling entertainment content. And not just entertainment, but informative content as well. So I think that we’re looking at the future. And if you don’t try to wrap your head around it now, you’re going to be left behind.
Correspondent: Well, on the other hand, one can also argue that there will be another generation that you will experience. A younger generation who will be faster, who will think smarter, who will have their own memes, who will have their own forms of communication, and you will be just as befuddled as, I suppose, the older web user who is perhaps only looking through Google News, maybe Reddit if we’re lucky. You’ll fall in the same situation. I mean, is this an inevitable cycle? Why does anybody have to get hooked onto memes? Why do you have to constantly check Know Your Meme when, in fact, there are greater issues like, say, Syria and so forth?
Stryker: Well, I think, to answer one question, it’s very likely that I will one day feel out of touch. It’s almost inevitable. However, I think that there’s a difference between my generation and my parent’s generation, for instance, in that I was born in the computer age when I grew up learning how to master systems. Whereas if my parents get a new DVD player, because the buttons are placed in differently, they don’t know how to approach that system. Whereas my mind is wired to instantly learn the inner workings and try and figure out, like, okay, what’s different? Where are the buttons located? How is this different from what I knew before? And my parents just look at it. And they’re like, “Well, this is just alien technology. I can’t get my head around it.” So I think that’s a crucial difference between my generation and my parents’. But yeah, who knows what technology will come into play in the future that will make me feel just as out of touch as they do?
Correspondent: But why should the generation be dictated by what your mind sees? Isn’t that a bit solipsistic? Maybe we can define territory here. Are you saying you’re the representation of your generation? Are we overstating things a little bit here?
Stryker: Perhaps. Although I look at young children who have been born in the last five years, and I think it was in a book by Clay Shirky. He was writing about his friend’s toddler, who was trying to figure out where the mouse for the TV was by fiddling with the wires. Just assuming that everything was interactive. And I think that that’s sort of an evolution of our ways of thinking. That everyone is going to be able to interact with everything in that way.
Correspondent: So you basically accept the inevitable. That infamous video which is probably a more damning depiction of what you’re describing, of the baby sliding the fingers along the magazine, where the self-righteous parent is saying, “See, there’s no need for paper.” That, you say, is an inevitable evolution? That we’re all going to have to deal with? Including bookish people like me?
Stryker: I mean, I don’t use a Kindle myself.
Correspondent: Ah! Traitor!
Stryker: But I think it’s silly to think that things aren’t moving inexorably in that direction towards digital.
Correspondent: So just the other day, AntiSec, they stole one million Apple unique IDs from an FBI laptop. They uploaded it onto Pastebin.
Correspondent: Allegedly. They uploaded it onto Pastebin, which, of course, you write about in this book [Hacking the Future]. You state in the book that “Pastebin might indeed be the future of the info leak economy.” How much of today’s hacking would you say is rooted, if you’ll pardon the pun, around text culture or text files? Scarlett Johansson also discovered that she was not immune to this. What extent does our commonplace reliance upon, say, mobile devices — does this create an even more insecure online identity? I mean, what’s the status here?
Stryker: Absolutely. Well, I think — and Steve Wozniak recently spoke about this — the biggest threat to security right now is the fact that we’re putting everything in the cloud. So your information is no longer secure on a hard drive in your bedroom. It is now on a server farm somewhere. And now, if a hacker can get into that system, they immediately have access to millions of people’s, for instance, credit card numbers or home addresses — depending upon how many layers they’re able to penetrate of the security. So I think that, yes, this is going to be something that we’re going to have to wrestle with over the next few years. This disparity between what they expect from our technology and what it’s able to offer in terms of security.
Correspondent: Or hacking the very networks that people play their games on and so forth. Why aren’t people really aware of the fact that so much of their information is so readily hackable or even readily disseminating through third parties that Facebook uses? And so forth. Is there just no awareness? Is the generation that we were describing before, as represented by you — do they just not care about this distinction?
Stryker: Well, I think there’s a couple reasons. One is that, up until recently, hackers weren’t necessarily prone to publicizing their victories the way they are now. Anonymous especially brought about this age of the gloating hacker on Twitter. Prior to that, they would gloat in their little IRC channels and stuff. But it wasn’t meant for public consumption: (a) because they didn’t want to get arrested and any sort of publicity would only make it easier for the feds to track them down and (b) because they weren’t interested in impressing anyone that wasn’t just as skilled as they are.
Correspondent: Why did they feel the need to start impressing other people? Or putting a public face? Or are we talking about factions and sectarianism?
Stryker: I think it’s both. I think, speaking about Anonymous specifically, a lot of it’s hubris. Younger hackers that manage to pull something off — they might not necessarily have the ability of one of these autistic geniuses somewhere who’s bringing down some huge corporation and no one ever hears about it. They bring down cia.gov, which is just a public facing website with no actual information on it worth stealing, and suddenly they’re on Twitter and speaking to millions about how they just achieved this epic victory.
Correspondent: Why do they feel the need to gloat? Is this a byproduct of like culture? Is this a byproduct of having to ratchet up the great hacking achievements over the years? Is this the more wired world with mobile devices and everything else?
Stryker: I think you might be right about the like culture thing. Never before have so many people been able to receive a communique of that nature. If you had a hacking victory that you wanted to brag about, you could go on a message board and the thousand people who attend that message board might see it and then maybe it might get picked up by a blog. Now you have stuff like Facebook and Twitter that enables a massive audience to be galvanized around something like this. And for Anonymous, it’s not just about the gloating. It’s about getting people excited and hopefully wanting to participate.
Correspondent: Maybe you can delineate between how Anonymous operates through 4chan and how it operates through Twitter. It would seem to me that one, of course, dictated by internal rules is more likely to fit in with the prototypical hacker. The hacker culture that we perhaps celebrated in the ’80s and the ’90s, the autistic geniuses that you suggest vs. Twitter, which is based around following and so forth. How are the two different? Do the two get along? Maybe you can go into that a little bit.
Stryker: Well, there’s a lot of, I would say, condescension from these old time classical hackers, if you will, towards the pranksters and Anonymous because a lot of Anonymous’s attacks don’t require a hell of a lot of technical knowledge.
Correspondent: Script kiddies basically.
Stryker: Right. And also because they are often very principled people who don’t find the gloating and the lingo to be very cool. So I think that, even if they were to agree with their political aims of whether it’s somehow anti-capitalism or protesting tyranny in the Middle East, they feel that Anonymous probably does more harm to the cause than good.
Correspondent: But doesn’t Anonymous function more or less like the Occupy label? It’s an amorphous title that everyone can get behind and everyone can find some kind of inclusion, perhaps not specific inclusion but inclusion nonetheless. So that we’re all in this together. Or if someone happens to be on an IRC channel or so forth. Or Pastebin, the attack on PBS that you mention. What motivates this? Is it an amorphous identity that allows them to operate in the same collective function?
Stryker: I think the Anonymous ideology is just solidified enough or just unified enough to provide people with just a lowest common denominator sense of solidarity. But beyond that, it means all things to all people. And this is Anonymous’s greatest strength and greatest flaw in my opinion. Because anybody can take charge and say that they’re going to go off and kill Facebook, for instance. And obviously nobody’s ever going to accomplish that. And all the other members of Anonymous say, “Well this isn’t the authentic Anonymous. This is some rogue group or some jackass.” So, yeah, we talked about sectarianism. And even within Anonymous itself, there’s hundreds of different opposing views and goals.
Correspondent: Yet there are common rules in a forum such as 4chan. And mainstream media is often easily fooled, often to ridiculing effect from the 4chan community. The Oprah exposé on Anonymous and so forth. Is there more of an understanding by the mainstream media now that you would say? Than a couple of years? I mean, you yourself put yourself on the line with the first book and were, in fact, heckled and harassed by 4chan. Maybe you’re just as part of the problem as Oprah is. What do we do to understand this? How do we understand a group of people who really don’t want to be understood?
Stryker: I still, even a year later, after releasing that first book, I still get contacted randomly by trolls who hate my guts and write nasty reviews on Amazon. I think that part of is that they simply just don’t like people talking about their secret club, even though I felt like I was rather sympathetic to their cause in both books. I think that specifically the 4chan bred version of Anonymous is more trollish in nature and really doesn’t care about political ideology. And they exist simply to mess with people and generate tons of controversy. And I think that the latter group of politically minded Anonymous is more interested in what I’m doing, in discussing these issues, and they don’t really have a problem with me. It’s the complete nihilists.
Correspondent: The ones who are in it for the lulz.
Stryker: Yeah. Exactly.
Correspondent: But isn’t that also a part of the political ethos as well? I mean, you can’t just take one away from the other, can you?
Stryker: I think there’s a little bit of lulz in even the most politically minded Anons. Like even the ones who are trying to bring down these entrenched corporate powers. There’s certainly at least an aesthetic of lulz, where they’re using the lingo and they’re gloating and basically using the same terminology that they would use if they had just killed a guy in Halo or some other video game regarding a federal agent.
Correspondent: Getting pwned and all that.
Stryker: Yeah. So that’s definitely there as an aesthetic. But the specific — I compare it to Tyler Durden, the character of Tyler Durden in Fight Club, who is just this completely — you know, all he cares about is fucking shit up essentially. Those are the ones that — they intrigue me and kind of terrify me at the same time. Because you wonder if they’re living this double life and in real life they’re not like that. And I would assume that that’s the case for many of them. That this is just an outlet for them to express the id. But I’m sure there are also some genuine psychopaths that call themselves Anonymous.
Correspondent: Okay. So if we’re talking about a group that is guided by aesthetic, the most prominent aesthetic of course is the V for Vendetta mask, what then would you say is their ultimate ethos? Which is probably what people would want to know if we were to acknowledge them as a legitimate group. I mean, are they more driven by lexical keywords, mashing things up into memes, and constantly perpetuating meme after meme after meme? How do you get distinguish between that and whatever sort of political ethos they stand for? Or whatever good that they do?
Stryker: I mean, I distinguish it in the book by using capital A when I refer to the politically minded group and a lowercase a when referring to just random trolls. You can try to synthesize them. But I think it makes more sense to almost consider them as two completely different groups. When they began, they were one and the same. When it was all anti-Scientology. Over time, the more politically minded members of Anonymous have grown increasingly humorless and more passionate, and they use lingo from like the ’60s’s counterculture. Like “Don’t lose heart, my brothers” and things like that. The more trollish anons would look at that and say, “You’ve got to be kidding me. This is what we’ve turned into?” They’re for pure chaos and any political goal is, to them, ridiculous.
Correspondent: But isn’t that the iteration of any countercultural hacking movement that we’ve seen? Where people grow more sour as they grow up, as they have kids or turn more libertarian sometimes. We saw that in the ’80s, if you hung around in USENET and checked out some of that. Or looked through the archives. What was once a very fresh countercultural movement became quickly driven towards money, towards entrepreneurship, towards that sort of thing. And then of course the initial enthusiasm that motivated the movement in the first place — I mean, isn’t this the function of all ideological groups? How does Anonymous, whether capital A or small a, differ from activists that came from before?
Stryker: Well, I think that earlier hacktivists were not bred in this mimetic culture. I mean, 4chan is a pretty unique place. There were places like it that existed before, but not at the same magnitude of just constantly churning weirdness. And most hacktivists don’t come into hacktivism from a desire to have fun. Or at least previously to Anonymous. I would think that a lot of politically minded hackers came to that way of life through a desire to achieve political change or to disrupt powerful entities. Not to just goof off.
Correspondent: Not predicated on blue boxing? Or pulling pranks? Any of the number of things that Steve Wozniak outlines in his book.
Stryker: But I don’t think they would ever call themselves hacktivists. I mean, even Steve Jobs did it as well. But I think that’s separate. I think Anonymous is a convergence of both of those. I think that it’s a natural evolution.
Correspondent: So it’s a natural evolution to go from prank-driven hacker in it for the lulz to hacktivist if you stick around in it too much? What’s the trajectory you’re describing here?
Stryker: I think that — it’s hard to say whether Anonymous has grown less prankish over the last few years or if simply that the more political oriented actions of Anonymous are the ones that are getting all the press. There’s still that chaotic — I mean, I know people that — you still hear these stories about teenage girls that are getting harassed online and people getting doxed, which is when all their personal identifying information gets leaked to the Web. That still happens all the time. And I think it will continue to go on as long as people are able to do that. But I think that the more politically minded stuff is what gets the press attention. So it looks like Anonymous is morphing into more of a political beast when that might not necessarily be the case. They just have the loudest voices.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Seeing if there’s anyone left to forgive him.
Author: A.M. Homes
Subjects Discussed: May We Be Forgiven as an update to White Noise, Nixon as a replacement for the Holocaust, Don DeLillo’s influence, Ann Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon, David Greenberg’s Nixon’s Shadow, the evolution of televised presidential debates, growing up with Nixon as the first President on one’s consciousness, how personal commentary has replaced professional commentary, references to David Lynch in May We Be Forgiven, This Book Will Save Your Life, families as an inevitable narrative solution, how a series of calamities unexpectedly transformed into dimensional character, the picaresque qualities of The Adventures of Augie March, knowing when a protagonist has a path, turning uninteresting lumps into vivid people, Paul Slovak’s input as editor, being asked to add material to the manuscript, finding hope and battling literature, including vaguely surreal qualities that are real, the South African bar mitzvah as cultural triangulation, being taught by Grace Paley, taking Yaddo people of all ages to play Laser Tag, John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” Blake Bailey, Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That, the hunger for lost communication, media and narrative in relation to existence, fashioning a narrative based off quotidian minutiae, Instagram, how American fiction responds to the predicament of snapshot-based life, men who write big books, assumptions about women writing domestic novels, George’s homicidal impulses, unusual psychiatric institutions within May We Be Forgiven, when a novel adopts a hostile stance to therapy, Homes’s enrollment in a prison survival class, Erving Goffman’s Asylums, having a lifelong fear of ending up in jail, the burdens of being an outsider, how outsiders become insiders, Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, why even outsiders even needed to be rooted, balancing being an insider with being an outsider, the responsibilities of being a Girl Scout leader, when trying to be like other people doesn’t come naturally, operating within a system, growing up in an upper middle class suburb, having socialist parents, lunatics who believe in rational conversation, simple anti-Thanksgiving food contained within May We Be Forgiven, fish sticks, Nixon and China, the dangers of stereotypical Chinese characters, George Shima*, working the cultural and the psychological fiction angles rather than the socioeconomic ones, Chinese manufacturing, the women who are attracted to Harry Silver, whether empathy gives promiscuity a distinction, the inevitability of family history, Homes being judgmental to her characters, how viewpoints change with age, pretending that you don’t have a family, and when parents interfere within telephone calls at inopportune moments.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: You’ve got this guy named Harry Silver. He’s a Nixon Studies scholar. And this, together with a homeless version of Don DeLillo who crops up in the book, suggests a deep connection to, of course, White Noise. And I wanted to ask you about this. To what extent would you say this novel serves almost as an update to White Noise? And has Nixon replaced the Holocaust as the go-to reflective tragedy in American life?
Homes: That’s a very enormous and large and interesting question. Did you say a homeless DeLillo?
Correspondent: Well, he’s like a homeless DeLillo. He’s a ragged DeLillo in the book.
Homes: Well, he’s not homeless.
Homes: He’s a wandering DeLillo.
Correspondent: A wandering DeLillo. All right. A vagabondish DeLillo.
Homes: In fact, in my mind, I’m stressing that. Because I thinking that the novel takes place quite near where DeLillo lives in reality. So I’m sure that he’s well housed.
Correspondent: Is DeLillo apprised of your narrative tinkering here?
Homes: I’m not sure.
Correspondent: Along with David Remnick and all the others. Lynne Tillman even shows up.
Homes: I think they’re dimly aware and soon will be more aware.
Correspondent: They certainly will be very soon. But anyway, White Noise.
Homes: The bigger question.
Correspondent: Nixon. Holocaust.
Homes: Right. You know it’s funny. I hadn’t thought about it directly in relation to White Noise, which I think conceptually or philosophically in terms of how I think of as a writer. Clearly, DeLillo is a huge influence. And it’s funny. You know how — I think it is in White Noise — there’s the big airborne incident? Which if you go back to Music for Torching, there’s that thing where they close off the house with the hazmat and all that stuff. It definitely comes out of that. But I think for me, the thing about DeLillo that’s so interesting — especially increasingly — is his ability to blend fact and fiction, and to combine the exploration of fact through the use of fictional characters. Like in Libra and in White Noise and in the last novel and in Underworld. So that definitely is a touchstone for me. I think the thing’s that interesting about Nixon as the defining American tragedy in some ways…
Correspondent: The only one people can remember.
Homes: Well, exactly. The only one that people can remember. But you know, what caught me off guard was that this year, Ann Beattie published the book Mrs. Nixon, which is very much a literary response not only to Mrs. Nixon, but to her own kind of evolution as a writer and a thinker. And I think that that book was in many ways was underreviewed or inappropriately reviewed or taken too much along the lines by Nixon scholars as being about Nixon and not enough as a literary exploration. But then also Tom Mallon wrote this book called Watergate: A Novel. So I think it’s odd that all of a sudden, without having spoken to each other, three people are launching Nixon-related fiction in a given year, which I think says that, yes, there is something about Nixon that is in some ways unresolved and that is representative of a classic American tragedy.
Correspondent: Well, I have to ask. How much research into Nixon did you do? Because I thought immediately of David Greenberg’s book, Nixon’s Shadow.
Homes: I don’t think I know that one.
Correspondent: Oh! It’s a really wonderful book that’s all about Nixon’s image. And I had developed this theory in my own head that you had actually read that book and said, “Well, I’ll make the brother a television executive.” Of course, if you look at Nixon from a purely straight standpoint, it was television that he learned to understand and therefore learned to master and become who he was.
Homes: It was also television that initially also undid him in the public eye.
Correspondent: Exactly. Unless, of course, you closed your eyes and listened to it on radio.
Homes: Well, right. So I wrote the other day this piece for one of the newspapers in England that talks about how after the Nixon/Kennedy debate, the people who heard it on radio thought that Nixon had won and the people who’d seen it on TV thought Kennedy had won. And that was the first ever, for TV, debate. But curiously after that, Nixon refused to debate again. So there was no debate. Then LBJ, also intimidated by it, refused to debate. It wasn’t until Gerald Ford in ’76 that the debates came back. And I think what’s so interesting is, we see right now in looking at the televised convention, we all know in a way how much the media plays a role in it. But the other piece we don’t even get to evaluate is how much the guy in the media truck plays a role in it. Because it’s also a lot about how that producer’s shots of the audience or what he cuts to or how they literally frame and deliver it to us. We’re not thinking about the choices that are made for us and that guide us in lots of ways that we don’t realize. So I find that all very interesting. For me, Nixon, weirdly, is a childhood thing. I grew up just at the edge of Washington DC and Nixon was the first President of my consciousness. And we took these class field trips to see Nixon greet the leader of France and things, and we’d be playing on the White House lawn while Nixon’s up there speaking. Because what did we know? Nothing. We were little, little kids. And we always used to see the Nixon girls in the shoe department at Saks, which funnily enough, Ann Beattie writes about the shoe department at Woodward & Lothrop was the opposite store from Saks in that neighborhood called Friendship Heights, just at the edge of Washington. It’s also things like I was at summer camp when Nixon resigned. In the South. And I remember this one counselor saying something like “I bet my mom was having a heart attack.” And I remember thinking, “That’s so odd. Because in Georgetown, I’m sure they’re having a party.” So just beginning to realize that the President wasn’t just the mayor of a town, but this much larger figure. So Nixon really for me evolved as part of my growing up, but also, curiously, there’s still more and more information about Nixon and Nixon’s presidency being unveiled. Which we don’t have usually to that degree of a President.
Correspondent: But there’s also this intriguing idea that you present in your book that I actually thought of last night in relation to the Democratic National Convention and watching Obama speak — last night would be when we are recording this. This is the first series of political conventions where now you’re required to participate in the commentary. On Twitter. I was tweeting up a storm. So was everybody else. And it’s a rather fascinating idea that, instead of actually studying or trusting other people to comment upon the actions, we are the ones who actually filter it. And people now seem to be watching CSPAN. They don’t necessarily trust the news. I mention this because, in light of what your book has to say about narrative — I want to get into this too. So little time. I’ll do my best. So you have at least three references to David Lynch in this book. You have the tied cherry stems. You have “blue velvet curtains.” You have a missing girl who shows up later, which is very reminiscent of Laura Palmer. And I said to myself, “Hmmm. Well, isn’t this interesting?” And isn’t it also interesting that you even have a firm show up. Herzog, Henderson & March. Which of course has us going back to Bellow. And, of course, you mentioned DeLillo earlier. What is the degree that narrative now plays in our life if we’re constantly commentating? Does fiction even have a place for reflection anymore? Or do we now have to, as you have with this book quite wonderfully, stuff our novels with commentary on all sorts of things so that people can commentate further? What of this?
Homes: You know, it’s a good question. And in many ways, I don’t actually know the answer. I mean, I think the idea of “Does fiction have a place?” is an important one. And I think people really don’t know anymore what the difference between fiction and nonfiction is. And often they’ll say, “So you wrote a fictional novel?” And I’m thinking, “That’s right.” Or they’ll say, “Is it all true?” And you think, “Well, it’s a novel.” So it’s very difficult. And I’m not sure that there is a sense of what the role of the novel is. It’s kind of in culture at this point. And it would be curious to actually try to think about what the evolution of that is. We’ve kind of lost that. Is it a result of the memoir? The idea that everything has to be a real thing. Reality TV. The impact of all these things. Have we moved away from an imagination? And my sense is that in many ways — I mean, I see this when I teach — people have forgotten what the imagination is and how to use it. It’s as though there’s not any trust in the idea of being able to make something that wasn’t there before, as though that’s too magical an idea, or how to use fiction and story to weave something together that is a heightened version of an unreal thing that is incredibly reflective of real experience in some way.
Correspondent: Well, I’m going to quote from This Book Will Save Your Life. You have the voiceover of the disaster film. “What you are about to see is a work of fiction. It has not yet happened and yet each of the elements represented are real. It was written using everything I know about the state of the world we live in, which means it’s coming soon.” So here we have in May We Be Forgiven, this notion of “coming soon.” Each of the elements are represented as real. I’m curious if this was in fact a problem in writing the book. Because the first half of the book has Harry engaged in one calamity after another. It’s this heap of abuse and he carries through. But then something rather interesting happens halfway through. Families are formed. Families are formed in the strangest of places. And every amount of narrative that you can actually heap upon Harry, going back to this idea of “coming soon,” well, it’s simply not enough for him to live as a character, as a human. So I’m wondering how this dilemma afflicted you during the writing of this and how this was your response. The idea of family, the idea of finding other people and creating this interesting snowball effect. So by the end, we have all these people in the house and so forth.
Homes: Right. That’s a good question. I’m not sure exactly what the question is. But I think the thing that was interesting for me is that this, in many ways, started as a short story. Not in many ways. It did start as a short story. So I feel like if you cause a tragic injury in the beginning, you have to raise the stakes. Because where do you go from there? On Page 20, there’s this gigantic upsetting incident. So part of it was that. And also the interesting thing for me as a writer was, early on, my difficulty with Harry was that I was writing about somebody who didn’t know himself. And it’s very hard to be led by a person who doesn’t know where they’re going. So I think as Harry began to unfold as a person, to himself actually, he became more of a character. A more open character to me as a writer. If that makes any sense. Because only by coming to some understanding of who he is and what’s happening to him is he then able to make the connections. And the connections are family and to build this family. And that’s both what slows him down and what begins to kind of ground it. And then you’re not rolling from calamity to calamity. And I think it’s very true of our lives as well. That we often live in reaction to things and things happen to us. And it’s very hard sometimes to get enough — I don’t know what you call it — traction to slow it down, to make choices or to take action or to not just be responding.
* — At the 36:29 mark, during an impromptu moment, Our Correspondent mistakenly referred to “Joe Shima” when he meant to refer to George Shima. George Shima was known as the Potato King of California and his story deserves more than the rushed reference offered by Our Correspondent. When the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — one of the most diabolically racist acts of legislation in our nation’s history — restricted Chinese laborers in the States, including those who had just come across the Pacific to work on the transcontinental railroad, several Japanese came across and took their place because of the domestic labor shortage. George Shima became a self-made millionaire. Our Correspondent suggested that Shima had fought the Chinese Exclusion Act, when he really fought against the California Alien Land Law years later (which restricted Asians from owning land), although he was quite vocal about many of the discriminatory laws during the line. Much of this is documented in Kevin Starr’s excellent volumes of California history. And if you would like to learn more about George Shima, there’s a good article here (PDF).
Steve Stern is most recently the author of The Book of Mischief.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why they’re playing the bagpipes.
Author: Steve Stern
Subjects Discussed: Playing bagpipes for the dead, the relationship between Jewish identity and the phantasmagorical in Stern’s fiction, growing up without Jewish identity, being an oral historian in Memphis, Beale Street culture, becoming an ethnic heritage director by accident, hippies and Jewish magic, learning about culture almost exclusively from books, finding moral heft within the fantastical, the pedestrian vs. the imagination, the human possibilities that arise from distinguishing between two worlds, paradoxical success, balancing present-day comic calamities vs. past heritage within The Frozen Rabbi, how the brain is affected by coffee, authors who suffer from impostor syndrome, Bernard Malamud’s “Man in the Drawer,” living in books more than living in life, misfits and outsiders defined by heritage, entering the zone of the collective dreamife by climbing a tree, juxtaposing human faith against religious faith through observation, the ambivalence of wanting to make connections and not being able to fit within a community, recurring disembodied characters within Stern’s stories, not writing for the drawer, dealing with a very limited reading audience, varying notions of “being an entertainer,” saturating a story with Yiddish words and ethnic identity and why the American fiction landscape is hostile to this, Stern’s fictional descriptions of The Pinch in Memphis, Stern being bitten by Tova Mirvis’s mother, comparisons between Steve Stern and Saul Bozoff in “The Wedding Jester,” Bozoff as Stern’s Zuckerman, being sued for a quarter million dollars because of mischievous fictional representation, the dark side of Steve Stern, getting vengeance through the use of Elvis Presley, “The Man Who Would Be Kafka,” how stories are vulnerable to interpretation, changing the rules vs. respecting folklore, legendary Jewish jesters, Kafka’s “Above the Law,” “Legend of the Lost,” pondering an existence without a soul or empathy, why Stern’s new stories are darker than the old ones, connecting with a spiritual dimension, and paradoxical parables.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: We are outside a place that is playing bagpipes for someone who we believe is dead. Steve, how are you doing? You’re quite alive, I see.
Stern: Well, I’ve got one and a half feet in the grave with me.
Correspondent: Oh really?
Stern: I don’t know. I’m a very lively undead author.
Correspondent: (laughs) Who deals with the dead quite a bit. The Frozen Rabbi. Well, at least it’s frozen there. It seems to be the ultimate metaphor for this.
Stern: My characters tend not to stay dead.
Correspondent: Despite your best efforts. Well, let’s talk about some of the qualities of your work. One intriguing quality about your fiction is the way in which you have this idea of being Jewish aligned with these fantastical elements. In The Frozen Rabbi, you have this kid named Bernie. He’s constantly having to remind himself of his faith. Because he has this thawed out rabbi that he has to deal with, even as the rabbi becomes more craven and commercial as we learn more about his existence and we go back to the past. And then a story like “Avigdor of the Apes” sees its title character transform as he reads the secular, decidedly secular Edgar Rice Burroughs. You have “Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven,” which takes much of its influence from the story of the golem, as well as this premise of the stubborn father-in-law, who, like we’re talking about here, refuses to die. So I’m wondering. When you come up with a fantastical element for a story, are you thinking in terms of Jewish identity? Or does the Jewish identity tend to come along the more you think about the story? Or the more you tend to write about it? How important is it for that fantastical element to work on some moral or thematic level?
Stern: You want the long answer or the short answer?
Correspondent: Feel free to be as long-winded as you like on this program.
Stern: Well, the truth is that I grew up with virtually no Jewish identity. I was raised in a Reform synagogue in Memphis in the ’50s and ’60s, during a time when the Jews in the South were trying their best to be invisible. So Reform Judaism was a lot like Lutheranism, I think, in those days. The rabbi wore ecclesiastical robes. He had choirs and robes, a pipe organ, very little Hebrew in the liturgy. So I pretty much was confirmed, not bar mitzvahed, and then walked away from it virtually untouched by heritage or tradition.
Correspondent: What kind of reading of Jewishness did you do during this time?
Correspondent: None whatsoever?
Stern: Absolutely none.
Correspondent: Not even a scrap of the Torah here and there?
Stern: No. In fact, I wasn’t sure that the Torah and the Bible were the same thing. So, yeah, I was — if an orthodox anything, it was a hippie for years with the kind of counterculture life. Always was a reader. So I certainly read Bellow, Roth, and Malamud, and came, I think, to more traditional Jewish work — Yiddish books in translation — through a non-Yiddish writer, but Russian. Isaak Babel and his world of the Odessa ghetto was an easy segue into reading about the shtetl and Isaac Singer and becoming interested in Yiddish literature. But the truth is I was well into my thirties. And I’d come sort of full circle back to Memphis and kind of washed up there. Couldn’t find a job. Went to work for a folklore center, where I was transcribing oral history tapes of Beale Street and Beale Street characters. Black bluesmen and promoters. People who remember the heyday of Beale Street, which is fascinating to me. Because present day Memphis was a bit of a wasteland. And it turned out that there was this Jewish component on the street. The pawn shops, the dry goods dealers…
Correspondent: This would be Old Main Street then.
Stern: Well, Beale off of Main. And there was a kind of symbiosis between the black population and these Jewish merchants. And it was the first I’d heard of it really. Before my time. And I was fascinated.
Correspondent: Did you read a lot about the Jewish gangsters who crop up in a few stories here and in The Frozen Rabbi?
Stern: At this point, I’m pretty much tabula rasa. So they thought, “Well, he’s local. He works cheap. And he’s a Jew.” So they assigned me to do this. I became the Ethnic Heritage Director. I was suddenly elevated into researching the roots of the old Jewish community, which, again, I knew nothing about. It turned out that there had been an authentic East European ghetto community on North Main Street in Memphis, which was the other end of town. So I went about with a big Nagra tape recorder, knocking on doors and finding old folks who’d grown up in this neighborhood.
Correspondent: You were a one man Federal Writers Project.
Stern: Yeah. In a way. And working on a grant. And hurrying, trying to gather information before the grant ran out. And it turned out that the stories were fascinating. And I’d say, “Well, how did he get here?” So they generally begin in the old country and then bring their tradition with them and the tradition involved a lot of lore. Aside from the religion itself and the culture. There was a literature attached. There was a folklore attached. There were 1,000 years of just traditional stuff that I knew nothing about. So I fell into that world, kind of like down a rabbit hole, and thought, “Wow, here’s a place I can set my stories,” which had been kind of homeless before. And here’s a culture. You know, I grew up in the South. My friends were all in the tradition of Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty. I love those writers. But it was not a tradition that I could ever connect with. And I thought…
Correspondent: You needed a heritage then. And this came out of the blue. Were you trying to write fiction before this?
Stern: I’d been writing fiction for years. For a decade.
Correspondent: And it just didn’t hit until you had that folklore element.
Stern: Well, I had this wonderful day when I had a novel and a book of stories that were just kind of traveling around New York. And the agent called to say, “Well, you know, I’ve just had another rejection of your books. And the truth is I’m not very enthused either.”
Correspondent: (laughs) Jeez. Why did this agent take you on?
Stern: Three minutes later, I get a phone call from the schools that I’d been adjuncting at, saying, “Enrollment’s down and your presence will not be required.” So I was desperate.
Correspondent: So all doors shut on you at the same time.
Stern: Yeah. And to be honest, I think in redacting my life, you look for a way to find elements or events that spell destiny. So the folklore center and the discovery of the Pinch has that kind of feel for me. But on the other hand, I’m romanticizing and twisting the facts in a way to make it seem like a good story.
Correspondent: We’ve strayed quite a bit from my initial inquiry.
Stern: The initial question!
Correspondent: Which is totally fine. Because I like this answer.
Stern: Coming back to it!
Correspondent: Coming soon! So how do we get from folklore to fantastical elements? That’s the question.
Stern: Well, because in beginning to explore this heretofore unexplored heritage, I began to discover a thing that I had never known about Jewish tradition. And that’s that it has this incredibly rich, incredibly vast, diverse folklore that includes all kinds of magic.
Correspondent: Was the magic — that was a big element for why it hit for you? Why you could connect to it?
Stern: I’m an old hippie.
Correspondent: It was either that or getting stoned all day. (laughs)
Stern: Well, that too. But I’d been led to believe that the tradition that I grew up in was as completely dry as dust. Sterile, antiseptic. And it was as if I had stolen into the attic of this old Methodist synagogue and discovered, whoa! Here’s a dybbuk. (laughs) You know, a possessing demon. Here’s a golem. A Jewish Frankenstein. Here’s a wandering soul. A fallen angel. All this.
Correspondent: So did you know anything of shuls or Shabos or wedding canopies or breaking the glass? Anything along those lines? Because your fiction is obviously very Jewish. Was most of that informed by all this folklore that you were soaking up during this time of discovery here?
Stern: Well, sad to say, and don’t tell Cynthia Ozick this, it’s all book learned. And I’ve had very little first-hand experience of authentic Jewish communities.
Correspondent: Even recently?
Stern: No. Because of what I’ve written, I’ve been mistaken for a Jew these many years.
(Photo: Zachary Tomanelli)
Lynn Povich is most recently the author of The Good Girls Revolt.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why mysterious men are packing him off to Paris.
Author: Lynn Povich
Subjects Discussed: The Henry Luce “tradition” of men working as writers and women working as researchers, well-educated women being exploited in a two-tier system, Janet Flanner, the influence of the Civil Rights Act, the old boys’ network, the contrast between Oz Elliott’s civil rights conscience and Newsweek‘s treatment of women, Anna Quindlen, Otto Freidrich’s 1964 ridicule of the fact checker (and Friedrich’s condescending description of women), “office maidens,” the importance and accountability of fact checkers, how people viewed women reporters in the 1960s, Businessweek hiring women straight out of college, Reader’s Digest‘s paternalistic form of “respect” towards women, Flora Lewis in The New York Times, whether Kay Graham and The Washington Post‘s support of the lawsuit was sufficiently commensurate at the time, women reporters not being invited to lunch meetings, the second Newsweek lawsuit, Gloria Steinem vs. Graham, being a feminist vs. being a businesswoman, Eleanor Holmes Norton and the importance of having the right attorney, Harriet Rabb, Margo Jefferson, black reporters who didn’t organize at Newsweek, inquiry into efforts to unite black and women reporters, income disparity, why the journalism industry is a good medium to examine income inequity, women and education, journalism school, Povich’s editorship at Working Woman, women managers, tryout sessions for women and writer training programs, office affairs and rampant recreational sex within newsrooms, Hanna Rosin’s recent claims about hookup culture being empowering, how women didn’t get ahead even when promiscuous, sexist stereotypes in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, Sorkin’s “silent bearers of sexism,” the 2011 Global Report on the Status of Women in the News Media, the American inability to consider work vs. family balance, why it’s important to worry about men, and men as stay-at-home dads.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: When Oz Elliott, the Newsweek editor-in-chief, initially responded to the lawsuit that you filed against Newsweek — and this is sort of my question to get you to talk about that lawsuit, but let’s go ahead and get the background first — he said in his statement that the reason that most of the researchers at Newsweek were women and virtually all of the writers were men was, in his words, “because of a newsmagazine tradition going back almost fifty years.” Now he said this, despite what you describe later in the book as “a WASPY social conscience.” So why was this tradition, which originated from Henry Luce and Brit Hadden, tolerated for so long? Especially when you had some women who had to settle for this second-tier treatment and often give the best years of their lives? Let’s talk about the origins of this problem.
Povich: Well, yes, in fact, when Henry Luce created this system of all of the researchers being women, and all of the writers and reporters being men, Oz, who worked at Time Magazine at the time, said this was great for women because it got them out of the steno category and they could actually do editorial work. So at that point, which was in ’29 I think, it was considered more liberating than being a secretary. And Newsweek copied Time. However, by 1960, it was pretty clear that well-educated women coming out of the same schools as men with perhaps no prior experience, as many men did not have, and some prior experience, as some men had, were hired into this entry level category and couldn’t be promoted out of it. And women who really wanted to be journalists that young and knew it, like Nora Ephron and Jane Bryant Quinn and Ellen Goodman and Susan Brownmiller, they saw the lay of the land pretty quickly and they left. And the rest of us “good girls,” as I call us, were probably, first, happy to get a job. Especially in a place that was so interesting, about the news, working on the matters that really were important and having this special pipeline to the truth. As one of the writers said, we were all blind in many ways. I mean, the women bought into it. The men certainly bought into it. Until one day we didn’t. And I think the fact that the women’s movement happened as many of us in the mid-’60s were coming into the workforce helped us realized, certainly helped me realize. I was reporting and writing at the time. I was a junior writer. And I started covering the women’s movement. And I suddenly realized this isn’t just about those women. Hey, there’s something wrong with this picture for us at Newsweek. And that’s when a bunch of us started organizing.
Correspondent: Were there any other efforts at organization before yours that fizzled out? That you were aware of when you were organizing with your fellow women reporters or women researchers at Newsweek, aspiring of course to be reporters? I mean, were you aware of any other cues or efforts to rebel against this? I mean, I’m really curious as to why such a “tradition” lasted for so long and why good old Oz actually upheld that for a while, who was eventually forced to turn back. What was the impulse to, number one, cause him to change? And, number two, the other question is is: Why weren’t women revolting against this?
Povich: It’s a good question. Well, first of all, during World War II, there were women writers, as there were in many professions, where women took over men’s jobs. But by the early ’60s, they had all left. And there was one women who managed to get out of research and into writing in the early ’60s and was promoted to being a correspondent in Paris. So she was already writing in Paris when we were back in New York.
Correspondent: This is at Newsweek.
Povich: At Newsweek. There were still no women writing.
Correspondent: It’s interesting. They sent the women from New York. Just like Janet Flanner at the New Yorker.
Povich: (laughs) Right. Exactly. Paris.
Correspondent: Somehow women could understand Paris, right?
Povich: And she was a brilliant write and reporter. She was fabulous. She just didn’t happen to be there when most of us were hired. She had left to go to Paris. So we were presented with this situation of all of us being researchers and the guys being our bosses. It’s interesting. Because even though the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, when the person who actually first started our revolt, Judy Gingold, who was a Marshall Scholar, who came back from England and could not find a job. Except as a fact checker at Newsweek. When she was talking to a lawyer, who told her that our situation was illegal, she couldn’t believe it. And she said, “Well, you know, I don’t think the guys know it’s illegal. I think we should just tell the guys.” And the lawyer said, “Call the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and you’ll find out.” And so she called them. They said, “Yes, this is illegal.” And she said, “Well, shouldn’t we just tell the men?” And the women at the other end of the line said, “Are you crazy? People in power don’t want to give up power. If you tell them, they will promote two women, co-opt your movement, and it will be finished. You have a clear-cut case and you have to sue.” So my feeling is that they didn’t know it was illegal or realized it was illegal. Because it had been accepted as a woman’s job for so long. It had been a tradition. And, of course, it benefited men. And their circles were men. I mean, they hired guys right off the Harvard Crimson and the Yale Daily. Because that’s where they were from. And their circle, as we know, in corporate America still — if it’s a boy’s club at the top, your sources are guys.
Correspondent: Do you think these men were conscious of the fact that they were playing into this sexism? Or that this was an automatic power structure that they fell into? I mean, we were talking about Oz Elliott changing his mind. How difficult was it to get other men who were in positions of power to change their mind? Even before you filed a lawsuit. Or was it fairly steeped in the culture?
Povich: I mean, I have to say that many of the men at Newsweek were supporters of ours. Certainly the writers we worked with and who knew how smart and talented many of the women were, they supported us from the very beginning. And Oz Elliott, as you said, got it right away. He told me that Monday he realized we were right. Now this is a man who put Newsweek on the map because of his civil rights coverage. And they were very proud of their progressive views on civil rights and Black Americans.
Correspondent: A great irony.
Povich: Yes. And at the same time, they hadn’t realized that in front of their noses, there was this horrible injustice happening to the women who worked for them. Oz Elliott also has three daughters. And my pet theory is that men with daughters are far more open and respectful of what women can do. But like all organizations, or many organizations, the actual discrimination came in middle management. For us, it was the senior editors and the top couple of editors under Oz. That happens a lot in corporate America. And many of those guys were against affirmative action. Anna Quindlen has a wonderful quote she told me. I always say I’m an affirmative action baby and I’m proud of it. I wouldn’t have gotten where I was without it. And she feels the same way. And she says when people look at her strangely about that, she says, “If you think affirmative action is promoting a second-rate talent just because they’re female or black, you’re looking at one.” And so I do think a lot of people were against affirmative action. They thought that this was not a good idea. And they also didn’t look at women, frankly, as capable professionally. Either because of their own backgrounds, because of power. Whatever it was. But I was told that promoting me was one of the worst decisions that the editor ever took at the time. We were told when we filed the suit — one of the top editor said, “Why don’t we just fire them all? We don’t need them.” It’s complicated. I call it our little Rosa Parks moment. Everybody went to the back of the bus until one day you didn’t. And one day, we didn’t.