Category Archives: Essays


Beyoncé Lessons

LARB editors Michelle Chihara and Sarah Mesle went to see Beyoncé’s “Formation” tour’s recent stop at Dodger Stadium.  This is what they thought.


Michelle: Sarah, we know the first thing we have to talk about is the shoes.

Six-inch heels, she walked in the club like nobody’s business / Goddamn, she murdered everybody and I was her witness

Six-inch heels, she walked in the club like nobody’s business / Goddamn, she murdered everybody and I was her witness


Remember, this person was very tall, in black jeans. A knitted top, not a hoodie, but hooded. Their shoes were royal, fit for the queen’s court: four-inch silver rhinestoned stilettos on a gender queer person whose pronoun I did not manage to get, so I’m calling them “they.” They leaned down and told us, conspiratorially: good shoes are about “self-care.”

Which, as you know, is something I agree with deeply.

Shoes are about treating yourself, and self-care. Shoes are also about self-inflicted and exquisite pain. I wanted to ask everyone at that concert about their amazing over-the-top shoes — stacked wooden-heeled mules, lace-up strappy knee-highs in gold, over-the-knee crumpled suede Robin Hood numbers in black,pink booties with perspex spikes. What did those shoes mean to each of them, about indulgence and sacrifice and identity, and pain?

 Sarah: It’s funny how our love of Beyoncé attaches to our own objects: shoes, t-shirts, novelty cocktails, tote bags. Being a fan is about experiencing an outsized kind of love, a love that’s almost as much about the (often shared) experience of loving as it is about the object itself. So I guess it makes sense that our love spills outwards, onto memorabilia, onto these totems or icons of our affection.  And it makes sense, too, that this happens so profoundly with Beyoncé, who has made her own self-making central to her appeal.  Does it put her in a too-small box to say that her art is about the process of finding yourself to be worthy of your own creative admiration? A (male) friend once said to me, “Rihanna sings for men, Beyoncé always sings for other women,” and this struck me then as both an evocative and somewhat unfair account of Rihanna and an interesting account of the space Beyoncé has carved out for herself. Part of being a fan of Beyoncé, one way to demonstrate the intensity of your feeling, is by being committed to your own self-making. She asks us to show up for ourselves.

But it’s hard to know how to do that. Michelle, the shoes I wore to this concert were these 90s throw back purple combat boots I got this year for Christmas.  When we asked the people in line for drinks to let us take a picture, I did not put my foot in the frame. I love the exquisite torture of extravagant shoes! But my back is out, and I was being practical. What kind of self care is it to wear shoes that you don’t feel call attention to yourself? Heels are about self-care, but they’re also often tied up in how you relate to other women.  You and I have both been judged by other women for our high heels. Does it seem true that often when you see groups of women, they wear shoes of the same height? Women perform their womanhood with their feet, and it can be hard for some women to not feel that your performance is about them.

Michelle: Yes, this is part of what was so wonderful about Silver Stiletto’s conspiratorial tone, it dismantled any girl-on-girl  judginess. We were showing up for ourselves, in different shoes, together. I think that’s interesting about Rihanna. I have more to say about Rihanna! But for now, I’ll just say I’m really bummed you didn’t put your purple combat boots in the picture. That is a loss.

Sarah: So dumb! I’m not going to beat myself up for it; let’s just flag it as a moment indicating some places I still don’t show up for myself.  But to the point: I feel that it’s these questions Beyoncé’s performance helps us navigate. Navigate by getting dressed up, singing along, and dancing?

Michelle: In the song, “Six Inch,” she says “she work for the money.” We know what kind of work the song and the clear lucite of perspex heels refer to. We all want to wear the heels in the powerful way, we want the six-inches to be about self-care, but we also know what kind of work they get associated with. You can dance in shoes that don’t flex, but it’s hard to run and walk in them. In “Countdown,” Beyoncé sang: “All up in the kitchen in my heels, dinner time.” Was that about self-care? Or was that feminized sacrifice to the male gaze? And then the next time she sang about heels, they also maybe make her want to murder someone?

Beyoncé and her fans clearly totally get this complexity.

Sarah: Yes, as you say, shoes are both the fact and the symbol of mobility. One thing I took from this concert, watching Beyoncé cycle through a series of heels and over-the-knee boots, is that it may be true that associating our high heels with our own power is a fucked up complicity with the way that patriarchy wants to break our bodies, cripple us, slow us down, but that realizing that doesn’t lead you to any necessary course of action. If I recognize that high heels, or toe shoes to take another example, are signs of the patriarchy, must I also decide I don’t like the pitch of my body, balanced in heels? No. It feels fucking good! Watching Beyoncé march, I had the thought: “the only way out (of patriarchy) is through.” And then that was also wrong: “there is no out, here we are in this shit show, we all deserve these costume changes.”

Michelle: We deserve all of our costume changes! She wore so many shoes, and so few pants! So fucking good!

Also, we had to hike out in our murderous heels. The Uber flags were over-run. A straight man in a button-down shirt was yelling into his phone, “What do you mean you can’t see me, I’m the only MAN here.” We hiked down out of the stadium towards the grounds of the Barlow Respiratory hospital, but then, at the bottom of the hill, it became clear that there was no phone service in the park and no rides for at least a mile. I swear I saw the woman with the pink booties, carrying her shoes. And remember, we saw another woman starting up the hill in fluffy green slippers? I was so happy about the way it felt to take off my strappy black heels and walk barefoot to Echo Park Avenue. The cool crunch of shatter-proof glass and asphalt between my toes.  Me and all those other ladies, barefoot, together.

Sarah: That is such a joyful pleasure! Even blisters can be such a pleasure, depending on what you have to do the next day! I often enjoy the surface woe of blisters, how you have to tend to them and be conscious of them. But I don’t fuck around with lower lumbar pain, which is what let me to my combat boots that night.  I think there is some metaphor here for different kinds of damage, and what they mean to us.

Which, let’s just note: Beyoncé is a pop star, she makes joyful music! But this was a tour that was very much about being damaged: by love, by structural racism, by misogyny, by the way those things cannot be separated. It’s about being knocked down and also about getting down. I do not remember ever being in a crowd full of more joyful women! Even in the never ending drink line, nothing but good feeling! The women in front of us, younger than us, twerking, taking pictures of each other, talking about their children.  “I ain’t sorry!” proclaimed one woman’s self-made t-shirt.  Michelle: that woman was not sorry.

Michelle: That t-shirt was glorious! Hand-drawn middle fingers UP, in glitter pen!! And the woman twerking wore a perfect off-the-shoulder cocktail dress in bright yellow Lemonade fabric. Also, I know you don’t love this song, but did you see, in front of us, maybe two rows ahead, the two girls of about thirteen in long hair and ponytails? I was very in love with them, especially during “Daddy Lessons.” One was swimming in a Formation Tour starter jacket. They knew every lyric, except for one or two early Destiny’s Child songs, because these girls were too young to remember Destiny’s Child. But for every song on Formation, they were on their feet. For “Daddy Lessons,” they had synchronized dance moves: wiping away each other’s tears for when “he told me not to cry,” and gun fingers for “my daddy said shoot.” When they got really excited, on the chorus, they interlaced their fingers and jumped up and down.

There were so many wonderful multi-gendered but predominantly feminine groups: a mixed race mother and daughter team behind us, a pair of Japanese nationals to our right, way in front, a small group clustered around a stunning drag queen in a cream-colored bodysuit. But Sarah, I don’t want anyone to think of these people as cute. I don’t want anyone to think the Beyoncé show was like a slumber party. Or a bachelorette party. Or god forbid, a moms night out. Those girls in front of us were cementing a friendship and a stance towards the world, “watch out for your sister” but also “daddy made a soldier out of me,” for better or for worse.  How amazing to witness it.

Sarah: A few years ago I saw The Breeders at a music festival, performing all of Last Splash. The festival took place in the LA “cornfields,” maybe a mile from Dodger Stadium where we saw Beyoncé play. At the first chaotic sound that opens “Cannonball,” women from all over the fields surged forward, pressed closer, rushing at the noise made by these fifty-something women in t-shirts, with softening necks and incredibly strong arms. My friends and I were jostled by the radiant masses of teenagers, twenty-somethings: they knew all the words! KIM DEAL! All of us loved her, and in the way that we loved her, together, we were also loving our own roughness, our unformedness. The Breeders’ unformedness too, up there on the stage, in midlife. They had made something perfect, thirty years before! And then a lot of shit happened, for all of them and for all of us and all these teenagers in the crowd hadn’t even been born, and yet all of us could agree on that song. It felt to me at that crazy crowd rush moment like everything that was possible for me the first time I heard “Cannonball,” when I was 17, was still possible: that the course of womanhood is long and variable and that I didn’t need to cast off my youth, its tastes and imperfections, to enjoy myself now or to be eager for where I was going. It’s a hard thing at 40, to forgive yourself for who you used to be.  That was a moment that sort of taught me how.

The intergenerational appeal of this Beyoncé show was different, maybe partly because of the pop idiom she represents, but mostly because my own youth isn’t tied up with her. Her rise came at the time when I was most abstracted from popular music — college boyfriend guitar noodling; grad school; baby — and it was really only “Single Ladies” that made me sit up and pay attention to the amazing thing that was going on. Sometimes I’m sorry that my students, the young women I’m around, don’t have the music of the 90s around them: looking at them makes me grateful to have become a woman at a time when women didn’t feel like their noises needed to be pretty. (Pretty is great, I actually really value pretty, but as siren-voiced Beyoncé would be the first to tell us: pretty hurts). But I’m also aware that there was not, when I was young, a pop icon who could synthesize beauty, politics, dance, practice, womanhood, in the way that Beyoncé can. Being at this concert was less about solidifying my relationship with my own youth, than with being so grateful that I have all these young women — and Beyoncé is younger than us, too — to learn from.

Michelle: I am fully prepared to love Kim Deal’s strong arms, and still learning to forgive myself for who I used to be. The Pixies are the perfect symbol of music I have always liked openly while secretly blasting “Independent Women” alone in my car! My heart has always been more pop than punk. Pop, with all its conflicted gender dynamics, still provides me with a lot of profound pleasure, much of it still alone in my car, now sometimes with my daughters. Going to see Beyoncé as a grown woman was part of my very late stage reclamation of an unashamed pop self. I felt like if I missed Beyoncé I would not only be missing an important moment in politics and pop culture but also betraying my lifelong fealty to Prince.

I know that you know that Beyoncé sang “The Beautiful Ones” in tribute to him at an earlier Formation show. I know this because my friend sent me a clip, and I made you watch it a bunch of times.

I think I found it over-powering when Beyoncé called herself “grown,” after all those pictures of Jay Z and Blue Ivy, because we are also grown. Not old, but grown. It was a realization of how much I have grown up with her music. Her transition from the African dance-influenced Freedom into Destiny’s Child’s Survivor was an intersectional moment of glory!  I am so grateful for her wondrous late stage reclamation of an unashamed politicized and powerful lady self.

Sarah: One thing that really struck both of us was the beautiful wisdom of her set list: the way she would transform a song from her earlier career by playing it after a song from Lemonade. Two moments stand out: how she moved from “Hold Up,” Lemonade’s most fucked up adultary anthem, to “Countdown,” a tribute to a perfect kind of love that seems so much richer once you’ve been through “Hold Up’s” car-smashing intensity. And then, at the end, moving from “Freedom” to “Survivor.” Both of these song sequences left me gobsmacked. “Freedom” was the song I expected to be the showstopper, and the tour reprised her barefoot, baptismal performance with Kendrick Lamar at this year’s BET awards, including the intensely cathartic water splashing. It’s a song that captures “grown” Beyoncé: at the peak of her vocal ability, able to synthesize personal hardship with political vision. When you listen to “Freedom,” you think, damn, this woman has come a long way. You think: fuck yeah.

So how bold of her, how wise, to go from the peak of where she is now backwards, to reclaim the song that really first made her a star. “Survivor” is a great pop song, for sure, but it’s no insult to the song to point out that she made it when it was basically a child, when she had not yet experienced what a grown woman in fact needs to survive. By playing “Survivor” after “Freedom,” the penultimate song of her show, she honors her own childhood, her own girlhood. As a child, she had the capacity to recognize what she would eventually need: she could craft a narrative that, as a grown woman, she would be able to fully inhabit. I feel like this is what’s so great about what Beyoncé is doing right now: she’s figuring out how to be a woman without casting any disparagement on girls, and that is such a rare thing. Our culture appreciates girls but doesn’t respect them; we respect moms but pigeonhole them in their motherhood; women we have no idea what to do with. How fucking beautiful, to live at a time when Beyoncé is willing to chart a path for us of putting all these pieces together.  I hate the phrase “having it all” so let’s just say: Beyoncé is carving out a space to be, as a human, in her body, not (as no one ever is) complete, but instead something better: real.

Michelle: I think she may also have had to survive some stuff pretty young. But yes: fuck having it all. Instead, let us all find redemption in Beyoncé, grown, taking a knee to sing “Halo” in the shallow waters.

Remember when Beyoncé gave the mic at one point to a woman in the front row? “I’d rather be crazy,” she shouted, making clear, at the very least, that the mic was live. The LA Times reporter who saw the show wrote that she “widened her eyes in mock terror, as though she’d been frightened by the fan’s intensity.”

Of course, we were not close enough to see the queen’s face, in that moment, but that’s not how I read that moment. I don’t think you can scare her, now. I’ll always remember how vulnerable her face looked, plastered across the mega-screens, at the end of the concert. She is not about judging the intense emotion that her album inspires as some girl being scary. The whole show was about sisters owning themselves and their lives, not throwing shade.

How do we write about not only our own emotions, but about groups of women, having emotions and wearing heels, together? It’s like we don’t have the words. I’d rather be crazy. Beyoncé may have looked stunned by what she has unleashed, but not frightened. Maybe taken aback, and honored.

Also, regarding Becky with the good hair, which has been stuck in my head since I left the stadium: Beyoncé had AMAZING hair, for this concert, but it was definitely verging on blonde, held aloft for the entire show by what must have been a small army of industrial fans. A number of African American bloggers and podcasters have gone deep on the significance of the “good hair” line for that community. I look forward to many more years of speculation and analysis about “Becky.” I wonder whether one aspect of it is that “Becky” was Beyoncé’s translation of her own name, into white-person-speak. So the line is about some other girl, but also about a version of herself, and self-making. Hair, like high heels, can be a place where we can recognize our complicity with patriarchal or racialized expectations—but that still doesn’t tell you how to do your hair. So you might as well wear it like THIS.

Beyoncé had very, very good hair, on the Formation Tour. All aspects of her looked very amazing. Like, historically, importantly, exquisite joy and pain amazing.

Sarah: Amazing. Seeing Beyoncé two years ago in the “Love on the Run” tour with JayZ was phenomenal; it felt like you were watching the two most talented people in the world preach to you about the importance of Black Love in a time of structural racism, and like everyone not there was engaged in some less important activity, with less talented people, living some half-ass version of life. This show was different, though not lesser. This show, the energy was more dispersed, more democratic, spread out amongst us all. For me, a key moment was her acapella version of “Love on Top,” a song I like to play in the mornings: it’s a song with about seventeen key changes, built to show off an incredible singer’s range.  But Beyoncé didn’t really sing it: she made us sing it.  “Come on baby,” we sang to her, but also to each other, “it’s you.”

[All together now!] I’m so glad we saw this concert together!!


Michelle and Sarah in the crowd


Reading Plays

By Ian MacAllister-McDonald

The first time script I ever read was Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as adapted by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. I played the role of the Count himself in my Catholic high school production back in 2001. The production was about what you would expect out of a group of American teenagers pretending to be European adults. I was mortified when, as I stood on stage during the final dress rehearsal in my dopey cape and fangs and white face paint, watching as the actress playing Mina asked — as politely as she could — if we could please change the scene at the end of Act One where Dracula kisses Mina on the lips. We’d rehearsed it a dozen times already, always stopping just short of the kiss, which, as a bookish teenager in the theater club was about as close to girls as I generally got. The director looked at my co-star, registering her shame and terror, and conceded. Perhaps, he suggested, Dracula could kiss her on the neck? No, that wouldn’t work. Perhaps bite her neck….? She hadn’t even stopped shaking her head. “Okay, he can start to bite your neck, but we’ll drop the curtain before he makes contact. How’s that?” The actress winced, then gave a deep shuddery sigh and nodded, eyes locked in a thousand-yard stare. A true professional. In the end, the scene played out much as Mr. Stoker had surely imagined it, with a 17-year-old Count Dracula almost maybe probably going to bite the neck of a noticeably grossed-out Mina. The scene was taught, real, and very powerful.

Ultimately, the experience made me realize that I lacked the basic skills necessary to be a capable performer (i.e., confidence, grace, a good speaking voice, and that magical ability to make people want to look at you); however, I managed to come away with a deep and abiding love of plays — writing them, watching them, and, of course, reading them.


Yes, there’s something a little strange about reading plays — they tend to be pretty talky, comparatively slow-paced, and require the reader to do much of the heavy lifting in terms of imagining how the scene actually looks and moves. But there’s also a special joy to reading plays that you’re not going to find in a novel, short story collection, or book of poems. At their best, plays marry the probing characterizations of a novel with the rich language of poetry — so much so that it’s become common practice for playwrights to break up their dialogue into fragmented stanzas. And then there’s the time element: because plays are intended for performance, brevity is generally of, at least, some importance. Creatively-speaking, this tends to force the work to find its narrative and linguistic essence, which heightens the poetic effect. Practically, it means that plays make for quick reads. Even very long scripts like Angels In America and The Kentucky Cycle are shorter than most novels, and the vast majority of plays fall somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000 words — roughly the length of a short story — and can be read in an hour or so. This always struck me as a nice solution for all the people who complain (usually around the new year) that they really wish they read more.

Still, there’s some debate about reading plays — particularly between playwrights themselves. Sam Shepard said in a 1996 New York Times interview that “The play is only a blueprint for the production,” a common argument for the primacy of performance. In his 2004 essay “Read Plays?” Edward Albee argued more or less the opposite: “Plays…are literature, and while they are accessible to most people through performance, they are complete experiences without it.” And then there’s Wallace Shawn, whose essay “Reading Plays” represents a kind of sensible middle-zone: “It is strange, then, to isolate the dialogue of a play in a book, and it’s strange to read it — to sit somewhere alone and read it silently to yourself. Reading a recipe is not the same as eating a cake. Reading about love-making is not the same as making love. And yet, on the other hand, one has to say that a written play can have a special magic of it’s own.”

I would argue that they’re all right, and that whether or not a script represents a “complete experience,” has mostly to do with what play you happen to be reading. Albee, for instance, was famous for the dictatorial level of control he exerted over productions, and this is reflected in his scripts, which are full of detailed instructions to the actors, not only on where to pause and for how many seconds, but also how to perform their lines. Flipping to a random section of The Goat, I see nine of the eleven lines of dialogue on that page paired with parenthetical directives like “Slow; deliberate,” and “Grotesque enthusiam.” Compare this to the work of Mac Wellman who will frequently include stage directions like “Something strange happens…” leaving what that might be up to each individual production and reader to decide for themselves. It quickly becomes clear that not all plays are designed to be read the same way.

When weighing the merits of seeing plays versus reading plays we are often comparing the reading experience to an ideal performance, which obviously isn’t always the case. There is simply nothing worse than seeing a bad play (bad stand-up comedy runs a close second). How does one prepare, psychologically and spiritually, for a high school production of Guys And Dolls or Damn Yankees? One doesn’t. (I can speak from experience — I acted in these productions as well.) The magic of theater hinges on an audience’s willingness to pretend that the actors they’re looking at can’t look back, and that the moonlight spilling through the window is being caused by, well, the moon, and not those giant black lights hanging from ceiling. Strip away that suspension of disbelief (it doesn’t take much) and suddenly, the play feels less like art or even entertainment, and more like some excruciating endurance test wherein time slows and every line belted out by an actor feels like a knife in your heart, because what you really want to do is go up on stage, stop the show, give everyone involved a hug, and tell them that while it didn’t work out so well this time, next time will be better, so how about we all just go home. In such a case, reading really is the way to go. I’ve seen three productions of Edward Albee’s The Goat, and while all had their virtues, I really can’t say that any of them equaled the experience I felt the first time I read the script. The flip side of this would be Thorton Wilder’s Our Town, a play I read in college and which struck me at the time as rather saccharine. Some years later, I was lucky enough to see David Cromer’s masterful production at The Barrow Street Theatre in New York (and then again, the following year, when it moved to Boston) and the play was revealed to me in a way it hadn’t been on the page, and I spent the better part of two hours in a puddle of tears, spellbound by the majesty of a script that I’d long since written off.

But of course, none of these factors really matter if you can’t afford to see a play in the first place, and given the cost of tickets these days, that’s a reality that many of us face. Broadway musicals are notoriously expensive, averaging around $100 a pop, and often times going for as much as $500 for front row seats. Even smaller off-Broadway productions (which is arguably where serious theater lives these days) frequently cost around $65 a seat — over four times as much as a movie ticket. Most major theaters have Student or “Under 30” memberships, as well as ties to various discounting websites, like Goldstar. Nevertheless, the finances surrounding live theater remain largely exclusionary, which is a shame, because there are powerful tales being told by masterful storytellers, and it would be a bummer to think that large swaths of the public won’t get to experience them because they don’t live in a major city, are over 30, or don’t have an extra $130 bucks to spend on a Friday night. Bear in mind, this isn’t me railing against the theaters themselves — plays are expensive to produce (especially for the rare company that aspires to pay their actors a decent, if not livable, wage) and their audiences are extremely finite. But it doesn’t change the fact that many people’s access to the medium is quite limited. Which brings us back to reading them, and given the vast number of diverse playwrights working today, there’s quite literally something for everyone.

Into Stephen King novels? Check out The Weird or The Velvet Sky by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (who adapted Stephen King’s The Stand for Marvel Comics), or Something in the Basement by Don Nigro, or The Humans by Stephen Karam, a powerful, slow-burn chiller that recently won the Tony award for Best Play.

Like Ex Machina-esque mind-bending sci-fi movies? Read The Nether by Jennifer Haley, or Stone Cold Dead Serious by Adam Rapp. Both use speculative technology as a way of exploring what it means to be human.

How about Southern gothic meditations on evil, à la Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy? In that case, take a look at The Jacksonian by Beth Henley, The Glory Of Living by Rebecca Gilman, Killer Joe by Tracy Letts, or Bash by Neil Labute (which is more of a Utah-Gothic, but still fits snugly into the sub-genre).

For fans of literary dysfunctional families, à la The Corrections, oh man, do we have you covered: There’s Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks, The Goat by Edward Albee The Brother Sister Plays by Tarell Alvin McCranney, and Housebreaking by Jakob Holder, a searing, darkly-funny drama, and one of my personal favorites on this list; a hidden gem of the American theater (Artistic directors, take note).

For fans of postmodern fiction (i.e. Pynchon, DeLillo, Barthalme, et al.) your theatrical allies are going to be Erik Ehn (The Saint Plays), Mac Wellman (Sincerity Forever), Jeffrey M. Jones (Seventy Scenes of Halloween), Len Jenkins (Dark Ride), and María Irene Fornés (Mud). Weird, wonderful, challenging playwrights all.

And if all of this is sounding a little heavy, here are a few comedies worth taking a peak at: The Big Slam by Bill Corbett, The Realistic Joneses by Will Eno, The Aliens by Annie Baker, and Becky Shaw by Gina Gionfriddo.

And all of this is to say nothing of the classics, which I’ll save for another essay.


Last spring, I worked as an adjudicator for an artist residency and found myself working through a pile of over 220 submissions by authors, playwrights, screenwriters, essayists, and poets. Like all writers, I started as a reader; however, it had been a while since I’d read any contemporary poetry. The three months I spent reading poetry submissions reminded me not only what I love about the medium itself, but the importance of periodically mixing up your cultural intake. I’ve developed certain expectations when it comes to fiction, theater, and film, that I haven’t with other art forms, and so the poems contained strange, new surprises that I hadn’t expected. Everything about them felt new and raw and interesting, and I found myself connecting with them in a way that was, at times, startlingly intimate. In a very real way, they reminded me why I love to read, and I’ve spent the past few months blind-buying poetry collections off the shelf.

Often times, cultural participation is discussed as a kind of race — “Have you seen the latest episode of [insert much-hyped television show]?” or “Have you read the latest book by that [insert critically-lauded author]?” — as though consuming art is somehow a competition. And while there’s certainly a good argument to be made in favor of reading deeply (as opposed to widely), I’ve noticed that the people who engage in this kind of cultural Keeping-Up-With-The-Jones simply seem to enjoy things less. This strikes me as the best reason to read — if not a play then at least something new. At worst, it’ll tell you something you didn’t know about your usual reading. At best, it’ll tell you something you didn’t know about yourself.


Trigger Warnings: What We Fear

By Bailey Pickens

At the end of August, John Ellison, dean of the University of Chicago, joined the ranks of many an essayist penning searing critiques of something that does not exist.

Trigger warnings and their ostensible sidekick, the safe space, have featured regularly in the news and essays of cultural criticism in the last year, since protests at schools like Yale and the University of Missouri sent them rocketing to the forefront of the national consciousness. Piece after piece, by writers ranging from the quite conservative to the avowedly liberal and even the leftist, declares trigger warnings and safe spaces indicative of weakness of intellect, character, or courage on the part of students: these millennials are coddled, unwilling to engage with ideas in conflict with their own opinions, demanding that the university bend itself to their every emotional whim. In short, they are antithetical to everything the Western academy stands for.

If it were the case that trigger warnings were, in fact, “get out of discussion free” passes, or that safe spaces were meant to keep students from ever touching an unfriendly idea, then much of the frustration and passionate opposition coming from the academy and the unaffiliated intelligentsia would be warranted. But it is not.

The discrepancy between what trigger warnings and safe spaces are and what they are taken to be has already been pointed out. Kate Manne, a professor at Cornell, wrote in support of trigger warnings last year, observing of that “the point is not to enable — let alone encourage — students to skip these readings or our subsequent class discussion (both of which are mandatory in my courses, absent a formal exemption). Rather, it is to allow those who are sensitive to these subjects to prepare themselves for reading about them, and better manage their reactions.” (It is telling that essays a year or more old remain as fresh and relevant as they were when they were penned: this debate has gone nowhere since it began.) As L.V. Anderson writes for Slate, Ellison’s apparent misunderstanding of the purpose and effect of trigger warnings and safe spaces is a common one.

Conor Friedersdorf argues that this is not a misunderstanding, but rather that their defenders employ the original usages of the terms and their critics the “post-concept creep meanings” at play in “ways that undermine free inquiry,” wagging his finger at defenders who avoid “acknowledg[ing] the excesses that obviously motivated [the critique], rather than treating them as straw men or bizarre, unrepresentative anomalies.” This, however, comes down to battling anecdotes and epistemologies (where is the line between reasonable and bizarre?) — and conveniently brushes away the question of the usefulness of the pre-creep concept.

This brushing away is not coincidental. In a wide-ranging essay called “Against Students,” again written last year when this debate was bubbling up, Sara Ahmed describes how good or useful things — concepts, protests, initiatives — can be cast as something undesirable or unreasonable and “swept up” in critiques of the undesirable or unreasonable, and how particular images of “problem students” are employed to do that sweeping work. “The ‘problem student’” as Ahmed observes, is “a constellation of related figures: the consuming student, the censoring student, the over-sensitive student, and the complaining student.” Ahmed goes on to describe how issues in the academy are made to reside in the bodies and persons of students: “Even if that failure [of students to act and think as they ought] is explained as a result of ideological shifts that students are not held responsible for — whether it be neoliberalism, managerialism or a new sexual puritanism — it is in the bodies of students that the failure is located”: with students who are “consumers” of a commodified education, “censors” of free speech and open discussion, “over-sensitive” to issues of little import, and in all cases “complaining” in a way that throws a wrench in the operations of the university:

I was interested in how various points of view can be dismissed by being swept away or swept up by the charge of willfulness. So: What protesters are protesting about can be ignored when protesters are assumed to be suffering from too much will; they are assumed to be opposing something because they are being oppositional. The figures of the consuming student, censoring student, over-sensitive student, and complaining student are also doing something, they are up to something. These figures circulate in order to sweep something up. Different student protests can be dismissed as products of weaknesses of moral character (generated by “student culture” or “campus politics”) and as the cause of a more general decline in values and standards.

What Ahmed suggests is that the students being depicted in these pieces are not neutral objects: they are doing work. If Friedersdorf is correct that the rising horrified tide of antis is using post-creep terminology, it is nonetheless true that their critiques crowd out the issues of triggers and unsafeness, leaving much more cleanly drawn battle lines. On the one side is the liberal tradition, a Western academy enshrining “free inquiry” and vigorous debate; on the other, excesses and sulky fragility. When this is the proposed configuration, the faintly dismissive tone in which Jonathan Chait, again last year, inveighed against trigger warnings as part of a resurgence of “p.c. culture” is not only understandable but sympathetic.

Trigger warnings at their most basic are, in the words of a much-reviled Oberlin student, “trivially simple.” A sentence or two on a syllabus is one option, a verbal heads-up (“The readings for next class contain graphic descriptions of rape/transcription of violently homophobic rhetoric/other; see you Wednesday”) is another. Trigger warnings are not the same thing as safe spaces, despite them being invoked in the same breath more often than not. Safe spaces have been explained at length, but differ from every other affinity grouping (imagine: your church, your golf buddies, the people you pay the most attention to on Facebook) in their location (campuses) far more than in their purpose or function (emotional-social support and brief respite from the everyday grind of dealing with humanity at large, which may or may not “get” you). It is absurd to suggest that brief disclaimers and deliberate affinity groupings might bring down the entire edifice of Western academe.

The decibel level of attacks on “p.c. culture,” trigger warnings in the university, and the very concept of a safe space on campus is bewildering within the confines of the debate as it is carried out — that is, according to the configuration posited by the academy’s defenders. The requests described on the one (pro-warning) hand are so modest and the demands being bemoaned on the other (anti) are so unreasonable as to render the whole discussion too silly to merit tens of thousands of words. Yet the volume is less bewildering if we resist the casual “sweeping up” of the demands with the antis’ depiction of the unreasonable student, if we lift it like a rug to look underneath.

John Ellison’s letter to incoming first years declares that it is the University’s “commitment” to “freedom of inquiry and expression,” “engagement in vigorous discussion, debate, and even disagreement,” and “academic freedom” that is behind its principled rejection of “so-called ‘trigger warnings’” and “the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces.’” The free exchange of ideas is what makes the campus welcoming for everyone, says the letter. But the letter has just told incoming first years what kinds of ideas are not permitted on campus in order to create a campus environment in which the free exchange of ideas may flourish.

The University of Chicago’s dedication to freedom of inquiry and vigorous debate is not an illusion or a lie. It encourages its students to engage critically with texts and with each other. Its unsentimental expectation that I would do more than regurgitate what I had read was the beginning of a sea change in me that, at eighteen, I could not fathom and for which I remain grateful. But there are nonnegotiable limits to what may be inquired about, debated, and criticized, and the university itself is outside of them. Ellison’s letter is an attempt to re-cover the exposed borders of an ideal that is understood to be borderless. Any text, yes. Any other student, yes. Any theory, any idea in the abstract. But the foundation of the western university itself, by virtue of its place as the source and guardian of free speech and inquiry, should be exempt from inquiry. When the critical eye the University of Chicago and other traditional liberal arts labor to cultivate in their students is turned back on them, things get heated.

As the President of Brown University pointed out recently in her open letter, it is not the case that the college students calling for trigger warnings and safe spaces shy away from discomfort: the very issues they want to talk about publicly (rape, racism) make people “very uncomfortable indeed.” And yet it is from these concrete discussions — about the liberal university’s complicity in or indifference to rape and the perpetuation of institutional racism on their campuses and in the communities that surround them — that universities and their administrations most want to shy the moment they get too rowdy or too close to home. When students protest, administrators refuse to meet, hand-wring over civility, hide in their offices, and threaten to expel the student body president. The cancellation of speakers is a case in point: students did not invite the speakers and are in no position to cancel them, but when their vocal objection to a speaker’s ideals — that is, critical engagement — becomes uncomfortable for the administration, the administration may cancel the speaker rather than confront a substantive disagreement. And then sweep their capitulation up with criticism of students’ stubborn over-sensitivity. In the same way, this debate focuses tightly on trigger warnings and safe spaces on campus, without observing the ties between demands for more accessibility to the education offered on campus and demands for — to offer examples from Chicago — living wages for campus workers, transparency within the University’s private police force, a trauma center at its famous hospital, and improved responses to sexual assault, lest the “problem students” seem to have larger, less self-involved agendas on their minds.

The western university is dedicated to freedom of inquiry and exchange of ideas, but these ideals are predicated on a host of assumptions that ruffle feathers when examined. Personal investment in questions, for instance, is widely held to preclude objectivity: if you care about something too much, if it is close to you in some way, then you cannot properly think or argue about it; “objectivity” (which, as any good postmodernist knows, is fake) is the thing. It is to the advantage of the University of Chicago, as synecdoche for the Academy, to imagine that the “vigorous discussion, debate, and even disagreement” that it treasures are without meaningful stakes. If these debates are just debates, then everyone can go home invigorated by the mental jousting and think no more of it. If these debates are not just debates, if they in fact are one end of a long strand woven into systems of abuse and oppression, then the university finds itself on rather more dubious moral ground. For the university to deny the usefulness of trigger warnings and safe spaces on campus is to insist that the university is somehow kept apart from the sordidness of the world around it, is not subject to the same forces, the same blindnesses, the same selfish interests, the same prejudices; that all ideas get equal airtime and implicit professorial support; that all of its students and faculty are somehow cleansed of prejudice when they arrive. It is to deny that students from different backgrounds have had different experiences, and those experiences may make the UChicago, or Yale, or Mizzou, or any other college experience substantively easier or more difficult. It is to deny that the particularity of the human can, or should, affect one’s education beyond providing “diverse” aesthetics and perhaps “interesting” perspectives to “contribute” to the “discussion.” It is to deny the possibility that the university is not an unmitigated force for good in the world — that it may in fact both do good and be part of the problem. It is to refuse to consider that the university may need to change in many of the same ways as the society around it, that it may in fact be subject to real criticism by people who, until relatively recently, could not attend at all.

Universities and defenders of capital-L Liberalism — those who worship at the feet of Free Speech and Not Getting Unreasonably Offended — oppose trigger warnings and safe spaces like some people vote for Trump: instinctive defensiveness of a treasured good and deep anxiety over the continued viability of that good — the university itself; over their own power to create and maintain a cultural environment; over the goodness of what they have given their lives to; over instability of what has seemed bedrock. It is not trigger warnings or safe spaces or protests over speakers that are the problem, it is the implication that the university as it is simply isn’t enough, that the values at its core are relative and not absolute, that it might not be able to withstand truly critical inquiry into its mechanism and its priorities. And yet the education that the University of Chicago, and Yale, and their peer institutions are selling, one that broadens the mind, sharpens the thought, and deepens humanity, is precisely the kind of education that ought to benefit from vigorous debate over how it should be carried out. If the inviolability of the present model — one that was perfected when there was almost no one in the desks but white boys from families of means — is an ironclad presupposition, then no debate can be had, and craven letters to hopeful teenagers will continue to be the preferred mode of its defense.


Bailey Pickens graduated from the University of Chicago with a bachelor’s in East Asian Languages and Civilizations (Japanese) and Yale Divinity School with a Master of Divinity. She is a Southern transplant living in Connecticut, where she works as a hospital chaplain.


Image by BKP


Wish You Were Here: The Virtues of Banality

By Maximillian Alvarez

I. “Love in the Ruins”

When I begin to lose hope—when I sense that I am, in the most existentially sticky way, wasting time—I think of the things I’ll really miss about this place.

I love driving, for instance. Driving lets me think. But driving alone with certain playlists going can have the effect of running a hose from the tailpipe to my window: endlessly masochistic, even suicidally so. My eyes sink back like shriveling fruit and the car fills up with heavy, odorless thoughts.

Some playlists make me think about death. In the abstract, that is. Not about dying, per se. At times I get overwhelmed by a feeling I can only describe as pre-nostalgia. Close, I suppose, to what an exile or refugee must feel when they know in their bones they’re seeing their home for the last time. They’re not coming back.

The Greek breakdown of “nostalgia” is “homesickness,” or, literally, a painful longing to return home. In my car, what I feel is a kind of anticipated homesickness; a deep, rib-scraping sadness about the fact that I, like everyone else, will die and I’ll no longer get to see and touch and be a part of all this beautiful stuff. But, because I won’t have a chance to really miss it all — or anything — once I’m actually gone, my dumb brain tells my dumb heart to feel it all now, before it’s too late.

Even when I’m listening to the radio, the same kind of feeling can creep up. It’s easier to zone out between songs, though, because my petulant brain wants to believe it’s resisting advertisers’ attempts to talk it into caring about what they’re saying. It just stares forward stubbornly, uncomfortably, like when it tries not to make eye contact with a homeless person.

Yet the dopeyness of local ad spots, too, can make me pre-nostalgic. It forms a kind of background noise to your existence, at this time, in this place. Like it or not, it sizzles and pops with the sense that hundreds (thousands? millions?) of people in the broadcast area are also doing something this very minute, in the mist of this same noise. They’re listening in other cars, offices, garages, kitchens — or maybe they just hear it faintly wafting over from a neighbor’s window. You’re sharing something with them, even if that something is, at the most basic level, tacky and stupid and trying to get something out of you. There’s something in it that anchors you in the understanding that you are here. And, at some point, you won’t be. And you’ll miss it.

Anyway, I’m in my car. The radio’s on. Local ads are filling up time with stuff about mattresses, McDonalds, an upcoming fair, so on. My brain lets its guard down, probably out of boredom, and I start to listen more closely to what the voices are saying. An ad for an auto repair shop asks me if I’m “tired of paying an arm and a leg for” a bunch of car parts, the very names of which make me feel totally inadequate.

That question got stuck in me: “Tired of paying an arm and a leg for…?” It’s hard to explain, but it comforted me while also making me incredibly sad, in a pre-nostalgic way. My brain exhaust coughed up a whole bunch of stuff, filling up the cabin, and I started to clench up. The lady in the next lane looked over at me — maybe concerned, definitely confused — the way you look without trying to look at a couple breaking up in a restaurant. One half of the no-longer-couple starts breathing shallowly and looking around as if the room were sinking. That was me in the car. I had to crack the window.


II. Floating Particles

“Postmodernism” as a term (a movement, an era, a sensibility) describes both too much and too little. And rumors of its death may not be exaggerated. But these things, these terms, don’t just float away and get replaced by something entirely new. Their dust gets blown around, leaving some places, collecting in others.

As a teacher of literature, I have plenty of opportunities to gauge how much postmodern dust has settled on my students in their 18-19 years of life before walking into my classroom. I look for it in their thinking, writing, ways of talking. The concept of postmodernism is, of course, new to them, but some of its practical effects (you could call them “applications,” or dust) are so much a part of their common sense already that they end up feeling like the whole thing is pretty darn familiar. I am also acutely aware of how much dust they leave with as a direct result of my classes. And I feel kind of guilty about it.

There are many moving parts in the historical machine that help explain this, but one of the most basic, philosophy-101 characteristics of postmodernism is the feeling that everything has been done and felt and said before. Which can lead to anxiety, boredom, apathy, etc. Everything that happens now just seems like a rearrangement of elements that have already existed: all stories fit into one of a handful of archetypal plots, new fashion trends are just recycling old ones, every new movie is a remake of another goddamn movie, etc. In sum, there’s nothing new under the sun.

Now, of course, that’s a pretty big generalization. And it’s not entirely true. Again, these things are not total; they’re like dust. But the fact remains that, in our neck of the developed world, many sectors of society can’t shake that nagging feeling. There’s dust in our lungs. Here’s how I see literature courses, like mine, adding to that dust…

Pretty much always, no matter your major, you have to take a first-year college writing course, and that course is pretty much always in a literature department. As lords of these writing classes, it’s essentially our job to teach students to think and write in a way that will prepare them for the big assignments they’ll have to do for their majors and upper-level courses, whatever those may be.

In high school, students get overwhelmingly bad training in writing analytical essays, which is bound up with their bad training in reading literature, since they work on this writing in literature courses. Literature is taught as a kind of puzzle, the answer to which has been cleverly hidden by a tricksy know-it-all author who plants symbols to lead you to the right interpretation, which you’re expected to squeeze into a five-paragraph essay. This has a double-whammy effect: it teaches students that literature is just some kind of symbolic anagram (“the house represents society!”) and that the goal of writing is to present the “right answer.”

I remember taking shop class in junior high. The goal of every assignment was to follow directions and use tools that would help you turn your lump of wood into something that looked exactly like the teacher’s (or, if you were like me, to just make the wood look like something). We are essentially using the same model to teach literature and essay writing.

For the most part, even at an upper-level writing course at an elite university, the majority of students who come into my classroom have only been given a boilerplate understanding of literature and how to write about it. And it’s not their fault. Everyone knows high school English classes have to prepare students for the AP test. And the AP test is crap. Even the essay portions feel like multiple-choice questions. It’s understood that there’s a “right” way to answer them, that there are basic features every essay requires, and when test graders look for signs of a nebulous thing called “creativity” this ultimately means that students must, absurdly, master prepackaged tricks that will make them appear creative (“throw in a fanciful metaphor three sentences into your second body paragraph [see ‘fanciful metaphor’ section in study guide appendix D]”).

Then these students show up to their first-year writing class at a fancy college and things change. Drastically. Teachers like me spend a good deal of time getting them to unlearn most of the stuff they had to master just to get here in the first place. Silly, and frustrating for everybody, but necessary. It’s a lot like the plot to The Matrix (the first one, obviously — don’t be stupid). Our bright-eyed freshmen are unplugged from the worlds they knew, some big needly thing is un-drilled from the backs of their heads, and they’re flushed into a cold, goopy blackness where they flop around and thrash until they find their legs enough to stand, with their own arguments, in “the desert of the real.” Most of them tap into critical thinking and communicating skills they didn’t know they had. Seeing this keeps us teachers loyal to the cause, till death. Some of them resist, though. Like the ratty bald guy in the movie, the saboteur, who just wants things to go back to the way they were.

We teachers stress things like: writing about specialized topics; doing legitimate research into ongoing debates about those topics and setting up their papers as contributions to those debates; treating counterarguments with real empathy and doing the gritty work of understanding the logic, mindset, and lifeworlds of those who think differently; crafting analytical arguments that matter. This last one is exceptionally tricky. It is actually written into many university-mandated requirements for first-year writing classes. But what does it actually mean?

Students go from the staleness of the shop-class method — interpreting something in a vacuum the way their teachers want — to the brutality of the intellectual free market. They’re now asked to craft clear arguments about stuff that can be presented to an imaginary audience, which (a) needs to be convinced that the subject is worth their attention and who (b) will often judge the argument by harsher standards. It has to “matter.”

It makes sense for a university to push this mindset on its students. Doubly so for a major research university. Because, as we’re often told, the whole point of our collective brainwork is to “advance” our fields, to “produce” new kinds of knowledge, and to haul our asses up the jangly, wheezing pile of our predecessors — to stand “on the shoulders of giants.” This is ultimately what directs the hazy calculus of which arguments “matter” and which don’t.

But here’s the thing: there’s something terribly harmful in using this directive to structure the way students read and write about literature. I’ll never forget the one time — once was enough — I felt that harm while discussing a paper I had written with an advisor. Something had clicked for me while reading a certain 19th-century Russian short story. Something I personally hadn’t ever grasped before. Then my advisor bluntly delivered the news that this interpretation was not “new,” that the takeaway point was “rather banal.” I was devastated.

Listen. I’ve devoted my life to studying, teaching, and writing about literature. What my advisor told me was essential. I had to hear it. To this day, his words are a nagging popcorn kernel lodged in my brain. They make my work better, because, in the end, I want it to “advance the field.” And I can’t do that by saying banal things everyone already knows.

Still, something died in me the moment the words “not new” rolled across my advisor’s desk. I’ve lost it for good. And I wish I had appreciated it more. From that point on, no matter what I read, even if I’m really, really, childishly excited about it, I simply can’t read un-professionally. By that I mean: there is always someone else in the room. Every thought, reaction, and scribbled note that comes from my reading is always filtered through a consideration of what other people might think of it, whether or not they would think it “matters.”

As teachers and researchers, as the people college students pretty much have to get past before moving onto whatever degree they end up pursuing, we are in a sticky situation. What we do involves something Derrida called a pharmakon — something that both poisons you and acts as the only antidote to that poison. There is something in what we teach that harms our students. That same thing also becomes, at least as far as we know, the only thing that can save them.

Students are introduced to an almost sickening sense of how un-original their thoughts and arguments are. They’re taught to avoid being banal and move beyond “the obvious.” This involves a real mental workout, which trains them to figure out, on their own, how to see harder, more clearly, to interpret the hidden details, to consider the “bigger picture.” But it also requires that students be introduced to hardcore research methods, which push them to understand what has already been done and said about a topic before they even think about trying to add something to the discussion themselves.

The pharmakon: the more conscious students become of the inadequacy of their ideas (the poison), the more they seek, through research and re-drafting, to make them “matter” in the world (the antidote). And the cycle never stops. Every idea is cranked through the meat-grinder that compares it to what’s already “out there,” and the only way to combat the crushing sense of banality and shame is to keep scrambling back to the top of the pile. Or to give up.

To explain to students what all this is for, to justify introducing them to the painful pharmakon of higher research, many faculty members and administrators seem almost creepily obsessed with using the term “knowledge production.” It’s, frankly, a little weird when the ways we teach writing, and the language we use to describe it, are tinged with the I-love-the-smell-of-assembly-lines-in-the-morning lingo of capitalism. At a time when universities are increasingly following the corporate model, it feels like students are being taught to “produce” for a knowledge economy that has very specific ideas about what kind of work “matters.” This undoubtedly affects how we underlings down in the trenches of university writing courses are supposed to answer our students when they ask what they’re reading and writing for.

Back to dust… The most characteristic feeling that settles on people in so-called postmodern times is, well, whatever we want to call this concrete-in-your-lungs heaviness — a more pervasive, more existential expansion of that feeling you get when your instructor tells you your interpretation of something is “not new.” Your soul is turned inside out. You are perpetually exposed. There’s always someone else in the room.

Your very personalized reactions to stuff, which may be so incredibly and beautifully new to you, are weighed up against the record of all those who have come before. All of history. You can’t help but subject your unique collision with life and love and literature to the scrutiny of a real or imagined audience that can tell you flatly whether or not you have anything “new” to say on the matter. And by “new” they mean new to them, not to you. And you probably don’t. The odds are against you here. And you start subjecting everything you do to this imagined scrutiny: what you wear, what you talk about at parties, what you allow yourself to feel. You even do it inside your head: “is what I’m thinking ‘new’?” Probably not. But does that mean it doesn’t “matter”?

Listen. The fact that college writing classes are taught in literature departments isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s one of the few things literature departments have that universities still want. But when we, the teachers of literature, are tasked with showing students how to make their writing “matter” in the game of “knowledge production,” we may end up killing the transformative soul of literature.

Students must know that, even if it’s old news to everyone but them, there’s something in their individual encounters with texts (old and new) that glows with the same beauty and kinship and random fortune that creates whole new worlds when un-special particles floating in the galaxy collide. Students have enough postmodern dust all over them, causing them to second-guess whether what they do and say and think and feel “matters,” whether it’s “new.” They don’t need to, and shouldn’t, participate in this second-guessing when it comes to literature. Literature is where the stickiest parts of what it means to be human can stay as shamelessly old as time itself and be infinitely new when someone else touches them.

We can do things differently.


III. ________ Was Here

What is it? Am I dying? I mean, Jesus, I feel like I’m being pulled apart. Like every atom is making a break for it, floating off.

“Tired of paying an arm and a leg for…?”

You are here. In your car. You probably look like a nut. A woman in the next car over looks like she’s about to call 911. Is that…? Yup. You’re actually crying a little. You’re overcome with a pre-nostalgia for something entirely banal, cheesy. You’re really, really going to miss this when you’re gone.

You’ve grown up, like everyone, wanting to be special, to do something special. To bring something “new” to the world. And it is very easy to get disheartened by the slow, stubborn dumbness of things. You may spend a lifetime pushing without ever getting to see a budge. And, yeah, people are disappointing. And life is very rarely fair. Even if you have something to offer, chances are slim you’ll get noticed.

But there are so many things that you yourself are a part of — so much history you yourself carry. Already, always. Think, for instance, of one of those old truisms you just happen to know. Maybe you’ve never actually used them yourself, but you’ve heard them so much they’re practically stitched onto you. Maybe only your mom and grandma used them, and maybe they won’t actually come out of your own mouth, taking you totally by surprise, until you have a kid. If you have a kid. Something like “a rolling stone gathers no moss,” “the grass is always greener on the other side.” Or “kick the bucket,” “elephant in the room,” “shoot the breeze.” “An arm and a leg.”

There’s something especially comforting about them that makes you feel the opposite of loneliness. They’re not new. They’re cliché. And that, in its own way, is what makes them glow. They’ve survived, changed, and been passed down so much that they’ve ended up here. And you’re here. It’s pretty amazing that they’ve actually hung around long enough to still mean something to you. Because plenty of other things didn’t. There are so many older idioms that have, at best, been preserved in a book somewhere. They meant something once. And I bet the people they meant something to miss them.

There’s something in these kinds of phrases that catches us directly between community — a historical we — and individuality — the I, here, now, nowhere else. Every time you hear them and understand them, you’re embodying a cultural history of meaning that has, for some reason, seen it necessary to preserve the custom of saying “an arm and a leg” to mean “too much.” You are the living mark of a community that’s immeasurably bigger than you (you learned the phrase from somewhere, right?). At the same time, as a member of this community, it is entirely up to you to decide whether and how to keep these things alive. There may come a time when they no longer mean anything to anyone. They’ll be dead, and so will you. And you’ll miss them.

Even if you only do it once, even if you have to explain what it means to a curious kid, when you repeat an old idiom you give it new life. More than that, you affirm that you have life to give. No one will ever come up and thank you for it, nor should they. It’s both yours and not — like your copy of a book written by someone else who used language and idioms she herself didn’t invent. There’s something old, unoriginal and communal about it, which is also unpredictably new and personal. It’s less like carving “______ was here” into a tree than being part of the uncountable number who have rested in its shade, who have made love under it. Who kept that tree from getting chopped down. And who planted so many others.


Maximillian Alvarez is a dual-PhD candidate and graduate student instructor in the departments of History and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan.


A Look Into East City Bookshop

Located a block from Capitol Hill, East City Bookshop is a fresh face in the world of Washington D.C. bookstores. The two-story bookshop is tucked in the same retail building as a game shop and a photography store, but with its neon green sign, it’s hard to miss. Painted in bright colors and sporting a welcoming spirit, the shop has excited many, especially those on the eastern side of the city.


Laurie Gillman, the owner of East City Bookshop, was not one who dreamed of owning a bookshop. “There are a lot of people I’ve met who say, ‘Oh, I’ve always dreamed of having a bookstore.’ I was not one of those people.” But while D.C. boasts several other bookstores, such as Kramerbooks & Afterwords and Politics and Prose, Laurie found the dearth of independent bookstores on the eastern side of the city disheartening. Watching independent bookstores close one after another for the past decade, Laurie decided something must be done. After researching the logistics of opening a bookstore and finding an affordable space, Laurie became convinced it was her new project. “Once I got a little into it, I couldn’t really let it go. I was a bit obsessed.”unknown-3

When East City Bookshop opened its doors a year and a half ago, Laurie wanted to create a community bookstore with a comprehensive collection. While literary fiction is the standout customer favorite, Gillman’s shelves are stocked with everything from political theory to graphic novels to children’s books. Laurie has even partnered with a local running store and created a joint running/book club.


East City Bookshop promotes local authors to the outside world, or at least to Washington D.C. At its beginning, East City Bookshop hosted a reading once a week on average. Laurie has now more than doubled the events with a minimum of two a week, and she is in communication with several publishers to plan future events. She wants more out of the bookstore: more author events, more community events, and more readers. While she has not preconceived notions of what might come out of the community, she is both excited about their prospect and willing to help make them happen.

Their overall mission is to make people feel welcome, so head on over to East City Bookshop if you’re in the D.C. area. If you’re a LARB member, there’s an extra incentive to popping into Gillman’s shop. Your Reckless Reader discount card—a coveted perk that comes with every membership level and offers deals at a growing number of independent bookstores nationwide— will score you 10 percent off any purchase. To learn more, take a look at our digital, print and book club membership programs.


“Welcome to the New Depression”: A New Song by Darryl Holter

During the Great Depression in the 1930s the Carter Family had a hit with “No Depression in Heaven.”  It proclaimed that the Depression meant that the end of the world was coming, the latter days had arrived, and we would soon face the final Day of Judgment.

Out here the hearts of men are fading
These are latter days we know
The Great Depression now is spreading
God’s words declare it must be so.

I’m going where there’s no Depression
To a better land that’s free from care
I’ll leave this world of toil and trouble
My home’s in heaven, I’m going there

I wanted to write about the current state of the American economy but, in the spirit of Woody Guthrie, present it as an “answer song” — one that responds to an older song by offering a different perspective on economic policy.

— Darryl Holter

BLOG Akhtar Dear Trump TL RFP Khans

Dear Mr. Trump: An Open Letter from Jabeen Akhtar

By Jabeen Akhtar

Dear Mr. Trump,

Don’t laugh, but we have much in common. You may be wondering what, since I’m a female Pakistani immigrant with about $1,200 to my name and you’re a white man with $10 billion (a fuzzy number from your camp but let’s roll with it). I’m a nobody and you’re a Presidential candidate. I chop off heads and you create jobs. If we were pantry items based on our skin color I’d be cocoa powder and you’d be dried apricots. We’re different. I get it. But hear me out.

After these past few weeks, I’ve never felt closer to you. We’re kindred spirits now, two peas in a pod forever bonded over an experience not many in this world have shared: the Pakistani parental scold.

When an unassuming man with a foreign name stepped up to the microphone at the Democratic National Convention in July, I’m sure you turned to your staff and said: Who is this guy? Who let him in? Not the convention. I mean America. Who let him in? Who let this guy in? Who let this guy in our borders? I’d said I’d build a wall. I said I’d build a wall over there at that border. I build great walls. Believe me. There’s a hole. Where’s the wall with a hole that let this guy in? CNN. They drilled a hole.

“Donald Trump,” the speaker said.

Your dried apricot ears perked up.

“Have you even read the U.S. Constitution?”

The speaker had an accent, but strangely, the audience didn’t care. In fact, the more he spoke, the more people arose from their seats, screaming out, enraptured. He held up a copy of the Constitution and they lost it. This man, who you learned is a Pakistani-American named Khizr Khan, the father of a U.S. Captain who died saving the lives of his fellow soldiers in Iraq in 2004, was igniting a fire at that liberal snooze fest like no one who had come before him, even all those career politicians. “You have sacrificed nothing,” Mr. Khan said directly to you. “And no one.”


I mean, lots of people at that convention said nasty things about you. They called you a demagogue, a hypocrite. Said you had no clue, were full of malarkey. But Mr. Khan’s speech? It torpedoed through your poll numbers, Neilson ratings, private jets, tailored suits, campaign rallies, KKK supporters, Twitter account and Putin snapchats and reached your vulnerable, spray-tanned underbelly. You felt it was vicious. You felt attacked. I know because you tweeted “I was viciously attacked!”

Pardon me for invoking the words of your opponent’s husband, Mr. Trump, but I feel your pain. I really do.

See, when I was sixteen, I failed pre-calculus. Despite forging my father’s signature on my report card and hiding it in my blue, dolphin-themed Trapper Keeper, he called me into his study one day and there was my report card on his desk, fat circle around the “F”. I prepared my defense. I would explain to my father how bad my teacher was, how ridiculous it was to have to learn complex math when I wanted to be a Julio-Claudian era history scholar. How the school was wasting resources. How the American educational system was failing me.

Peering down at me through thin, gold-framed glasses, my father questioned my intelligence, integrity, motives and character within the span of eighty seconds. Peppered throughout were rhetorical questions about why he gave up everything in Pakistan just to immigrate to America to see his kids fail. I never learned my parents’ native tongue of Urdu, but he said something in that language that I think translated to “loser.” He lifted his hand as he spoke to me, just like Mr. Khan. He used few words with razor sharp precision to slice at me deep, just like Mr. Khan. I felt viciously attacked. His scolding burned and infuriated me and I fought back with every argument, pout and declaration of how unfairly I was being treated.

Just like you.

And how did that work out for you, Mr. Trump?

Let me guess…

Mr. Khan hit back at you so fiercely and effectively you begged other Republicans to jump in and help. Then, proving himself too formidable an opponent, you pivoted towards the mother, Ghazala. Standing on the DNC stage quietly submissive to her husband with her head covered as their religion dictates… what an easy target. You could say she “wasn’t allowed” to speak—a personal dig at the Khans while reinforcing negative images of Islam. It was a two-for-one deal no businessman who changes the skyline of Manhattan would turn down.

But she schooled you too.

You must be so confused. When you entered this race, you had a list of opponents: the Clintons, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, the media, Priorities USA. The Khans were not on that list. They’re Muslims, and Muslims are ISIS-loving low-lives running by the thousands across the Syrian border with Wisconsin to kill Americans and blow up their cul-de-sacs. They’re not supposed to be intelligent, dignified, well-spoken individuals capable of resonating with other Americans. If only your anti-immigration policy was enforced years ago, maybe the Khans wouldn’t be here and you wouldn’t be in this mess to begin with.

I wish you would have come to me first, Mr. Trump. I would have warned you what it was like going up against Pakistani parents, especially ones who have immigrated to this country. See, the thing about people like my parents and the Khans is that they’ve been through some tough shit. They’ve lived through wars and dictatorships in their home countries and readily forfeited their degrees and whatever status and income they once had to start over in America with nothing. Once here, they’ve faced institutional discrimination, ridiculed for their accents, harassed on the street, told to get out. They have to prove they belong here, or at the very least, are not societal burdens. They must keep quiet, work hard, continually showcase their loyalty to America. Pass the model minority test. They are held to a higher standard of conduct and productivity in this country than everyone else, so when they hold others to a high standard, whether it’s their children or their Presidents, it’s kind of fair, don’t you think?

That’s what my father did to me, and that’s what the Khans did to you by asking you to adhere to the principles upon which this country was founded. Hold us to higher standards than we were exhibiting.

I was failing school and you’re failing a Presidential candidacy. You needed scolding, Mr. Trump, and the Khans were always going to be the ones to do it. They’re Pakistani Muslim immigrant parents who have higher stakes in the outcome of this election than you. They’ve lost their boy. Now they might lose the country they love, the one they’ve risked so much to live in. You would simply lose.

“Am I not allowed to respond?” you asked.

Well, you tried, Mr. Trump. And you sounded like a 16-year-old girl. Try sounding like a President instead.


How Long Do You Intend to Stay? Via New Haven-Dieppe and John Berger

By John Shannon

In 1939 Henry Miller published a humorous autobiographical sketch in the forgotten pacifist journal Phoenix (Vol. 2, No 1) called “Via Dieppe-New Haven,” chronicling his failed 1935 attempt to ferry himself over the Channel to visit England. Having little cash on hand, he was sent straight back.

In 1973, knowing nothing about that illustrious attempted journey, I was living without much cash on hand in Southern England, also writing. I regularly ferried the exact reverse of Miller’s trip, from nearby New Haven to Dieppe, in order to stay in France a day or two, allay the Foreign Office’s suspicion, and then renew my two-month tourist visa with a big innocent smile. That’s the first irony.

I’ve always resisted writing anything like autobiography, because who the hell am I? But during that special year, the accidental influences, the social changes going on, and sheer dumb luck dropped me among people, issues, and books worth talking about.

In case you’re getting impatient, the books in question are by the great British art critic, essayist and novelist John Berger, who will turn 90 in November of this year. By my count Berger has written 35 books of essays, 11 novels, five screenplays, and several plays and collections of poetry. At least three of these are modern classics, picking apart the Swiss watch of the world to show where the springs are hidden. These are A Fortunate Man (1967), Ways of Seeing (1972), and A Seventh Man (1975), books that radically changed my life. Oh, yes, radically. But wait a bit. First, more ironies.

“He was in his mid thirties: at that time of life when, instead of being spontaneously oneself, as in one’s twenties, it is necessary, in order to remain honest, to confront oneself and judge from a second position.”

— John Berger, A Fortunate Man

From 1968 to 1970, I taught school in Africa for the Peace Corps, and on school holiday I fell in love (well, sort of) with a beautiful young blonde I met in what was then white-ruled Rhodesia. Later, on my way home through England, we met again as she was starting med school at Sussex University near Brighton.

Let’s call her Jennifer. Jennifer and I corresponded warmly on and off for years while I saved up enough money at meaningless writing jobs back home to escape Nixon’s America for good. We agreed that I would come to live with her. I saved, I scrimped, I borrowed — and bought a cheap one-way charter flight. But the day I showed up in Brighton I discovered what she’d neglected to tell me: she’d fallen madly in love with a charismatic German student named — let’s call him Rainer. That may not be an irony, but it was a shock. I had sold off and dismantled my life in America.

Rainer had been a student of Jürgen Habermas, the last of the great Frankfurt School critical theorists and post-structural Marxists. Rainer was also one of the leaders of the 1968 student uprisings in Frankfurt, a magnetic character, and a superb writer in both English and German (he ended up with Der Spiegel.) Within a day of my arrival Rainer and I were close friends and collaborating on translating Bertold Brecht’s allegorical Me-ti stories, humorous episodes that disguise Brecht’s practical non-dogmatic Marxism. (They weren’t in fact fully translated into English until 2016.)

Rainer and I recruited another student, call him Mike, and the three of us found a derelict nineteenth-century farmworker house (“tied cottage” is the British term) a half-mile outside a tiny village north of Brighton named Ringmer. The farmer was happy to let us fix it up. We painted, plastered, hammered, and furnished it from the dump (“the tip”) and various rummage sales (“jumblies”). And then Rainer, who had his eye on another woman, decided not to let Jennifer move in with us. Now that qualifies as irony. For me, anyway.

Mike was from a political family, too. His oldest sister was deeply involved in anti-racist politics in Birmingham and a leader in the Militant stream within the Labour Party. She became an MP and eventually entered Tony Blair’s cabinet, but she split with him over Iraq, bless her. Her whole combative family spent many weekends around our bright red kitchen table in Ringmer, arguing politics. Her younger sister was even more radical. This is all foreshadowing, if you stick it out with me.

Left-wing politics were as prevalent in England in the early 1970s as drizzly grey skies. You couldn’t step out of any tube in London without a dozen radical newspapers being thrust at you. I’d grown up in San Pedro alongside the children of Communist longshoremen, so none of that put me off. But by then an elite college (Pomona) had wrung most of the political thought out of me.

What the hell, I thought. I sat down at my upstairs desk — a door on bricks — and dove back into politics. In addition to working on a novel and journalism, I read Marx’s Capital and took careful notes. (Calling it Das Kapital in America is just the Cold War way of making it seem strange and alien, believe me. It’s Capital in England, Le Capital in France.) Then I read more Marx, a bit of the Frankfurt School, plus Gramsci and the post-structural Marxists. We all argued day in, day out, and my inner political ice shelf began breaking up during thaws and then refreezing in new shapes.

“Vulnerability may have its own private causes, but it often reveals concisely what is wounding and damaging on a much larger scale.”

— John Berger, A Fortunate Man

The nub: As I started to situate myself within a new notion that social class can actually influence the way we see and think (it promotes a particular ideology, to be precise), a part of me rebelled. Way too crude, I thought. That famous Communist Manifesto doesn’t speak to me. “You have nothing to lose but your chains.” Hell, I’m not a proletarian waving a red banner. Brothers and sisters in manual labor, hell. (Though a few years later, back in America, I would choose to work in an industrial factory for two years. It’s okay, you can smirk.)

My inner American ice shelf was still largely intact in mid-1973 when I visited a friend in Brighton for a drink (probably Brendan Behan’s brother Brian, but that’s another story). He was preoccupied in his sitting room with a BBC TV show called Ways of Seeing. We didn’t have a telly out in Ringmer so I missed all of Monty Python, too! My eye caught on an almost lisping guy in a pointy disco collar who was talking about the hidden ideologies in advertising images that we don’t notice because we’re so overwhelmed by similar images.

“Who the hell is that?” I asked.

“John Berger, arsehole. Our only real radical thinker— except me, of course.”

You’ll soon know a lot more about John Berger, if the loving four-part documentary film by Tilda Swinton and others titled The Seasons in Quincy ever finds American distribution. It was a hit at the last Berlin Film Festival, but that means little in the States. PBS has never shown John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. It is, as far as I know, the only BBC show about art that was turned back at Ellis Island.

I immediately bought as many of John Berger’s books as I could find in Brighton. Berger has won a Booker Prize for a novel called G (1972) that I find quite odd but also fun and readable, despite the fact that “odd” has never been my thing in novels. But mostly he’s a stunning aphoristic essayist about art and our world. And he’s gone on writing his essays even after retreating four decades ago to the life of a peasant farmer in the middle of nowhere in France — in Quincy, pronounced “Keen-sy.” He has documented this life, too, in his novelesque trilogy Into Their Labors (1991), probably better known by the title of the first book, Pig Earth (1979). Yeah, geniuses get to go off into caves and do stuff like that.

Here’s my take on Berger’s most powerful books, in the order that they came at me:

1. Ways of Seeing. This is the one that crashed through my ice shelf for real. The most important thing it taught me is that critical theory and social analysis is not that crude Stalinist nonsense about tractors and heroes of labor. It’s a painstaking and scrupulous analysis of the assumptions that lie under the surface of our lives, and of the art that arises from it. For me this idea took off in essays 2 and 3, which concern artistic depictions of women and men. Berger talks about how men are usually shown in Western art in terms of what they can do to you or for you. Women, on the other hand, are forced to pose in terms of what can be done to them: “She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought as the success of her life.”

“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” Go ahead, Berger challenges, look at any famous painting of a nude woman — say, Goya’s The Naked Maja (1797-1800) — and imagine a man’s face on it: “Then notice the violence which that transformation does. Not to the image but to the assumptions of a likely viewer.”

I guess this insight has become almost a commonplace in feminist studies now, but 40-some years ago, it staggered me.

The next essay (No. 5), about how European oil painting reduced the world to things and materiality, was less affecting, but still convincing: “Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity. […] What distinguishes oil painting from any other form of painting is its special ability to render the tangibility, the texture, the luster, the solidity of what it depicts. It defines the real as that which you can put your hands on.”

Finally, after another photo prelude, there’s the written version of the piece that caught my eye on the telly. Essay 7 is about advertising images. “No era before ours,” writes Berger, “has constructed such a dense assault of imagery on its citizens. “ Ads rarely tell you the advantages of a specific product (there probably aren’t any). They’re meant to make you envy the glamorous world you’re looking at, where handsome models are never unhappy and possess a VIP pass to everything. These images make us nebulously dissatisfied with who we are and subtly suggest that buying whatever commodity is shown will change it all. Buy and be!

(The TV version of Ways of Seeing is on YouTube, if you want to watch in small bites. You’ll get to see that embarrassing disco shirt.)

2. A Fortunate Man. Not the first Berger I read, but maybe the most powerful. It starts out as the tale of a compassionate country doctor in an isolated community in Gloucestershire near Wales. In the book he’s called Dr. John Sassall. I hear now that many medical schools in England make the it required reading.

Berger looks at specific examples from the doctor’s practice, some quite astonishing, but gently and gradually the focus shifts to unraveling the cultural and economic deprivations that have been visited upon the villagers he treats: “They have no examples to follow in which words clarify experience. […] The culturally deprived have far fewer ways of recognizing themselves. […] Their chief means of self-expression is consequently through action: this is one of the reasons why the English have so many ‘do-it-yourself’ hobbies.” The men speak to one-another endlessly about “a motor-car engine, a football match.” Some critics of Berger consider this attitude condescending, but I grew up in the American suburbs, with men wandering from open garage to garage on weekends, beer can in hand, discussing their “projects,” and I find it acutely perceptive.

Dr. Sassall is a “fortunate man” because he’s the village’s healer, their shaman, their personal witness, and, more importantly, because he’s been able to examine his own life and its pains as most of them cannot: “The privilege of being subtle is the distinction between the fortunate and the unfortunate.” Indeed, Berger’s analysis accounts for the anti-intellectualism of the working poor, which so many of us find so frustrating: “[A]ll theory seems to most of the local inhabitants to be the privilege and prerogative of distant policy-makers. The intellectual — and this is why they are so suspicious of him — seems to be part of the apparatus of the State.”

By the end, Berger’s book has taken a turn — one almost unnoticed, because he writes so artfully — toward an insightful deconstruction of Western Civilization.

In assessing Sassall, Berger says, “I do not claim to know what a human life is worth — the question cannot be answered by word but only by action, by the creation of a more human society. All that I do know is that our present society wastes and, by the slow draining process of enforced hypocrisy, empties most of the lives which it does not destroy.”

Dr. Sassall’s real name was Dr. John Eskell, and, alas, the human needs of the residents of St. Briavels, as well as his own inner needs, finally consumed him. At age 62 he killed himself by gun and was reportedly denied a cemetery plot in the village where he served as healer and witness for years.

3. A Seventh Man. Before the recent flood of Syrian war refugees to Europe, every “seventh man” doing manual labor in Germany or England, and every fourth in France, was a guest-worker, almost invariably from the shores of the Mediterranean. To put it crudely — Turks to Germany and North Africans to France.

The word “man” is basically accurate. Most left their wives and children at home, in their impoverished villages, waiting for their men to return with a tiny bit of saved capital. Sometimes enough to build a house or start a small business. At its most poignant, this is as little as the money needed to buy a home bathroom scale and set it up in the village square as “Your weight for a penny.”

A large portion of this book is theoretical, about how the Third World has been systematically “underdeveloped.” (It was the Cubans who decided that was a verb.) Most of Berger’s statistics and theory about globalization are dated now. But what remains moving is the impressionistic access he proposes to the thoughts and feelings of the bewildered migrants themselves, faced with an opaque world that sees them as inferior beings. Or doesn’t see them at all.

“Migrant workers, already living in the metropolis, have the habit of visiting the main railway station,” he writes. It’s a kind of magic connection with home, a place of activity where they are accepted, though only as spectators. They come “[t]o talk in groups there, to watch the trains come in, to receive first-hand news from their home, to anticipate the day when they will begin the return journey.” Berger takes us to the station’s exit, where a worker finds others “talking in his own language. The words of it are like foliage re-appearing on a tree after winter.”

A village butcher becomes a worker in a giant abattoir, slaughtering cattle so rapidly he nearly hallucinates: “[T]he flow of heads to be washed and hoofs to be shifted never ceased, he began to have the impression that the machines were multiplying the animals: that they took one and turned it into a hundred.” After work he wanders the city, a bit stunned: “[H]e became more and more conscious that there were no animals to be seen.” From the nature of the village to the artifice of the city — in a single leap.

Another worker tacks up photos of women around the bunk in his crowded rooming house, “a votive fresco of twenty women, nude and shameless. The prayer is that his own virility be one day recognized.” And everything he is and knows.

The book’s argument is this: “To see the experience of another, one must do more than dismantle and reassemble the world with him at its center. One must interrogate his situation to learn about that part of his experience which derives from the historical moment. What is being done to him, even with his own complicity, under the cover of normalcy?”

These three books of John Berger examine the ideologies hidden in the ways we perceive the world, in the ways we value or can’t value human lives, and what our system does to those from the third world without us even thinking about it. John Berger made me think about that for the rest of my life.


John Shannon is the author of the Jack Liffey mystery novels that are based on Los Angeles ethnic and social history, and several other novels. His website is:


Shifting Towards Clinton: A Voter’s Evolution

By Da Chen

During my recent visit to China, I was astounded by the media’s obsession with Donald Trump, the orange-haired, China-bashing, abrasive Westerner. But rather than hating him, the general feeling was more like the tolerant affection one might have toward a spoiled child — or toward someone who might benefit China because of his greed for profit and disdain for human sensitivity.

The Asian media was no less excited about Hillary Clinton, whose Chinese name is Xi Lai Li, literarily meaning: Hope arrives with beauty. Books on Hillary Clinton, however, are few in China due to her political unpopularity with the government. In America, they are much more abundant. Among that long list, I discovered online this elegant volume called The Evolution of Hillary Rodham Clinton, written by Sonya Huber.

The blurb for this book claims that “Sonya Huber’s short and accessible book takes a ‘balanced’ look on Hillary,” and I find the tone of the book delightful. It provides us with a highly personal and intimate look into the woman called Hillary Clinton.

The author, Huber, is a college English professor and a labor activist who switched her party from Unaffiliated to Democrat, for the sole purpose of voting for Bernie Sanders. She originally rejected a publishing proposal to write a guide book on Hillary Clinton, repulsed by how much Bill Clinton had slashed welfare two decades earlier, while claiming to be a Democrat. But her curiosity was piqued.

Although she voted for Sanders in the Connecticut Democrat primary, she was chafed by the increasing centrality of “Bernie Bros” to Sanders’s campaign and the nagging perception of mansplaining by the candidate himself. In contrast, “Clinton became an anchor point, a concrete representation for women about the struggles of women in the United States and she became appealing because of the very dynamics of the conversation about her.”

The hate Trump supporters have for Hillary, for instance, are what Huber calls “a mix of retrograde sexism and anti-establishment resistance.” It was this stench of sexism that motivated her into writing this book.

Huber dissects Clinton’s political commitments, while chronicling her own political evolution. Clinton is Coca-Cola to the Bush family’s Pepsi, she writes, accusing Bill Clinton of creating the New Democrats, a group that undermined welfare and brought about mass incarceration in the name of a War on Drugs.

Huber is also critical of Clinton’s early history in Arkansas, when she served on Wal-Mart’s board, where Sam Walton called Hillary “a very strong willed young woman.” But Huber notes that in a state notorious for its weak labor movement, Clinton did nothing to help.

On Hillarycare, an issue dear to the author’s heart, Huber wrote that, it was not the profit interests that derailed Clinton’s healthcare reform; rather it was the fact that as a woman and First Lady, she was seen as overstepping her role, and her power thus interpreted as “evil”; her gender toppled her legislation. Of course that “failure” nonetheless served as the template that President Obama used to draft the Affordable Care Act.

As time passes, Huber notices her attitude toward Hillary changing. She concludes by saying:

I find myself surprised by how much I am drawn to Hillary as a leader: she’s not a show-boat who plays politics for the sake of racking up points. She seems much less interested in exacting revenge than her husband was. She works hard, she’s intelligent, pragmatic, and experienced. She has been through decades of continuous public scrutiny and crashing humiliation, and yet manages to get up and smile in a way that seems genuine […]. Hillary isn’t just any woman; she is a woman who has taken good positions as well as bad with regard to women’s lives. Those positions are what her supporters are excited about.

By the closing pages, I found myself moved by the passion in her words. Although it is a long way off in China, maybe it’s time we Americans had our first female president.


Author bio: Da Chen, a graduate of Columbia Law School, is a New York Times bestselling author from China, who lives in Temecula.


The Union Libel: On the Argument Against Collective Bargaining in Higher Ed

By Emmett Rensin

The National Labor Relations Board has reversed itself for the second time in this century: graduate student instructors at private universities once again have the right to unionize. With the ranks and working hours of non-tenured faculty far exceeding what they were twelve years ago, and interest among graduate students in unionizing far higher too, the decision represents a significant and hard-won victory for what remains of the American labor movement.

The administrators of elite private universities have responded to the decision with all the enthusiasm of their assembly-line-owning ancestors. In the past several days, many have begun issuing open letters to their students, discouraging them from taking advantage of their newfound right to collective bargaining. They are very concerned, you see. The private university is a special place, and formalizing the relationship between administrators and the non-tenured faculty who now perform roughly half of the undergraduate education in this country might spoil the rarified air.

What is remarkable — as the political theorist and CUNY professor Corey Robin has pointed out — is how similar all these letters are, how each, despite its excessive personalization and focus on the individual needs of the university, manage to raise the same three or four specters every time: “You’re students, not employees.” “You’re privileged educational elites, not poor laborers.” “A union will come between you and the faculty that wants to love you (but can’t, if you let a union get in the way).”

It is this last item that I am particularly interested in, this notion that a special, intimate relationship exists between graduate students and tenured faculty that could not possibly survive a collective bargaining process. A particularly shameless example of this line comes from Robert Zimmer, the President of the University of Chicago — the university where I was once an undergraduate. In light of the NLRB’s decision, he informed a university-wide listhost on Wednesday, it is “more important than ever to reflect on the fundamental nature of education at UChicago, and the potential impact that graduate student unionization in particular could have on the University’s distinctive approach to research and education.”

“Central to the success of graduate students is the intellectual relationship between students and faculty, particularly between students and their advisors,” Zimmer wrote. It wasn’t the fundamental unwillingness of managers throughout human history to embrace unionization efforts, but rather “the special and individual nature of students’ educational experiences” that had him worried. “A graduate student labor union could impede such opportunities. […] It could also compromise the ability of faculty to mentor and support students on an individualized basis.” A labor union “will come between students and faculty to make crucial decisions on behalf of students” by focusing “on the collective interests of members while they are in the union,” something that “could make it more difficult for students to reach their individual educational goals.” Decisions made based on the “collective interests” of a labor force? My god.

One wonders how deeply Zimmer must pity those poor public universities — Berkeley, Michigan, UW-Madison, obscure places, really — where unionization has long been a fact of life. When a newly-minted Chicago PhD secures an increasingly rare tenure-track position at an institution like Berkeley, does their advisor shake their hand, smile broadly, then whisper, “Just so you know, the union there will make it impossible for you to care for your advisees as I have cared for you”? The University of Iowa, where I am presently a unionized graduate student instructor, has seen twenty years of successive union contracts secure vastly superior working conditions. My advisor has not yet referred to me as “employee” in a distant way, sad memories of happier days scarcely hidden behind cold eyes — but perhaps I am the exception.

One also wonders how this all comports with The University of Chicago’s incessantly reiterated commitment to open inquiry and debate, a life of the mind unencumbered by emotional concerns (i.e., “special relationships” between human beings, one assumes). This is, after all, the institution which has just informed incoming undergraduates that it does not support “so called ‘trigger warnings’” or “condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces,’” because such warnings and spaces undermine the university’s “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.” Is it possible that in the bustle of all that freedom, these high-minded academics failed to take a cursory glance at academic research into the question of graduate student unions? “Effects of Unionization on Graduate Student Employees: Faculty-Student Relations, Academic Freedom, and Pay” is a subtle title, I know, but the conclusions of that study are not:

Unionization does not have the presumed negative effect on student outcomes, and in some cases has a positive effect. Union-represented graduate student employees report higher levels of personal and professional support, unionized graduate student employees fare better on pay, and unionized and nonunionized students report similar perceptions of academic freedom. These findings suggest that potential harm to faculty-student relationships and academic freedom should not continue to serve as bases for the denial of collective bargaining rights to graduate student employees.

I have not been a student at Chicago for some time now. I have never been a student at Yale, or Columbia, or any of the other top-tier academies so concerned by the chilling effect of union bureaucracy on the warm relationships between faculty and their adjunct servants. Perhaps they really cannot afford higher salaries or more generous benefits — they can’t even afford JSTOR subscriptions.

Yet surely access to academic databases is not beyond the reach of a man like Robert Zimmer, a man who saw his total compensation double over the course of five years, reaching $3.4 million dollars in 2014, and placing him atop the Chronicle of Higher Education’s annual ranking of the highest-paid private university presidents. Perhaps the “special relationship” truly imperiled here is the one between administrators and their universities. Being forced to negotiate fair contracts with the adjunct and graduate student instructors — who perform the bulk of daily labor, servicing undergraduate customers in exchange for their exorbitant, federally-subsidized tuitions — might cut into the cash pot elite universities ordinarily reserve for the hiring of new administrators and the subsidizing of profitable athletic programs. (The athletes themselves cannot unionize either, of course. They are not even paid.)

But then, as President Zimmer informs his charges in Chicago, none of this is necessary. “Recent experiences” — not research, mind you, experiences — “demonstrate that efforts to enhance the graduate student experience are highly successful when graduate students, faculty, deans, and the provost’s office work together directly. Dialogue among students and faculty has led to increased stipends […] increased remuneration for teaching […] expansion of health insurance coverage” and “child care grants,” among other benefits. In other words, there is no need to force our benevolence: you’ve already got it. But never forget, those gains are contingent on our benevolence. Under true negotiating conditions? “It is unclear whether a graduate student labor union would have achieved any of these outcomes.”

Indeed — who knows what outcomes collective bargaining might achieve in the neo-gothic halls of Chicago, in Harvard Yard, or in Morningside Heights? Surely nothing so generous as the benefits that administrators like Zimmer have already granted by the magnanimity of their own spirits, by the kindness of every manager who has ever said We’re only against this union because we have your best interests at heart.

“We hope all members of our community will take the time to look more deeply into the challenges and potential negative consequences of a union,” Zimmer writes. After all, it’d be a shame if anything happened to that pretty special relationship of yours.