Saturday, March 16, 2019

links for the weekend: co-founder of SPLC fired; DNC candidates for reparations and Obama's rejection of them; pros and cons of American dreams to do with Michael Jackson and Trump voting in an era of automation removing unskilled jobs, and a college admissions scandal

I don't generally watch movies about music, that purport to be about music.  I also am not all that much in a rush to watch films about the arts and artists because often they are only tangentially about the arts and are often as not about something else. 

So if it seems that way about musicians to me how much more could it seem  the last twenty years that have featured dance could be even less about dance as an art form?  Well ... here's our first link for the weekend.

Why Are There So Many Movies About Horny Dancers Going Insane and Killing Each Other?
https://www.vulture.com/2019/03/dance-movies-horny-dancers-killing-each-other.html

If you want to read no further than that title then, fair enough, and you've already gotten the gist of the article.  But you can also read on.  :)



The civil rights organization Southern Poverty Law Center announced Thursday it had fired co-founder Morris Dees. The Montgomery, Alabama–based organization, known for tracking hate groups, did not give a specific reason for the 82-year-old’s dismissal after nearly 50 years with the nonprofit group, but a SPLC statement issued in conjunction with Dees’ sacking indicates it was workplace misconduct. Dees also told the Associated Press “a personnel issue” was the point of contention. 

“As a civil rights organization, the SPLC is committed to ensuring that the conduct of our staff reflects the mission of the organization and the values we hope to instill in the world,” SPLC president Richard Cohen said in an emailed statement. “When one of our own fails to meet those standards, no matter his or her role in the organization, we take it seriously and must take appropriate action.” For his part, Dees indicated he did not know the root cause of his dismissal from the organization he helped found in 1971 and that, he says, he had been less and less involved with day-to-day operations. “It was not my decision, what they did,” Dees told the Montgomery Advertiser. “I wish the center the absolute best. Whatever reasons they had of theirs, I don’t know.” 

over at Slate Mike Pesca remarks that DNC bidders who are mentioning reparations are making a point of going in the opposite direction that Obama established.

https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2019/03/elizabeth-warren-kamala-harris-julian-castro-reparations-democrats.html
...
In late 2016, Barack Obama dismissed the idea of reparations during an interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates, saying: “As a practical matter, it is hard to think of any society in human history in which a majority population has said that as a consequence of historic wrongs, we are now going to take a big chunk of the nation’s resources over a long period of time to make that right.” The president went on to note, wisely, “It’s hard to find the model in which you can practically administer and sustain political support for those kinds of efforts.” 

Further, he went on to say that he was “not so optimistic as to think you would ever be able to garner a majority of the American Congress that would make those kinds of investments above and beyond the kind of investments that could be made in a progressive program for lifting up all people.” 

To strip the blessedly nuanced argument to its essentials, Obama is saying that he opposes reparations because a) they would be unfeasible; b) they would be unpopular; and c) their beneficial effects can be achieved in a different, better, more realistic, and fairer ways. I agree on all counts and would add that many Obama programs were in fact doing the work of “lifting all people up.” 
...

I can’t imagine reparations passing Congress. I also can’t imagine the specter of DNA testing to qualify for reparations, arguments over whose family immigrated from Nigeria 50 years ago, versus who could trace their lineage back 200 years—or a requirement that funding from the bottom three quintiles of white society, where the average income is $38,000, be provided in part to the top quintile of black America, where the average income is $155,000. I can’t imagine the government telling Latino Americans, “Sorry, not discriminated against enough.” I furthermore can’t imagine them telling Latino people who are black, “Sorry, your ancestors were brought to this hemisphere as part of the slave trade, but not to America.” 

The candidates clearly realize these landmines are scattered about. That’s why they’re not proposing actual programs for actual reparations in the sense that the term is actually used. They are answering the question “Do you believe in reparations?” by saying, “Yes, we do, and here is my broad program to help black people.” Barack Obama answered the question, “Do you believe in reparations?” by saying, “No, I don’t, and here’s my broad program to help black people.” 

As I've noted here, Native Americans could be completely ignored by such a literally and figuratively black and white conception of race relations in the United States.  A recent review of a book by Jill Lepore highlighted how in 900 pages on the history of the United States Native Americans got mentioned by name a grand total of seven times.  Consider that in 1924, which could be considered somewhere in the middle of the Harlem Renaissance the Snyder act, aka the Indian Citizenship Act, was ratified.  The history of that is a bit complex, as could be expected.  

It's not so much that the historic considerations that lead some to propose reparations aren't inextricably part of American history it's more that, as Adolph Reed Jr. has put it, the argument for reparations can fail on its own terms.  It is not given that because injustices and evils were perpetrated at the level of racist ideologies that the remedy for the social and economic injustices that have been perpetuated by that range of ideologies will be effectively ameliorated by responding at the same level.  

Over at National Review (which ... every once in a long while I read), there's a book review.
Michael Brendan Dougherty reviewed Timothy P Carney's Alienated America.  That people who preferred Trump were and are living in regions where deindustrialization has gutted the regional job market doesn't seem ... that hard to grant.  

What can be puzzling is to consider that the American dream, however that gets defined, is either a terrible con or a thing that is terrible for people to not be able to achieve depending on the electoral or socio-political goals at hand.  When writing about Michael Jackson the American Dream is a positive evil.

Josephine Livingstone wrote of Jackson ... and commentaries about Jackson:

...


But there is perhaps another reason the chattering class has been so uncharacteristically quiet: Michael Jackson presents a case too extraordinary for the media to easily absorb and process. Jackson was not just a pop star: he was the pop star, the King of Pop, the most famous famous person. To try to cancel him would be to point out a criminal at the very heart of the entertainment industry’s belief system, and to remove the laurels of the most significant black artist of the pop age. To analyze the phenomenon of Michael Jackson properly would mean taking on the laborious task of figuring out how we—meaning society at large—ended up with the kind of entertainment industry we have. And it would mean admitting that the American dream—a rapid ascent to stardom on the basis of sheer talent—is hollow.

The work of undoing Michael Jackson’s place at the core of American culture has simply been too hard, for too long. We’d have to start with the man in the mirror, as somebody once said. That’s not easy to do. Much criticism has been leveled at the mothers of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who allowed their boys to spend the night in Jackson’s bed and stay with him for days on end without a chaperone—days that were filled with ceaseless molestation. It is easiest to blame them, because they are ideal scapegoats for a universal affliction, which is that fame is so important in America that it can blind us to what is happening literally before our own eyes, to our own kids. Painting these boys’ mothers as monsters is the shortest cut to absolving ourselves.

Exacerbating our incompetence in this matter is a long tradition of racist and lazy reporting on Jackson, which undercuts the media’s basic authority on the subject. The very idea of condemning him feels like joining a rather horrible tradition. In the 1990s, it was normal to ridicule his face, even after he went on Oprah to say, “This is the situation. I have a skin disorder that destroys the pigmentation of the skin. It is something I cannot help, OK?” He told Winfrey, “I am a black American.” That didn’t matter to those who thought it was funny to say he looked like a white woman. 

We are nowhere near reaching closure on the matter of the King of Pop. What l’affaire Jackson does teach us, however, is that the American dream of fame and fortune is a sick institution, with a pathological relationship to the truth. It is a problem that touches on every sphere of culture, all the way down to the most basic values that we call American: meritocracy, money-spinning, male heroism, race-blind justice. “Michael Jackson” was always a product, more than he was a man, and we were his customers. According to the principle caveat emptor, it’s up to us to figure out what we were really buying. And that is a mystery no one can solve but ourselves.

But that's not the only American dream out there.  The more conventional understanding of the American dream I heard about growing up and going through adulthood was that a person could get a decently paying job, get married, have a house somewhere, and have a couple of kids who then had a pretty solid chance of, should they be diligent and socially adaptive enough, more or less be able to repeat the process in a new generation.  The American Dream that artists and journalists can tend to damn as a sign of a hollow culture in cultural commentary moments is more or less the measure of whether or not social justice has been achieved if anyone outside of a well-heeled white middle-to-upper class milieu manages to attain it. In other words, The Cosby Show could be seen negatively and positively as emblematic of 1980s era assimilation into "mainstream" American culture by an African American family.  

The double bind in American cultural commentary is that it can seem that from a progressive perspective the more modest American dream is a bad thing to want but an equally bad thing to not be able to get.  The hip, progressive ideal seems to be that one is able to attain the American Dream but rejects (or simply seems to reject it while obtaining it in some less checklisted way).  A conservative pundit perspective seems to have it that to not even want the more modestly defined American dream is bad and to not be able to get it is ... in earlier eras of commentary probably a sign that the person who didn't get the American dream is somehow to blame but in this era ... for someone to want and not achieve the American dream in its more modestly defined terms could be a shorthand for defining someone who, in editorial shorthand, voted for Trump. 

In this context it might be that a failure to attain the American dream can inspire people to vote for or support someone like Trump.  Why?  Because, perhaps, as automation and technological advances render more and more of the "unskilled" workforce increasingly obsolete people might be drawn to someone who makes promises that there will be consequences for people who try to outsource that labor?  A possibility.  

Donald Trump is president because he won the votes of people who agreed with his stark, and startling, declaration: The American dream is dead. So argues Timothy P. Carney, a longtime editor at the Washington Examiner, in his new book.
...
In Carney’s telling, the destruction of community is not merely the product of individual vice but comes about through the deterioration of the institutions in which people exercise and learn virtue. That includes the factory and the church, which disappear in tandem. A dense network of civic life makes forming and keeping families together easier. It makes finding new jobs easier, and it sustains people during the loss of work, the common stresses of life, and even tragedy.
He writes:
The disappearance of reliable jobs and the erosion of local community may look like two different things that happen in the same places. In a crucial way, though, they are the same thing. Cohesive communities and a regular workplace are both institutions of civil society. Institutions of civil society provide material resources, such as pay and a support structure, but they also provide more abstract resources such as a sense of security and a sense of purpose. If pay and family stability go together, it’s because both depend on the same thing: social capital. 
Fewer reliable jobs, less marriage, and less civil society are all manifestations of the same phenomenon: Life for the working class is becoming deinstitutionalized. 
While Trump supporters overall look like good earners on paper, they are heavily concentrated in places that are distressed. Drawing on the work of the journalist Ben Casselman, Carney shows that areas that have lots of subprime mortgages, people receiving disability benefits, or low earnings among full-time workers usually demonstrate higher levels of support for Trump.

Carney relies heavily on social-science research from the economist David Autor about the shock of deindustrialization on the social health of communities and even on the physical health of men without work. He draws on the work of the demographer Nicholas Eberstadt on prime-age men who drop out of the work force: They don’t just leave the work force, they vacate almost all social life entirely. Men who don’t have work tend not to be married and tend to contribute almost nothing to community life. They gaze at screens all day, get fat and sick, and die younger than working men.
...



Something with a bit of bipartisan support is riffing on a college admissions scandal.



some reviews of books by Future Symphony Institute fellows, Borstlap responds with a comment, and a comment about double standards in political claims in connection to art

a couple of links at Mere Orthodoxy on the topic of books about music.

a review of Music as an Art by Roger Scruton
https://mereorthodoxy.com/book-review-music-art-roger-scruton/

and a review of The Classical Revolution by John Borstlap
https://mereorthodoxy.com/book-review-classical-revolution-john-borstlap/

Borstlap commented and it was a predictable comment. 
http://disq.us/p/20bejy3
Thank you for dedicating so much tekst to the book. Quite a lot of things have not been understood however, no problem, but one thing I want to correct: it is impossible, for aesthetic, structural and social reasons, to compare the entertainment music of the 18th century with 20C entertainment music, they are totally different things. Some elements of 18C entertainment music could, because of its nature and structure, be incorporated in serious art music, as the protestant hymns could. In the last century, music like jazz could only be lifted to the level of art music by composers who found a way to integrate it without intervening into the aesthetic framework of the serious piece they wanted to write, but the jazzy elements changed thereby in character. Example: Ravel's piano concertos. Gershwin's Rhapsody in blue however remains entertainment music, nothing wrong with it, but that is not the subject of the book. Bartok used folk material to incorporate its micro structures in a highly sophisticated art music and thereby the folky material changed in character. In music, context is everything. One more thing: in the book, it is never stated that 'classical music' or 'the classical tradition' is supposed to 'rescue Western civilization', the art form is a symbol of that civilization and if or when it erodes or declines, that would be a sign that the civilization is declining. Your reading appears to be highly political which is clearly not the intention of the book. Classical music is not political but can, of course, be misused for political ends, because of its nonconceptual nature.
Good luck with the website. Maybe you would find this interesting: 

There's been some misunderstanding.  Per the review, a failure to provide working definitions for what music is (in art or entertainment) as distinct from sound art or sonic art, let alone why the latter category would not overlap with the first, that's the kind of failure that can be overlooked in a first edition of a book.  Okay, fair enough. These things happen. 

But for a second edition of a book the failure to define these most basic terms is not a shortcoming that can be assigned to readers and reviewers as a misunderstanding.  It's simply a failure on the part of the author. 

Now it's one thing to suggest that much high modernist music from the 20th century has consigned itself to a justly deserved oblivion because composers insisted on using a panoply of technocratic methodologies that led to music so far beyond the cognitive abilities of audiences they forget it.  That's a point that George Rochberg made decades ago in The Aesthetics of Survival and it's why the New Complexity will have at most a marginal place in music history.  Which is fine, because we live in an era in which music history can span the entire planet.  Someone is going to be into that stuff and more power to them.

But since Borstlap commented about how some of the readings in the review seem political, it might be worthwhile to take note of a quote from Borstlap's own book that invokes political legacies to highlight how this rhetorical move on Borstlap's part seems to be made in a bit of bad faith. 

Take this passage, quoted in the review:

High art is an exercise of what is best in the human being. It offers a learning process of the intellect and the emotions that can lead to an increased awareness of what we really are and should be, and, as such, a source of inner strength. It was exactly this role that the classical music repertoire played in World War II and in the period directly following this fundamental crisis; it would be unthinkable that people would scramble among the ruins of bombed city centers, desperate to hear a performance of Xenakis, Stockhausen, or Boulez (or in a later period along the glass and steel facades of modernist office blocks to hear the sonic art of Lachenmann, Widmann, or Birtwistle) hoping to be uplifted and to feel again what it means to be a human being. Their work is a product of, not an answer to, the devastation of war trauma and the emptiness of the modern world. If we allow sonic art to be music, we finish off the jobs of destruction set in motion by Hitler and Stalin. [emphasis added]… (The Classical Revolution, page 123)

We are apparently just supposed to take John Borstlap's word for it that, whatever those jobs of destruction were, they will somehow find their completion in accepting that Iannis Xenakis wrote music. 

Xenakis was scrambling around as part of armed resistance against the Axis powers, first against the Italian forces, and then against German forces in the World War II years.  He was also part of resistance against the British when they insisted the Greek liberation forces give up their weapons and, tersely, describes that it was during this time he was wounded.  Whether a person agrees or disagrees with Xenakis' communist convictions the idea that to accept sonic art as music could somehow "finish off the jobs of destruction set in motion by Hitler and Stalin" has to be claimed over against Xenakis' own account of his life as having been spent for many years in fighting against the Axis powers.  He was wounded during resistance against the British Empire, for those who haven't read up on the life and times of Xenakis.

Allowing that what Xenakis wrote was music does not build a new Dachau ready to swallow up again Jews in Europe to destroy them.  Nor does allowing that Xenakis wrote music set in motion the completion of exterminating Jews in the Russian region as was planned by Stalin late in his life.  If there others "job of destruction" Borstlap had in mind with his histrionic flight of fancy he doesn't go to the trouble of defining what those are.  We can safely guess, however, that accepting that Xenakis wrote music, even if it was music many people will find impossible to enjoy, hardly finishes off the Holocaust. 

Borstlap wrapped up his book with a histrionic bad faith assertion that he not only can't back up or defend, but which also flies in the face of what anyone who does a modicum of research into the life of Xenakis could discover about the composer.  Never mind that Xenakis was with the resistance in Greece, first against the forces serving Mussolini and then forces fighting for Hitler.  Forget that, if ever you knew it.  The point is that John Borstlap wants you to understand that if you call what Xenakis did music then Hitler won, for real this time.Accept that Xenakis wrote music and Hitler wins! How and why? Apparently because John Borstlap said so, not that saying so is any kind of political statement ... at least not when John Borstlap says it.

HT The Music Salon blog, a suggestion that classical music has been glutted "classical music supply exceeds demand"

This momentarily reminded me of a book I didn't pick up that had an eye-catching title called The Jazz Bubble.  We live in an era in which it's possible to hear a lot of music now, a sea of music.  That there's a cottage industry of warnings that classical music is dying or is on life support or needs some revolutionary revival, that classical music needs a Great Awakening, has been around for a while.  Maybe it will always have that sort of thing by dint of every art form potentially having something like that.  Maybe the wake-up calls or how the art as practiced stays awake. 

Anyway ... here's a counter-suggestion that contra Norman Lebrecht, classical music may have a glut problem more than a not-enough-of-it-out-there problem.



Slipped Disc reports a rumour which may well have substance that the BBC Concert Orchestra is targeted for abolition in a list of proposed BBC budget savings, and Norman ends his report with the exhortation "Prepare to go to the barricades". Before manning the barricades Slipped Disc readers should consider the following. The BBC including its house orchestras is funded by a license fee. Over the last four years almost 3.5 million households have stopped paying that license fee. The rate of cancellation is increasing: up from 798,000 in 2016/17 to 860,00 in 2017/18. This means the decrease in license fees numbers is running at more than a compound 3% a year, a loss that has not been recovered by fee increases - the cost of a license was frozen for six years from 2010. That decrease represents an annual loss of BBC income of £130 million. To put the loss into perspective, the total license fee funded budget for BBC orchestras and performing groups is £33 million. So the saving from abolishing all the BBC orchestras would only offset one third of the annual revenue loss from license fee erosion. 

 It is obvious why license fee numbers are falling. Disruptive internet technologies have made alternative sources of content widely available, notably video and audio streaming services. What is known as the 'Netflix effect' will impact at an increasing rate, and there is nothing the BBC or Slipped Disc readers can do about it. So the BBC's business model of a license fee funded service is on borrowed time. And I am afraid that means the five wonderful BBC house orchestras are also on borrowed time. Because if funding pressure means BBC executives must choose between abolishing Strictly Come Dancing or the BBC Concert Orchestra, it is no contest. Whether we like it or not - and I don't - that is the culture we now live in, and the UK classical industry had better start planning accordingly.

 The very same disruptive technologies mean that classical radio also has a limited future. Why listen to someone else's choice of music when personalisation technologies mean you can choose your own? In an earlier piece Norman Lebrecht trumpeted that the "Radio 3 [audience] is down around 20 percent in two years" while "Classic FM has 5.3 million listeners and a ten percent reach". All of which is quite true: but Norman does not point out - presumably because it does not fit the favoured Radio 3 is rubbish narrative - that in the previous 12 months Classic FM had also lost audience - 6.5% to be precise. It does not matter how exuberantly you dumb down, classical radio audiences are shrinking. Which means classical radio is also on borrowed time.

 And that is not the end of the problem. There is a significant overlap between the markets for live and recorded/streamed classical music - far more than for popular music. The markets for live and recorded classical music have not increased significantly in recent years; in fact arguably they have decreased. Yet Spotify and other streaming services have exponentially increased the classical supply. It has been obvious for years that there is an oversupply of classical music. It is elementary economics that when supply exceeds demand, supply must be constrained. Yet I have yet to see a single mention of the problem of oversupply on the annual conference agenda of the Association of British Orchestras. 

 This is not a pessimistic article. Classical music is not dead, there is just too much of it. The classical industry, and that includes Norman Lebrecht and me, needs to get real and stop whining about egregious Radio 3 presenters and stop exhorting readers to man the barricades and protect BBC orchestras. We need to start talking about how classical music, both in the UK and globally, is going to reinvent itself as new technologies continue to irreversibly disrupt legacy business and media models. At the core of that reinvention is a downsizing of music supply, a downsizing of orchestra capacity, a downsizing of audience size expectations, and a downsizing of remuneration for celebrity musicians. We don't need to man the barricades; we just need to use some common sense. [emphasis added]


Or one could suggest that the problem may be sideways to this, that there are people who think that the vitality of the music can or should be displayed in observably monetizable forms and formats.  Is it possible that, to take a page from Paul Hindemith, the vitality of a musical culture is more likely to be observed in the activity of amateurs than the professionals?  Just throwing that idea out there for the weekend.  

Captain Marvel and Campbell's monomyth, a note to would be liberal and conservative pundits, once you accept Campbell's monomyth as a given the hero has to have a thousand faces

I haven't seen the film and since I'm not "that" big a Marvel fan and never cared about the character to begin with I'm not in a rush to see the film.  But I have been negatively impressed by "for" and "against" editorializing that makes use of the trope of Campbell's monomyth. 

For instance, the complaint that the hero's journey is the hero's journey, with an emphasis on the necessity of a phallus for the Campbellian monomyth, seems to have been made by the sorts of culturally or socially conservative pundits who didn't bother to read The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Maybe they read commentaries about it or riffs on it, but if the conservative type complains about how heroes these days have to put in no effort to just win the day when the hero is named Rey then they didn't likely read Campbell, who talked about how effortlessly the special hero does what others can't do and seemingly without any strain.  The challenges are impossible to others but not to the Campbellian hero of monomyth fame.  In other words, if you take Campbell's formula to actually be legitimate and not an idiotic boiling down of world literature, cultural conservative of whatever stripe, you should stop complaining that Rey is a Mary Sue.  There isn't anything about the hero's journey aka the monomyth that requires the hero has testicles rather than ovaries.  For that matter in the cosmogonic cycle Campbell noted that in many narratives the divine principle is shown to be hermphradotic.  So there. 

In other words, conservatives who piss on and on about the girl power tropes as somehow betraying Campbell's concepts have probably not only never read Campbell for themselves they don't understand that if they had read Campbell's work the most woke of social justice warrior quests for representation would simply require that the hero with a thousand faces finally have all the other nine hundred and ninety-nine faces besides the white guy with chiseled abs.  Sure, why not? 

Now to shift to another perspective, when people lament that once this finally happens it seems like mere pandering, well, sure, that's how these genre films have worked.  Pandering to audiences by creating characters that are regarded as power fantasy audience surrogates has been the game.  Captain Marvel and Wolverine are variations on a formula and if you don't like the formula you have to hit the formula at is foundational level.   You could conceivably try to imagine that Campbell's monomyth might be something like an altar to an unknown god as an evangelistic technique.  I have seen and heard that done ... but if you take Campbell's tropes on their own terms they are more in the self-help variety, if having the benefit of being widely read in world literature.  I don't think Campbell imagined that his work would spawn the most rote tentpole popcorn cinema when he was writing in the mid-20th century.  It's possible to say Campbell's ideas are wildly wrong-headed and that they catalyzed a long and mass produced era of adventure cinema without insisting that he should bear some kind of personal guilt for it. 

So we finally have a Marvel superhero film that has a female lead ... if we just pretend that Electra never happened (I'm game).  We could also try to think of it as though Catwoman never happened, either.  If we wanted a film based on a comic book character with a female lead do we also pretend that Tank Girl never happened back in 1995?  Or the Supergirl movie?  There's actually a lot of pop cultural history that has to be swept under the proverbial rug for Captain Marvel to be as new and different, to liberal and conservative punditry wanting something to crow about, as it's been billed as being.

Some writers, see below, remember Elektra, for instance. 


All of this is fantastic to see on a screen. Captain Marvel is most often compared to 2017’s Wonder Woman, and that’s fitting, but an even apter comparison might be 2005’s Elektra, technically the first Marvel movie to center a woman as its hero. That the latter film is often written out of the lore is perhaps a kind of courtesy: Elektra features Jennifer Garner, clad in a midriff-baring, lipstick-red corset-and-pants combo, as a Greek-mythology-inspired, Eastern-martial-arts-practicing assassin. The film is the cinematic embodiment of what the writer Ariel Levy referred to as “raunch culture,” and today, it is deeply wince-worthy. (“LOOKS CAN KILL,” the film’s poster announces, cheekily.) To watch all three, Elektra and then Wonder Woman and then Captain Marvel, is to appreciate how much change really has come from 2005 to 2019—and to be reminded that progress has a way of coming slowly and quickly at the same time.

But Elektra makes for an extremely low bar, and Captain Marvel, a film that can sometimes scan as a the future is female T-shirt brought to life, is, on top of everything else, a reminder of how much has stayed, stubbornly, the same. There are so many references to power and empowerment, so many callouts to falling down and getting up again, so many easy insights about the benefits of being true to oneself. There’s a doubleness to the proceedings here, not just in the film’s pairing of characters and shifting of identities, but also in its broader messaging. Feminine badassery, commodified! (But also: feminine badassery, commodified.) Women being pandered to, finally! (But also: women being pandered to, finally.) Is this really the endgame before the Endgame? Is that, as another disappointed woman wondered, all there is?
...

The animated Wonder Woman movie from, like, a decade ago, with Keri Russell and Alfred Molina doing the primary voices was a fun movie.  Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, a female-led animated feature by Hayao Miyazaki, is like thirty years old and the manga is a marvel.  For Captain Marvel to be as daring as some would like it to be for the sake of representational concerns we have to ignore a robust and wonderful world full of pop and pulp art that has already been there and done that--the tragicomic part is that this is all stuff that the kinds of film critics who write at The Atlantic or The New Yorker or Slate wouldn't know a lot of this stuff because they have spent more time limning the depths that are supposed to be found mainly in Kubrick or Altman or Godard.  If you're into that, okay.  

But I have lost some patience with the kinds of commentary that invokes Campbell's monomyth to then explain why there can't be a woman who fits the formula on the one hand, and that is ambivalent about the formula because though the girl power element is welcome it's still the formula.  

There might be something to be said about, that if you can immediately detect all the cliches and formulas this might not just be a sign that the cultural artifact in question is lazily made, it might also be a sign that you're watching too many movies, too.  I've begun to notice as I amble through middle-age that critics lamenting the death of an art form don't always seem to be grappling with the reality of their own mortality, they may be taking out on an ever abundant art form (that has probably always had more dross than gold) the numbing effect of their own consumption--the problem can't be that they consume too much, it has to be a problem that the art form isn't daring enough to keep them excited any more.  The kid ate too much ice cream, threw up, and then when the kid returns to try a new bowl complains that the ice cream doesn't taste the same.  Well, wash your mouth out with some water, don't eat ice cream for a while and come back later.  

And again, if feminine badassery in pulp film is somehow supposed to be new were film critics just ignoring Milla and Kate over the last fifteen years?  Apparently so.

The Simpsons has pulled "Stark Raving Dad", the MJ guest episode, and some thinkpieces on our collective guilt over MJ ... possibly whether we were ever really fans of his music or not

https://slate.com/culture/2019/03/simpsons-michael-jackson-stark-raving-dad-pulled.html

Michael Jackson is too big to "cancel" from popular culture cumulatively but that doesn't mean he can't be retconned out on a case by case basis.




...


But there is perhaps another reason the chattering class has been so uncharacteristically quiet: Michael Jackson presents a case too extraordinary for the media to easily absorb and process. Jackson was not just a pop star: he was the pop star, the King of Pop, the most famous famous person. To try to cancel him would be to point out a criminal at the very heart of the entertainment industry’s belief system, and to remove the laurels of the most significant black artist of the pop age. To analyze the phenomenon of Michael Jackson properly would mean taking on the laborious task of figuring out how we—meaning society at large—ended up with the kind of entertainment industry we have. And it would mean admitting that the American dream—a rapid ascent to stardom on the basis of sheer talent—is hollow. [emphasis added]

The work of undoing Michael Jackson’s place at the core of American culture has simply been too hard, for too long. We’d have to start with the man in the mirror, as somebody once said. That’s not easy to do. Much criticism has been leveled at the mothers of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who allowed their boys to spend the night in Jackson’s bed and stay with him for days on end without a chaperone—days that were filled with ceaseless molestation. It is easiest to blame them, because they are ideal scapegoats for a universal affliction, which is that fame is so important in America that it can blind us to what is happening literally before our own eyes, to our own kids. Painting these boys’ mothers as monsters is the shortest cut to absolving ourselves.

Exacerbating our incompetence in this matter is a long tradition of racist and lazy reporting on Jackson, which undercuts the media’s basic authority on the subject. The very idea of condemning him feels like joining a rather horrible tradition. In the 1990s, it was normal to ridicule his face, even after he went on Oprah to say, “This is the situation. I have a skin disorder that destroys the pigmentation of the skin. It is something I cannot help, OK?” He told Winfrey, “I am a black American.” That didn’t matter to those who thought it was funny to say he looked like a white woman. 

We are nowhere near reaching closure on the matter of the King of Pop. What l’affaire Jackson does teach us, however, is that the American dream of fame and fortune is a sick institution, with a pathological relationship to the truth. [emphasis added] It is a problem that touches on every sphere of culture, all the way down to the most basic values that we call American: meritocracy, money-spinning, male heroism, race-blind justice. “Michael Jackson” was always a product, more than he was a man, and we were his customers. According to the principle caveat emptor, it’s up to us to figure out what we were really buying. And that is a mystery no one can solve but ourselves.

Well ... it's easy to say that from the pages of The New Republic.  The article doesn't exactly engage with why, if he was or is, Michael Jackson became the core of American culture.  Did he?  Really?  Assuming that he did become the core of American culture then why did that happen?  The answer is implicit in Michael Jackson having been a black pop star, he embodied an element of the American dream that not even Josephine Livingstone in the most righteous cultural commentary riff mode can entirely abject. 

I have a different take, if you hadn't worked that out already.  What the case of Michael Jackson and any other sort of American cultural star suggests is that arts and entertainment plays a role comparable to religion in American life and that like abusive priests in churches entertainers and academics have comparable super-star powers that they have used to please themselves.  To get rid of all the religions on earth would do nothing to prevent what seems to have happened with Michael Jackson or apparently Harvey Weinstein or apparently Neil DeGrasse Tyson or very probably Terry Richardson (had a coworker a few years back who worked in modeling and this was around the time allegations emerged about that photographer) or a Lance Armstrong.  The stars don't just have feet of clay, they turn out time and again to use their stardom to use people. 

What I find frustrating about cultural commentary riffs on American dreams is not so much a skepticism about the attainability of whatever this or that American dream is, rather, I find it frustrating that when an opportunity comes up to interrogate the power and status-mongering of the star system itself any number of writers stop short of attacking that system as a whole in favor of attacking something else.  In progressive feminist writing it might be a patriarchy.  In a traditionalist advocate for Western high art the problem is the blame of "cultural Marxists" or socialists. Guys with more of a mens' rights activist mentality blame feminism or the feminization of culture.  Even an anti-capitalist on the order of local writer Charles Mudede can still be pleased that Beyonce album does well.  There are conservatives who seem to lazily declare that identity politics are ruining America but identity politics in a white supremacist variation have helped to define the United States alongside other forms of identity politics.  Cultural mythologies that make whiteness or blackness an ontological good or evil are rife and I don't find much to commend in any of them, but then that might be no surprise since half my lineage is Native American and half of it is white. 

Michael Jackson could only do the things he's alleged to have done because he was a star.  Ys, we can question whether anyone can or should ahve that kind of star power but in a cultural moment reflecting on the abuses of stars we don't have to forget that what people did was vicariously live through the star and the art and entertainment the star made.  It's hard to disentangle your sense of self from a star because through their work you in some way defined yourself.  What American teen hasn't come to a sense of social identity through art and entertainment consumption habits?  That might be a core problem there but that's not going to be what comes under fire, least of all by those whose bread and butter is writing about the arts. 

Take this artsy headline.

https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-arts-sector-contributed-7636-billion-economy-agriculture-transportation
The arts and cultural sector contributed over $763.6 billion to the American economy in 2015—more than the agriculture, transportation, or warehousing sectors, according to new U.S. government data released Tuesday by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

The arts generated 4.2% of the overall U.S. GDP, with roughly 4.9 million Americans working in the sector in 2015, the latest year for which data is available. Collectively, those employed in the sector earned over $370 billion, according to the findings.

More than the agriculture, transportation or warehousing sectors ... even though I love the arts I hesitate to say it's a good thing.  Now, less than ever, would I suggest people go to art schools.  The Art Institute of Seattle closing down locally is merely a drop in the bucket in connection to the larger Argosy situation. 

And it is the veneration of artists as stars that seems to be so central to how we've gotten to a Leaving Neverland moment of anxiousness.  A good deal of it is probably fine, and for those who danced to Jackson's work and wanted to meet him when they were young a reckoning with who, in a fuller and more troubling sense, it was they revered is necessary.  Wesley Morris' reflection on these things is worth a read. 

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/28/arts/television/michael-jackson-leaving-neverland.html

But for me it's fascinating to read because I was not exactly on the Jackson train.  When I first heard Thriller as an elementary school age kid I found something ineffably creepy about it.  "Thriller" was supposed to be creepy, of course, a little.  In my tween/teen years I began to feel like Jackson was okay in the Off the Wall and Thriller phase but I was more drawn to Stevie Wonder's music, by far.  Jackson's work, even the best of it, is for me not nearly as riveting or memorable as "Sir Duke" or "I Wish" or "Superstition".  So for me, I can appreciate that soul-searching about the ways in which someone you had high regard for turned out to be far, far worse a person than you thought and hoped that person would be.  I do get that ... and there's possibly millions of words chronicling a former megachurch preacher from these parts if you wanted to trawl through that process ... but you don't have to.

What I've seen in the pieces about Michael Jackson and Leaving Neverland is a rumination on collective guilt, a guilt borne by an entire society by way of its distillation in the life and work of one person.  Now I'm not against this idea, actually.  I read John Murray's The Imputation of Adam's Sin, what, almost twenty years ago?  What's fascinating is that Americans who might scoff at the idea of cumulative and collective representative guilt as sin when discussed in such overtly theological terms can't help but reach for the concepts of imputation and representative headship as an explanation for cultural sin when the topic is Michael Jackson.  I'm not saying you have to actually subscribe to federal or representative imputation, in case you're wondering about that.

I'm just pointing out that when you read long enough in Reformed traditions you sometimes notice how concepts like cumulative social guilt and responsibility for sin and things like that can sort of murkily lurk in cultural commentary when a moment like Leaving Neverland emerges.   Some people transfer a collective guilt on to a suitable (read convenient and very often historically undeserving in the extreme) scapegoat, someone who is made to bear the sins of a society that will not really come to terms with its own guilt.  Michael Jackson could be a scapegoat for what kinds of abuses can be permitted or transmitted from one generation of the star-making system to the next.  Or he could point us toward the system, or he could be seen as an exemplar of what "we" underwrite when we buy the music.  Group guilt is, of course, not a uniquely or explicitly Christian concept.  Christianity got the idea that an entire civilization can be guilty of perpetuating and perpetrating systemic evil in its treatment of children from another range of ideas, and Judaism isn't that hard to find.  The prohibitions against child sacrifice in the Torah are not that hard to look up. 

For those of us who were never exactly MJ fans the indictment of what the star-system is capable of doesn't mean "we" are off the hook.  What has been coming to light is that the stars of arts and entertainments and even stars in the milder realm of academia, seem to succumb to comparable temptations and wield their power and influence in comparably bad ways.  It doesn't always have to be at the level of Wacko Jacko to be symptomatic of problems in the systems. 

But if writers speak of the royal "we" when writing about Michael Jackson and are not clarifying that they are taking aim at the star-making system of which they, as journalists or arts writers, are vocationally part of, and casting the net of guilt on everyone, including people who never much took to Jackson's music, then that's a kind of diffusion of guilt that doesn't need to be taken seriously.  Someone who has never heard Michael Jackson can't be responsible for contributing to the culture that made him a star.  If fans of Jackson's music and persona aren't careful to remember the "we" probably confines itself to the fellow fans then attempts to assign a collective guilt from sin (let's just clal it that, okay?) will be the kind of scapegoating that needs to be avoided and rejected.  For those of us whose ability to appreciate that Jackson had some fun pop songs here and there but never once actually bought any of his music there may be a guilt by association but that could be a tenuous guilt by association.  There is a possibility that some of the writers who are sounding off on the guilt "we" have over what Jackson did are writing as they are because their own guilt is possibly enough of a burden that placing it cumulatively on society makes the possibly individual sense of shame at having bankrolled Jackson in light of what he's said to have done a little easier to process. 

Nikolai Roslavets - Piano Sonata No. 1 (video with score)

Regular readers of this blog (not that there's necessarily a big number of those by now, I'm guessing) may know that one of my hobbies is listening to, studying, and studying about Soviet music and music from central and eastern European regions.  I picked up a book in the last year or so about the repressed Soviet avant garde that emerged from before and during the initial Soviet period up through 1920.  Nikolai Roslavets is one of the names you can't avoid when getting into this period of early Soviet musical history.

It might be difficult to overstate the influence Scriabin had on Russian and Soviet music in the first quarter of the 20th century.  Transcendentalist spiritual and mystical ideals; interests in breaking past major and minor polarities; a penchant for what Messiaen called modes of limited transposition; nascent attempts to formulate approaches to pitch organization that involved microtonal divisions of the octave, all of these kinds of things were present in the Russian avant garde and Soviet musical life until, to keep things short, Stalinism repressed these elements. 

One of the Cold War era polemical points that I remember from childhood and my teens was a claim that Western art permitted all sorts of strange and dissonant forms of musical life that were valuable to affirm because they represented a form of freedom in art that Soviet states did not provide.  Richard Taruskin has, in a polemical way to be sure, pointed out that this myth is a myth.  It had a political use within the context of the Cold War to imagine that musical styles that infuriated demagogues and autocrats from Soviet and National Socialist regimes represented a freedom Wester composers could avail themselves of that Soviet and Nazi artists couldn't.  But ...

as historical work on the Russian avant garde can get done you can discover that their avant garde wasn't less avant garde.  The brutality of how Russian avant garde music was repressed by Stalinism tried to era the music but did not actually do so, in historical terms.  Some of it survived, fortunately.  A lot of it may have survived, to provide a "spoiler". 

If there's a standardized "liberal" mythology about avant garde music from the Cold War era that atonality and other styles emerged and flourished in the West that weren't allowed in Stalinism (which is partly true) the other standardized "traditionalist" mythology has it that the evils of high modernism caused by Frankfurt school theorists like Adorno led to a musical culture in which the beauty of traditional tonal music was repressed and blamed for the evils of totalitarianism.  There's a partly true element to this in the sense that National Socialism designated a lot of music as degenerate music, and the development of socialist realism meant a lot of could-have-been or was-on-the-margins music got repressed but ... Roslavets was not exactly a low profile composer. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YH6xT6rmSD4

The grand narratives of how the avant garde of the 20th century represents "freedom" or how it represents "unfreedom" has been covered at some length by Richard Taruskin in his readable Oxford History of Western Music.  Taruskin's perspective is singular and ... at times ... combative, though often in an indirect way.  You could jokingly take the advice that he has an invidious tendency to deploy the word "invidious".  But the larger polemical point has some value, that depending on what empire we're living in we may hear a different "party line".  I still like a good chunk of Shostakovich but there is a lot more out there to be heard than "just" Shostakovich or Prokofiev or the big name usual suspects.   In a similar way, your experience of anime would probably be incomplete without at least one of the films of Hayao Miyazaki but your experience of anime would be terribly incomplete if you "only" watched the films of Miyazaki. 

Sunday, March 10, 2019

students at an Arizona high school refuse to read a Sherman Alexie book in wake of #metoo allegations

Alexie has been fairly quiet since allegations were made about him last year.  Teachers have been debating whether to keep his work in their curriculum materials and on whether or not Native American literature may benefit from his having less prominent a role.  It's not surprising that students have decided to refuse to read his works when they have been assigned.



Several Arcadia High School students are refusing to read a book required in their literature class because the author, Sherman Alexie, has been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment.  

The Advanced Placement assignment is part of a larger project requiring students to read books authored by writers from different cultures, according to documents the students shared.

Alexie is a prominent Native American author whose work often depicts life on a reservation. The students were required to read his book, "Reservation Blues."

Alexie was accused of sexual harassment last year by women who alleged, among other sexual harassment claims, that he made unwanted sexual advances toward them. The author apologized in a statement, writing, "There are women telling the truth about my behavior." 

Ava Brimley and Violet Rez, both seniors at Arcadia High, are refusing to read the novel because they want to acknowledge the harassment. 

"I was thinking about the artist versus the work ... trying to figure out if I thought that you could actually separate the artist from his work," Brimley said. "I don't feel comfortable reading this."

Several Arizona districts, including Mesa and Tucson Unified, list Alexie's novels as suggested texts in parts of their curriculum, adopted by their school boards. 

The teens' refusal has sparked larger questions: How are educators addressing the conversation about sexual harassment by authors as a national reckoning swells? And as accusations fly, how do libraries assure students still have access to diverse authors?

Brimley and Rez said their teacher first alerted them to the allegations against Alexie when she introduced "Reservation Blues" to the class, adding that the class would still be reading the novel. 


Unlike, say, Charles Dickens, Alexie's work may eventually be expunged from the Native American academic literary canon.  That would be a shame in the case of his narrative works but if his poetry were not included in poetry classes, well, I'm afraid I'd have to bluntly say that's not really going to be a heartbreak for me.  But his short stories in his earlier collections were remarkable. 

What makes the allegations about Alexie so memorable was how prominently he highlighted what he seemed to regard as a contrast between his conduct and that if other men on the reservation on the basis of "warrior culture" ideas.


When you grow up in a warrior culture, an extremely masculine culture, tears can be seen as a sign of weakness. ... Any surrender, any conceding of anything can also be seen as a sign of weakness. I've always been a rather androgynous, emotional person, so my emotional state, my androgyny — I was more androgynous as a youth than now — but I think all of that combined to make me a target.

It wasn't just the influence of tribal cultures, it was the assimilation into fundamentalist Christianity, which is even more warrior culture, even more honor culture, and even more suspicious of difference. So I was getting bombarded not only by the more fundamentalist aspects of my tribe, but the more fundamentalist aspects of our assimilation into Christianity. So that was going on all around us, and, in fact, in second grade we had this ex-nun teacher who put us into stress positions as torture.
On learning that his mother was conceived by rape
She told me that in my teen years as I was going to school off the reservation, as I was preparing for a life off the reservation, as I was preparing to become this person I am now. Looking back, I think it was my mother's highly dysfunctional way to tell me, to warn me, about what a man can be ... hoping that I would become a good man, a man who treated women with respect. A man who honored women and their power, and a man who would not become a criminal. I think it was her highly dysfunctional version of the sex talk

Yet if the allegations of his misconduct are accurate ... it's tough to know whether he ultimately showed himself to have behaved more than marginally better than the men he described from his life in an extremely masculine culture.  Whether Alexie has "honored women and their power" seems tough to say.  

links for the weekend with a Neverland theme and a postscript on a little chrome something

https://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/jackson-legacy-culture-1.5042522

https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/03/leaving-neverland-how-michael-jackson-used-celebrity/584089/

https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2019/03/leaving-neverland-michael-jackson-2005-trial-changing-mind.html

https://slate.com/culture/2019/03/michael-jackson-simpsons-episode-featuring-singers-voice-to-be-pulled-from-circulation.html

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/a-day-of-reckoning-for-michael-jackson-with-leaving-neverland

...
It is admittedly difficult, while watching “Leaving Neverland,” to hold in mind two contradictory but equally imperative ideas: that victims should be believed, and that the accused are innocent until proved guilty. The first is wildly crucial if we wish to protect the disenfranchised from egregious abuses of power. The second remains the crux of the American criminal-justice system. Can these two ideas coexist? Right now it feels as if they have to, which means that we are sometimes required to make personal choices about how we accept or dismiss the information made available to us. The first part of “Leaving Neverland” is explicit in the two men’s precise (and, it should be said, nearly identical) descriptions of abuse. Listening to Safechuck give a virtual tour of Jackson’s home—after describing each new room, he says, “We had sex there”—is especially nauseating for its casual use of “we,” as if a child could ever actively participate in his own abuse. I found all four hours of “Leaving Neverland” horrifying and unforgettable.
...

Michael Jackson's streams have increased, although sales and airplay have declined.
https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/chart-beat/8501755/michael-jackson-sales-streaming-airplay-decline-leaving-neverland

At the risk of just recycling a comment I made at a blog on Michael Jackson's musical legacy in connection to what he has allegedly done.

http://themusicsalon.blogspot.com/2019/03/knowledge-virtue-and-michael-jackson.html?showComment=1552155944646#c5315279503945539118

There often seems to be a gap between the public/private aspects of an artist's life. Dickens may have been a great advocate for social and economic and legal reform but he could still be an awful husband to his wife. it can seem as though a flip side to artists with publicly progressive sympathies is that they can sincerely believe that this gives them the moral license to be nasty people at an interpersonal level. 
Jackson may fit into a category of artist in which part of the appeal of the art could be predicated on leveraging an element of their public persona in a way to advocate for causes that, with the additional insight of personal misdeeds bring brought to light in the public sphere, retroactively cast doubt on the veracity or sincerity of the soapboxing. We can't exactly separate Bill Cosby's America's dad persona and his public remarks on conduct from how he has been discovered to have treated women behind the scenes. A John Lennon who beat his wife might not directly contradict a John Lennon singing "give peace a chance" in the sense that the personal is not the political just because that mantra is popular, there are ways in which the geopolitical is not the personal-political. The bluntest way to put it is to say that if artists are going to insist on preaching they had best actually practice what they preach. This may be, in part, why a J. S. Bach has some staying power beyond the imposing craft of his music. Although he was a punchline in a lot of comedy in the last twenty years Mr. Rogers has retroactively been regarded as a praiseworthy media figure because he practiced his preaching. The show Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood may still seem anodyne but I hope my point is clear, we can cut a lot more slack to artists, however we assess their art, if we can see they are not living by double standards in which they don't feel obliged to live by the axioms they tell us in their art we ought to be living by.
At a somewhat different level, someone like Johnny Cash whose public persona featured a man wrestling with his inner demons and lesser aspects doesn't come across like a hypocrite for doing so. You can fail to live up to your ideals in a way that does not signal that you think you're exempt from living by them. But Cash was also clear that the performing persona was not necessarily who the man himself was. In that sense a Cash or a Bowie that is up front about the public persona as just that may have less to answer for than pop stars who present their public persona as who they actually are.
For me there was nothing Michael Jackson's music did that I didn't think was done even more brilliantly by Stevie Wonder earlier and, thing is, it seemed MIchael Jackson may have felt the same way. The best songs Michael Jackson performed are still shadows, for me, of the things Stevie Wonder did in "Living for the City".
I don't want to tell people who still love Michael Jackson's music to stop loving the music.  There's not much point in that.  Yet, I'm trying to put this somewhat delicately, in an era in which people have raised questions about the repression, oppression and atrocities associated with the conventional academic art canons it has begun to seem as though the newer canon of popular music is not necessarily an improvement.  To put it a bit too crudely, if Richard Wagner's anti-Semitism could be thought of as a stain on his art Michael Jackson's alleged use of children would still be a stain on his work.  The old conundrum of considering the ways in which we do or do not separate art from artist is still with us.

The pressing question, to me, seems to be whether or not the artist was a mere hypocrite who failed to be good in one realm of life as opposed to an artist wielding some kind of double standard.  In this kind of light a Michael Jackson or a Bill Cosby comes across as far worse than someone like Fred Rogers.  Rogers was a punchline in his life on many occasions but, as people have been saying, in the age of Trump a Fred Rogers retroactively seems more heroic to a lot of people than he ever was thought to be during his life. But the age of Mr. Rogers was still an age spanning the likes of Archie Bunker and Richard Nixon (although in another post we may have to touch on how a president like Nixon could be regarded as a bad guy on the topic of Jews and blacks for his anti-Semitic rants and racist statements, yet in Native American historical terms he was actually regarded as one of the "better" presidents)--the internet age seems to be full of people who want legacy to be a lot simpler than it can be. 

in case you hadn't read about it already ... CVE-2019-5786 is in the news, with cause.


at Slate Ruth Graham on how "A Y[oung] A[dult literature] sensitivity reader watched his own community kill his debut novel before it was ever released."

https://slate.com/culture/2019/03/ya-book-scandal-kosoko-jackson-a-place-for-wolves-explained.html

Until recently, Kosoko Jackson was considered an expert in the trapdoors of identity-related rhetoric. Jackson worked as a “sensitivity reader” for major publishers of YA fiction, a job that entails reading manuscripts and flagging them for problematic content. His own debut novel, A Place for Wolves, was promoted as an “#ownvoices” book, a hashtag attached approvingly to books in which the author shares a particular marginalized identity with his subject. (Jackson is black and queer.) He believed that, for example, women shouldn’t “profit” from writing gay men’s stories, as he tweeted last year. And he was part of a small and informal but intense online community that scolded writers who ran afoul of these values in their work or online. Now, Jackson has been demonized by the community he once helped police. 
...

The backlash seems to have begun on Feb. 22, with a long review posted to the community-review site Goodreads, a favorite site of YA agonistes. “I have to be absolutely fucking honest here, everybody,” the review opened, in the hyperbolic voice of its genre. “I’ve never been so disgusted in my life.” She objected to the book’s use of a recent genocide as a backdrop to romance, the way some early fans fetishized it as a “cute gay love story,” that it was not written by a Muslim, that it “centers” privileged Americans, and that the villain is an ethnic Albanian, among other concerns. “Are you able to confidently justify supporting this book despite all of the above, despite the harm it can and will do to real people?” she asked in conclusion. (The reviewer nonetheless gave the book two stars out of five because “it was ownvoices and well done.”) 

The criticism snowballed from there, with other readers chiming in: “How could you take a beautiful LGBTQ love story and shit on genocide victims like that?” one asked on Twitter. Heidi Heilig, an author who has participated in many online skirmishes and provided a positive blurb for Jackson’s book, hastily revised her Goodreads review of A Place for Wolves. She suggested the book’s content may have changed since she read an early draft, apologized “to those I’ve hurt by my blurb,” and promised to “work harder.” 

Seeing the momentum within his own community turn against him, Jackson apparently decided it was better to self-cancel than to be canceled. This is the second time this year that a YA writer has made the same calculation. In January, another first-time author, Amélie Wen Zhao, asked her publisher to pull her to-be-released fantasy novel, Blood Heir, because of early reader critiques about racial insensitivity. The novel featured a storyline about slavery and a character whom some readers interpreted as black, who dies so a white character can live; Zhao explained in her statement that as a Chinese immigrant to the United States, she was inspired by trafficking and labor issues in Asia, but apologized nonetheless for causing pain. (Aja Hoggatt broke down the controversy in detail for Slate.) Jackson had participated in that online pile-on. 

Both Jackson and Zhang are people of color who now see their careers hobbled in an industry that claims to be laser-focused on diversity. Jackson has already been dropped from the lineup in at least one literary festival, though it’s not clear if he withdrew or was ousted. To risk stating the obvious, books can take years to write; unlike, say, a reporter who writes a clunker of a piece, an author can’t simply pop back onto the scene with a new piece of content in a few days or months. And the industry as a whole is still extremely, extremely white. A survey of book-publishing employees in 2016 found that 82 percent of editorial department employees are white; just 2 percent are black. A reckoning with these abysmal numbers and their impact is overdue within book publishing. Instead, we’ve gotten an increasingly toxic online culture around YA literature, with evermore-baroque standards for who can write about whom under what circumstances. From the outside, this is starting to look like a conversation focused less on literature than obedience. ...

None of this has to do with whether Jackson’s book is any good, or even in good taste. (I haven’t read it.) But it was written by an author exquisitely attuned to identity issues, and presumably vetted by his agent, the staff of a publishing house, and other early readers, including some who have now turned against it. Yes, plenty of books make it that far and then sell poorly or are savaged by critics after publication. But a landscape in which a handful of online critics can hound an author into retracting her own work is something much more foreboding—and hardly one in which new and genuinely interesting voices are likely to thrive. As the tagline for Jackson’s now-dead A Place for Wolves put it: “The only rule? Survive. How you do that? Up to you.” 

It has seemed over the last ten to twenty years that novelists want their novels to attain to the work of journalism.  Why not ... write journalism?  I read a lot more fiction and literary fiction in my younger years and over time I moved away from it toward non-fiction.  It's not that I regretted reading Kafka, Melville, Dostoevsky, Eliot, Lewis, Conrad, Spencer, Achebe, Wallace Stevens or Denise Levertov or anything.  I thought Ibsen was a bit overhyped but enjoyed Sophocles.  But ... I get a sense from the kinds of controversies in YA and other literary works that at some level concerns about cultural appropriation and the identity conventions of authors of fiction seem to raise a simple question as to why people with those concerns would want to write fiction at all when they could just ... I don't know ... be journalists?