Alternative Approaches to War

[This post also appears on the Philadelphia Weekly blog, Phily Now.]

Thirteen years ago today, almost to the minute, I was in the street when the first tower fell. You saw it  fall on TV? You saw jack shit. Nothing you have ever seen, NOTHING, can prepare you for seeing with your own eyes the tallest structure in New York, the building you had ridden to the top of a dozen times and looked up to all of your life as an exemplar of human engineering come crashing down, floor by floor, with people trapped inside. We knew people were dying, and being so close to the collapse we all thought we were going to die too. I’ll never forget the sound of a woman’s voice. She was a woman of size, and in the mad crush of running people, she had fallen to the curb. She could not get herself up and was screaming, “Help me! Help me!” Several strong men came over and lifted her up, even as the chaos ensued around us. Most people ran.

I think many of those people are still running, but they don’t know it.

What happened later, after the incessant repetition of the towers’ collapse on TV, the national fear and terror stoked to a fever pitch, the president called for war on two fronts. And now, thirteen years later, a new president is calling for war again, this time on a so-called “limited” basis (we’ve heard that before) against a new enemy called ISIL, which is “worse than anything we’ve seen.” But what they really mean to say is “worse than anything we expected.”

Because we do the same thing again and again and again: we call for more war, believing it will bring about peace, and we are surprised when all it does it bring about more war.

Consider that it was we, the US, who destabilized Iraq. How many tens of thousands did we leave dead? And in that power vacuum a new force has arisen. The president plans to strike ISIL on a limited basis, but when have bombs ever led to a lasting political solution? We leave a country in tatters and we expect a few well-placed missiles to fix things? Two journalists are brutally murdered in a country most of us will never visit and could not point out on a map, and yet overwhelmingly (according to polls) people support military intervention against this new foe.

Meanwhile, after dozens of brutal gun murders committed here at home, many of them perpetrated by our children on other children, we can’t even pass sane gun laws. We’ve spent nearly a TRILLION dollars on the combined wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, and what has this accomplished? While here at home our public infrastructure languishes, bridges fail, and our economy has only begun to rise out of the greatest depression since 1929.

And yet the call to violence persists: attack them before they attack us.

We rush to punish a faceless force overseas and yet we have not punished a single person here at home for the economic collapse, even though the collapse can very easily be traced to distinct individuals whose actions destroyed countless lives here in the US. Many of these perpetrators still remain in their jobs.

I mourn today not only those who died thirteen years ago, but those who continue to die in our name, those nameless, faceless people whom we will never meet in a country we will never visit. Victims of our reactive fear and collective projection. We so easily see the flaws in other countries but never connect them with the flaws in our own collective psyche.

To bring about peace in the world and an end to violence does not begin with bombs (though I regretfully admit that they may sometimes be necessary), but with humanity. Do we stop to help the fallen get up, as those brave men did on 9/11 when they could just have easily fled with everyone else, or do we look for someone to punish for making us afraid? On this anniversary of that day I sincerely ask my friends here in the US and elsewhere if you want to continue this 21st century calling for more war, more violence, more bombs, or are you ready to try a different approach? You may call me naive or you might ask what such an alternative approach might be, and I would reply that the hawks have already won your mind, because the only solution you can think of is a military one. What else is there besides war? Use your fucking imagination.

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Nebula Awards Showcase

Nebula Awards Showcase 2014

I’m happy to announce that my Nebula Award-nominated short story”The Sounds of Old Earth” will be appearing in the upcoming Nebula Award Showcase 2015*, edited by Greg Bear and to be published by Pyr. All the short story and novelette nominees will be printed alongside the winners. I’m super psyched to be appearing beside such incredible talents!

* This is my guess at the title based on previous years’ editions.


On the Roots of Human Violence

ouroborosWe are a violent species. When I said such on social media a few weeks back, a friend commented that I was wrong. Humanity isn’t violent. Our innate tendencies are to share and to love and to be compassionate, and he cited cultures that had little or no contact with the modern world as examples of what might happen if we are left to reside in our “natural” state. Violence, he said, was a result of the Military Industrial Complex’s marriage with Capitalism that has created a world of scarcity where none previously existed. When resources are hard to come by, people will fight over them.

I didn’t buy his argument — entirely. While I do think that capitalism makes us think of other human beings not as people to share with but resources to exploit and control, to see our fellow humans as prey and not as companions, I don’t think our tendencies toward violence begin there. Before capitalism, there was still war. True, in times of plenty there is  less war. But violence returns inevitably. It’s as if we are reenacting a great drama, one we learned as children from our parents, who learned it from their parents, who learned from theirs, etc., etc.. going back countless generations.

I’ve been reading a lot of Alice Miller, the late great German psychotherapist, and she posited that there is a repeating pattern to child abuse that go something like this:

  1.  To be hurt as a small child without anyone recognizing the situation as such
  2. To fail to react to the resulting suffering with anger
  3. To show gratitude for what are supposed to be good intentions
  4. To forget everything
  5. To discharge the stored-up anger onto others in adulthood or direct it against oneself

Often times, under the guise of “child rearing” or “doing what’s best for the child” or “making sure the child is not spoiled” parents unwittingly reenact the abuse of their own childhood. Before, they were helpless victims, afraid, withdrawn, full of rage, but now they are in the position of total power. And rather than recognize those feelings now erupting in their own children, they literally beat them down, disavowing the uncomfortable emotions and repressing the memories of the trauma they themselves have undergone. The painful emotions (of the parent) are therefore contained (albeit with severe consequences) and the child, who has no wisdom from which to understand her experience, represses the painful emotions until she either has children of her own to repeat the abuse or grows up to become a severely contained, self-critical individual, full of neuroses.

Alice Miller makes the case for this pattern causing great harm in history by citing German child-rearing books of the early 20th century and through various quotes and memoirs from members of the Third Reich, including Hitler himself. How, people have asked, could an entire nation so coldly send millions of children to their deaths? In the same way these adults were “murdered” themselves as children, when in their youth they were denied their natural feelings and were forced to submit to the will of the parents through humiliation, neglect, and violence. Thus the child learns that obedience is the only path to safety. But it comes at great cost. The child’s true, vital self has died. So how could these repressed adults feel anything when millions of children were murdered in the Holocaust? To feel empathy would mean acknowledging their own “death” at the hands of their parents, an emotional impossibility, because it would mean owning all those horrific emotions they were forced to suppress at the cost of survival. So instead of feeling all those ugly, grotesque, horrific feelings of being beaten, rejected, criticized and “corrected” for being themselves, they project their uncomfortable feelings onto the “other” and punish them. In child-rearing, this other is the helpless child. In WWII Germany, this other was the Jews.

The Other has many names today: Radical Islam, the Great Satan, Jews, Blacks, Gays, the Patriarchy, Feminism, the Police State, I could go on….

In other words, this cycle of violence isn’t restricted to Germany in the past. Consider what Alice Miller says about terrorism, which I feel is utterly relevant today:

When terrorists take innocent women and children hostage in the service of a grand and idealistic cause, are they really doing anything different from what was once done to them? When they were little children full of vitality, their parents had offered them up as sacrifices to a grand pedagogic purpose, to lofty religious values, with the feeling of performing a great and good deed. Since these young people never were allowed to trust their own feelings, they continue to suppress them for ideological reasons. These intelligent and often very sensitive people, who had once been sacrificed to a “higher” morality, sacrifice themselves as adults to another — often opposite — ideology, in whose service they allow their inmost selves to be completely dominated, as has been the case in their childhood.

We can come to understand the brutal and cold way in which terrorists slaughter innocents once we see that it was the terrorist himself who was the first victim, when his natural tendencies were suppressed in order to instill the violent ideology of his parents. This then makes the anti-semitic “Farfour the Mouse” much more understandable, as does the images of Israeli children signing missiles before they were to be lofted into Lebanon. How Hamas can launch missiles from schools and hospitals and how Israelis can watch the bombs fall with beach chairs and beer. These people have suffered greatly at the hands of a more powerful force — their parents, when they were forced at a young age to suppress their natural vitality and succumb to the ideology. And when these repressed children reach adulthood, rather than acknowledge the abuse they received (the indoctrination, the suppression of feelings), they project their rage onto the other: Jews or Arabs or the closest target. In order that these emotions remain hidden and projected away, they must repress any alternate view in their children. They must help them to hate the “other” too. The cycle continues.

This is why there is no peace in the Middle East. It has nothing to do with land, only with trauma.

Consider the right-wing in the United States, the demographic that watches Fox News and espouses Libertarianism and Ayn Rand quotes. Their philosophy is one of hawkish militarism, of “rugged individualism,” an M.O. that says, “I toughed it out, worked hard, and got where I am by sheer will.” It begins to make sense why such people would rail against universal healthcare (something seen as evil) or any form of welfare (seen as a drain on the system), why they are anti-immigrant and anti-persons of color (i.e. racist), and why, though they profess to be anti-government, they are often the most arduous backers of government once a sufficient representative is in power (e.g. George Bush.)  I am certain that in their childhood these right-wing ideologues were abused: their natural, vital emotions were stifled and they were taught to be “self-sufficient” and “independent” (read: abandoned emotionally, forced to repress their natural childhood emotions). Their parents were violent towards them, shamed and humiliated them for having natural feelings, they were unforgiving of mistakes and made sure that the child submitted to the “correct” and “moral” will of the adult. A child subjected to such trauma will repress and forget it in order to survive. As an adult, these individuals will not consciously realize that they have suffered and were left to survive on their own. They may even praise their parents as exemplars of good “child-rearing” To acknowledge their own pain would mean undoing the narrative that they have constructed for themselves and unlocking the painful and horrific memories. Instead, they project those uncomfortable feelings onto the Other. It is the blacks who are violent (not the abusing parent). It is immigrants who are draining the system (the child was not given any help, so why should the adult help another?). Militarism is always an acceptable solution for political problems (because problems in the child’s household were often met with violence, which quelled any further discussion.) The leader who is right must be obeyed (because the parents must be obeyed, or else.)

Alice Miller further elaborates on this:

Every ideology offers its adherents the opportunity to discharge their pent-up affect collectively while retaining the idealized primary object, which is transferred to new leader figures or to the group in order to make up of a lack of satisfying symbiosis with the mother. Idealization of a narcissistically cathected group guarantees collective grandiosity. Since every ideology provides a scapegoat outside the confines of its own splendid group, the weak and scorned child who is part of the total self but has been split off and never acknowledged can now be openly scorned and assailed in this scapegoat.

Consider the increasing amount of gun violence in the United States, especially in schools.  How, we ask, can a teenager walk into a school and slaughter dozens of children, or even children he’s never met? The answer is always: projection. Rather than acknowledge the too painful feelings of his own abuse, the perpetrator projects his hate and rage onto others. I wonder if a collective study ever been done on the childhoods of these mass murderers. I would bet that invariably, behind the facade of the normal home everyone pretends to see, there is a history of abuse. But because most people have been abused in one form or another by their parents, most people will see only the facade (“He was such a nice kid. I don’t understand how he could have done this.”) Acknowledging the abuse means acknowledging one’s own abuse. But this is too often repressed.

And so the cycle goes on…

There are an enormous number of activists groups all over the world working to make this planet a better place for all. They fight for human rights, housing, health care, the environment. But I am beginning to believe they are like a farmer trying to remove an invasive Kudzu weed one leaf at a time. To remove the destructive plant, one must destroy it at its root. Human violence, toward the environment, toward animals, toward other humans, if it ever is to be eradicated, must be stopped at its source: the abuse of children. How we might stop this abuse on a large scale, I don’t yet know. The risk in trying to stop these abuses is that we become militant and abusive ourselves in the policing of them. But I do believe that awareness of the cycle is the first step. I believe that if we are to collectively build a better planet we first must acknowledge that child abuse leads to adult violence, and that we ourselves may (and likely) have been abused in such a way that we are ignorant of it. And then we project our hate outward toward the other as a way of keeping ugliness, the pain out of our consciousness. The first step is considering who you hate and who you blame. Do any of your relationships with these hate objects mirror your early experiences?

I realize that my thoughts on this topic are obviously incomplete, and I’m only just beginning to explore this subject, so I welcome any discussion, pro or con to my argument.

* Alice Miller quotes from For Your Own Good, FSG, New York, 1984

 


A Response to Amazon’s Letter to Kindle Authors

Ugh. Amazon’s letter to Kindle authors makes me physically ill. So much wrong there I don’t know where to begin. Well, for starters a single bookseller should not demand nor have the power to set book prices in the industry, and this is the primary argument authors have with Amazon. The authors, as manufacturers of the work, must be the ultimate arbiter of the value of their words. Authors overwhelmingly choose to have publishers, rather than booksellers, determine what that cost should be, since they are the compositors of the work. To intentionally devalue a book to something below a ham sandwich or even a pack of gum not only harms authors but the expression of ideas in general, since it says those ideas are worth less and less. That is what Amazon is doing: devaluing books.

Second, Amazon presents itself as the victim, as if it has offered gracious terms to Hachette and its authors. But those terms only serve to grant Amazon more power than it already has. And seeing that Amazon is basically lying to its customers by delaying books and suggesting other books instead of those from Hachette, should we trust them with even more power?

Thirdly, Amazon says, “With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market – e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can and should be less expensive.” But this is a fallacy that plays into the public’s overwhelming belief that just because something is digital that it must be worth only the electrons used to store it, in other words, cheap and/or free. With an e-book there is the WRITING, and more WRITING, and months and months of WRITING, and this labor should NEVER, EVER be taken out of the equation when factoring price. And then there is the editing and the copy-editing and the graphic design and the layout, and the distribution (even ebooks need distribution) and you have to factor accounting time into that, not to mention publicity. To say that just because something is digital it must therefore be cheaper is to say that the source digitized information is worth less too. The value of a book lies in its content and not in the method the book is delivered to its readers. Amazon would do well to learn this soon.


In Translation.

My Nebula-nominated story “The Sounds of Old Earth” just came out in the August issue of Czech magazine XB-1. Also in the issue are Sofia Samatar’s multiple award-nominated “Selkie Stories are for Losers” and multiple award-nominated “The Political Officer” by C.c. Finlay.

I think the cover is pretty smashing! Also, this is my first translated story, so I’m darn excited. Now for a serious question: can you read Czech? I’m curious to see how my story turned out!

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Some Good News

2014_2_cover_1-reklThe good news this week is that one of my favorite publications, Clarkesworld Magazine, will be publishing a new story of mine called “Cameron Rhyder’s Legs.” Editor Neil Clarke says the story will likely appear this fall. “Cameron Rhyder’s Legs” is in some ways my most ambitious story. I wanted to tell a story without pausing for the usual infodumps and backstories. I take it for granted that the reader is with me, even though she may not be. The world my characters inhabit is complex, ever-shifting. Bewilderment is part of what I want the reader to experience. I’m really excited to see how this one is received as it’s definitely one of my favorites.

The other good piece of news I received this morning is from Belarus. The Belarusian magazine Kosmoport will be publishing my Nebula-nominated short story “The Sounds of Old Earth” in Russian, translated by Togrul Safarov. They have great covers, and they’ve published translated work by Ken Liu.


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News & Updates

  • 09/11/2014 — Alternative Approaches to War[This post also appears on the Philadelphia Weekly blog, Phily Now.] Thirteen years ago today, almost to the minute, I was in the street when the first tower fell. You saw it  fall on TV? You saw jack shit. Nothing…Read more »
  • 09/10/2014 — Nebula Awards ShowcaseI’m happy to announce that my Nebula Award-nominated short story”The Sounds of Old Earth” will be appearing in the upcoming Nebula Award Showcase 2015*, edited by Greg Bear and to be published by Pyr. All the short story and novelette…Read more »
  • 09/08/2014 — On the Roots of Human ViolenceWe are a violent species. When I said such on social media a few weeks back, a friend commented that I was wrong. Humanity isn’t violent. Our innate tendencies are to share and to love and to be compassionate, and…Read more »

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