Annihilation and The Limits of Genre

I had a “conversation” with a film critic on twitter some weeks ago.  He asked why the genres of science fiction and fantasy were so often linked together.  He explained that he thought they were obviously distinct, and while there were other genre combos, such as horror and thriller, they were more nebulous in their distinction while there was “obviously” a clear difference between science fiction and fantasy.

I made a reply to him that genres are merely for “marketing” and the reason sci-fi and fantasy were linked together had more to do with their overlapping fandoms.  It is rare to name a science fiction writer whose work has never overlapped into the fantasy genre and vice versa.  He responded to me rather flippantly that he did not define genre this way but by “audience expectations.”  I was a bit annoyed with this kind of shallow assertion from a film school educated professional critic. I was also annoyed at the people who tweeted at me to inform me they only liked sci-fi and not fantasy, or vice versa, because while I did not doubt this could be true, our whole argument was about definitions to begin with.

I responded, and I got the impression my responses were not welcome, by pointing out that sci-fi and fantasy ARE not easily defined.  What I suggested was that by judging based on film was misleading to begin with, since true science fiction films were very rare.  Alien is as much a horror film as it is sci-fi for instance, and Terminator is an action film with sci-fi elements.  The vast majority of sci-fi films are either action or horror films.  A true science fiction film, like say, Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys or Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey are very rare.

I then started mentioning the variety of literary subgenres within science fiction that never appear in films, as well as the fact alternative history is considered science fiction whether it includes technology or not.   Fantasy has a number of these genres as well, including magic realism which is often not called fantasy at all despite very clearly being fantasy.  He did not respond to any of these literary examples, most likely because he was unaware of the distinctions of genre in literature as opposed to film.   Realizing this was a lost cause I returned to talking about film.

My final attempt to convince him was in reference to the film Mother! which many felt had been mis-marketed.  The film was marketed as a horror film but was far too arty and strange to satisfy the mainstream horror audience.  I thought this kind of case easily refuted his definition of genre being defined by the audience expectations because it is clearly horror, but was rejected when marketed to that audience.  He tried to slide out of that problem by claiming that subgenres were making things too complex, but I countered that “art house horror” was not a subgenre, that every movie labeled “art house horror” would have been considered mainstream in the 1960s and 1970s.  If “audience expectations” were the metric of what made a genre a genre, then those expectations changing from decade to decade, with things that would clearly have been in that genre a previous decade are now labeled not in that genre, then there is no way to make a clear demarcation between genres at all.  As I started saying before, genres are a label for marketing and have no meaning beyond marketing.  “Audience expectations” is itself just another marketing term.

As you might imagine, this was a very frustrating conversation.  He seemed to either not want to or be incapable of understanding the points I was making.  Most of my points he never responded to and the ones he did he misunderstood so badly that I wanted to bang my head against the wall.  In retrospect, I mistook his  desire to have a playful conversation with his twitter followers for a serious philosophical discussion, but that doesn’t excuse his obtuseness to me completely.  Somebody who writes about art for a living should not be such a dullard.  The last tweet I sent his way was about the book Annihilation, soon to become a movie,  which he ignored.

Annihilation is a 2014 novel by the Jeff Vandermeer that is about to be released as a motion picture.  The adaptation, written and directed by Alex Garland, does not look to be a faithful one.  Once again, it seems Hollywood has turned an interesting and original work of speculative fiction into a boilerplate monster movie.  Many of the scenes that are in the trailer for this film never appear in the book.  There is another obvious change in that a character that never ended up going on the expedition into “Area X” is shown to be accompanying the other characters.  This is probably for no other reason than the film needs an extra potential victim for its monsters to chomp on.  If there was ever a film that illustrated that mediums limitations on depicting serious genre work, this is probably the film.

What makes Annihilation an interesting novel is that it combines too very specific ideas about genre and sets them against each other philosophically.  It is a work of “sci-fi-horror” just as its film version seems to be, but the content is likely very different.  Vandermeer calls his style “weird fiction”, a term used for pulp writers of speculative fiction in the early twentieth century.  the term shows how much and how little Vandermeer cares for genre.  Like the discussion I had with the film critic, there is a certain way in which expectations are part of the process, but this work itself has become very polarizing among sci-fi readers, which I believe was its intent after all. How useful is a genre label when the author is intentionally using that label not to tell the reader what to expect, but to deliberately fuck with their heads?

The plot of Annihilation is about four women entering the mysterious “Area X” where previous missions have led to various fatal reactions.  Why they keep sending people in at this point is anybody’s guess.  The implication is that it is in the name of science. Annihilation had the basic plot outline of a classic 1950s or early 60s  science fiction novel.  In these novels science is the highest calling a person can have, and most of these novels are about the wonder of human beings at trying to understand the universe through science.  Think mid-career Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov and you are on the right track.   Every other element in the novel works against the assumptions one makes about this kind of premise.

While its plot is pure sci-fi, the style in which Annihilation is written is pure existential horror.  The novel is narrated by “The Biologist.”  Her husband was a member of a previous mission into Area X and her primary motivation is to find out what exactly he saw.  While traditional sci-fi is all about the wonder of scientific discovery, Annihilation openly mocks this naïve impulse.   The obvious touchstone is Lovecraft, who explicitly created a universe in which human’s are naively ignorant of just how horrific reality is, and once they seek the truth behind the curtain madness is the only response they could possibly have.  There is a key scene in the novel where the narrator discovers a room full of journals, the sum total of all the knowledge of every person who has ever entered Area X, all of which turns out to be completely useless.

Vandermeer’s sci-fi novel could be seen as anti-science by some.  I prefer to think of it as a satirical critique of the naïve optimism of early sci-fi, as well as a philosophical meditation on the limits of science. None of the characters have a name, only a job description.  The narrator tells us that names are useless when a person has a job.  People are defined by what they do, not where they came from.  A science fiction novel narrated by an existentialist is an interesting conceit, but one I’m not surprised rubs a lot of people the wrong way. Many will find this book creepy, but it mostly just made me laugh.  Not the response that may have been intended but a welcome one nonetheless.

It may seem that I have spoiled the whole novel, but in reality I haven’t.  The enjoyment of Annhilation is in its atmosphere, not its story or its character development. This is where Vandermeer connects with the tradition of “weird fiction” but I feel as if he may have done better than a lot of his forbearers.   Is Annhilation sci-fi?  it speculates about science but in a way that is not concrete.  A person could argue that none of the things that happen in the book are based on science at all, some might be impossible and that places the novel squarely in “fantasy.”  Isn’t the only difference between sci-fi and fantasy, taking out the kind of sword and sorcery fantasy that is its own subgenres onto itself, that there is an explanation.  Annihilation offers no explanation by design, but almost nobody would call it a fantasy novel, and I’m stuck for an intellectual justification for this distinction other than the book talks about science projects involving frogs a few times.

What the book seems most definitely to be to me is a horror novel.  It is worth noting that horror is the only genre named for an emotion.  For me, this makes it one of the easiest genres to identify.  If a work creates a strong sense of unease, creepiness, or at the most extreme end of the spectrum, terror, then it can be said to be a work of horror.  As the aforementioned film critic said, there is horror and thriller but the distinction between them is nebulous.  I don’t think so.  I actually think the distinction is easier to make than sci-fi and fantasy.  A “thriller” wants to titillate and excite, but doesn’t necessarily want to make you feel unnerved about the nature of your existence.

The trouble is there are some people who will only use the term horror for works that are supernatural.  To me, a work like Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door is clearly horror, but because it has no supernatural element there are people who will insist it is a thriller or crime novel.  By this definition shouldn’t sci-fi-horror be impossible?  Sure, it deals with things that do to exist, but if it is sci-fi it is within the realm of possibility.

Around and around we go.   If Annihilation has a point, then it is that human claims to knowledge and the quest to actually know things is based on a silly notion of our own importance.  That is why the conversation over genre seems to defy this book so aggressively.  Not only does it resist any labels you want to attach to it, it mocks you for trying to put it into such a box in the first place.

 

Why “Skeptics” Defending Jerry Sandusky Is Ludicrous


This is a first for me on this blog.  While I always write about books this is the first time I am writing about a book I have not read and don’t intend to read.  That book is called The Most Hated Man In America by Mark Pendergast.  Now under normal circumstances I would consider it bad form to write on something you haven’t actually read, and there is a good chance that Mr. Pendergast will show up on this very blog to tell me so and demand that everybody actually read his book.   However, I have already read a blog post by Jerry Coyne, in which he seems to think having read somebody else’s article about the book is enough for him to write a blog post promoting its main thesis, so holding myself to Jerry Coyne’s standards I think that is good enough for me to call it utter and complete bullshit.

So here is the background.  Mark Pendergast wrote a book about how he thinks Jerry Sandusky, a man convicted of over 40 counts of sexual abuse of young boys is innocent, despite overwhelming evidence against him.  Then Skeptic Magazine published an article by Frederick Crews that summarizes the argument made in the book.  This has of course been picked up by other “New Atheisttypes.  if you are not familiar what a “New Atheist” is, they are just like a regular atheist, except in addition to not believing in God they are morally despicable.  Even Daniel Dennett, a philosopher associated with New Atheism who is usually considered an exception to the rule, fell for it.

As detailed in Crews’s article the main argument is that the ten alleged victims of Sandusky all have recovered memory techniques used before they testified. I’ll get to that later, but let me say here in the beginning that like Crews, Coyne and Dennett I find the idea of recovered memories highly dubious, and especially if hypnosis is involved. However, there have been allegations of recovered memories being a part of the prosecution of many pedophile priests, such as this case, and I don’t see these “skeptics”  fighting the good fight to protect innocent priests from being railroaded by the justice system.   Come to think of it I haven’t seen any of these guys that concerned about the 70% of the wrongly convicted who are people of color either.    Funny how that works isn’t it?

So here is a rundown of the case against Jerry Sandusky before we even get to the case of recovered memory.

First, in 1998 Sandusky was investigated after a parent of a young boy complained about him showering with her son.  A psychologist who was consulted on the investigation told the police that Sandusky’s behavior was consistent with the behavior of a pedophile.  No evidence sexual abuse occurred was found, though this could be seen as typical “grooming” behavior from a pedophile, and Sandusky promised not to shower with boys in the future.   Crews never mentions this in his article, nor Coyne in his blog, despite the fact that it shows that Sandusky continued to shower with boys even after being told that it was inappropriate by law enforcement and promising not to do it again.

Second, in 2000 James Calhoun, a janitor, witnesses Jerry Sandusky engaged in sexual activity with an underage boy and reports this to his supervisor and co-workers.  Both Crews and Coyne misrepresent this evidence in how it was presented in court, either intentionally or unintentionally.  By the time the trial began Calhoun was unable to testify because he suffered from dementia.  The judge allowed hearsay testimony from another janitor because of this.  Crews mentions that the janitor was mentally impaired, but doesn’t specify that this impairment happened well after having witnessed Sandusky molesting the boy.  Basically, he invites the reader to imagine Calhoun as mentally disabled and an unreliable witness.  Writes Coyne:  ” The judge admitted 12-year-old hearsay testimony.”  Coyne, like a number of “skeptics” has a history of pretending to be an expert in fields he knows nothing about  Hearsay testimony is commonly allowed in court cases where the person is testifying on behalf of a person who is mentally impaired, deceased, or otherwise unable to testify.

Third, in 2002 assistant coach Mike McQueary witnessed Sandusky molesting a boy in the shower, reported it, and they did nothing.  The account by Crews in the article contends that McQueary initially just said he had seen Sandusky with the boy in the shower and was concerned about it, but saw no molestation.  The argument put forth was that McQueary changed his story later when the scandal heated up due to pressure from law enforcement.  The problem with this is that McQueary already won a defamation law suit against Penn State because school officials claimed he had not told them initially that Sandusky was molesting the boy.  Crews also make a big deal of McQueary not remembering the exact date of the incident, because most of us can easily remember the exact dates of any major incident in our lives even years after the fact, apparently.   Let’s keep in mind that this is the second time a witness had seen Sandusky molesting a boy and years after he promised police to stop showering with underage boys.

This is all the case against Sandusky before you even get to the recovered memories.  The investigation on Sandusky officially began when he was accused by a boy and his parents of sexual abuse.  There was no recovered memory involved in this case at that point.  Even if no further accusers stepped forward this is a pretty damning case against Sandusky.  I just want to point this out before I continue.

Crews, in his article, shows a deep ignorance of sexual abuse and how victims typically behave.  If this is any indication of what you can expect from Pendergast’s book then there is no need to read it.  He attacks the victims for initially denying the abuse and continuing to have a relationship with Sandusky even though this is typical behavior for victims of sexual abuse.   At one point Crews even attacks one of the victim’s mothers, saying she was out drinking at bars while her son was with Sandusky and even includes a picture.   He writes that Allan Myers,  who claims to be the boy who McQuery saw Sandusky in the shower with, vehemently denied the allegations and defended Sandusky.  He forgets to mention that McQuery claims the boy he saw was about ten while Myers would have been fourteen at the time, leading prosecutors to doubt whether he was telling the truth.   He also forgets to mention that Myers later testified against Sandusky when he attempted to get a retrial.  The defense claimed that Myers changed his story because he got a settlement from Penn State even though he was THEIR witness.

In addition to this the article cites two “independent investigations”, one by a “conservative talk show host”, who we all know are known for their honesty.  Basically, in order to believe that Sandusky is innocent you have to believe that his showering with underage boys was just “innocent fun” and that over a dozen people are lying for various reasons, but mostly because they want money and don’t care about sending an innocent person to jail.  Oh yeah, and then there is the recovered memory business. Jerry Sandusky already had an appeal for a retrial and recovered memory was a big part part of the appeal.

Contrary to the claims of Pendergast, Crews, and Coyne,   both alleged victims and therapists of the alleged victims claimed that no recovered memory therapy was used including hypnotism.  The defense brought in an expert psychologist and her testimony was eviscerated by the prosecution.

 

 

Best Fiction I Read In 2017

I read 125 books in 2017.  A lot of those books are fiction.  Of those fiction books I gave these sixteen “five stars” on Goodreads.  What follows is a rundown of the best fiction I read in 2017.

Music In A Foreign Language by Andrew Crumey 

Crumey is a physicist turned novelist and his fiction is concerned with alternate realities and history, usually inspired by the confusing nature of quantum mechanics.    I loved his book Mobius Dick and so I picked up this, his first novel.  The novel is a metanarrative about the writing of a novel but the story within the story is about the friendship between a physicist and historian living under a dystopian dictatorship.   This book deals with the idea that the version of our lives that we live is one of infinite possible versions and we live the one we live at the expense of all the other paths that are stolen from us.

Die A Little by Megan Abbott

This is another established author’s first novel, and as such is in danger of being overlooked, but Abbott got it right the first time.  This is a twisty little pulp crime novel, set in the 50s, with feminist overtones.  Had it been written in the 50s it would have fit right in with pulp fiction at the time and its exploration of gender roles would have only been discussed later.  Having read Abbott’s later works of “feminist noir” this one feels more natural and less academic than any of them.

Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee 

I already wrote a post about this book about a month ago.  However, there are some spoilers for the first half of the book in that one.  For somebody who wants to go in fresh, this brilliant book by South African novelist Coetzee details the downward spiral of a college professor who has an ill-advised affair with his teenage student.  The book is an exploration of white male privilege and its protagonist is a real jerk, but that’s largely the point.

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle  by Haruki Murakami 

The great Japanese novelist writes three kinds of novels.  The first kind are in the fantasy and science fiction genre and usually involve two or more storylines converging on each other.  (Examples:  The Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, 1Q84 and Kafka on the Shore)  The others are realist novels about loneliness, grief and loss.  (Examples:  Norwegian Wood, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, South of the Border, West of the Sun)   The third kind were the ones that I found the least appealing.  These were Kafkaesque mysteries that never get resolved and involve absurdist humor, magical realism and existential dread.  Murakami started writing with this kind of novel and his “Rat trilogy” and later Dance, Dance, Dance, which seems to be a follow up to that trilogy of novels but parts of it contradict the earlier books.  This year I became a Murakami completest in terms of his novels and short stories and I finally got what he was going for with this kind of book.  Many consider this to be Murakami’s masterpiece and he may have decided that with the fifth attempt he finally got this book right because he has never returned to this kind of book again. Anyway, its an over six hundred page novel about an unemployed man whose life spirals out of control when his cat goes missing.  You should read it!

Replay by Ken Grimwood

Technically, this is a time travel novel but it is far from conventional.  The protagonist dies of a heart attack at the age of 43 and finds himself back in college at the age of 18 with the chance to do it all over again.  He ends up caught in an endless cycle, each time dying on the same day at the age of 43 no matter what he does.  When I started this book I knew it was a huge bestseller when it was first released in the 80s and still had impassioned admirers to this day, but I figured the premise was bound to go stale by the time I reached 400 pages.  I was wrong.  Grimwood introduces a twist about a third of the way through the novel that completely reinvigorates the premise and he wrings every last bit of drama and philosophical contemplation one can get from this premise before he is through.

Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin

Elgin was a linguist and had a theory that patriarchal attitudes were embedded in language, so she created Láadan, a feminist language for women.  In order to introduce her language into popular culture she write this novel, which takes place in a dystopian society that has regressed back to the idea as women as legal property of their fathers and husbands.  Did I mention there are aliens in it?  The book is odd, witty and surprisingly fun for how bleak its subject matter is.  The language never caught on but the book is still a fine work of feminist science fiction.

Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino

Its hard to describe this Japanese author’s “feminist noir,”  which is technically about murder but also so much more.   With four unreliable narrators and sharp satire of both Japanese capitalism and the cut throat Japanese education system, Kirino gives her account of how Japanese society turns women into “monsters.”

Girl In Landscape by Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem is a writer of great talent but he has an annoying writing tic.  When he is being clever or “hip” he feels the need to call attention to it and self-consciously remind his readers how clever and hip he is.  This has always gotten in the way of me fully enjoying his work but this is his most genuine and least self-conscious novel, a sci-fi western about homesteaders on an alien planet.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

About her novel, Kindred, Octavia Butler said that slavery was such a monstrous institution that portraying it to a modern audience realistically is too much. She suggested that the only way that you could really do it is have some kind of device like she did, in that case time travel. Whitehead takes a similar approach and he makes it work for him on the same level that it worked for Butler. His characters all feel like real people but the world they exist in is one that is fueled by metaphor to give a true since of the scars of slavery on the country.   America is about myth making and Whitehead delivers his own myth about slavery here, that nonetheless gets at a great truth.

The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells

In October I read nothing but horror all month.  The first book I tired was this H. G. Wells classic that many consider to be his best.  They ain’t wrong.

The Troop by Nick Cutter

Despite that fact that this book has a lot of hype, I think it might actually be underrated. I think some people are afraid to give a book this sick and fucked up as high a rating as I am. This is a great example of body horror, but it also is a poignant tale of the loss of innocence, much like one of its obvious inspirations “Lord of the Flies.” I also love how it is structured with transcripts and news stories about the events, inspired by Stephen King’s Carrie.

The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum

This book has been controversial for years.  Based on real events that occurred in Indiana in the 1950s, it is an unflinching portrayal of a teenage girl sent to live with a woman who subjects her to horrible abuse.  Many detractors of this novel label it “pornographic” but there are few graphic descriptions of violence, relying instead on implication and careful study of human psychology.  Few books have batter portrayed how human beings can rationalize the most unspeakable acts.

Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

James M. Cain is known for his crime novels but his masterpiece is this book, about a divorced woman in depression era America trying to build a new life for herself.  The novel is a dark satire of American capitalism disguised as a lurid melodrama. Its also one of the few books of its time to deal with the difficulties of divorced women.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

This is William Faulkner’s most difficult novel.  It has multiple narrators, stream of consciousness, non-linear narrative and brutal Southern racism.  If you can get past all of that it is one of the most beautifully written books in the English language.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

What this book is “about” seems rather simple.  Clarissa Dalloway is a fifty year old woman throwing a party for old friends.  What Virginia Woolf delivers is a deeply philosophical meditation on the choices we make in life and how we make them.

Jane Erye by Charlotte Bronte

Some of the books on this list are already recognized classics and this is probably the most famous one of all.  Still, I never got around to reading it until this year.  As far as its story goes this is a rather simple Gothic romance, but Bronte really elevated her material with stunning writing and weighty themes.

 

 

 

Roth Vs. Coetzee: A Meditation on Male Privilege in Literature

There is a certain irony in comparing these two authors.  The great South African novelist J. M. Coetzee is an admirer of Philip Roth and has written about him several times in the New York Times review of books.  I’m an admirer of Roth as well, though I don’t think he is as great a writer as Coetzee, and I have defended Roth fairly diligently against his most persistent of criticisms, his alleged misogyny.  This criticism goes back at least to Roth’s third novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, which was a bestseller but also is famously smutty, detailing the sexual obsessions of a young man and his repressed upbringing by his strict Jewish mother.

I have never thought that these criticism of Roth were baseless.   What I have thought was that they were one-sided.  I indulged in the usual defense of Roth that acknowledges that there are many men in the world who feel the way that Roth’s characters do, and that Roth is critical of these men, while portraying them sympathetically.  A repeated theme in Roth is the ambivalent nature of the sexual revolution and its effect on those that have lived through it.  This past year I read Roth’s The Dying Animal, another novel that deals with these well worn themes but this time I was given some pause.  Earlier in the year I had read J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace .  The two novels deal with similar subject matter, a college professor having sex with his student.  Coetzee deals with the subject in such a starkly different way than Roth that it couldn’t help but highlight his deficiencies.

Of course there is another reason I am inclined to write this now.  The past few months have been filled with news of sexual misconduct from powerful men in politics, entertainment and other forms of media.  There was never a time that would be better to compare the approaches of Roth and Coetzee toward this subject.  What follows will amount to minor spoilers for both books, but I will keep most plot details to the first half of the novels and not reveal anything that is critical to the resolution of the plot.

Roth’s book is the third of his to include the narrator David Kepesh after The Breast, a Kafkaesque story where David is transformed into a giant female breasts, and The Professor of Desire.  The whole point of these two previous novels is that Kepesh is an intellectual but he is a slave to his carnal lusts, creating a conflict to his character that he cannot overcome.  This sentiment is expressed very early in The Dying Animal through this often quoted line:  “No matter how much you know, no matter how much you think, no matter how much you plot and you connive and you plan, you’re not superior to sex. ”

While I was reading the book it came to my mind that Kepesh is not supposed to be a likeable character.  He in fact laments that he has to wait until he gives a final grade to his chosen student in order to keep the moral police away from him.  The fact that having sex with his students while he is still grading them, creates an obvious conflict for both him and the student doesn’t seem to concern him, anymore than how predatory his behavior is as he attempts to seduce his students.  Kepesh sees criticism of him to be a result of moral hypocrisy.  He talks about how his son is angry at him for leaving his mother to pursue his various lusts, while he remains married to his own wife while cheating on her. The fact that the institutions that he is railing against were created by men to control women in the first place does not occur to him.

Into Kepesh’s life comes a new student named Consuela.  Kepesh most listen to Consuela’s  descriptions of her Cuban family in order to gain access to her body.   He states himself that this is not something he would be the least interested in except for his desire to have sex with her, and  because she has such stunning breasts his obsession with her reaches new levels.  When she inevitably breaks off the affair he is devastated.

How the rest of this short novel plays out I will not reveal, but the title of the work says it all.  The outlook of Kepesh is both amoral and hedonistic, but the question of how much the reader is supposed to identify with him is up in the air.  I have scored online reviews and have found that most of Roth’s mostly male audience identifies with Kepesh very much and finds how the novel resolves itself to be “deep” and “meaningful” despite the fact that Kepesh never really gets called out on his bullshit and Consuela continues to function as an objectified prop.

Roth, despite his many virtues as a writer, is oblivious to the whole concept of privilege.  Take another Roth novel as an example, The Human Stain.  That novel concerns a college professor named Coleman Silk who is dismissed from his position when he uses the word spooks, to refer to ghosts, but it is taken instead to be a racial slur.  The irony of the story is that Silk is half black, and has been passing himself for white his whole career.  How Roth handles this subject is about as wrongheaded as can get, and the novel ends with a speech by a black woman advocating for a “post racial America.”  This novel has not aged well.

Reading The Dying Animal I was reminded of this.  The point of the novel seems to be that older men have sex with much younger women because they need their youthfulness to feel alive.  Young women, on the other hand, get so much more by having sex with older men than they would with somebody their own age.  The fact that Roth represents this as Consuela saying about Kepesh that nobody appreciated her breasts the way he did gives you an idea of the level of sophistication Roth is operating on here.  The entire work is a screed by a man who has been called out on his privilege and wants to attack his critics as unfeeling.

J. M. Coetzee makes it very clear where he stands in the first chapter of his novel, Disgrace.    David Lurie, a college professor in his fifties, is seeing a prostitute once a week to meet his sexual needs.  When this woman ends their weekly appointments he hires a private detective to track her down and then calls her at home.  This short chapter tells you everything you need to know about Lurie.  He is entitled, he doesn’t respect other’s boundaries and he also sees his relationship with this woman on totally different terms than she does, while being oblivious to this fact.

Lurie then engages in an affair with a student, because he considers this the easiest option available to him.  How this affair is portrayed is a sharp contrast to what we see in Roth’s novel.  Roth portrays young women who seek out affairs with their older professor because of an attraction to an older man.   Roth portrays the younger women as being in power because of the older man’s desire for their bodies and inability to control this desire.   Coetzee instead portrays a flattered and somewhat insecure young woman with ambivalent feelings being manipulated by an older person who seems to have no concern about her wellbeing.

Unlike Roth’s novel, the focus is not on the affair, but Lurie’s relationship with his daughter after he leaves his university position, but the affair itself serves as a catalyst for the novel’s main plot and the thing that Lurie cannot seem to see as a manifestation of his inability for self-examination.  When an inquiry into his affair is underway, he is surrounded by mostly sympathetic colleagues who want him to keep his job, but Lurie’s insistent that he did nothing wrong and is surrounded by moral scolds.  Lurie’s attitude is remarkably similar to Kepesh, but while Roth gives us Kepesh’s first person account with all his rationalizing, Coetzee dissects Lurie in a distancing third person that while never explicitly stated, makes his inability for self-reflection subtly apparent.

My favorite scene in the novel  sums up the issue perfectly.  Lurie decides to make a stop on a road trip to visit the father of the girl he had sex with and explain himself.  Lurie has met the man before, knows he is a teacher and a Christian, but instead of issuing an apology he tries to win the man over to his point of view by explaining his actions as a “little adventure.”  To his surprise the father invites him to dinner with his wife and his other daughter.  Lurie reluctantly agrees and what follows is a squirm-inducing scene that illustrates the lengths Lurie will go to in order to be exonerated for his actions while never acknowledging wrongdoing.

Coetzee’s novel has themes that are tangentially related but not relevant to the issue of the affair, mostly involving race.  (A comparison between Roth’s The Human Stain would be another blog post entirely.)  However, there are a number of points in the novel where you could almost feel as if Coetzee is directly commenting on Roth’s novel.  Roth likes to portray critics of how his novels portray women as engaging in a quasi-religious moralizing about a “victimless crime” but Lurie’s awkward dinner with the Christian family shows what a ruse this is.  Sure, they have different moral standards than Lurie and do not fit his ideas of sophistication, but he has unquestionably wronged them, even as he insists that his betrayal of the trust they placed in him as an educator is really a matter of their inability to properly understand him.

Lurie is also as death obsessed as Kepesh.  This may be a justification for his shallow hedonism, or it may be just a fact of life as one lives through his later years.  The two characters are remarkably similar, the main difference is how the author frames their actions.  This different perspectives and a comparison of them could not possibly be more relevant than they are right now.  Roth’s novel is practically a trotting out of every rationalization of entitlement you can hear voiced on a daily basis and it is not an isolated example in his body of work.  A reevaluation is very much in order.

Science, Faith and Reality

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Hebrews 11:1

The Catholic saint and philosopher Thomas Aquinas would probably roll over in his grave, or at least roll his eyes, at the modern state of the faith and science debate.   Aquinas lived in the 13th century CE but his views would make those of most contemporary fundamentalists seem outright archaic.  Aquinas dedicated his life to his faith, and to a belief in God inspired by divine scripture, but he also believed in science.  When there was a conflict between science and scripture there was a need to reconcile the two.  Aquinas would put more weight on science to determine the proper interpretation of scripture, but today’s evangelicals choose to deny science whenever it doesn’t fit the most literal of all interpretations of their religion.

This is what philosopher Soren Kierkegaard would have called “blind faith,” and though his views were contrarian to those of Aquinas is many ways,  blind faith was not something that Kierkegaard endorsed.  Kierkegaard thought a life without faith was a hollow one and that a reasonable version of faith was necessary to live.  He compared this kind of faith to the one we have in a lover.  Romantic love is not something that can be calculated and predicted but requires a person to take a leap into the unknown.  People who deny the relevance of this simple analogy I find absolutely maddening.

Increasingly, partially as a reaction to religious fundamentalism in the west and misguided ethnocentric fears about religious extremism elsewhere in the world, we are seeing people who claim just this.  The idea is that science can solve all our problems and give us all the meaning we need, either by defining science in such a broad way that it can be said to answer questions about ethics, meaning, and how we should live, or dismissing any nonscientific question as meaningless or “malformed” in its conception.

I’m not a religious person, nor do I buy the “non-overlapping magisteria” argument put forth by scientists like Stephen Jay Gould and Albert Einstein.  I think there are definitely questions that religion tries to tackle that science cannot answer, though I do not think religion the only means of tackling those questions.  I also think there are some direct conflicts between religion and science that are very hard to reconcile, and when I read thinkers like Ian Barbour try to make the case for science and religion being completely compatible I find myself seeing problems with their arguments almost immediately.

This puts me in a weird position.  I defend faith, because I agree with the assertions made by Kierkegaard, but I do not choose his brand of Christian faith to live by.  Defending faith has become interchangeable with defending religion, though I find the kind of free thought that I am actually defending to be just the kind of thing that many religions try to squash.  Ultimately, what I think I am defending is a kind of pluralism, and what I am opposing is both a theological absolutism and shallow scientism.    What I find is that it is an argument that people in either camp want to dismiss outright, or either greatly misunderstand.

I thought about these issues again while reading Jim Baggott’s Farewell to Reality.  Baggott’s book is not about religion, but he ends up mentioning the concepts of faith, metaphysics and theology throughout the book.  This is partially because Baggott is arguing to a scientific audience, and he knows that the vast majority of scientists consider these concepts, despite whether they are materialist atheists or have religious or spiritual beliefs, to not be part of the process of science, no matter what validity they have elsewhere.  By making a parallel between  these matters and what Baggott is arguing against, which for the record is M theory, string theory and the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, made me reexamine how I looked at these issues and seemed to open up some interesting questions about the limitations of science that the book never addresses.

This has nothing to do with the quality of Baggott’s book.  It is a well argued and well reasoned book, and Baggott is a former physics professor turned science writer, so he knows the issues involved.  The thing that makes this argument about science difficult is that his book is really a book of philosophy.  Baggott seems to know this, and he spends a great deal of time making arguments about what science is, but like most philosophical arguments it has its problems.

At the beginning of the book, for instance, Baggott argues that scientific realism is an article of faith.  It fits Kierkegaard’s definition of reasonable faith because it comes from our experience.  Science has been very successful and as the famous “no miracles” argument goes, it would be a miracle if science were as successful as it was while not reflecting  objective reality in some way.  Though as solid as this faith may seem it still is indeed faith because it is not testable and this is what Baggott uses to illustrate the divide between faith and science.  It is impossible to operate in life without faith, Baggott is saying and even in science, but no assumptions should be made that aren’t testable beyond those that science needs to function.

In pop science books you almost never see science framed this way, but I’m convinced this is the way that the majority of scientists, or at least the ones who think seriously about epistemology, see science.  Not dealing with these base assumptions leads to some confusion about what science is and what its limitations are among the general public.   Baggott returns to this toward the end of the book where he discusses intelligent design.  Intelligent design, like the other theories he discusses in the book, is not science, and he even cites some conservative Christians who acknowledge this as being the case.

I think it is a good thing that Baggott leaves this part for the end because I imagine anybody who was inclined to support M theory or string theory is likely to be insulted by this implication.   Intelligent Design, by most scientists as well as philosophers of science, is usually portrayed as a form of pseudoscience and as “back door creationism.”  I agree with the assertion that ID is not science, and I also agree with Baggott that it is a form of metaphysics best discussed in a philosophy class or theology class, not a science class,  but I see a big difference in this comparison that might make proponents of M theory upset.

M theory is an attempt to reconcile two scientific theories , Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Quantum Theory.  Both of these theories, while their inability to work together seamlessly suggests they are somehow incomplete,   are able to make accurate predictions.  Intelligent Design, on the other hand, is meant to reconcile a scientific theory, belief in evolution, with a theological position of the existence of a deity.

I find myself in another weird position.  I  have a lot of sympathy toward Baggott’s definition of science but at the same time a certain amount of sympathy for the M theorists.  If Baggott’s definition of science is right then M theory and string theory cannot be science.  They definitely rely on metaphysical speculation, but it isn’t as radical as the kind of metaphysical speculation that theologians use, trying to reconcile a seemingly materialistic reality with belief in the supernatural in many cases.

At the beginning of his book Baggott mentions Thomas Kuhn and expresses some sympathy for Kuhn’s idea that science is “theory laden” and that the interpretation of science is based around the acceptance of a theory, which can never be complete and relies on a certain level of connecting the inductive inferences of scientific data to form on complete map that future data can be gathered from.  He suggests that this may be what really needs to be done to reconcile relativity and quantum theory.

Here is the thing that stuck out to me. Baggott offers no real alternative to the kind of speculation of M theory and string theory.   It is true that these theoretical physicists base their speculations both on metaphysical inferences and mathematical formulas that are outside the strict confines of empirical science but what is the alternative?   The advocates for these theories usually say that though these theories themselves may not be testable, no theory is testable in its entirety.  Baggott would agree with that in terms of the whole of the theory, he simply thinks these theories are invalid because they did not come from a speculation based on experimental data, but because the experimental data for quantum theory and relativity support theories that are themselves not compatible.

One of the most important post-Kuhnian philosophers of science was Paul Feyerabend.  While Kuhn remains controversial, especially among hardcore scientific realists, Feyerabend was even bolder, famously argued in his work Against Method that there was no such thing as the scientific method and that advances in science were made when the old methods failed and scientists had no choice but to strike out in bold new directions.  In this debate, I suspect that Feyerabend would side with the M theorists.

Baggott describes those who have embraced these theories as “giving up.”  With all his talk about how faith is necessary and that even science cannot proceed without faith this is odd.  It seems to me that the debate between those on Baggott’s side, of which their are many, is that this is too big a leap of faith to make, not that a leap of faith itself is not permissible in science.  However, somebody like Feyerabend would say that science progresses in exactly this way and it would be best for everybody if the M theorists proceeded in their fashion, while Baggett and others proceed in their own and time and results tell the tale.

Who is right?  I don’t know.  Perhaps there is no way to reconcile quantum mechanics and relatively in terms understandable to the human brain.  One of the assumptions of science is that the universe is comprehensible to human minds.  Immanuel Kant found this to be the most amazing thing about the universe, but maybe its not even true beyond this point.  Is Baggott even right about science?  His definitions seem to me to be reasonable and a very good functional definition but what happens when you hit a seemingly unpassable roadblock?  That is what is happening now.  The path forward can only be determined by whatever gives us results.  The M theorists think their leap is necessary.  Only time will tell if their faith will be rewarded.

Thomas Ligotti, Philosophy and Antinatalism

Thomas Ligotti is often cited as one of the best, if not the very best, contemporary writers of horror fiction.  Most people have never heard of him.   Part of the reason for this is that Ligotti writes almost exclusively short stories, with one novella, My Work Is Not Yet Done, to his credit.  Another reason is that he is famously reclusive and not much interested in self-promotion.  Probably the most important reason is that Ligotti’s work is so outside the mainstream and philosophically daring as to have almost no mass appeal outside of the niche audience of horror fiction enthusiasts.

Compare Ligotti to  Stephen King, the hugely selling pop culture phenomenon.  King often writes 700-1,000 page novels that are as much fantasy fiction with dense mythologies as they are horror novels.  Ligotti writes piercingly intimate and  evocative short works that owe as much to Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and Arthur Schopenhauer, as they do to early horror fiction writers like Algernon Blackwood, H. P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen.   King pens stories that show a sense of normalcy interrupted by malignant forces and normalcy usually reestablished by the end.  Ligotti pens stories about how “reality”, as imagined by humans, is really a delusion that could slip away at any moment and plunge a person into madness.  If King’s formula is built for pop culture success, Ligotti seems to reject this formula at every turn.

Mainstream audiences got a taste of Ligotti through the show True Detective in which Ligotti served as inspiration, some would say was plagiarized, in order to articulate a bleak philosophy of pessimism.  Much of this is articulated in Ligotti’s book Conspiracy Against The Human Race.  The views argued in that book are simplified as follows, that human consciousness is an evolutionary mistake, that humans use self-delusion in order to make their lives tolerable, or to at least seem so, and that procreation should be avoided,

The first point Ligotti makes relies heavily on a materialist and atheistic worldview, as well as neuroscience but Ligotti also uses the views of Buddhist philosophy to make his point.  Buddhism is built around the goal of the elimination of the ego and the ending of the cycle of human suffering through reincarnation.  Ligotti looks at the views expressed in contemporary neuroscience and contrasts them with this spiritual worldview and finds them completely compatible.  Human consciousness is an illusion caused by the appearance of a series of mental processes as a consistent “self” and this is the cause of all human suffering.

This viewpoint is not without some controversy.  Ligotti mentions Nietzsche in his book as somebody who would reject such a view of the self, but Ligotti sees any philosophy that rejects this as merely being a rationalization.  Moving onto his second point, Ligotti argues that existence itself is the source of all suffering and that nonexistence is better.

How one would argue against this seems daunting at first.  It seems unquestionably true that one has to exist I order to suffer.  To Ligotti, there may be moments of pure ecstasy that beings may experience but such states only serve to forget the suffering of one’s existence that is a near constant state of being.  Ligotti focuses much on the idea of the anxiety of death and the slow decay of the body as one ages in order to make this point.

One of the more interesting arguments that Ligotti makes is about depression and specifically melancholic depression.  There is already a “controversial”  view that depressed individuals see the world more realistically than non-depressed individuals.   Ligotti seems to embrace this view whole heatedly and having experienced melancholic depression myself, I can say that it feels much the way that it describes.  It is also very hard to shake because there is a very distinct feeling that one has been given a glimpse of reality “as it really is.”

All of this is great for Ligotti as a horror writer, but there are arguments against it.  Many of them are the same as those leveled at some of the claims of neuroscience.  To many, the idea of consciousness being an illusion is contradictory because consciousness is needed to perceive an illusion.  In other words, to a lot of people the idea of the self not existing is a refutation of the one of the most obvious a priori concepts simply because it cannot fit a materialistic reductionist view of how the mind works.  Philosophers such as Daniel Dennett fire back that though the sentence “consciousness is an illusion” seems contradictory it is in fact accurate because consciousness is “not what you think it is.”

To me this argument is between a conception of the objective and the subjective.  Ligotti’s view waffles because he denies the legitimacy of subjective experiences because it is these themselves that are inherent in consciousness.  However, when it comes to his arguments about depression, he argues that it is the absence of emotions that reveal reality as it really is.  What is implicit in this view is that a lack of emotions leads to a state of objectivity, but since Ligotti has already made the case that human consciousness is not a real property, it is puzzling that he still relies on an enlightenment view of rationality, where his mind is able to perceive an objective reality once emotions are removed from the equation.

This comes up again when Ligotti discusses the idea that if somebody holds a view like his own they should just kill themselves.  Ligotti seems to think this objection is so absurd as to be able to dismissed on its face but he then goes onto argue against it.  He argues that fear of death, emotional attachment and self-delusion are the reasons people do not kill themselves and implies that a perfectly rational person would prefer to die.

The “objective vs. subjective” tangle never gets properly addressed in his book.  He uses the term “malignantly useless” to describe human existence but useless is really a neutral term if we replace it with a term Ligotti uses much more often, “meaningless.”  Ligotti’s whole thesis is that a meaningless existence is inherently bad, but where he gets a negative from a neutral state is not expanded upon.  That brings us to the subject of antinatalism.

Antinatalism can be argued on different grounds than those of Ligotti.  Though he is cited as an influence, philosopher David Benatar takes a less absolutist tact than Ligotti does in his book, Better Never To Have Been.  There are also religious antinatalists who do not rely on Ligotti’s foundation of atheistic materialism.   Ligotti argues that having children is inherently wrong, and that is not because human lives contain more aggregate suffering than pleasure, as Benatar argues, but because bringing beings into existence inflicts suffering and that can never be justified.

The standard argument against antinatalism goes as follows.  In order to compare two states to one another a being must exist, i.e. a state of pleasure is better than a state of suffering.  Since nonexistence is not a state then it can never be said that nonexistence can be better than existence.

I reject this argument as obviously flawed and it resembles Kant’s famous argument against suicide.  Kant argued that to kill oneself in order to avoid suffering violated the categorical imperative.  If one were to kill oneself there would be no self to benefit from the lack of suffering, therefore the maxim was contradictory.   Imagine an elderly person facing imminent death who is in great pain.  They might live for months but suffer horrendous pain for those months.  If they chose to die instead, it would seem absurd to argue that is not a rational choice, and Ligotti uses an example very similar from a real life case.  This is also not a hypothetical for me.  My grandmother faced this same decision in April of this year and chose to die rather than suffer.

Ligotti argues that antinatalism is justified by any moral theory one could apply, but since he argues that the opinion of the subject is irrelevant and denies the validity of subjective experience that simply isn’t true.  His version cannot even be justified by traditional utilitarianism, the way that David Benatar does, and relies on a “negative utilitarianism.”  Ligotti even makes this argument explicitly after saying that “any moral theory” justifies his views.  Negative utilitarianism states that any infliction of suffering is wrong, and therefore having children would be wrong because it is inevitable that any being brought into existence would suffer.

The debate around antinatalism is an interesting one to me because not only do antinatalists argue that having children is an inherent bad, most of the rest of society argues the dubious claim that it is an inherent good.  Many a parent has told their child that they should be grateful to them for “bringing them into this world,” and people who may not be antinatalists, but choose not to have children because of personal preferences are attacked as selfish and immoral even though their decision effects the world in no negative way that could be anticipated.  Perhaps they would have given birth to the next Einstein but that is far less likely than the alternative.

My own view is that the conversation is much more complicated than is usually given credit for.   Like most viewpoints, no matter what version you examine, antinatalism relies on at least a few core assumptions and one’s that it is unlikely that everybody can be convinced by.  Ligotti doesn’t really care, at the end of the day, what people do, but his worldview is “useful” in allowing him to create the kind of horror that he does so well.

Adapting Philip K. Dick

Watching Blade Runner 2049 was a weird experience for me.   I was interested in seeing it, not because I thought a sequel was a great idea, but because I was interested in seeing whether it went back to ideas from the source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.  As a concept, a sequel to Blade Runner seems redundant.  The original has been copied so much in the past 35 years that its novelty has been drained away, which wasn’t enough to make the original a hit in 1983 when there was literally nothing else like it.  I thought the sequel was very good, which was surprising, but I also thought it was thematically more similar to the works of Philip K. Dick than the film it was a sequel to, which was even more surprising.

The original Blade Runner is probably how more people know the name Philip K. Dick than any other source.  As a novelist, he was cranking out pulp sci-fi to make a living at an alarming rate, and also had a number of literary novels that were published posthumously after his death.  I have read most of them at this point, as well as a good chunk of Dick’s short stories, which he wrote 121 total.  Since Blade Runner, Dick has been adapted a number of times and he is somewhat on an upswing lately, with the Blade Runner sequel and the television series The Man in the High Castle and the upcoming series Electric Dreams.  (It already aired in the UK.)  The funny thing about this is that most of the adaptations of his work are so alien to the concerns and obsessions of the author as to be barely recognizable.

Dick’s science fiction  has been dubbed “epistemological science fiction” by many.  You can understand a Philip K. Dick novel once you know he operates under one key premise.   That premise is that every single person inhabits a reality all their own, which may contain some elements of “actual reality” but is distinct just that same.  To Dick,  “objective reality” is inaccessible to any individual human being and all human interactions are clashes of reality.  Without being able to know reality, but needing a collective reality, humans construct realties and try to enforce them on others as the “true objective reality.”  Several Philip K. Dick novels deal with totalitarian governments who create a false reality in order to control the population.

While not present in every Dick novel, it is important to note that Dick was a Christian, and a lot of his work explores theological concepts.  Dick was influenced by Gnosticism, so in much of his work there is a conflict between evil and good forces, represented by a malevolent creator God and a benevolent savior God.  In his later years Dick claimed to experience religious visions, and his works Radio Free Albemuth, Valis,  The Divine Invasion, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer and his unfinished The Owl in Daylight are all works that address these religious visions. In other words, Philip K. Dick was a really strange dude.

When adapting Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, original screenwriter Hampton Fancher made a number of changes, as did later writer David Peoples under the supervision of director Ridely Scott.  In the original novel Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter who agrees to hunt down seven androids because he wants to buy a real live animal, which are rare due to nuclear war.  All Deckard has is an electric sheep.   Androids can be detected through an empathy test, because they do not have memories that are developed as humans.  In order to separate androids from humans, empathy has replaced reason, which used to separate humans from animals.   Deckard’s society fetishizes empathy because it can be used as a distinction from androids.  There is a religion called Mercerism, in which worshipers watch their messiah be stoned to death in order to feel empathy for him.  The irony is Deckard doesn’t seem very empathetic throughout the novel, and in fact seems outright cold and inhuman.

The film version of Blade Runner makes a number of changes.  In order to simplify things Deckard is hunting four, not seven “replicants”, who are no longer androids but artificial persons made through bioengineering.  Deckard is married in the book, but not in the movie.  Several scenes are cut, including Deckard fighting his way out of a police station taken over by androids and Deckard running into a second bounty hunter who turns out to be an android.  The theme of animals being rare is pushed to the background and Mercerism is removed, even though the empathy tests remain. A foil character to Deckard, John Isidore, a man with “too much empathy” is still in the movie but is renamed “H. R. Sebastian” and most of his parts are cut, keeping only scenes that are necessary for the plot.  In the book, Deckard sleeps with the character of Rachel but discards her because she is an android, but in the film he becomes infatuated with her.

Blade Runner, despite being disliked by most critics and a box office bomb has become a classic in the years since, mostly due to Ridley Scott’s restored director’s cut and later final cut.  When the book and film are compared at all, it is usually to say that Scott took a slight sci-fi pulp novel and turned it into a great film.  That has not only been baffling to me since comparing the two, but I see Blade Runner as a visually stunning mangling of Dick’s work, with a great Rutger Hauer performance and art direction, but a complete misunderstanding of what it’s actually about.

When people think Blade Runner is “deep” this is usually because of the left over snippets of theme that still remain from Dick’s novel. How much Ridley Scott misunderstands his own movie is evident in his insistence that Deckard is a replicant.   In the novel, Dick toys with the idea that Deckard might be an android in the first half, but he reveals unambiguously that he is a human when he encounters another bounty hunter and they both suspect the other of being androids.  The android begs for his life and talks about how he has memories and feelings but this means nothing to Deckard.  He kills him without a second thought. The point is that Deckard is unfeeling, and the distinction between humans and androids is arbitrary and constructed.  By making Deckard a replicant in the movie, Ridely Scott destroys the main theme of the work and makes his film completely meaningless.

The sequel has a tricky job because there are a lot of people who feel the way I do, are fans of Ridley Scott’s interpretation, or feel that it is best left as ambiguous. These three groups of viewers can not all be satisfied at the same time so the writers go the least upsetting third option, and the sequel has a story where the question can again be read both ways, but in the end it doesn’t really matter.   I was amazed that they were able to do this, while I would have preferred the movie reveal Deckard was not a replicant, I have no complaints about how this plot point was handled.

Hampton Fancher, the first movie’s screenwriter is back as co-writer on this one.  He famously was not a fan of the Dick novel and his changes to the source material make this very clear.  The sequel stripes even the remains of the idea of animals as status symbols and the theme of empathy away.  However, while this hurt the first film in making its case that the difference between replicants and “normal” humans is arbitrary, this becomes a much more realized theme in the sequel.    Oddly, the writers do this through a messiah story, something that Dick as a Christian likely would have approved.  In addition the themes of real and fake, that had obsessed Dick in all his work, are explored in different ways in this one, delving into the idea of false memories and holographic companions.

Capturing the unique weirdness that is Philip K. Dick on the screen has had a checkered past.  Most of the time Hollywood tries to turn Dick’s work into an action movie or thriller and the results can be horrible, like Screamers or Paycheck, or entertaining like Total Recall and Minority Report, but they always stray from Dick’s vision to create something more palatable for a mass audience.  The only film that has gotten Dick right for the screen is Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, which stays reasonably faithful to Dick’s novel while using rotoscope animation to create a bizarre look and feel.  Michel Gondry has been developing an adaptation of Dick’s novel Ubik for years, and if it ever gets made this might be a second example, with Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind already having themes and a feel right out of a Dick novel.

Even television has not been able to get Dick right.  The Man In The High Castle tossed most of Dick’s philosophical questions aside early in order to explore the premise in as literal a way possible.   In the book, Nazis never appear and are barely mentioned.  The characters live in Japanese occupied San Francisco and Dick is more interested in questions about what shapes the tide of history and reality under a fascistic regime. Perhaps Electric Dreams will finally give us a more accurate adaptation of Dick’s work for the serialized medium.

The Meaning Of Murder

I don’t read memoirs very often.  When I do it is usually one written by a public person who lives a public life and therefore their memoir can’t stray too far from what is already available out there.  Politicians are a good example of this.  I even more rarely read celebrity memoirs because, quite frankly, I don’t care much for what most celebrities have to say about almost anything.  When it comes to memoirs by non-public people I find that the line between memoir and autobiographical fiction to be so thin that there isn’t really a difference. With most people who read autobiographical fiction it seems they read it as a veiled memoir anyway, see most of the works of Philip Roth for examples of this.  For me when I read a memoir I can’t help but see the things that the writer probably embellished or altered in order to improve the storytelling.

Another literary genre I read even less of is “true crime.”  I went through a phase in my teenage years when I read true crime books, as well as horror and chiefly suspense novels.   Gradually I returned to my childhood interest in science fiction and fantasy, reading Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury while still very young, and also developed my tastes in a different direction. I still read crime and horror novels from time to time but true crime is a genre that I have rarely returned to.  It was something that I associate with my teenage obsession with all things morbid, and it hasn’t much interested me since.

That is why it was surprising to some people I know that I have been gushing about Claudia Rowe’s The Spider And The Fly, one of the best books I have read this year  and a weird combination of two genres I am not known for reading.  I first became aware of the book after Rowe did an interview I read.  She is a writer for the Seattle Times, the newspaper of my adopted hometown and I found her discussion of what led her to write this book to be fascinating.  I put it on my to read list but didn’t get to it until  months later.  How much I was engaged with it is shocking enough but I am also amazed that the readership of the true crime genre has been less enthusiastic.

Rowe’s book is a memoir of her correspondence with serial killer Kendall Francois, who murdered at least eight women over a two year period between 1996 and 1998.  Rowe had been working as a “stringer” for the New York Times while living in Poughkeepsie, New York and she became fascinated with the case of Francois.  Though it was something that she would be expected to cover for the paper, she went beyond that, writing a letter to Francois and gradually beginning a “friendship” with him that began to take a disturbing direction.

What would attract true crime aficionados to this story is obvious.  Francois is atypical of a serial killer in a number of ways,  the most discussed issue that he was black while all his known victims were white.  His victims were all prostitutes, who Francois  was obsessed with “saving” and then when they did not respond to him the way he liked he killed them out of rage.  He hid the bodies in his parents’ house with both his parents and younger sister never discovering the bodies despite some complaints about the smell.

The specifics of the case promise the kind of lurid and shocking details that fans of such books crave.  Also, the “set-up” makes some readers think they will read a real life Silence of the Lambs, where a woman will be pitted in a battle of minds with a clever killer, trying to get the information she needs from him while he attempts to burrow into her psyche.  The fact that the book does not deliver on either count is what most online reviews that lean toward the negative complain about.  Rowe does include some of those details, but only to get at the family dynamic that could create such an environment in that house.  As for the second complaint, if people really expect serial killers to be devious masterminds who engage in cat and mouse games maybe they deserve to have their puerile fantasies encounter reality once in a while.

This is mostly what Rowe is trying to do with her book and she succeeds at it wonderfully, even as if alienates a large chunk of her the readership.  Rowe is interested how somebody like Kendall Francois, the boy and teenager that teachers and acquaintances describe as smart and kind, could become the brutal killer of eight women we now know he was.   Questions of nature and nurture are brought up in a variety of ways with no easy answers.  Rowe herself is initially conflicted with her sympathy toward Francois as a human being and her repulsion at his crimes and how he manipulated his victims.  Since most of his victims were prostitutes it is tempting to look at the conditions that led them on a collision course with Francois whose views toward women, like most serial killers, is objectifying.

Another theme in the book is about what attracts people like Rowe to somebody like Kendall Francois in the first place.  Rowe considers that she is interested in whether evil is born or made, but she also considers there is a certain attraction to morbidity.  She mentions the 90s obsession with serial killers that permeated the pop culture, and also her teenage obsession with Nazis, something she finds hard to admit because she is ethnically Jewish. Its this introspection by Rowe that seems to turn many readers off, either accusing her of making the book all about her, or of being callous toward Francois’s victims.  This review from NPR is a pretty harsh example.

An NPR review might be forgiven for this kind of harshness because perhaps the reviewer was assigned this review and true crime is not something they are a regular reader of, though I assume that NPR assigns book reviews based on some level of genre familiarity.  What is kind of odd though is this sentiment is echoed through a number of online reviews, where Rowe is attacked for basically writing a book that examined her own motives for wanting to start a correspondence with Francois.  Some reviewers outright complain that the book is more interested in psychological examination than heaping gory details, but not a one of them stops and think that the impulses that Rowe is examining are the same ones that led them to pick up this book in the first place and that such impulses are worth examining.

I’ve noticed this with horror fiction and films as well.  As a genre, horror is polarizing to begin with, and its probably the genre that has the most loyal fan base while at the same time a large number of people will avoid it outright.  Sometimes a horror writer will decide to morally challenge their audience.  This usually means using a Hitchcockian technique, make your audience want something and then punish them for wanting it.  What Rowe does gets a similar reaction because many readers of crime fiction do not want to self-examine in what attracts them to such things in the first place.  Imagine if an Agatha Christie novel called out its audience for the fact that they enjoy stories that treat murder like a fun puzzle to be solved.  I don’t think most people who love British “cozy” mysteries would like that, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t value in such self-reflection.

As Rowe develops a relationship with Francois two things become apparent.  The first is that her relationship with him as a reporter is inherently exploitive in some ways.  Rowe is not letting herself off the hook for that.  In fact, I would say her book is all about explicitly examining that issue.   The second thing is that Francois is starting to develop a fixation on her similar to the fixations he had on the women he killed.  Rowe  repeatedly throughout the book documents times when law enforcement and prison personnel point out her physical resemblance to Kendall Francois’s victims.   This starts to get uncomfortable.

There are two other criticisms of Rowe’s book lobbed by the NPR review that I would like to address.  The first is Rowe spends no time on the victims.  This is just simply false, though the time she spends with herself and her own motives could be said to take away time the book could spend on other things, the victims are as much a part of the narrative as most true crime books.  Rowe researchers the victims and talks to their loved ones about them, and it is through their stories that she starts to hate François for what he had done.

The second criticism is on the subject of race.  Its true that some of the comments made about race in the book can come off like patronizing white guilt out of context but within the context of the book they make perfect sense.  Kendall Francois was a rare serial killer who killed people outside of his own race exclusively and this is explored a lot in the book.  While Rowe doesn’t beat your head over it, some self-hatred toward African Americans might have been part of Francois’s motivation.  There is still one missing victim, who was black, that the police were certain that Francois killed but they never got him to confess, even when he confessed to all the other murders.  Why he might have done this is part of the discussion.

There are not a lot of answers in Claudia Rowe’s account of what happened with Kendall Francois but really a series of complex questions.  I think this is typical of a lot of true crime books, but what makes this book fascinating and ultimately great, is that Rowe asks the kinds of questions that are not normally asked and blurs the line between writer in subject in a way that implicates the reader.

What Is A Philosopher?

The title of this blog is something that I sometimes get asked and other times get in arguments with people about.  I am not an academic philosopher, but I studied philosophy and have friends who are academic philosophers.   I arrived at my interest in philosophy because it was the only academic subject that could encompass all my varied interests.  I have always felt torn between my interests in science and my interest in the humanities, and by choosing philosophy I didn’t feel as if I would have to choose between the two.   That said, though I considered it for a time, pursuing an academic career in philosophy was one I ended up turning against.

There are various reasons for this.  One is the lack of academic philosophy positions and the state of academia in general.  Another is how little respect philosophy gets with people in scientific fields dismissing the work of philosophers as “just opinion pieces” and some people in the humanities disliking the tendency of philosophers to challenge their underlying assumptions.  From the general public it is even worse.  In the introduction to his book, Experiments In Ethics, Kwame Anthony Appiah says that when people learn he is a philosopher they usually ask him, “What is Your Philosophy?” to which he responds, “Everything is more complicated than you thought.”

My main reason was that I thought academic philosophy was “too rigid” and in the framework that philosophers had been forced into I wouldn’t be able to do the things that I really wanted to do.   In the final essay in her book, Undoing Gender, Judith Butler expresses a similar sentiment.  She states that despite being trained as a philosopher she was shocked to learn at some point in her career that she was no longer a philosopher but “a theorist” and this kind of person had no place in the philosophy department.

For this reason, and also because it was an excellent and entertaining read, I delighted in Justin E. H. Smith’s book, The Philosopher: A History In Six Types.  Smith is a philosopher and historian of science but the question of what a philosopher actually is has seemed to have caught his attention.  For instance, he talks about the struggle to keep his philosophy books at work, while his non-philosophy books at home and not being able to make a clear distinction between them.  He also mentions not being able to decide whether the book he is writing is philosophy and that many people would contend it isn’t, since it is not an exhaustive and rigorous attempt at defining what a philosopher is but an attempt to exhaust his own thoughts on the subject.

Smith’s approach is an interesting one.  He divides philosophers into six job descriptions.  This is not an attempt to put individual philosophers into set boxes, because many philosophers fit into more than one of these categories, but one cannot deny that these “job descriptions” have all historically, and in some sense in the contemporary colloquial ideas about philosophy.

The first category is the Curiosa, so named because Smith based the ideal example of this type on Margaret Cavendish.  It isn’t much of a surprise that Smith, being a philosopher of science, would start with this one, but it does get to the core of how philosophy has developed throughout history.  Since the beginning, philosophy has largely been about how things worked and expanding the realm of human knowledge.  As this state has evolved, different fields have been “cut off” from the branches of philosophy in order to inhabit fields of their own.  This hasn’t just happened in science, but now it is where something ceases to be philosophy and “becomes science” we see people arguing the hardest distinction.

There are a large number of people who think of themselves as “natural philosophers”  and their stated goal is to use philosophy to develop a universal understanding of science.   I personally think these philosophers often do great work and there is value in what they do, but I also think that their mission does not encompass all of what philosophy is or should be.  I also think that developing a “universal understanding” of science, meaning a criteria for interpretation that everybody agrees on as fact, may actually be harmful to science and strip from the enterprise some of what makes it vital in the first place.

The second category is The Sage.  This is probably the closest to what the general public thinks of a philosopher and also one I think has value.  There is a definite cultural idea of the person who devotes much time to thinking and can pass on wisdom to others.    We can see this kind of philosopher in many ancient societies, or in Native American Culture.  Many people appeal to the idea of sage wisdom when they consult a religious authority like a Priest or a minister but this would be mocked by most “professional philosophers” today if you suggested that this person is a philosopher.

Skipping around a bit, the fourth type by Smith,  The Ascetic,  has some significant overlap with The Sage.  The life that The Ascetic leads, looking for the good instead of material wealth and power is something we would associated with The Sage as well.     Though, this is not something that we would automatically define a Sage by. You could consider somebody like Jean- Paul Sartre a Sage, but you certainly would not call him an Ascetic. In our contemporary culture we could see a Sage as somebody with a large media celebrity, somebody who is even successful in capitalism.  While the two have significant overlap they still justify their place as separate categories.

The Acetic might be a category as well that we put a great many ethicists.  Utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer comes to mind.  He preaches a philosophy of self-sacrifice in order to achieve the good, which to him is maximum utility.  He practices what he preaches as well, giving large percentages of his income to charity, but still there are those that might think Singer has too much of The Mandarin (Smith’s fifth category) to be a true Ascetic.

The category of philosopher that I find myself most relating to is The Gadfly.  This is the philosopher who is mainly concerned with challenging the norms of his society.  Smith argues that Socrates was a Gadfly and that since Western philosophy started with him it is hard to see how this is not an essential identity to discuss while trying to define the philosopher.   He also mentions Nietzsche who was an expert at “how to philosophize with a hammer.”  I would also include David Hume in this category, as well as the twentieth century philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend.

This category would include a great many artists.  Smith mentions Walt Whitman.  I would say there is a lot of the Gadfly in somebody like Simone De Beauvoir, who challenged assumptions about women in particular in her philosophy and novels.  When we look at the intersection between art and philosophy we really see Gadflys everywhere and this is why Smith had such a hard time separating his books, thinking that the novelist and poets he admired were as much deserving of the title philosopher as the scientists and academics.

The last two categories have a significant amount of overlap as well. The Fifth category is The Mandarin, to which Smith refers to the learned men of academia who take on the title of professional philosopher.   It is worth noting that many of the most important figures in philosophy never worked in the philosophy department.   Academic philosophy, as much as I enjoy reading it, seems like a closed off enclave of people communicating to each other in obscure language about things of little consequence.  This is a stark contrast to somebody like Karl Marx who thought the purpose of philosophy was not to describe the world but to change it, or Friedrich Nietzsche who wanted to communicate to a specific audience of free thinkers wherever they may be.

This finally brings us to The Courtier, and it is hard to think of where The Mandarin and The Courtier leave off since it is defined as a philosopher who plies his trade for money.  Since Smith defines The Courtier as including “the public intellectual” it is easy to see how somebody could be a Courtier but not a Mandarin.  Somebody like Sam Harris delivers his own version of philosophy without holding any academic position.  His aim seems to be making money exclusively by his expressing of his opinions.

Smith’s point is that professional philosophers such as himself are “all sophists” though in my example of somebody like Sam Harris, some are obviously more sophists than others.  Smith even recounts an experiment where he made extra money while living in Paris by offering to have conversations about philosophy with tourists for money.   He found the conversations to be surprisingly interesting.

The book reaches no conclusions, but I suggest you read it yourself if you are interested. It’s a lot of fun and thought provoking.  I’m still not sure what counts as philosophy myself I just know what interests me.    Maybe pursuing one’s own path thoughtfully and critically is all you really need.

 

 

What I Learned From Hillary Clinton’s “What Happened.”

There were quite a few people upon learning of the release of Hillary Clinton’s new book who vowed to not read it “on principle.”  I was not one of those people.   There is value in getting Hillary Clinton’s perspective on the election, even though what I was hoping for with the book was a detailed account of how her campaign made the decisions that she did and how she felt about it now.  (I did not get that.)

There are many things that I agree with Hillary Clinton on.   Yes, the Comey letter was ridiculous and possibly tipped the election, yes she has been the victim of right wing conspiracy theories for decades, yes Trump is a bigoted and misogynistic fascist demagogue, and finally,  yes, Hillary Clinton would have made an infinitely better president than Trump could ever hope to be in his wildest dreams.

Her book begins with a chapter on how she felt the day she lost the election and then continues with a second chapter about how she felt.  Don’t worry, the book will later include a chapter about the night of the election so you can learn about how she felt about it a third time.   There is very little policy in the book.  It is mostly about how she personally felt about things we all saw happen last year.  So in order to learn anything there had to be at least a little reading between the lines, but what Hillary Clinton says can be rather illuminating.

Taking Money From Wall Street and Banks is No Big Deal

There are a few parts of the book where Hillary Clinton praises Bernie Sanders.  It is usually when he said something nice about her, or when he rightly calls out the media for concentrating on her “damn emails.”  One thing she said she appreciated was a conversation between her and Senator Sanders where he promised not to stoop to personal attacks on her or her family.  We all know what Sanders meant by that (cough…Monica Lewinsky…cough) but Hillary took it as a promise to ignore her donation history too and she is angry that Bernie broke that promise.

Hillary Clinton has two defenses.  The first is that Bernie Sanders could not name a single time she had switched positions on an issue during a debate.  It is important to note that many supporters of Sanders criticize him of this as well, but for completely different reasons.  The cases where Clinton switched positions due to financial pressures from lobbyists are obvious and many believe that if Sanders had hit her hard on this issue he would have hobbled her and he would have won.   Clinton apparently agrees with this assessment because she thinks even without it Sanders did so much damage to her that she could not beat Donald Trump.

Her second defense, which she used in the debates, is that Obama took more money from Wall Street than any other candidate ever in 2008.   It is a curious defense when we consider Obama’s attacks on her in 2008, but we also have to consider the fact that Obama’s financial reform was lighter than Glass-Steagall, which Hillary’s husband repealed.  Senator Elizabeth Warren gives an account of her role in Dodd-Frank in her book A Fighting Chance and she portrays a President Obama who wanted to do some kind of reform, but had to be pushed by people like herself and Barney Frank to even make the bill as tough as it was.

Clinton does admit that her speeches were “bad optics” in her book, but doesn’t ever address any of the numerously problematic things she said in those speeches.

Compromise Is Good But Not When Bernie Sanders Does it

When it comes to Bernie’s stance against taking corporate money, Clinton sees this as simply an unreasonable stance.  She simultaneously claims she is against Citizen’s United, and that money in politics does not influence the votes of Democrats, and if you can untangle the logic knot of that position be my guest.

Bernie Sanders DOES take some pragmatic stances because despite how his critics portray him his goal is to revolutionize the Democratic Party and American Politics in general and the logistics of that task is important.  In his book, Our Revolution, Sanders outlines exactly how we do this.  A big part of his strategy is to expand Democratic territory into rural areas and the South, by highlighting the ways Republicans have tricked working class white voters to vote against their own interests AND by fighting voter suppression and disinterest in minority communities that feel ignored.

Clinton attacks Sanders for doing just that when he campaigned for Heath Mello for Mayor of Omaha, Nebraska.  The sticking point was that Mello is not pro-choice.  By contrast, Hillary Clinton thought it was perfectly fine to pick Tim Kaine as her running mate, who has had a strong record in the senate, but had a horrendous record on abortion as governor of Virginia.

Clinton also used this same tact to attack Sanders about gun control.  There are three issues that have come up.  The first, is that Sanders voted against the Brady Bill on five separate occasions while he was in the house of representatives, because his state was against waiting periods.

The other two issues were that Sanders had voted that people be allowed to check their guns in their carry on luggage while boarding Amtrak trains and he voted against victims of gun violence being able to sue gun manufacturers.  In terms of the latter position, this is the rare case of Clinton being “more extreme” than Sanders and he being more pragmatic.  I tend to agree with Sanders, that allowing people to sue because a product they manufactured was used to kill people and there was no negligence on the manufacturer’s part, opens up a whole new can of worms.

In truth, there is a conversation to be had about what Sanders is and is not willing to compromise on.    However, the way Clinton uses it is to portray him as a pie and the sky huckster who tried to sell people on false promises in order to slander her.

Hillary Clinton’s Story is Every Woman’s Story.

Early in her book, Hillary Clinton talks about her own story not being as inspiring as her husband’s or Barack Obama’s.  So in order to counteract this she emphasized how her story was that of the woman’s movement.  Boy did she ever!  The so-called “Bernie Bro” was a myth cooked up by the Clinton team the same way they used Obama Boys in the 2008 campaign.   As somebody who campaigned for Obama in 2008, I had a lot of run-ins with aggressive Clinton supporters who hurled personal insults at me.  They were a minority, and at the time I didn’t think it was a coordinated effort, but when this time they paid trolls to attack Sanders supporters online, I got wise to it.

Let me be clear, Clinton has no doubt encountered a lot of misogyny and sexism in her life.  Compare her book to that of Elizabeth Warren though, who in her book A Fighting Chance details how her own mother discouraged her from going to college because she wouldn’t be able to find a husband, and how she experienced sexism as both a lawyer and a politician.  With Warren, this is part of her story, for Hillary Clinton it is the WHOLE story.

Later in her book Clinton admits that she may have talked about race too much, playing into Donald Trump’s hands.  She never mentions that she might have talked about gender too much.  Though she mentions her slogan “Stronger Together” many times, this one was hardly used on the campaign.  The slogan that was used was “I’m With Her” which will probably go down as one of the worst campaign slogans in politics.  It would be as if Obama had made his slogan, “Once you go black.”

Hillary Clinton’s narrative is an inherently feminist one if you buy the idea that all feminism is about is women being ambitious and successful.  Hillary buys this herself because she says in her book that many Republican women are feminists.  I guess this is all fine, but it never occurred to Clinton that even many women who considered themselves feminists would find this ridiculous and  wouldn’t take kindly to being insulted.  In his book, Listen Liberal, historian Thomas Frank criticizes Clinton for arranging a International Woman’s Day event that celebrated female entrepreneurs when the holiday has its roots in labor movements, illustrating the disconnect perfectly.

Then there was the issue of her husband’s sex scandals.  People would make the case that she should not be judged by her husband’s transgressions, or that comparing Bill Clinton and Trump was a false equivalence, but that didn’t matter.  By leaning so hard on the idea that Bernie Sanders supporters were misogynists and Trump was even worse, she invited people to remember and reflect on those things.  Democrats had no problem voting for Bill Clinton despite his sex scandals and as such Republicans had licence to not care about Trump’s transgressions.  It may not have been right, but the point is Hillary Clinton was not the best person to make that case.

The Clintons Are Not Responsible For Their Own Actions.

One telling part of the book is where Clinton talks about Black Lives Matter.  The beginning of this chapter is somewhat moving and hits all the right notes.  It then segues into gun control and finally ends with a volley of attacks at Bernie Sanders.  I’m not sure if Clinton only talked about Black Lives Matters as a means to attack Sanders but it sure reads that way, and I was aghast at how cynical it came off.

However, I have already covered Clinton’s attacks at Sanders.  What is most troubling about this chapter is Clinton is frustrated with the Black Lives Matters protesters for asking her to take personal responsibility for all the things the Clinton’s have done to black people.   Hillary focuses on the crime bill, which she points out both Bill Clinton has said was a mistake and Bernie Sanders voted for.   The crime bill is a complicated issue, and yes, pretty much everybody was on board at the time and even some Republicans have claimed that voting for it was a mistake.  However, even though Hillary Clinton pledged to end private prisons the not taking responsibility part is disturbing.

Clinton begins her book with a quote by Harriet Tubman and holds herself up as a fighter for racial justice.  I think she means it now. However, not facing the past head on is a real problem, and one Clinton seems to think is unreasonable for her critics to expect.

Losing the Midwest Was Not Hillary’s Fault

One of the big criticisms that Hillary Clinton got was that she didn’t campaign enough in the “rust belt.”  Clinton lost six states that Barack Obama won in 2012, and five of those states were in the Midwest.  Clinton dismisses this accusation as a load of crap.  She does admit that she did not campaign enough in Wisconsin but the reason for this is because the data she had showed them they had a solid lead in the state.  So why did she lose those states?   She lost because of third party voters.

The only data point Clinton uses to support this is that Donald Trump got less votes in Wisconsin than Mitt Romney did in 2012.  Let’s take note of a couple things.  First, Trump did better than Romney nationally and more importantly did better than Romney in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa and Florida.    If Jill Stein had not been in the race, the only two states that would have been effected, making the huge assumption that every single Stein voter would have switched to Clinton, would have been Michigan and Wisconsin.  In that scenario Trump still would have won.

Rachel Maddow hilariously made the claim that if all of Stein voters and half of Libertarian Candidate Gary Johnson’s voters had voted for Hillary Clinton than she would have won.  The problem with this is obvious.  If the other half of Gary Johnson voters voted Trump they would cancel each other out and Trump still would have won.  Hillary Clinton makes the claims she would have won if not for third party voters as if it is obvious and mentions Gore losing New Hampshire and Florida in 2000 due to Ralph Nader.  Many people have pointed out the problem with this hypothesis before, that we simply do not have any data about the “second choices” of Nader voters and just assume it would be Gore because we assume that all voters think in the left-right binary that politics is usually presented in.  But even if we assume that the narrative about Nader in 2000 is correct, Gary Johnson  was the “spoiler” in 2016, not Jill Stein and some have even predicted without him in the race it was possible Trump could have won the popular vote.

Here is another idea.   My theory is that it has something to do with trade deals, that were very unpopular in those Midwest states and Trump had been hammering Clinton on while campaigning there.  In her book, Hillary Clinton doesn’t mention NAFTA or TPP even once which are pretty stunning omissions for a book that is supposed to be concerned with why she lost the Midwest that Obama won four years earlier.

It Is All Russia’s Fault

Okay, Russia did interfere with the election by trolling online and spreading conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton.  That is what is known for certain.  Did Russia hack voting systems and machines in the 2016 election?  The answer is there is no evidence to support this whatsoever.

Hillary Clinton herself has admitted that what Russia did was not any different than what the Koch Brothers do.  If Russia hacked voting machines are registrations then this is a major story.  That is why the press keeps running stories implying this constantly despite having nothing hard to back this up.  There isn’t even hard evidence that John Podesta’s emails where hacked by Russians and given to wiki leaks.  Even if they were, there is nothing in the wikileaks emails that anybody has claimed was falsified.

Hillary Clinton’s book paints a picture of a vast conspiracy between Russia, Trump and Jill Stein to give the election to Trump.  Why it was Jill Stein who funded recounts in those key Midwest states is never explained.  If Trump colluded with Russia this is an impeachable offense, but this isn’t even the only thing that congress has grounds to impeach Trump for.  It is, however, the only one that can be used to make the case that losing to Trump was not Hillary Clinton’s fault.