Recommendations from the staff at Seven Stories Press
We have heard you, crawling across the desert on your hands and knees in the tatters of your clothes, and readers, this is no mirage! Relief at last; our staff recommendations for August, 2022!
This latest installment of Seven Stories Staff Picks, all of our book recommendations link directly to our comrades at Bluestockings Cooperative, a bookstore and community space on the lower east side.
At one point or another, everyone must contend with their first Leak. Mine started in 2016. I was living alone in a tiny first-floor apartment in Bushwick when I noticed a narrow streak appear down the wall of my bathroom. Fast forward 18 months and roughly 500 increasingly desperate emails to my landlord (ignored), and my bathroom ceiling has almost completely collapsed. Finally, my landlord accepts there might be a problem and sends over a repair man. And so begins my incredibly banal nightmare.
In “The Plumber” (1978), an Australian made-for-TV movie directed by Peter Weir (“Picnic at Hanging Rock,” “The Truman Show,” etc), two academics find themselves in a similarly banal, but significantly more entertaining, nightmare, when a plumber arrives at their apartment to fix a leak in their bathroom. As the film progresses, the plumber becomes increasingly erratic, eventually pulling apart their entire bathroom and erecting elaborate scaffolding that renders it largely unusable. And there’s still a leak.
“The Plumber” is a perfect film. It’s hilarious, it’s bizarre, and I highly recommend it for anyone who delights in absurdity, enjoys some lighthearted roasting of academics and the petit bourgeois, and loves a thick Australian accent. It’s on Criterion, and everyone should watch it.
Read Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, after Steve Fagin's wonderful (very loose) film adaptation of it made me curious. Wharton is such a great wordsmith. She was a contemporary of Kafka and Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, Jean Cocteau. But manages here to keep out any whiff of a modern sensibility. In the end her portrait of the American upper class families of New York is a stifling one and indeed this is a story of a suppressed romance that is finally stamped out completely by convention and convenience. All that said, her portraits are really marvelous and memorable.
Yes, it's as devastating as everyone says. Yes, you need to read it. I can't remember a work of literature that has affected me so deeply.
On a lighter note, Villano Antillano has been the soundtrack to my summer. Her freestyle with Argentinian producer Bizarrap went viral earlier this year, and the trans rapper has been redefining the genre of "urbano" music in Puerto Rico, a scene that is historically sexist and male-dominated. Her surprise appearance at Bad Bunny's arena show in San Juan catapulted her to a whole new audience, and I can't wait to hear what comes next.
My summer project has been reading through all three books in Rodrigo Fresán’s “part” trilogy—The Invented Part, The Dreamed Part, and The Remembered Part—published by Open Letter and translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden. The short version is that a writer, known only as The Writer, attempts to break into the CERN facility outside of Geneva because he wants to atomize himself and become the writer of the universe. He fails to do so, stays up all night worrying, and then begins to obsessively re-read his own work.
While it doesn’t sound like much, the three books offer a wild adrenaline rush across their 2000-ish total pages, even for someone who loves “encyclopedic novels” the way that I do. Fresán’s breathless style is a headfirst plunge through thousands of different digressions, on topics ranging from doomed writers (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Malcolm Lowry, Emily Brontë) to superhero movies to Pink Floyd to 8th century Chinese literature. These books make my head spin a little, and I mean that as the highest compliment.
Sometimes you just want to read a classic children's story about talking animals who drive little cars and say things like "Capital!" If this sounds like you, I recommend The Wind in the Willows, which somehow I never got around to reading as a kid. I recently found a used copy and have been reading a few pages every night before I go to sleep to wind down. It is perfect bedtime reading, a gentle, charming, and wise story about friendship and the aforementioned animals in tiny cars.
Ken Loach's film "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" is the story of two brothers in 1920s County Cork, united at first in their fight against the British, but then on opposing sides of the Anglo-Irish Treaty as Civil War violence escalates. A young Cillian Murphy is heartbreaking as Damien, a newly graduated doctor who gives up his practice to join local IRA forces. The film plays out in green country fields and dusty cottages as the young villagers engage in a war against enemies who appear closer and closer to home. Beautiful but haunting to watch and highly recommended.
I just picked up Sarah Thankam Matthews’ brilliant new novel All This Could Be Different. It’s a queer bildungsroman; a love letter to friendship, choice, and coming home that follows a young woman and Indian immigrant named Sneha. Sneha, graduating into an American recession and grateful for any job she can get, moves to Milwaukee— a city where she knows no one, and where her past soon begins to unravel. Growing up between Oman and Kerala, Sarah is the founder of the mutual aid project Bed-Study Strong. Her communities, and community work, obviously root the book. Come for beautiful prose and delicately crafted characters. Stay for a successful attempt at putting words to the unnameable, messy parts of becoming.
To celebrate the publication of Proof of Stake: The Making of Ethereum and the Philosophy of Blockchains by Vitalik Buterin, edited by Nathan Schneider, we are proud to share an excerpt from the book, a blog post originally published in 2021, in which Buterin outlines his vision for how cryptocurrency and the blockchain can be used for the betterment of civic life.
October 31, 2021
One interesting trend of the last year has been the growth of interest in local government, and in the idea of local governments that have wider variance and do more experimentation. Over the past year, Miami mayor Francis Suarez has pursued a tech-startup-like strategy of attracting interest in the city, frequently engaging with the mainstream tech industry and crypto community on Twitter. Wyoming now has a DAO-friendly legal structure, Colorado is experimenting with quadratic voting, and we’re seeing more and more experiments making pedestrian-friendly street environments for the offline world. We’re even seeing projects with varying degrees of radicalness—Culdesac, Telosa, CityDAO, Nkwashi, Prospera, and many more—trying to create entire neighborhoods and cities from scratch.
Another interesting trend of the last year has been the rapid mainstreaming of crypto ideas such as coins, non-fungible tokens, and decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs). So what would happen if we combine the two trends together? Does it make sense to have a city with a coin, an NFT, a DAO, some record-keeping on-chain for anti-corruption, or even all four? As it turns out, there are already people trying to do just that:
CityCoins.co, a project that sets up coins intended to become local media of exchange, where a portion of the issuance of the coin goes to the city government. MiamiCoin already exists, and San Francisco Coin appears to be coming soon.
Experiments with NFTs, often as a way of funding local artists. Busan is hosting a government-backed conference exploring what they could do with NFTs.
Reno mayor Hillary Schieve’s expansive vision for blockchain-ifying the city, including NFT sales to support local art, a RenoDAO with RenoCoins issued to local residents that could get revenue from the government renting out properties, blockchain-secured lotteries, blockchain voting, and more.
Much more ambitious projects creating crypto-oriented cities from scratch: see CityDAO, which describes itself as, well, “building a city on the Ethereum blockchain”—DAOified governance and all.
But are these projects, in their current form, good ideas? Are there any changes that could make them into better ideas? Let us find out . . .
WHY SHOULD WE CARE ABOUT CITIES?
Many national governments around the world are showing themselves to be inefficient and slow-moving in response to long-running problems and rapid changes in people’s underlying needs. In short, many national governments are missing live players. Even worse, many of the outside-the-box political ideas that are being considered or implemented for national governance today are honestly quite terrifying. Do you want the USA to be taken over by a clone of the World War II-era Portuguese dictator António Salazar, or perhaps an “American Caesar,” to beat down the evil scourge of American leftism? For every idea that can be reasonably described as freedom-expanding or democratic, there are ten that are just different forms of centralized control and walls and universal surveillance.
Now consider local governments. Cities and states, as we’ve seen from the examples at the start of this post, are, at least in theory, capable of genuine dynamism. There are large and very real differences of culture between cities, so it’s easier to find a single city where there is public interest in adopting any particular radical idea than it is to convince an entire country to accept it. There are very real challenges and opportunities in local public goods, urban planning, transportation, and many other sectors in the governance of cities that could be addressed. Cities have tightly cohesive internal economies where things like widespread cryptocurrency adoption could realistically independently happen. Furthermore, it’s less likely that experiments within cities will lead to terrible outcomes both because cities are regulated by higher-level governments and because cities have an escape valve: people who are unhappy with what’s going on can more easily exit.
So all in all, it seems like the local level of government is a very undervalued one. And given that criticism of existing smart-city initiatives often heavily focuses on concerns around centralized governance, lack of transparency, and data privacy, blockchain and cryptographic technologies seem like a promising key ingredient for a more open and participatory way forward.
WHAT ARE CITY PROJECTS UP TO TODAY?
Quite a lot actually! Each of these experiments is still small scale and largely still trying to find its way around, but they are all at least seeds that could turn into interesting things. Many of the most advanced projects are in the United States, but there is interest across the world; over in Korea the government of Busan is running an NFT conference. Here are a few examples of what is being done today.
BLOCKCHAIN EXPERIMENTS IN RENO
Reno, Nevada, mayor Hillary Schieve is a blockchain fan, focusing primarily on the Tezos ecosystem, and she has recently been exploring blockchain-related ideas in the governance of her city:
Selling NFTs to fund local art, starting with an NFT of the “Space Whale” sculpture in the middle of the city.
Creating a RenoDAO, governed by Reno coins that residents would be eligible to receive via an airdrop. The RenoDAO could start to get sources of revenue; one proposed idea was for the city to rent out properties that it owns and use the revenue to fund a DAO.
Using blockchains to secure all kinds of processes; for example, blockchain-secured random number generators for casinos, blockchain-secured voting, etc.
CityCoins.co is a project built on Stacks, a blockchain run by an unusual “proof of transfer” (for some reason abbreviated PoX, not PoT) block-production algorithm that is built around the Bitcoin blockchain and ecosystem. Seventy percent of the coin’s supply is generated by an ongoing sale mechanism: anyone with STX (the Stacks native token) can send their STX to the city-coin contract to generate city coins; the STX revenues are distributed to existing city-coin holders who stake their coins. The remaining 30% is made available to the city government.
CityCoins has made the interesting decision of trying to make an economic model that does not depend on any government support. The local government does not need to be involved in creating a CityCoins.co coin; a community group can launch a coin by themselves. An FAQ-provided answer to “What can I do with CityCoins?” includes examples like “CityCoins communities will create apps that use tokens for rewards” and “local businesses can provide discounts or benefits to people who . . . stack their CityCoins.” In practice, however, the MiamiCoin community is not going at it alone; the Miami government has already de facto publicly endorsed it.
MiamiCoin hackathon winner: a site that allows coworking spaces to give preferential offers to MiamiCoin holders.
CityDAO is the most radical of the experiments: Unlike Miami and Reno, which are existing cities with existing infrastructure to be upgraded and people to be convinced, CityDAO is a DAO with legal status under the Wyoming DAO law trying to create entirely new cities from scratch.
So far, the project is still in its early stages. The team is currently finalizing a purchase of their first plot of land in a far-off corner of Wyoming. The plan is to start with this plot of land, and then add other plots of land in the future, to build cities that are governed by a DAO and make heavy use of radical economic ideas like Harberger taxes to allocate the land, make collective decisions, and manage resources. Their DAO is one of the progressive few that is avoiding coin-voting governance; instead, the governance is a voting scheme based on “citizen” NFTs, and ideas have been floated to further limit votes to one per person by using Proof of Humanity verification. The NFTs are currently being sold to crowdfund the project; you can buy them on OpenSea.
WHAT DO I THINK CITIES COULD BE UP TO?
Obviously there are a lot of things that cities could do in principle. They could add more bike lanes, they could use CO2 meters and far-UVC light to more effectively reduce COVID spread without inconveniencing people, and they could even fund life-extension research. But my primary specialty is blockchains and this post is about blockchains, so . . . let’s focus on blockchains.
I would argue that there are two distinct categories of blockchain ideas that make sense:
1. Using blockchains to create more trusted, transparent, and verifiable versions of existing processes.
2. Using blockchains to implement new and experimental forms of ownership for land and other scarce assets, as well as new and experimental forms of democratic governance.
There’s a natural fit between blockchains and both of these categories. Anything happening on a blockchain is very easy to publicly verify, with lots of ready-made, freely available tools to help people do that. Any application built on a blockchain can immediately plug in to and interface with other applications in the entire global blockchain ecosystem. Blockchain-based systems are efficient in a way that paper is not, and publicly verifiable in a way that centralized computing systems are not—a necessary combination if you want to, say, make a new form of voting that allows citizens to give high-volume real-time feedback on hundreds or thousands of different issues.
So let’s get into the specifics.
WHAT ARE SOME EXISTING PROCESSES THAT BLOCKCHAINS COULD MAKE MORE TRUSTED AND TRANSPARENT?
One simple idea that plenty of people, including government officials around the world, have brought up to me on many occasions is the idea of governments creating a white-listed internal-use-only stablecoin for tracking internal government payments. Every tax payment from an individual or organization could be tied to a publicly visible on-chain record minting that number of coins (if we want individual tax payment quantities to be private, there are zero-knowledge ways to make only the total public but still convince everyone that it was computed correctly). Transfers between departments could be done “in the clear,” and the coins would be redeemed only by individual contractors or employees claiming their payments and salaries.
This system could easily be extended. For example, procurement processes for choosing which bidder wins a government contract could largely be done on-chain.
Many more processes could be made more trustworthy with blockchains:
FAIR RANDOM NUMBER GENERATORS (E.G., FOR LOTTERIES)—VDFs, such as the one Ethereum is expected to include, could serve as a fair random number generator that could be used to make government-run lotteries more trustworthy. Fair randomness could also be used for many other use cases, such as sortition as a form of government.
CERTIFICATES—for example, cryptographic proofs that some particular individual is a resident of the city—could be done on-chain for added verifiability and security (e.g., if such certificates are issued on-chain, it would become obvious if a large number of false certificates are issued). This can be used by all kinds of local-government-issued certificates.
ASSET REGISTRIES, for land and other assets, as well as more complicated forms of property ownership such as development rights. Due to the need for courts to be able to make assignments in exceptional situations, these registries will likely never be fully decentralized bearer instruments in the same way that cryptocurrencies are, but putting records on-chain can still make it easier to see what happened in what order in a dispute.
Eventually, even voting could be done on-chain. Here, many complexities and dragons loom, and it’s really important to be careful; a sophisticated solution combining blockchains,
zero-knowledge proofs, and other cryptography is needed to achieve all the desired privacy and security properties. However, if humanity is ever going to move to electronic voting at all, local government seems like the perfect place to start.
WHAT ARE SOME RADICAL ECONOMIC AND GOVERNANCE EXPERIMENTS THAT COULD BE INTERESTING?
But in addition to these kinds of blockchain overlays onto things that governments already do, we can also look at blockchains as an opportunity for governments to make completely new and radical experiments in economics and governance. These are not necessarily final ideas on what I think should be done; they are initial explorations and suggestions for possible directions. Once an experiment starts, real-world feedback is often by far the most useful variable to determine how the experiment should be adjusted in the future.
EXPERIMENT #1: A MORE COMPREHENSIVE VISION OF CITY TOKENS
CityCoins.co is one vision for how city tokens could work. But it is far from the only vision. Indeed, the CityCoins.co approach has significant risks, particularly in how the economic model is heavily tilted toward early adopters. Seventy percent of the STX revenue from minting new coins is given to existing stakers of the city coin. More coins will be issued in the next five years than in the fifty years that follow. It’s a good deal for the government in 2021, but what about 2051? Once a government endorses a particular city coin, it becomes difficult for it to change directions in the future. Hence, it’s important for city governments to think carefully about these issues, and choose a path that makes sense for the long term.
Here is a different possible sketch of a narrative of how city tokens might work. It’s far from the only possible alternative to the CityCoins.co vision. In any case, city tokens are a wide design space, and there are many different options worth considering. Anyway, here goes . . .
The concept of home ownership in its current form is a notable double-edged sword, and the specific ways in which it’s actively encouraged and legally structured is considered by many to be one of the biggest economic policy mistakes that we are making today. There is an inevitable political tension between a home as a place to live and a home as an investment asset, and the pressure to satisfy communities who care about the latter often ends up severely harming the affordability of the former. Residents in a city either own a home, making them massively over-exposed to land prices and introducing perverse incentives to fight against construction of new homes, or rent a home, making them negatively exposed to the real estate market and thus putting them economically at odds with the goal of making a city a nice place to live.
But even despite all of these problems, many still find home ownership to be not just a good personal choice, but something worthy of actively subsidizing or socially encouraging. One big reason is that it nudges people to save money and build up their net worth. Another big reason is that despite its flaws, it creates economic alignment between residents and the communities they live in. But what if we could give people a way to save and create that economic alignment without the flaws? What if we could create a divisible and fungible city token, that residents could hold as many units of as they can afford or feel comfortable with, and whose value goes up as the city prospers?
First, let’s start with some possible objectives. Not all are necessary; a token that accomplishes only three of the five is already a big step forward. But we’ll try to hit as many of them as possible:
GET SUSTAINABLE SOURCES OF REVENUE FOR THE GOVERNMENT: The city token economic model should avoid redirecting existing tax revenue; instead, it should find new sources of revenue.
CREATE ECONOMIC ALIGNMENT BETWEEN RESIDENTS AND THE CITY: This means first of all that the coin itself should clearly become more valuable as the city becomes more attractive. But it also means that the economics should actively encourage residents to hold the coin more than faraway hedge funds.
PROMOTE SAVING AND WEALTH-BUILDING: Home ownership does this—as home owners make mortgage payments, they build up their net worth by default. City tokens could do this too, making it attractive to accumulate coins over time, and even gamifying the experience.
ENCOURAGE MORE PRO-SOCIAL ACTIVITY: Such as positive actions that help the city and more sustainable use of resources.
BE EGALITARIAN: Don’t unduly favor wealthy people over poor people (as badly designed economic mechanisms often do accidentally). A token’s divisibility, avoiding a sharp binary divide between haves and have-nots, does a lot already, but we can go further—for example, by allocating a large portion of new issuance to residents as a UBI.*
*Universal basic income, in which all residents would receive an equal, unconditional income at regular intervals.
One pattern that seems to easily meet the first three objectives is providing benefits to holders: If you hold at least x coins (where x can go up over time), you get some set of services for free. MiamiCoin is trying to encourage businesses to do this, but we could go further and make government services work this way too. One simple example would be making existing public parking spaces only available for free to those who hold at least some number of coins in a locked-up form. This would serve a few goals at the same time:
Create an incentive to hold the coin, sustaining its value.
Create an incentive specifically for residents to hold the coin, as opposed to otherwise-unaligned faraway investors. Furthermore, the incentive’s usefulness is capped per person, so it encourages widely distributed holdings.
Creates economic alignment (city becomes more attractive —> more people want to park —> coins have more value). Unlike home ownership, this creates alignment with an entire town, and not merely a very specific location in a town.
Encourage sustainable use of resources by reducing usage of parking spots (though people without coins who really need them could still pay), supporting many local governments’ desires to open up more pedestrian-friendly space on the roads. Alternatively, restaurants could also be allowed to lock up coins through the same mechanism and claim parking spaces to use for outdoor seating.
But to avoid perverse incentives, it’s extremely important to avoid overly depending on one specific idea and instead to have a diverse array of possible revenue sources. One excellent gold mine of places to give city tokens value, and at the same time experiment with novel governance ideas, is zoning. If you hold at least y coins, then you can quadratically vote on the fee that nearby landowners have to pay to bypass zoning restrictions. This hybrid market- plus direct-democracy-based approach would be much more efficient than current overly cumbersome permitting processes, and the fee itself would be another source of government revenue. More generally, any of the ideas in the next section could be combined with city tokens to give city-token holders more places to use them.
EXPERIMENT #2: MORE RADICAL AND PARTICIPATORY FORMS OF GOVERNANCE
This is where Radical Markets* ideas such as Harberger taxes, quadratic voting, and quadratic funding come in. I already brought up some of these ideas in the section above, but you don’t have to have a dedicated city token to do them. Some limited government use of quadratic voting and funding has already happened: see the Colorado Democratic Party and the Taiwanese presidential hackathon, as well as not-yet-government-backed experiments like Gitcoin’s Boulder Downtown Stimulus. But we could do more!
*Again, referencing the book of this name (and its family of concepts) by Eric Posner and E. Glen Weyl.
One obvious place where these ideas can have long-term value is giving developers incentives to improve the aesthetics of buildings. Harberger taxes and other mechanisms could be used to radically reform zoning rules, and blockchains could be used to administer such mechanisms in a more trustworthy and efficient way. Another idea that is more viable in the short term is subsidizing local businesses, similar to the Downtown Stimulus but on a larger and more permanent scale. Businesses produce various kinds of positive externalities in their local communities all the time, and those externalities could be more effectively rewarded. Local news could be quadratically funded, revitalizing a long-struggling industry. Pricing for advertisements could be set based on real-time votes of how much people enjoy looking at each particular ad, encouraging more originality and creativity.
More democratic feedback (and possibly even retroactive democratic feedback!) could plausibly create better incentives in all of these areas. And twenty-first-century digital democracy through real-time online quadratic voting and funding could plausibly do a much better job than twentieth-century democracy, which seems in practice to have been largely characterized by rigid building codes and obstruction at planning and permitting hearings. And of course, if you’re going to use blockchains to secure voting, starting off by doing it with fancy new kinds of votes seems far more safe and politically feasible than re-fitting existing voting systems.
Mandatory solarpunk picture intended to evoke a positive image of what might happen to our cities if real-time quadratic votes could set subsidies and prices for everything.
There are a lot of worthwhile ideas for cities to experiment with that could be attempted by existing cities or by new cities. New cities of course have the advantage of not having existing residents with existing expectations of how things should be done; but the concept of creating a new city itself is, in modern times, relatively untested. Perhaps the multibillion-dollar capital pools in the hands of people and projects enthusiastic to try new things could get us over the hump. But even then, existing cities will likely continue to be the place where most people live for the foreseeable future, and existing cities can use these ideas too.
Blockchains can be very useful in both the more incremental and more radical ideas that were proposed here, even despite the inherently “trusted” nature of a city government. Running any new or existing mechanism on-chain gives the public an easy ability to verify that everything is following the rules. Public chains are better: the benefits from existing infrastructure for users to independently verify what is going on far outweigh the losses from transaction fees, which are expected to quickly decrease very soon from rollups and sharding. If strong privacy is required, blockchains can be combined with zero-knowledge cryptography to give privacy and security at the same time.
The main trap that governments should avoid is too quickly sacrificing optionality. An existing city could fall into this trap by launching a bad city token instead of taking things more slowly and launching a good one. A new city could fall into this trap by selling off too much land, sacrificing the entire upside to a small group of early adopters. Starting with self-contained experiments, and taking things slowly on moves that are truly irreversible, is ideal. But at the same time, it’s also important to seize the opportunity in the first place. There’s a lot that can and should be improved with cities, and a lot of opportunities; despite the challenges, crypto cities broadly are an idea whose time has come.
Special thanks to Mr. Silly and Tina Zhen for early feedback on the post, and to a long list of people for discussion of the ideas.
VITALIK BUTERIN is a Russian-Canadian programmer and writer who co-founded Bitcoin Magazine in 2011 and launched Ethereum in 2014. In 2021, he was named as one of TIME magazine’s most influential people.
I'm reading a book called Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida by Giovanna Borradori published by Chicago. Okay, I know it sounds dreadful. But here's my pitch: it's the perfect book for people who kinda want to read Habermas and Derrida but don't really have the time right now. (You get their very immediate personal reflections on how they see the events of 9/11—the interviews were conducted weeks after 9/11 in New York City—against the entire backdrop of modern political history and thought all the way back to Hegel, and they come to it from very different and even antagonistic strains of contemporary thought, Habermas keeping the faith of the Enlightenment and Derrida suspicious of the abuse of language that entails.)
A short, sharp, experimental manifesto about motherhood, sex work, and addiction, plus diary entries to Gillian Anderson. I picked this one up at Boswell Books in Milwaukee and read it in a sitting. Also, I think this is my favorite cover for a 2022 book.
I recently played a video game called Superliminal, which has been on my mind pretty regularly since I finished it. It’s a series of puzzles wherein you use perspective and optical illusions to advance to the next area. It’s a short, focused experience that you can complete in a single sitting. Strange, unique, and really wonderful.
I’ve linked the trailer up above, because the best pitch is just to see it in action.
I highly recommend the 1970 film Ice, directed by Robert Kramer, about an underground revolutionary group in a near-future US that's controlled by a fascist regime and at war with Mexico. It's ambitious (maybe overly so), and sometimes hard to follow, but totally compelling in its depiction of idealistic but flawed people trying and failing to work together.
There are some books you must read in a certain season. During the summer, there is nothing like the story of a torrid affair, something hot, sticky, frenetic, or maybe a stuffy social drama. But as soon as there is a faint hint of a chill in the air, I find myself looking for something drawn out, sweeping in scope, boring even.
I think the end of September is a perfect time to pick up Halldor Laxness’ Iceland’s Bell, a three part saga set in Iceland and Denmark at the end of the 17th Century. It’s a sharp social satire, a biting yet tender portrait of impoverishment and depravity, a plodding historical novel, a picaresque, a love story, and an updating of the Icelandic Saga. It’s epic in scale, long, filled with rich sentences, and also quite funny. This was my first Laxness. Certainly not my last.
I’ve also been watching a lot of Hitchcock lately and have been particularly enjoying his earlier films, from before he moved to Hollywood. These films are quick, packed with dialogue, and they insist on making sure you clock every clue—very different in feel from the elusive, lingering shots in his later work. From 1938, The Lady Vanishes is perhaps the perfect film.
I finally got around to reading Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, which is just as smutty, tortured, and riotous as expected. Trans lit has existed for centuries— even if it hasn’t been identified as such— but this 2017 novel (one of the first by a trans or non-binary author to make it out of the small press circuit in the US) has been heralded as partly responsible for ushering in a new wave of trans lit. There’s no linear transition story here (“Heterosexuality = marriage = death,” says our protagonist Paul, aka Polly). Instead, shape-shifting happens moment to moment— both in Paul/Polly’s day to day, and at the level of literary genre itself.
To mark today's publication of The Greatest Evil is War — a new book by journalist Chris Hedges that presents unflinching indictment of the horror and obscenity of war — we are proud to present an excerpt from the text, in which Hedges differentiates between what he calls “worthy” and “unworthy” victims, highlighting the ways in which politicians and the media politicize the victims of war and imperial violence to better promote the dominant political narrative.
Worthy and Unworthy Victims
Rulers divide the world into worthy and unworthy victims, those we are allowed to pity, such as Ukrainians enduring the hell of modern warfare, and those whose suffering is minimized, dismissed, or ignored. The terror we and our allies carry out against Iraqi, Palestinian, Syrian, Libyan, Somali, and Yemeni civilians is part of the regrettable cost of war. We, echoing the empty promises from Moscow, claim we do not target civilians. Rulers always paint their militaries as humane, there to serve and protect. Collateral damage happens, but it is regrettable.
This lie can only be sustained among those who are unfamiliar with the explosive ordnance and large kill zones of missiles; iron fragmentation bombs; mortar, artillery, and tank shells; and belt-fed machine guns. This bifurcation into worthy and unworthy victims, as Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky point out in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, is a key component of propaganda, especially in war. The Russian-speaking population in Ukraine, to Moscow, are worthy victims. Russia is their savior. The millions of Ukrainian families cowering in basements and subways, or forced to flee Ukraine, are unworthy victims. Ukrainian fighters are condemned as “Nazis.”
Worthy victims allow citizens to see themselves as empathetic, compassionate, and just. Worthy victims are an effective tool to demonize the aggressor. They are used to obliterate nuance and ambiguity. Mention the provocations carried out by the Western alliance and you are dismissed as a Putin apologist. It is to taint the sainthood of the worthy victims, and by extension ourselves.
We are good. They are evil. Worthy victims are used not only to express sanctimonious outrage, but to stoke self-adulation and a poisonous nationalism. The cause becomes sacred, a religious crusade. Fact-based evidence is abandoned, as it was during the calls to invade Iraq. Charlatans, liars, con artists, fake defectors, and opportunists become experts, used to fuel the conflict.
Celebrities, who, like the powerful, carefully orchestrate their public image, pour out their hearts to worthy victims. Hollywood stars such as George Clooney made trips to Darfur to denounce the war crimes being committed by Khartoum at the same time the U.S. was killing scores of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. The war in Iraq was as savage as the slaughter in Darfur, but to express outrage at what was happening to unworthy victims was to become branded as the enemy.
Saddam Hussein’s attacks on the Kurds after the first Gulf War were considered worthy victims, while Israeli persecution of the Palestinians, subjected to relentless bombing campaigns by the Israeli air force, artillery and tank units, with hundreds of dead and wounded, were a footnote. At the height of Stalin’s purges in the 1930s, worthy victims were the Republicans battling the fascists in the Spanish civil war. Soviet citizens were mobilized to send aid and assistance. Unworthy victims were the millions of people Stalin sent to the gulags, sometimes after tawdry show trials, and executed.
While I was reporting from El Salvador in 1984, the Catholic priest Jerzy Popiełuszko was murdered by the regime in Poland. His death was used to excoriate the Polish communist government, a stark contrast to the response of the Reagan administration to the rape and murder of four Catholic missionaries in 1980 in El Salvador by the Salvadoran National Guard. President Ronald Reagan’s administration sought to blame the three nuns and a lay worker for their own deaths. Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations, said, “The nuns were not just nuns. The nuns were also political activists.” Secretary of State Alexander Haig speculated that “perhaps they ran a roadblock.” 
For the Reagan administration, the murdered churchwomen were unworthy victims. The right-wing government in El Salvador, armed and backed by the United States, joked at the time, Haz patria, mata un cura (Be a patriot, kill a priest). Archbishop Óscar Romero had been assassinated in March of 1980. Nine years later, the Salvadoran regime would gun down six Jesuits and two others at their residence on the campus of Central American University in San Salvador. Between 1977 and 1989, death squads and soldiers killed thirteen priests in El Salvador.
It is not that worthy victims do not suffer, nor that they are not deserving of our support and compassion; it is that worthy victims alone are rendered human, people like us, and unworthy victims are not. It helps, of course, when, as in Ukraine, they are white. But the missionaries murdered in El Salvador were also white and American, and yet it was not enough to shake U.S. support for the country’s military dictatorship.
“The mass media never explain why Andrei Sakharov is worthy and José Luis Massera, in Uruguay, is unworthy,” Herman and Chomsky write. They continue:
The attention and general dichotomization occur “naturally” as a result of the working of the filters, but the result is the same as if a commissar had instructed the media: “Concentrate on the victims of enemy powers and forget about the victims of friends.” Reports of the abuses of worthy victims not only pass through the filters; they may also become the basis of sustained propaganda campaigns. If the government or corporate community and the media feel that a story is useful as well as dramatic, they focus on it intensively and use it to enlighten the public.
This was true, for example, of the shooting down by the Soviets of the Korean Air Lines flight 007 in early September 1983, which permitted an extended campaign of denigration of an official enemy and greatly advanced Reagan administration arms plans. As Bernard Gwertzman noted complacently in the New York Times of August 31, 1984, U.S. officials “assert that worldwide criticism of the Soviet handling of the crisis has strengthened the United States in its relations with Moscow.” In sharp contrast, the shooting down by Israel of a Libyan civilian airliner in February 1973 led to no outcry in the West, no denunciations for “cold-blooded murder,” and no boycott. This difference in treatment was explained by the New York Times precisely on the grounds of utility in a 1973 editorial: “No useful purpose is served by an acrimonious debate over the assignment of blame for the downing of a Libyan airliner in the Sinai Peninsula last week.” There was a very “useful purpose” served by focusing on the Soviet act, and a massive propaganda campaign ensued. 
It is impossible to hold those responsible for war crimes accountable if worthy victims are deserving of justice and unworthy victims are not. If Russia should be crippled with sanctions for invading Ukraine, which I believe it should, the United States should have been crippled with sanctions for invading Iraq, a war launched based on lies and fabricated evidence.
Imagine if America’s largest banks, JPMorgan Chase, Citibank, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo, were cut off from the international banking system. Imagine if our oligarchs, Jeff Bezos, Jamie Dimon, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk, as venal as Russian oligarchs, had their assets frozen and estates and luxury yachts seized. (Bezos’s yacht is the largest in the world, cost an estimated $500 million, and is about fifty-seven feet longer than a football field.) Imagine if leading political figures, such as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and U.S. “oligarchs” were blocked from traveling under visa restrictions. Imagine if the world’s biggest shipping lines suspended shipments to and from the United States. Imagine if U.S. international media news outlets were forced off the air. Imagine if we were blocked from purchasing spare parts for our commercial airlines, and our passenger jets were banned from European air space. Imagine if our athletes were barred from hosting or participating in international sporting events. Imagine if our symphony conductors and opera stars were forbidden from performing unless they denounced the Iraq war and, in a kind of perverted loyalty oath, condemned George W. Bush.
The rank hypocrisy is stunning. Some of the same officials that orchestrated the invasion of Iraq, who under international law are war criminals for carrying out a preemptive war, are now chastising Russia for its violation of international law. The U.S. bombing campaign of Iraqi urban centers, called “Shock and Awe,” saw the dropping of 3,000 bombs on civilian areas that killed more than 7,000 noncombatants in the first two months of the war.
“I have argued that when you invade a sovereign nation, that is a war crime,” Harris Faulkner, a Fox News host said (with a straight face) to Condoleezza Rice, who served as Bush’s national security adviser during the Iraq War.
“It is certainly against every principle of international law and international order, and that is why throwing the book at them now in terms of economic sanctions and punishments is also a part of it,” Rice said. “And I think the world is there. Certainly, NATO is there. He’s managed to unite NATO in ways that I didn’t think I would ever see after the end of the Cold War.”
Rice inadvertently made a case for why she should be put on trial with the rest of Bush’s enablers. She famously justified the invasion of Iraq by stating: “The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” Her rationale for preemptive war, which under post-Nuremberg laws is a criminal war of aggression, is no different than that peddled by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who says the Russia invasion is being carried out to prevent Ukraine from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Only rarely is this hypocrisy exposed, as when U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the body: “We’ve seen videos of Russian forces moving exceptionally lethal weaponry into Ukraine, which has no place on the battlefield. That includes cluster munitions and vacuum bombs which are banned under the Geneva Convention.” Hours later, the official transcript of her remark was amended to tack on the words “if they are directed against civilians.” This is because the U.S., which like Russia never ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions treaty, regularly uses cluster munitions. It used them in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Iraq. It has provided them to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen. Russia has yet to come close to the tally of civilian deaths from cluster munitions delivered by the U.S. military.
And this brings me to RT America, where I had a show called On Contact. RT America is now off the air after being deplatformed and unable to disseminate its content. This was long the plan of the U.S. government. The invasion of Ukraine gave Washington the opening to shut RT down. The network had a tiny media footprint. But it gave a platform to American dissidents who challenged corporate capitalism, imperialism, war, and the American oligarchy.
My public denunciation of the invasion of Ukraine was treated very differently by RT America than my public denunciation of the Iraq war was treated by my former employer, the New York Times. RT America made no comment, publicly or privately, about my condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine in my ScheerPost column. Nor did RT comment about statements by Jesse Ventura, a Vietnam veteran and former Minnesota governor, who also had a show on RT America, and who wrote: “20 years ago, I lost my job because I opposed the Iraq War and the invasion of Iraq. Today, I still stand for peace. As I’ve said previously, I oppose this war, this invasion, and if standing up for peace costs me another job, so be it. I will always speak out against war.”
RT America was shut down six days after I denounced the invasion of Ukraine. If the network had continued, Ventura and I might have paid with our jobs, but at least for those six days they kept us on air.
The New York Times issued a formal written reprimand in 2003 that forbade me to speak about the war in Iraq, although I had been the newspaper’s Middle East Bureau Chief, had spent seven years in the Middle East, and was an Arabic speaker. This reprimand set me up to be fired. If I violated the prohibition, under guild rules, the paper had grounds to terminate my employment. John Burns, another foreign correspondent at the paper, publicly supported the invasion of Iraq. He did not receive a reprimand.
My repeated warnings in public forums about the chaos and bloodbath the invasion of Iraq would trigger, which turned out to be correct, was not an opinion. It was an analysis based on years of experience in the region, including in Iraq, and an intimate understanding of the instrument of war those in the Bush White House lacked. But it challenged the dominant narrative and was silenced. This same censorship of anti-war sentiment is happening now in Russia, but we should remember it happened here during the inception and initial stages of the invasion of Iraq.
Those of us who opposed the Iraq war, no matter how much experience we had in the region, were marginalized and vilified. Ventura, who had a three-year contract with MSNBC, saw his show canceled.
Those who were cheerleaders for the war, such as George Packer, Thomas Friedman, Paul Berman, Michael Ignatieff, Leon Wieseltier, and Nick Kristof, a group Tony Judt called “Bush’s useful idiots,” dominated the media landscape. They painted the Iraqis as oppressed, worthy victims, whom the U.S. military would set free. The plight of women under the Taliban was a rallying cry to bomb and occupy the country. These courtiers to power served the interests of the power elite and the war industry. They differentiated between worthy and unworthy victims. It was a good career move. And they knew it.
There was very little dispute about the folly of invading Iraq among reporters in the Middle East, but most did not want to jeopardize their positions by speaking publicly. They did not want my fate to become their own, especially after I was booed off a commencement stage in Rockford, Illinois, for delivering an anti-war speech and became a punching bag for right-wing media. I would walk through the newsroom and reporters I had known for years looked down or turned their heads as if I had leprosy. My career was finished. And not just at the New York Times but with any major media organization. This is where I was, orphaned, when Robert Scheer, who had lost his job as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times because of his opposition to the war, recruited me to write for the website Truthdig, which he then edited.
What Russia is doing militarily in Ukraine, at least up to now, was more than matched by our own savagery in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and Vietnam. This is an inconvenient fact that the press, awash in moral posturing, will not address.
No one has mastered the art of technowar and wholesale slaughter like the U.S. military. When atrocities leak out, such as the massacre of more than five hundred unarmed villagers at My Lai in Vietnam or the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, the press does its duty by branding them aberrations. The truth is that these killings and abuse are deliberate. They are orchestrated at the senior levels of the military. Infantry units, assisted by long-range artillery, fighter jets, heavy bombers, missiles, drones, and helicopters, level vast swaths of “enemy” territory, killing most of the inhabitants. The U.S. military, during the invasion of Iraq from Kuwait, created a six-mile-wide free-fire zone that killed hundreds if not thousands of Iraqis. The indiscriminate killing ignited the Iraqi insurgency.
When I entered southern Iraq in the first Gulf War, it was flattened. Villages and towns were smoldering ruins. Bodies of the dead, including women and children, lay scattered on the ground. Water purification systems had been bombed. Power stations had been bombed. Schools and hospitals had been bombed. Bridges had been bombed. The United States military always wages war by “overkill,” which is why it dropped the equivalent of 640 Hiroshima-size atomic bombs on Vietnam, most actually falling on the south, where our purported Vietnamese allies resided. It unloaded in Vietnam more than 70 million tons of herbicidal agents, three million rockets tipped with white phosphorus—which will burn its way entirely through a body—and an estimated 400,000 tons of jellied incendiary napalm. 
“Thirty-five percent of the victims,” Nick Turse wrote of the war in Vietnam, “died within 15 to 20 minutes.” Death from the skies, like death on the ground, was often unleashed capriciously. “It was not out of the ordinary for US troops in Vietnam to blast a whole village or bombard a wide area in an effort to kill a single sniper.” 
Vietnamese villagers, including women, children, and the elderly, were often herded into tiny barbed-wire enclosures known as “cow cages.” They were subjected to electric shocks, gang-raped, and tortured by being hung upside down and beaten—a practice euphemistically called “the plane ride”—until unconscious. Fingernails were ripped out. Fingers were dismembered. Detainees were slashed with knives. They were beaten senseless with baseball bats and waterboarded. Targeted assassinations, orchestrated by CIA death squads, were ubiquitous.
Wholesale destruction, including of human beings, is orgiastic. The ability to unleash sheets of automatic rifle fire, hundreds of rounds of belt-fed machine-gun fire, 90-mm tank rounds, endless grenades, mortars, and artillery shells on a village, sometimes supplemented by gigantic 2,700-pound explosive projectiles fired from battleships along the coast, was a perverted form of entertainment in Vietnam, as it became later in the Middle East. U.S. troops litter the countryside with claymore mines. These are our calling cards: canisters of napalm, daisy-cutter bombs, anti-personnel rockets, high-explosive rockets, incendiary rockets, cluster bombs, high-explosive shells, and iron fragmentation bombs—including the 40,000-pound bomb loads dropped by giant B-52 Stratofortress bombers—along with chemical defoliants and chemical gases dropped from the sky. Vast areas are designated free-fire zones (a term later changed by the military to the more neutral-sounding “specified strike zone”), in which everyone is considered the enemy, even the elderly, women, and children.
Soldiers and Marines who attempt to report the war crimes they witness can face a fate worse than being pressured, discredited, or ignored. On Sepember 12, 1969, as Nick Turse wrote in his book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, George Chunko sent a letter to his parents explaining how his unit had entered a home that had a young Vietnamese woman, four young children, an elderly man, and a military-age male inside. It appeared the younger man was AWOL from the South Vietnamese army. The young man was stripped naked and tied to a tree. His wife fell to her knees and begged the soldiers for mercy. The prisoner, Chunko wrote, was “ridiculed, slapped around and [had] mud rubbed into this face.”  He was then executed.
A day after he wrote the letter, Chunko was killed. Chunko’s parents, Turse wrote, “suspected that their son had been murdered to cover up the crime.” 
All of this remains unspoken as we express our anguish for the people of Ukraine and revel in our moral superiority. The life of a Palestinian or an Iraqi child is as precious as the life of a Ukrainian child. No one should live in fear and terror. No one should be sacrificed on the altar of Mars. But until all victims are worthy, until all who wage war are held accountable and brought to justice, this hypocritical game of life and death will continue. Some human beings will be worthy of life. Others will not. Drag Putin off to the International Criminal Court and put him on trial. But make sure George W. Bush is in the cell next to him. If we can’t see ourselves, we can’t see anyone else. And this blindness leads to catastrophe.
10. Cited in Raymond Bonner, “The Diplomat and the Killer,” The Atlantic, February 11, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/02/el-salvador-churchwomen-murders/460320/.
11. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), 32.
12. Nick Turse, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013), 79.
13. Ibid., 91.
14. Ibid., 224–225.
15. Ibid., 226.
Drawn from experience and interviews by Pulitzer-prize-winner Chris Hedges, this book looks at the hidden costs of war, what it does to individuals, families, communities and nations.
In fifteen short chapters, Chris Hedges astonishes us with his clear and cogent argument against war, not on philosophical grounds or through moral arguments, but in an irrefutable stream of personal encounters with the victims of war, from veterans and parents to gravely wounded American serviceman who served in the Iraq War, to survivors of the Holocaust, to soldiers in the Falklands War, among others. Hedges reported from Sarajevo, and was in the Balkans to witness the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In 2002 he published War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, which the Los Angeles Times described as “the best kind of war journalism… bitterly poetic and ruthlessly philosophical” and the New York Times called “a brilliant, thoughtful, timely, and unsettling book.” In the twenty years since, Hedges has not wanted to write another book on the subject of war — until now, with the outbreak of war in Ukraine. It is important again to be reminded who are the victors of the spoils of war and of other unerring truths, not only in this war but in all modern wars, where civilians are always the main victims, and the tools and methods of war are capable of so much destruction it boggles the mind. This book is an unflinching indictment of the horror and obscenity of war by one of our finest war correspondents.
CHRIS HEDGES was a war correspondent for two decades in Central America, the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans, including fifteen years with the New York Times, where he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He is the author of fourteen books, including War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, What Every Person Should Know About War, and his latest, Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison. The passages in this book are taken from his writings on war, primarily from Truthdig and ScheerPost, over the past twenty years, as well as from numerous talks and lectures. He writes a column every Monday for ScheerPost and has a show, The Chris Hedges Report, on The Real News. He holds a Master of Divinity from Harvard University and has taught at Columbia University, New York University, Princeton University, and the University of Toronto. He has taught students earning their college degree from Rutgers University in the New Jersey prison system since 2010. You can find him at chrishedges.substack.com.
HOWARD ZINN (1922–2010) was a historian, author, professor, playwright, and activist. His life’s work focused on a wide range of issues including race, class, war, and history, and touched the lives of countless people. His writing celebrated the accomplishments of social movements and ordinary people, and challenged readers to question the myths that justify war and inequality. Zinn’s influence lives on in millions of people who have read his work and have been inspired by his actions. He ended his autobiography with these encouraging words: "We don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an endless succession of presents, and to live now as we think humans should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory."
Created by Meytal Radzinski in 2014 to highlight the literary contributions of women writers and translators, Women in Translation Month has since grown into a global event celebrated each August throughout the English-speaking world. To celebrate, we're offering 30% off books written and translated by women from all over the globe, valid through the end of August.
Recommendations from the staff at Seven Stories Press
And we're back! Again! But this time for good. Probably!
This latest installment of Seven Stories Staff Picks, all of our book recommendations (where possible*) link directly to our comrades at Stories Books & Cafe. Pay them a visit the next time you're in LA!
*Where it's not available, we link to either Alibris or the book's publisher.
This book is wild, and less than 200 pages. Revenge of the Scapegoat follows Iris, an adjunct professor at an arts college, suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, who recieves a box of letters from her estranged father. The letters, which he'd given her previously, when she was a teenager, outline all of the ways in which the crises her family endured were, as her father says, entirely her fault. Thrown for a loop and reeling from the cruelty this act, as well as the chaos of her marriage (her husband is self-medicating his alcohol addiction by "microdosing heroin"), Iris takes off in her friend's busted old Subaru, adopts the name Vivitrix Marigold, and finds herself covered in manure, trapped below the hoof of a Nazi cow (long story) on the grounds of a rural art museum. Throughout all of this, we become acquainted with her trusty companions, her rheumatic feet named Bouvard and Pécuchet (after Flaubert). It's a delightfully bonkers story, perfect for fans of Kathy Acker, Guadalupe Nettel, Sarah Rose Etter, Pola Oloixarac, or even Ottessa Moshfegh.
Also, listen to the band Pylon. Especially if you're into Gang of Four or X or Pixies or The Fall. They're incredible, and I'm thrilled that they're finally on streaming platforms after so long. Listen to this song first, and then watch this music video. You won't regret it.
Titaua Peu's Pina translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman, out soon from Restless Books, is an extraordinary novel that brings to mind the fiction of Emile Zola, depicting dehumanization in a highly nuanced social setting, and with a lush naturalist eye. And although the book is written in French, it is infused at the same time with a syntax and vocabulary and style that derives from the Polynesian dialect spoken in Tahiti. And it will almost certainly be the first work of Tahitian literature you've ever read.
The overturning of Roe v. Wade has had me thinking about the connections between abolition and reproductive justice and abortion access. Like the writer Charlotte Shane tweeted recently “If nothing else please let this be the moment that cements your commitment to prison abolition. They are going to incarcerate people for miscarriages. They are going to incarcerate mothers and aunts and big sisters for helping teenage relatives abort.”
Abolition. Feminism. Now. is both a call to action (“Now.”) and a genealogy of abolitionist movements, from the beginning of abolitionist feminist conferences and thought to current-day movements like No New Jails NYC. A stark reminder that our liberation is collective.
UK band Black Country, New Road came out of nowhere. They arrived fully formed, with two singles that harkened back to a beloved period of late-80s/early-90s indie rock. With lyrics that aimed to take pop-culture mundanity and find transcendence in it, and drawing inspiration from heavy-hitters like Sonic Youth, Slint, and The Fall, they immediately found themselves adrift in an ocean of buzz. For the first time, their debut album, fleshed out the prickly, stand-offish sound of the singles, adding elements of jazz and Eastern European folk music to their guitar noise meltdowns.
Their second album, released in early 2022, was a complete re-direction. Pivoting away from abrasion and ugliness, and toward something deeply personal and musically accessible, Ants From Up There draws from the sounds of early 2000s indie rock (specifically, early Arcade Fire maximalism).The album has been a bittersweet triumph—universally acclaimed, full of recurring themes and motifs that all build toward the breathtaking final three minutes. And yet, days before the album’s release, and just before the band were slated to begin their first US tour, singer Isaac Wood announced that he was leaving the band, citing mental health issues (he works in a bakery now, and has reportedly never been happier).
The rest of the band has opted for an unusual path—continuing on in a new iteration. They wrote new songs, and have refused to play any of the material from their first two albums during their live shows, out of respect for their friend. Their constant evolution, close-knit group dynamic, and the fact that all 7-ish members of the band are unbelievably talented, has made them the most exciting band in the world (at least to me). We’re lucky to be along for the ride.
Right now I'm reading Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au, a short, elusive novel about a mother and daughter who take a trip to Japan. They go to bookstores and museums and restaurants; they try to communicate but can't seem to reach one another, leaving the most important things unsaid. That makes it sound a bit sad, and it is, but here the difficulties of communication are as miraculous as they are frustrating—it reminds me of the Rilke line about love as two solitudes side by side. I'm halfway through and reading it slowly to make it last.
While I sit baking in my house in the burbs, I've also been walking the streets of Paris, London, Tokyo, Venice and New York (well, I get there on my own for real sometimes) with Lauren Elkin, the author of—and a partaker of the lifestyle of a—Flâneuse. Yes, perambulating through the world's great cities is an activity for those with the time and money for such leisurely and indulgent activities, but if armchair travel or upending the male-dominant view is your summer jam, then I highly recommend a cosmopolitan, woman-centered, art and literature-filled jaunt with Elkin. However, if you haven't read Annie Ernaux's Happening yet, or seen Audrey Diwan's powerful film of the story, you must (!) put it at the top of your list, well ahead of any flaneuse-ing.
X begins with an S/M waterboarding scene and opens up into a not-so-distant future in which undesirables (the racialized, dissident, transexual, drug using, poor, and immigrant) are forced to “export” themselves to other countries at the prodding of the US government. Amidst this ongoing descent into fascism, our protagonist Lee, a sadist and asshole with arguably good intentions, finds themself searching for X — a “femdom nightmare” who tops them at a warehouse party in Brooklyn. I don’t read a lot of thrillers or noir, but this isn’t genre for genre’s sake— X’s vampiric tone is the perfect cover for a deep consideration of how ordinary life persists amidst political crisis. The author of the earthquake room and a newsletter about people called David, Davis writes brilliantly about how the state infects our desires and decisions; if all of our hands are in the dirt, what makes you feel good, and what lengths do you go to get it? (In COVID quarantine in a world that feels pretty identical to X’s, I have a few pages left, but it’s too good to not be included on this list.)
“We can allow the future to influence our present. That opens up all kinds of new possibilities.”
To celebrate the publication of Kraken Calling, the fiction debut of Canadian activist and author Aric McBay, we are proud to share a short interview with the author, whose previous book, Full Spectrum Resistance, told a comprehensive history of various social movements, offering both strategies for future actions and cautionary tales of what to avoid. McBay's newest book, a near-future speculative novel about direct action against a repressive regime,follows activist groups organizing in two different time periods, 2028 and 2051, and contending with a sharply increasing authoritarianism over the course of that generation.
Q: Your debut novel, Kraken Calling, spans two interconnected time periods – one 2028, one 2051 – to tell the story of activist groups attempting to organize and fight back against an increasingly oppressive regime. What compelled you to write this book with this sort of timeline? How does this asynchronous chronology serve the story?
By telling a story in two different time periods we can sharpen the contrast between them. I wanted to tell two interconnected stories a generation apart – one similar to our own time, and one more authoritarian and wracked by disaster – to really tease apart the differences and heighten the contradictions between the two.
Of course, I could have told the stories in Kraken Calling one after the other, chronologically, instead of interleaving them. But alternating between the two created a more powerful dramatic result.
First, it creates more tension for the reader, because we don’t know the fate of our favourite characters until late in the book.
Second, interleaving the stories – taking characters a generation apart and placing them side-by-side – means that we automatically compare and contrast their choices and their experiences. It makes everything in the book feel more vivid.
And third, it creates a puzzle, a mystery that the reader can try to solve. At the beginning, we don’t know all the connections between the different characters, we don’t know who we can trust. I really enjoy stories that reward thoughtful engagement, that encourage us to read between the lines. (I’ve even heard from a few people who finished the book, and then immediately went back to the start because they wanted to find all of the little clues and easter eggs that weren’t obvious on their first pass.)
I wanted to offer the reader the joy of puzzling out those connections – or they can just be swept up in the story, whatever their preference!
Telling the story in an asynchronous way also mirrors a lot of my own experience as a non-fiction author and a student of social movements. I’m always looking a generation (or more) back to see what we can learn, and how decisions people made then affect us now. What could we have done better?
And as a climate justice activist, I have to look forward, to think about how our actions affect the future. I’m always looking in both directions.
In Kraken Calling, there’s a 23-year gap between the two time periods. And as I approach middle-age, I’ve realized that 23 years can pass surprisingly fast. That can feel terrifying – not because of my own mortality, but because we have very little time to act to prevent climate catastrophe and rampant authoritarianism.
We usually think of time as a one-way process: our actions in the past (or present) determine the future. And that’s largely true – but through speculative fiction, by envisioning possible futures and experiencing them vicariously, we can reverse that causality.
We can allow the future to influence our present. That opens up all kinds of new possibilities.
Q: Technological advances are integral to both the successes and failures of the activist movements throughout Kraken Calling. Can you tell me a little bit about the technology you write about in the book? Also, how do you see the relationship between anti-authoritarian activism and technology, particularly given our current corporatist (and arguably authoritarian) technological landscape?
The characters in the future of Kraken Calling live under an overtly authoritarian “Emergency Authority”. Repression and surveillance limits what activists can do, their ability to organize, to meet.
In our highly technological society, it’s easy to forget that most authoritarian states in the twentieth century had rather primitive surveillance systems. For example, in East Germany during the Cold War, surveillance by the Stasi (secret police) was incredibly labour-intensive. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, up to 1 of 6 people in East Germany were serving as informants for the secret police. That’s a lot of people. And even with all those citizen-spies, the Stasi ultimately failed, and that authoritarian government was overthrown.
Those historical authoritarians were horrible, violent, and repressive, but their surveillance powers were weak by modern standards. These days almost every one of us has a device in our pocket that knows whether you are sleeping or awake, who you are with, where you go, what you are reading, every minute of the day.
We haven’t really been able to counter that effectively even now, and it’s not difficult to imagine how a truly fascist state could use all that information and power.
Hence, in Kraken Calling, activists living under the Emergency Authority have very few opportunities to communicate safely. Their daily movements are tracked and restricted, and the Emergency Authority (which emerged during a period of epidemics) uses contact tracing to find and destroy political movements. So dissidents have developed their own workarounds.
Perhaps the most important technology used by activists in the future is something called “Samizdata”. It’s a tool, a coin-sized solar-powered wireless module. It’s something they can slip into their pockets or hide on a rooftop. It produces a very slow, clandestine, ad hoc wireless network.
Samizdata allows activists to communicate with each other, to share news and information that they couldn’t through official channels. The name is inspired by samizdat, a secret communications system that people living under Stalinism used to share banned books – often copying them out by hand.
However, the samizdata system also reflects the state of resistance in Kraken Calling – at least at the start of the novel. Resistance is isolated, sporadic, and mostly rather timid. But as the novel progresses, and resistance grows, samizdata becomes an even more important tool.
That said, tech is just a tool. Movements are made of people. And to succeed, we need to forge individuals into groups, and to mobilize groups to take bold action.
Good technology can facilitate movement-building, but it will never do that work for us.
Q: You have written extensively about the successes of, and failures of, activist movements throughout history, most recently in your two-volume tome Full Spectrum Resistance. What were some of the real-world activist influences on Kraken Calling?
I mentioned samizdat above; many historical anti-authoritarian movements influenced the book, including struggles against Nazi and Soviet authoritarianism.
I’m especially inspired by anti-colonial movements in the Global South. The structure of Emergency Authority reflects techniques the British used to colonize Africa, and in particular to deal with the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s. I’ve also drawn a lot from the African National Congress and movements against South African apartheid.
But closer to home, and especially in the 2028 timeframe, much of the narrative is shaped by things I’ve experienced in my own lifetime as a grassroots activist. For example, the tactics that some activists in the novel use against a fossil fuel site – protests, sit-ins, mass defiance of police, and other forms of non-violent direct action – are all tactics that I’ve used (and taught) in my own activist career. (I wrote about those in Full Spectrum Resistance as well as in Direct Action Works with Pamela Cross.)
Of course, making that kind of action happen on a large scale involves some pretty complicated community alliances and politically strange bedfellows. Those often-tense dynamics are a key thread in Kraken Calling.
Lastly, even in 2028 there are ample forms of government and corporate repression (surveillance, agents provocateurs, infiltrators, and so on), just like in real life. That was very much influenced by 21st century events like the Green Scare, the G20 Conspiracy case in Ontario, and many other examples.
Many of the movements that influenced the novel have been successful. But we can learn a lot even from (and maybe especially from) failures.
Q: Speaking of failures: Kraken Calling is not shy about addressing the mistakes and miscalculations of its characters, particularly when it comes to a general failure to recognize the urgency of the 2028 movements and organize accordingly. That said, while the 2051 of the novel is clearly dystopian in part because of that lack of urgency, it is not by any means a novel that presents a fatalistic or hopeless view of the future. Can you tell me a little bit about the way that failure factors into the story, and how this relates to where we find ourselves today, living in a period of significant backlash to the social progress of the past decade+? How do you see the relationship between hope for the future and political failures of the past/present?
There’s a quote from Latin American independence leader Símon Bolivar that comes up a couple of times in Kraken Calling: “The work of the revolutionary is to plow the sea.” In other words, social change or revolution is not an endpoint. It’s an effortful process, we have to keep doing it, or we’ll lose the progress we’ve already made.
It’s easy to treat social progress as some kind of historical inevitability. It would be nice if we could kind of sit around and just watch things get better no matter what we did. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But that’s not a physical law – King was an organizer and activist, and he understood that the arc of history doesn’t bend automatically. If it bends toward justice, that’s only because of the struggles and sacrifices of many different people in many different movements.
Social progress is never guaranteed. The belief that social progress is simply result of time, rather than struggle, is a really demobilizing and demoralizing idea. I see that as a fundamentally conservative belief, because it says, essentially: activism doesn’t matter. “We just need more time, and we’ll get there eventually.” And that’s very wrong!
In any case, backlashes are a critical part of understanding how social change happens. Because history is not a one-way straight line. Especially now, we see that in the US. But it’s happened many times.
Consider the end of slavery and the civil war in the US. After 1865, things actually started to get better for a lot of Black people in the American South. There was growing economic equality, and even Black legislators were elected. But that same progress provoked an enormous backlash, which led to the rise of the KKK and a massive level of state-sponsored terrorism to repress marginalized communities. It took a hundred years, and many waves of activism, before Black legislators were elected again and civil rights more firmly established.
The more you succeed as an activist, the stronger the repression is likely to be. I don’t say this to be cynical or fatalistic. Quite the opposite: It’s important to understand backlashes so we can be ready for them, and so that we aren’t naïve. So that we don’t just give up when things get difficult.
Things can get very, very bad – as they have many times in history – and we can still come back from that and build societies that are more fair, and just, and worth living in, and even beautiful. (Periods of crisis can actually yield major change, if we’re adequately prepared, and if we can use the principles of effective resistance I’ve written about in my non-fiction books.)
To return to the part of your question about the characters in Kraken Calling, you are exactly right: they make a lot of mistakes. And that was an intentional choice, because it’s realistic.
When we read a streamlined view of historical movements, a lot of the mistakes get left out of the summary. But mistakes are actually an essential part of making change, because if you are unwilling to make mistakes as an activist you’ll be unable to learn. In fact, if you’re too afraid of making mistakes you’ll never be able to do anything!
That’s important to remember, because some activist scenes can be perfectionist, rigid, and unforgiving. But it’s okay to make mistakes. I’ve made plenty! That doesn’t make you a failure, and it doesn’t make you a bad person. The key is to learn, to recognize mistakes, to try to fix them.
And crucially, to keep making new mistakes that open up new possibilities. And ideally to mostly learn from other people’s mistakes. If you can only learn by making mistakes for yourself, well, that’s a slow and uniquely excruciating way to create change.
Q: Is there anything specifically you would like the reader to consider while reading this book? What conclusions – or questions – would you like the reader to walk away with?
I think – or hope – that people will be reflecting on the choices of the characters in the novel. Asking: What would I have done differently if I were these characters, in their shoes? What should they be doing next? And what should I do right now, in real life?
I want people to think (and feel) about the kind of future they want to leave the next generation, and to act accordingly. I want to prime them to think about authoritarian trends in a proactive way; not to just wallow in dystopia, but to consider what might happen in the world in the aftermath of pandemic, as climate change gets worse, as authoritarians become more bold, and to think about how we can best intervene.
The novel has twenty-four chapters – twelve in each time period. Kraken Calling begins in the future of 2051, but it ends in the “past” of 2028. That was a very deliberate choice. I didn’t want to end in 2051, where the dystopian future feels fixed or inevitable, like a fait accompli.
I wanted to end the story near our own time, where we still have a chance, collectively, to change the course of history. To build and to fight for the kind of future we actually want to live in.
Aric McBay is an organizer, a farmer, and author of four books. He writes and speaks about effective social movements, and has organized campaigns around prison justice, Indigenous solidarity, pipelines, unionization, and other causes. You can find his work at aricmcbay.org.
Celebrate the life of Che Guevara with 40% off all Che titles!
Born in Rosario, Argentina, on June 14, 1928, and killed on October 9, 1967, the short life of Ernesto Guevara de la Serna is that of one of the greatest and most enduring revolutionary figures of all time, named one of Time magazine's "icons of the 20th century." He was politicized first-hand during his travels as a young man around Latin America, and especially by witnessing the CIA-backed overthrow of the elected government of Jacobo Árbenz in 1954 in Guatemala. He sought out a group of Cuban revolutionaries exiled in Mexico City. And, in July 1955, immediately after meeting their leader Fidel Castro, enlisted in their expedition to overthrow Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. The Cubans nicknamed him "Che," a popular form of address in Argentina.
Four years later, after a fierce revolutionary struggle, General Batista fled on January 1, 1959, and Che became a key leader in the new revolutionary government. Che was also the main representative of the Cuban revolutionary government around the world, heading numerous delegations to Asia, Africa, Latin America and the United States. Beginning in 1965, Che lead two Cuban missions to support revolutionary struggles elsewhere in the world, first in Congo and then in Bolivia. Both of these interventions failed, and Che's accounts of these struggles in Congo Diary and The Bolivian Diary show the lessons learned and the humility and fierce intelligence with which Che approached every revolutionary struggle.
To celebrate the publication of The NBA in Black and White: The Memoir of a Trailblazing NBA Player and Coach by Ray Scott, we are proud to share an excerpt from his book, a memoir of hard lessons learned in the racially segregated NBA of the early 1960s. In this passage, Scott offers some stats about the racial demographics of the 1960s NBA as a lead-in to sharing one of his favorite memories of his fellow player, perhaps the most iconic basketball player of all time, Wilt Chamberlain.
On November 8, 1960, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected the thirty-fifth president of the United States. In his speeches, before and after this occasion, JFK’s “New Frontier” signaled that African Americans could now be included in the American Dream. By themselves, JFK’s words and the sentiments behind them improved the quality of lives for millions of people of color by encouraging us to feel better about who we were and what we could possibly achieve.
He didn’t live long enough to legislate what he sought, so it was left to his successor, Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, to fulfill JFK’s dreams.
Also, at the conclusion of the 1959–60 season, ninety-nine players appeared on the rosters of the eight NBA teams. Twenty-four of these players were African American, with the easy math coming to virtually 24 percent. However, subtracting the minuscule on-court time credited to the Celtics’ Maurice King (who only played 19 minutes in a single game), and Cal Ramsey (who played four games in St. Louis and seven with New York), the meaningful number is reduced to slightly less than 22 percent. This percentage increased every year while JFK was still in office, eventually reaching 38 percent in the year he was assassinated.
A huge step was also taken with the record number of African American players named to the 1964 Olympic team, which I believe had a great deal to do with the words and deeds of both JFK and LBJ. The 1960 team had only three Black players—Oscar Robertson, Bob Boozer, and Walt Bellamy. Four years later, Jim Barnes, Joe Caldwell, Walt Hazzard, Luke Jackson, and George Wilson constituted nearly half of the twelve-man squad.
This major change in the Olympics signaled a similar change in the NBA. In the subsequent 1964–65 season, 48.7 percent of NBA players were African Americans. This represented an increase of 10.7 percent over the previous 1963–64 campaign.
Even so, the African American presence back in that 1959–60 season was particularly revealing and important. The Celtics were in the early stage of their dynasty, yet two franchises—Cincinnati and St. Louis—demonstrated their continued resistance to this new wave of outstanding players.
Here’s a list of the total population at the time:
Boston: Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, and Maurice King
Cincinnati: Wayne Embry
Detroit: Walter Dukes, Earl Lloyd, and Shellie McMillon
Minneapolis: Elgin Baylor, Alex “Boo” Ellis, Ray Felix, Ed Fleming, and Tom Hawkins
New York: Johnny Green, Willie Naulls, and Cal Ramsey
St. Louis: Sihugo Green
Syracuse: Dick Barnett, Hal Greer, and Bob Hopkins
Philadelphia: Andy Johnson, Guy Rodgers, Woody Sauldsberry, and the most impactful rookie in the history of the NBA—Wilt Chamberlain
I was fourteen when I first saw Wilt play. He was sixteen and already an amazing player at Overbrook High School back when the games consisted of four 8-minute quarters. He was 6'11", 240 pounds at the time, and could run like the proverbial deer, jump out of the gym, and single-handedly prevented layups and short-jumpers on defense. At the other end of the court Wilt averaged well over 40 points per game, often scoring 60 or 70, with his high being 90. That’s 90 points in 32 minutes!
Yet Wilt’s offense didn’t really develop during the three years he subsequently spent at the University of Kansas. In fact, it was while he spent one year with the Globetrotters that he developed his fadeaway bank shot that made him such a dynamic scorer when he got into the NBA.
In my junior year at West Philadelphia High School, we finished the season with a record of 17–3. We would have gone undefeated but for the three losses to Wilt’s Overbrook dynasty. We seldom guarded each other, but he scored his usual 40-plus (and I was usually in foul trouble when he did), while I struggled to put up double figures.
My all-time favorite memory of Wilt took place when I was seventeen and riding my bike to the Haddington Recreation Center to see if there was anything happening on the basketball court. Wilt was nineteen, was playing at Kansas, and was already a much-celebrated All-American. I found him on the court engaged in a solo workout. I was thrilled when he invited me to join him. For what seemed like hours we shot, retrieved misses, passed to each other, and ran some sprints (when Wilt always left me behind).
After we were done, I was ready to bike my way back home, but Wilt had another idea. He put my bike in the trunk of his car and said, “I’m driving you home.”
This meant a lot to me. He saw me as a real player but more importantly as a person. Indeed, his respect helped me to increase my own self-respect.
Philly native JOHN RAYMOND "RAY" SCOTT's college career began at the University of Portland, and he was chosen as the 4th pick in the 1961 NBA draft by the Detroit Pistons. He spent six years with the Pistons, as a stand-out rebounder and deadly shooter from the perimeter, and another five years playing for other teams. Then in October 1972, Scott was promoted from Assistant to Head Coach of the Detroit Pistons, thanks in part to the strong support from retiring coach Earl Lloyd who, a decade earlier had scouted Scott and recommended that he be the Pistons top pick. Two years later he was named NBA Coach of the Year, the first African-American to win the coveted award. From 1976 to 1979, Scott was Men’s Basketball Head Coach at Eastern Michigan University. Today, Ray lives with his family in Eastern Michigan, not far from Detroit. This is his first book.
CHARLEY ROSENis one of the most respected writers of books on basketball, including both fiction like NYT Notable Book The House of Moses All-Stars, and nonfiction like his telling of the Jack Molinas story in The Wizard of Odds. He has also been a sports commentator, at FOXSports.com and HoopsHype.com. He lives in Woodstock, N.Y.
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