The Anatomy of Mr. Middle

“Being determines consciousness.” — Marx

The upper petit-bourgeois is a strange character indeed, his consciousness made up of a thousand pieces that are all at war with one another, producing a marvelous opportunity for study. All of modern society, one might say, is collected in this species, in various proportions, and various strengths, with different aspects predominating based on changes in his habitat (whether produced by him or by factors outside of his control).

To the upper petit bourgeois, nothing is more important than his own security and comfort. Such “activism” as he engages in cannot threaten the status quo, which means brushing aside or sometimes denying any problem that cannot be solved by a reshuffling among the upper ten percent—preferably a reshuffling that improves the status of Mr. Middle himself.

He resents and envies those in the layer above him, that is, the 1%; he despises and fears those below him, that is, the bottom 90%. There is nothing more threatening to him than the idea of the masses–those poor, ignorant, unwashed layers—standing up and demanding equality.  (Not that Mr. Middle opposes equality.  On the contrary, he is in favor of equality, provided it means, as Orestes Brownson observed, humbling those above him, not elevating those below him.)

And this brings us to one of the most interesting of the paradoxes that grow in Mr. Middle’s mind: the unions. First of all, he laughs (though it may be a nervous laugh) at the notion of the masses taking independent action. He might know something about the mass working class movements of the 30s and late 40s (although probably not; he prefers to get his history from journalists whose agendas match his rather than historians who might shake up his thinking); but even if he does, he relegates that to the past. Nothing like that can happen now. And yet, and yet, for all of that, he considers himself pro-union.

How do we resolve this paradox? Because, you see, to Mr. Middle, “pro-union” means support of the nationalist, pro-capitalist union bureaucrats who are doing everything they can to suppress the class struggle—that is, the very ones who have taken on the job of making sure the class battles of the 30s and late 40s don’t happen again. And these bureaucrats, of course, are all earning six-figures—above the table. So, it turns out not to be a surprise at all that they match Mr. Middle’s agenda; they are him in every way that counts. And when they come out with strong “social justice” positions that sound very progressive while never coming near to threatening the property rights of the elite, why, that’s just icing on the cake. Mr. Middle nods and feels very good about himself indeed.

Feeling good about himself is near the top of Mr. Middle’s agenda, second only to making sure his position isn’t threatened. But how do you feel good about yourself in a world whose foundations are crumbling and need replacing when nothing terrifies you more than a threat to those foundations? This is tricky.

Fortunately, Mr. Middle’s own position points the way out of this dilemma. Mr. Middle is not necessarily a selfish person; indeed, he is very likely known for his generosity. But his position makes him subjective—he cannot evaluate society objectively, because that evaluation would reveal all of the contradictions of his position. This subjectivity provides him the opportunity to project: if he must reject an objective analysis of his own position, he can simply apply the same principle to issues around him: there is no objective truth, only subjective feelings. Thus he can say that racism, for example, is purely subjective; you cannot have an opinion about whether something is racist unless you are non-white; you cannot have an opinion on whether something is antisemitic unless you are Jewish, you cannot have an opinion on whether something is sexist unless you are a woman.

And here, at last, we get the big payoff for Mr. Middle: because if racism, for example, is purely a subjective question—up to each individual’s feelings—then it is insoluble. And if it is insoluble, if it is “in the DNA of the country,” it is pointless for Mr. Middle to take any action beyond what is necessary to demonstrate that he is on the right side. Maybe “call out” a few people, or ruin Thanksgiving dinner, or jump in on a social media mob where someone has been accused of racism. Actually changing the material conditions that produce racial oppression requires objective analysis of those conditions, and this, you see, is impermissible.

Mr. Middle does not have the immense resources of the 1%; he doesn’t own a newspaper, or a major social media platform, or a television network. But he is not entirely without influence; he holds the most prestigious positions in the academy, he writes editorials for the New York Times, he speaks on MSNBC, he has twitter followers in numbers as great as his yearly income. If only he can convince enough of those below him to accept his view that the foundation of society are unshakeable, that is, of the permanence of capitalist property relations, then maybe, just maybe, he will be able to keep his balance during the earthquakes to come. And should it prove the case that there is no way to secure his position except through fascist dictatorship, rest assured that he will feel really bad about that.

And, yes, many do listen to him, and are deeply and passionately committed to programs that will keep them forever in chains. But the trouble is, the masses also have brains, and perceptions, and they see what is happening around them, and they start to think, and when they start to think, they start to act.

That is why the fight within the consciousness of the masses against the 1% also means a fight against Mr. Middle and all he stands for.

Good luck, Mr. Middle. You’re going to need it.


Origin Stories

I just got a very nice compliment on Twitter for my origin stories. Compliments are nice, of course. To semi-quote Twain, we do like compliments. All of us do. Novelists, burglars, congressmen, all of us in the trade. But it also got me thinking about why most origin stories are so terrible, and what to do about it.

To put it in the simplest terms, if it’s an origin story, we know what happens. That takes a lot of the fun out of it.  But here’s the thing: this is a perfect case for the 3B rule*: Point of view solves everything. We know what happens from certain points of view; but how does it look from the angle of someone we’ve never considered?

Another consideration (closely related to the above) is turning the predictability from a disadvantage to an advantage, which you do with a sort of literary Judo–using the reader’s knowledge against him.  “You think you know what happened, but what if everyone’s motivation was different from what you think?”  Treat it like secret history–keeping the known “facts” just means you get to play with everything else.

Anyway, not sure if there’s enough meat here for a blog post, but I haven’t touched this thing in a while (it’s not really working yet; I can’t comment on my own posts without jumping through hoops). So, anyway, those were some thoughts on origin stories, and maybe they’ll trigger some conversation.

*If you want to know why I call it the 3B rule, you can ask me. Or Emma Bull. Or Elizabeth Bear.


On Trump’s Twitter Ban

President Trump has been banned from Twitter as a result of the January 6th putsch, and I gotta say something, because what I’m seeing on my twitter timeline here has gotten both absurd and toxic.  It isn’t as simple as some are making it.  I am not a free speech absolutist, and if there is any time for censoring someone, it is when that person is using a public platform to organize a fascist coup.  Moreover, on a personal level, it is hard not to feel a certain glee, both at how frustrated it must make him, and because I will no longer see people I follow quote-tweeting him in order to express pointless (if deserved) obscenities about his tweets.

But there are things we must not forget: He is being censored—this notion that its only censorship if carried out by a government ignores the entire history of censorship.  Are any of you old enough to remember when television networks would bleep out anything entertainers said against the Vietnam war?  If there is a term for that other than censorship, I’ve never heard it. Maybe censoring Trump is the right thing to do, as I said above, but let’s at least call it by its right name.

Second, he is being censored by a multi-billion dollar corporation, and anyone who thinks such a corporation has the same interests as the oppressed and exploited is being foolish at best.

Censorship, whether by government or corporation, is guaranteed to be used against the most oppressed layers of society—after all, it is those layers who carried out the fight for free speech in the first place.  So long as we live in a world controlled by an elite, that elite will use censorship as one of the tools to maintain their privileges. And it is harder to fight for the right of the oppressed to speak when the reactionaries can say, “Hey, you didn’t have a problem with censoring so-and-so just because you don’t agree with him.”  Can we please keep that in mind?

Another point is when those who call themselves leftists justify the action by saying, “But Twitter is a private corporation.”  There’s a term for this: it is called placing property rights above human rights. Are you really okay with that?  It is also answering the question, “Is it wrong?” by saying, “it’s legal.” Are you okay with that?

We are already seeing the worst aspects of this: There are attacks on the ACLU from those calling themselves leftists, there are attacks on the entire concept of free speech. There is mockery—mockery—of what the oppressed fought and died for. This is not healthy.

I want to repeat that: People identifying as leftists have mocked the very concept of free speech, and do not see anything wrong with that.

If you’re certain your speech will not be suppressed, it can only mean that you have no intention of challenging the powerful.

Once again, we are seeing the chronic disease of the political dilettante: the refusal to think things through, to examine consequences, to, as Sturgeon said, “Ask the next question.”

Bottom line: Yes, I think, under these conditions, Trump’s ban was necessary.  The right to speak is a human right, but under extraordinary conditions, human rights, even the right to life, must sometimes be set aside, and a fascist coup is an extraordinary condition if anything is.  But we need to be very careful about celebrating it, and even more careful about the generalizations we draw in order to justify it, and about when censorship is appropriate, and we need to be aware that these measures some are so pleased with will be used to muffle leftists, and anyone who takes aim at the status quo.



I keep getting asked if klava is real, and if so, how do you make it?

No, it isn’t real, but people have been working on it. The problem is the wood chips, which tend to increase the bitterness, and the whole idea behind it is to remove the bitterness (I’m one of those unfortunate people with an over-sensitivity to bitter; it’s why I hate most of the really good beers).

Now, one individual says he’s actually made it work, and even sent me the recipe plus all of the ingredients to test it out, and, to my shame, I got lazy and never got around to it. But if that person wants to come forward, I’ll put that recipe here, and then stick this post onto the sidebar.


Art Writing

Harmonics and Correspondence

Some time ago I distilled some of what I’ve figured out about writing into the phrase, “The art of writing reduces itself to the craft of manipulating correspondence; the craft of writing reduces itself to the art of finding the right word.” I’ve been letting that float around in my head for a while now, to see if I could explain it in terms that might be useful to someone. The tricky part is that word, “correspondence,” and what it means and how I’m using it about writing.

I’ve just been re-watching “Doctor Strange,” and going to school with the script. I was noticing some bits with Wong: having a single name (“like Adele….or Aristotle,”) and whether he ever laughs, and how the writer (C. Robert Cargill)  used that, returned to it—the exact moments in the film when those came up again, the release of tension, the sense of a callback, the completion of something we weren’t aware needed completing. That last is a lovely thing to pull off. Season 6 of Game of Thrones did a lot of it: paying off things we didn’t even expect to pay off (“Hodor!”).

When I talk about correspondence in writing, that’s the sort of thing I mean. Cargill uses it, as I said, to relieve some tension, to control the pacing, to amuse us, and simultaneously add a bit of depth to a character. But look at the setup for it: we’re at the point where our protagonist is trying to come to terms with his new environment, and the interaction with Wong tells us a great deal both about Strange and about that environment and how far he is from anything familiar. That is all it needed to do. That it then turns around and unexpectedly pays off is a special kind of elegance.

But here’s the thing: that technique can work with amusing bits, and with powerful thematic statements; with word play, and with subtext; with trivialities, and with profundities.  In all cases, it is establishing a correspondence between disparate elements or moments.  It is how symbols—images in which extra meaning is concentrated—can tell their own story simultaneously with the one being told “on top” if you will.  Done badly, it is why that symbolic story gets in the way and makes us feel we’re at a lecture rather than reading a story; done well, the symbolic story reinforces, comments on, corresponds with, the incidents.

Now set all of that aside for a moment, because I want to talk about music.

On the guitar, there are things called “voicings” that are important to better musicians than I am. That is, there are numerous ways to play the same chord, all of which will work with the melody, but each of which is different. For me, if I can find a way to play a chord that’s good enough to not sound horrible, I’m satisfied; but a good guitarist will be aware of the different overtones and harmonics* that each chord formation will have, and will use different voicings to add to the overall effect of the song. The unsophisticated listener (like me) will often be unaware of those choices, but it will nevertheless affect us; if done right, the music will be more fulfilling, more elegant, more lasting.

So now we get to the part of this that I’m struggling to express, because it is simultaneously the most abstract part, and the most practical. Let’s try it this way: Every scene is a chord, every sentence is a string. The string has a note that contributes to the chord, but it also has harmonics.  These harmonics might be the exact metaphor used to express a thought, or the rhythm of the sentence, or the generation of a symbol by infusing an image with extra meaning, or the sound of the words, or a bit of semi-accidental worldbuilding, or a sensory detail, or an extra hint of characterization, or any number of other things.

When you’re aware of those harmonics, you can use them, so even as the melody resolves, you return to the harmonic, you can find correspondences and resonances that deepen the melody, provide a counterpoint to it, or suggest other melodies that are implied but never played.  What I’m saying is that these harmonics are already in the sentence you’ve written.  You just have to look for them.

Maybe this is something you look for in your second draft, maybe for you, you can find it as you’re creating, but it comes down to this: that sentence you’ve written that contributes to the scene, that in turn serves the story: look at it again, and see if maybe there are some harmonics there you can come back to.

* For you mathematicians,  a harmonic is a sound wave that has a frequency that is an integer multiple of a fundamental tone. For the rest of us, a harmonic is a secondary tone generated by the vibration of a string that harmonizes with the dominant note.