An Anabaptist Jólabókaflóð: Gordon Houser’s suggestions for literary fiction and more

Gordon Houser edits The Mennonite and writes book reviews for the magazine–and still enjoys reading good, challenging books so much that, he says, “when my family asks me for gift ideas for Christmas or my birthday, I generally list books I want.” Below, the author of Present Tense: A Mennonite Spirituality shares some of his current favorites.

Lincoln in the Bardo, which won this year’s Man Booker Prize, is the first novel by George Saunders, the best-selling short story writer. The novel is set in February 1862, following the death of President Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie. The grief-stricken president visits his son’s body, which is in the Georgetown cemetery. This creative tale follows Willie and others who have died and are in a kind of purgatory or in-between state called the bardo in the Tibetan tradition. As we learn about these people’s varied lives, we are confronted with our own mortality and what meaning our lives may have.

Exit West is a novel by Mohsin Hamid, who also wrote the novels The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. The novel is set in in an unnamed city where there is political conflict and refugees are growing in number. The narrative mixes fable with social realism. It’s relatively short, and the prose is deceptively simple. Exit West uses magic realism, as his characters travel to various parts of the world through exit doors, to make real the experience of refugees and includes many insightful nuggets. Here’s one: “…when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”

Sing, Unburied, Sing, which won this year’s National Book Award for fiction, is a novel by Jesmyn Ward, who won the same award for her earlier novel, Salvage the Bones. Ward sets her fiction in rural Mississippi and employs some magic realism as well. Here she uses the archetypal road novel to explore the lives of Jojo, a 13-year-old boy approaching manhood, and Leonie, his flawed mother, who struggles with drug use while trying to be a better mother. Ward’s lyrical writing glistens from the page: A laugh has no happiness in it, “just dry air and hard red clay where grass won’t grow.”

Now to nonfiction. The best I read is Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann, a rare combination of thorough research and a gripping narrative. Grann explores a piece of history unknown to me, of the murders of members of the Osage Indian nation in Oklahoma in the 1920s who had become wealthy because oil was found on their tribal land. The book reads like a murder mystery, which it is, and it is a page-turner, hard to put down. It’s also infuriating to learn about the injustice perpetrated by greedy men yet encouraging to read about the patient work of FBI agents who eventually solve at least part of the puzzle of who was committing these murders.

Another outstanding book this year is The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison, one of my favorite novelists. This small book is based on the Norton lectures she gave at Harvard University in the spring of 2016. Morrison reflects on how we construct others and why others make us afraid. She delves into her own memories as well as her fiction, including Beloved, Paradise and A Mercy. She also considers the work of such authors as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Camara Laye. She finds hope in narrative fiction, which “provides a controlled wilderness, an opportunity to be and to become the Other.”

In my job as editor of The Mennonite, the monthly magazine of Mennonite Church USA, I read many books for review. One of my favorite, and one particularly relevant to our current state of affairs, is Always with Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor by Liz Theoharis. She addresses Matthew 26:6-13, in which Jesus says, “The poor you will always have with you,” which has been seen as justifying neglect of the poor, that poverty is inevitable. But Theoharis argues that this “is actually one of the strongest statements of the biblical mandate to end poverty.”

Another book I liked is The Altars Where We Worship: The Religious Significance of Popular Culture by Juan M. Floyd-Thomas, Stacey Floyd-Thomas and Mark G. Toulouse, which explores the religious significance of popular culture. It’s an intriguing look at how North Americans view religion. The authors write: “Though we claim to serve things that are sacred, in actuality we deem sacred those things that serve us.” The book expands our understanding of religion by noting its presence beyond churches or mosques. It shows its presence in areas such as body and sex, big business, entertainment, politics, sports, and science and technology.

I don’t read a lot of poetry, but this year I picked up a book of poems that won a National Book Award in 2013, Incardine by Mary Szybist. The collection of 42 poems are meditations on Mary the mother of Jesus. They approach Mary from a variety of angles, all the while delving into the depths of human experience. In “Holy,” Szybist laments her own mother’s sickness: “Spirit who knows me, I do not feel you / fall so far in me, / do not feel you turn in my dark center.” In “Here, There Are Blueberries,” she ponders her place in nature and finds solace: “I wonder what I am, that anyone should note me. / Here there are blueberries, what should I fear?”

Above, books from Gordon Houser’s library. 

Can Playing at Civility Make Us More Civil?

Hi Joel,

Given your recent reading in civility, I wanted to share a project happening at Gonzaga University that seeks to promote respectful dialogue across lines of political difference.

Gonzaga is the host of the Institute for Hate Studies, an interdisciplinary endeavor that I’ve been associated with for a few years. This October, the Institute sponsored an international studies on hate scholarship. (Trust me: it’s more fun than it sounds!) As part of that, GU students in media organized a kind of game show focusing on civility.

For the game, individuals were partnered with someone who was very different from them, politically. They had to go through 4 rounds of working together on different tasks, starting with simply finding areas on which they agree. The final challenge required to craft a vision for America’s future of things that they agreed on. The media students then edited the teams’ presentation of their vision into a video that was presented a live audience, which voted to award teams points based on how well they did the task.

Above, Gonzaga students work to promote civility using a gameshow format. 

I don’t want to overstate the case: I don’t think that we owe conversation to people who are hostile to us, deny our humanity, or want us to suffer. I don’t think we need to read primers on how to get along at the holidays with family members who think that treating us poorly is okay.

But there is something noble and worthwhile in practicing the discipline of speaking with those who hold dramatically different opinions.

You can watch the whole episode of Common Ground here.


Why are White Women so Awful?

Hi Joel,

In addition to the immediate sense of relief upon Tuesday’s news that Doug Jones beat Roy Moore in Alabama’s Senate race, lots of us felt anger and shame and weariness at the continued racial divide in voting in that state. As in the 2016 presidential election, white women overwhelmingly voted for a sexual abuser, while African American women turned out in great numbers (and not just turned out to vote but turned out the vote in their organizing) to oppose him. How can white women be so awful?

To complicate the situation, some exit poll data:

  • Most white people with college degrees voted for Moore.
  • 80% of white people describing themselves as born-again Christians voted for Moore–about the same percent of white evangelicals voters who voted for Trump.
  • 76% of Moore voters said that the allegations of sexual assault of children was not a factor in their voting; 15% of voters who said it was an important factor chose Moore.
  • 63% of white women who voted for Moore said that they think the allegations are true.
  • Of those Alabama voters who approve of Donald Trump’s performance as a president, 97% of them voted for Moore–and 27% of them were voting for Moore as an act of support for the president.

The majority of fathers voted for Moore. The majority of mothers voted for Jones. (The Washington Post data didn’t break this down by race, though I’m very interested to see how white mothers compared to African American and Latina mothers on this one.) Men who are fathers were just as okay with voting for a serial sexual predator as were men  who are not fathers, so, no, it turns out that you don’t need a daughter to think it’s wrong to assault girls–and, in fact, having a child doesn’t really convince you that they are worth protecting.

How can educated, white, Christian, and women voters support someone they actually believe groomed children for sexual abuse? How can the majority of fathers vote this way? How can 1 out of 3 mothers vote for Moore? How can white people who should know better (because of their education) and believe better (because of their faith) vote for a man they accept sexually assaulted teens?

In short: how can white women be so awful?

Image result for best scarlett o'hara faces

Above, the worst white woman ever, Scarlett O’Hara. 

The question is only narrowly about Moore or even Trump. Broadly, it’s a question about why we would vote for the dream in which America is great “again”–that is, as it once was, in the past. The sweet version of this story is a Hallmark Christmas movie--small towns where families are intact, crime is low, wages support families, and non-white people make only rare appearances and then in supporting roles. That this has never really been history–and certainly not for African Americans, who, in slavery, were denied the right to their own families and who, ever since Emancipation, have been denied the best paying jobs in our economy–does not matter. Also, conservatives know who to blame for the fact that it’s not our current reality: people of color, immigrants, non-Christians, women, queer people. A vote for Moore wasn’t a vote for sexual assault (though it was certainly a vote that sexual assault isn’t a disqualification) so much as it was a vote for white patriarchy.  When Roy Moore said that the best time for American families was during slavery, he wasn’t saying slavery was good (I mean, he wasn’t saying it.) as much as he was saying when we think about who America is good for, we only count white families.

So of course white men would vote for that. Notice that our post-election conversations aren’t about why white men are so awful. We know the answer: because voting for Moore is a vote to protect their power.

But why would white women vote for white patriarchy?

Three answers:

First, we (I’m speaking here as a white woman) are socialized into both racism and sexism. We benefit from racism, and we internalize sexism. Our culture itself is racist and sexist in the same way that the US is 3.8 million square miles–we could change it, and we can imagine it being different, and it’s been different in the past, but, boy, making that kind of change is hard and even if we made it, we’d have to redraw every map in the world. Socialization works. If we don’t want to be racist and sexist, we have to actively counter that socialization. But messages of sexism and racism come at us from every which way, all day long, and it’s hard to be vigilant, even if you want to not be racist or sexist.

Second, in a white patriarchy, our race will get us farther ahead than our gender, so we stick with whiteness and stick it to women and girls, whatever their race. In a white patriarchy, white men will ally with us as white women (not equal to white men, but as complements to them), whereas solidarity with women of color means that white men have no reason to share any kind of power with us at all.

Finally, many of us would rather be oppressed by a white man than have a person of color be our equal. We know how badly white men will treat us, and we still prefer it to what we imagine our own feelings would be if we were seen as only equal to, not superior to, people of color.  For some of us, we cannot imagine our own lives having the little value we place on black lives; the thought is intolerable. For some of us, feelings of superiority to non-whites placate our suspicion that, economically, we’re pretty powerless–because, at least, after all, we’re white, so there is still someone to look down upon. 

Perhaps we fear the retribution we deserve.  Perhaps we have done some of the work of taking account for the ways in which white women have harmed women of color and benefitted from harm to them and we think, I can’t pay for that. We cannot imagine the grace we would have to receive in order to reconcile what we owe to black women (an impossible task that we must try to do) because we are so selfish ourselves.  Because we have hurt others with injustice, we can’t envision mercy at all for ourselves.




An Anabaptist Jólabókaflóð: Poetry and Prose Suggestions from Jesse Nathan

This month, we’ve asked some writerly friends to share suggestions for reading. Today, Jesse Nathan shares his recommendations. Jesse’s poems appear in Boston Review, The American Poetry Review, The Nation, and elsewhere, and you can read his critical prose at The Rumpus. He was born in Berkeley, grew up on a wheat farm in rural Kansas, graduated from Bethel College, and lives now in San Francisco. Nathan studies poetry at Stanford. Recently he edited, with Ilya Kaminsky and Dominic Luxford, the anthology In the Shape of a Human Body I Am Visiting the Earth.
A few recent favorites from Jesse:
Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil. An unclassifiable — essay, poem, rumination — by C.D. Wright.
“What Are Years.” A poem by Marianne Moore.
“A Brief for the Defense.” A poem by Jack Gilbert.
Glass, Irony, and God. A collection of poetry by Anne Carson.
House of Lords and Commons. The latest book of poems by Ishion Hutchinson.
Mickey Rourke and the Bluebird of Happiness: A Poet’s Notebooks. Ruminations and mini-essays by W.S. Di Piero.
“Reconciliation.” A poem by Czeslaw Milosz.
The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. Prose by Roberto Calasso.
Above, some titles from Jesse’s library. 

I will never, ever forgive the Republican Party for supporting Roy Moore.

Hi Joel,

It’s the big day!

Will Alabama’s elect a racist, bigoted, contemptuous, child-molester who abused his authority as DA in order to gain power over vulnerable women and children?

Will the Trump strategy work? Will Republicans vote for a person who is morally reprehensible in order to insure they elect a man who promises to oppress religious minorities, immigrants, and women and LGBTQ people? Will they do it holding their noses? Pretending to hold their noses but secretly quite happy about the idea of electing someone who exploits the vulnerable? Or will they do it gleefully? If so, will this mark the start of a flood of the most deplorable candidates possible–more Roy Moores and Bo Dietls and other candidates whose flamboyancy shouldn’t disguise their disgust for anyone unlike them.

Or will Republicans go into the voting booth–or just drive by it–and examine their consciences, as Joyce Moore, the Nebraska GOP national party official, did when she resigned from her position over the party’s use of funds to support Moore, and say, “I can’t do it”? Will we see a kind of reverse Bradley effect, in which people feel obligated to say awful things outside the voting booth but then do the right thing when they get inside?

Many Alabamans say that the issue is abortion: For those who believe the credible, well-documented accusations against Moore, they may still see the choice as between a child molester and a baby-killer. In this logic, Moore “only” molested a few girls, but pro-choice Democrat Doug Jones supports the murder of maybe a million babies each year. And molestation isn’t as bad as murder.

But let’s be honest: The kind of man who “not generally, no” sexually assaulted children and who dates married women–also minors–is also the kind of guy who is likely to coerce women into abortions. A man who is a hypocrite about sexual values is also likely to be a hypocrite about abortion.

But even if Moore is exactly who he says he is, Republicans, I think, have done tremendous damage to themselves in supporting him. It’s a toss-up if he will win, and, in the meantime, Republicans are burning women hard. Pro-lifers have spent years reframing abortion as an assault on women, and the GOP has now given its funds to a man who has assaulted girls and lied about it; every pro-life donor and strategist needs to speak up against such undermining if they care about their movement, and many are.  Every woman who has been assaulted has to go into the voting booth and re-think her trauma. Even if she votes for Moore, she’s making an association between her pain and Republican politics, and leaves wondering when the party will ever see her as worthy of protection. Every dollar a woman now donates to the national party is one that she knows might be re-distributed to a sexual abuser. And the GOP has decided that, as long as it wins, that’s fine. Women will just have to bear the cost.

Why risk all that to elect someone like Moore, who is likely to be a fool in the Senate and will hinder Republicans from here on out? Someone who has a past you clearly didn’t bother to investigate very well–and who knows what other Southern gothic secrets are hiding in Gadsen, Alabama? Why increase the percent of impossible-to-work-with media hogs on your team? Why bring someone on board who is so stupid and disrespectful that he’s been repeatedly fired from his job as a judge? Especially since Jones is moderate enough that he could potentially be brought to vote with Republicans on some issues–and on issues when Jones couldn’t be persuaded, you are probably going to be calling in Mike Pence to break a tie anyway?

Above, a millstone. In Matthew 18:6, Jesus warns that it would be better if a millstone were put around your neck and you were tossed into the ocean than if you cause a child “to stumble.” This is the consequence for the the GOP for supporting Moore. 

When people do things that undermine their stated goals, we can either assume that they are stupid and don’t understand the gap between their actions and the results of those actions–or that they are misrepresenting their goals. I don’t think Republicans are stupid. I think that they (not necessarily every day voters, though some of them, too) use fetuses as a prop in order to gather votes for policies that help straight white men hold power. If being pro-choice got voters out to support white masculine privilege, they would be pro-choice because preserving power, not unborn babies, is their concern.

I think wise pro-lifers understand that one Senate seat awarded to a moderate pro-choice candidate isn’t the catastrophe that a Roy Moore win will be. Here’s hoping they vote!






The unlearned lessons of sexual harassment


Dear Rebecca:

Ever gone back and read the contemporaneous coverage of the Clarence Thomas hearings? A lot of what was being said back then sounds really familiar now.

“There is a radical change in culture,” Amitai Etzioni, a sociologist at George Washington University, told The New York Times. “Things which used to be tolerated by both genders are now increasingly defined as inconceivable. And I find it interesting that this case focuses on the margins: You said, but you didn’t touch. It’s a good place for the debate to be. It’s an interesting indication how the culture has changed.”

Sound familiar?

What’s fascinating about all the voices that have emerged in 2017 is how little the culture has changed since 1991. The lessons learned from the Clarence Thomas hearings were given lip service by responsible corporate and political leaders across the land — and then, apparently, utterly disregarded.

Which leads me to ask a question at The Week: Are we really learning our lesson this time?

Please read me!

The High Price of White Conservatives’ Self-Esteem

Hi Joel,

I recently attended a lecture on the rise of global extremism at the University of Utah. That campus has been a scene for white nationalist recruiting and hate flyering, so the topic was not just of a “global concern” but a local one.

The talk was in the form of a moderated panel and included a state representative (a Democrat), the executive director of the state’s ACLU, a social worker, some history professors, and Dillon Clark, the student who, this past January, chartered the campus’ Young Americans for Freedom student group, which then brought Ben Shapiro, formerly of Breitbart, to campus. His presence there was, I think, unwarranted: his story was likely quite interesting, but as an object of study, as he didn’t have the scholarly knowledge to make a real contribution to the conversation, and he wasn’t self-reflective enough to share much insight into his own story. But I still learned something from him.

When Clark was asked why he had chartered the YAF on campus in January, immediately after the swearing-in of Donald Trump, he said he had three reasons: first, because conservative speakers were often not brought to campus; second, because Shapiro is an outstanding conservative thinker, and third, because Clark knew it would be a major leadership coup for himself.

I actually found this to be the most interesting moment of the evening (which was full of interesting information). It suggests to me a few things:

First, that Clark and the conservative students he buy into the idea that they are a persecuted group on college campuses. When he says that it’s hard to get a conservative speaker on campus, he’s adopting the narrative that universities are liberal, which is only the case if you ignore schools of business, law schools, many history departments, virtually all criminology programs, and significant pockets of anthropology–and, of course, private colleges and universities, plus community colleges, where faculty members are much more likely identify as politically conservative. Oh, and university administrations, which are overwhelmingly conservative.

But maybe the reason why we don’t see many high-profile conservative speakers on campus is that the conservative movement isn’t developing very smart thinkers right now. After all, this poor student is convinced that Shapiro is a “leading intellectual” in the conservative movement. Even better-credentialed conservatives aren’t putting forward compelling, innovative, insightful, data-driven, or otherwise smart arguments.  Academia, at its best, promotes good thinking, wherever it lands us, and conservatives just aren’t doing it very well right now. Charles Murray is stupider than you might expect, even if you’ve read his thoroughly discredited The Bell Curve, and Heather MacDonald continues to make arguments so ill-informed that having her on campus is simply a waste of taxpayer money.  It’s not so much that their ideas are bad as that they are badly formed, and since higher ed is about teaching people ways of thinking, we don’t really need to invite them to campus, any more than we need to invite Flat Earthers are Holocaust deniers.

(Oh, wait. Holocaust deniers are coming to campuses, and universities are shamefully pretending they can do nothing.)

These two things–that Clark feels like conservatives are a persecuted minority and that he can’t tell careful thinking from sloppy thinking–aren’t particularly surprising.

Above, a flyer promoting a demonstration against Ben Shapiro at the University of Utah. I‘ve argued elsewhere that figures like Shapiro shouldn’t be welcomed at universities or granted university resources, including rental space, because such speakers do not contribute to the purpose of higher education, which is to advance knowledge and support students as they learn to discern between smart and stupid ways of thinking. Shapiro is a stupid thinker, and universities are not required to lend space or credibility to stupid thinkers. 

But his third comment really struck me: He founded a group, then led an effort to bring a hateful speaker whose presence does nothing to advance the mission of the university, at an expense of $25,000 in security fees to the public, because he wanted the “leadership opportunity.”

He’s not alone: male members in Congress disproportionately say that they ran because they wanted to be in Congress. Women, in contrast, say they want to serve others. And, like Clark, they don’t seem to recognize that this isn’t something you say. Clark said it right in front of an audience of people whose lives are devalued in the world Shapiro argues for. He looked right at his peers and said in effect, without any shame, “I did this because it would make me famous.”

The end logic of this is that the more controversial the thing you fight for, the more divisive or hurtful or outrageous your argument, the bigger the expense to the university, and the more common sense you have to overcome, the more you of a “leader” you are.

Justice Alito made a similar critique in his dissent in Snyder v. Phelps, the case brought against members of Westboro Baptist Church by a father of a fallen Marine whose funeral was picketed. Justice Roberts in the decision argued that

Westboro’s statements were entitled to First Amendment protection because those statements were on matters of public concern, were not provably false, and were expressed solely through hyperbolic rhetoric.

But Alito counters (and let it go down in history that I once agreed with Justice Samuel Alito!) that this means that this logic would only encourage more extreme speech. WBC does not see its speech as hyperbole; they fully believe that Matthew Snyder was born to go to hell and that, as Catholics, his parents “raised him for the devil.” To outsiders, that’s hyperbole, but to church members, that’s sound Bible doctrine.

The problem that Alito identifies–and the error I think we commit when we invite racists to campus–is that we can’t really can’t decide what is hyperbole or not right now. We’re hearing people on campus say things that are so outrageous that we reduce them to “mere” rhetoric so we can deny the racism of our own young people. And the speakers are quick to add a “Just joking!” to comments that are not jokes at all–or, worse, they say threatening things and then point to the worried response of those they targeted and call them “snowflakes” who imagine threats around every corner. We hear those things as hyperbole, even when the speakers are deadly serious, because hearing them as the honest desires of so many people is frightening.

All so Dillon Clark can feel important.


PS. If folks haven’t read Nathan J. Robinson’s critique of Charles Murray in Current Affairs, they should do so. It’s gold.