In what can only be described as stupidity and cowardice, national theater chains including AMC, Regal, Cinemark, and Cineplex, and eventually Sony Pictures Entertainment have pulled the December 25th release of The Interview. For those who might not know, The Interview is a film starring Seth Rogen and James Franco that has them traveling to North Korea to interview Kim Jong Un, and are tasked to kill the leader. The country didn’t take the comedy too lightly, and instead North Korea (likely, it’s hard to verify) waged a cyber-war against Sony in retaliation.
That cyber attack proved an embarrassment for the American subsidiary of the Japanese conglomerate. Sensitive documents were released, and have been fodder for sites over the past week. That coverage of leaked documents, and the subsequent reaction (which we’ll get to), played right into the hackers hands. Really, the hack showed the continued ineptness of Sony to protect itself in a digital age. They’ve had numerous hacks, dozens of times, that have exposed user accounts, and more.
In the end, the hackers threatened a physical attacked reminiscent of 9/11 if The Interview wasn’t pulled from release. This led to major theaters to cancel the release of the movie. Those theaters account for 18,000 screens of the roughly 40,000 screens in North America. Other theaters stood strong and would have still released the film. Sony eventually completely caved, and as of this post they were unsure if they’ll ever release the film, even on demand (I’d expect a torrent any day now).
The hacks, and even threat, are an example of cyberbullying taken to extreme, and by caving to demands, that bullying has shown to work. It’s akin to attacks on female creators (which include physical and death threats) in the video game industry, and have gotten some women to quit the industry. Its happened to comic creators and critics by those who disagree with what they have to say. It continues because it’s perceived to work.
What the pulling of the film does is encourage more of the behavior in the future, especially from the North Korean regime. The country has been building a cyber force that supposedly comprises 1,800 individuals. The cancellation of the film by theaters wasn’t likely out of safety concerns for movie goers (North Korea doesn’t likely have the ability to act on their physical threats), it’s more likely theaters are looking out for their own necks, and fear a cyberattack on their own systems, and what would come to light if it happened and documents were released. Documents that have been released showed Sony (and other film companies) conspiring against Google, and really consumers, in the battle over piracy. A battle ironically where Sony, the MPAA, RIAA, and other content producers use similar bullying tactics as were just used against Sony. They’ve also bad mouthed their own films, actors, and the direction of the subsidiary. Imagine what would be revealed about movie theater chains if a similar event would occur?
A planned adaptation of Guy DeLisle‘s Pyongyang by New Regency has been pulled. That film was to star Steve Carrell and be directed by Gore Verbinski with a script by Steve Conrad. The film has been described as a “paranoid thriller,” which has me a bit worried about what it might have been, when in reality DeLisle’s story is more like Lost in Translation. Luckily you can still purchase the brilliant graphic novel. What’s to say a threat and attack isn’t in Amazon’s future to stop the sale of the book though?
Paramount has barred theaters from showing Team America in protest of the cancellation of The Interview.
12 people were killed and more shot, plus numerous other incidences, during the opening week of The Dark Knight Rises, that film was kept in theaters. The Warriors opened in 1979, and lead to vandalism and killings, and only had security added to theaters, and continued to show.
Cyber threats which couldn’t be corroborated, and experts have dismissed the capabilities, are more than enough to stop this film, and more. Where actual physical proof of probable violence existed, a film wasn’t pulled. Think this is about our “safety” or that of protecting the theaters’ digital secrets?
In the coming weeks, and months, this most likely will increase the call for needed cyber legislation, most of which will be draconian, hurt civil liberties, and punish the consumer. Legislation like CISPA, SOPA, or PIPA, will be rammed through like undead zombies infecting and destroying the world before we notice and it’s too late. The attacks also have done more to promote a film which likely have done just ok in a theater (and built up a buzz that it’d be crazy to not release it digitally and capitalize on the hoopla).
This isn’t the first time a hack has led to company secrets being stolen. This isn’t the first time intellectual property has been stolen. The difference here is, that demands were met, and corporations caved to threats. They’ve shown this sort of bullying works, is easy, and effective. It encourages it to be done in the future, creating a chilling censoring effect.
This isn’t the first time issues over a movie and North Korea have come up. In 2002, Bond film Die Another Day depicted a North Korean villain which resulted in the country going on a PR offensive (instead of a cyber one). With these latest threats, the country moves closer to being a real life Bond villain.
Similar issues arose in 2004 of Team America: World Police, and in 2012 and 2013 things changed up a bit with the release of Red Dawn and Olympus Has Fallen. Both of those films featured North Korean terrorists. Those two films, the country used footage for their own propaganda to show off their military prowess.
It’s all ironic since former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was an avid fan of the James Bond franchise (and movies in general). Jong Il was so obsessed with films he kidnapped Japanese and South Korean actors and directors to star in movies he some times wrote himself.
Since 2008, the year I originally wrote this essay as part of my application for the Gift of Freedom Award, the conversation about the challenges women writers face in the literary arts has only grown more heated—the VIDA count revealing women writers getting published and reviewed at disproportionate numbers compared to male authors, women stepping forward and sharing their personal stories about misogyny, abuse, even rape. All revealing that the challenges we face both as individuals and as a community aren’t going away anytime soon. How far we’ve come, I thought, both for myself and for the women writers I know—for women and girls everywhere. And yet how far we have to go.
Here’s the famous quote by Woolf, followed by the original essay I wrote in response.
“Five hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate…a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself.” –Virginia Woolf
It’s late in the afternoon, the air hot but breezy on the hillside where the house sits. Inside, I’m still typing on the laptop when my boyfriend’s Toyota roars up the driveway. The car door slams and he lumbers out, all business attire and briefcase; I shove off the laptop and hurry in my bare feet to the front door and unlock the gate. Right away I can tell the stock market hasn’t been good to him today, by the way his face droops down to the floor.
“You’re still writing?” he asks. He slumps in a chair and rifles through his briefcase. He says, “I don’t understand how you can just sit in this room day in and day out, and just write.”
“Are you kidding?” I reply. “When I’m writing a story, I’m inside another world. But having this room all spring for myself, this quiet space and the time to write, is a huge gift.”
He rubs his palm across his face and rests his chin in his hand. “I gave you those numbers so you would have some other women to hang out with, but you haven’t called anyone. God knows David’s wife just goes to her mother’s and does Pilates every day. I have a hard time believing that staying cooped up isn’t going to get old for you.”
“Why is that so hard to believe? All my life I’ve had to steal time to write. Now I finally have a few short months to do that.”
“But you’re not working,” he says.
“All I’ve done up until now is work,” I reply. “And I’ll be working again, probably several jobs, after this. Right now it’s time to write. And I thank you so much for helping me.”
“Okay,” he says, sighing. “I’m just an idiot who’s been in an office for nine hours straight.”
“You’re not an idiot.” I walk over and cradle his head in my arms. He’s tired; when he looks up I see the dull weariness in his eyes. “You’re wonderful,” I say.
We hold each other for a minute, and outside a light rain patters on the porch. Then I hear someone calling from our yard. We look up and a small but sturdy old woman with a hamper tucked underneath one arm trudges up the steps. She rests the hamper at her feet and produces an empanada for us to admire. “Tres cientos colones,” she beckons.
He attends to the woman, and I scramble to count the coins from my change purse. We buy four empanadas, and the woman showers us with many thanks. She picks her way down the steep driveway and back onto the winding road.
Afterward, he disappears for a nap, and I return to my story-in-progress. But I can’t stop thinking about the woman and what he and I were at odds about just before she showed up at our door. After a decade of juggling serving jobs for alcoholic bosses, adjunct teaching jobs with salaries that barely filled my gas tank, and tutoring high school kids on weekend mornings, six months ago I finally planned, saved, and borrowed to accompany him for the spring to Costa Rica. While he worked at his trade desk all day in downtown San José, I would write fiction as often as I could. And write I do, five days a week. But what I hadn’t anticipated was how the world still tries to pull that precious writing space away. Now time and money are quickly running out, my story collection only halfway complete. He is working hard, too, to support both of us.
And then I think of the woman selling empanadas. She has probably spent her whole life laboring just to feed and clothe herself and her children, and at her wrinkled age is hiking the country road with a heavy hamper of empanadas for sale. What kind of artistic joy might she have stumbled across as a little girl, only to have scarce moments at drawing or play-acting squashed by the basic need for survival? How different am I from that woman—or are we more similar than I might care to know? She’s baking empanadas all morning to peddle them up and down a long, hilly road in the afternoon sun; I will soon return to teaching wait-listed college classes with no healthcare or retirement benefits, and have little space or energy left to give a lengthy creative project the attention it demands. For it’s the space that really matters when mining the depths, rather than the time.
Time can be stolen—a couple of hours here, and couple of hours there—as I know from trying to write the novel I started in my early twenties. But I didn’t realize until this past year, when I unearthed the failed novel from my files, to what degree the project hadn’t lifted off the ground due to lack of space. By working full-time, earning graduate credits part-time, and adjunct teaching, I had simply lacked the space to delve deeply enough inside the novel’s heart and its characters for any extended period beyond the three full days off my schedule allowed each month. Just as important as the physical space of a secluded room, perhaps even more important, is the inner space needed for the artist’s vision to really thrive. How many women like myself are seeking to keep that inner space free while on the surface, are merely struggling to survive?
I write for awhile, and as the sun sinks lower and its rays seem to light the palms on fire, my boyfriend yawns like a jungle cat and pads out of the bedroom wearing a sarong. Now rested, his spirits are lighter. He pats me on the head and asks if he can read my story when it’s finished.
“It’s not like I’m at home all day, doing nothing,” I say. “I’m writing. That’s what I love to do most in the world. Pura vida, right?” I crack a smile, pleased at my twist on the saying Costa Ricans toss about with pride—in English, “the good life.”
“You’re a good woman, Babette,” he says, using his pet name for me.
I close the computer and look up. “There’s one thing,” I say. I have put off mentioning this for a few days now, until the several hundred dollars left in my bank account can no longer be ignored. “I came down here so we could be together, and also to write. But my savings are almost gone. Unless you can support me, I need to go home and get a job.”
He says nothing. He’s lost a lot of money in investments lately, and his home in Florida is still sitting on the market after four months.
“I hate asking you this,” I say. “More than anything. But I’ll go find a waitress job tomorrow if I need to do that. Master’s degrees or not.”
“Okay,” he says finally. “I’ll do what I can.”
I jump up and give him a big hug and a kiss thank you.
Somewhere in the darkness of the early morning my boyfriend stirs and cuddles up next to me. He hugs me tight and burrows his face in the small of my back. “I love you so much,” he says. “I’m just afraid that one day you’re going to have enough of just being with me and writing, and you’re going to leave.”
“I’m right here,” I say, reaching out of my half-sleep and patting his arm. “And I love you, too.”
“What if you need to take some job in Wisconsin or something?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I hope not.”
It’s still dark out but nearby a cock crows. Outside our window, the birds begin to twitter.
I listen and marvel at nature, how the animals give each other room to be free.
The next morning, I want to sleep in but he wants me to get up and make him breakfast. So I fix some eggs and see him off to work. It’s a Friday, I finish the first draft of a story and would like to work on it more over the weekend, but he keeps our dance card full on those days: barbecues at his boss’s house, jaunts to the beach or farmer’s market. Sometimes on weeknights he wants me to help him entertain clients who fly in on business, and so we eat steak dinners at fancy hotels until ten p.m. All this I keep up for the writing life I’ve been able to carve out for myself this spring. I’ll worry about our relationship later—how I constantly feel indebted to him, the big deal he makes if I want to write on the weekends instead of pulling my weight in his social circles. That I don’t speak up and insist on having a few hours more on the weekends to write, because he’s bought that time with me.
Pura vida, they say. I wonder.
And I keep wondering about the other women I see here in Costa Rica. One night we go downtown to hear an acoustic band—live music is my boyfriend’s passion—and we pass the hotel/casino that’s also a famous whore bar for the rich sport-fishermen, businessmen, and other gringos stopping through San José. You can tell the whores by their oversized purses, tight clothing, and surgically-enhanced breasts. They trot across the street on the arms of the older American men, and I wonder how many of these women would be so much more if they didn’t need to do this to pay for basic necessities because the barrios they come from in Honduras or Nicaragua are without electricity and running water. I shudder to think how many other educated, middle-class American women are closer to those women than we would care to think—still hanging onto the arm of a man, clipping as fast as we can just to keep up.
Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut short story collection, Train Shots, was released in March, 2014 by Burrow Press and is the winner of the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction. The book was also long-listed for the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Vanessa’s writing has appeared in The Southern Review, Green Mountains Review, The Paris Review Daily,The Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, among many others. Finalist for the 2014 Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award, she has also been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, the Ragdale Foundation, and in 2013 received the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. Vanessa earned her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Born and raised in northeastern Pennsylvania, she is a longtime resident of Maitland, Florida. Blakeslee’s debut novel is scheduled for release by Curbside Splendor Publishing in Fall, 2015.
[Cross-posted at Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs.]
Three years later, the resulting set of three illustrations — a race between an Olorotitan and a Tarbosaurus — was finally published in the press release for a study of hadrosaur locomotion by Dr. Phil Currie and Scott Persons, which a few readers may already be familiar with, either independently or via the Chasmosaurs Facebook page. There is also a podcast about the research. Here, for your delectation and privilege (or indeed indifference and ennui, so please you) are the illustrations at a much larger size, which can be opened out in a new tab/window for full-view if you wish. Much of the comic expression in the dinosaurs’ eyes are missed in reduction — something which I hadn’t accounted for when I drew them.
The Aesop analogy subsequently repeated in the article was one which had actually occurred to Scott as a result of my original submission, as quoted in my linked Himmapaanensis post above: ‘…this is a charming twist (and one I had not anticipated). I like it very much!’ I readily confess that my simple little ego was considerably flattered by this.
There is also a story behind the flag-waving Protoceratops, who was originally accompanied by a much more incongruous figure (again, for the sake of this post’s conciseness, please see the first link for this). I don’t know, you’d think I had a penchant for such a thing…
Prints of the illustrations were donated to the silent auction at the Alberta Dinosaur Research Institute fundraising dinner this past weekend. Sean Willett of the Dragon Tongues podcast (whom Marc and I had the great pleasure of meeting and speaking to at the first TetZooCon, and for whom David recently completed a new logo) had very kindly placed a bid on them. He informs me that the prints finally sold for over 0.
Of course, given that it has been three years since their creation, there are several things I would do differently now. So consider this the appropriate disclaimer/apology for any obvious shortcomings. I do know, however, that I would relish more such opportunities for playful pictures accompanying serious research in formal publications. Can we make this A Thing, please?
1. On November 14, 2014, the Star reported that a police officer had raped a woman who had gone to the police station to report that she had been sexually assaulted:
When she went for the P3 [the official form used to report sexual assault], the police officer handling her case told her to wait for him in the waiting area until 2pm. He said he first had to handle an emergency.
At 2pm the officer told her to follow him to his house in the police line “where he claimed he kept the P3 forms”. The police station and lines are in the same compound.
He locked her inside his house, which she could not escape, and left.
At 1am on Wednesday, he returned and raped her repeatedly.
“He undressed me, raped me three times and threatened me, saying if I argue, resist or expose him, I would know he is a police officer,” the woman said.
2. In mid-July 2014, Kenya’s Independent Policing Oversight Authority released MONITORING REPORT ON OPERATION SANITIZATION EASTLEIGH PUBLICALLY KNOWN AS “USALAMA WATCH”, a report that criticized police misconduct. As noted in the report,
As the Operation got underway, there emerged widespread media reports of alleged ethnic profiling of certain ethnic groups, as well as unlawful detention and deportations carried out by the Police. In addition, there was criticism from a section of the public who were concerned that the operation had infringed on their fundamental human rights and that to a larger extent, it had been skewed towards specific segments of the society. The Operation was further marred by widespread allegations of corruption where members of the public were allegedly forced to part with bribes to avoid being arrested and/ or detained in unclear circumstances; arbitrary arrests, harassment, assault, unlawful detentions and deportation of individuals.
3. As documented in the Report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, Kenya’s police and military evidence that Kenya has never been post-colonial:
The commission finds that state security agencies, particularly the Kenya Police and the Kenyan Army, have been the main perpetrators of bodily integrity violations of human rights in Kenya including massacres, enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment, and sexual violence.
One need not read history books to encounter colonial-era violence. One need simply engage with Kenya’s state security agencies to experience “how it was,” how it still is.
We rarely know the names of those police who routinely rape, harass, torture, and kill Kenyans. Most often, the police rape, harass, torture, and kill Kenyans considered disposable: the poor, the unemployed, border population minorities, Somalis (who are unique among border population minorities), and the vulnerable (and it’s so easy to be/come vulnerable in Kenya).
Terrorized by state security agencies, we rarely have the presence of mind to ask for names or badge numbers, the time to register complaints about police misconduct, the faith to believe that registering complaints might matter.
In a very real sense, we have no Darren Wilsons. Every cop is Darren Wilson. Or can be.
We have no Darren Wilsons because we have no suspected criminals. Or, to be more precise, we have no suspected gangsters. A shoot-to-kill policing strategy means that every newspaper report featuring suspected gangsters inevitably includes the phrase “gunned down.”
We have no Darren Wilsons because we have no systems that believe those raped, tortured, harassed, and killed by the police are not disposable.
We have no Darren Wilsons because the police consist of Inspector General Kimaiyo and those under him: a mass of violence-spreading people who inspire fear.
And so, sometimes, when Kenyans write about Darren Wilson in Missouri, we’re trying to name all those uniformed bodies who rape, harass, torture, and kill, all those whose faces we can’t see, whose names we never know.
And, sometimes, when Kenyans get angry about Darren Wilson in Missouri, we’re trying to work up the courage to look at our own Darren Wilsons, to learn their names, to attempt to hold them accountable.
And, sometimes, when Kenyans “condemn” Darren Wilson (“condemn” is a peculiar Kenyan vernacular), we’re listening to cries across space, our bones are troubled, our spirits restless, our hearts heavy.
And, sometimes, when Kenyans condemn Darren Wilson, we’re trying to say we hear you, we feel with you, we believe with you.
And, sometimes, when Kenyans condemn Darren Wilson, we’re looking away from our own fucked up situation, unable to “name and shame” or identify and critique our friends, our families, our intimates.
Darren Wilson is a name foreign enough, a body distant enough, for us to name the possibilities of our killability. The casual ways guns appear at the most banal moments. The stories we tell of “lucky” escapes.
From here, the banality of anti-blackness and white supremacy exist in structural ways that are, sometimes, #notasbadas: one accepts the casual racism of North American and European funders; one attends parties with cultural consumers who outline their theories of Africans; one watches brave, beautiful, courageous activists shuffle and mumble to get white money; and even the most liberal minded whites soon learn the privileges their skin affords, and inhabit it. And one wants to be called cultured or cosmopolitan or affable—one keeps quiet, drinks too much, says, “fuck off, Darren Wilson,” because one cannot piss off those one needs.
But we also struggle: to know Darren Wilson’s name, from here, when Kimaiyo’s name remains unknown out there; to mourn for Mike Brown from here, when Anita Osebe Moi remains unmourned out there; we wonder about the affective work of being together, about a U.S. so wounded, so damaged, so dangerous that we feel to ask that it share in our mourning would be selfish.
We learn to feel across borders—into the many spaces where our bodies move: India, Germany, China, Canada, England, the U.S., Sweden, Japan, South Africa. Our emotional lives stretch, our identifications become more elastic than we had ever imagined possible. At times, we whisper stories of harm, of damage, of loss, of the unbearable burden of splitting in and across time, of being cut in and through space. At times we remain silent, hoarding stories, storing hurt, refusing to compound the pain already caused by separation.
We insist that we will stay here—in this place looking for ways to kill us. We insist that it will not chase us away. That we will not let those who cannot imagine us as possible compel us to imagine ourselves as impossible.
We learn the names we can say. Curse those we can. Figure out, every day, how to be possible.
[Editor’s Note: Last night citizens in Chicago shut down Lake Shore Drive in protest over the Staten Island grand jury’s refusal to indict the police officer responsible for the choking death of Eric Garner. Yet in SoCal, protesters have been using the freeways as a vehicle for protest and political awareness for decades. UCSD PhD […]
Freshly Pressed: Editors’ Picks
When a friend was hospitalized for appendicitis, people flocked to visit him at the hospital. When I was clinically depressed, some who knew it avoided me like the plague. But I completely understand — it’s natural for us to be afraid of the unfamiliar, including unfamiliar illnesses. And when it comes to depression, people are wary […]
Freshly Pressed: Editors’ Picks
I often think it’s harder to write about a book you’ve really loved than one you haven’t liked at all. Just as it takes more muscles to smile than to frown (and it really does, the other way round is a myth propagated by a conspiracy of determined optimists), it takes more firing synapses to praise than condemn. I’m tempted to say of Hilary Mantel’s memoir: It’s brilliant, go and read it, and just leave this review concise. But maybe it’s useful if I say a word or two – and give you a quote or two – in justification.
Hilary Mantel grew up just outside of Manchester, the majority of her immediate family living in two neighbouring houses, her grandmother presiding over one, her grandmother’s sister in the other. In and out of their houses all the time, she’s greeted by her great-aunt, Annie Connor:
“Hello, our ‘Ilary,”… my family have named me aspirationally, but aspiration doesn’t stretch to the ‘H’. Rather embarrassed for her, that she hasn’t spotted who I am, I slip her my name of the day. I claim I’m an Indian brave. I claim I’m Sir Launcelot. I claim I’m the parish priest and she doesn’t quibble. I give her a blessing; she says, thank you, Father.’
Yes, like many a writer, Hilary is a wildly imaginative child, believing her best friend’s father to be half-man, half-plant because of the thick, knotty veins in his forearms, able to recite whole chunks of the Knights of the Round Table from memory and convinced she will at some point transmute into a boy.
Trouble comes early: a severe and unexplained fever on her first holiday in Blackpool, when she first realises in that unarticulated childish way, that her parents aren’t happy and fears she is the cause. Forever after it seems as if she were the kind of child who simply absorbed negative energy and turned it into illness. And then there were the dull rigors of school:
I kept my bounce for a week or two, my cheerful pre-school resilience; I was a small, pale girl, post-Blackpool, but I had a head stuffed full of chivalric epigrams, and the self-confidence that comes from a thorough knowledge of horsemanship and swordplay. I knew, also, so many people who were old, so many people who were dead; I belonged to their company and lineage, not to this, and I began to want to rejoin them, without the interruptions now imposed. I couldn’t read, but neither could any of the other children, and it was a wearisome uphill trail in the company of Dick and Dora… It was dull stuff, all of it, and as my head was already full of words, whole sagas which I knew by heart, I was not convinced that it was necessary.’
The story of Hilary’s life is one packed full of ghosts, spotted or sensed here and there, flitting in and out of the margins of the narrative without much in the way of time or explanation spent on them. They just happen to crop up occasionally, and hardly ever cause her any harm, apart from one time when she was seven when something happened while she was in the garden, an experience with no defined contours that ‘wrapped a strangling hand around my life’, a sense of such evil and foreboding that: ‘Grace runs away from me, runs out of my body like liquid from a corpse.’ She refers to it as her ‘mauvaise quart d’heure’, and doesn’t refer to it much at all.
In any case, there is plenty of material trouble to be had with the living. Her parents, along with Hilary and her two young brothers, move into their own house up the road, and then before long so too does Jack, the man who will eventually become her stepfather. ‘You should not judge your parents,’ Mantel writes, on the grounds that they are young and unhappy and don’t know what they’re doing, except hoping for the best. But naturally, such a development caused extreme rifts within her family, and outside of it. When her parents finally split (and Hilary never saw her father again after that), Jack her stepfather evidently feels somewhat saddled with kids he didn’t ask for, a daughter the least useful of all.
But there is a terrific tensile strength in Hilary Mantel, a resolution not to be broken or bowed by the stupid, the pointless and the unwittingly cruel in life, and a determination to stand up to any bully who comes her way. These qualities are tested to the limit when, as a young woman, she transfers her degree course to Sheffield to be with the man she will eventually marry, and starts to experience nausea, sickness and atrocious pains in her legs. She goes to the doctor who, because he doesn’t have any explanation for it, sends her to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist diagnoses excess ambition (‘If I were honest with myself, he asked, wouldn’t I rather have a job in my mother’s dress shop than study law?’). He puts her on anti-depressants, whose only effect is one of ‘making print slide sideways and fall out of the book.’ Until she tries valium, which makes her fit to be tied – apparently it has the effect of enraging some people. From this point on, Hilary is given stronger and stronger drugs to counter the side-effects of whatever she has previously taken, until she ends up knocked out in a clinic on Largatil. Realising the drugs are now the problem (which no one else does), she stops taking them all and simply claims she is well. Which of course she isn’t at all. It’s not until many years later that she starts researching her illness herself and comes to believe she is suffering from endometriosis, ‘a gynaecological condition with a dazzling variety of systemic effects.’ After some torturous surgery and hormone drugs that make her pile on weight and lose her hair and her hearing, she is out of danger but also a stranger to herself. But that indomitable courage never really goes away: ‘Bald, odd-shaped, deaf but not defeated, I sat down and wrote another book.’
Although the memoir is framed by the act of selling two homes and buying one, the real heart of the book is in these central sections, in which damage is done to Hilary Mantel, inadvertently for the most part, but enough to make her a woman of many lives, in other words, a writer.
I am not writing to solicit any special sympathy. People survive much worse and never put pen to paper… There are other people who, like me, have had the roots of their personality torn up. You need to find yourself, in the maze of social expectation, the thickets of memory: just which bits of you are left intact? I have been so mauled by medical procedures, so sabotaged and made over, so thin and so fat, that sometimes I feel that each morning it is necessary to write myself into being’.
Giving Up the Ghost is a book that takes you by the throat and does not let go, written with consummate stylishness and a clever, teasing wit. I don’t think I’ve read a better account of what it’s like to be a child, the terrible disappointments that come with grasping the essence of growing up as it is sold to the small and helpless. The parts about chronic illness are hypnotic. The ending, a sort of coda in which Hilary Mantel sells her old homes and buys a new one, wasn’t as intriguing or endearing, but who cares? The rest is amazing. A final thought: in the book, she writes that she’d never seen the point of memoir, but writing her own had taught her something new: how to let the story arise, how life eventually revealed its own shape, if you let it, and she hoped this would help with her fiction. And what did she go on to write next? Yup, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. I guess it was useful after all.
There’s this parable that economists always tell.
Your car breaks down and you take it to the mechanic. He opens the hood and looks at your engine for a few seconds. Then he takes out a little hammer and taps it on the top. Suddenly it works again.
‘That’ll be 0,’ he says.
‘But all you did was make a little tap!’ you protest.
‘The tap, that’s ,’ he says. ‘Knowing where to tap, that’s .’
Like everyone else who writes for a living, I’ve been reading the Fareed Zakaria plagiarism allegations with a knot in my stomach.
Here’s what we know so far:
Dude has written for legit every publication, so his current employer and his alma maters investigated his old work for copy-pastage. They apparently didn’t find anything because Zakaria was back at his desk after a few weeks.
Then, this summer, two bloggers with awesome pseudonyms started looking into his work more closely. They found dozens—no, seriously, dozens—of instances where Zakaria paraphrased from other authors without giving them credit.
Check out this clip from his book, with questionable phrasing in yellow:
He also pilfered some figures from Michael Lewis’s (love him!) investigation of California’s financial problems.
Then Zakaria issued a suuuuper half-assed rebuttal (‘These are all facts, not someone else’s writing or opinions or expressions’) that was torn apart by theOur Bad Media bloggers (seriously read it, it’s the best post of this whole episode).
So those are the charges. Now we can start debating how pissed off about them we want to be. The Columbia Journalism Review (love you guys!) just put out a longform-ish dissection of what we talk about when we talk about plagiarism.
Lots of the debate, like every debate ever, hinges on definitions. Plagiarism sounds like a binary distinction—you copy-pasted or you didn’t—but looking at it so technocratically allows writers to do what Zakaria did, make slight modifications to other people’s sentences to slip past plagiarism-detection software
The real issue here is lack of attribution, which is just a Zakarian weasel-word for ‘stealing other people’s ideas’.
Let’s go back to the Michael Lewis example. I’m not particularly offended by the fact that Zakaria took a few of Lewis’s words and put them in the same order. As Zakaria himself points out in his rebuttal, there’s only so many ways to say something.
But dude, Lewis worked to get those numbers. Using them to make a broader point about municipal finance, the difficulty of balancing a budget in as a medium-size American city, that was Lewis’s idea to find those numbers and use them as an argument.
The defences of Zakaria usually stick to the technical definition. Here’s the CJR again:
Jacob Weisberg, head of the Slate Group, defended Zakaria’s mistakes as “minor, penny-ante stuff” unworthy of the “plagiarism” label, according to The Daily Beast. “I’m not sure we have a strict operational definition of plagiarism at Slate,” he added in an email to CJR. “To me, plagiarism involves not just using someone else’s research or ideas without credit, but also taking passages of prose and distinctive language.”
Fred Hiatt, Zakaria’s editor at the Washington Post, prefers the term ‘improper attribution’, which sounds about as serious as a parking ticket.
I was listening to a badass podcast this morning called ‘America’s Diversity Explosion Is Coming Just in Time.’ The interviewee, a Brookings Institution researcher named William Frey, wrote a book about how America’s changing racial and age-al makeup is going to remake the country for the next generation. It’s a provocative argument, and he uses hella stats to make it: About 80 percent of people over 65 are white, compared to about 50 percent of people under 17. Fifteen percent of all marriages are multi-racial. Blacks vote for Democrats over Republicans by a margin of 87 percent.
All those numbers are publicly available, they’re mostly from the Census and shit, but knowing where to look, pulling them out, putting them in that order, drawing conclusions from them, that is work. This dude has read and thought and written way more about this than I ever have, and it would be such a dickmove for me to copy the work part and then be like ‘the numbers were there all along!’ Zakaria is deliberately mixing up the tap with knowing where to tap.
Which leads to my proposal for how we should consider these cases in the future: What would the original author think if they read your summary? If Frey, the Brookings dude, read the above two paragraphs, where it’s clear that it’s his ideas and my summary, I don’t expect he’d feel robbed. Even if I happen to have used phrasing similar to his or a few words in the same order, it washes out under the credit I’ve given him.
When my development article came out, I sent it to the authors whose books I’d summarized. I wanted to share it with them, not just the story but the experience of getting their ideas and examples out to a broader audience. I wasn’t worried they’d find the article, I was worried they wouldn’t retweet it.
Part of the reason I do this is just basic politeness and golden-rule-following, but it’s also a sort of self-regulation mechanism. Knowing, before I even start writing, that the authors I’m discussing are going to read what I say and think about them, it makes me more careful—not just in my phrasing but in my conclusions.
That’s why I’m always arguing for more collaboration between journalists and their sources. Personally, I’m utterly terrified of accidentally plagiarizing something. I know the ‘I forgot to add a footnote!’ excuse sounds like ‘I have lots of black friends!’—but losing track of sources, forgetting that a sentence in your notes is someone else’s words and not your own, it’s a genuine risk. Working with the sources of your ideas is the only reliable protection against inadvertently stealing the expression of them.
I’m not suggesting the plagiarized-from authors should be given responsibility for Zakaria’s fate, or that every single article should be approved by its sources before its released. But read those passages above (especially the one from his book! Phwoof!) and ask yourself, ‘if you wrote the original text, would you feel comfortable with Zakaria’s version?’
Personally, I wouldn’t be pissed that he stole my words, I’d be pissed that he stole the thing I was using my words to describe. Detecting plagiarism doesn’t require more sophisticated software, it requires more sophisticated ethics.
Under the current definition, plagiarism asks whether two authors are tapping in the same place. We need one that acknowledges the work of knowing where to tap.
Photo by Seung-Hwan Oh!
This is a guest post by Willa Hammitt Brown, a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia, where she is finishing her dissertation, “Gentlemen of the Woods: Manhood, Myth and the American Lumberjack, 1860-1920″. She is a teaching assistant in the Department of History and the Women’s and Gender Studies program. Content note: this article mentions sexual assault.
“I have worn the honors of Honor
I graduated from Virginia” – :The Honor Men”, James Hay Jr, 1903
“Nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school” – Rolling Stone, 2014
This morning I got an email from the President of my University, the University of Virginia. In it, she quotes Thomas Jefferson, and invokes tradition, honor and idealism. She harks back to the long history of a storied institution. “Honor and tradition inform our thinking,” she explains, but where “success is demanded as much as it is sought” we mustn’t let “idealism outweigh our reality.”
You’d almost forget she was talking about rape.
We have found ourselves, at my prestigious, sheltered, Southern university quite suddenly in the spotlight, and we are not handling it well. Not well at all.
U.Va is one of the oldest public universities in this country and currently ranked second in the nation. Our campus is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Thomas Jefferson founded it, Edgar Alan Poe, Woodrow Wilson and two Kennedys attended it. We claim, wrongly, to have the oldest written honor code of any American university. And we are, at this moment, ground zero in the debate over campus sexual assault.
None of this is unrelated. Our traditions, our reliance on honor, our language of quiet gentility are what reinforce toxic levels of privilege. We are a culture, and we are an institution, that protects rapists and promotes rape culture.
A quick primer on the state of sexual assault prevention on campuses in the United States: The Federal government has recently (in 2011 to be precise) begun to crack down on universities that do not adequately handle sexual assault cases under the provisions of Title IX. Title IX, a federal act passed in 1972, guarantees equal access to education for men and women, specifically banning discrimination based on sex. It’s under Title IX, for instance, that we are required to fund women’s sports at levels at least, in theory, on par with men’s.
In 2011 the Obama administration wrote what’s called a “Dear Colleague” letter, writing that sexual harassment and assault create an environment hostile to women, and that if they are not properly addressed it will be considered a Title IX violation and result in institutions losing their federal funding. The Department of Education has since made it very clear they intend to follow through. Eighty-six universities and colleges are under investigation for mishandling complaints. But only eleven are under a full, Federal noncompliance review. We are among those lucky few.
Three days ago, Rolling Stone published a scathing article criticizing U.Va, detailing the case of a gang rape that happened two years ago, and the relatively little that’s been done about it since. I won’t quote the article much here for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s more than a little sensationalist and I don’t want to get into the mire of journalistic integrity. Secondly, while I agree with the author in most of her portrayal of the University, her emphasis on pushing survivors to report, rather than on creating an environment in which reporting feels safe, troubles me. And finally, it honestly could not come with a trigger warning big enough. Please feel free to go ahead and google it, but do it when you have an hour to quietly process what you will find there.
Right now I’m not interested in talking about the article. I’m interested in talking about what happened after: what happened when the veil was lifted and we saw ourselves as we really are. As my friend Rachel said about the article, I say too about the response, “the most shocking thing is that everyone seems so shocked.”
In the wake of the article, we all began a quick scramble to be victims, too. There was outrage from the relatively small cadre of on campus feminists that the article claimed there were no feminists here. There were outcries that we’re not all privileged, and we are more progressive than portrayed. Most of all, there was outrage from the fraternities that they were getting too much blame (on Yik Yak, a social network that allows anonymous messaging, a post reading “I became a victim when last night after exiting my fraternity house someone yelled out rapist, I’ve worked hard my 4 years here to address sexual assault and now I’m viewed as the problem” was up-voted 172 times in two hours) Everyone rushed to be the victim, because a victim cannot be part of the problem. But none of that is really the point. Of course there are feminists, and of course there are progressives. No one truly believes every Fraternity brother is a rapist. But when we coddle bruised egos and tell each other that you and I are not the problem, we are hiding from the truth.
Because we are all the problem. Only thirty-eight assaults were reported at UVA last year, out of hundreds we know to have happened. Of those, only a few went to arbitration, fewer still to any guilty verdict. A university that has expelled over a hundred people in the last twenty years for cheating has never, not once, expelled a rapist. A university that insists that every faculty member read a forty page booklet on the Honor Code and then pass a fairly asinine quiz on it to be allowed access to our email accounts provides no training on sexual misconduct whatsoever. Even if a rape were reported to most of us, we wouldn’t know what to do.
Rapes are perpetuated by a relatively small number of people – these are not, for the most part, he-said/she-said situations. For one in four women to be sexually assaulted does not mean one in four men are sexually assaulting them. So we need to take action, we need to seek justice – we need to remove criminals, serial criminals, from our midst. But there is a reason that people don’t report.
And that reason is us.
A gang rape is reported in horrific detail, and the administration responds first by addressing its reputation. Their next move was to hire (and then swiftly un-hire) a lawyer to investigate who had been a member of the very fraternity where the rape happened. When finally they took action to shut down greek life, students responded like they had been personally attacked. There is, in this reaction, a deep-seated contempt for those who don’t conform. If you cannot take our traditions, if you cannot live with our honor, perhaps you don’t belong here.
Honor, it seems to me, has become an empty word at the University. Or, rather, it has become a word loaded with meaning, but meaning we all steadfastly refuse to acknowledge. It has become a word we all use to get around discussing or thinking about “understanding”, “tolerance” and “responsibility.” Because in our vaunted language, it is meant to encompass all three. In reality, it serves to suppress all three.
When we talk about honor we do so in a culture steeped in the history of white supremacy, class privilege and gender privilege. The traditions and concept of “honor” we harken back to are those of Southern gentility – a gentility built off the exclusion and oppression of others. Anytime that privilege is unthroned, even a little, the rallying cry in response is “tradition.” When we were the last public university to accept women, it was because of tradition. When we attend football games in pearls and ties, the uniform of the privileged, it’s because its tradition.
A call to tradition is a call to protect our fun at the expense of another person’s comfort. I saw it, and participated in it, while at Oxford as an undergraduate. When balls, black tie, sub fusc, and formal halls would come under attack as practices that made the University an uncomfortable and even hostile space for people who did not come from a white middle- or upper-class background, I, too, would join in the cry that these traditions were what made Oxford so wonderful, so special. It is only in retrospect that I wonder to what extent what I really meant was, “if you can’t conform to this special place, then you don’t really belong here. It’s not on me to make room for you.”
That was hard to see as a student, as someone who enjoyed those traditions. But from the vantage point I now have, as an outsider looking in at the undergraduate life of another University whose calling card is also old-fashioned tradition and gentility, I can see more clearly that when we say we live in a “community of honor” we mean, “to question our community is to question our honor.” When we say we prize tradition, we must admit that that tradition is built of slavery, and racial, class, and gender privilege.
This all came starkly to light the day the Rolling Stone article went live. President Sullivan sent an email within the day, which opened by addressing, before any solidarity with the student who spoke up, before any responsibility for the botched investigation, and certainly before any responsibility for the crime happening on our campus in the first place, the “negative portrayal” of the University.
In a desperate attempt to preserve and increase our reputations, we rest on concepts like honor and tradition to shut down debates about privilege and diversity. I am not the first to point out that it’s hard to have your privilege questioned. And I do not pretend that this is the only problem. There are state-wide legal frameworks that perpetuate rape culture (such as the fact that due to still extant Virginia brothel laws, only frats can serve alcohol, all sororities are dry), and there are frameworks within the university as well – we are a business, and powerful, wealthy donors cling tightly to tradition.
But there is also the way we talk about ourselves, and the words we use. When your traditions are built on a history of white supremacy, perhaps it’s time to criticize them. When Honor is a word we use to make ourselves feel better, it is merely an empty construct. Coming forward to speak through your pain and terror about assault is honorable. And there is only one honorable thing we can do in return: listen.
At band rehearsal this week (I play in a covers band for weddings and corporate functions) I scribbled this onto a scrap of paper between songs as the band rehearsed with a drummer who is filling in for me for an upcoming gig. I’d had the title floating in my head for about a week […]
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