Book: Whitelash: Unmasking White Grievance at the Ballot Box by Terry Smith

Whitelash: Unmasking White Grievance at the Ballot Box
by Terry Smith, J.D.
published by Cambridge University Press
2020

This is a very thoughtful book that I began zealously recommending to others as soon as I was a few chapters in. Written by a law professor, this text analyzes the actions of the Trump Administration and motivations of its supporters, and asks: is the overt racism displayed by the administration and its primarily white supporters legal, and can it be addressed within existing legal frameworks?

Aside from me: For anyone who wasn’t in the US or following news in late 2016, the election of a failed businessman over an experienced and successful female secretary of state is best understood as a reaction by conservative white voters against the party and policies of the twice-elected African American president. While the US has a mythology of cultural openness and racial inclusion, this mythology is usually limited to justifying structures of white dominance with minor multi-cultural visibility. It appears from interviews and studies (included many cited in the footnotes of Smith’s book) that a black president made many whites feel that their unearned dominance was ending, and so they chose a leader with animus against a range of non-white ethnic groups with hopes to re-entrench whiteness as the center of political power and as the only true American identity.

Mr. Smith’s definition of a white backlash, condensed to Whitelash, is very clear:

Whitelash is the reaction of many white Americans when they believe that strides toward racial equality have run amuck, to the point of threatening their own material well-being, even as they remain far better-off economically than people of color…. This fear manifests itself through individual and collective efforts to retain the benefits of a structure of racial inequality, efforts that erroneously cast equality for people of color as discrimination against whites. Thus, the default position—the social baseline—from which too many whites define the normalcy of race relations is racial inequality.

from Whitelash Chapter 1, Electing Trump and Breaching Norms

With an extensive background in civil rights law and discrimination cases, Mr. Smith finds that in most circumstances, the stated intentions of the administration, which displayed clear animus against specific groups, would be legally actionable. From housing rights to employment to labor law and beyond, an announced intention to “ban Muslims” would put DT on the wrong side of the law. The racial animus that animates his followers is harder to legally address, but Smith ultimately proposes common sense solutions to cancel out the local manipulations of racists, which currently roll up to have adverse national impacts for all of us.

Smith’s analyses are methodical and well supported with citations to source materials. As a legal professional, it is what I would expect in my profession and in legal education more than in the popular, general-audience press. The writing is clear, and the explanations of the law are superb, and there are great citations!! (The Apple ebook version has each footnote linked in a way that makes it easy to read them and jump back to where you left off reading. I also appreciate the many colors of highlighting in the Books app, which I utilized extensively. I’m sure other eBook software has similarly beneficial features, but this is the first time I really utilized them, and it made a great impression.)

Thanks to Smith’s thorough research, the book goes beyond law and features many amazing quotes and references to other worthwhile books that delve into some of the topics covered. For example, while so many of us can’t understand how voters could sabotage material improvements for all of us, or even vote against policies that would benefit them directly, content Smith cites suggest that people’s idea of themselves as conservatives wins out emotionally over their own specific material situation.

“ In 2004, Emory University political psychologist Drew Westen conducted neuroimaging of the brains of partisan men presented with evidence that both Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry and Republican incumbent George W. Bush had made contradictory statements. Democrats were more critical of Bush’s statements, and Republicans were more critical of Kerry’s. The neuroimaging revealed that the portion of the brain associated with reasoning—the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—played no role in eliciting the partisans’ responses to the candidates’ statements. Instead, the emotion circuits of the brain lit up when the subjects responded.”

(emphasis mine)

This helps me understand why people would vote against getting life-saving healthcare, for example – their political self-image has no room for such things, and their emotional fears of not being first in line, or of anything good happening for people who look different from themselves, kills such support outright. (You can see this in discussions of the national healthcare program: people whose lives were saved by “Obamacare” have spoken out to say they had opposed the idea on principle, while others said they opposed “Obamacare” but supported the “ACA,” – even though they are the same thing. One label offended their political identity.)

It can be painful to relive some of the terrible, racist actions, statements, and policies that were made during the time period covered, but it is also useful to see these actions against non-white and non-Republican groups as part of a long term pattern and strategy (with source citations!), rather than in the outrage-of-the-day coverage that we had at the time.

In summary: this is the best book I’ve read on the topic of political racism and its impacts in the United States. With a wealth of citations, clear writing, book recommendations on related topics, and a thoughtful and logical approach to analyzing the pretexts under which racism operates, I feel enriched by having read it. I feel even more confident in my support for necessary democratic reforms than I previously did. I highly recommend it.

Art: Emily Carr’s Lush, Green Forests

I’m sending art postcards, and just prepared to mail Old-Time Coast Village by Emily Carr, and… it’s just so GOOD! The way she shapes the forest, so the canopy looks solid, or like a blanket… it’s just WONDERFUL. Dark, mysterious, fresh, and wonderful.

The Vancouver Art Gallery’s website is down, so I’ll link to it (expecting it to return?), but also share a thumbnail of the card:

Postcard of Old-Time Coast Village by Emily Carr. Hopefully the Vancouver Art Gallery website will be restored, so you can look at their Emily Carr collection. I LOVE LOVE LOVE her work!

Art: World Cyanotype Day is September 25th

My favorite handmade photographic process has its own day of appreciation!

My friends at alternativephotography.com, my favorite alternative process website, have a gallery of submissions to share. It’s fun to see how people are using this vivid blue photographic printing process.

Life: Smoke-Tinted Light and Casual Reading

Not the current sky.

The sunrises remain a striking yellow-gold. This still has the capacity to surprise me. The wildfires are still sending particles to the upper atmosphere, and I am sad that I’m becoming used to the yellow tint to my surroundings. I don’t want to get used to it, but it is a daily filter. It is becoming normal.

~~~

I don’t write here about everything I read. I try to limit myself to books I strongly recommend. And the bulk of what I read each day aren’t books!

I read both US and international news each morning (not just the book reviews!), and I’m trying NOT to provide running commentary on that. (I’ve done that in the past on blogs, and it’s tiring. Also, you can get personal commentary on just about everything all the time on social media, along with an endless collection of reposts of things you’ve already read.) I don’t write about books until I finish them (notes for myself notwithstanding), which means I am always in arrears on endorsements.

I fall into Internet research rabbit holes, and love that Wikipedia has a t-shirt on this theme.

On Twitter, which can consume an entire afternoon if I’m not careful, I read posts by my favorite authors, journalists, comedians, artists, and activists. There is a beneficial crossover of articles and other media on topics that interest me, recommended by people with similar interests, and written about by professional sources. It allows me to have a positive experience of Twitter, which wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t filter carefully.

That makes it sound like I only do super-professional research on Twitter, which is not the case. Twitter is also full of jokes, puns, highly charged commentary, mockery, illustrations, photos, AI software being used to match celebrity outfits to natural phenomena, and dumb-but-funny observations. I have geeky sense of humor, so I wind up with a lot of this sort of thing (below, sung to the tune of “That’s Amore“)

This is posted to Twitter from other sites by multiple posters, so I’m unsure who to credit. Twitter only lets me see a few days’ worth of these posts on the “That’s a Moray” topic, which appears to have a longer history than you actually want to know about. If you searched now, today, you’d see this and other variations of this coming up, including more song lines… Be warned: you’ll find yourself singing this in the shower.

This continues in many flavors, and is also enjoyed by the professional media (though non-media types shared the links with me in the first place):

This, in turn, reminds me of the collection of Guardian headlines that they are very pleased with themselves over:

…and now you know too much about my non-book reading time.

Film: Matrix 4 Preview

I have watched this. Many times. Possibly too many times.

It’s fun to be excited about this.

Also, I just love to see San Francisco in films. (This was really filmed here, in part: there were many excited sightings of filming downtown, and some pretty funny warnings from the public health service letting us know what the helicopters downtown were for. 🙂 )

Reading (about books)

Here I’m going to admit that when I’m not reading books, I am often… reading ABOUT books.

Setting aside my more-than-full-time job, artistic practices, Internet research rabbit holes, language study, long walks, and correspondence, there are still sometimes hours left in the day (especially if I don’t sleep) to read about books! 😀 You just have to look, and the time is THERE. (Give up television: it doesn’t lead to enough good books!)

I wind up reading about books even if I don’t plan to.

Even people I follow on Twitter are either already published authors, or they become published authors after I start following them. (Can I take credit for this somehow?) (I’ll be reviewing more of their books on this site, so I don’t have to list those now.)

Periodicals: The newspapers I subscribe to review books frequently and enthusiastically, and I often make note of their recommendations.

Washington Post Books

Guardian (UK) Books

Local Publishers: We have some!

City Lights: City Lights is a landmark local bookshop AND a publisher, especially known for poetry.

Chronicle Books: Chronicle Books is a local publisher, and their emphasis keeps shifting, so I’m unsure what their specialty is now. They published a favorite technical alternative photographic process book, and a great how-to on fabric design patterns. They currently seem big into cookbooks and lifestyle/decor.

McSweeney’s Books: I subscribe to Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern (an outrageously well designed periodical packed with illustrations and short fiction), and it happens that McSweeney’s ALSO publishes books.

Specialty Publishers: as an artist and art book collector, I have many favorite publishers, including museums (though publishing is a sideline for them). Dedicated photo/art book publishers often have great websites and blogs (and some have their own bookshops!), which I visit just to see what they are up to, and invariably find something that fits my interests. This short list is organized based on the number of books by each I possess:

Phaidon: Based in the UK and NYC, has a bookshop in New York City, and the only time I don’t leave that shop with a bag full of books is when I’d pre-ordered their most tempting new publications. (I’m ridiculous.). I like them for fine art and art theory. There’s a special series of artist monographs that they do in a great style, and I have dreams of being featured by them someday…

Aperture: Based in New York City. Aperture is a non-profit, which publishes a great magazine and produces beautiful photography books.

Taschen: Based in Köln (Cologne), Germany. I like Taschen for their architecture compilations.

Gingko Press is based in Berkeley, California. Gingko produces books on art and design – their graphic design books in particular are especially attractive.

Be cautious: you’ll feel money trying to fly out of your bank account just by glancing at any of these sites!

Book: Trespass: A History of Uncommissioned Urban Art edited by Ethel Seno

Trespass: A History of Uncommissioned Urban Art
edited by Ethel Seno, with essays. by other contributors
published by Taschen, Köln (Cologne), Germany
2010

This oversized book flew into my arms once I realized it included guerrilla gardens AND painted street art AND sculptural interventions AND abstract art… I believe this was one of those books that I bought in a museum shop while traveling, which complicated my return home because my luggage became too heavy…

This well produced book (Taschen makes well designed and printed art books) has a diverse set of urban art interventions, supported by a mix of good-plus-a-bit-stuffy essays about the value of unauthorized art installations. Is street art really at the level of Luther nailing his theses to the church door? (Me: Nope!) Can it be transformative and important and beneficial? (Me: Yes!). Is it a reclamation of public space back from advertising? (Me: sometimes, but not always.) I admit that I have preconceived notions (tagging = bad, graffiti pieces = good, gulf between those two things = huge), and the essays didn’t change my views, but maybe I’ve just been spoiled by living in a great mural city, and didn’t need to be won over for the value of these contributions to urban environments. I appreciate the attempt to distinguish vandalism from expression, though it is difficult to make broad generalizations – it’s more of a case-by-case evaluation.

The book includes some solid old-school works that are worth knowing about, and gives NYC a lot of the credit it deserves (hooray!) for being such a huge influence on global street art culture. The book doesn’t limit itself to NYC, of course, and shows great examples of work in different media from around the world. (I recognize multiple SF artists in here – hooray!)

The big value for me was showing me works I hadn’t seen by artists I knew, or identifying things I’d seen in passing and tying them to specific artists/places/details. You know an art book is good when you get inspired to do more research, and I came away with a list of things to seek out.

This is a solid high-level survey of a very wide range of unauthorized works, from Banksy stencils to plants set into potholes in the road to yarn bombing. I enjoyed it, and feel enriched for having read it.

~ ~ ~ ~

P.S. Here are some links (unaffiliated with the book) about work and artists that the book inspired me to seek out more about:

Unauthorized gardens for the community were frowned upon by authorities, which makes the authorities look ridiculous… I’d seen this garden in images before, but didn’t know the backstory. Now I do!

Crateman (in Australia) is charming and clever – I love the unanticipated use of a ubiquitous material. There is something especially fun about its low resolution. 🙂

Somehow, I had never seen the full set of Jenny Holzer’s appropriately named “Inflammatory Essays,” but I am fixing that now, thanks to the Tate’s collection:

Holzer’s website is also excellent and includes her current work (which is GREAT!):

There are several Barbara Kruger works in the book, and I was reminded of how impressive it is to be INSIDE one of her all text installations, such as the one at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. If you ever have a chance, it’s great to stand in a room wrapped in her work.

Book: Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach
by Kelly Robson
published by Tor
2018

One of the funnier recommendations I’d read for this book observed that it was hilarious that, even in the future, scientists will devote entirely too much of their time writing grant proposals. Yes, this book EMPHASIZES that in a way that feels a bit too real!

Without revealing any spoilers, this is a science fiction story of first contact (my definition of it), environmental devastation, underfunded environmental restoration, practical business applications of time travel, and the risks of the combining those things!

Robson tells the story in a non-linear way, which is fair and even appropriate for time travel stories. Her approach develops an excellent tension while reading: you know from the first page that something will go wrong, but HOW it will go wrong and how the wrongness will be resolved is the mystery.

Robson’s world-building is done well – you learn about the different ways humans have survived the devastation they wrought without being bogged down with too many details. The way the world works is experienced as characters accomplish other things, which is efficient and makes the characters’ efforts feel appropriate. It is great to have some grown-up characters in the book: people whose experience, scientific knowledge, and past successes made them valuable. (I live in a youth-worshipping culture, so this stood out.)

I had my doubts about the book during the proposal writing sections (because, as someone with a procurement certificate and experience writing grants: TOO REAL), but was rewarded for my persistence with a book I couldn’t put down once the time travel started.

Pandemic Life: Autumn approaching (through fog)

The western half of San Francisco has had a very foggy summer, which isn’t unusual, but we are confused by the consistency. Our local weather is characterized by its general mildness, sure, but also by its variability. A week may have both hot and cold days; an afternoon may have both warm and cool hours. All of the seasons may be represented during the course of any month.

Dressing for the same weather more than four days in a row feels a bit off.

Many things still feel a bit off, honestly.

The inter-COVID recovery is continuing, but is not evenly distributed. Some streets feel nearly normal, where there is a proper “street life” of locals out and about, while others feel quite abandoned, as if auditioning to be the set of a disaster film. The background rumble of the City hasn’t been fully restored, though there are days when I see traffic backed up on the Bay Bridge or on some street, and those sights are somewhat comforting. A reminder of the before-times! (While polluting traffic isn’t something to celebrate, signs of human activity, even involving vehicles, feel like a return of some kind of vibrancy, however indirect.). My streetcar filled up with schoolchildren one morning, and while it was unexpected (I haven’t been on a FULL streetcar in months), it felt like a good development.

My two friends in other regions who suffered breakthrough infections have fully recovered. My friend in month 9 of long-COVID recovery is making good progress.

My city of 800k+ people is experiencing more than 100 new test-confirmed cases daily (sfdph.org), which isn’t great, but isn’t as bad as it could be. Masking on busy streets, even while outdoors, is coming back into fashion. (I now have a wider range of mask thicknesses to get me through different activities!) My state health department says that more than 48 million of us are vaccinated, and the state’s positivity rate is dropping again (around 3.5% right now for the state; it’s just 2.3% in my City/County). For comparison, the federal Center for Disease Control (CDC) shows still-alarming national numbers (over 8% positivity).

I would like to go to a COVID memorial site, or have one available locally to visit and light a candle or sit to contemplate the vast loss of life. I’m glad to read of this (albeit temporary) memorial art installation by District of Columbia artist by Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, which is visually strong and thoughtful:

*

Two of my friends this week asked me when I think it will be possible to travel safely again, despite knowing I am no expert in epidemiology. (At least I’m not a musician with a cousin with a friend in Trinidad who is misrepresenting his condition?) (If you don’t know what that reference is about, you are lucky.) Maybe I’m an expert in traveling? Anyway, I can see myself traveling recreationally outside of my state again by this time in 2022 if conditions are right. In the meantime, I’m expecting more variants of concern that will need to be studied; data from the results of the mix-and-match clinical studies currently underway (to determine if we should get a different vaccine than we started with, to see if that improves our antibody levels in a useful way); and likely a booster shot based on information from all the studies going on.

I also expect that my travel considerations will be different going forward. I have a friend in New Orleans, but I won’t visit him soon, not only because of Hurricane Ida’s lingering damage, but because of infection rates and hospital availability. Any medical emergency could become fatal if hospitals are overflowing, and the lack of medical support colors my view of any destination! It would also feel wrong to visit a place where locals can’t get the vaccine. So a new list of criteria begins to form:

-low infection rates
-high local/national vaccination rates
-traveler vaccination requirements and testing to fly (so flying is safer)
-traveler testing upon/near arrival (so tourist activities are safer)
-emergency service / hospital availability
-open to U.S. travelers
-cultural attractions are open, operating, and accessible to visitors
(note that capacity restrictions to prevent crowding during a pandemic are good and can make attractions more enjoyable; they need to be managed well, so I can know that I can get into museums and similar institutions during my visit with an easy online/mobile/kiosk reservation).
-tourism is supported by local communities & their leaders (I respect local government pleas NOT TO VISIT when they are struggling) and there is a safety culture, especially for public-facing workers.

I’m sure I’ll adjust this list as circumstances change, but this all feels reasonable to me at this time. Vaccination has made me feel safer, but having friends with breakthrough infections reminds me that my perception of safety is limited, and precautions are still required.