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Too Distressing?

August 17, 2022

Photo by Umesh R. Desai on Unsplash

A new story of mine, “A Topic Too Distressing to Mention,” is now posted on the Bangalore Review website. This marks my first attempt to deal with transgender issues, and it’s also an experiment in communal voice, the narrator being unidentified except as a member of a certain club of women. Anyone who has a chance to read the story is welcome to post a comment here, as long as it’s reasonably polite.

Susie’s e-book

July 30, 2022

Susie Alioto, the namesake protagonist of The Bourgeois Anarchist, may be 66 years old and struggling a bit with her health, but she’s always been up-to-the-moment, so it’s no surprise that her story is now available in a Kindle-type ebook. The co-protagonist, her math-geek son Eric, ridicules her for surrendering to such a gross and uncool form of capitalism. But to understand the odd balance of their relationship, as well as Susie’s complicated links with her anarchist heroes, you’ll have to read the book.

(NB: Susie may be visible in the cover image, which shows a protest march somewhere in the world on some recent date. Details are blurred to protect the guilty.)

Book Launch

November 23, 2021

We’ll be officially launching The Bourgeois Anarchist on November 30, 2021, via Zoom, at 7 p.m. Eastern.

Being a taciturn curmudgeon, I’m extremely lucky to be joined by Elizabeth (Libby) Mosier, an extraordinary writer who’s a much better conversationalist than I am. Most likely, Libby will ask intelligent questions to which I will give confused, nonsensical answers. It should be fun!

To witness this spectacle, and maybe ask questions of your own, you have to register in advance for the Zoom link. The event will be hosted by our friends at Main Point Books in Wayne, PA, which is offering signed copies of the book.

Blurred Choices

November 17, 2021

Ellen Prentiss Campbell, an award-winning fiction writer and member of the National Book Critics Circle, has kindly reviewed The Bourgeois Anarchist in Tiferet Journal. Throughout the novella, she notes, “the lines between good and bad, right and wrong, blur”–proving she firmly grasped the book’s main theme.

Though the magazine is available by subscription only, I can offer a quote from the end of the piece, summarizing her take on the 66-year-old protagonist, Susie Alioto:

Susie is an irresistible force. Readers, especially those of a certain age, aficionados of Anne Tyler’s quirky heroines, will enjoy Susie. She carries the baggage of years of living and experience with almost reckless, youthful abandon. And begins to reckon with some skeletons in her own closet and to figure out what’s next.

You can purchase the novella on Bookshop.org.

After some production struggles, my novella The Bourgeois Anarchist, featuring 66-year-old militant Susie Alioto, is on track to be released this fall by Finishing Line Press. You can order the book at the publisher’s site, and it will soon be available on Amazon, Bookshop.org, and elsewhere.

Oddly, I haven’t yet boasted about what my distinguished writerly acquaintances have said about the book. I’ll make up for that right now. Here’s the advance praise that’s come in so far (and if you’d like to add to it, feel free, especially if you have a million Twitter followers):

The Bourgeois Anarchist is an engrossing tale of an aging pacifist’s struggle to live her ideals as she’s enveloped by the dangers of anarchic activism and the violence of big city capitalism.
—Alan Drew, author of Shadow Man and Gardens of Water

If you’ve ever wondered what you would do in a time of crisis … you’re doing it right now. Susie Alioto is doing her thing too … marching, banner-waving and trying to reconcile her anarchic principles with her non-violent beliefs, in an America where non-violence seems to be increasingly impossible. As tensions rise in her rapidly gentrifying district of Philadelphia, a motley crew of cops, mobsters, pacifists and pseudo-anarchists invade Susie’s quiet existence. No wonder she’s feeling dizzy. A thoroughly enjoyable, and surprisingly gentle, story of love, duty and politics.
—Orla McAlinden, author of The Accidental Wife and The Flight of the Wren

When it comes to political convictions, our younger selves are bound to judge our older selves, and harshly. The charm of this novella is the way it presents this subject with such a light touch, such generosity, and such affection for its characters.
—Simone Zelitch, author of Judenstaat, Waveland, and Louisa

It’s antifa vs artisanal coffee in this absorbing and timely Philadelphia story about the difficulties of living out one’s radical principles in the most orderly way possible.
—Elisabeth Cohen, author of The Glitch

An earlier post included an image of a poster Susie keeps on her refrigerator: a portrait of her special anarchist hero, Errico Malatesta (a real historical figure), with his most famous saying, “Impossibility never prevented anything from happening.” When I wrote the book, this poster did not actually exist, so I created it. Anyone who requests it via the Contact page can have a high-res JPEG or PDF copy for free, to post in the kitchen (to puzzle friends) or on the front door (to attract police scrutiny).

Susie Finds a Home

March 25, 2021

Some years ago, I wrote a silly novel-length mystery spoof that, thanks to the wisdom of the publishing industry, has never seen the light of day. The characters, though, have begged to come back in a more serious effort, especially Susie Alioto, a 66-year-old anarchist and single mother.

At last Susie is getting her due. Her new venue, a novella called The Bourgeois Anarchist, is coming out in July from Finishing Line Press.

After college Susie spent two decades in a radical commune, and her beliefs haven’t wavered. She marches for gun control, for Black Lives Matter, for action against climate change. She’s a leader in local groups that fight for justice and human rights.

You may wonder how the image on this post relates. Well, Susie’s special hero is the late Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta (1853–1932). For inspiration, Susie keeps this poster on the side of her refrigerator, where she communes with it every day. But her son Eric, an apolitical math nerd—named, to his chagrin, after Malatesta—thinks her politics ridiculous, especially since his mother’s current lifestyle is so middle-class. Privately he calls her the “bourgeois anarchist.”

The plot focuses on conflicts that develop when Susie gets involved with some young militants. It seems that her lifetime principles don’t match up with her intuitive sense of justice, and she faces a kind of existential crisis. The story also includes cops, capitalists, arsonists, mobsters, and a coffee shop (because we all need coffee shops). And of course there’s romance (because we all need romance). Along the way, Eric provides a skeptical perspective and some nerdy humor.

The book is now available for presale. Since my royalty rate for the life of the book depends on the presale volume, I’ll be extremely grateful to anyone who gives Susie a good home.

If you’re not sure you want to read Susie’s tale, here’s another incentive: A paperback novella is the perfect tool for domestic disagreements. When launched at your significant other, it’s big enough to show you mean business but not dangerous enough to hurt anyone. Don’t you need one today?

The original Gerry-mander: 1812 cartoon of a district in Massachusetts, a salamander-like shape that the artist named after Governor Elbridge Gerry

Regular readers of this blog (both of you) may have noticed that it’s become increasingly political over the years. Like almost all sentient Americans, I’ve been sucked into the partisan fray. Even my recent fiction, such as The Bourgeois Anarchist (forthcoming from Finishing Line Press), tends to have political themes.

In real life, I’ve become involved with the Philadelphia branch of Fair Districts PA (FDPA), a nonprofit, nonpartisan, all-volunteer organization aimed at ending gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. It’s a spinoff of the state’s chapter of the League of Women Voters, and like the League, it’s very polite and well-behaved, sometimes to the frustration of our more ardent activists who’d like to get up in the faces of our idiot legislators.

The mantra of FDPA goes like this: Gerrymandering—the drawing of legislative district maps to favor one party or the other—fosters the extreme partisanship we see today, which leads to gridlock in the legislature, which means no progress on dozens of major issues. Why is this true? Gerrymandering creates safe seats, that is, seats that will always be won by a particular party. A politician in a safe seat has no incentive to listen to voters in the other party or to compromise with colleagues across the aisle. The only threat to that legislator’s job is a primary, and to make sure he doesn’t face a strong primary challenge, he’ll cozy up to his party’s leaders, to the “core” voters of the party, and to the big donors. You can see why this process pushes Republicans to the right and Democrats to the left. You can also see why it discourages people from voting—if the outcome is predetermined, why bother?

By the way, if I use male pronouns to refer to our state legislators, it’s not just addiction to outdated convention. Our state’s lawmakers are overwhelming male. And white. And middle-aged. They look a lot like the U.S. Senate, which in purely aesthetic terms is not an attractive sight.

In every state, new district maps are drawn every ten years, after the Census. For the last two decades, with each set of maps, Pennsylvania has been one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation. And therefore our legislature—the largest paid one in the country—does very little. It passes few bills. It takes lots of recesses. It even avoids matters that seemingly ought to be bipartisan, such as lead in drinking water. (We have 18 cities with more lead than Flint, Michigan, but that statistic can’t get the lead out of the legislature.)

Though gerrymandering has been around since 1812, it’s worse than ever because of two tools that have come into play in this century: Big Data, which allows map drawers to pinpoint the locations of each party’s voters, and inexpensive mapping software, which makes it easy to output a map that meets whatever biased criteria you input. In 2011 an obscure GOP strategist named Thomas Hofeller helped Republicans draw maps that would ensure their domination of both the Pennsylvania legislature and the state’s congressional seats. Unfortunately, they got so greedy that the state Supreme Court—after it turned Democratic in 2015—threw out the congressional maps, though the warped districts for state House and state Senate remained.

When maps are redrawn this year, Pennsylvania will face an odd situation. For the congressional maps, Republicans still have an initial advantage. Re-elected in their gerrymandered districts, they still control both houses of the state legislature, and the new maps will be drawn by their caucus leaders, presumably in secret. However, the legislation establishing the new maps has to be signed by the governor, a Democrat. Standoff? You bet. Though compromise has been anathema to both sides lately, that seems to be the only possible outcome.

For state House and state Senate maps, the process is entirely different. A five-member Legislative Reapportionment Commission (LRC) draws up the maps, and the governor has no say in the matter. The LRC is composed of the majority and minority leaders of both House and Senate, or their designates—that’s two Democrats and two Republicans—plus a fifth member, the chair. The fifth member can be chosen by agreement among the first four. Of course they won’t agree, and in that case the fifth member, the deciding vote, is appointed by the state Supreme Court, which is now—as noted above—dominated by Democrats. Thus we’re poised for a Democratic gerrymander, vengeance for what the Republicans did in 2011.

For years now, Fair Districts has backed legislation to stop gerrymandering by either party. So far, the majority Republicans in Harrisburg have resisted, even though their own seats will be subject to Democrats’ revenge. It seems like pure stupidity, doesn’t it? Sometimes I think it’s an Alamo mentality. These old white guys see themselves as Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie defending the Alamo. The place is surrounded by Santa Anna’s troops, but will they negotiate? No way! They’ll go down in glory, six-guns blazing, coonskin caps perched jauntily on their bloodied skulls.

If Republicans are being so obstinate, what about the Democrats? Some progressive Dems do agree that redistricting ought to be fair, but many of the leaders hesitate to embrace such a radical idea. Reportedly, one Democratic lawmaker has stated, “We bought the Supreme Court [via big political contributions in the 2015 judicial elections], and now we’re going to get our money’s worth.” Another, who represents a high-poverty, mostly African American district, has told FDPA folks that he can’t afford to worry about fairness when his constituents are dying.

That last comment gave me pause. In many ways he’s right: Democratic priorities often involve a fight for life itself. Cops killing young black men. Rampant gun violence. Industries spewing deadly pollutants in minority districts. The opioid epidemic. Not to mention food insecurity in what is supposedly the richest nation on earth. Crummy education because of underfunded schools. Climate change, which will cripple us all if we don’t do something fast.

It’s very tempting, then, to say, “Let’s accept a Democratic gerrymander so we can fix these problems. Once we get that done, we can worry about ‘fairness.’”

But there’s a flaw in that reasoning. The big issues that concern Democrats don’t lend themselves to easy fixes. We can’t pass one bill, or even a dozen, that will end poverty, repair the schools, get guns off the streets, reform the police, etc. etc. These problems require long-term, sustained action, and to accomplish that we need buy-in from both parties, which is not likely until we give politicians a motive to actually do their jobs by making them accountable once more to the people at large rather than to their party leaders.

Take school funding as one example. Our Democratic governor has proposed a budget with additional money for struggling public schools like those in Philadelphia. Our Republican legislature has already dismissed the idea. With a Democratic gerrymander we’d change the balance of power in House and Senate. We’d be able to pass an education-friendly budget for the next ten years—and wouldn’t that represent long-term progress? A full decade to fix the schools! Only problem: the state will elect a new governor next year. Since PA has a habit of alternating parties in the statehouse, there’s a good chance that the next governor will be a Republican who’ll veto any Democratic initiatives. Controlling the legislature will be a hollow victory for Democrats. Moreover, as we’ve seen on a national level with Obamacare, extreme partisanship means that any substantive action by one party gets “weaponized” by the other. Can you imagine the Republican rhetoric if Democrats raise taxes to benefit public schools? You don’t have to be a high-paid political consultant to write the attack ads.

In the end, I come back to the idea of fairness on which Fair Districts was founded. The best road for progress is the high road. Or, as the adage puts it, honesty is the best policy. For the Democrats—my party, dammit—what’s most right is also most practical.

Will the Democrats listen to this complicated reasoning or opt for the easy, short-term advantage? Will Republicans realize that, instead of dying in the Alamo, they could mosey out the back door?

Stay tuned for the exciting news from the state where the USA was born.

The Fear Election

July 27, 2020

The Scream by Edvard Munch

Reading dozens, maybe hundreds, of articles and surveys and projections about the 2020 presidential election, I’ve been battered by waves of hope, apprehension, suspicion, confusion. It feels like trying to surf in a hurricane.

For better or worse (mostly the latter), I have a simplifying type of mind, the kind that searches for a small number of principles to explain a giant mess. This inclination points me to one basic force behind this year’s politics.

Fear.

The 2020 election will turn, I believe, on what the voters, or those in swing states, are most afraid of.

For some, it’s an amorphous but overriding panic that those people—those who differ from traditional Americans—are taking over the country: i.e., non-whites, non-Christians, non-straights, non-English-speakers, non-male-supremacists, non-rugged-individualists. To liberals, that fear seems so absurd as to be unfathomable, and yet it keeps growing like a poisonous mushroom.

As for the liberals, they (or we, for I’m clearly one) believe the country is on the verge of a fascist dictatorship, even though the president and his cronies have proved massively incompetent at pursuing their agenda. We fear they will intensify the destruction of the rights, and the very lives, of people of color, immigrants, gays, and all other historically marginalized groups (and maybe some new ones they invent). Conversely, we fear their incompetence and stupidity will help the coronavirus kill us all. We can’t decide which is scarier, their actions or their inaction.

1968 was a fear election, at least for Nixon voters, but this year seems even more intense. As anxieties on both sides build, there’s talk—and more fear—of a violent takeover by the other guys, a revolution by the left or a coup from the right. The result is a much fiercer test of our institutions than Nixon ever managed.

George Will just published a column contending that 1942 was just as disruptive as 2020. Perhaps luckily for FDR, that wasn’t a presidential election year. America was hardly unified then, Will points out, even with Hitler and Tojo as looming external threats. “In 1942’s off-year elections, the president’s party took a drubbing.”

Still, this year seems worse in at least one respect: Americans can scarcely agree on a single common enemy. My hero is your enemy—and don’t you dare tear down my statue!

So I wonder, is our democracy, which some say no longer deserves the name, resilient enough to survive, or is it already stretched to the snapping point? I admit to being a sucker for traditional American optimism, but this year, I just don’t know …

According to a news headline today, President Twitterman is breaking from “GOP orthodoxy,” adding a few progressive ideas to his agenda to bolster his chances for reelection. The Gridleyville Editorial Board would like to congratulate him for this evolution in his thought, and specifically for the following new policies he now advocates:

  • Ignoring, like other Republican presidents before him, the GOP mantra of a balanced budget, so that the nation’s deficit will soon set a record at over $1 trillion
  • Compromising with Congress on money to Build the Wall, instead of stealing it from military funds
  • Increasing air holes in children’s cages along the border, for greater comfort and less suffocation
  • Compensating property owners whose drinking water has been contaminated by fracking: at least 1 case of Pepsi per family of 4
  • Leniency for those who have witnessed war crimes by the U.S. military: they will not be executed for testifying

If the president continues at this rate, he will soon qualify as an ordinary, corrupt, lobbyist-bought politician, the sort with which we have grown quite comfortable. This is progress indeed.

The True Samaritans

December 22, 2019

During the holiday season, from Thanksgiving through New Year’s, Americans give a lot of lip service to the values of charity, compassion and care for the less fortunate. A few shining exemplars of these virtues are held up by the media, with cheery pictures and sentimental language. Typically, though, we fail to recognize the most charitable of all, the true Samaritans among us.

Whom do I mean? Which people are the greatest self-sacrificers?

Actually, they are the people you’d least suspect: the white working- and middle-class straight Americans who support conservative politicians and a right-wing agenda. For short, since their current Great Leader in the White House is President Twitterman, I’ll call them the Lesser Twitters, or LTs.

What’s compassionate about their agenda? you may ask. How can people who favor holding immigrant children in cages be considered Samaritans?

Let’s look at what LTs are giving up and on whose behalf.

Obviously, by supporting policies aimed at benefiting the rich, LTs sacrifice their own prosperity, since the idea that wealth trickles down from top to middle to bottom has been proven a hoax. Nor is it possible that obsolescent, polluting industries like coal mining can ever make a comeback. The “jobs” that right-wing politicians claim to preserve or resurrect will never again be a major force in America. If such activities persist at all in the future, they’ll be done by robots.

On the surface many LTs refuse to accept these truths, but in their hearts they understand, and they realize they are making a sacrifice. They don’t believe, of course, that they are giving up their well-being for the sake of obscenely wealthy corporate leaders, hedge fund managers, and lobbyists. No, in their view they are acting to preserve important social values, such as the right to life and the sanctity of marriage, the issues that Republican politicians have played up for at least two generations, since Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew (both later disgraced and chased from office) began appealing to the “silent majority” in 1969.

What’s interesting is that these so-called family values do not generally affect LTs themselves. If you’re against gay marriage, for example, you won’t marry another person of the same sex, and probably your family members won’t either. Similarly, if you’re against abortion, you don’t have to have one, nor does your partner. These are issues that pertain to other people. By opposing liberal laxity on these matters, LTs are trying to save the rest of us from sin.

Arguably, this is true for even the hottest of hot-button issues, immigration and refugees. Most LTs have scant personal experience with immigrants. Maybe, speeding past in their SUVs, they’ll glimpse a Latino mowing a lawn, or on occasion, through a swinging kitchen door, they’ll catch sight of a swarthy person washing dishes in a restaurant. Hardly a threat in either case. Again, this is a matter that applies to other people, and in screaming their support for cruelty at the border, LTs are acting to save the rest of us who might actually need those jobs mowing lawns or washing dishes, at least until the robots move in.

Let’s take a moment, then, to recognize the LTs as the true Samaritans among us. Yes, they may be rewarded at Armageddon—and at that point they’ll certainly get to shout “I told you so”—but we should offer some appreciation in this life as well.

Let’s each light a holiday candle for the LTs. If you don’t celebrate a holiday involving candles, you can make a cross of two sticks, set it on fire and plant it on a suspicious person’s lawn. It’s the least we can do.