Erasure in the USA

Rain began with his words. It’s difficult to ignore the metaphor. We’ve heard it before: the sky wept. I admit, my own bias goes into that reading. For many, the rain bespeckling the president’s speech was surely just a product of DC in January. But to others, there was deeper symbolism.

Rain, beyond sorrow, represents cleansing and removal, and much was removed by his words. What we witnessed as the 45th president took the oath of office was the subtle erasure of millions. His words removed the humanity and the reality of many US citizens, Americans, and people of the world at large.

Indeed, even by referring to us as Americans he continued the long-standing tradition of erasing the rightful claim to the name held by those who live in the rest of North, Central and South America. This act was, of course, not unexpected or new. Neither was the display of the religious preference.

Having five Christian readings along with a Jewish one has the impact of isolating those of different faiths and the nonreligious, who make up at least 30% of the country and whose numbers continue to grow. This isolation was worsened by the readings chosen, which paint Christians as the victims of prejudice, when sadly, they historically inflict it, legally, racially, and colonially. This abuse of power is made easier by the fact that even today, the majority of US lawmakers identify as some form of Christian. It makes you wonder how representative a government can be when the demographics are so heavily skewed. As an agnostic, I rarely ever feel seen by this country, despite the growing numbers of those who share my beliefs. But it’s worse for other groups.

The LGBT+ was not mentioned at all by President Trump, though one of the speakers did very briefly tip his hat. The gesture meant less given the immediate removal of the group (in all forms of its initialism) from the White House website immediately following the inauguration. Over a week later, the term is still nowhere to be found. The most disturbing part is that this means not only current but historical references were expunged. Likewise, Native Americans were ignored, even as violence at Standing Rock resumed, and they too disappeared from the White House website (only reappearing today anecdotally in the bios of White House Fellows). Climate change as well vanished just as quickly as government scientists were silenced. Erasure in words and deeds. The word Orwellian is too often used to hyperbole, but for once, I think it’s appropriate. In a digital age when media is synonymous with information and truth, and when you can edit that media with the ease of administrative access, you can control reality by the keystroke. A couple clicks and facts, pages, and people disappear. What climate change? What gays? What lesbians? Bisexuals? Transpeople? Queers? Natives? What the government doesn’t say speaks just as loudly as what it does.

So, what does this tell us about their call for unity? About his call for inclusiveness? About the transfer of power from the government to the people? The subtext seems to be that he wants to unify and include those who already voted for him, and those who might’ve if they’d voted, which almost half the country did not. They exist. The rest of us do not. Their opinions and wants have weight. Ours do not. But perhaps there are worse things than being excluded. Just look to the groups damaged by their unwarranted mentions in his speeches.

Immigrants and refugees, illegal and otherwise, have been relegated to buzzwords for all the brutality inflicted upon them. With his executive order in place, along with immigrants and refugees, even visa and green card holders are having to fight to get into the country and many will fail. He wants to list their crimes in a disturbingly familiar type of periodical. He wants to build a fiscally impractical and environmentally devastating wall. Barriers and insular thinking are clearly discernable themes.

He turns our attention inward, away from the world, save to blame our connection to it for our problems. By condemning our aiding of other countries in his speech, he vilifies those who not only supported such causes, but those who provided the aid. What’s worse, he’s already vilified certain aid with action as well as words. Thus, he’s turned this country’s back on those who received and needed that aid. Culturally, this may lead to isolation from our allies on a governmental level, whilst simultaneously creating a backlash from those who are more globally collectivist.

“Buy American and hire American,” aggressively threatens to rend the US from the global village and ignores the complex interworkings of the global economy. It’s odd that a businessman with so many global interests, who routinely bypasses domestic labor for foreign would go there. It’s also a direct affront to many of our allies who he seems hellbent on antagonizing, particularly those whose economies are linked to ours. They and their needs are erased. Yet when the press calls out the administration they make excuses. Even when the issue is something as petty as crowd size, they shamelessly brand their own story alternative facts as though facts were adjustable and interchangeable, as though the alternative to a fact wasn’t a lie.

Again and again, they revise what is with what they want to be. This extends from the press pool all the way to the administrative level. Just look to his executive orders, which strive to maintain his campaign’s narrative, exist at the expense of millions, and may not even be fulfillable. Look to the erasure of ethics as he maintains copious conflicts of interest and ignoring precedents in place for decades.

This is not a partisan issue—it’s a democratic one. This is made painfully clear by the fact that we were downgraded from ‘democracy’ to ‘flawed democracy’ after the turbulence of the last several years. President Trump alone is not at fault for this. We as a country, as a culture, and as communicators are at fault. We erased concerns with laughter when vulgarity became the norm. We shrugged off lies in the media or argued their truth without bothering to confirm them, let alone read the article before sharing it. We routinely did not vote, and we did not research when we did. We ignored the suffering huddled between this show and that ad. We complained about the state of things and in the same breath said we did not have the power to change them. And when the election rolled around, we raised our voices and put on masks of care. We demanded that everyone pick a side and then attacked them for their choice. We turned a country united into a country divided. And in doing so, we made this situation.

Yes, it is concerning, and regardless of your stance, you should be concerned with the laws, precedents, and rights being violated, with the people and facts being erased. But pointing the finger does little good when nearly everyone had a hand in creating this. The question now needs to be what do we do? How do we prevent the erasure? How do we reveal reality? How do we mend it?

The answers are obvious and simple, albeit time-consuming. Educate yourself. Look at the laws; learn your rights. Know who represents you and make sure they hear you. When you hear a story, double check it. How many sources are reporting the same thing? What are their sources? What else has the author written? Are they affiliated with biased groups? Assuming the story appears true, what is the benefit in sharing it? Does it spread awareness or merely outrage? What perspective can be gained from experiencing the content? What will you do knowing what you know?

What will you do? What should you do? What is right? Who is it right for; you or everyone? Ask yourself these questions over and over. Do not let the people of this country be erased. Do not let the people of this planet be erased. Do not let the foundations of this country be erased. Do not let the truth be erased.

-L.

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Who are you?

Recently, I’ve been compelled by a different side of writing: the whole voyeuristic, social experiment, stalking-with-camera-equipment-through-the-savanna-while-whispering-dangerously-loud-play-by-plays. It goes beyond a private desire to don a lab coat and safari hat whilst standing behind a two-way mirror and exclaiming “Crikey!” at what’s happening on the other side. It’s about experience. It’s about research, and life is research. Sadly, lab coats are optional.

When you want to write about something unfamiliar, the best way to start is (presuming, of course, that it’s safe, legal, physically possible, and morally sound) to go out and do, try, live, taste, see, breathe, or otherwise immerse yourself in your subject matter. But what happens when your subject isn’t, strictly speaking, real? What if the adjective “unreal” is more apt? What happens when your subject is so marvelously heady and intense that it’s two tabs shy of a 1960’s sponsored overdose?

I don’t have the answer, but I suppose you could always ask Paul Auster, whose classic novella, City of Glass, inspired the equally classic graphic novel adaptation of the same name. Both tell the same intrinsic, Noir story that can only possibly be described as a metaphysical mystery, which, as fellow blogger Stephen Frug notes in his own glance at City of Glass, is ” a mystery in which what begins as a traditional mystery peels away the metaphysical certainties of the world to the point where the nature of reality becomes the central question, replacing the identity of the culprit (or whatever mystery the book begins with).” To simplify: the mystery begins tangibly, as traditional mysteries and detective fiction are wont to, and then morphs gradually, wrapping the reader in a cocoon of uncertainty that seals them away from the world they know, feeding them questions and doubt, just like the protagonist, thus deepening the connection between the reader and the one they watch. Okay, maybe that wasn’t quite so simple, but what is when you bring in metaphysics? What I’m trying to say is, Auster presented the world, Rafiki-style, with the lovechild of cerebral surrealism and third-person, psychological thriller, Noir. This already masterful work was then translated into a graphic novel by the skilled hands and minds of Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli, allowing the work to change a whole new medium.

Confession time: I haven’t, at present, read more than a few scattered excerpts from the original novel. I know, I just shot my credibility in the foot, but don’t quit on me just yet. I did read the the comic (re: graphic novel, re: ikonologosplatt) twice. See? Aren’t you glad you stayed? The focus of this post will be on certain facets of the adaptation of the novel, but not on the process of adaptation, and as such, the book isn’t relevant beyond the already provided background information. I want to focus on concept of identity in Karasik, Mazzucchelli, and Auster’s story as it unfolded within the comic medium, and thus, as its own separate entity (re: thing). Because, quite frankly, it is and it deserves to be treated as such, though I’m hardly the first to do so. That said, I’m happy to do it again.

Our story starts with a question: Who are you? No, let me stop you there. Answer me without adjectives, strip away the titles, nouns like ‘accountant’ and ‘reader.’ Who are you? What perfect word defines you? A name? Alright. But is that your name, or someone else’s? Is there only one of you? How can you be sure? It’s a matter of identity and proof of identity.

The frustration of the above paragraph, the grappling contest of strength and mental fortitude that I posed you with is at the heart of City of Glass. “Who are you?” Though he may have been rude and abrasive in his delivery, when the Caterpillar asked Alice, he was far kinder and more telling than those who asked Daniel Quinn, the protagonist and many-chambered heart of our glass city. Quinn’s city is a city of doppelgangers and ever-duplicating selves. Each is a reflection, distorted and warped, dimmed or distant, fresh or forlorn. Unending, one identity echoes, unity unhinged by an excess of self and sudden necessities. When need arises, either for understanding or information, for plot or propelled purpose, another self will be seen.

But perhaps I’ve pushed too far into the purview of prose and metaphor. Let’s ground my meaning. Mm. Well, hm. We’ve hit a snag. How can we ground suppositions centered precariously atop abstractions? As Frug noted, this is a metaphysical mystery.  It works best without a body, and as a mysterious narrator says within the graphic novel, it works best when it’s nowhere at all. How do you untangle something like that? Do you pretend at the straightforward, elegant genius of Alexander and simply cleave the Gordian Knot? But then, cleave has two meanings, doesn’t it? It’s a contranym, composed inherently of conflicting definitions. One glance at ‘cleave’ means to hold fast, to resist separation or its threat, while another means to separate or divide by force. This paradox, aggravating though it may be, provides us with the first glimmer of an answer as to how we might possibly analyze the issues of identity in City of Glass. 

Auster’s work is a graphic novel, which stays unified by maintaining one voice and one tone, while following one character who divides into parallel and foil selves both within–naming his roles as author, detective, character, and client individually–and without–peopling the story with doppelganger selves. Again, I know this enigmatic desert blisters the brain and parches the throat, but I promise, the oasis isn’t far off. The source of these endless selves, this one-man show of a story, is the need to explore the unconscious, the need to pick apart what makes people change and how, and the obsession humanity has with seeking itself in others.

The author and his artistic adapters accomplish this by building an over-intricate hall of mirrors: a city of glass. What is a reflection but a fragile, fleeting moment of identity, suspended before you, behind you, about you? There at a glance and gone with but a wrong step or shift of the light. This is how the book builds its cast. Peters upon Peters, Daniels and Pauls. So many share the same name that by midway through the book, even a casual reader can’t help but question what else they might share. Paralleled predicaments, roles, jobs, losses. These separate, yet indelibly linked clones creep through our detective story, silently shifting it away from concrete answers, looping it back around on itself and over itself until the act of asking becomes a prize greater than answers we originally sought. It’s the journey, not the destination, as they say.

This is perhaps one of the most startling facets of the book: By the time you realize you’re lost, the path back has already disappeared. You no longer know when you stepped away from it, when the city took you and turned you about. When you finish the journey and eventually go to start it again, you realize, or at least think you do, what happened. It disarmed your senses by starting a step to the left of normal, then guided you gently, quietly, onward, until eventually it abandoned you altogether, leaving only the fleeting light of questions to carry you forth. And suddenly, what began as just a little bit weird became a reality as engaging as it is confounding. You and Quinn are caught up in the case together. You share his caring, yet contrastingly neutral demeanor. You switch when he does, willing to do and become whatever is necessary to finish, to solve it and find an understanding of something…anything. But that’s the kicker. In the end, understanding, like everything else, is unnecessary.