A Scrooge Plan Growing in July

After much consideration about how best to sell out, I have decided to become a propagandist for the Raw Foods Movement. I know about the movement, being a “raw foodist.” (That is what we call ourselves.) I can sprinkle my fictional scenes with details that show how a diet of uncooked food dramatically improves health. But how can I make money off my convincing propaganda? This question has sent me to an unlikely place: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Reworking Dickens’ novella, I have created a story that promotes the eating of raw foods while reinforcing the values of the rich. Through the story, which I am offering for free on this website, I want to attract the attention of wealthy raw foodists. Some famous ones include Woody Harrelson, Demi Moore and Carol Alt. The diet generally enjoys more popularity on the West Coast than it does here in the East, probably because of the warmer weather. Cold food seems like a cruel way to go on a snowy night. Also the diet ran into an image problem in New York when one of its proponents and chefs, Dan Hoyt, got caught masturbating on the R train. Surely the raw food way of life could use some good press for the sake of its spas and retreats. I am hoping that a holistic businessperson will find his way to my work and ask me to create more propaganda for the cause.

While I am reluctant to give away my work for free, I am as desperate as author Dubravka Ugresic was a few years back when she offered to put a Miele vacuum cleaner in one of her novels for a price. The offer appeared in 2003 in her collection of essays Thank You for Not Reading. While stating her case, she gave a mini endorsement when she called Miele “the Mercedes of household appliances.” I assume that she received no compensation for the phrase.

I would offer to do product placement myself but want to give more. I must give more. My diet costs a lot, what with all of the produce and the shopping trips. Produce after all has a mere blip of a shelf life compared to pasta and jarred sauce. Furthermore, conditions for fiction writers have declined since Ugresic made her pitch. Recently I read Anne Elizabeth Moore’s Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing and the Erosion of Integrity and learned of how creative artists are selling out for next to nothing these days. Some product placement here and there won’t cut it in today’s market. Anyway, a few fruits and vegetables thrown around a story would be more messy than illustrative and persuasive; truly I have picked a movement that requires an elaborate sell.

And so without further ado, here is “A Raw Christmas,” a short, fresh story.

A Raw Christmas

The ghost of Jacob Marley enters the bedroom of his old business partner Scrooge. He shakes the chains he is wearing, having forged the links over a lifetime of usury.

Scrooge is bored with the ghost. Having the Mercedes of home entertainment centers [insert brand name here], he is accustomed to vivid illusions. His mind wanders. The poor, blah, blah, blah. The real poor people are in other countries – India, Africa. All of the “poor” in the U.S. are inexcusably fat.

But Scrooge pretends to care. He knows he is in A Christmas Carol. He prides himself on his self-awareness and believes that it — and not acts of generosity — will be his ultimate salvation.

Marley, obviously confusing Scrooge’s boredom with disbelief, says, “You don’t believe in me.”

Scrooge says the line Dickens wrote for him: “I don’t.”

“Why do you doubt your senses?”

Scrooge continues to try to stick to the script: “Because a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

After Marley leaves, Scrooge realizes that he messed up this line about the gravy and the grave. He forgot to say that Marley could also be “a fragment of an underdone potato.” His mistake ultimately leads him to raw foods. He comes to learn that Marley is not “underdone potato” but overdone. Those ghosts bothering him about 25 percent interest rates on student loans are indeed “more of gravy than of grave.” His digestion is seriously overtaxed from cooked foods.

Scrooge changes his diet and feels better right away. No longer is he bothered by ghosts or, for that matter, thoughts of his first wife. That self-righteous woman had a tongue like a knife when she got home from the soup kitchen. (“Of course you’ve figured out what story you’re in, genius! Your name is Ebenezer Scrooge!”) Now she is a distant memory. She is stuck among the bitter, worrying about “the poor,” while he has moved on. He is healing, his heart having so improved that Viagra is no longer contraindicated in his case.

Originally posted on 7.14.2008

Sarah Schulman on Publishing

In a new article in Slate, author Sarah Schulman talks about how U.S. publishers are taking on very few lesbian novels. Back in the nineties, Schulman could see how the culture was becoming more conservative. In her 1998 book Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America, she discussed the ways in which the straight mainstream was both appropriating and excluding the work of lesbian writers.

For more of Schulman’s perspective on the book business, visit the Wikipedia entry for her. Make sure to scroll down to the heading “Unpublished Books.” There you’ll find a list of recent work that Schulman completed but couldn’t get published. Judging from the short plot descriptions provided, I would love to read all of these books.

Update 5/22/2008: The “Unpublished Books” section has changed at the Wikipedia entry mentioned above. In the updated version, one book is listed instead of several. The section now reads: “[Schulman] is currently working on The Twist: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences, a book establishing Familial Homophobia (a phrase she coined) as a fundamental social dynamic in the lives of everyone who lives in a family.”

Originally posted in Fall, 2007

Maureen Webb’s Illusions of Security: Global Surveillance and Democracy in the Post-9/11 World

George Bush is fond of saying, “9/11 changed everything.” Hidden beneath this expression are the specific ways in which the U.S. government has transformed since the twin towers fell. In her book Illusions of Security: Global Surveillance and Democracy in the Post-9/11 World, civil-liberties lawyer Maureen Webb takes a look at some of these changes. In clear, direct language, Webb reveals what Bush is not so fond of talking about: how the U.S. government is now practicing torture and spying on most of its citizens.

Webb is detailed in her treatment of her subject. She names the locations of many U.S. prisons around the world and discusses the specific ways in which detainees are tortured. Her descriptions can be harsh in their simplicity. At one point, the book provides a sidebar in which methods of abuse such as “torture with a chair” are defined. The U.S. government, in effect, is using these techniques by sending people to countries that permit torture, a practice known as “extraordinary rendition.”

Webb examines one of the most well-known cases of extraordinary rendition, that of Canadian citizen Maher Arar. U.S. officials apprehended Arar while he was waiting for a connecting flight at Kennedy Airport. Denied access to a lawyer, Arar could not find out the charges being brought against him. He was sent to Syria where he was forced into making false confessions. Webb says: “Among other things, he was told to write that he had attended a training camp in Afghanistan. When he objected, he was kicked and threatened with torture with the ‘tire.'” For ten months, Arar suffered abuse, never learning why he was being held. The truth was that no reason for his detainment existed. Webb writes: “Neither Canada, the United States, nor Syria ever had any evidence that Maher Arar was involved in terrorism or any other crime.”

Webb explores the connection between such abuses and U.S. policy under the Bush administration. She talks about how after 9/11 the administration became concerned with “‘preempting’ or ‘disrupting’ terrorist plots before they happened.” She believes that this focus on the “preemption of risk” has caused a “profound policy shift in law enforcement and security intelligence.” The concern has become less with “specific risks” that entail “specific leads on specific suspects.” Instead, the government is taking sweeping measures that violate the rights of the individual. She cites Bush’s domestic eavesdropping program as an example of such a measure. She reminds the reader that, under the program, the government is “essentially wiretapping the majority of people in the country.”

But the wiretapping program brings up questions about the casual relationship between 9/11 and a more invasive government. Bloomberg reported in June of 2006 that the National Security Agency (NSA) wanted to start wiretapping domestically before September 11. The agency contacted AT&T about setting up the program seven months prior to the attacks. This information goes against Bush’s claim, which Webb cites, that he conceived of the program as a way of preventing another strike against the U.S. Webb doesn’t mention the Bloomberg article.

She also neglects to say that the U.S. used extraordinary rendition before 9/11. She only refers to this fact implicitly near the end of the book when she quotes a CIA agent named Bob Baer. Baer covertly worked in the Middle East up until the mid-1990s when Clinton was still in office. Webb quotes him as saying: “If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear — never to see them again — you send them to Egypt.”

Certainly, September 11 ushered in more illegal surveillance and torture, but the U.S. government was having problems obeying the law, especially in its dealings with Al-Qaeda, prior to the attacks. Webb doesn’t talk about these problems, but she does say that 9/11 has brought about changes that “law enforcement and intelligence agencies have been wanting for years.” She says that the attacks brought about “preventative policing and secret service work on steroids.”

She also warns us that the government is only planning on increasing surveillance in the coming years. Her chapters on new forms of personal ID show a future with even less privacy. She talks about Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips, which quite possibly could make their way into future passports and other kinds of ID. These chips can be read from far enough away that the government “may soon be able to track us wherever we go and scan us wherever we meet together.” And the U.S. government is showing an interest in tracking people. “Among the ideas being tested by the Department of Homeland Security is a technology that would allow the scanning of up to fifty-five passengers on a bus passing through a border point at about fifty mph.”

Here and throughout Illusions of Security, Webb unflinchingly returns the stare of the U.S. government and reports on what she finds. Usually, it’s invasiveness. In the case of what happened on September 10, 2001, it also seems to be either incompetence or an inability to deal with the amount of information that was being gathered at the time. Webb writes: “The Al Qaeda messages that were reported intercepted by the NSA on September 10, 2001 (‘Tomorrow is zero hour,’ ‘The match is about to begin’), were not translated until days later. Three years after the attacks, more than 120,000 hours of recorded telephone calls had yet to be translated by the FBI.” Webb leaves the reader with the impression that what the U.S. government needs is not more surveillance but a better understanding of its enemies.

Originally posted on 6.14.2007

An@rchitexts: Voices from the Global Digital Resistance

One of the final essays in An@rchitexts: Voices from the Global Digital Resistance offers a curious definition of one of the older mediums: the paper book. Provided by Felix Stalder and Jesse Hirsh in their essay “Open Source Intelligence,” this definition is odd because it seems disconnected from the book it is printed in. An@rchitexts is a collection of essays by and interviews with media artists, activists, organizers and hackers, and while the subject matter is unusual and shows the courage of the small press Autonomedia, the forms of the pieces both individually and collectively are pretty standard. The book squarely fits on an anthology shelf in an independent store, but it doesn’t fit the following definition from Stalder and Hirsh: “A book is a highly hierarchical and centralized form of communication – there is only one single author, and a very large number of readers. It is centralized because users form a relationship with the author, while typically remaining isolated from one another.”

Stalder and Hirsh make this statement while discussing a bestseller from a mainstream press, Naomi Klein’s No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Although they overgeneralize on the basis of their example, their discussion of how Klein used the internet in a subversive manner is notably thorough. When, in 2002, Klein became inundated with emails from the many readers of No Logo, she responded by establishing a website for them. By going to nologo.org, people not only could learn more about the anti-globalization movement that inspired her book, they could begin to communicate with one another. Their online conversation was made possible by the open source (or free and modifiable) software called Slashcode. As Stalder and Hirsh explain: “The Slashcode-based web site provided a readily available platform for the readers to become visible to one another and break through the isolation created by the book.”

An@rchitexts supplies many specific examples of media activism, and its grounded details make it an absorbing read to anyone who is using technology to try to challenge corporate structures. But what I enjoyed most about this book were other less technological connections that it allowed me to make. Editor Joanne Richardson has brought together people whose innovation and persistence speak of a global need for freedom and integrity, a need that makes the mind and heart move quickly together.

Originally posted on 12.14.2005

Riverbend’s Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq

In her ongoing blog, the Iraqi woman who calls herself Riverbend writes in English about politics, shattered days and her survival among the pieces of those days. The recent print collection of her first year of posts Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq is tense and upsetting, but because Riverbend’s voice is as strong and as agile as water moving over and around considerable obstacles, this book is also emotionally compelling and humorous at times. In October of 2003, she writes about how school supplies must be purchased for her cousin’s daughters, who cannot leave their house, not for a trip that adults can accomplish; war has made everywhere outside of the home too dangerous to take any unnecessary chances, and so the twenty-four-year-old Riverbend sets out with her brother and the girls’ parents to the “makatib” or stationary shop. “It felt a bit ridiculous – four grown people all out shopping for Barbie notebooks and strawberry-scented erasers…but I knew it was necessary.”

The good sense and thoroughness with which she selects two erasers for the absent girls – smelling different ones until the shop assistant seems “exasperated”; making sure the erasers look good because “kids don’t take care of their school supplies if they’re ugly” – this sort of no-nonsense care underlies much of the writing in Baghdad Burning. In many of the posts, Riverbend focuses her concern on educating Western members of her audience about her culture. She talks about the ritual of evening tea during which Iraqis discuss the day’s events, their conversation prefaced with “the gentle music of small, steel teaspoons clinking against the istikan” or thin glass teacup. In October of 2003, she explains the reverence that the Iraqi people have for palm trees. U.S. troops are bulldozing ancient groves of palm and citrus trees, collectively punishing farmers for not providing information about the insurgence, and she wants her American readers to grasp just how severe this economic punishment is. She writes that in Iraq the “death of a palm tree is taken very seriously,” for every one of the trees is “so unique, it feels like a member of the family.” The dates produced by the palm are treated accordingly: “families trade baskets and trays of dates” from their own trees with the enthusiasm of “proud parents showing off a child’s latest accomplishment.”

Baghdad Burning is not only a mature political accomplishment but a literary one as well. The descriptions of Iraqi life in the book are vivid and moving, and with them, Riverbend cuts through obliterating lies – that the U.S. is liberating Iraq, for instance – with care.

Originally posted on 10.14.2005