Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Breaking the Rules


Readers are always assuming I'm a germaphobe. Because my first novel, Isolation, revolves around the dangers of bacterial infection and the possibility that simply touching your own face can cause death, it seems like a no brainer. But it's not the case. I laugh and try not to divulge that my hand-washing habits have not increased one iota as a result of my research and writing. I'm not the person squirting hand-sanitizer every time I shake someone's hand. My intellect rationalizes that I want a healthy immune system which means building up resistance over time and killing all of the germs I come in contact with would counteract the build-up of such stealth forces. While true, I think it's much more the case that habits learned early are habits for life. It's not that my household growing up wasn't clean, nor that my mother didn't teach me good hygiene, she did. It's probably that I was a bit lazy. Or perhaps, though I think of myself as "the good girl," it may be that I was a rule-breaker from the start.

I'm writing today because I found myself pulling a "Trevor." He's the antagonist in my novel. He can't stand rule-breakers. There's a moment in Isolation when he is sitting aboard an airplane. A passenger next to him continues to text beyond the announcements to cease and desist. He tries to get the perpetrator to stop, but when she won't, he rings his call button. Just now, the guy next to me was talking on his cell, even as the flight attendants demonstrated, yet again, the way to attach a seat belt. I'd heard my seat-mate tell the person on the other end that he wouldn't hang up until forced. When the flight attendant walked by, I pointed at the cell phone. The attendant tapped his shoulder, waited for him to end the call, then continued to ensure seat backs and tray tables were in their full upright and locked positions. I thought, "OMG, I've become Trevor!" 

Trevor is not a character I associate with. It's not so much that he's a rule-follower (evidently I share some of that sensibility), it's more that he's an unquestioning one. Most dystopian characters are, unquestioning that is. But some rise beyond the simple routines of daily life and demonstrate that being a lemming can get you perks if you do it very, very well. That's Trevor. He's Winston in 1984, at the beginning, before Winston buys the journal and begins his covert note-taking. Trevor would never covertly record his world, nor do anything else outside the purview of authority. Trevor's ability to follow the rules, to follow the government, to report all infractions, is finely honed. He is hired by Homeland Security for his prowess. He is promoted for his vigilance and adaptability. Rules change more and more frequently as bacterial contagion grows out of control in Isolation and Trevor keeps up, even if the populace at large can't possibly. Trevor enforces rules; he prides himself on being a good citizen. 

And since citizenry comes from the following of a government, he is in fact, a very good citizen. But a good person? Doubtful many would say so. Even when his high school principal agrees to provide a recommendation, which he does with some trepidation, realizing, educated man that he is, that Trevor will be so good at the job of enforcing rules that others don't stand a chance, even as the principal imagines Trevor is a danger, he doesn't allow that to prevent the recommendation, even the principal doesn't question authority. The principal demonstrates perfectly that even those in high positions demonstrate that for a dystopia to work, lemming-like behavior is required. 

The question is: does following rules make you good or bad? 

Or is it that simple? Clearly, it's not. At least not in the mind of this dystopian. Following rules is what we've taught our children. It's the legacy of an industrial society whose assembly lines and educational systems matured together. Now a service economy, rule-following is still a primary value for our masses. But it doesn't build a strong democracy, one that thinks deeply, let alone questions or makes individuated decisions. It's not that I want anarchy, don't leap to the opposite end of the spectrum. It's more that I value a thinking populace. I'm not sure our purpose if we're not thinking. Without thought, we're resource users like any animal. The unquestioned life is common enough, but is that what we seek? Is it our best hope? Does it make of the world a better place?

I think not. I spend my working life encouraging college students to learn to think for themselves, to be critical thinkers as we call it today. That means I teach them to question. Or I try. It's not easy when they've spent 20 years or more following rules. It's not surprising they don't question. Not only education, but their parents have taught them not to. After those early years of asking "why, why why" and being told to go play or worse, being physically or metaphorically slapped down for exhibiting curiosity, most American children stop wondering, stop asking. 

Again, don't go to extremes. Not everything needs to be questioned, not even all authority. After all, some things just need doing. In the midst of a fire there's rarely a reason to stop and ask if it should be put out. (Though ask a resource management specialist about the need for fire in the life cycle of forests, and you'll see that even there, we might have wanted to question occasionally.) But when I'm told that genetically modified organisms (GMO's) are safe, I might want to question the details about what those modifications are, whether they prolong shelf-life or whether they insert toxins into my corn. When I'm told that using 99% bacterial killing hand-sanitizers will keep me safe, I might want to question whether or not regular soap and hot water will do an adequate job most of the time and specifically when it won't. When I'm told to trust the government that it's not colluding with Monsanto in the patenting of life so that seeds are no longer reusable by farmers, I might question what it means to patent life, or why farmers can't reuse seeds, or who profits--always a good question. (Follow the money.)

These are only some of the questions I ask with some frequency and questions tucked into the folds of Isolation. They are premises from our current lives that I question, but mostly the  characters in the novel don't. These are far from the only questions available to thinking people. I'm drawn to questions of food and health. Others may be drawn to questions of growing financial inequalities, or questions of globalization, or questions of climate change. There are smaller questions of course, and they too are valuable: Should I be afraid of swimming alone without a lifeguard present? Will video games or cell phones cause increased arthritis in hands in the future? Is WiFi dangerous at a subatomic level?

It matters not to me what we question. It matters that we question. And that we research and talk and write and explore. It matters that we see ourselves as agents of change, that we not only believe we make a difference, but that we do. Questions leads to action. Not inevitably perhaps, but often. It's hard to know things could be better, more truthful, more interesting and not work to make that happen. 

I don't want the plane to crash because cell phone signals
interfere with navigation, so I will point to the guy with the phone. But I'll also wonder if there's any scientific cause for concern or if it's just habit I'm accustomed to? Can it interfere? What would happen? Others asked such questions because we can now leave our small devices powered up during take-off, but we couldn't for years.
Somebody asked the question, did the research, reported out, and got procedures changed. And I'm happier because of it. I like being able to read on my iPad during take-off rather than having to carry a physical book along with my iPad. Speaking of which, time for landing. Not that I'm going to power down. Thankfully, for now, that question has been answered! 


Monday, September 1, 2014

It’s All a Blur

He couldn’t get close enough to wolves in the wild to film their social activity, so with a deadline looming, he rented domesticated wolves.” This promo on NPR about the making of animal documentaries caught my attention. I’d heard exposes about Animal Planet earlier in the summer—depicting film crews who bated animals before filming. The stories don’t surprise me. And yet, today as I listened to the phrase “he rented domesticated wolves,” I thought, in this new century, is there a line between fiction and reality, and if so, what is it?

This all sounds a bit like Jayson Blair who was caught both plagiarizing and fabricating stories for the New York Times back in 2003 before he resigned. He wasn’t the first journalist to perpetrate such lies on the news reading public, but he was a spectacular example that fiction can easily masquerade as fact.

Another story on NPR earlier in the week about the latest war tourism somehow worried me more. They recounted the story of former Army Pvt. Eric Harroun, one American among many, who have gone on their own to fight in Syria. Harroun documented his pursuit of the enemy on camera and posted it on Facebook and YouTube with his narration. It sounded like a bad movie or a video game. A listener could hear him lock and load his weapon, no doubt an automatic one. It was eerie and strange. Was it real or memorex? 

What happened? It’s a chaotic scene in Syria with a variety of forces fighting one another. He was arrested for treason when he returned to the US and spent 6 months in solitary. Eventually the charge was changed to providing weapons to the enemy and released for time served.

I lived in Michigan during the early days of the Michigan Militia, which according to their website held an event this weekend, so I’m not unfamiliar with the idea that Americans would take up arms to protect themselves at home and abroad. As much as that may trouble me, what caught my attention this time was the making of the documentaries. While life and death were clearly at stake, the imitation of a fictive storyline with all of the elements, save an underscore of music, made this somehow more about self and fun than about duty or country.

Why does this blurring of fact and fiction matter to me? I write fiction. I’m a scholar. The two meld. In writing Isolation I did a great deal of research. My goal: make my fiction seem real. I don’t think that’s new. Even when writers aren’t academics or researchers, they’re readers and observers. I think writers of fiction have always wanted to tell a true story. Not true in the sense of it happened, but true to life. Believable. 

And in promoting my novel I try again to connect my fiction to current news. A recent tweet: 

“They stopped and put on masks before touching him again.” It wasn’t Ebola, but it could have been. 

If the quotation marks seem odd, it’s because the first sentence comes from my novel and appears within the larger context of the story of Tom├ís on a site called Bublish. The second sentence connects the quote to the news of the day. Was it successful? I’m too new at social marketing to be sure, but I will say it got more views than most of my tweets. Why? Again, I can’t possibly know, but I suspect that which leads to trending, popular culture’s interplay with news. 

If that particular mix of fact and fiction is comfortable for me, why do I find renting domestic wolves or war tourists who record their travails to be problematic? In a word, propaganda. So commonly associated with war that I immediately think of Hitler and his Minister of Propaganda—Goebbels.   The audiences of Nazi propaganda were multiple: the SS, Hitler Youth, the Allies. Triumph of Will is a gorgeous demonstration of fiction presented as fact, to speak nothing of the use of cinematography to capture an emotional response as well. 

From our current vantage point, the fictionalization of such a piece is amazingly evident, but in the midst of the war that was far from the viewers’ perspective. If we turn our attention to 1984 and the slogan “War is Peace,” we can see propaganda at work from the standpoint of fiction. Oceania, the society of Orwell’s novel, has been duped into believing many party slogans which appear so ludicrous on the surface as to be oxymoronic. 

And of course, no reader wants to be Winston. It is clear that even as free individuals, free readers, we would not choose the slavery of the characters in 1984. We watch as Winston, among others, creates the propaganda by re-writing history before our reading eyes. Ration numbers change, heroes become villains, no fact is safe from the Ministry of Truth. 

As a dystopian reader and writer, this is what I fear most: a government which hides the truth, whether in subtle ways or right out in the open. It’s not just animal documentaries that hide the truth about rented wolves in the fine print of the credits or war tourism which provides a lens onto the battlefield while masquerading as clear and just fighting, it’s also the labeling practices of the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association which are funding the anti-GMO-labeling initiatives cropping up in state after state. 

But it’s not just my inability to know what products contain what kinds of GMO’s that has me scared to eat food sold in US supermarkets, it’s also the FDA’s lack of standards when it comes to additives in general. That which is “Generally Recognized As Safe” or “GRAS” might be a fine standard if it weren’t for the corporate monetary incentive to rush to market rather than protect consumers. 

Of course, the conspiracy theorist in me would point to the number of former Monsanto execs who have ended up in government offices to show the collusion between Agri-Business, the FDA, and the EPA, but I’ll let you be the judge: check out the websites from Monsanto and one of many opponents.

For me there’s no question, the public lines between fact and fiction are blurred. In 2014 it’s hard to know what to believe. Maybe this doesn’t matter to you. Maybe it shouldn’t matter to me. I lived through 1984 in reality, but I don’t want to live through its fiction. After many years of thinking I should eat organic, I’m trying to actually do that—at least at home. I donate money to support GMO-labeling. War is not Peace; Freedom is not Slavery; this is not 1984.