Who are we when we, to borrow Hannah Arendt’s enduring words, “are together with no one but ourselves”? However much we might exert ourselves on learning to stop letting others define us, the definitions continue to be hurled at us — definitions predicated on who we should be in relation to some concrete or abstract other, some ideal, some benchmark beyond the boundaries of who we already are.
One of the most important authors of our time, Ursula K. Le Guin has influenced such celebrated literary icons as Neil Gaiman and Salman Rushdie. At her best — and to seek the “best” in an altogether spectacular body of work seems almost antithetical — she blends anthropology, social psychology, and sheer literary artistry to explore complex, often difficult subjects with remarkable grace. Subjects, for instance, like who we are and what gender really means as we — men, women, ungendered souls — try to inhabit our constant tussle between inner and outer, individual and social, private and performative. This is what Le Guin examines in an extraordinary essay titled “Introducing Myself,” which Le Guin first wrote as a performance piece in the 1980s and later updated for the beautifully titled, beautifully written, beautifully wide-ranging 2004 collection The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (public library). To speak of a subject so common by birth and so minced by public discourse in a way that is completely original and completely compelling is no small feat — in fact, it is the kind of feat of writing Jack Kerouac must have had in mind when he contemplated the crucial difference between genius and talent.
Le Guin writes:
I am a man. Now you may think I’ve made some kind of silly mistake about gender, or maybe that I’m trying to fool you, because my first name ends in a, and I own three bras, and I’ve been pregnant five times, and other things like that that you might have noticed, little details. But details don’t matter… I predate the invention of women by decades. Well, if you insist on pedantic accuracy, women have been invented several times in widely varying localities, but the inventors just didn’t know how to sell the product. Their distribution techniques were rudimentary and their market research was nil, and so of course the concept just didn’t get off the ground. Even with a genius behind it an invention has to find its market, and it seemed like for a long time the idea of women just didn’t make it to the bottom line. Models like the Austen and the Brontë were too complicated, and people just laughed at the Suffragette, and the Woolf was way too far ahead of its time.
Noting that when she was born (1929), “there actually were only men” — lest we forget, even the twentieth century’s greatest public intellectuals of the female gender used the pronouns “he” to refer to the whole lot of human beings — Le Guin plays with this notion of the universal pronoun:
That’s who I am. I am the generic he, as in, “If anybody needs an abortion he will have to go to another state,” or “A writer knows which side his bread is buttered on.” That’s me, the writer, him. I am a man. Not maybe a first-rate man. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I may be in fact a kind of second-rate or imitation man, a Pretend-a-Him. As a him, I am to a genuine male him as a microwaved fish stick is to a whole grilled Chinook salmon.
I admit it, I am actually a very poor imitation or substitute man, and you could see it when I tried to wear those army surplus clothes with ammunition pockets that were trendy and I looked like a hen in a pillowcase. I am shaped wrong. People are supposed to be lean. You can’t be too thin, everybody says so, especially anorexics. People are supposed to be lean and taut, because that’s how men generally are, lean and taut, or anyhow that’s how a lot of men start out and some of them even stay that way. And men are people, people are men, that has been well established, and so people, real people, the right kind of people, are lean. But I’m really lousy at being people, because I’m not lean at all but sort of podgy, with actual fat places. I am untaut.
For an example of someone who did Man right, Le Guin points to Hemingway, He with “the beard and the guns and the wives and the little short sentences,” and returns to her own insufficient Manness with a special wink at semicolons and a serious gleam at the significance of how we die:
I don’t have a gun and I don’t have even one wife and my sentences tend to go on and on and on, with all this syntax in them. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than have syntax. Or semicolons. I use a whole lot of half-assed semicolons; there was one of them just now; that was a semicolon after “semicolons,” and another one after “now.”
And another thing. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than get old. And he did. He shot himself. A short sentence. Anything rather than a long sentence, a life sentence. Death sentences are short and very, very manly. Life sentences aren’t. They go on and on, all full of syntax and qualifying clauses and confusing references and getting old. And that brings up the real proof of what a mess I have made of being a man: I am not even young. Just about the time they finally started inventing women, I started getting old. And I went right on doing it. Shamelessly. I have allowed myself to get old and haven’t done one single thing about it, with a gun or anything.
Sex is even more boring as a spectator sport than all the other spectator sports, even baseball. If I am required to watch a sport instead of doing it, I’ll take show jumping. The horses are really good-looking. The people who ride them are mostly these sort of nazis, but like all nazis they are only as powerful and successful as the horse they are riding, and it is after all the horse who decides whether to jump that five-barred gate or stop short and let the nazi fall off over its neck. Only usually the horse doesn’t remember it has the option. Horses aren’t awfully bright. But in any case, show jumping and sex have a good deal in common, though you usually can only get show jumping on American TV if you can pick up a Canadian channel, which is not true of sex. Given the option, though I often forget that I have an option, I certainly would watch show jumping and do sex. Never the other way round. But I’m too old now for show jumping, and as for sex, who knows? I do; you don’t.
Le Guin parlays this subtle humor into her most serious and piercing point, partway between the tragic and the hopeful — the issue of aging:
Here I am, old, when I wrote this I was sixty years old, “a sixty-year-old smiling public man,” as Yeats said, but then, he was a man. And now I am over seventy. And it’s all my own fault. I get born before they invent women, and I live all these decades trying so hard to be a good man that I forget all about staying young, and so I didn’t. And my tenses get all mixed up. I just am young and then all of a sudden I was sixty and maybe eighty, and what next?
Not a whole lot.
I keep thinking there must have been something that a real man could have done about it. Something short of guns, but more effective than Oil of Olay. But I failed. I did nothing. I absolutely failed to stay young. And then I look back on all my strenuous efforts, because I really did try, I tried hard to be a man, to be a good man, and I see how I failed at that. I am at best a bad man. An imitation phony second-rate him with a ten-hair beard and semicolons. And I wonder what was the use. Sometimes I think I might just as well give the whole thing up. Sometimes I think I might just as well exercise my option, stop short in front of the five-barred gate, and let the nazi fall off onto his head. If I’m no good at pretending to be a man and no good at being young, I might just as well start pretending that I am an old woman. I am not sure that anybody has invented old women yet; but it might be worth trying.
My experience has been that the white people who feel compelled to interject with “Not all white people!” during discussions of white supremacy and Whiteness are usually the ones who are, wittingly or unwittingly, participating in and perpetuating white supremacy and Whiteness.
“I had decided, as George Orwell and James Baldwin did earlier, to use my writing as a weapon. I would stand with the oppressed. I would give them a voice. I would describe their suffering and their hopes. And I would name the injustices being done to them. It was a decision that would send me to war for two decades, to experience the worst of human evil, to taste too much of my own fear and to confront the reality of violence and random death.”—Chris Hedges (via azspot)
Anita Sarkeesian, creator of the popular Tropes vs. Women video series, is at the center of yet another death threat. The Standard Examiner reports that the director of Utah State University’s Center for Women and Gender, along with several other people, received an email promising a mass shooting if they didn’t cancel a speaking engagement for Sarkeesian, who was scheduled to talk at the center on Wednesday morning.
Sarkeesian later announced on Twitter that she had been forced to cancel the appearance because of security fears; requests for firearm searches at the venue were turned down because of Utah’s relaxed open-carry laws. A member of the Center for Women and Gender confirmed toThe Vergethat the threat was real, although she and campus police declined to provide more details.
The Standard-Examiner has printed what it says are excerpts from the letter, in which the unknown author (who claims to be a Utah State student) claims to have “a semi-automatic rifle, multiple pistols, and a collection of pipe bombs.” More specifically, they threatened to carry out a “Montreal Massacre-style attack” against Sarkeesian and anyone who attended the talk. "Feminists have ruined my life and I will have my revenge," reads the email. The Montreal Massacre, carried out in December of 1989, was a mass shooting directed at engineering students in Montreal’s École Polytechnique. The killer, who also claimed that his life had been ruined by feminists, singled out women and murdered 14 before killing himself. Today, its anniversary is commemorated in Canada as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.
Rising sea levels, hotter global temperatures, wildly fluctuating precipitation patterns, and more frequent extreme weather systems will likely intensify global instability, hunger, and poverty. These events could very well lead to acute food and water shortages, an explosion of pandemic diseases, waves of destitute refugees, and violent conflagrations over dwindling natural resources — a likelihood that should be viewed as an immediate threat to America’s national security.
Those are the sobering themes of a new report on climate change, authored not by scientists or environmentalists, but by uniformed personnel at the US Department of Defense.
"The loss of glaciers will strain water supplies in several areas of our hemisphere," US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Monday during a visit to Arequipa, Peru for the Conference of the Defense Ministers of the Americas. “Destruction and devastation from hurricanes can sow the seeds for instability. Droughts and crop failures can leave millions of people without any lifeline and trigger waves of mass migration.”
'It's not a political issue for the military and hopefully that will be reflected in how policy-makers approach the problem.'
The report — the 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, which was released during Secretary Hagel’s visit to Peru — proposes steps America’s armed forces should take to identify and plan for the impacts of global climate change. It comes as NASA announced on Monday that September 2014 was the hottest September on record, making it increasingly likely that 2014 will become the warmest year ever documented.
"For the first time the Department of Defense is significantly engaging with the implications of climate change, specifically what to do now in terms of adapting to a new global threat," Andrew Holland, senior fellow for Energy and Climate at the American Security Project, told VICE News.
Holland says the report is not revolutionary. The Pentagon has been assessing the potential impacts of climate change for many years. What is novel about the roadmap, he says, is its emphasis on climate change as an immediate national security concern, one that should be discussed in the present rather than the future tense. And, he said, the document presents climate change as a risk not only to military personnel and equipment but to the well-being of the nation as a whole.