Catton’s Five Questions for an Old World

Last week, I mentioned my intention to read Overshoot by William R. Catton Jr.. I just finished reading the book. I intend to write a more general post about my reading experience, but first, I want to answer the “five questions for an old world” in Chapter 14 of Overshoot (the penultimate chapter).

This is what Catton says of the questions:

If instead, guided by knowledge based on the [ecological] paradigm, we can face reality, we may recognize that we still could make some adjustments to stem the tide of our de-civilization. Those adjustments will not “lead to an even better life,” but they may keep us from making our future more gruesome than it has to be. To see what really needs to be done, we must ask ourselves several excruciatingly tough questions. They carry our thinking far beyond the point reached in political discussions of energy policy.

I will answer each question on two levels – a) the individual level (referring to myself) and b) on a human-species-wide level.

1) Can we begin to phase out our use of “fossil fuels” as combustible sources of energy?

Answer (individual): I’ve used a number of ‘carbon calculators’ (figuring carbon footprint is a decent proxy for fossil fuel consumption) and they have such different assumptions that I get very different results using different calculators. However, they generally agree that I use much less fossil fuels than the ‘average’ resident of the United States, California, and San Francisco. They also agree that I use much more than the world per capita average. Some of the things which tend to make my carbon footprint / fossil fuel usage lower than an ‘average’ resident of San Francisco / the United States are a) the fact that nobody in my household owns a car b) I’m a strict vegetarian (no animal products in my diet, no dairy, no eggs, no fish, etc.) c) I have not been inside an airplane since 2014 d) I generally do not buy much in the way of material goods d) I live in a housing unit with no air conditioner and where we never ever turn on the central heating. That said, I am still very much a fossil fuel user. I do things which are not necessary for my survival, or even my happiness, which consume fossil fuels, such as using the computer for non-essential tasks (which uses electricity, which is derived from fossil fuels). I covered significant distances for discretionary travel last year, most notably the “The Mississippi Journey” using diesel-powered trains and buses. If I had just stayed in San Francisco, less diesel would have been burned. In summary, I have significantly lower consumption of fossil fuels than my peers, but I still refuse to do all I could to reduce my fossil fuel consumption.

Answer (species-wide): According to The World Bank, per capita carbon emissions from the United States has declined from 20.8 metric tons per year in 1980 (when this book was first published) to 16.4 metric tons a year in 2013. At first glance, that implies that residents of the United States are reducing their use of fossil fuels (assuming fossil fuel usage is correlated with carbon emissions). However, during the 1980-2013 time frame, a lot of manufacturing shifted from the United States to other countries, notably China, which has had a sharp rise in its per capita carbon emissions in the same time period. Since a significant portion of goods which Americans used were in 1980 manufactured in the United States but are now made in China (and other places) and imported by Americans, it’s possible that the carbon emissions have just been shifted, rather than reduced.

And then there is this chart which shows that global carbon emissions *from fossil fuels specifically* (not other sources) has been continuously and exponentially rising since 1800 – and that it has NOT STOPPED SINCE 1980. Okay, actually, there was a reduction in fossil fuel consumption during the recession in the early 1980s, but it was a small dip (just a 4% dip, as opposed to the 16% dip in fossil-fuel related carbon emissions which just happened to occur at the same time as the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic), but since the early 1980s recession it has been rising dramatically. More troublesome, global per capita fossil-fuel related carbon emissions have also been rising. So I conclude that, since this book has published, we have not weaned ourselves from our dependence on fossil fuels. Could we still do it? It would have been easier to phase out of fossil fuels in 1980 than now, so that fact that it has not happened means that I do not expect it to happen until we are forced to stop using fossil fuels (i.e. extraction becomes too expensive due to having to resort to deposits which are difficult to extract). Technically, we could ‘begin’ to end our dependence, but considering the social reality, I say no, we cannot.

2) Can enough of us recognize at last the inescapable intricacy of any non-detritovorous relationship between the human species and its habitat? To translate that question into less jargon-laden terms, Can enough people figure out that we are dependent on the renewable/sustainable resources offered by our habitat, and that we have to keep our habitat in good condition in order to continue to have enough resources to survive at our current population level?

Answer (individual) Yes, I think I understand that humans need a habitat which supplies our needs in order to survive, and that degrading that habitat to the degree that it can no longer supply our needs means we will not survive. Of course, just because I think I understand it does not mean I actually do. Observe my behavior. I cause damage to the habitat which is not strictly necessarily for my current survival or even happiness. There are things which I could do to either reduce my negative impact on our global habitat, or to help restore the habitat, yet I do not. Perhaps my actions (such as going on a completely discretionary journey over thousands of miles in fossil-fuel powered vehicles) speak louder than my words or thoughts.

Answer (species-wide): Considering how much habitat destruction which threatens humans has happened since 1980, no, I don’t think ‘enough’ of us understand that, and I do not think enough of us will until habitat damage causes the global human population to go down, not up.

3) Can we candidly acknowledge that general affluence simply cannot last in the face of a carrying capacity deficit? To translate the question into a less-jargon heavy version, can we candidly acknowledge that general affluence cannot continue when we are using more ecological resources than are being replaced every year, which means that in the future humans will have dramatically less ecological resources?

Answer (individual): I can acknowledge that. It shapes a lot of decisions in my life. One reason I live the way I do now is that I think that there is a high chance that an affluent lifestyle will be impossible for me in the 2040s (assuming I am still alive then).

Answer (species-wide): Again, I don’t think people in general are going to acknowledge that until most currently affluent people are forced to become non-affluent, and not even then. After all, a lot of people are falling out of the middle class in the United States right now, but they are mostly blaming scapegoats who may be partially responsible but are not the deepest cause, and they believe that taking out the scapegoats will restore affluence when it will not.

4) Depletion of ghost acreage [non-renewable resources and resources we had temporarily appropriated from others which we are forced to give up] is not only forcing us to take stringent efficiency measures, but it will also irresistibly compel return to a simpler life. Will we accept it with any grace? Or will we kick and scream our way into it, imagining we could always have everything we want if only those government people weren’t forbidding it?

Answer (individual): I think I can accept it with some grace, though to be honest, I will probably also being doing some kicking and screaming too. After all, if I really believed that giving up the material benefits of fossil-fuelled affluence and going to a strict subsistence lifestyle was awesome, I would have already done that (and would have stopped updating this blog, and stopped using computers unless absolutely necessary for survival). That said, I find it ironic that, when the internet stops working for whatever reason, it bothers me less than it bothers my parents, even though they grew up in a time when there was no internet. My travels have also taught me that I can be happy even with a lower level of material wealth. For example, even though I definitely prefer sleeping under a solid roof surrounded by solid walls, living in a tent can be okay.

Answer (species-wide): I actually have some optimism here! Even though most people do not think in terms of the ‘ecological paradigm’ the general expectation is that people are going to be downwardly mobile than upwardly mobile. Why is that a good thing? As Overshoot sometimes mentions (and which is consistent with what I know about the world) if someone expects a bad thing to happen, and someone else does NOT expect the bad thing to happen, and bad thing does, in fact, happen, the person who expected it will handle it will be less mentally devastated than the person who did not expect it. Also, younger people in the United States are being less materialistic than earlier generations in significant ways – for example, many young people are foregoing car ownership, home ownership, etc. (granted, a lot of this has to do with the combination of high student debts + a terrible labor market for young people entering the work force, but the adaptation is happening). Granted, this is a bit of a US-centric analysis, but in other parts of the world where I have been, I have seen the same kinds of things happening. I can’t comment on what young people in, for example, South America are doing, but in Japan, there is also a strong sense of downward mobility, so many young Japanese people are turning away from a materialist lifestyle to try to pursue happiness in other ways.

Another source of optimism is that material well-being does not seem to cause happiness. Some measures of ‘happiness’ (such as the United Nations’ ‘World Happiness Report’) measure ‘happiness’ based on criteria such as ‘GDP per capita’ and find that countries with higher GDP per capita are also ‘happier’. However, according to the Gallup survey, which measures happiness by asking how people feel rather than measuring their material wealth, the correlation between a country’s wealth and its happiness is not strong (note: I haven’t done a regression analysis). What seems to have a big effect is not whether it’s a first world or third world country – compare Japan and Honduras for example. What seems to really make people unhappy is having recently been ravaged by war (Sudan, Serbia, Afghanistan) or major civil upheaval (Turkey, Tunisia).

5) Is there any chance that we can learn to practice such mandatory austerity unless we can first be spared the widespread, deliberate badgering of people into wanting more, more, more? With the [ecological] paradigm we should begin to recognize the increasingly anti-social ramifications of advertising.

Answer (individual): Okay, my first reaction to this question is ‘???!!!???’ It seemed to come out of the blue, especially since the rest of the book doesn’t discuss advertising or television at all. In the discussion of the question, Catton wonders whether it’s worth amending the Constitution of the United States (specifically the First Amendment) in order to make advertising, such as television commercials, illegal. When I got to that part, I thought ‘Whoa’. Upon further reflection, I realized that this is a very dated section of the book. As it so happens, I’ve read part of a very long 1970s tract about the social evils of television, and thinking about that tract made it easier for me to see where Catton is coming from, even though my reaction to the idea of violating the First Amendment to ban television commercials is still ‘Hell No!’

Anyway, I will now answer the question rather than just register my bafflement. I can be austere even when I am exposed to advertising. I admit there have been times when advertising has influenced me to consume things which were no in my best interest to consume, but I think I learned from certain early experiences, and that later increased my resistance to influence by advertising. And no, I don’t want ‘more, more, more’. I would actually be very happy just to maintain my current standard of material living for the rest of my life (especially since I think that I may not be able to maintain it for the rest of my life).

Answer (species-wide): There is actually some reason to have this concern, and actually, advertising in children’s television is regulated by the U.S. government because that has been shown to be a particularly harmful form of advertising. However, it seems to be that advertising has become much less effective in influencing people to consume stuff than it was back in 1980. Which makes me wonder if advertising really did play such a role in persuading to consume so much more than what they need even in 1980, or whether it was just a surface phenomenon which had a deeper cause beneath it. So yes, I think it is entirely possible for people to learn how to practice personal austerity even in a world full of advertising, and that interfering with the First Amendment is entirely uncalled for.

So, if you have gotten this far, I ask: how would you answer Catton’s five questions for an old world?

Reading the 1972 Edition of The Limits to Growth

Last month, I read an Ecology 101 textbook (specifically, Ecology: Concepts and Applications by Manual C. Molles Jr., 2nd edition) as part of this “deindustrial reading list”. I don’t know if I will go through with the whole list, but I did read the 1972 edition of The Limits to Growth this week.

The thesis of the book is pretty simple: exponential growth of both human population and industrial output cannot continue indefinitely on a finite planet. Furthermore, they calculate that, without major social/cultural changes, there will be a major economic and human population crash before 2100.

I had heard about this book a long time ago, and a lot of the ideas in this book have circulated widely. Yet I found this book was full of insights which have not circulated widely.

For example, I knew years ago that this book had a standard run model (a.k.a. “business as usual”) which led to a major human population crash before 2100, and that it various models associated with various policies which delayed the crash yet failed to prevent it, and that it also had a model in which the crash was prevented altogether. I had also read that the standard run “business as usual” model predicted remarkably well what has happened since 1972 (according to this and another source I cannot find right now). I had assumed that, because the standard run model predicted the collapse happening soonest, that it was the most dire scenario.

Now that I have read the book, I have found that the “standard run” scenario is not the the scariest scenario.

Yes, the collapse happens sooner under “standard run” than other scenarios. However, in many of the other scenarios, even though the collapse is delayed by decades, it still happens before 2100, and the longer the collapse is put off, the greater it is. Furthermore, the longer the collapse is put off, the greater the overshoot, and the more it will reduce the carrying capacity of the planet to support human beings (Wikipedia explains what overshoot is). “Standard run” does not result in the lowest final carrying capacity. In that sense, it is not the most frightening scenario.

Now, again, the book says that technology alone cannot solve the problem. Nothing I had heard or read about the book had indicated that it had that insight, but it makes a really good case for that point. The book runs the model in which nonrenewable resources are ‘unlimited’ due to amazing technological advances in resource usage efficiency and recycling. The collapse still happens in the 21st century, due to pollution.

The book admits that pollution is the hardest for them to predict because it is the factor for which they have the least good input. One of the pollutants they looked at was carbon dioxide. Their projections for how concentration of how carbon dioxide would increase in the atmosphere in a ‘business as usual’ scenario turned out to be … not far off.

Think of collapse via nonrenewable resource exhaustion vs. collapse via pollution this way (this is my example, not an example from the book). ‘Peak Oil’ is a shorthand for ‘fossil fuels are nonrenewable, and if we keep using them we will run out of economically viable fossil fuel supplies’. Given that nuclear power is only viable with massive economic subsidies, once fossil fuels run out, we will be left with only renewable power. Given that renewable power is nowhere close to being able to replace fossil fuel power right now, that means a sharp reduction in energy supplies, which could trigger a collapse of industrial civilization. However, if fossil fuels continue to be available indefinitely anyway for whatever reason, and they continue to be used, it keeps on increasing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which triggers collapse by extreme climate change. Collapse by resource depletion, or collapse by pollution? Even now, some people argue that climate change is what will trigger the collapse of civilization, before economically viable fossil fuels run out, and others say that the depletion of economically viable fossil fuels will happen before the more dire climate change scenarios can happen (climate change is already happening, so it’s too late to talk about stopping it completely).

As far as collapse happening earlier or sooner … imagine that the planet had been endowed with way less in the way of accessible fossil fuel supplies, and that economically viable fossil fuels had been depleted by, say, 1920. It probably would have caused a collapse of industrial civilization back then, and lots of human suffering, but it would have completely prevented climate change by carbon dioxide, and the crash which would have happened in that scenario would have been much less severe than the crash it looks like we are going towards.

Furthermore, the book has a scenario in which technology magically solves the nonrenewable resource problem and the pollution problem … and it just delays the collapse a little, and then it’s collapse by food shortage and global famines. Basically, any scenario they came up with which had a solution which was technology alone ended with a collapse by resource depletion, pollution, or food shortage, before the year 2100.

The models they had which did *not* lead to a population/civilization crash before 2100 included both technological and social change. Specifically, societies find mechanisms – which would have to be social, not technological – to ensure that the birth rate equalled the death rate, and that investment in industrial capital did not exceed depreciation.

Sara, the reading list says that that you should note whether The Limits to Growth makes more or less sense in the light of the ecological concepts you learned from the ecology textbook.

Well, I don’t have much to say. Yes, the ecology textbook went over population growth of individual species, that population growth tends to be exponential until it reaches the carrying capacity of the environment, and then the population tends to stabilize. The ecology textbook I read does not, however, describe overshoot. The ecology textbook goes into great detail about interactions between different organisms and the environment, which I suppose helped me make a little more sense of the emphasis in The Limits to Growth to studying complex interactions between different factors. However, The Limits to Growth explains its concepts so well that I doubt that reading the ecology textbook did much to influence how I made sense of it.

Is there anything else you want to say about The Limits to Growth?

The book also has some very interesting psychological insights. For example, it points out that so many people insist that technology can solve these problems because, for the past few hundred years, technology has solved problems, which is what has allowed the human population to grow as much as it had. This has established a culture which expects technology to solve society-wide problems. However, it can only do so *before* the hard limits of this planet have been reached. It has some insights into why it is so difficult to get humans to respond to problems such as pollution (there is a great car driving metaphor in the book).

There are also a few bits in the book which, in my opinion, are simply bullshit. But they are in the details, not in the general ideas. I’m not going to discard the value of this book just because they got some minor stuff wrong.

I highly recommend reading this book. Though I have not read the 1992 or 2004 updates, I recommend the 1972 version over those two for these reasons:

1) The 1972 version is the shortest.
2) The 1972 version was the bestseller which sold millions of copies, so it is the best for tracing the origins of various ideas.
3) Seeing what they actually said in 1972 and compare it today.

Sara, this book seems like it’s a real downer! I don’t want to read it!

If you don’t want to read it, then you don’t have to read it. But this is what I have to say about this book being a ‘bummer’.

First, it does not predict the extinction of human beings, even after the collapse. Since a lot of people do predict the near-future extinction of human beings, I consider this book to be more optimistic than those predictions. Also, as I already explained, current data indicates that we are not going into the scariest scenario described in the book.

Second, I don’t know about your life expectancy, but my current life expectancy, according to charts and whatnots, says that I am most likely to die in the early 2070s. I may, of course, live into the 2080s, and I may die a heck of a lot sooner than 2070 as well. That means that, if the Limits to Growth projections continue to predict the future as accurately as they have so far, there is a very high chance I will live long enough to witness the collapse. And if they are right about the death rate sharply rising in the middle of the 21st century, that may very well cut off my life and cause me to die in the 2050s rather than the 2070s. I cannot prevent the crisis, but if I am going to live long enough to get into the thick of it, I would rather have a better understanding of why such awful things are happening than a worse understanding of why such awful things are happening.

I looked up Donella Meadows, the lead writer of the The Limits to Growth. She was not much older than I am now when she did the studies which are the basis of The Limits to Growth. She died in 2001, at the age of 59 years old. That was significantly younger than her projected life expectancy in the early 1970s. It just goes to show that, even in good times, some people still get their lives cut short. On the flipside, even during times of general crisis, some people get really lucky and live long and satisfying lives anyway.

Soon, I plan to read the next book on that reading list, Overshoot. Based on what I know about it, it seems like it will be more of a downer than The Limits to Growth. I’ll see how I will react to that one.

From Indians to Blood Quanta to Asexuality

One of the many asexual fiction stories I’ve been reading and reviewing recently included this section:

“Yes,” [character] replied. “Shape shifters are beings that are mostly human. The only thing different is that they can change into any animal at will.”

“Like in the legends of the Sioux?”

[Character] sighed, almost wistfully. “I miss the Native Americans.”

[Note: these fictional characters have been alive for centuries.]

My reaction was “Why would this character ‘miss the Native Americans’? This story is set in the contemporary United States, and ‘Native Americans’ are still around.” I considered commenting on this in the review I wrote of this story, and looked up a reference from an American Indian source to back me up. The first reference I found was “‘Real’ Indians, the Vanishing Native Myth, and the Blood Quantum Question”.

I ultimately decided not to comment on this in the review, and I am not stating which story this passage came from because I do not want to single out this specific work of fiction. I am only pulling out this quote to describe why I started thinking about asexuality and American Indians. I’m going to discuss blood quanta for a while before I get back to talking about American Indians and then asexuality, but I assure you, this blog post WILL return to the topic of asexuality.

‘Blood Quanta’ Is a Culturally Specific Concept

I use the term ‘blood quanta’ to mean any system where people’s identities are measured in fractions based on their ancestry. For example, the wizarding world in the Harry Potter stories embraces a blood quanta system where they distinguish ‘halfbloods’ from those with exclusively wizard/witch ancestry and those with exclusively muggle ancestry.

American culture does not embrace blood quanta in quite as straightforward a manner as the wizarding world of Harry Potter, but it is still very prevalent. For example, it’s not unusual for someone to say something like ‘I’m half black [African-American] and half Japanese’ or ‘I’m half German American and half Scots-Irish’. This is not necessarily bad. In particular, I have no problem with people using blood quanta to define their own identities.

Now, when someone asks me ‘are you Jewish’ I simply answer ‘yes’. That is because I understand the question from a Jewish point of view, and Jewish culture does not recognize blood quanta (well, considering the complex variations of Jewish culture out there, there are probably exceptions, but they are just that – exceptions). There are many ways to define who is and is not a Jew – and by some definitions out there, I am not Jewish. However, all Jewish definitions of what makes someone a Jew that I know of boil down to ‘yes/no’. According to Jewish culture, there is no such thing as someone who is ‘half’ Jewish.

The most widely used criteria to determine who is and is not a Jew are those used by Ashkenazi Orthodox Jews, which can be briefly described thus: anyone whose mother is Jewish is a Jew, and people who were born to non-Jewish mothers are only Jews if they have properly converted to Judaism.

My mother is Jewish, therefore, by these criteria, I am also Jewish (note this has nothing to do with what I believe or whether I observe halakhah). The fact that my father is not Jewish is irrelevant, in fact, my Jewish relatives generally forget that my father is not Jewish because it’s not particularly important to them. Since this is how I have been taught to think about Jewish identity, I do not think about my Jewish identity in terms of blood quanta.

It’s also worth pointing out that my mother is an immigrant, and many of my Jewish relatives are not American and often do not view things through the lens of American culture.

In any case, Jewish culture is not unique in its non-recognition of blood quanta. Taiwan is a multi-ethnic society where nearly none of the ethnic groups recognize blood quanta. In Taiwan, questions such as ‘do you belong to ethnic group X’ tend to have a yes/no answer, just as in Jewish culture. This is in spite of the fact that inter-ethnic marriage has been common in Taiwan for centuries, with the result that most Taiwanese people can trace ancestry to multiple ethnic groups.

The main reason I went on this detour is to emphasize that blood quanta is a cultural construct, and that not all cultures think in blood quanta terms.

So, the Indians

To quote the article I linked to at the top of this blog post:

For you non-Native readers, keep this in mind. Native people rarely ask each other about their blood degree because they know that being Native is not about an abstract mathematical equation that parses out their identity into measurable fractions.

Now, I am finally getting to the part of the article I really want to discuss, which I am going to quote right now:

Blood quantum is perhaps the biggest determinant of Indian authenticity, but even those who are full blood can be deemed not real based on some stereotypes or legal definitions of what real Indians are. All Indians are subject to being judged for their authenticity, and even despite high blood quantum or enrolled status they can be deemed inauthentic simply by virtue of the fact that they live in the modern world.

Because after all, the real Indians were the ones who dressed in buckskins and hunted buffalo and deer for their living, and didn’t speak English. And they’ve been gone a long time.

Non-natives, whether they know it or not, are conditioned to determine the authenticity of Native people whenever they encounter them, especially those that live in places where Indians are highly invisible, like large cities or in states with low Native populations. Because they have been indoctrinated with the idea of the vanishing Native their whole lives, the assumption that there is no such thing as real Natives anymore is like a software program constantly running in the background. So when they meet someone who claims to be Native, the unconscious impulse is to automatically determine the truth of the claim.

The only comment I have to add to this is that, even though this is an excerpt from a book published in 2016, none of the ideas in this article are original or new. Ten or so years ago I’ve saw books by American Indians which were basically saying the same thing, and I suspect those books were mostly repeating things that American Indians have been saying for a really long time.

The Assumption Is That Such People Do Not Exist, and That Anyone Who Says They Are Such People Is Wrong, and Must Be Proven to Be Wrong

First of all, a disclaimer: I do NOT intend to say that aces, as a class of people, suffer more or face more institutional hostility than American Indians. Not even close. If you think I am saying that the oppression of aces is equivalent to the oppression of Indians, then you are misinterpreting me. Indians, as a class of people, have to deal with much more pervasive and harmful institutional oppression than aces.

As Dina Gilio-Whitaker says, non-natives are taught to think that all of the ‘real’ Indians are gone, so when they encounter an (American) Indian, their impulse to try to prove that that person is not a ‘real’ Indian rather than, say, realize that Indians are still around. The article clearly explains how non-natives have been programmed to think this way because denying the existence of Indians makes it easier to exploit them and drive them out of their homes to exploit the resources there (I do not think most people do this consciously, rather, this is why the myth became embedded in American culture). The Dakota Access Pipeline is a recent example of exploitation that has gotten a lot of media attention, but there are other actions liked that going on right now (another example is the proposal to flood the home of the Wintu people in Northern California).

Another form of exploitation which the ‘vanishing natives’ myth helps enable is that of criminals who want to assault Indians. The U.S. legal system is set up in such a way that (cw for link: sexual violence) a non-Indian who goes to an Indian reservation and commits felonies on Indian victims is immune from prosecution. This has led to the result that non-Indians who want to commit violent felonies has swarmed Indian reservations so they can do so without fear of law enforcement. One can also read more about this in the book Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey through Reservation Life by David Treuer (incidently, David Treuer is an example of Not Recognizing Blood Quanta – his father is Jewish, his mother is Ojibwe, and if IIRC, he simply identifies as Ojibwe, not as Jewish or half-Jewish/half-Ojibwe).

The article I linked is a bit dated – a law went into effect in 2015 which allows for the prosecution of domestic violence committed by non-Indians upon Indian spouses/partners – but the legal situation of non-Indians who commit felonies upon Indians who are not their spouses/partners is the same today as when the article was written. Though I can’t prove this, I strongly suspect that this legal situation would have been changed a long time ago if the ‘vanishing natives’ myth were not so widespread. Most people can readily understand the injustice of making a criminal immune to prosecution just because they are a non-Indian whose victim is Indian (though some members of Congress seem to have trouble understanding this), but because so many people believe that the real Indians are gone, they has been little motivation to change the system – why bother protecting people who ‘no longer exist’.

Anyway, Bringing This Back to Asexuality

The problems caused by invalidating ace identities have not been nearly as severe as the problems caused by denying Indian identities, the comparison still leaps at me.

The process by which people question Indians until they can prove that they are not ‘real’ Indians seems like the process by which people question aces until they can prove that they are not ‘ace’. If an Indian is not a ‘full-blood’, then they aren’t a real Indian, and if they are a ‘full-blood’, then they aren’t a real Indian because they speak English, etc. Likewise, an asexual is not really asexual if they have had sex, or if they have never had sex, they are not really asexual because they masturbate, and if they do not masturbate then they are not really asexual because they are mentally ill, and so fort. One can read more of this at the carnival about the ‘Unassailable Asexual’.

Why so many people have the idea that people cannot be asexual, and that anyone who claims to be asexual must be assailed until they admit that they aren’t really asexual, is more of a mystery to me than why people believe in the ‘vanishing natives’ myth. I’ve encountered hypotheses – such as the hypothesis that non-asexual people take comfort in the idea that everyone deals with the same sexual urges they do, and the existence of asexual people takes this comfort away from them – but I do not know if these hypotheses are the best explanation.

Does it matter why so many people are programmed to assail asexuality? In a sense, I think the answer is no, it does not matter. But to the extent that understanding why people assail asexuality can improve efforts to stop people from assailing asexuals, such understanding is useful.

Just as people dismiss problems Indians have by claiming that Indians do not ‘really’ exist anymore, people also dismiss problems aces have by claiming that asexuality is not really a thing, or even if they acknowledge that it is a thing, they claim that the problems are not related to asexuality. For example, some people claim that asexuality should not be included in anti-sexual-orientation-discrimination because we are not discriminated against. Well, first of all, some aces have experienced discrimination in the workplace and other places because they are asexual, and second, such laws also often explicitly protect heterosexuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation. If heterosexuals can get legal protection, why not asexuals?

Obviously, there are vast differences between the issues Indians deal with and the issues asexuals deal with, but the similarities are educational. And I would not have made the connection if I had not run into that quote from an asexual fiction novel and thought about how to explain my reaction to that quote in a review.

A Theme from my Recent Travels: Race

As I think back on my recent trip (you can find all of the posts about it under the tag ‘The Mississippi Journey’) one of the things which stands out is how often I noticed (and while blogging, commented) upon race. I did not expect that to be one of the themes of my trip.

Maybe I was so surprised because I am white – part of white privilege is being able to ignore race in ways that non-white people in the United States cannot.

Also, in my previous travels, I have always tended to notice race when it was different from the mix of races which are different from what I am used to. For example, when I was living in Taiwan, I got used to not seeing many other white people, sometimes going weeks without seeing another white person, so when I went to Osaka and Kyoto (literally the very first two places I went after I moved out of Taiwan) I was blown away by how many white people there were, and in my subconscious, I still think of Kyoto as ‘a place full of white people’ (I probably would not have had that impression of Kyoto if I had gone there straight from the United States rather than straight from Taiwan). Indeed, I remember that when I met people visiting Taiwan, a common reaction was “where are all of the white people?” and my response was “this is Asia, why would you expect to see lots of white people here?” and then they would tell me that there are way more white people in Beijing/Shanghai/Tokyo/wherever. Since Taiwan is the first place in east Asia I ever went, I did not really understand that there are parts of east Asia which have a lot more white people until I went to some of those places myself.

Another thing which stood out during my travels was different levels of racial segregation. Granted, I was a tourist, not a researcher – not only did I not do any careful data gathering, I was focused on sightseeing, not research, and as such my observations are very limited and almost certainly not representative. That said, I saw the highest levels of racial integrations in the following places (I consider racial integration to be people of different races interacting with each other on relatively equal terms):

1. Downtown Chicago (I didn’t go anywhere outside of downtown Chicago, and based on what I’ve read about Chicago, there is a lot of racial segregation by neighborhood)
2. New Orleans (all neighborhoods I visited, though I mostly went to touristy areas, and I also understand that I probably would have seen more racial segregation if I had taken a more extensive look at the city)
3. Downtown San Antonio

Notice a pattern? I tended to see the most racial integration in downtown areas of major cities. Even in Memphis, which has some really obvious racial segregation, I observed more racial integration in downtown Memphis than in other parts of Memphis.

Actually, I take that back. The place where I saw the most racial integration, hands down, was in the sightseeing lounge of the California Zephyr. The place where I saw the second highest level of racial integration was in the sightseeing lounge of the Sunset Limited. Apparently, Amtrak has higher levels of racial integration than downtown areas of cities, probably because Amtrak passengers are racially diverse and it is harder for people on a train to avoid each other than for people in a neighborhood to avoid each other.

Where did I observe the highest level of racial segregation? Vicksburg, Mississippi, and St. Charles County, Missouri. I think it would be really hard to be in Vicksburg, and then be in St. Charles County the next week, and not notice race.

Vicksburg, as I mentioned, is about 60% African-American, yet based on what I saw, I would have guessed it was 90% African-American. In the neighborhood where I slept, nearly everyone was black, and most of the people who weren’t black were some other kind of POC. I walked through neighborhood after neighborhood in Vicksburg where it seemed that everyone was black. In downtown Vicksburg, I saw both black and white people, but not in the same places (I don’t count because I was an out-of-town visitor). For example, at the Rail Depot Museum, everyone was white, and at the Lower Mississippi Museum, everyone (except myself) was black, even though they are just a block away from each other. The retail area on Washington Street is very white, but blocks away, there are black-owned businesses. The only place I saw black and white people interacting with each other (excluding myself) was at the bus station – most of the people there were black, but there were a few white passengers other than myself. I did not ask anyone in Vicksburg about this since asking about racial segregation did not occur to me until I was gone, and I don’t know what would have been the best way to ask about it anyway. I would also like to note that nobody in Vicksburg, of any race, made me feel unwelcome in their neighborhood.

St. Charles County, of course, was totally white. I mostly stayed in my host’s house, so I did not get to observe as much as when I was in Vicksburg, but whenever I got out, I never saw any non-white people.

Now, lest one think that Vicksburg is so racially segregated because it is in Mississippi, I would like to note that I observed significantly more racial integration in Natchez, which is also in Mississippi. I wouldn’t call it a paradise of racial integration (notice that I did not put it in my list of most racially integrated places), but I did observe white and black people working side by side in the same business doing the same work, and in Natchez it was not obvious to me whether I was in a ‘white’ or ‘black’ neighborhood the way it was in Vicksburg, Memphis, or St. Charles County, and generally, I saw a lot more white and black people talking to each other in Natchez than in some other places.

Now, these observations are probably partially based on random chance – maybe I just happened to observe the less racially segregated aspects of Natchez, and the more racially segregated aspects of Vicksburg, and that if I did proper research, I would find that my initial impressions were inaccurate. Everything I say in this post should be understood as a record of my impressions, not an accurate depiction of any place I visited.

Anyway, did I learn anything from my observations of racial relations during my recent trip? It’s not so much that I learned something new (well, I learned a lot of details about, say, the history of the civil rights movement, but that is besides the point) as that in deepened my understanding of things I knew something about before. For example, I knew that we are a racially/ethnically diverse nation, but actually visiting different places and see a lot of the differences myself drives that lesson deeper, and some aspects of racial integration/segregation are easier to see as an out-of-town outsider than as a local.

Review: Candy Land by Lissa Kasey

Book cover of Candy Land by Lissa Kasey

This is the last story I am reviewing for month of asexual fiction from Dreamspinner Press.

What is this story about?

Candy is buying up bad brothels in City M, tearing them down, and redeveloping them. He is jealous of his lover, Ivy, spending so much time with Jack – both because Ivy is his lover and he is interested in Jack himself. Meanwhile, somebody is going around murdering whores in City M in gruesome ways. Horrible as that is, it is not as big a deal as the possibility that the people will rise up and overthrow the government – or that an army is coming to take over City M.

What sexual and/or violent content is there in this story?

A LOT. LOTS OF SEXUAL CONTENT. LOTS OF VIOLENT CONTENT. It would be easier to list the types of sexual and violent content which aren’t in this story. Which, ummm, IIRC, there is no suicide, and I do not think there is any sexual content involving female characters (in fact, there are very few female characters).

Tell me more about this story.

This is the third and final book in the Hidden Gem trilogy. For once, I actually did read the other books in the series. Is it possible to read Candy Land as a standalone novel? Maybe … not. I probably would have been a lot more confused if I hadn’t read the first two books in the trilogy.

This review is going to be focused on Candy Land, not a review of the trilogy as a whole. However, since the first two books in the trilogy influenced my experience of Candy Land, I am going to discuss them too to some extent.

Okay, so tell me about the universe of this trilogy..

An important part of this trilogy is the setting. It’s set in the future, after the United States has been destroyed by environmental disasters. There was also a plague which killed tons of people. The former United States is split into the ‘South’ which is a full-blown dystopia, complete with slavery, concentration camps, anti-queer bigotry, terrible quality of life for most of its residents, a class of powerful elites, etc. Meanwhile, there are the United Cities of the North, each named after a letter of the alphabet (such as City M, where the trilogy takes place). While not quite as dystopian as the South, the Northern Cities ain’t no paradise – the population is much below the peak when the United States still existed, the government is super corrupt (and apparently non-democratic, according to the second book in the trilogy), there is a shadowy secret intelligence service which *might* not be as evil as its counterpart in the South (or *maybe* it is as evil and just better at hiding it) etc.

Meanwhile, some people are ‘psis’ – they have developed various kinds of psychic powers. They are a stigmatized group. And there is a great secret – in addition to the psis, whose existence is common knowledge, there are also the A-Ms – animal mutations. They are the survivors of the plague – and even the fact that anybody survived the plague is a secret. The A-Ms are people who, due to mutated DNA, shapeshift into various animals. Thus there is a pseudo-scientific justification for including werewolves and such entities in this trilogy.

The trilogy revolves around characters associated with the Hidden Gem (in fact, the first book of the trilogy is Hidden Gem), the classiest brothel is all of City M. Thus, there is a lot of focus on sex work, as well as BDSM (it’s one of the Hidden Gem’s services) in this trilogy.

I think that just might be enough information to try to read Candy Land as a standalone. Granted, I didn’t get into any of the individual characters’ histories, but knowing the basics of this universe might give a reader a fighting chance of reading Candy Land in isolation.

This fictional universe … is going to appeal to some readers a lot, and not do so much for other readers. For what it’s worth, I’m not one of the readers who finds this universe particularly appealing, but it also does not put me off. It’s neutral with regards to my reading pleasure.

I know there is something you really want to say about the second book in the trilogy.

Yes. I think the second book, Cardinal Sins, is hands down the worst of the three books of the trilogy. And that’s even WITHOUT considering one part of the book which really bothers me, and had an significant impact on my experience of reading Candy Land.

[Warning: discussion of sexual violence coming up RIGHT NOW]

In chapter 9 of Cardinal Sins, there is this:

Candy didn’t hesitate in backhanding the mouthy bastard hard enough to send him sprawling on the bed. Jason’s eyes flashed with anger. “You have no right!” he protested.

“I have every right,” Candy said. “You are a contracted whore. I could tie you to the bed and lead every man in the building up here to fuck you and cover you in their come and you would have no rights.”

Summary: Candy is threatening Jason with gang rape.

And that is exactly what happens later in that chapter – Candy forces Jason to submit to sexual torture by clients, and then forces Jason to have sex with those clients against Jason’s will.

And Candy is one of the ‘heroes’ – a protagonist readers are supposed to have sympathy for (in fact, he is the character on the cover of Candy Land).

I am not bothered by having sexual violence in my fiction. I can even enjoy a story in which the protagonist initiates sexual violence, especially since I sometimes like unethical protagonists. However, I do insist on some kind of acknowledgement in the story that sexual violence is wrong, that it is the writer’s intent to have an unethical protagonist. Maybe the protagonist later shows remorse, or maybe other characters chew out the protagonist – just something which makes it clear that the reader is not supposed to cheer for sexual violence. And the Hidden Gem trilogy does not do this. Candy never feels remorse for this. I am not sure what other characters know about this incident, but if they know about it, they act like it was okay for Candy to do this. While I cannot say too much more without getting into spoiler territory, the way that both Cardinal Sins and Candy Land is written makes it clear that the writer wants readers to cheer for Candy and want good things for him, and to boo Jason and want bad things for him.

This really fouls my taste for the entire trilogy. However, now that I’ve said it, I am going to set that aside and pretend that Chapter 9 of Cardinal Sins does not exist as I continue to review Candy Land.

So tell me more about Candy Land.

In some ways, it is the best book in the trilogy. I like that, after going through two books of A-Ms being such a secret, it finally becomes possible that the secret will be exposed to the public (I am not spoiling if or how that happens) and the political upheaval it might cause. I also liked that it featured A-Ms getting organized to try and create a society which worked for them, rather than having to live in secrecy all the time. I wish this angle of the story had been treated in greater depth, probably because I am more interested in this kind of thing than in M/M romance.

However, whenever a character was ‘dying’ in this book, it was not nearly as dramatic as it was in the first book of the trilogy. By this point, as a reader, I had learned that when any significant character ‘dies’ there is a high chance that said character will be resurrected in the near future, so character death had stopped feeling so dramatic by this book (to be fair, there was a significant death in Cardinal Sins which was not followed by a resurrection). Character death which was NOT followed by resurrection would have surprised me, of course. And maybe it did, because maybe some significant characters died in Candy Land without being resurrected. I’m not spoiling.

Asexuality?

On the asexuality content scale (1 = least content, 10 = most content) I would rate this as a 3.

It is strongly hinted in the epilogue of Cardinal Sins that Jack is asexual, and it is finally said outright in Candy Land that yes, Jack is asexual. Though he was just a supporting character in the first two books of the trilogy, he finally becomes a major character in Candy Land. It seems that, between the second and third books in the trilogy, he’s developed a close non-sexual relationship with Ivy, a character who was first introduced in the second book.

The main ‘romance’ of the novel is the Candy/Ivy/Jack triad. The main obstacle to them getting together is that Jack is asexual and has no need for sex, and Candy is really into sex, and Candy does not know how to have a romantic relationship with someone who doesn’t need sex (in fact, at first, Candy has trouble believing that an adult could not want sex). Here is an excerpt:

CANDY LAY in bed listening to Ivy breathe for a long time. He should have been sleeping, but his head was too full of shit to even consider letting him sleep. What did Ivy mean, Jack and sex was nonexistent? Who didn’t want sex? So all these months that Candy’s gut had been churning with jealousy thinking Ivy and Jack were off fucking like bunnies without inviting him, and they were reading? What the hell?

Here is Candy coming to terms with Jack’s asexuality:

He’d looked up the term Ivy had left for him after his last client: asexuality. A lack of emotional interest in sex. There were a dozen divisions within the term, some even sex- or relationship-averse, meaning they were repulsed by sex. Did sex disgust Jack? Was that why he hugged himself whenever he entered the Gem and refused to meet anyone’s eyes? Candy had thought it was just shyness, and maybe it partially was. He just didn’t quite understand. How could someone be physically able to have sex, but not want to? If he asked Jack, would he answer?

Jack is not the first asexual that Ivy has known, so Ivy was completely comfortable with Jack’s asexuality from the beginning. He doesn’t mind that their relationship is non-sexual. I also like that Ivy takes it upon himself to educate Candy about asexuality rather than forcing Jack to do the education – as an asexual myself, I know how exhausting it can be to give people Asexuality 101.

Anyway, enough about Candy. How does Jack experience things? Well, there is the obligatory subplot about Jack and cake (I groan at cake-culture, but, well, it is common for asexual fiction stories to have some kind of cake tie-in). Here’s an excerpt from Jack’s point of view:

Jack was frowning by the end. He didn’t want Ivy to be all his for whatever debauchery Candy thought he might enjoy. He hoped that whatever the gift was it didn’t involve some sort of kinky sex toy that Jack was sure to have never seen before. His experience with sex was limited—mostly learned from smutty romance novels—and he was okay with keeping it that way.

And here’s another excerpt:

“What…?” Jack began to ask, but Ivy leaned forward and kissed him soundly. Jack pulled away as if he’d been slapped, jumping out of the chair and tipping it over. His heart hammered with fear. Not really of being touched, but of the expectations that usually followed a touch like that. He liked Ivy. Hell, he sort of liked Shane, Aki, Paris, and even Candy. Would they still like him if they knew how different he was? He’d been trying to keep himself detached from them all for this very reason. “Sorry, sorry. You should probably go. Tell everyone I appreciate their gifts.” He headed to the door ready to let Ivy out.

And then there is the other asexual that Ivy knows – Marc – who is a minor character in this story. Of course, the most interesting thing Marc does in this story is, ummm, unrelated to asexuality and a major spoiler. He does not want sex, but he does sometimes hire Ivy to cuddle him. He says that he would be willing to have sex as a ‘gift’ for his partner. Oh, and at one point of the story, Candy accuses Marc of being the killer going around murdering whores because Candy thinks that someone who would hire a whore like Ivy without having sex is very suspicious and possibly harboring murderous inclinations. Yep, Candy has a really (not) asexual-friendly worldview.

And finally … Jack does have sex at some point in the story. I’m not going to spoil the circumstances, or who he has sex with, but since some asexual readers feel strongly about whether or not asexual characters have sex, I felt I ought to put that out there.

Is the writer asexual?

Yes, Lissa Kasey is asexual.

Sara, do you like this novel?

I was able to read the entire trilogy, which says something about its readability, and I definitely like Candy Land more than Cardinal Sins, and I do think Candy Land has good representation of asexuality. However, I cannot say that I like Candy Land.

Candy Land may be purchased at the Dreamspinner Store or various book retailers.

Meet Me in St. Louis

Movie Poster for "Meet Me in St. Louis" starring Judy Garland

I vaguely remember seeing the film Meet Me in St. Louis as a young child, which, of course, has the song “Meet Me in St. Louis”, as well as the more famous Trolley Song.

I took a bus from Memphis to St. Louis. The bus traveled through Arkansas between Memphis and Missouri. Arkansas … is flat, and has lots of agricultural fields. I was surprised by how many anti-abortion billboards there are in Arkansas and Missouri – for example “Abortion: A Baby Can Live without It.” I also saw a billboard for something which I am 90% sure is a pregnancy crisis center (as in, the kind where they tell pregnant people lies to manipulate them into not seeking abortions).

I remember, shortly before I began this trip, I saw a comment on the internet along the lines of this “When I visited St. Louis, I was amazing by the layers of suburbs, starting with new ones, then going to old ones, and then when I got into the city, it looked like a city in collapse.” Of course, I believe absolutely everything I read on the internet, so I was curious what it would look like to me. Did I see boarded up buildings in St. Louis (the city, not the county)? Yes. I also saw plenty of buildings which look like they have new windows. Granted, I did not get to see too much of the city, but what I did see did not look apocalyptic. On the contrary, I thought the vast number of century-old brick buildings was beautiful

A photo taken in 'The Grove' by Paul Sableman, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0.

A photo taken in ‘The Grove’ by Paul Sableman, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0.

Anyway, I journeyed thousands of miles across the United States just so I could meet someone in St. Louis. Well, not quite. I could not justify going all the way to St. Louis just to visit someone, but it was the starting point for my travel itinerary, and I figured I could justify visiting her if I also did a lot of tourism along the way.

Because of the personal nature of this visit, I’m going to keep a lot of details private. However, I will say that my host actually lives in an exurb in St. Charles County. The Missouri River divides St. Charles County from St. Louis County, which itself is separate from St. Louis City. Until very recently, St. Charles County was all farmland, and there are still a lot of small farms around, however, there are also many new housing developments.

I did not get to see the blue sky (well, I did for brief periods of time, but that was it), but otherwise, this is what St. Charles County looked like to me. The Missouri River is in the background of this photo. Photo by Matt Zimmerman, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0.

I did not get to see the blue sky (well, I did for brief periods of time, but that was it), but otherwise, this is what St. Charles County looked like to me. The Missouri River is in the background of this photo. Photo by Matt Zimmerman, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0.

Anyone who paid attention to the news in late 2014 knows the Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, and that this sparked massive protests in Ferguson, a town in St. Louis County. If you want to know how St. Charles County fits into the politics of police officers shooting young men in the St. Louis metropolitan area, I suggest reading “St. Louis and the Geography of Fear”.

My host, of course, picked me up at the train/bus station in downtown St. Louis. As she was driving me out of the city, she explained to me the various rings of suburbs of St. Louis going west. She says that the city is really poor, mainly because it is full of poor black people who can’t being poor (note: I am not claiming that this is accurate, just that this is what she told me). The first ring, she says, is where a lot of teachers and nurses and people like that live. The second ring is full of rich people with old money. The third ring has a lot of churches, hospitals, and financial and/or law firms. The fourth ring has lots of malls and shopping centers near the highways, and houses a little further from the highways. She also told me about some tech companies located in the fourth ring. The fifth ring, according to her, is St. Charles County.

The house is right next to a conservation area, and the forest extends up to the back porch. Because it was winter, the trees were barren, and I could see all the way to the ridge where the next set of houses are. I even saw a deer from the window of the guest room.

My host loves living next to the forest, but says of her neighbors “they are all such gun-toting Republicans it is not even possible to talk to them” (in case anybody is wondering, my host was a Clinton supporter). She does, however, talk to at least one of her neighbors, and I met him too. I’ll call him ‘J’. J grew up in ‘South County’ i.e. the souther portion of St. Louis County. He says that St. Charles County has changed a great deal, and he likes it, because it used to just be full of ‘cow towns’ and now it has some respect. He also told me that, though he is not sure of other parts of the United States, that St. Louis society is full of ‘lines’ (note: he never defended the ‘lines’ – in fact, I suspect he wishes the ‘lines’ were not so sharp defined – he merely described them). People stick with people like themselves and in their own areas – white people stay in their place, black people stay in their place, gays and lesbians stay in their place, people of various religions stay in their place, etc. When I mentioned that the Missouri Botanical Garden offers a discount to residents of St. Louis County, but that wouldn’t include my host who lives in St. Charles County, J said ‘that’s one of those lines. The Missouri River is an important line.”

A few year’s ago, my host’s son lived in ‘The Grove’ which I gather is some gentrified neighborhood in St. Louis. J said that ‘The Grove’ is nice now, but that ten years ago, her son would not have wanted to live in ‘The Grove’.

A piece of glass artwork which decorates the lobby of the Missouri Botanical Garden. Photo by Kevin Schraer, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0.

A piece of glass artwork which decorates the lobby of the Missouri Botanical Garden. Photo by Kevin Schraer, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0.

My host generously brought me to the Missouri Botanical Garden, which is supposed to be one of the best botanical gardens in the world. But it’s winter, and plants tend to die back in winter in Missouri! However, they had a special winter show of LED lights in the evening called ‘Garden Glow’. We both thought it was very well done.

The St. Louis Gateway Arch (and no, the weather was not like this when I was there - the sky was white, and all ofthe branches of the trees were bare).

The St. Louis Gateway Arch (and no, the weather was not like this when I was there – the sky was white, and all ofthe branches of the trees were bare).

On the last day, when I had to return to the train station in St. Louis, my host brought me to the St. Louis Arch. The tram was not open, but I still got to walk around it. I also visited the Old Courthouse, which is most famous for being where Dred Scott had his first two trials, which eventually brought him to the Supreme Court (for those who are not familiar with American history, the Dred Scott decision was one of the events which spurred the onset of the Civil War). I did not have enough time to go through all of the exhibits thoroughly, but I found the exhibit about slavery in St. Louis interesting. St. Louis had a large free black population, which meant that slaves in St. Louis had a lot of contact with free blacks. There was also a large influx of Irish and German immigrants, which made labor so cheap that it became cheaper to hire people and pay wages than to buy and keep a slave.

The old courthouse in St. Louis where Dred Scott began his lawsuit for freedom.

The old courthouse in St. Louis where Dred Scott began his lawsuit for freedom.

As the train left St. Louis station, it stopped for a few minutes just before the bridge over the Mississippi River. It allowed me to get a good look at the Crunden-Martin buildings, an obviously abandoned factory. I was looking at Building #5, and thinking about how it looked like I could see the structural beams through the windows, and that it looked like the roof had collapsed (though I could not see the roof itself), and how odd it was I could see the interstate highway on the other side of the building through the windows. Therefore, while I was on the train (with wifi) I had to look it up – what I found was this, this, and this.

This is what I saw from the railway bridge (except without the smoke, water, and firefighters). Photo by Paul Sableman, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0.

This is what I saw from the railway bridge (except without the smoke, water, and firefighters). Photo by Paul Sableman, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0.

Because I was mainly visiting someone I knew, my experience in St. Louis / St. Charles was different from in other places I visited during this trip. Like every other stop, it had offered me another look at USA society.

Memphis: The Rise of a Famous Man, and the Murder of a Famous Man

The bridge which connects downtown Memphis to the state Arkansas. Photo by Thomas Hawk, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0

The bridge which connects downtown Memphis to the state Arkansas. Photo by Thomas Hawk, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0

On my first day in Memphis, I took the Backbeat Mojo bus tour, including the Sun Studios tour. This turned out to be a wiser decision than I originally realized since a) in a city where public transit is bad, a tour bus is certainly useful, and b) I was weary, and a bus tour certainly takes less energy than giving myself a tour of the city.

I do not know much about the history of the blues / rock-and-roll. On the one hand, that meant that some of the thing at the Sun Studio tour did not mean much to me, on the other hand, that meant it was all new information to me. They went over the history of how Sun Studios was founded, starting as the ‘Memphis Recording Service’ which allowed Blues artists who otherwise would not have access to recording equipment get their songs recorded. After a bunch of artists who got their songs recorded went on to contracts with record labels, Sam Phillips, the founder of the Memphis Recording Service, realized that he could make more money (and do more for artists) by founding his own recording label in Memphis. Thus Sun Studio was born.

Sun Studio as seen from the outside. Photo by Mr. Littlehand, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0

Sun Studio as seen from the outside. Photo by Mr. Littlehand, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0

Of course, the artist they discussed the most was Elvis Presley. The very first Elvis Presley song was recorded by the Memphis Recording Service, and though Sam Phillips spent over a year refusing to offer Elvis Presley a contract, eventually, he did, and that was the beginning of Elvis Presley’s career as a professional musician.

The famous photo taken of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash in the Sun Studio recording room.

The famous photo taken of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash in the Sun Studio recording room.

We got to visit the very recording studio where Elvis Presley’s first hit songs were recorded (where the photo above was taken), as well as critical hit songs from Johnny Cash and other notable musicians. We even got to speak/sing into a microphone which had been used by Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. Interesting, for a while, this room had stopped being a recording studio, and had one time (after the 1950s) served as a laundromat before it reopened as a recording room.

Ike Turner (left) and Jackie Brenston (right)

Ike Turner (left) and Jackie Brenston (right)

Throughout the tour of Sun Studio, they played various songs which were important in its history. My favorite son was “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats. They were from Clarksdale, one of the delta towns I passed through on the bus. On the way to Memphis to get the song recorded, some of their equipment (an amplifier?) fell off the car, and they were too poor to replace it, so when they recorded the song in Memphis, they stuffed it with newspaper. It created a weird sound they liked, so they kept it in the song.

The tour then took us around Memphis. The tour guide was a young local musician, born and raised in Memphis, who would sing songs in between the narration. Some of the more interesting stops (to me) were:

– The point at the Mississippi River where the ‘Battle of Memphis’ took place. It was the only Civil War battle in Memphis, and since it all took place in the river, it did not damage the city itself. It only lasted 90 minutes, mainly because the local Confederate naval forces were clueless and lost quickly. The guide explained that, unlike many towns and cities in the Civil War (such as Vicksburg), Memphis had an economic boom during the Civil War, and did quite well.
– Lauderdale Courts. Built in the 1930s, they were one of the first public housing projects in the United States. By far their most famous resident was … Elvis Presley. As a teenager, when his family moved from Tupelo, Mississippi, to Memphis, they were so poor that they qualified for public housing. Elvis Presley lived in Lauderdale Courts as a teenager.
– The Levitt Shell in Overton Park. Overton Park is called ‘the Central Park of the South’. The Levitt Shell was where the first public Elvis Presley performance took place, just after the first time one of his songs had been played on a local radio station. He was slotted to be the opening act for a famous yodeller. The guide explained “the people who came to this yodelling concert were all rednecks, not that there is anything wrong with being a redneck, I’m a redneck myself, I’m just explaining who was in the audience. They see Elvis, a white boy dressed like a black man, and they don’t know who he is or what to make of him.”

Most tourists in Memphis visit Graceland, Elvis Presley’s former mansion, which is now apparently an Elvis Presley theme park. I did not go because a) my time in Memphis was limited b) the tickets are really expensive ($38 was the cheapest ticket I could buy, and it was for just a minimal tour) and c) I got enough Elvis from the Sun Studios / bus tour.

Here is a question: did Elvis Presley, by taking black music, black fashion, etc., and becoming far richer from it than any black musician of his era, help black people and black culture, or hurt black people and black culture? This is not a rhetorical question – I don’t feel I know enough about rock and roll history or cultural appropriation to offer a meaningful answer. I know a lot has been written about this topic, and this is the first essay I found (though it is about racism in rock and roll in general rather than Elvis Presley and cultural appropriation specifically).

Beale Street. Even though this photo was taken in 2006, it looks pretty much the same as Beale Street in 2016. Photo by Danube66, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0.

Beale Street. Even though this photo was taken in 2006, it looks pretty much the same as Beale Street in 2016. Photo by Danube66, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0.

Of course, I had to spend at least a little time on Beale Street, which is possibly the most famous street in Memphis. Back in the Jim Crow days, it was the main commercial street for ‘Black’ Memphis. It’s where the most famous African-American music clubs were, as well as the African-American businesses. It thrived from the 1890s to the 1960s, but since then it has … lost something. It’s still one of the busier streets in downtown Memphis, but as the tour guide put it, it’s about remembering the past, rather than creating the future of music or anything else. One evening, I ordered a drink at one of the establishments on Beale Street and listened to their live band. I liked the drink, but the music was pretty ‘meh’ for me.

The Lorraine Motel. Photo by matt northam, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0.

The Lorraine Motel. Photo by matt northam, used in accordance with Creative Commons License 2.0.

And then there is the Lorraine Motel. Back in the Jim Crow days, many hotels would not accept black guests, so black people set up their own hotels which catered to black guests. There were travel books just for black people, telling them where to find the black hotels in the South – I saw some of those travel books on display in the National Civil Rights Museum (I’ll introduce that soon). The Lorraine Motel was the best known black motel in downtown Memphis, and had many noted musicians among its guest (including Louis Armstrong and Aretha Franklin). Famous songs such as “Knock on Wood” were composed at the Lorraine Motel.

The Lorraine Motel’s most famous guest ever, of course, was Martin Luther King. He stayed at the Lorraine Motel multiple times. The last time he stayed at the Lorraine Motel, an assassin shot him, he collapsed on the balcony, and he died an hour later in a hospital.

Today, both the the Lorraine Motel and the building from which the assassin fired his shot are part of the National Civil Rights Museum. I spent four and a half hours there because it takes that much time to take in all of the exhibits. If I tried to describe everything I learned at the National Civil Rights Museum, I could easily triple the length of this blog post. Instead, I’ll just throw out a few things:

– I had heard of the Freedom Rides, but I had not really understood them until I saw the exhibit at the museum. I had taken it for granted that I could take buses from New Orleans to Memphis and receive decent treatment – African-Americans under Jim Crow could not, and when they tried to change that, their buses were bombed, and worse.
– In the mid-1960s, the Oakland police killed more African-Americans than all lynchings in the American South. This is why the Black Panther party armed themselves with guns – in order to prevent the Oakland police from killing black people – and the main reason the California government passed gun control laws was to stop the Black Panther party from doing that. I did not know that that was why California started have stricter gun control laws than other states.
– Martin Luther King had come to Memphis to support the striking sanitation workers. I had been aware of this before, but I learned a lot more about the sanitation strike. For example, on rainy days, black sanitation workers only got two hours of pay, whereas white workers got a full day’s worth of pay. And that was not the least of it. No wonder the black sanitation workers of Memphis went on strike. And Martin Luther King was not even the first person to die during the strike – a child had already been killed.
– There was a map of several U.S. cities today showing how racially segregated we still are. Ironically, featured city which I knew best was Memphis. It showed a very sharp divide between black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods, which was consistent with my observations. Cooper-Young is definitely a white neighborhood, and I also passed through some obviously black neighborhoods. The black neighborhoods generally had housing that was in worse shape, as far as I could see.

The National Civil Rights Museum also goes into great detail about the Martin Luther King assassination. Just going through all of it takes at least an hour. They let visitors view both Martin Luther King’s room, and the window from which the shot was fired.

So that sums up my touristy experiences in Memphis. Tourists in Memphis tend to be drawn most to Elvis Presley and/or Martin Luther King. For Elvis Presley, Memphis was the beginning, and for Martin Luther King, Memphis was the end.