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Feb. 26th, 2017

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How to Be a Better Dictator: Bread and Circuses

To the illustrious President Snow:

Many thanks for the cake replica of the Capitol that you sent us. It’s rare for a cake to be as delicious as it is beautiful - a repulsive layer of fondant often seems to be the price for elegance - but your chef exquisitely balanced the demands of the tongue and the eye. Please relay our compliments.

We’re especially glad to have received this token of your esteem because we know our next lesson is going to be hard to swallow. And that masticatory metaphor is intentional, President Snow, because if we had to pick one thing that worries us about your reign, it’s the food situation.

We know that in our last epistle we told you to focus on abstract concepts. But frankly, President Snow, we didn’t mean </i>you</i>. You should keep your people stuffed full of nonsense about freedom and glory, but you yourself need to keep your eyes always on nitty-gritty reality, and the nitty-gritty reality is that starving people are hopeless people - and therefore free people, people who have lost everything and are ripe for rebellion.

You’ve surely heard the phrase “bread and circuses”? You’ve got the circuses part down, but there’s a reason the bread is listed first. It’s hard to focus on even the most spectacular bloodbath at the circus when your stomach is so empty that it’s trying to eat your spleen.

Well-fed philosophers don’t spark revolts. It’s hardly even worth repressing them; that only brings attention to their work. No, it’s hungry women in bread lines that you need to watch out for, President Snow. Heed the examples of King Louis XVI and Tsar Nicholas II. No dictator can be called successful who ends up executed by his own subjects.

It’s not a bad idea to have a pair of listening ears at every bakery. Shoppers love to indulge a good grumble, and a good listener can become an invaluable barometer of social mood. When the mumbles turn to shouts, that’s a sign that the women have had enough, and you’re done for if you don’t ship in some bread pronto.

We suspect that you’ve kept your subjects hungry on the grounds that a hungry populace will be too tired and busy scouting for food to even think about revolt. This is true as far as it goes. But when the people get too hungry - when they reach the grim conclusion that there is nothing left but to watch their children starve to death - they’ll skip right over thinking about revolt to doing it.

By no means do we think that you should utterly reverse your policy and begin providing plentiful food year round. Keep the populace hungry. But don’t push them to the point of starvation. Ensure that even in their hungriest moments they always have a feast to look forward to - a feast that is, of course, provided by the bounteous generosity of the Capitol.

You know what would make the Hunger Games even better? Feasts. After seventy-five years it’s probably too late to rename the Hunger Games, but you can certainly change the associations people have with the name. No more mandatory standing in the village square, stomachs growling, staring sullenly at the screen. No! Now when people think of the Games, they’ll think of the one good time of the year when they aren’t hungry.

(We also strongly suggesting cultivating special seasonal Hunger Games dishes. For more information, please consider purchasing our expansion pack, Food as an Aid to Empire. Remember, There’s No Price Too Great for a Great Dictatorship! (™))

A supplementary feast when the victorious tribute visits each district may also be in order. An entire year between feasts is too taxing for both the human memory and the human stomach.

Here’s some next-level dictatorship for you: never mandate if you can make people do something of their own supposedly free will. Lay out vast feasts at the screenings of the Hunger Games, and the people will flock to watch. Their hungry children with demand it.

True, the viewers will be too busy chewing to notice some of the finer points of the games, but they’ll still get the highlights. Get them relaxed, let them drink a little beer (maybe a lot of beer), and their natural human propensity to root for their own and loathe their enemies will come out. Entice the people in with cakes and ale, and they won’t just be sullen bodies wishing they were somewhere else as they try not to watch the show. They’ll get engaged. They’ll get invested. They’ll become complicit.

Soon they’ll love the Games just as much as the denizens of the Capitol do - and for a far lower price tag, to boot. By all means, President Snow, let them eat cake.

Your replete friends,
The Society for Improved Dictatorship

This entry was originally posted at http://osprey-archer.dreamwidth.org/573035.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

Feb. 25th, 2017

books

Book Review: The Altars Where We Worship

The Altars Where We Worship: The Religious Significance of Popular Culture is about the way that various pop culture phenomenon - sports, beauty standards, TV - have become vehicles for meaning and purpose in our lives as more traditional religious guidelines have waved in importance.

This sounds like it might make a really interesting book, but in actual fact it's soooo boring. It's incredibly repetitive: the authors are clearly deeply concerned that we the readers may not buy that one could fruitfully apply the framework of religious studies to football fandom or rigorous adherence to beauty standards/strict quasi-religious health food crazes (paleo, anyone?), but you know, I was just willing to take that as a given.

And if I wasn't, I wouldn't have been convinced by mere repetition of the assertion that this framework is totally a useful way to study pop culture, without much in the way of concrete evidence to back it up. Surely a book about pop culture ought to quote pop cultural sources at least as much as it quotes Foucault?

The authors also commit themselves to taking a non-judgmental stance on all this, which sounds good in the abstract but is, as a reading experience, also super boring. I don't demand that they should have gone all fire and brimstone about it; it just seems to me that buildings one's life on the foundation stone of fulfilling modern beauty standards, for instance, is such a bad idea that it's hard to write about it fairly without pointing out, well, what a bad idea it is, because unless you are Tilda Swinton (and therefore possibly a vampire) it's going to bite you in the ass as you age and your everything begins to sag.

This entry was originally posted at http://osprey-archer.dreamwidth.org/572906.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

Feb. 22nd, 2017

books

Wednesday Reading Meme

What I’ve Finished Reading

I finished this year’s Newbery winner, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, which on paper sounds like exactly the sort of thing I should have like - there’s a dash of dystopia and a bit of magic and a little natural history and a very small dragon - but the thing glueing it all together was soppy sentimentality (did you know love is what makes the world go ‘round? Unless of course it’s hope!) and I just wasn’t feeling it.

However, I often prefer the Newbery Honor books to the winners themselves, so I’m excited about reading those over the course of the year.

Progress on the Unread Book Club: I finished Robin McKinley’s A Knot in the Grain, which I remained lukewarm about until the final story, which I quite liked. The first four stories in the collection take place in vaguely fairy-talish fantasy worlds, whereas the final story takes place in the real world, with just a subtle dollop of magic - chocolate sauce on the ice cream of the story, as it were.

And I felt a pleasant frisson of identification with the heroine, Annabelle, who copes with the stress of having her parents move her to a new town by rereading all her old fantasy favorites from childhood. This is exactly the sort of vaguely counterproductive thing I would have done had my parents uprooted me when I was sixteen. And I, like Annabelle, would absolutely have decided that a fellow teenager was worth befriending upon learning that one of her favorite books was The Borrowers.

What I’m Reading Now

I started Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno, on the grounds that I liked his Alice in Wonderland, only to swiftly discover that this is emphatically the wrong reason to read Sylvie and Bruno. The introduction informs me that Carroll labored for decades to ensure Sylvie and Bruno was not much like Alice at all; it attempts mightily to insist that this was all for the best and not an artistic failure at all, but I am not so sure.

What I Plan to Read Next

Mockingjay!

And the library is not going to get me The Origins of Totalitarianism swiftly enough for it to serve for my March reading challenge (“a book over 600 pages”), so I was going to fall back on Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but then I realized that I have the final Obernewtyn book sitting there staring at me right on my shelf and it’s over a thousand pages long and I really need to read that, so. Sorry, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I will read you someday!

This entry was originally posted at http://osprey-archer.dreamwidth.org/572470.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

Feb. 21st, 2017

kitty, Agents of SHIELD

I finished Catching Fire

To the soon-to-be-ex President Snow:

We wash our hands of you. Had you heeded our advice in our last urgent letter, your reign might yet have been saved, but instead you stubbornly continued down your wrong-headed path. Everything you’ve ever built is about to tumble down around you and we want you to know that it is 100% your fault.

The faults in your governing style are too manifold for us to enumerate them all in a single epistle, but in the end, they can all be boiled down to two words: Katniss Everdeen.

Spoilers for Catching FireCollapse )

We are ashamed that we allowed you to purchase our course. Your name is a blot on our list of alumni.

The Society for Improved Dictatorship

This entry was originally posted at http://osprey-archer.dreamwidth.org/572207.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

Feb. 20th, 2017

books

Caldecott Monday: Duffy and the Devil

Harve and Margot Zemach's Duffy and the Devil, the 1974 Caldecott winner, is another totally charming book. Young Duffy is hired as a maid to help with the spinning and knitting - except, alas, she can't spin! But fortunately, as she is sitting in the attic weeping dolefully over the "whillygogs and whizamagees" of the spinning wheel she has taken apart in a vain attempt to figure out how it works, the devil shows up and offers to do her spinning for her.

It's a twist on the Rumpelstiltskin tale, basically, except that instead of saving our heroine from an impossible task, the Rumpelstiltskin figure is just enabling her laziness. And it totally pays off for Duffy, too: the master of the house is so enchanted by the stockings she's supposedly knitted that he marries her, and then she spends most of her days dancing in the green "wearing satin gowns, and the best of silks and satins, and red-heeled shoes from France...frolicking away the time while the corn was grinding."

It also has a twist on the classic Rumpelstiltskin tale that I really liked: once the contract is broken (the long-suffering housekeeper finds the Devil's name for Duffy) all the devil's knitting vanishes into ashes. "All my work!" Duffy cries, not missing a trick. "Gone up in smoke! I swear I'll never knit another thing again!"

Which neatly solves the awkward problem of how to explain her sudden loss of knitting ability.

There's a sort of moral anarchy to the book - Duffy does all sorts of things that characters are often punished for (lies about her knitting attainments, makes a deal with the devil, whiles away the time dancing rather than working), but she's basically a decent person nonetheless and it all comes right for her in the end.

This entry was originally posted at http://osprey-archer.dreamwidth.org/572013.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

Feb. 19th, 2017

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How to Be a Better Dictator: Hope Is a Thing with Feathers

To the illustrious President Snow:

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

This proverb is a cornerstone of our thought here at the Society for Improved Dictatorship (SfID). It may seem a bit airy-fairy to a solid, plain-speaking, boots-on-the-ground dictator like yourself, but we assure you, it has a very practical application. It means that you must ensure that your people are always aware that they have something to lose.

And we’re not just talking about their lives. The human mind is a delicate mechanism that falls into thoughts of suicide at the slightest setback. There have been sad cases among your Hunger Games victors, have there not? And after they had everything they could ever want handed to them on a silver platter, too. Fame! Adulation! Endless luxury!

But in fact, President Snow, that’s what drove them to despair. They had everything they could imagine wanting, and they were still unhappy, so they lost the one thing that a dictator must ensure his people never lose: hope.

Hope is the cheapest possible method of social control. Unlike decent living standards or a strong police presence, it requires very little initial investment. In fact, it rewards low investment. In order to hope, all people need is to believe that their children’s lives will be better than theirs. If their lives are awful in the first place, then it takes very little improvement to keep that hope burning strong.

But when even that guttering flame is gone, anarchy ensues. When just one person loses hope, they commit suicide. This is awkward in the case of a public personage like a Hunger Games victor, but basically not important. But when whole legions of people lose hope together, they bind their suicidal urges into one great mass and become a rebellious army. Once the people have decided they want to die anyway, it becomes almost impossible to repress their rebellion without killing large numbers of them and creating an inconvenient dent in the labor force.

Repressing rebellion, therefore, is a matter of applying the carrot and the stick. We’re happy to say that you’ve got the stick part down, but the carrot could use some work. (It could, for instance, use some literal carrots. But more on that next week.)

The carrot, in this case, consists of hope. A dictator should always promote hope among his people. The more he’s forced to use the stick to keep potential rebels in line, the more ardently should his speeches paint shining visions of societal harmony and future happiness. A dictator must constantly point out that the glass is half full. In fact, a dictator ought to insist that the glass is fully full at all times. What do you mean, you think some of the water’s missing? How strange that you should see it that way.

Treat the pessimism of others as a sign of encroaching insanity. If you do this right, they will start to doubt their sanity all on their own. The most effective methods of repression are the ones the people begin to apply to themselves.

In your speeches, a brighter day is always dawning. The grass is always greener on the other side of the river. New vistas of happiness are always opening before us!

One word of caution. It is always better to focus these speeches on high-flying abstract principles. Talk about freedom, justice, equality, honor, glory, truth, hope, love - any word that an idealistic young idiot would consider an appropriate final word to shout from his scaffold, in fact. These are all empty signifiers. No one has ever eaten a freedom or been hit over the head with an equality.

Be more circumspect about lying about things that have an actual concrete existence. People will nod along to promises of “glory” and never stop to think what it means precisely. But they will notice instantly if the potato crop is supposedly record-breaking and yet they can’t find a fucking French fry anywhere. No one goes to their death with the word “Potato!” on their lips.

As much as we love the Hunger Games, we do have one concern about them. You, in your plain-spoken frankness, persist in referring to them as “punishment.” Can you imagine anyone shouting “punishment” as a final word of defiance before beheading? Absolutely not.

You could ease away from “punishment” to the warmer and fuzzier “justice,” but frankly we think that still puts too much emphasis on the Hunger Games’ beginnings in a failed rebellion. You don’t want to remind people of a rebellion, even a failed one. People are sheep. Indeed, people are lemmings. If they hear about someone else walking off a cliff, nothing will please them until they’ve walked off one too.

Stop talking about that long-ago rebellion. Don’t teach it in the schools. Let the people exercise their excellent capacity for forgetfulness. The Hunger Games are not a punishment at all. They’re an expression of the Capitol’s benevolence! They’re a shining opportunity for young people to bring glory and honor to their district - and, of course, to lift themselves out of abject poverty in the process.

But don’t trumpet that last part too loudly. Focusing on plain material benefits might make people start to wonder they’re stuck in abject poverty in the first place. It ought to be good form for Hunger Games contestants to fiercely deny any interest in the mere material benefits of winning - for everyone, in fact, to consider discussion of merely material questions like poverty to be in slightly poor taste.

Keep their eyes fixed on bright and shining abstractions; feed them on meaningless words like freedom. If you claim freedom and hope as your own, what will would-be rebels use to rally their troops?

Yours ever,
The Society for Improved Dictatorship

***

asakiyume's original donation to the ACLU will cover one more installment ("Bread and Circuses," in which the SfID reminds us all of the importance of the bread part); I've got a few more in the pipeline if anyone else wants to donate ($10 to the ACLU for an installment, email me a screenshot of your receipt, etc.)

Also possible plans for the SfID's Recommended Reading List. I can't decide if including The Screwtape Letters is too meta.

This entry was originally posted at http://osprey-archer.dreamwidth.org/571816.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

Feb. 18th, 2017

books

Book Review: My Life with Bob

I enjoyed Pamela Paul's My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, but in a much more low-key way than I was expecting. It's a memoir about Paul's reading life, which is a genre that ought to be larger in my opinion, although future practitioners ought to take Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris as their guide rather than My Life with Bob.

The problem with My Life with Bob, honestly, is that there's too much regular memoir here and not nearly enough detail about the books. I want my book memoirs like my food memoirs, rich in sensory detail. I want to feel sun-warmed peach juice dribbling off my skin; I want to catch my breath along with the author (who has become the reader again) as she races toward the ending of the second Hunger Games book, exhausted from giving birth but nonetheless so engrossed in the story that she picks it up again as soon as the baby's sleeping and all is quiet. Paul mentions this experience, but it's not vivid enough for me to feel it with her.

I want this even if I haven't read the book myself. Especially if I haven't read the book myself. I didn't come out of this book filled with the overwhelming urge to read any of the books it mentioned, which I think is really a sign of failure in a book-about-books.

Having said this, I think part of the problem is that the Venn diagram of our literary tastes only have a small area of overlap, and even that overlap is mostly illusory. Both Paul and I loved Anna Karenina, for instance, but Paul identified with Anna, whereas it didn't even occur to me that you could identify with Anna. Levin was clearly where it was at. You read the Anna sections because you have to in order to dive breathlessly into the next bit about Levin and Kitty.

This entry was originally posted at http://osprey-archer.dreamwidth.org/571564.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

Feb. 15th, 2017

books

Wednesday Reading Meme

What I’ve Just Finished Reading

I read Barbara Robinson’s The Best Halloween Ever, which I impulse-bought last week, and… I’m actually pretty sure I read this before, and totally forgot about it because it’s a totally forgettable book. OH SELF.

What I’m Reading Now

I got this year’s Newbery book, The Girl Who Drank the Moon! It seems promising so far! Admittedly, so far I’ve only read about five pages…

I’ve also gotten started a book from the Unread Book Club, Robin McKinley’s A Knot in the Grain, which is a collection of short stories that I have long owned and vaguely meant to read and never quite gotten around to because, honestly, I’ve never been that hot on either short stories or Robin McKinley. Or, I mean, I enjoy McKinley’s books - I have fond memories of both Beauty and Rose Daughter, say; but if you asked me to tell you which of those two Beauty and the Beast retellings was which, I’d be dead in the water. They don’t stick in my mind.

Although I will probably remember the Death of Marat dessert in Sunshine to my dying days. Also the cinnamon rolls that sold out every day, and Sunshine’s customers tried to bribe her to keep some behind the counter for them. Mmmmm.

Anyway! A Knot in the Grain is okay so far. The stories feel a bit insubstantial, which is the problem I often have with short stories: there’s not enough time to really get to know the characters or the world. Although so far they’ve all taken place in the same world as The Hero and the Crown (another McKinley book I’ve read but barely remember), which presumably helps if you do remember it.

What I Plan to Read Next

I was planning to read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell for my next reading challenge (“a book over 600 pages long”), but I might change that to Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism if the library gets it to me in time. It seems everyone else has decided 2017 is a good time to read that book, too.

This entry was originally posted at http://osprey-archer.dreamwidth.org/571175.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

Feb. 14th, 2017

kitty, Agents of SHIELD

An urgent dispatch to President Snow

To the illustrious President Snow:

We here at the Society for Improved Dictatorship have read part two of Catching Fire received news of your latest innovation in the Hunger Games, and we grew so alarmed that we had no choice but to send this urgent communique.

Spoilers for Catching FireCollapse )

Please forgive us for speaking bluntly. We would hate to see your promising dictatorship come to the ignoble end, especially when it is so easily avoided because it is entirely of your own making. Katniss Everdeen may be annoying, but we assure you, President Snow, she is a spark that will soon flicker out if you don’t fan the flames.

Can you encourage her to follow her mentor Haymitch’s sterling example into an alcohol addiction? A drunken tumble off the stage will make her infinitely less inspiring. And given her family history of depression, doubtless the alcohol (aided perhaps by some other depressant drugs) will send her into a crushing nervous breakdown. Peeta’s adoring support for his fragile wreck of a partner would make a touching continuation to their love story, don’t you think?

Also, please do not behead our messenger. Good messengers are hard to find. We’re sure you understand.

Your concerned friends,
The Society for Improved Dictatorship

***

(Because a couple of people asked last entry: Yes! I am still doing fics for $10+ ACLU donations, so if you'd like to sponsor a dispatch from The Society for Improved Dictatorship, just email me a screenshot of your donation receipt. I'll PM you my email if you need it. We've reached $430! Go us! Let's trek on to the wilds of $500!)

This entry was originally posted at http://osprey-archer.dreamwidth.org/571020.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

Feb. 13th, 2017

books

Caldecott Monday: The Funny Little Woman

Arlene Mosel's The Funny Little Woman is a retelling of a Japanese folktale about a woman who chases a rice dumpling down a hole, only to follow it right into the realm of the oni, toothy monsters who make her into their cook. She loves cooking, so she sticks around for a while, but eventually she gets tired of cooking for oni all day and flees back to the surface, taking the oni's magic rice paddle with her.

I liked this book a lot. The illustrations are delicately beautiful: I particularly liked the golden weeping willow trees and the glowing green caves where the oni live. And I really enjoyed the story - there's something Alice in Wonderland about it, isn't there? I suspect that it's a case of convergent evolution in storytelling: different cultures come up with stories about going into holes in the ground and finding brave new worlds, because who doesn't suspect that holes in the ground might hide something rich and strange?

The funny little woman herself is a bit Alice-y in her ability to remain mostly unphased by the bizarreness that surrounds her. She stays with the oni for a while because why not, but when she starts to miss her little house up in the sunshine, it's see ya, oni.

This entry was originally posted at http://osprey-archer.dreamwidth.org/570682.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

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