Upon the Death of Borders

This week Borders Bookstores began a massive chapter 11 restructuring program to staunch the bleeding of cash in their company.  They’ll be closing down 30% of their retail stores nationwide, and that has a real effect on people.  But this is part of a much larger trend that we need to really look at.

Small and specialty bookstores in this economy have not been able to keep pace with the big box stores.  A single quarter of low revenue could spell death for a small bookstore.  That’s what drove my small endeavor into closure, people just weren’t buying, and we couldn’t afford to keep shelling out the cash from our own pockets to try to make it happen.  That’s what happened with Lambda Rising as well.  Property tax rising in Dupont Circle, low sales, and high overhead killed it.  Sure, not all small bookstores have gone under, as we can see in this great article from Slate about the 57th Street Bookstore in Chicago.  Also, local shops in DC like Politics and Prose and Kramerbooks & Afterwards have held up resiliently against the big box stores.  Mostly, I think because they are mid-sized, and able to handle the economy of scale a little bit better than the specialty stores like Lambda Rising.

Similarly, public libraries are undergoing a serious crisis in funding.  As all government agencies are hit by the downturn in the economy, via loss of tax revenues, public libraries are on the chopping block.  Some systems are closing in their entirety, some partially, many are reducing hours, some are letting people go, and others are furloughing employees.

With libraries falling apart, small bookstores clinging to life, and big box stores going under, what we’re really looking at here is an information crisis.  Many people rely on the availability of these locations to learn something new. And where the books don’t go, most all of these venues provide Wi-Fi in addition to their printed literature.

Not everyone has the luxury of a public library.  And even if they do, the public library can’t provide access to kind of volume of literature you could find at a big box store.  And when you want to go deeper, the big box store can’t hold a candle to the specialty store.

With the loss of Lambda Rising in Washington the LGBT community lost a huge wealth of information resources that was irreplaceable.  Even buying gay books through Amazon can’t compare to the experience of browsing shelves filled with queer theory, lesbian erotica, cultural studies and just plain old gay literature.  It was astounding.  Nothing like it exists outside of a university or perhaps an LGBT institute or non-profit organization.  Around the time of the store closing, the owner offhandedly commented that people could find these kinds of works at the big box stores, or on the internet.  Sadly, that was just not the case.  The average Barnes and Noble will have probably one single book case (6 shelves) dedicated to gay and lesbian books.  About half of those are erotica.  When Lambda Rising was open, there were three different stores, and the flagship store in Dupont Circle had about 70 bookcases, a video wall, a magazine section, and not to mention the other rainbow patterned accoutrements of the scene.  There is no comparison.  Similarly the public library has a paucity of gay and lesbian literature.  Though it is all integrated into an organizational system that obscures the focus so as not to appear biased toward any particular topic or viewpoint.  In my own library I would say that we have a similar amount of LGBT literature, but it’s not as readily identifiable as it is in the big box store.

With Borders going under we find ourselves starting to go adrift.  If the big box store was supposed to be our solution to finding those niche items we wanted to find, or wanted to discover in the browsing behavior we’ve adopted, what do we do when the big box store is no more?  The problem with Borders failing, is that, for some, Borders may have been the only resource they had left.  Having grown up in a rural community, the public library was a lifeline to learning about things I would have never learned in school.  Similarly, bookstores at the mall were the nearest thing I had to go beyond what the library was able to provide.  Suburban malls were the gateway for rural kids like me to expand my world.  My parents never wanted to take me into the city, because they feared for their lives.  I laugh at it now, but it was truly the case.  Under no circumstances would my parents take me to the city.  The furthest afield we adventured was the Eastgate Mall.  And I was a bookstore fiend.  I would spend hours upon hours browsing the shelves and soaking it in.  It’s a practice I still have.  But what happens to those kids now who no longer have access to the big box store?  The culture of mall shopping, and of suburbia really, has been dying a slow langurous death for decades now.  Where will they be able to reach out to stumble across that book that speaks to that secret place in their soul?  The library is about all that’s left there.

For the last four years or so, library funding has been going downhill.  As goes the economy, so go we.  Libraries have had to do a whole host of things to try and weather the economic downturn, as I mentioned above.  So measures are taken.  Collections budgets grow tighter, staffing slims down to emaciated levels, hours are reduced, and sometimes, sadly, branches are closed.  Then children grow up in an information vacuum.

When we close these physical places, we begin setting physical impediments to information.  If a child grows up without a public library or without a mall bookstore, chances are they won’t even have internet access except maybe at school.  And schools are notorious internet filtering bastards.  That child is going to grow up being fed only what his family, the television and the school allows him.  What kind of mind does that produce?  Will that child be ready to go to college?  Or will he be complacent, want to stay where he is, and not care to strive to do anything more?

This concerns me.

Maybe I shouldn’t be worried.  Maybe the internet will wind up saving us all.  Maybe the economy will turn around and mid-size bookstores will open, the specialty shop will flourish and all shall be well.  Maybe other bookstores will be deemed “too big to fail” and there will be government bailouts to help save the minds of generations to come.  Or maybe not.


Is the Robot Uprising a “New Myth?”

I ran across this article on NPR today, as people are pondering what it means to have a robot contestant on Jeopardy! and how that taps into what appears to be a “new myth” of the Robot Uprising.  I sat there thinking, this isn’t a new myth?  It’s composite pieces of several mythologies woven together in a way that taps into our modern sensibilities and fears.  Let’s take a look at some of the pieces and see what happens.

Crafted Objects Awakening

If you think about it, all of mythology is about things that were crafted gaining a life of their own.  The story of Genesis is that all of humanity was formed out of clay and God breathed life into us.  Hesiod tells the same in the story of Deucalion throwing stones over his shoulder and humans springing up.  But the most direct correlation to a human crafted object awakening is the myth of the Golem.  The Golem builds directly onto the Genesis myth, and takes it a step further where a human creator fashions new life from clay.  The creature is activated, and moves around, and may even look like a human being.  But he is nothing but dust in the end, as are we all.  There is really very little difference between a Golem, Pinocchio, and a Terminator.  They are all crafted beings who awaken and have plans of their own.

Machines Lead Us To Our Demise

The father of invention, Daedalus, is the prime example of how machines can both save and destroy us.  We only have to look to the tragic death of Icarus to realize that. But let’s start with an invention that started the tragedy in the first place: The Bull Suit.  Queen Pasiphae was enamoured of a particular bull in her husband’s stable.  Being the kind of woman she was she asked Daedalus to craft a mechanism by which the Bull would be able to mate with her. He did, she did, and blam she got pregnant with the Minotaur.  So King Minos, shamed and abhorred asked Daedalus to craft an unbeatable maze to put the creature in so that no one would ever see the shame that his wife had brought on them.  So Daedalus crafted the labyrinth.  And Minos, for good measure, decided that, since Daedalus and his son Icarus were both in the know about the horror that was the Minotaur, the best course of action would be to throw them into the labyrinth first and block the only escape.  Daedalus, being crafty, gathered up all of the feathers from the birds that the Minotaur had been eating and some wax, from who knows where and made some kickass wings.  So Daedalus and Icarus flew out of the Labyrinth, but Icarus, taken with the experience of flying just kept going higher and higher until the sun began to melt his wings and he fell, unable to control his descent, and crashed into the Icarian Sea.

Each machine in the story of Daedalus leads to further and further problems. However, it was the humans though who put them to use, and used them in twisted ways that brought about their misfortunes.  HAL is the perfect example of this.  HAL was meant to run the space station in 2001, but because it had a conflicting piece of programming it destroyed everyone aboard the ship except Dave.  The programmer thought that this was the right course of action, but he never unstood the consequences of what this might have done to the people aboard the ship.

Sarah Connor and Cassandra

Often times there are those who know that the robot uprising is coming.  The doomsayers and prophets, mad women who try in vain to tell people that they know disaster is around the corner, only to be dismissed by those who seem to know better.  The prime mythic example of this character is Cassandra.  Daughter of Priam and Hecuba, King and Queen of Troy, was beloved by Apollo.  Apollo gave her the gift of prophecy, as he did with many women through his temple at Delphi.  However, she did not return his love and became cursed.  She would always speak the truth, and no one would believe her.  Cassandra saw the coming destruction of Troy.  She knew that the Greeks would raze the city to the ground, and she tried to tell everyone.  Her own mother and father dismissed her thinking she was overcome with emotion and sent her away.  Even on the fateful evening when they brought the Horse into the gates of the city she wailed and cried and tried to stop them.  But all to know avail.  The Greeks poured through the city, murdering and pillaging the city to bring Helen back to Menelaus.  In the Robot Uprising myth Sarah Connor is our Cassandra.  In T2, we see that she has been committed to an asylum for trying to espouse these ridiculous fantasies about the killing machines from the future.  No one in their right mind would believe such a thing.  But the robots, like the Greeks, do come.  The psychiatrist who has been monitoring Sarah all these many years, who separated her from her son (the chosen one), comes face to face with a Terminator in his very hospital.

The Attack of the Other

This one is almost too easy.  Mythology is built on succession, often times from invasions of outsiders.  The Irish myths and legends talk of the Fir Bolg being invaded by the Tuatha de Danaan, then the Danaan being invaded by the Milesians.  Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane looked at how tribal societies develop mythologies of monsters outside the realm of the village.  The entire rest of the world becomes an unknown.  In contemporary society we see this othering in xenophobia toward foreign cultures, but the reality is that most of the rest of the world is basically a known quantity.  There are really only two areas where human minds can’t make sense: the far reaches of space, and the minds of artificial life forms.  Stories of alien invasions like War of the Worlds are tapping into the same vein as The Terminator.  This is a mind that we cannot understand.  All that we know is that it seeks to destroy us and our way of living.  Part of the insidiousness of the new Battlestar Galactica series was that the Cylons were nearly indistinguishable from humans.  In a world where you cannot distinguish The Other from your own people the threat is all the more dangerous (mythically speaking).

Robot Uprising as Class Warfare

The fear of the robot uprising is that a creature we have made decides that we must be destroyed.  More than anything this sounds to me like fear of a class struggle.  Robots, built to be servants to humans and do the work we have since decided no longer needs to be done with human hands, decide to rise up against their masters.  This is really the story of the slave revolt.  SkyNet is Spartacus, leading a long and bloody war against those who sought to oppress him or to casually end his life.  Spartacus, a trained gladiator, was an actual person, not a myth.  He led a slave revolt across the Roman Empire to quash the rule of the decadent Roman elite who would use people as property and sport.  These types of turnovers in society were extremely common.  The modern vestiges of slave revolts now are probably union strikes.

Though the story of the uprising also speaks to another mythic tendency, the overthrow of the Gods.  In the Theogony we learn about the different generations of the gods, from the primal forces, to the Titans, to the Olympians.  The children of each generation, rising up against the former generation and putting an end to barbaric practices.  When we create robots, in a sense we become Gods ourselves.  Our creations are stronger, smarter, more powerful than we could ever be.  We fear that we will be cut down like the Titans, and a new Olympus will rise in our place.

Utter Destruction

With the robot uprising comes the complete collapse of civilization.  Humanity is destroyed or hunted down to near extinction and the world becomes a desolate wasteland of metal and debris.  Annihilation myths are certainly nothing new.  The flood in Genesis, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Ragnarok, the ravage of war in the Revelation of John, the list goes on and on.  Humans have survived eons on this world, and as evolutionary being we have been working our way through all sorts of environmental and social hells.  But our biggest fear, the fear of death, is always there.  We know that we are mortal and we fear for ourselves being erased from existence.  Sometimes the myth is an asteroid creating a toxic cloud, somtimes it’s an ice age or a flood, and sometimes it is a hell of our own making.

Wherein I Explain “Blood Libel” with a Song

While I know the expiration date on talking about Sarah Palin’s abhorrent comment after the Tucson Shooting has long since passed, I ran across what is probably the best didactic resource on the topic the other day and just had to share.

Quck recap for those living under a rock: Sarah Palin used the phrase “Blood Libel” a) in a context where it made no sense (go figure) and b) betrayed her ignorance of the topic entirely (again, big surprise).

So, what is “Blood Libel” anyway?  Let’s break it down.  Libel is when you start a malicious lie about someone, in the context of this phrase it was about the Jewish people.  The Blood part specifically refers to the blood of gentiles, and specifically gentile children.  Blood Libel refers to a medieval urban legend where it was believed that Jews would kidnap gentile children and sacrifice them to their bloodthirsty God. Never mind the fact that the God of the Christians and the God of the Jews is one and the same.  This legend persisted and spawned all kinds of pogroms against Jews repeatedly over the course of the middle ages and early modern period.

And as all things medieval and early modern is was also captured in song.

While I was researching the Child Ballads, a set of historical English balladry, and listening to Pandora stations of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span I ran across this song Little Sir Hugh.  At first I thought it was just another murder ballad about some horrible woman who kills a child, but no, this was explicitly a song about Blood Libel.  So, let me share the salient story line points and verses with some explanations so that we can all have a perfectly clear picture of what is entailed when someone uses this phrase.  The lyrics I will use here are the whitewashed version by Steeleye Span. Though the horrifying racist versions are all available on Wikisource.

The song opens up on a scene of boys playing kickball.  This is a common image of childhood innocence.  Little Sir Hugh joins in the fray and starts kicking the ball.

He kicked the ball very high
He kicked the ball so long
He kicked it over a castle wall
Where no one dared to go

The “castle wall” here is probably the common Shtetl wall you would find in medieval cities that separated the Jewish district from the rest of the city. Though that’s speculation on my part.

Out came a lady gay
She was dressed in green
“Come in, Come in Little Sir Hugh
Fetch your ball again.”

“I can’t come in, I won’t come in
Without my playmates all.
For if I should, I know you would
Cause my blood to flow.”

Again, because this is the publicly safe version to sing no mention is made of her ethnicity though in the Child Ballads she is sometimes explicitly referred to as the “Jew’s Daughter.”  More importantly here’s where we have to explain that “little sir Hugh” was one of those miraculous Christian children who supposedly had some kind of precognition. That or he’d heard the urban legend and was repeating it child-like back to her face.  But let’s get to the killing already.

She took him by the milk white hand
Led him through the hall
‘Til they came to a stone table
Where no one could hear him call

She sat him on a golden chair
She gave him sugar sweet
She laid him on a dressing board
And stabbed him like a sheep

He called it.  But again, there was something saintly about him.  He was stabbed like a sheep, the lamb of God.  Part of the thing about blood libel is that it has a sort of fucked up biblical origin.  Certain Christians have never gotten over the crucifixion.  Hell, look at Mel Gibson’s Passon of the Christ and you can see just how much he hates the Jews for killing Jesus.  Again, nevermind the fact that there’s supposedly a reason for the sacrifice of Christ, and that it was God’s plan all along.  The simple fact that the Jews turned  him over to be crucified and that they “screamed for his blood” means that Jews are supposedly this bloodthirsty vengeful people.  On a slight tangent I would also like to point out that there’s something in this line that reminds me of the White Witch of Narnia giving young Edward Turkish Delights, and the witch in the woods with her Gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel.  Onto the rest.

Out came the thick thick blood
Out came the thin
Out came the bonny heart’s blood
‘Til there was none within

She took him by the yellow hair
And also by the feet
She threw him in at the old North Well
Fifty fathoms deep

So she drained the child dry.  No explanation as to why, she just did.  Then she throws him in a well.  This is another one of those common medieval urban legends: the well poisoner.  Because well water was commonly shared among multiple households in medieval villages the threat of someone poisoning the water supply was very serious.  Any outbreak of sickness or plague often resulted in accusations of well poisoning and the brunt of those accusations fell on people who didn’t fit into the common village society, i.e., Jews, foreigners, “witches,” etc. Xenophobia leads to accusations and hate crimes.

Finally the chorus.

Mother, Mother, Make my bed
Make for me a winding sheet
Wrap me up in a cloak of gold
To see if I can sleep

Part of the rest of the story is that the spirit of Sir Hugh appears to his mother.  His ghost is in a little cherubic form (as cherubs are the spirits of dead children), and he explains to her that he is dead.  The cloak of gold is a burial shroud.  In some of the variant texts the ghost child actually leads the mother to the well and the body of the boy is retrieved.

It’s never really said what happened to the Jews in the song.  All we see are the actions.  I think it would be safe to assume that if this song was sung in a Christian town that it could lead to inciting anger and violence against Jewish people.  The fact that the Jews were driven out of England in about the same time as this song was originally written and that they weren’t allowed back into the country until the 17th century says something.

For more on blood libel check out The Prioresses Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.