Newsletter 1

Can Reading Make A Difference?

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James Wallace Harris

Staff Writer

James Wallace Harris is a retired computer guy. Jim dreamed of writing science fiction in his social security years, but discovered he loved writing essays more. Life is short and novels are long. He’s written over a thousand essays for his blog Auxiliary Memory. Jim wrote about science fiction for SF Signal before it folded, and now for Worlds Without End. BookRiot gives him the opportunity to write about all the other kinds of books he loves. Finally, he has all the time in the world to read and write, but he never forgets poor Henry Bemis. (Who also found time enough at last, until an evil Twilight Zone fate took it all away.) Twitter: @JimHarris28

Would Donald Trump have won the election if everyone in America had read Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein and Sex Object by Jessica Valenti? Can reading make a difference? Would more Americans embrace Black Lives Matter if they read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates or the March trilogy by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin? The ultimate lesson of 2016 shows we exist in a polarized political hellhole because we don’t see each other’s reality. Would the U.S. be less polarized if we all read widely about people not like ourselves? And to be fair, I’ve listed books liberals embrace. Are liberals willing to read books conservatives favor to depolarize the country?

During the past year, I’ve read many essays that pleaded with Trump to read books about important issues, but it seems that won’t happen. Allen Barra at The Daily Beast wrote “The Best and Worst Presidential Memoirs” where he said, “Donald Trump’s name as author or co-author is on more than 30 volumes, which makes him, in all probability, the first American president to have written more books than he has read.” Much of what Trump tweets suggest he’s no bookworm.

This reminds me of an old joke, “Conservatives are liberals who have been mugged.” I’d like to believe “Some liberals were conservatives who became bookworms.” I have to wonder if those Republicans who want to do away with the Department of Education secretly know reading leads to liberalism. Of course, conservatives do read books, even ones not written by Ann Coulter or Bill O’Reilly.

The problem with us liberals is we believe that evidence is on our side and if conservatives would just study the consensus of scientific research they would change their minds. Well, after billions of words written about climate change, I consider that theory shot down.

Robert Reich wrote, “The Life of the Party: 7 Truths for Democrats” on inauguration day which also points to the even more dreary “Democrats in the Wilderness” by Edward-Isaac Dovere. What these two essays reveal is if we want to keep fighting for our causes we need to read fewer fantasies and more nonfiction. In 2008 and 2012 many pundits predicted the end of the Republican party. We know they were wrong. And pundits writing about Democrats today will be wrong too. Conservatives have been mobilizing for decades to get where they are today. Just read Dark Money by Jane Mayer.

But Trump’s success was an unexpected windfall for Republicans. Most Democrats and Republicans are diehards – both will vote for a yellow dog if that’s all they got. It’s the independent voters that swing back and forth. Independents caused this current situation. This is where liberals need to be reading. And these are the people we need to get to read liberal books.

A great example of this is “I Spent 5 Years with Some of Trump’s Biggest Fans. Here’s What They Won’t Tell You” by Arlie Russell Hochschild in Mother Jones, excerpted from her new book, Strangers in Their Own Land. Hochschild is a sociologist that studies emotions and beliefs, and her essay goes a long way to answering why 53% of white women voted for Trump. Hochschild profiles Sharon Galicia to clearly make her point. Her essay is long but very worth reading. Hochschild has developed a little story she shows her subjects that reflect their conservative beliefs. I hope it’s okay to quote because I believe it will make you understand the people we need to reach:

“You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black—beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side. In fact, isn’t he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.”

This must be a near perfect verbal Rorschach test for revealing conservative emotions because all conservatives I know constantly complains to me in this way. Hochschild says her subjects resonate deeply with this story. I consider it such a nasty idea that I hate to quote, but it’s exactly the concept that’s blocking liberal progress. I’m a bookworm, and I believe in reading. But is reading enough to get everyone to want equality for all? I think all the answers already exist, it’s just a matter of getting enough people to discover them by reading. I might be naive. We thought logic was behind Hillary.

Would Sharon Galicia have voted for Trump if she had read Girls & Sex and Sex Object? Or does all economic issues override issues of equality with Trump voters? I normally read books about feminism, racism, climate change, overpopulation, automation, mass extinction, wealth inequality, but these issues may not matter if society can’t solve the core problems of Trump supporters. Trump voters aren’t all against liberal causes, but this is where they’ve drawn the line in the sand. I’m not sure Trump and Republicans will even help them. I’m confident they will use their windfall to just take what they want – money. For example, repealing Obamacare is really just a tax cut for the rich.

But this puts liberals in a strange position. We must win back the independents by solving their problems. And there’s no guarantee they will reciprocate the favor by supporting our causes. Liberals will need to read everything they can to find economic solutions for Democrats to push. This is why I read about wealth inequality and automation. The future is about the choice between giving jobs to people or machines. The rich will make more money if they can pick machines. And that’s not Trump voters want. Maybe we can make a deal.