Two new nonfiction books put these challenging times in perspective—one by looking to America’s history, the other by grimly considering the world’s future. Both offer much to think about and offer advice, of a sort, for how to live now.
Resistance by Jeff Biggers
Iowa City author Jeff Biggers takes readers on a brisk trip through American history in Resistance: Reclaiming an American Tradition. Biggers positions contemporary resistance movements in America in the larger context of resistance efforts that have reshaped the country time and again—dating back to, and even before, the Revolutionary War.
Biggers makes no secret of the goad that drove him to write Resistance. In the first chapter, “Let Us Now Praise Resistance,” he writes:
Notably, the language of Trump’s America First narrative—with his emphasis on always being first, the best, the biggest, regardless of the facts—reflected [Thomas] Paine’s warning of ‘brutish’ leadership, which now took form in a new world of social media. Trump commanded the whiplash barrages of 140–280 characters on Twitter, casting aspersions, insults, threats, and misleading statements at all hours of the day and night, as if issued from a throne to a hall of sycophantic minions.
Even if one rejects that characterization of the president’s policies and behavior, Biggers offers much to reflect upon as he traces the path of resistance movements through time. Many of the stops along the way will give pause to all but the most fervent of believers in American virtue. He lingers, for example, over George Washington’s near obsession with a runaway slave, a young woman he never stopped trying to recapture.
Throughout Resistance, Biggers connects historical moments with present-day issues and actions. In the process, he reveals the dynamic, complicated nature of our shared history and the people and movements that have overcome—or still struggle against—injustice and prejudice in America.
We’re Doomed. Now What? by Roy Scranton
If the end of the world is in the offing, what constitutes an ethical life? Roy Scranton considers this question in We’re Doomed. Now What? The collection of essays grapples with the dehumanizing effects of modern warfare and the destructive impact of climate change, arguing that, in the case of the latter, the moment of no return has passed.
We imagine ourselves at the precipice, again and again and yet again, then return to business as usual, the status quo of buying and selling, driving, flying, we’ll have the Wagyu beef, we’ll have the pork belly, we’ll turn up the heat or the lights or the AC, we have a conference to go to, we have business in Palo Alto, Dubai, Cambridge. We imagine each new shock is the real crisis, and a few months later convince ourselves that the fight still goes on.
Scranton explicitly includes himself in this “we,” and in doing so he avoids taking the tone of a scold. His interest is in how we can and should live now when options for the future of humanity have been, in his view, severely foreshortened. Through the very act of grappling with it in essays of varying styles and tones, Scranton creates some room to move, suggesting we still have ethical choices to make and that those choices are not devoid of meaning.
Scranton’s account of his time in Iraq as a member of the military powerfully describes the horror of war as well as the sometimes irresistible pull of military service for those looking to prove something to themselves or others—or who are on a quest for a “real” experience.
Taken together, these essays—dark, often beautiful, frequently scholarly, always gripping—seek to accurately describe things we might prefer not be described. The work is difficult, noble in intention, and brilliant in execution.