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Collective Action: an interview with Cory Doctorow, author of ‘Radicalized’

The ‘Radicalized’ author talks healthcare, collective trauma and Superman.

A few weeks ago, we reviewed Radicalized, a fantastic collection of four stories from author Cory Doctorow about the extreme measures that people (or a certain Kryptonian) will take to push back against extreme forms of oppression or circumstance.

Recently, I had the chance to speak with Mr. Doctorow about what inspired these tales as well as what some of the real world parallels they were inspired from.

There will also be spoilers for the various stories in Radicalized (especially Model Minority), so make sure you’ve already them first…which you really should have already.

AiPT!: Every story in Radicalized is great, but Model Minority really stood out to me, mostly because it was one of the best and most uniquely structured Superman stories I’ve ever read. What was your approach going into it to make Model Minority different than what has come before it?

Cory Doctorow: Humans have always been portrayed as his Achilles heel, but I think there’s an even deeper [issue] for Superman that goes back to his origins as a character. He was created by Jewish men in Brooklyn who were horrified about the rise of Nazism across the Atlantic. They wanted to build an immortal and unstoppable hero who could conceivably punch Nazis until they…well, stopped being Nazis!

But the actual answer to Nazis in Europe — although there were many brave individuals — was in no way an individual action. In fact, the answer was the largest collective action in the history of the world.

For reason both noble and base, I think we like to frame big fights as a struggle between individuals. The heroic individual who was at the right place at the right time and makes the sacrifice that makes things happen. Humanitarian movements definitely cultivate this.

Rosa Parks gets a lot of press as a solitary hero for her bus protest during the Civil Rights movement. But she was actually a community organizer who—along with her colleagues—planned out a strategy to get her arrested so that a case would be keyed up with a certain set of legal consequences that would be easier to argue in court and play into existing precedencies. If Rosa Parks had merely been a lone individual who was brave enough to refuse to give up her seat, she likely would have died in jail. It’s because she was part of a huge collective that she was able to have such a huge impact.

That’s what Model Minority really tries to dig into—the limits of individual action and the importance of collective action. Our perception of the individual as the driving force for change (rather than the collective) is something that still has a paralyzing effect on society’s willingness to confront its own issues. Look at climate change. It’s not happening because you didn’t recycle enough. But chances are (if you live in a city) that your biggest contribution to climate change is probably your commute. But you can’t dig a subway— Elon Musk can’t do that. And if even you could, you couldn’t rezone all the buildings for it to work. It would have to be a collective action.

AiPT!: Aside from Model Minority, the rest of the stories in Radicalized had a very near-future, Black Mirror-esque feel. Do you see the technology and events that took place as things we will see in the next few years?

Doctorow: I’m not a believer in the ability of science fiction to predict the future because I’m not a believer in predictable futures. That’s one of the big differences between an activist and a futurist. Activists believe that the future changes based on what we do. If the future were predictable, there’d be no reason to bring forth an event to create change.

The model of these stories is to show that the future can be great if we just don’t f*ck it up. The thing that drives a story like Unauthorized Bread is not merely that it shows how technological oppression takes place. It also shows how technical liberation takes place. People put a lot of emphasis on what technology does, but often overlook who it does those things for and who it does those things to. Often times that’s way more important.

Masque of Red Death was inspired in part by Doug Rushkoff’s story where he spoke to a bunch of hedge fund managers about their doomsday bunkers. They were trying to figure out how to make their bunkers sustainable after the apocalypse, but what worried them in particular was that their guards would kill them and take their food. One of the solutions they came up with were biometric food lockers that would only open for them. Once again, the issue isn’t what the technology does, but who has their finger on the button controlling it.

Going back to Model Minority, we have these predictive policing tools like the one Bruce sold to the NYPD. In reality, those tools are super racist. Patrick Ball, who runs the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, took PredPol (which is a major predictive policing tool) and gave it 2016 policing data from Oakland. He then asked it to provide where it predicted the most drug crime would be in 2017. He was then able to compare its predictions to the NIH survey about drug usage.

Predpol predicted that all of the drug crime was going to take place in black neighborhoods, which follows the police pattern that created its training data. If you’re only asking black people to turn out their pockets to look for drugs, then you all the drugs you find are going to be in black people’s pockets. According to the NIH data, however, illegal drug usage was pretty much even across the entire area among all demographics.

Now think about this: Instead of unfairly targeting a group of people, you could potentially use the exact same technology and data provided by PredPol (compared with the NIH data) to determine if policing patterns are racially biased. It’s all about whose finger is on the button.

AiPT!: Do you see the crisis on America’s southern border as a potential breaking point for people to become radicalized on both sides of the issue?

Doctorow: As a Canadian, I am somewhat baffled by both the American relationship to guns and the American relationship to healthcare. Every country has blind spots—when I lived in England, I couldn’t believe a country that managed to conquer the world still hadn’t figured out plumbing.

But America’s blind spots are pretty weird. The fact that they can’t do something every other country in the world has figured out is pretty baffling. It also spawns another weird question: Why is it that frustrated white dudes routinely shoot up mosques or kill their ex-wives, but don’t murder the healthcare executives who doom the people they love most in the world to die a slow, painful death? The pat answer would be that those executives are protected by a large amount of wealth and power. It’s much easier to punch down than punch up.

The other thing that Radicalized tries to do is to rebut our dominant model of radicalization, which is the contagion model. The idea with that model is there are a lot of people out there with very bad and dangerous ideas. If you get exposed to those ideas, then you will have the ideas too and go do bad and dangerous things.

But there’s not a lot of evidence to support that. Boston University did a study on the history of suicide bombers in the occupied territory in the West Bank. What they found was the biggest predictor of whether someone became radicalized was not ideology or a commitment to violence—it was if they were already suicidally depressed.

That trauma model—where people who are traumatized become much more susceptible/vulnerable to people with bad ideas—is a much truer account of what goes on in radicalization. It suggests that what we really need to be doing is reducing the amount of trauma as opposed to the exposure of people to bad ideas.

AiPT!: Where do you see that model at work in the current global landscape?

Doctorow: I feel like the people who are fighting it are being affected by racism that has been compounded by trauma. We’ve had 40 years of tightening belts and shifts in wealth from the middle to the wealthy. This has produced a large group of people who are traumatized and ready to be radicalized by difficult circumstances.

This about it this way: You think you have a secure chair at the table. Then someone announces “Actually, it’s not your chair. It’s musical chairs and at the end of the every turn, we’re going to decide whether or not you get one. Oh, and by the way, we’re going to let a bunch of people who have never had a chair compete for the chairs, as well…and we’re going to take away chairs at a faster than any in point in human history.”

Not sure there’s an appropriate song for this game…

When you consider that framework, it’s not a surprise that people can become racist, xenophobic a------s. It doesn’t exonerate or excuse them, obviously, but it does help explain it.

The arguments anti-vaxxers make today aren’t any better or more informed than they used to be. It was a stupid argument then and it’s a stupid argument now. Same with flat eartherism. What changes are the material circumstances of the people who believe the arguments. When you look at the rise of authoritarian movements throughout history, they almost always follow some sort of collective trauma.

Another source of trauma for people is that despite the wealth of information at our fingertips, there is a collective inability to trust it. There so many different sources of information that it becomes impossible to adjudicate them all, which forces you to defer to whomever is deemed the expert…or whoever shouts their information the loudest. That’s part of the reason you can have the FDA saying for 15 years that opioids were safe. Even the government can’t be trusted as a source. This leads to people often times finding someone who “feels” like someone they can trust whether they are credible or not—and you just believe whatever they tell you.

AiPT!: Moving onto something a little more light-hearted: Is Superman (or any other character in the DC Universe) someone you’d like to revisit in the future?

Doctorow: Honestly, I didn’t really always want to write Superman. In this instance, Superman was simply the right metaphor for the bigger question about individual and collective action and being an ally.

Speaking as someone whose father was a Jewish immigrant refugee to Canada, it was odd to see how he was initially treated as a racialized minority, but later “became” white. It showed me how whiteness is socially constructed—and how the last people on the whiteness boat are usually the first ones to get kicked off. In Charlotte, we had people chanting “Jews will not replace us,” but there are still conservative Jews (including within my own family) who treat white supremacy as a small price to pay as support for Israel and other portions of the GOP agenda.

One thing I wanted to draw attention to in Model Minority is that Superman’s whiteness (and humanity) is assigned to him as a courtesy. It is entirely contingent on his support of the establishment, who can withdraw it at a moment’s notice. It also shows the difficulty of allyship. No matter what you go through to help others, your struggle will pale in comparison to the ones without your privilege who you’re trying to help. Just like when Superman was asked “Where were you for the last 100 years,” you might have to confront the fact that you were previously a part of the problem.

That’s not to say we need to play oppression Olympics with everyone to compete for who has struggled the most in society. But I do think we need to acknowledge that the daily experience of different people in different experiences is something that we can’t fully comprehend.

AiPT!: This probably won’t be possible with Model Minority due to all the licensing red tape you’d have to jump through, but are there plans to make any of the other stories in Radicalized into other media properties?

Doctorow: Unauthorized Bread is currently in development as a television project. That’s all I can say for now 🙂

You can read about more of Cory Doctorow’s work at his website or follow him on Twitter.

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