Thursday, May 23, 2019

Remember Pearl Harbor! or, When in Danger, When in Doubt

I know we're doomed, but I do hate being reminded of it.  In large part I must blame myself for giving in to clickbait.

To begin with, let me say that I have read Marie Kondo's book but have not watched her TV series.  As an accumulator if not a hoarder, I look from time to time at books on de-cluttering, so when I saw The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up at the library a few years ago, I checked it out and read it.  The only notable things about it were that the author was not an American, but I supposed that was a selling point; and that Kondo is a paid de-cluttering coach, who comes to your house and helps you get rid of your excess stuff.  Other than that, her advice was about the same as any other author I've read on this subject.

A couple of months ago the socialist-feminist writer Barbara Ehrenreich set off a shitstorm when she posted a couple of mildly snarky tweets (now apparently deleted) about Kondo.  She suggested, for example, that the fact that Kondo works in her native Japanese rather than learning English indicates a decline in US imperial prestige.  Though I basically agree, I'd have put it somewhat differently, as a reflection of increased confidence by non-English speakers in our sphere of influence.  Ehrenreich also suggested that there's some Orientalism at work among Kondio's American fans, attracted by her winsome style (I believe Ehrenreich used the term "pixie-like").  Not having seen Kondo's show, I can't say for sure, but I find the suggestion highly plausible.  The response from Kondo's fans was a freakout: they accused Ehrenreich of demanding that Kondo learn English, when she was actually praising her for not doing so, and of Orientalism for detecting their Orientalism.  This response was, to my mind, the typical white-liberal, culture-of-therapy response to unacceptable statements: Oh how can you say such awful things you're a terrible person!!!  USA Today titled its piece on the brouhaha "In deleted racist tweet, author Barbara Ehrenreich attacks Marie Kondo."  That's how it's listed in the results of a search I did, and the URL indicates it was the original title of the story, but somewhere along the line "racist" was changed to "xenophobic."  I find this very significant, because in their coverage of actual racism by right-wing figures, corporate media almost never use the word "racist": they prefer euphemisms like "racially tinged," and even "xenophobic" is unusually direct in that world of discourse.

But that's by the way.  What got me started on this post was an article linked by some bookstores I follow on Facebook.  Published on the UK Independent's website (though at the end there's a copyright notice for the Washington Post), it extolled some "book hoarders who defy Marie Kondo."  Yeah, it's probably clickbait and shame on me for clicking through, but I thought I recognized a not uncommon pattern of reaction, not just in corporate media but in many people in other areas.
On an episode of her smash-hit Netflix special, Kondo advised a couple to edit their shelves, maybe get rid of a few. The Internet did what it does best: It went bananas. How dare she come for books! #TeamClutter, meet #TeamCensorship. Of course, there was a backlash to the backlash, with the expected explanation from Kondo that not all books gotta go.

The visceral reaction, even without the social-media hyperbole, was hard to ignore. Books are more than objects. They are filled with ideas, stories, versions of ourselves, memories. Bookshelves are like your wardrobe: they send a message. And the message these famous book-lovers shared with us is loud and clear: Books spark joy. 
Well, of course they do.  I have several thousand books myself, and I wouldn't really feel happy in a home that didn't have at least one wall lined with them.  But I never felt as I read Kondo's book that she was telling her clients, let alone me personally, to get rid of all of them.  Even the linked article says only that she "advised a couple to edit their shelves, maybe get rid of a few."  The problem for me is that books are the heaviest possession, taken collectively, that I have.  Like most renters, I don't own the stove or refrigerator in my apartment.  It's the books that make my upcoming move a daunting prospect.  If I had more money, I could hire movers to shlep them for me, but I don't.  I have to decide how far to "edit" my library, and even if I were the kind of person to pay a coach like Kondo, she could not make that decision for me.  I have to decide which of my possessions "spark joy," and there was nothing in her book that indicated that all my or your books have to go.

So where does this nonsense about "defying" Marie Kondo come from?  As if she went around to random residences, flanked perhaps by two armed Japanese grandmas, breaking down doors and bagging possessions for disposal while her victims stand by, wailing helplessly.  As if she even said that people had to get rid of all their books. Would anyone read her book or follow her show if they didn't have it mind to pare down their belongings?  Most ridiculous is that the bookstores that linked to the Independent article on Facebook are used bookstores.  That means they rely on people to "edit" their libraries for the books they stock.  Yet they linked to the article not to encourage people to sell them their unjoyful books, but to stir up panic that Marie Kondo will come for their books, as Obama in the minds of Trump supporters is coming for their guns.

Granted, the article is clickbait, and only one of the book lovers they interview even mentions Kondo, but as the Trump example indicates, paranoia that some evil figure wants to take your cherished stuff away is a real tendency.  So is the fantasy that the same evil figure wants to force birth control pills down your throat, or make you gay-marry even if you're not gay.  But so is the weird word-fu by which many people misread simple statements until they mean the opposite of their plain sense, or no longer make sense at all.  This particular example is harmless enough in itself, but it keeps the paranoia muscles toned up for other imaginary threats.  People aren't this stupid just over trivia; they are also stupid over things that matter.