Cancel Culture: It Won’t Stop! (AKA Being Evenhanded the Mainstream Media Way)


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On March 7 2022, the New York Times gave the royal treatment (including two large photos) to a piece by college senior (and soon to be Reason staff writer) Emma Camp about the problem of self-censorship on college campuses. Camp described her experience speaking in class:

This idea seems acceptable for academic discussion, but to many of my classmates, it was objectionable.

The room felt tense. I saw people shift in their seats. Someone got angry, and then everyone seemed to get angry. After the professor tried to move the discussion along, I still felt uneasy. I became a little less likely to speak up again and a little less trusting of my own thoughts.

I’m sympathetic to Camp’s view – it can be scary and uncomfortable speaking out in class when we know our classmates might disagree. But is this anything that requires a New York Times op-ed piece?

Ten days later, the Times editorial board published another op-ed on the same subject, writing:

For all the tolerance and enlightenment that modern society claims, Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.

Of course, there is no right to speak “without fear of being shamed or shunned.” That would amount to a right to freedom from criticism, and no one has or should have that right.

Both of those quotes are referred to in this cartoon.

It should be surprising the “paper of record” published two extremely similar cancel-culture-panic pieces in two weeks. But it’s not. I used the New York Times‘ site search function to count up how many opinion page pieces referred to terms like “cancel culture” and “CRT.”

In the last year, the NYTimes opinion pages printed 71 pieces including the phrase “cancel culture,” 28 pieces including “C.R.T.,” and 9 including “book bans.”

Some of the “cancel culture” pieces even concede – in “to be sure” asides buried in the middle – that right wing legal bans are much more dangerous.  So why are they objected to so much less?

Arguably, the three most censored groups in the U.S. are prisoners, sex workers, and undocumented migrants.  As far as I can find, the Times opinion page didn’t run a single piece about censorship of any of these groups in the last year.

In fact, the Times ran more more opinion page pieces about “cancel culture” than about all other free-speech issues combined. Even if “cancel culture” is a real problem, that’s ridiculous. The Times‘ coverage is wildly disproportionate, in a way that strongly favors right-wing narratives and gives many instances of right-wing censorship a free pass. And as far as I can tell, the Times‘ disproportionate coverage is typical of the media as a whole.


TRANSCRIPT OF CARTOON

This cartoon has five panels.

PANEL 1

This panel shows two news anchors sitting in a TV studio facing the camera. The angle is from the camera’s perspective, as if we were watching them on TV. A circular logo superimposed on the image says “5” (as in channel 5) and a chyron runs across the bottom of the image.

(Chyron this panel says: “Free Speech in Peril! Young people are frightening. They’re coming after you.”)

The anchors are a man and a woman. They are both well-dressed and have professionally styled hair. Both speak to the camera with very serious expressions.

MALE ANCHOR: Tonight on WMSM: the first of our seventeen part series on the horrors of cancel culture!

FEMALE ANCHOR: America has a free speech problem! We’ve lost our long established right to speak without fear of being shamed.

PANEL 2

A close-up on the male anchor. He looks genuinely angry.

(Chyron this panel says: “Prison Censorship is an issue we’re not going to be covering whatsoever.”)

MALE ANCHOR: Especially on college campuses! Surveys show that students sometimes self-censor because they’re afraid of criticism! Something that has never before happened in all of history!

PANEL 3

This panel shows a hand holding a smartphone. On the smartphone screen, we can see the female anchor talking. She also looks angry and intense.

FEMALE ANCHOR: Next up: a college student “saw people shift in their seats” when they disagreed with her! Will left wing assaults on free speech never end?

PANEL 4

This is an unusually narrow panel, less than a third as wide as other panels. The panel shows the male anchor, still talking to the camera, but the figure is tiny. He’s smiling and raising a finger in a “just making a point” manner.

(Chyron this panel: “Tiny Type is rarely re (the word is cut off by the panel edge). Tiny type tiny type tiny type tiny type”)

MALE ANCHOR (small print): To show we’re unbiased, I will briefly mention that the right is writing laws to ban books, stifle teachers and even legalize running over protesters, and those things are also bad. Now back to our story.

PANEL 5

A new scene. Two people are standing; the second of them is holding a tablet, which they’re frantically tapping (sound effect: tap tap tap tap tap tap).

The first person is a black woman wearing what looks like a bowling shirt (meaning I drew a shirt with vertical stripes and it accidently came out as a bowling shirt) and carryign a purse. She has short curly hair. She looks a little concerned as she speaks to the second person.

The second person has long hair, in an unnatural red color, in long spikes and with an undercut. Their left arm is covered with tattoos. They’re frantically tapping the tablet they’re holding (sound effect: tap tap tap tap tap tap), have a panicked expression, and they’re talking loudly.

ANCHOR PERSON (voice coming from tablet): This is what the illiberal left has wrought! we won’t truly have free speech until those on the intolerant left who criticize other’s speech shut up!

FIRST PERSON: Would you mind turning that off?

SECOND PERSON: IT WON’T STOP!


This cartoon on patreon

Posted in Cartooning & comics, Media, Media criticism | 2 Comments  

My January Fifteenth Author’s Note

book cover of a person walking down an alley with an umbrella and the following text: January Fifteenth, “Money Changes everything–except people.” Rachel Swirsky, “One of the best speculative writers of the last decade.” –John ScalziJanuary Fifteenth debuts tomorrow! This is my last post before it heads out into the world.

(ICYMI, check out some of my earlier posts about January Fifteenth, including my official announcement, the Debut Sampler, and meeting the characters. Preorders are available through several different online platforms, including Powell’s, Amazon, Indiebound, and Barnes and Noble.)

Here’s the author’s note I wrote for the beginning of the book:

Dear Reader, 

January Fifteenth takes place in a near-future America with a Universal Basic Income (UBI) program. If you’re not  familiar with the term, Universal Basic Income is a policy proposal for the government to provide an annual income to  its citizens. Details vary—like how much that income should be—but every citizen would get it, without condition. 

For me at least, any argument about UBI begins with one question: will it help people? 

Practical assessment follows, of course, but that’s the first thing we have to know. In its ideal form, if everything went  perfectly, would UBI improve people’s lives? I don’t have a definitive answer, although I pose a series of possible  questions and answers in this novella. 

During my research on American UBI proposals, most of the hypotheticals I saw concentrated on the traditional  concerns of the right versus left political axis. Would UBI open new possibilities for society, or encourage a culture of  laziness and dependency? 

I became more curious about other questions. For instance, some people dislike that UBI goes to people of any social  class—so whatever might (some) rich kids do with it? Some people are wary about the ways cults exploit contemporary  welfare programs—what might they do with UBI, and how might others try to stop them? Pervasive, systemic racism  has created an enormous disparity between the assets of Black and white American households—can and should we  brush over that history as if White and Black communities have an equal starting point? Money can help someone  escape an abusive relationship, but would Universal Basic Income change what happens afterward? 

The characters in this book have gone through hard things, from being orphaned to domestic violence to forced  marriage. Many of the scenarios in this book reflect situations that I or people close to me have gone through. Others  evolved through research and talking to people. So many of us have gone through similar tribulations, whether the more  common horrors like casual racism and sexual assault, or the more rarefi ed ones like cult exploitation. These things  impact our lives. They affect our happiness. They certainly affect how and why Universal Basic Income could change our  circumstances. 

Although I hope January Fifteenth is true to the characters and emotions, I can’t claim it’s an accurate prediction. UBI  could play out in lots of ways that are equally, if not more, plausible. For example, in January Fifteenth, the practical side  of running UBI is relatively smooth and easy. As a world-building choice, that allows me to let fiddly details fade into the  background while I focus on the characters. But is it the most likely scenario? Probably not—very few things seem to be  easy. 

Even within the world I set up, there are a ton of possible alternative and conflicting scenarios. I could have happily kept  adding more. In fact, a fifth thread ended up on the cutting room floor during an early draft, when the word count kept  relentlessly increasing.

If I can make any “true” predictions, I suppose they are these: 

  1. Money can make life easier, but it can’t solve everything. 
  2. Adding money to a system with underlying problems won’t fi x those problems on its own. 
  3. After any massive change, some people will be better off, some people will be worse off, and many people will be both better and worse off. 
  4. However the future unfolds, it won’t go according to my values. There will always be outcomes I don’t expect. Some of them will contradict my beliefs about the world. 
  5. I’m definitely wrong about something. 

Rachel Swirsky

image of people walking through a snowy street with the following text: January Fifteenth. A new novella from Tor.com. by Rachel Swirsky. Follow four women through January fifteenth, the day when they get their Universal Basic Income. Hannah, an abused mother on the run with her two sons. Janelle, an activist-turned-reporter raising her orphaned sister. Olivia, a wealthy college student celebrating “Waste Day”. Sarah, a child bride in a fundamentalist cult. Money changes everything—except people. “a fascinating thought experiment” - Caren Gussoff, Locus Magazine

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Meet the Characters from January Fifteenth

January Fifteenth comes out next week! I can hardly believe it. Last week, I posted a short excerpt of Janelle’s story and linked to the Debut Sampler, which includes a longer one.

Today, meet all the characters!

Image of four people with the following text: January Fifteenth, A new novella from Tor.com by Rachel Swirsky. Follow four women in a future USA with Universal Basic Income: Hannah, an abused mother. Janelle, a broke reporter. Olivia, a wealthy student. Sarah, a pregnant teen. Money changes everything – except people.

(I’ve put some graphics in here, but all the information on the graphics is also in the text.) 

January Fifteenth takes place in a future USA with Universal Basic Income. The novella follows four women on January 15th, the day they get their UBI payments.

  • HANNAH, an abused mother on the run in upstate New York
  • JANELLE, a broke reporter raising her orphaned sister in Chicago
  • OLIVIA, a wealthy student celebrating Winter break at a Colorado ski resort
  • SAARH, a pregnant teen trapped in a fundamentalist cult in Utah

While I was reading all the various arguments about UBI, I noticed that most commentary centers on the traditional right/left political axis. That’s a great place for discussion, but I wanted to talk about the smaller scale, human effects. 

The story evolved to center around these four women from different places who have very different experiences with UBI. The money enables some of them to change their lives, but it can’t get rid of all their problems. Or, to put it like the tag line does: Money changes everything– except people.

UBI has the potential to ameliorate–or not–some of the most serious problems people have in life. This novella engages with a number of those, from the more casual horrors that many readers will have experienced personally like racism, domestic abuse, sexual assault and suicide, to more unusual situations like cult exploitation. I’ve experienced some of these things myself. To write about others, I read a lot and talked to people. (Thank you so much to anyone who shares their stories in whatever way they choose.)

I spent a lot of time with these characters (40,000 words is more than twice the length of the longest thing I’ve published before!) so I feel very close to them. I hope you find them compelling, too.

Meet Hannah, an abused mother on the run

Image of a person clasping her hands with the following text: January Fifteenth, A new novella from Tor.com, by Rachel Swirsky. In a future USA with Universal Basic Income, follow four women, including: Hannah, an abused mother, “Her heart pounded. She hadn’t expected Abigail to find them so fast. She took a deep breath to shout upstairs for Jake and Isaiah to start piling furniture against their bedroom door.” Money changes everything except people.January 15th is the anniversary of the day Hannah looked at her universal basic income payment and realized she had the resources to take her two children and flee her abusive ex-wife. Since then, Hannah and her children have been on the run, fleeing from Abigail as she stalks them from rental home to rental home. So far, Abigail hasn’t discovered their new place in Canasota, New York, but it’s just a matter of time. 

​​As the twanging faded, Hannah heard a distant, quiet shuffle from the back of the house. Something wooden groaned. Hannah’s mouth went dry. The ends of her scarf dropped from her hands, unwound, and fell loosely across her chest.

Her heart pounded. She hadn’t expected Abigail to find them so fast. She took a deep breath to shout upstairs for Jake and Isaiah to start piling furniture against their bedroom door.

A high-pitched giggle broke the quiet, followed by another. Hannah exhaled in relief. Thank God. It was just the boys playing.

Her heart hadn’t stopped pounding, though. Damn it. Damn it! What was she supposed to do when the boys wouldn’t listen? This wasn’t about sticking their fingers in their cereal or getting crayon on the walls. Did it really matter that it was developmentally normal for a seven-year-old to test authority if it ended up giving Abigail a way back into their lives?

Meet Janelle, a broke reporter raising her sister

Image of a person holding a microphone with the following text: January Fifteenth, A new novella from Tor.com, by Rachel Swirsky. In a future USA with Universal Basic Income, follow four women, including: Janelle, a broke reporter, “Janelle felt like a bee doing the same mindless task year after year, just like all the other bees. Get the honey. Do a dance. Interview someone who thinks her cats should get UBI.” Money changes everything except people.Since their parents were killed in a plane crash, reporter-turned-activist Janelle has been raising her little sister, Nevaeh, in their home city of Chicago.Their inheritance isn’t enough to cover all their expenses so Janelle spends her time scrambling to get as many gigs as possible. Unfortunately, legitimate news jobs are scarce, and a lot of aggregators won’t work with Janelle because of her former activism. Every January 15th, Janelle gets stuck doing the same boring interviews so she can keep their bank balance positive.

She felt like a bee doing the same mindless task year after year, just like all the other bees. Get the honey. Do a dance. Interview someone who thinks her cats should get UBI.

Interview a violinist who uses their money to fund lessons for disadvantaged kids. Interview a new mom about the savings fund she set aside for her baby. Interview a lawyer representing a class action lawsuit against a landlord for extorting his tenant’s disbursements. Interview a senior citizen who lost his home because of problems with the transition from social security. Interview the protestors wherever they are this year. Interview the protestors protesting the other protestors wherever they are this year…

The aggregators would probably love to run her story, too, if she wedged it into the right box. Sentimental: Chicago-based 28-year-old raises 14-year-old sister after parents die in plane crash. Political: Former activist relies on legislation she championed to care for orphaned sibling. Socially Responsible: UBI Keeps Black Families Together. 

Anyway. The upshot was that there was always work for two weeks in January even if you didn’t have a great relationship with the major aggregators…

So of course one of her buzzcams was broken.

Meet Olivia, a wealthy student on winter break

Image of a person drinking through a straw with the following text: January Fifteenth, A new novella from Tor.com, by Rachel Swirsky. In a future USA with Universal Basic Income, follow four women, including: Olivia, a wealthy student, “Don’t think about that. Don’t think about Brown. Don’t think about failing. Don’t think about Spring semester starting in ten days. Don’t think about talking to your parents.” Money changes everything except people.Olivia, a freshman at Brown University, has always been the scapegoat of her dysfunctional, grandiosely wealthy high school “friends” group. Things aren’t going any better for her at college where she’s isolated and failing out. So maybe it’s not too shocking that she’s doing badly at her friends’ reunion at an expensive Colorado ski resort. Drunk and preoccupied with her own worries, Olivia barely notices her “friend” William’s bizarre “Waste Day” celebration: a contest to see who can waste their UBI payments most extravagantly.

“How’s life at Brown?” Elsa pressed sweetly. “Does Brown have remedial classes?”

“I’m not in remedial classes,” said Olivia.

“So you’re failing out,” Elsa said.

The accusation caught Olivia like a blow to the stomach.

Don’t think about Brown, Olivia told herself. Don’t think about Spring semester starting in ten days. Don’t think about telling your parents. 

“Whoa,” said Leroy.

“Low blow,” said Freddie.

Disapprovingly, Pauline said, “Not nice, Elsa. We don’t hunt foals.”

Meet Sarah, a pregnant child bride trapped in a cult

Image of a pregnant person with the following text: January Fifteenth, A new novella from Tor.com, by Rachel Swirsky. In a future USA with Universal Basic Income, follow four women, including: Sarah, a pregnant teen, “Sarah didn’t keep sweet. That was her problem. She’d always been too angry. She said no. She didn’t smile.” Money changes everything except people.Fifteen-year-old Sarah is trapped in a cult, a fundamentalist offshoot of the Church of Latter Day Saints. Having been married off last year, she’s only a few months away from giving birth to her first child. Everyone knows that the heretical mainstream Mormons only force the prophet’s women to pick up their checks in person to harass them. But as she makes the annual pilgrimage on foot, pestered by her needy cousin Agnes and haunted by memories of her recently exiled brother Toby, Sarah’s starting to doubt what everyone knows.

Sarah didn’t keep sweet. That was her problem. She’d always been too angry. She said no. She didn’t smile. 

Her brother, Toby, was gentle, but the wrong way for a boy. He always let everyone else choose first. He was weak and he cried too easily. 

Her cousin, Agnes, was too smart, too needy, too scared.

They were all bent nails trying to keep tacked together. No wonder everything kept coming apart.

January Fifteenth is available for pre-order through several different online platforms, including Powell’s, Amazon, Indiebound, and Barnes and Noble.

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January Fifteenth Reviews in Locus Magazine

book cover of a person walking down an alley with an umbrella and the following text: January Fifteenth, “Money Changes everything–except people.” Rachel Swirsky, “One of the best speculative writers of the last decade.” –John ScalziI am delighted to have January Fifteenth reviewed in Locus Magazine Issue 737 not once but twice! 

Here’s snippets of both:

Locus Looks at Books: Caren Gusoff Sumption

“If you’ve ever read any of Rachel Swirsky’s short fiction, then you’re familiar with her signature elegant prose and her very literary deconstruction of traditional plot. Swirsky’s style is instantly recognizable and widely appreciated, earning her multiple Nebulas, and, at the very least, enthusiastic nods from nearly all the award committees in genre.”

“January Fifteenth is a fascinating thought experiment. For two of the characters, the guaranteed income provides them the opportunity to escape conditions in which they are vulnerable. The other two characters, though they come from wildly different backgrounds, contend with how one lives a meaningful life when your basic needs are covered. Swirsky chooses not to show all the possibilities that UBI may have, but instead to linger within these two emotionally-resonant themes.”

Locus Looks at Books: Gary K. Wolfe

Image of Locus Magazine Issue 737, June 2020 cover depicting a soldier colored with red and yellow

“Swirsky, who has long been a profoundly character-driven author, spends little time depicting the political debates around such a policy or explaining the legislation behind it, but rather focuses on its impact on four diverse characters during a single blizzardy January 15.”

“Accurate predictions, as we all know, are actually pretty rare in SF, so that’s hardly the point, either. What is more to the point isthat characters as memorable, engaging, and sympathetic as Swirsky’s four women, each seeking ways to survive in systems that don’t really seem to like them much, are almost equally rare. By the time we’re halfway through their tales, we’re engaged enough to want to follow their fates, UBI or no UBI.”

As always, you can pre-order January Fifteenth from several different locations, including Powell’s, Amazon, Macmillan, and Barnes and Noble.

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Link Farm and Open Thread, Clayface Edition

  1. Democrats Are Facing Doom—And No One Seems To Even Have Any Suggestions
    A bad read for lefties who’d like to avoid feeling hopeless.
  2. Opinion | What Black cops know about racism in policing – The Washington Post
    “But the more profound problem with the argument that the mere existence of Black police officers disproves systemic racism in law enforcement is that it fails to account for the real-life experiences of those same Black officers.”
  3. The Abortion Underground is Preparing for the End of Roe v Wade
    “The van was being bulletproofed, Angela told me. It would then be retrofitted with an ultrasound machine and a gynecological-exam table, so a doctor with a manual vacuum-aspiration device could perform first-trimester abortions inside. Abortion Delivered, which originated in Minnesota, planned to dispatch the van—and a second one, stocked with abortion pills—to just outside the Texas border.”
  4. California can’t be a haven for others until it builds more housing for everyone (and alternative link).
    “California wants to be a haven for abortion-seekers, trans people seeking gender-affirming care, refugees seeking safety. But its heart is writing checks its housing element can’t cash.”
  5. Detransition as Conversion Therapy: A Survivor Speaks Out | by Ky Schevers | An Injustice!
    There is nothing wrong with recognizing that transitioning can be traumatic for some individuals or that it’s possible for a lesbian to identify as a man and transition as result of internalized homophobia. The problem is claiming that transitioning is inherently harmful or that all transmasculine people are really self-hating lesbians.”
  6. Phenakistoscopes (1833) – The Public Domain Review An article about one of the earliest forms of animation. And here’s a YouTube video of some phenakistoscopes in action.
  7. Chicago Synagogue Excoriated For Shift From ‘Non’ to ‘Anti’ Zionism — Maybe the Problem isn’t the ‘Anti’ But the ‘Zionism’ | Religion Dispatches
    ” Now, of course, by debating the very meaning of Zionism itself we can also debate what the non or anti prefix actually means. My interest, however, is a bit different; to explore the function of non or anti in relation to what Zionism means, and why those prefixes cause so much anxiety for those who don’t require a prefix at all—that is, for those who simply identify as ‘Zionists.'”
  8. LISTEN.
    A five-minute documentary created mostly by non-speaking autistic people, who are frustrated by the assumption that because they don’t speak they have nothing to say.
  9. Rats to the rescue: Rodents are being trained to go into earthquake debris to find survivors | Daily Mail Online
    Some nice photos at that link. This is neat and I hope it works, but I just can’t get over how surreal it would be, to be buried in earthquake debris and maybe only half-conscious and a rat with a backpack shows up and a voice is like “hello?”
  10. The Price Kids Pay: Schools and police punish students with costly tickets for minor misbehavior – Chicago Tribune
  11. Jury foreman pleads for leniency in murder case where the DA manipulated the law to take self-defense off the table
  12. The Tragedy of “The Tragedy of the Commons” – Scientific American Blog Network
    “The man who wrote one of environmentalism’s most-cited essays was a racist, eugenicist, nativist and Islamaphobe — plus his argument was wrong.”
  13. Burrito tape: Students invent edible adhesive to seal tortilla | WGN-TV
    Seems like a great idea to me.
  14. Morocco is caught in the Patrilineal Trap
    Very interesting twitter thread with lots of photos. Travelling through Morocco with a feminist eye, talking to women there about job opportunities and harassment.
  15. Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal – Liberal Education
    I enjoyed this (long for a cartoon, but still quite short) very cynical (but also rather idealistic) cartoon about the value of liberal education.
  16. Yascha Mounk and Sam Koppelman discuss what kinds of reforms are (and aren’t) necessary to fix American democracy.

Photos by Scott Umstattd and h heyerlein on Unsplash.

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My New Novella, January Fifteenth, Excerpted in Tordotcom Publishing 2022 Debut Sampler

book cover of a border jumble of book covers with the following text: Tordotcom 2022 Debut Sampler, Scotto Moore, Marion Deeds, Malcolm Devlin, Rachel Swirsky, Joma West, Hiron Ennes, Aimee PokwatkaThe Tordotcom Publishing 2022 Debut Sampler includes a preview of my upcoming novella, January Fifteenth!

You can find the sampler at several online venues, including Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Google Play. It’s free! (You can pre-order January Fifteenth at the stores, too.)

The novella follows four women in a future USA with Universal Basic Income. The preview excerpts the first section about Janelle, a broke journalist worried about making enough money to raise her orphaned younger sister, Nevaeh. Every UBI Day, the news aggregators want her to do the same boring stories.

graphic of a microphone with the following text: January Fifteenth, A new novella from Tor.com by Rachel Swirsky, In a future USA with Universal Basic Income, follow four women on the day they get their payments, including: Janelle, a reporter from Chicago, “It had been interesting to report on UBI when the program started. Since then, she’d felt like a bee doing the same mindless task year after year, just like all the other bees. Get the honey. Do a dance. Interview with someone who thinks her cats should get UBI.” Money changes everything—except people

Here’s a little more, starting with that quote from the graphic:

It had been interesting to report on UBI when the program started. Since then, she’d felt like a bee doing the same mindless task year after year, just like all the other bees. Get the honey. Do a dance. Interview someone who thinks her cats should get UBI.

She felt like a bee doing the same mindless task year after year, just like all the other bees. Get the honey. Do a dance. Interview someone who thinks her cats should get UBI.

Interview a violinist who uses their money to fund lessons for disadvantaged kids. Interview a new mom about the savings fund she set aside for her baby. Interview a lawyer representing a class action lawsuit against a landlord for extorting his tenant’s disbursements. Interview a senior citizen who lost his home because of problems with the transition from social security. Interview the protestors wherever they are this year. Interview the protestors protesting the other protestors wherever they are this year.

It occurred to Janelle, not for the first time, that the aggregators would probably love to run her story, too, if she wedged it into the right box. Sentimental: Chicago-based 28-year-old raises 14-year-old sister after parents die in plane crash. Political: Former activist relies on legislation she championed to care for orphaned sibling. Socially Responsible: UBI Keeps Black Families Together.

book cover of a person walking down an alley with an umbrella and the following text: January Fifteenth, “Money Changes everything–except people.” Rachel Swirsky, “One of the best speculative writers of the last decade.” –John ScalziRead about Janelle and the other three women (Hannah, an abused mother on the run with her children; Olivia, a wealthy college student on winter break; and Sarah, a child bride trapped in a fundamentalist cult) by pre-ordering at any of several locations, including Powell’s, Amazon, Macmillan, and Barnes and Noble.

January Fifteenth launches on June 14, 2022.
graphic of person sitting at a table behind a microphone with the following text: January Fifteenth, A new novella from Tor.com by Rachel Swirsky, money changes everything—except people In a future USA with Universal Basic Income, follow four women on the day they get their payments, including: Janelle, a reporter from Chicago, It occurred to Janelle that the news aggregators would love to run her Universal Basic Income story, too, if she wedged it into the right box. Sentimental: Chicago-based 28-year-old raises 14-year-old sister after parents die in plane crash. Political: Former activist relies on legislation she championed to care for orphaned sibling. Socially Responsible: UBI Keeps Black Families Together. “Highly recommend for readers of political and social science-oriented SF.”—Library Journal (starred review)
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Announcing my novella, January Fifteenth

I am excited to announce that my debut novella, January Fifteenth, is coming out from Tor.com on July 14, 2022. 

Six weeks away! I can hardly believe it.

image of person walking through snowy woods with the following text: January Fifteenth. A new novella from Tor.com. by Rachel Swirsky. Follow four women through January fifteenth, the day when they get their Universal Basic Income. Hannah, an abused mother on the run with her two sons. Janelle, an activist-turned-reporter raising her orphaned sister. Olivia, a wealthy college student celebrating “Waste Day”. Sarah, a child bride in a fundamentalist cult. Money changes everything—except people. “a fascinating thought experiment” - Caren Gussoff, Locus Magazine

January Fifteenth—the day all Americans receive their annual Universal Basic Income payment.

For Hannah, a middle-aged mother, today is the anniversary of the day she took her two children and fled her abusive ex-wife.

For Janelle, a young, broke journalist, today is another mind-numbing day interviewing passersby about the very policy she once opposed.

For Olivia, a wealthy college freshman, today is “Waste Day”, when rich kids across the country compete to see who can most obscenely squander the government’s money.

For Sarah, a pregnant teen, today is the day she’ll journey alongside her sister-wives to pick up the payment­­s that undergird their community—and perhaps embark on a new journey altogether.

In this near-future science fiction novella by Nebula Award-winning author Rachel Swirsky, the fifteenth of January is another day of the status quo, and another chance at making lasting change.

It’s gotten some very kind reviews, including one from Publisher’s Weekly and a starred review from the Library Journal

book cover of a person walking down an alley with an umbrella and the following text: January Fifteenth, “Money Changes everything–except people.” Rachel Swirsky, “One of the best speculative writers of the last decade.” –John Scalzi

“[A] thoughtful novel comprising four interwoven stories framed by the near-future implementation of Universal Basic Income. . . .Fans of plausible political speculative fiction should check this out.”—Publishers Weekly

“Swirsky’s slice-of-life UBI stories present just a few possible effects of this hotly debated topic. Without either political rhetoric or exhortation, these brief glimpses of other lives give readers the chance to see what might be in a world with a social safety net. Highly recommended for readers of political and social science-oriented SF.”—Library Journal (starred review)

You can pre-order the book right now! It’s at several different locations, including Powell’s, Amazon, Macmillan, and Barnes and Noble.

It took me a really long time to write this so I’m happy to see it get out into the world. It is the longest thing I’ve ever published by more than two times. (Which is funny because some of the reviews are considering the piece as a novel and found that it was too short for their tastes. It’s almost exactly as long as a novella can be without becoming a novel–but by novel standards it’s definitely puny!)

I hope folks continue to read and enjoy it. I spent a lot of time with these characters. Now I get to send them out to spend time with readers.

Posted in January Fifteenth, Novella, Tor.com | 2 Comments  

Cartoon: This is Your Brain on a Diet


Support the making of these cartoon by supporting my Patreon! If you do, you will always be wise and good looking and your omelettes will never stick to the pan.


Full disclosure: Some of this post I’ve cut-and-pasted from an online debate I had with Helen Pluckrose.)

In the New York Times, neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt wrote about why weight loss diets almost always fail in the long run:

The root of the problem is not willpower but neuroscience. Metabolic suppression is one of several powerful tools that the brain uses to keep the body within a certain weight range, called the set point. The range, which varies from person to person, is determined by genes and life experience. When dieters’ weight drops below it, they not only burn fewer calories but also produce more hunger-inducing hormones and find eating more rewarding.

The brain’s weight-regulation system considers your set point to be the correct weight for you, whether or not your doctor agrees. If someone starts at 120 pounds and drops to 80, her brain rightfully declares a starvation state of emergency, using every method available to get that weight back up to normal. The same thing happens to someone who starts at 300 pounds and diets down to 200, as the “Biggest Loser” participants discovered.

This coordinated brain response is a major reason that dieters find weight loss so hard to achieve and maintain.

Weight loss diets don’t work in the long term, for the vast majority of people. (This is true of all weight loss plans, including “lifestyle changes”). Especially if “work” means “turn a fat person into a non-fat person.”

And that simple fact, if it were accepted, turns nearly all of our society’s discussion of fat and “the obesity crisis” upside down.

What should fat people who are concerned about their health, or want to improve their health, do? The default answer, in our society, is “stop being fat.” Lose weight. But for most fat people, that’s nonsensical advice – and worst, actively harmful advice – because we don’t know how to make fat people stop being fat. At least, not in any way that lasts and works for most people.

Am I saying fat people who want to be healthier should give up? Absolutely not. I’m saying that for most fat people, becoming healthier doesn’t require futile attempts to lose weight. Take a look at this graph:

(Source.) The graph shows likelihood of mortality as it relates to weight and four other characteristics: fruit and vegetable intake, tobacco use, exercise, and alcohol. These are sometimes called the “healthy habits.”

On the left side of the graph, fat people who practice zero “healthy habits” – smoking, no veggies, immoderate drinking, no exercise – have a much higher mortality risk than so-called “normal” weight people with unhealthy habits (although the “normals” have elevated risk too).

On the right end of the graph, fat people who practice all four healthy habits have a mortality risk that’s just barely higher than their thinner counterparts. More importantly, we can see that fat people who practice all four healthy habits benefit enormously, compared to fat people who don’t. (“Normals” benefit enormously from these healthy habits, too.)

Most fat people can’t permanently lose enough weight to stop being fat. But most fat people can eat more veggies, can not smoke, can limit ourselves to one glass of hootch a day, can add moderate exercise to our lives. These things aren’t always easy, but they are all much more achievable, for most fat people, than stopping being fat.

Achievable advice is better than unachievable advice. There’s a positive way forward for most fat people who want to be healthier – one that’s more likely to work, and less likely to encourage self-hatred, than trying to stop being fat.


I find the idea of a anthropomorphic brain inherently funny; if we cut it open, would we find another, smaller brain inside?

I’m unusually happy with how this cartoon looks. Mainly for the brain, which was so much fun to draw (although time-consuming) and I think came out well. To make up for how time-consuming the brain was to draw, the little hormone-servants also look really good (in my opinion), and took virtually no effort or time to draw.

When I was working on this strip, I posted my design for the brain character on social media, to see if people would get that it’s a brain.

Nearly everyone got that it’s a brain (although a few guessed it was a raison, and I can kind of see that). But I had decided to use the cerebellum as pantaloons, and several people thought they were the brain’s balls. And that is why my final brain design has no cerebellum.


TRANSCRIPT OF CARTOON

This cartoon has six panels, plus an additional tiny “kicker” panel below the bottom of the cartoon.

At the top of the entire cartoon is a large caption, which says THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON A DIET.

The first five panels show a human brain, but anthropomorphized: It has arms, legs, hands (gloved with three fingers, a la Mickey Mouse) huge eyes and a pointy crown. It’s in some sort of dimly lit round space.

The brain is speaking to a cell-like creature, with little blobs of oil falling off of it, and this creature has also been anthropomorphized, and has a mouth and two big eyes. The cell-like creature is wearing a black bowler hat.

PANEL 1

The brain is speaking a bit imperiously to the cell-like creature, who is named Mr. Ghrelin.  Ghrelin looks a little nervious.

BRAIN: Mr. Ghrelin, you have a report?

GHRELIN: Your majesty, I bring word from the stomach! We’ve been getting less food and we’re losing fat!

PANEL 2

A close-up of the brain. The brain is looking up thoughtfully into the hair, one finger pressed to the side of what I’ll call its cheek, as if its trying to remember something.

BRAIN: Less food? Losing fat? There’s a word for this…

BRAIN: What’s that word? It’s something I learned millions of years ago in evolution school…

PANEL 3

The brain has jumped up, holding the sides of its, er, head and with an extremely panicked expression; Mr Ghrelin is in turn surprised by the brain’s reaction. The word “starvation” is written in huge red letters.

BRAIN: GASP!

BRAIN: This is called STARVATION!

PANEL 4

A shot of the brain, raising its fists high as it yells, with a determined expression on its face. The background has disappeared, replaced by bright yellow, with waves of action lines (indicating great energy) shooting out from the brain.

BRAIN: I’m declaring a state of emergency!

BRAIN: Slow down metabolism! We must preserve our precious fat!

PANEL 5

The brain is now surrounded by a bunch of Ghrelin-types, each of who looks the same, except they’re wearing different hats (we can see: bowler hat, top hat, cabbie cap, 50s dad hat). The brain, still yelling, is pointing decisively as it gives marching orders.

BRAIN: Release the stress hormones! Have them produce constant, extreme hunger! And store all the fat we can! Just in case!

BRAIN: We’ll keep this up for years if necessary!

PANEL 6

A fat man sites on a sofa. Next to him, on an endtable, are a lamp, a drinking glass, and a pen. On his other side is a cell phone and a throw pillow. On the back of the sofa, there’s a folded blanket and, lying on the blanket, an orange cat. He’s wearing fuzzy slippers that are designed to look like mice, with little ears sticking up.

He’s holding a book; we can see the book’s cover, with the title “THE COMMON SENSE DIET.” A caption above the book shows what he’s reading in the book.

CAPTION: Just eat less! It’s easy!

TINY KICKER PANEL BELOW THE BOTTOM OF THE STRIP

Mr. Ghrelin is speaking to the brain again; the brain is facing away and looking anxious.

GHRELIN: Good news! We’re getting normal amounts of food again.

BRAIN: But for how long? Better store more fat.


This cartoon on Patreon

Posted in Cartooning & comics, Fat, fat and more fat | 42 Comments  

Cartoon: What We Can Afford


This comic is by myself and Kevin Moore.

Kevin comments:

I’ve always found it a crime against society that we spend so much money on our defense budget, when so much of that money goes to the military industrial complex, corporations that hardly pay any taxes at all, companies that profit off of the deaths and dismemberment of innocent people around the world, and all of it at the expense of social programs that would actually do our society good like healthcare, education, housing, universal basic income, etc..

So I really enjoyed drawing big stacks of money on dump trucks and cargo ships.


IF you like these cartoons, support them like a suspension bridge after the holidays but before three shakes of a cat’s tale of woe by supporting my patreon!


The point the cartoon makes has literally been frustrating me since I was in high school. It’s a foundational belief of U.S.. politics – anything that can actually help ordinary people will always be dismissed as unaffordable. Including things that would actually save money in the long run. And at the same time, affordability never seems to be a barrier for throwing money by the bucketful to the wealthy, and shooting money out a firehose at the military.

The amount of money we spend on the military, in particular, is large beyond comprehension. To give an example, President Biden’s pandemic “preparedness” plan was originally scheduled to cost $65 billion over “7 to 10” years. Assuming ten years (to make the math easy), that’s $6.5 billion a year for preventing or mitigating potential future pandemics. Which frankly seems like a bargain when compared to the economic damage (not to mention loss of life) Covid has caused.

But Congress – meaning all Republicans in congress and many Democrats – have balked at that. $65 billion over ten years is too much; some have suggested $30 billion instead. Some have suggested $5 billion instead. Meanwhile, scientists have suggested $100 billion over ten years is what’s actually needed, but no one is arguing for that in Congress.

Meanwhile, the US military budget over the next ten years will be approximately $7.67 trillion dollars.


TRANSCRIPT OF CARTOON

This cartoon has six panels. Each panel shows the same two people talking, a middle-aged male politician type wearing a well-tailored suit, and a younger woman wearing a jeans jacket over an untucked yellow shirt.  We’ll call the two characters “SENATOR” and “ACTIVIST” for purposes of this transcript.

PANEL 1

Senator and Activist are talking, although the Senator doesn’t look like he wants to be in this conversation – he’s looking at his cell phone. The activist is facing him and looks serious, holding a palm up in a “here’s the point I’m making” gesture.

ACTIVIST: Good welfare programs can actually save the government money. Homes for the homeless, health care for children and pregnant women, free pre-K education, good vocational education in prison… All these programs save us money in the long run.

PANEL 2

A close-up of Activist, smiling and pressing a forefinger to the side of her head.

ACTIVIST: We should do these tings because they’re the right thing to do… But they’re also the smart thing to do.

PANEL 3

The camera has backed up enough so that we can see that the two of them are standing on a big pile of cash. The senator is smiling and shrugging. The activist is gesturing at the cash they’re standing on.

SENATOR: Even if that’s true, we just can’t afford it! The debt, the deficit… The country’s broke!

ACTIVIST: What is this we’re standing on?

PANEL 4

The “camera” has pulled back even more, and we can now see that the two of them are standing on top of a huge load of money being carried by an enormous dump truck. There’s so much money that it rises high above the sides of the truck’s, um, you know, that space that big trucks have that they carry their loads in. I’m sure there’s a word for it, but I don’t know what that word is. Anyway, the pile of money rises high above whatever we call that.

(The word “Moola” is painted on the front of the truck).

SENATOR: This? One of our daily dump trucks full of money for huge tax breaks for rich people and big corporations.

ACTIVIST: And what is the truck standing on?

PANEL 5

The “camera” has pulled back even more, and now we can see that the dump truck full of money is parked on top of a pile of money that’s huge even when compared to a giant dump truck. The money is on top of a cargo ship, which is floating on the ocean.

Se can still make out the Senator and the Activist, but the camera is now pulled back so far that they’re little more than tiny dots.

SENATOR: Let’s see… The truck is on top of one of our daily cargo ships full of money for the military.

PANEL 6

The “camera” has zoomed back in to a close shot of the two people. The Senator is talking with a neutral expression. The activist is face-palming.

SENATOR: Why? What’s your point?


This cartoon on Patreon

Posted in Cartooning & comics, Economics and the like | 12 Comments  

Cartoon: How Could It Be Hard To Get Voter I.D.?


If you enjoy these cartoons, help us make more by embracing world atheism, becoming a witch, accepting contradictions, and supporting my patreon!


I think my first official government ID was a passport at age fourteen or so, when my family took a trip to Italy. I didn’t arrange my own passport, of course – probably my mom took care of that.

At age fifteen I took driving lessons and got a learner’s permit, and I had parents and school to pay for and handhold me through that process.

Since then I’ve almost always had a passport and either a driver’s license or a state non-driver ID. And even when they lapsed, I’ve always been in a position to renew them when I needed to. Renewing is always easier than getting new.

(Although there was one time when I was broke and couldn’t renew without a copy of my birth certificate which I couldn’t afford at first and when I finally could it took months for New York to mail it to me.)

For someone like me, it can be hard to imagine why some people find it hard to get a government photo ID. It’s (almost) always been easy for me, right?

There are two ways to go from there. First is to actually do some research. Listen to the stories of people who have had trouble getting ID.

Alternatively, one could just assume that anyone who doesn’t have a photo ID is stupid and lazy. Which seems to be the favorite response on the right.


Warning: This post is going to be really long, because I want to paste in some of the quotes I found.

The big problem writing this cartoon, for me, was that real stories are messy and nuanced and don’t fit into a word balloon with room for 35 words at most. (And it’s better to use less words, since when readers see a big block of text many of them skim or skip).

For instance, I really wanted to include this story, from Samantha Adams, who has married twice and divorced once. When she moved to Indiana she found out she couldn’t get an ID without legal documentation, not just for her current name, but for each name change she’d been through.

I would have to provide a copy of my 1st marriage license, divorce papers and copy of my 2nd marriage license. Really? We just moved! Had no idea where to find the first two docs. She told me I’d have to request copies from the courts who have them. That’s not free or fast. […]

I worked with seniors. Think about little old ladies who don’t have drivers licenses. How could they possibly jump through all these hoops and get all these documents? What about poor folks? Copies of legal documents aren’t free.   Voter ID laws do suppress votes. I get it now.

Researching this cartoon, I found a legal ruling, Veasey v. Perry, which documented stories from many Americans who had trouble getting ID in Texas.

One thing that you find, when you research this, is that a surprising number of people (especially older people) were never issued birth certificates. Quoting Texas Representative Martinez Fischer:

In our subcommittee, gosh, we went down to Brownsville and we took testimony on the very issue that you heard from Mr. Lara earlier, which was people—a lot of people, especially in rural areas or along the border who were birthed by midwives or were born on farms, didn’t have the requisite birth certificates and were in limbo.

A transgender woman named Stephanie Lynn Dees was in the process of legally changing her name – a process that can be opaque, expensive and slow. She worried about being turned away from the polls because “I don’t really match my photograph and you always get people who just don’t like transgender people….”

Transportation is a big issue:

Some of the Plaintiffs without SB 14 ID do not have the ability or the means to drive. Four of them—Ms. Clark, Mr. Gandy, Mr. Benjamin, and Mr. Taylor—rely almost exclusively on public transportation. The lack of personal transportation adds to both the time and the cost of collecting the underlying documents. Mr. Taylor, who was recently homeless, declared that he sometimes cannot afford a bus pass.

And for those who can afford the fare, like Mr. Gandy, it can take an hour to reach the nearest DPS office. Others, like Mr. Estrada and Mrs. Espinoza are forced to rely on the kindness of family and friends to move about town, much less for a 60–mile roundtrip ride to the nearest DPS station. Mr. Lara, who is nearing his eightieth birthday, testified that he has to ride his bicycle when he is unable to find a car ride.

As is cost. (Unsurprisingly, all of these barriers are more likely to come up for Black and Latin Americans – one reason the GOP is so eager to have voter ID required.)

Kristina Mora worked for a non-profit organization in Dallas, Texas, The Stew Pot, which assists the homeless who are trying to get a photo ID to obtain jobs or housing. She testified that her indigent clients regularly number 50 to 70 per day….

According to Ms. Mora, these clients confront four general barriers to getting necessary ID: (1) understanding and navigating the process; (2) financial hardship; (3) investment of time; and (4) facing DPS or any type of law enforcement The Stew Pot and CAM, exist in part, to help with the first barrier and to an extent, the second barrier. These two witnesses testified that it costs on average, $45.00 to $100.00 per person in document and transportation costs to get a photo ID.

It generally takes an individual two trips to obtain the necessary documents to get an ID. Many homeless individuals do not have a birth certificate or other underlying documents because they have nowhere to secure them and they get lost, stolen, or confiscated by police. Furthermore, most are not in communication with their families and cannot get assistance with any part of this process. Ms. Mora testified that it generally takes about one hour to get to DPS or the necessary office, one hour to stand in line and be served, and one hour to return to the shelter. This generally has to be done in the morning because homeless shelters have early afternoon curfews.

The $45.00 cost to obtain a Texas ID card is equivalent to what these clients would pay for a two-week stay in a shelter.

From a story reported by Sari Horwitz for The Washington Post:

In his wallet, Anthony Settles carries an expired Texas identification card, his Social Security card and an old student ID from the University of Houston, where he studied math and physics decades ago. What he does not have is the one thing that he needs to vote this presidential election: a current Texas photo ID.

For Settles to get one of those, his name has to match his birth certificate — and it doesn’t. In 1964, when he was 14, his mother married and changed his last name. After Texas passed a new voter-ID law, officials told Settles he had to show them his name-change certificate from 1964 to qualify for a new identification card to vote.

So with the help of several lawyers, Settles tried to find it, searching records in courthouses in the D.C. area, where he grew up. But they could not find it. To obtain a new document changing his name to the one he has used for 51 years, Settles has to go to court, a process that would cost him more than $250 — more than he is willing to pay….

After Texas implemented its new law, Randall went to the Department of Public Safety (the Texas agency that handles driver’s licenses and identification cards) three times to try to get a photo ID to vote. Each time Randall was told he needed different items. First, he was told he needed three forms of identification. He came back and brought his Medicaid card, bills and a current voter registration card from voting in past elections.

“I thought that because I was on record for voting, I could vote again,” Randall said.

But he was told he still needed more documentation, such as a certified copy of his birth certificate.

Records of births before 1950, such as Randall’s, are not on a central computer and are located only in the county clerk’s office where the person was born.

For Randall, that meant an hour-long drive to Huntsville, where his lawyers found a copy of his birth certificate.

But that wasn’t enough. With his birth certificate in hand, Randall went to the DPS office in Houston with all the necessary documents. But, DPS officials still would not issue him a photo ID because of a clerical mistake on his birth certificate. One letter was off in his last name — “Randell” instead of “Randall” — so his last name was spelled slightly different than on all his other documents.

And Voter ID laws, harmful as they are, are far from the only or even the worst anti-Democracy measures the GOP is pursuing.


Update: I changed panel 3. Here’s the original panel 3.

Someone pointed out to me that deliver drivers pretty much have to have a drivers license in order to get that job.  D’oh!

And apparently I messed up when I wrote that a birth certificate costs $80 – in the more expensive states, it’s more like $30. Depending on the state, a driver’s license can cost up to $89. (I googled these costs in May 2022, of course they’ll change over time).


TRANSCRIPT OF CARTOON

This cartoon has four panels, each showing a different scene. In addition, there’s a small “kicker” panel under the fourth panel.

PANEL 1

The panel shows a counter at a fast food restaurant. We can see a couple of customers, and a couple of workers. The workers are wearing hats that very vaguely resemble hamburger buns. A sign on the wall shows a smiling hamburger with eyes, below the caption “Soilent Green YUM.” A smaller sign says “SAFETY” in larger letters followed by tiny print, which says “is a word we use a lot so you can’t sue us.”

The worker at the cash register is turning to speak directly to the reader.

WORKER: To get an official photo I.D., I have to go to the nearest government office, which is 90 miles away, and I don’t have a car, and even if I did my boss won’t give me a weekday off.

PANEL 2

We’re in what looks like someone’s back yard. In the foreground is a garden, with some sort of plant being grown in tidy rows. An elderly woman is kneeling on the ground in front of the garden, wearing a floppy straw hat, an apron with a floral patter, and holding a trowel. She speaks directly to the reader.

WOMAN: I can’t get I.D. without a birth certificate. But when I was born home births didn’t get birth certificates.

PANEL 3

A mover wearing jeans and a black tank top is carrying a sofa as he’s talking to the reader. (Presumably someone else is carrying the other end of the sofa, but that person is outside the panel border). It’s a little dark out, and this appears to be a residential area – he’s on a sidewalk, and there’s some grass and trees and an outdoor wall in the background.

MOVER: The state charges $60 for a driver’s license…. but first I’d need a copy of my birth certificate, which is $30. I can’t afford 90 dollars to vote!

PANEL 4

This panel shows the interior of a coffee shop. There are round tables, a big window showing some houses across the street, and a mural of a smiling coffee mug on the wall. A man and a woman sit together at a table, with mugs of coffee on the table. He is reading from a tablet he’s holding and looking annoyed as he talks. She is looking at a laptop, and doesn’t look up as she responds.

MAN: Why wouldn’t anyone be able to get an I.D.? Idiots!

WOMAN: People like that don’t deserve to vote.

SMALL KICKER PANEL UNDER THE BOTTOM OF THE CARTOON

The man from panel 4 is yelling a bit at a drawing of Barry (the cartoonist).

MAN: If it’s easy for me it must be easy for everybody! That’s just science!


This cartoon on Patreon

Posted in Cartooning & comics, Elections and politics | 60 Comments