When does bullying become totalitarianism?

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I’ve been complaining for a while about the kind of author bullying that comes from cancel culture. By now, everybody should know how this goes: An author, often a young person-of-color who isn’t well established, offers a novel, and a mob on Twitter piles on with charges of racism, insensitivity and cultural appropriation. The mob keeps screaming until the author or publisher pulls the book. It may be quietly released later on, but the campaign has damaged the marketing buzz and reduces the sales and acclaim for the book. This activity recently spread to publishing when a mob incited by romance author Courtney Milan attacked a small publisher and a free-lance editor. The tactic generally works better on fairly powerless nobodies, as well-established authors can just ignore the whole thing. The question has been hanging there about whether this is just a “mean girls” sort of action where little jealousies lead to pulling people down, or whether it’s actually about something bigger.

A couple or three things have hit the news recently that are making me think this is something bigger, in fact, a symptom of larger and more dangerous social trends. The first of these is a revolutionary strain of anarcho-communist ideology running through the summer “protests against systemic racism.” In case anyone is still in the dark about this movement, it is a type of utopian communism that calls for the abolition of the state, capitalism, wage labor and private property. Supposed to “free” people from laws and government control, its goal is actually totalitarianism, where the prescribed beliefs become entrenched and are enforced by members of society as a requirement. Because of its proscriptions against capitalism, wage labor and private property, this movement means to destroy the usual avenues of success in Western societies like education, opportunity and rewards for individual hard work. That means if you’re a young person who has written a promising book, you need to be bullied into withdrawing it to keep you a nobody, and if you have a budding editing or publishing business, you need to lose it if you don’t toe the line on ideology. In case anyone is wondering what totalitarianism is about, it’s a dictatorial society that requires complete subservience to a list of stated beliefs.

So, what other evidence on totalitarianism do I have this week? I’ve just run across a proposal from academic Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, most recently noted for the 2019 book How to Be an Antiracist, where his main thesis is that antiracists should “dismantle” racist systems. Since publishing the book, Kendi has proposed a Constitutional amendment in the US to establish and fund the Department of Anti-racism (DOA). This department would be responsible for “preclearing all local, state and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity, monitor those policies, investigate and be empowered with disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas.” This is a huge amount of power. It sounds like embedding cancel culture as an official government function. And the big question is, what is going to constitute “racism?”

And my last bit of troubling evidence: I’ve been noting for a while the results of SFF awards that seem to trend toward particular favored groups and strongly discriminate against others. This seems to be an unwritten rule about what’s acceptable to win, however the results are managed. You’d think from the huge outcry about racism in recent years that this would promote persons-of-color, but it doesn’t look to be doing that. Instead, it has shown to benefit mostly white women. Now the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (a.k.a. the Oscars) has actually published their award requirements, setting quotas for minority inclusion and limits on theme, storyline and narrative for writers:

A3. Main storyline/subject matter
The main storyline(s), theme or narrative of the film is centered on an underrepresented group(s).
• Women
• Racial or ethnic group
• LGBTQ+
• People with cognitive or physical disabilities, or who are deaf or hard of hearing

At first glance this might not seem to be that much of a problem. More minorities are employed, yah! But the damage to intellectual freedom is something else. This is a movement toward dictating what’s acceptable for people to write about and what’s acceptable for official recognition. During the Cold War, we used roll our eyes at the USSR and Maoist ideology-controlled books and films. Do we really want to go there?

Review of The Lost Sisters by Holly Black

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This e-novella is a companion piece for the Folk of the Air trilogy, a look at The Cruel Prince’s story from Taryn’s viewpoint. The e-file also contains a one-chapter intro to The Wicked King. This was published by Little Brown in October of 2018, and runs 50 pages. This review contains spoilers.

This is basically a short recap of the first book, written in second person (you), and addressing Taryn’s twin sister Jude. It features Black’s lyrical style and flow, and investigates the cruel interpersonal relations that go on between the Folk of Faerie and the mortal Taryn and her sister. There is also some introductory commentary about traditional fairy tales and how they discriminate against women in the realms of power.

Clearly this was meant as a marketing tool for the next installment of the main series, but it may have also been meant to give life to Taryn’s character—the first person structure of the Folk of the Air trilogy means we always see others from Jude’s perspective, and the other characters remain a little flat. However, if this was the purpose, it didn’t work very well. This ends up sounding mostly like an apology from Taryn for bowing to circumstances and not being there for her sister when Jude tries to fight back. In this narrative, Taryn comes off like a whiny victim who never manages to take control of her own life, falls for a clearly duplicitous guy, makes a poor marriage, and then constantly apologizes for being what she is. Part of Black’s intent may be to set up Taryn as Jude’s foil just to illustrate the contrast between the fighter and the victim mentality. Neither of the two is particularly likable, and neither is completely successful in trying to deal with the system. However, the idea that the characters (twins) might be laying out two paths for the same person is interesting.

Besides this, I have to hand it to Black for taking on the issue of submission. A big chunk of media these days is pushing girls to take charge, but nobody is presenting the real-world challenges. We’re seeing some of it here. Jude fights her way to the top, but struggles because she hasn’t the skills to make alliances and wield power. Meanwhile, Taryn tries to blend and take a traditional role, but then turns out to be boring to a dismissive, two-faced husband.

Three and a half stars.

Review of The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black

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The Queen of Nothing is the third novel in the Folk of the Air series, preceded by The Cruel Prince and The Wicked King to complete a three-novel set. The Queen of Nothing was published by Little Brown in November of 2019, and runs 320 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Jude had been banished by the High King to the mortal world for her murder of Prince Balekin. She is living with her sister Vivi, Vivi’s girlfriend Heather and her brother Oak in Heather’s apartment, and makes money to help with the rent by hiring out as an errand-girl for a local faery. She accepts a job and ends up fighting a duel with Grima Mog, Redcap general of the Court of Teeth, who then reveals a plot to dethrone the King of Elfhame. Soon after, Jude’s twin sister Taryn arrives. She reveals she has killed her husband Locke, and she wants Jude to stand in for her at the inquest so she can use her resistance to glamour in order to lie. Jude agrees, and disguised as Taryn, she re-enters Elfhame. The inquest seems to go well until Nicasea insists Taryn be searched for a charm, and King Carden offers to examine Taryn himself. Once they are alone, he reveals he knows who she is. Madoc attacks the palace, attempting to rescue Taryn, and captures Jude. She wakes in Madoc’s war camp, where she continues to pretend she is Taryn and learns about the plot to remove the High King. When Madoc’s forces arrive at the palace to capture the crown, Carden destroys it and then turns into a monstrous serpent that defiles anything it touches. Is there anything Jude can do to save the kingdom and claim her rights as Queen of Elfhame?

My first impulse that this is an allegory for high school turns out to be correct. Jude and Taryn are Average Kids trying to enter a clique of the Right People. Nicisea is the Mean Girl, Locke is the Gamer, and Carden is the abused child who grows up to be a monster that Jude tries to salvage. Jude continues to fight her way through everything, while her twin Taryn tries to blend. At the end, everybody ends up getting pizza together at the local shop. On top of this, author Black spins the surface story of Faerie and the scheming around succession to the throne. In general this works well, and the story manages to be entertaining on both levels. It continues the theme of fighting for power versus submission to the system, and Jude continues to fail in her struggle to deal with a powerful position. Black’s trademark style is fairly lyrical and this is strongly plotted, if a little abrupt sometimes and short on transitions.

On the less positive side, the surface story seems to be wearing a little thin toward the finale as the allegory starts pulling the strings. Jude constantly overestimates her abilities, takes on more than she can handle and then despairs—after a while, she ought to know better. Maybe the constant murders are an allegory for “cutting people dead,” but the high attrition rate continues to be worrisome. Also, it would be nice if Jude and Carden would just talk. A little bit of communication would go a long way in resolving the issues between them. Instead, Jude remains defensive and suspicious, refusing to recognize that it’s about anything but Jude. As far as I can tell, she never grows much as a person, always grandstanding solo rather than taking the reins of power and working within the structure that should be in place to defend the king and the kingdom. I’m wondering why so much space is used up by descriptions of women’s gowns, and also why everyone uses just swords and knives. Maybe there’s some magic in Faerie that prevents the use of firearms, but in the mortal world, why does Jude still show up for a fight with just a knife? There are other ways, dear.

This is a good story, regardless of the niggles. Highly recommended for young adult.

Four stars.

Review of The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

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I reviewed The Wicked King, second in this Folk of the Air series, which won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Young Adult Novel in 2019, but thought it would probably help if I’d read the first book in the series, too. The Queen of Nothing completes the three-novel set. This novel was published by Little Brown in 2018, and runs 385 pages. Apparently it was optioned for a film in 2017. This review contains spoilers.

Jude’s mother was a mortal married to Madoc, a general of the High King of Faerie. She had one daughter Vivienne with him, and then ran away with a human artisan to the human world, where they had two more daughters. Madoc followed them, killed Jude’s mortal parents and spirited the girls away to raise with his new wife and son Oak. At seventeen, Jude wants desperately to fit in, but she is tortured by the young fay of her social circle, especially the cruel Prince Cardan, youngest son of the High King. Although her twin sister Taryn yields to the abuse and finds a place, Jude remains defiant, determined to win some kind of power to make her tormentors sorry. She schemes and intrigues, allying with Prince Dain, who is expected to succeed the High King, but then the coronation goes wrong, leaving the kingdom on the verge of civil war. Can she come up with a plan to save her family and make peace in the kingdom?

This is a pretty awesome intrigue, strongly suggesting the author had a tough time in high school. The story starts off with a bullying episode and gets successively more gripping as it goes along. Nothing and no one is what they seem, and all the characters are gray, rather than black and white. The Faerie are all cruel and hungry, but they love each other, too, and they fear loss. The characters take on dimension slowly as the tale progresses, as Jude fights her way through the love, hate and ambition, trying at first to achieve something for herself, and then once things go wrong, to save the people she loves. The Faerie kingdom and its rules are well-laid out, and now and then Jude slips back into the mortal world with her fay sister Vivi to shop at Target.

It’s hard to find anything really wrong with this. Considering the setting, I did start to suspect the characters were two-sided early on, so it wasn’t really a surprise when they showed a different face. One questionable issue here is what Jude is turning into—maybe becoming just as cruel, evil and calculating as the fay? She’s been cursed, so we’ll have to see how it turns out.

Five stars.

I’m going on to review the Queen of Nothing. If you’d like to read my review of The Wicked King, here’s a link to it.

Wrap Up of the 2019 Goodreads Choice Award Reviews

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For anyone who doesn’t know, Amazon bought Goodreads in 2013, in a move to integrate the review and discussion site for direct promotion of its literary offerings. Goodreads analyzes the data from what they say includes hundreds of millions of books rated, reviewed, and added to their Want to Read Shelves in a given year to determine which books make the cut for the Opening Round. This is followed by Semifinal Round and a Final Round where site users are invited to vote for the winners. In 2019 there were 300 initial nominees with an average rating of 4 stars. Because the site is so powerful, it’s clearly important for authors to pay attention to how their books are received and reviewed there. That makes this pretty much a popularity award, though I expect it will be affected by factors like levels of promotion and influencers within the various Goodreads groups.

So, this went better than I expected. I don’t always like bestseller novels because I do like solid world building, strong characters and literary elements like theme and meaning. Although Crouch’s book was a little weak, I did like the novels the women authors wrote. One of the big advantages in reading for this award was that there seemed to be a minimum of political messages in the books. There were messages and themes, of course, but in general they were more social commentary than political screeds. These included the dangers of technology (Crouch) and the effects of power, abuse and bullying (Black). Bardugo’s book is a little harder to summarize, but also seems to be about abusing others for the purposes of achieving power.

These books seem to have won the awards pretty much on their entertainment value and for how they speak to the reader, rather than for their “diversity” or other characteristics. All three winners involve mainly white characters, except for Bardugo’s black Centurion, and all the authors are also white. Bardugo appears to be Jewish, and Crouch writes about gay characters fairly often, but hasn’t come out as gay that I can find with a quick search. Of the three, only Black seems to have been recognized by the SFF community; she won the Andre Norton Award in 2005 for Valiant: A Modern Tale of Faery.

Since this went well, I’ll do it again next year. Stay tuned for the 2019 Nebula reviews.

Review of The Wicked King by Holly Black

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The Wicked King is the second novel in the Folk of the Air series, and won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Young Adult SFF Novel in 2019 with 48,181 votes. This is preceded by The Cruel Prince and followed by The Queen of Nothing to complete a three-novel set. The Wicked King was published by Little Brown in January of 2019, and runs 336 pages. This review contains spoilers.

At the end of The Cruel Prince, the High King stepped down; backers of Prince Balekin slaughtered the royal family, and Jude discovered her foster brother Oak was actually an heir to the throne. In a scheme to protect him, she lured Prince Carden into a bargain that crowned him High King and left him in her power for a year and a day. In her new position as Seneschal, she sent Oak to live in the human world with Vivi and now works as the power behind the throne, pulling the strings that run the kingdom of Elfhame. Locke has abandoned Jude and is now engaged to marry her twin sister Taryn. Madoc is part of the faction that is backing Balekin, who is imprisoned in the Tower of Forgetting. The Kingdom of the Undersea offers the Queen’s daughter Nicasea as a bride for Carden, backed by the threat of war with the Land if he refuses. The night before Taryn’s wedding, Jude is attacked, and later lured to the Tower, where she is kidnapped and held hostage by the Undersea. King Carden has to make concessions to get her back. He is poisoned by Balekin in a bid for the throne, but Jude saves him and then kills Balekin. Carden offers Jude vows of marriage if she will rescind the bargain giving her control of him, and he then banishes her to the human world in punishment for the murder of Balekin. It seems she has lost control of the king, but there are still threats to her family. What can she do?

On the positive side, this story remains a gripping intrigue, and themes are now developing related to power and submission. While Taryn has submitted to her tormentors and found a way to fit in, Jude has fought her way to a position of power. Although her scheme to gain control of the kingdom succeeded brilliantly, she struggles with inexperience and makes mistakes in dealing with the challenges. The bullying has stopped, but it has been replaced by plots and attacks on a larger scale. Jude is faced with holding onto what she’s won, and she seems unable to move beyond the station of her birth as a lowly mortal. She doesn’t know how to form alliances, or how to wield power except through Carden. Court officials disrespect her and her office, and her family treats her with their usual familiarity, unable to see her as having grown into anything different. She’s still mired in a mortal worldview, unable to see the big picture, and unable to even form a new self-image.

On the not so positive side, this installment of the story is a little hectic. Jude rushes to put out one fire after another, oblivious to the fact that Carden is now the High King and showing signs of competence in using the powers that go with the position. It also looks like Elfhame has some serious issues with security, as agents of various factions seem to have easy access to the king and his court. Jude is especially blind to issues of her own safety. After barely surviving a solo fight in the forest, for example, she falls right into the Undersea’s kidnapping plot. I’m also concerned about the number of people getting killed in this story. The Fay are immortal and have a low birth-rate. This suggests they should heavily guard their lives and have strong rules for investigating and penalizing murder, but it’s just not happening.

On the whole, this remains a good read, and I finished it up fast, moving on to the series finale.

Three and a half stars.

Are activists actually manufacturing racism/sexism/homophobia? (Part 2 of 2)

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In 2019 Ibram X. Kendi published his new book, “How to be an Antiracist,” where he looks at the effects of attacking ordinary whites as a method of protest and activism. According to Kendi, this is wasted effort, as it takes the focus off the real problem, which is the powerful elite that controls resources and creates political policy. As noted in the previous blog, about 10% of whites fall below the poverty line, and 70% more fall into the middle and lower socioeconomic classes. According to Kendi, these whites have little or no power to create the kind of policy and economic conditions that lead to structural racism, nor can they remedy the problem.

So if these 80% of whites have no power to establish or alleviate racism, why do minority activists continue to attack white men in a group as cause of the racism problem, for example? What are they accomplishing that encourages this behavior? The immediate result of the strategy seems to be an increase in White Nationalism among the powerless lower socioeconomic classes. The American National Election Survey found that unemployed white US residents without a college degree and with an annual income below $30K were more likely to approve of the growing white nationalist movement.

So, activists continue to attack this lower class of powerless and disenfranchised white males, even when it’s well known this increases solidarity in the form of White Nationalism. Do they really want to increase racist rhetoric and White Nationalism? I checked around, and found the answer is apparently “yes.”

In recent history, there have been a number of clearly manufactured racial incidents. As a random example, African American Eddie Curlin was recently found to be behind anti-black graffiti at Eastern Michigan University. In a more notable incident, Jussie Smollet was recently exposed in a scheme to manufacture racism and homophobia. Unable to find enough racism/homophobia in Hollywood to give a bump to his career, Smollet hired a couple of acquaintances to manufacture an incident. However, this was exposed by surveillance cameras, much to the embarrassment of all involved. Just strong activism is a known cause of backlash that results in increased racial rhetoric and activity, including violence. So, how does this strategy work? When White Nationalism and white supremacist rhetoric increases based on attacks against whites, then racial activists can point to it and demand redress as victims.

This strategy is actually recommended in activist literature. For example, here’s one quote on the benefits of backlash: “…hard-right backlash is a critical domestic factor that can help overcome…collective action problems, enabling…rights activists to find resonant frames, build internal solidarity, and win allies.” Here’s another on stroking the backlash: “By promoting and elevating the backlash against your seemingly noble agenda, you heighten the fighting instinct we have as humans, and tap into a feeling of victimization versus a feeling of purpose.”

The only problem is that this manufactured opposition also increases “real” racism, “real” racist incidents, and often gets people hurt or killed. Within the SFF community, it can result in the bullying of minority writers without the benefits of status and name-recognition, who then have a harder time getting published. This suggests the gains made by some minority individuals could well be at the expense of others.

So, should we continue to legitimize this kind of manufactured racism? Should we classify this strategy as a kind of racism itself? Or should we sympathize with activists and reward their behavior just in the interest of progressivism?

Are Personal Attacks Protected by Law?

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While I looking through the various developments on the efforts to silence speech, I came across some interesting cases related to “free speech” that I’d like to review. In explanation, the First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees speech free from government interference. There are a few limitations to this; for example, when you’re a government employee. However, the First Amendment doesn’t cover speech in the private sector. That means employees are subject to the policy of their employer as far as speech goes. Also, “public” persons are subject to more stringent standards in libel or defamation lawsuits and have to show malice, rather than just negligence in order to win damages.

Looking at the cases, the NRA vs. San Francisco Board of Supervisors suit is fairly straight-forward. It’s about infringement of constitutional rights because the Board of Supervisors is a government entity. That means the NRA, in their suit, is charging the San Francisco government is interfering with their ability to advocate for their political views (okay, plus defamation).

Here’s a a more complex and interesting suit that’s currently working its way through the courts in Virginia. Edward Tayloe is currently party to a lawsuit to preserve Confederate statues in the Charlottesville downtown. University professor and activist Jalane Schmidt provided quotes to a local newspaper article in which she called Tayloe a “slavery apologist,” among other things. Tayloe responded with a defamation suit claiming Schmidt wrongly portrayed him as a racist, which hurt his reputation and his ability to do business in the city. Although Schmidt works for a government entity (a state university), the Virginia Department of Risk Management found the case fell outside of the scope of her employment. The ACLU stepped in to defend her and filed for a dismissal, arguing Schmidt’s speech is covered by the First Amendment, and labeling the suit a SLAPP (a strategic lawsuit against public participation). The motion also notes that Schmidt’s statements are opinion, “a well-protected category of speech.”

So, is any “opinion” you express about a person protected by law? Does this allow open season for personal attacks (a.k.a. author bullying)? Can you call anyone you don’t like a racist (for example) and damage their career (as a writer, for example)? This has recently developed into a common problem in publishing, especially in the Young Adult market, where “fans” attack books as racist to get them pulled from publication. Should this kind of action be protected speech?

Of course, there are limits on personal attacks. Some kinds of speech are not protected. In 2017 an online argument about gaming escalated to “swatting” that resulted in an innocent person’s death. Understandably, the person who initiated the call to police was convicted of charges including interstate threats and involuntary manslaughter, but two other gamers who were involved in the argument were also convicted of felony conspiracy. A similar incident happened in 2015 when Lou Antonelli swatted David Gerrold after an argument on the Hugo Awards. Luckily this incident was resolved without fatalities.

So, have personal attacks become an acceptable pattern of expression in the current political climate? Do people even realize when they’ve doing it? Should verbal bullying be protected speech?

Review of “The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births” by José Pablo Iriarte

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is fantasy and was published by Lightspeed Magazine in January of 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Jamie feels like both a girl and a boy, which seems to come from a confusion of past lives where they lived as one or the other. Jamie’s friend Alicia tells them a murderer Benjamin Avery and his family are moving in down the street. When Jamie sees the man, it jump starts a train of memory. After some research, they remember this is the man who was supposed to have killed them in their last life when they were a girl named Janie. But that’s not right—it was someone else. Benjamin rescues Jamie from the neighborhood bullies, and they talk. Memory strikes again, and Jamie remembers who the murderer really was. Is there any way to clear Benjamin and make the real murderer pay?

This is a very well-developed story with a great plot and great characters both. The description is first rate, and the neighborhood and age-level kid details feel real. The plot Jamie and Alicia come up with to track down the real murderer is highly entertaining. There are also some interesting asides here, too, where Jamie refers to his dog Meetu as a teddy bear trapped in a pit bull’s body. Hm. A touch of satire there? The ending is also satisfying, where Jamie decides to act on their feelings for the lesbian Alicia.

Regardless that this is both touching and entertaining, it has something of a forced feel because of all the sexual and gender diversity. I don’t think it necessarily follows that being born as both a male and female in past lives is going to lead to gender confusion in this one. It seems like a characteristic that would carry over fairly clearly from one existence to another.

Four stars.

Militant progressives take aim at “brown” authors (a.k.a. more on author bullying)

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It’s been a little while since I checked in on the author bullying scene. A quick review of articles this week shows it’s an ongoing problem, and that the environment for young adult novels is currently well into the toxic range. Here’s a Vulture article that names Twitter and Goodreads as a source of much of the problem, where a certain militant group uses social media to police upcoming or newly issued books that might “harm” teens through what are deemed inappropriate social justice messages.

What’s actually going on here? Censorship? Book burning before the fact? Jealousy? Experts seem to think it has to do with ongoing culture wars. YA continues to be mainly driven by white authors, despite calls for more diversity, and some people of color continue to report rejection due to a sort of quota system. So, looking at the specifics of this, mostly the authors (and their publishers) being attacked this way are white women. That suggests a certain “mean girls” culture could be involved, but still, the attackers use progressive clubs to beat their victims. The Vulture article quotes a NYTimes Best-Selling author as saying there is, “a sense shared by many publishing insiders that to write outside one’s own identity as a white author simply isn’t worth the inevitable backlash.” You could think that this backlash might be an effort to shut down white authors so publishers will have to publish more acceptable POC writers, but interestingly, the community sometimes turns on authors of color who don’t toe the line, as well. For example, I’m curious about what Jamaican author Nicola Yoon did to get lambasted. Is the YA community really trying to shut her down?

So, you must be thinking something happened recently to provoke another blog from me on author bullying. You’re right. This week’s victim is Amelie Zhao, a young Chinese immigrant to the US who recently scored a three-book publishing deal with Delacorte. Her debut book Blood Heir was due for publication on June 4, 2019, but she has pulled it from publication due to attacks from the YA community. Apparently this has to do with a slavery theme where “oppression is blind to skin color.” Here’s a comment by “Sarah” from Twitter: “I’d love it if somebody who looks critically at what they read would write a detailed review that proves all the bigotry in this book so white people and Asians finally start listening because I’ve seen a lot of systematic shutting down of any brown person who brings up concerns with this book.”

This is an interesting comment because of the expectations it reveals. Sarah is soliciting bad reviews of the book? How does she know it’s “bigoted”? It’s not even published yet, so has she actually read it somehow? And what’s wrong with Zhao’s theme? Do people with a particular skin shade now own the rights to oppression? Also, notice that Sarah has lumped whites and Asians together on this in opposition to “brown persons.” Sorry, I missed something here. Are Asians not considered “brown” any longer?

Well, apparently not. Asians are apparently successful enough that they’ve got white backlash now.

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