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I’m in the middle of an Octavia Butler reread, and I recently reached the Parable books. Parable of the Sower was, of course, very good: a prompt to think about what it might look like for things to really fall apart, and a book that made me much more uncomfortable this time than it did the last time I read it. In particular, the book made it past my dislike of books that raise the moral question of “if things are going badly, isn’t it okay to kill people?” Because, so often, such settings feel like they’re set up to justify violence that the author (or the person doing the violence in real life) likes; not here.

But then I hit Parable of the Talents; oof. This is a book about a country falling apart, with a theocratic leader taking advantage of that to demonize people he doesn’t like, blame them for the problems, and kill them off or enslave them. Which was already feeling scarily close to home, and then I hit this paragraph:

I’m not sure how to talk about today. It was intended to be a quiet day of salvaging and plant collecting after yesterday’s uncomfortable Gathering and determined anniversary celebration. We have, it seems, a few people who think Jarret may be just what the country needs—apart from his religious nonsense. The thing is, you can’t separate Jarret from the “religious nonsense.” You take Jarret and you get beatings, burnings, tarrings and featherings. They’re a package. And there may be even nastier things in that package. Jarret’s supporters are more than a little seduced by Jarret’s talk of making America great again. He seems to be unhappy with certain other countries. We could wind up in a war. Nothing like a war to rally people around flag, country, and great leader.

Note the words “Jarret’s talk of making America great again”: it’s a MAGA reference, except that the book was published in 2000.


That paragraph is from before the presidential election in the book; and, of course, Jarret wins. Olamina, the book’s protagonist, has managed to build a settlement that avoids the worst parts of the chaos from the first book; but then Jarret’s goons sweep in with overwhelming military force and destroy it. They capture the adults, enslaving them and torturing them if they fall out of line; they kidnap the children and take them away. Olamina does actually eventually escape her enslavement, but her family ends up permanently destroyed: she doesn’t see her daughter again for decades, and by that time it’s far too late.

I read Parable of the Talents in the first week of June. And then, almost immediately after that, the border separations happened.


I think the moral here is: listen to Black people, especially Black women. Because it’s not simply luck that Butler happened across the “make America great again” phrase: as the 2016 election has made abundantly clear, there are an awful lot of people out there whose idea of a great America is one with straight white male Christians in charge, and everybody else subservient, removed, or killed. Some people’s response to the child separations at the border has been to say that this isn’t who we are, but MAGA says that this is exactly who America is: slavery showed that, Jim Crow and the KKK showed that, the Trail of Tears and separation of Native American children showed that.

And police violence shows that, and the incarceration rate of African Americans shows that. My first reaction was that Parable of the Talents showed an uncomfortably plausible near future, but it’s still an exaggeration; but after reflection I think you can make a case that it’s soft-pedaling the situation. Sure, in the book Olamina is imprisoned, but she and the others break out after a year (killing their guards, no less); whereas long before Trump came on the scene we’ve been locking up vast numbers of African Americans for decades without batting an eye. And the book presents Olamina’s imprisonment as something that’s done by a group that doesn’t have offical support and that is disavowed by the leaders of Jarret’s party when it becomes known; we can’t say that about the current prison system or the ICE.


I’m writing this on a day with maybe the worst group of Supreme Court decisions that I can remember, in terms of their flagrant disregard not just of morality but of the rule of law, decisions that don’t even pretend to follow any coherent system of reasoning or consistent precedent following. So the rule of law is falling apart at the highest levels of the judiciary; voting districts are gerrymandered in such a way as to make it extremely difficult for the Democratic party to win through the ballot (and this isn’t an outlier, this fits in perfectly with decades of systematic direct Republican attacks on democracy); and the ICE is sending every signal that it would be happy to act as the Gestapo.

George W. Bush was a horrible president. But we’ve seen Trump’s New Orleans: it’s Puerto Rico, it’s much much worse, and it’s gotten much much less coverage. Butler warned us in the end of the quote above about leaders whipping up wars after coming to power; we haven’t yet seen Trump’s 9/11 or his Iraq war, and plausible potential future scenarios are a lot worse than what we’re seeing right now. And, even without a war (or a 9/11 or a Reichstag Fire), the the Republican party’s assault on democracy and the ICE are going to get worse until they get stopped.

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