Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Populist Uprising—Then and Now

Michael Wolraich, Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics

Does this sound familiar? A president, famed for populist theatrics, who actually fears rocking the boat and makes alliances with Wall Street and with old-money families. A cadre of activist journalists whose ability to shine light on unseemly secrets stirs public outrage, but not always at the right targets. A single reckless financial operator gambles with somebody else’s money, single-handedly blowing a hole in America’s economy, but faces no consequences.

It cannot be coincidence that Michael Wolraich’s history of America’s so-called Progressive Era sounds almost exactly like Obama’s Presidency. The conditions that ultimately shattered the 19th Century political machines have resurged today, and the same potential for radical change (“radical,” from the Latin radix, root) seethes beneath placid public compliance. Wolraich simply serves to remind readers that such conditions exist, and the populist revolution brewing has precedent.

In 1904, the two major American political parties lacked core ideology. People lined up behind geographic and ethnic alliances, and parties basically existed to distribute patronage plums. Republicans controlled Congress, and Republican President Theodore Roosevelt swaggered across international awareness. But old-style bosses distributed connections parsimoniously, keeping money concentrated and influence locked. Government remained basically ignorant of brewing provincial discontent.

President Theodore Roosevelt
Out of Wisconsin came firebrand Governor, later Senator, Robert Marion “Fighting Bob” La Follette. His successful brand of incendiary populism fired jaded voters, seizing Wisconsin’s Republican Party from machine bosses. He advocated such subversive tactics as direct primaries for Senatorial elections, getting dark money out of politics, and calling legislators out by name for their voting records. By simply naming and shaming electors, he threatened to overturn longstanding political privilege.

As Wolraich’s novel-like political storytelling unfolds, these two political lions stake respective territory, threatening everything the other finds sacred. Roosevelt used threats of anti-trust action to limit moneyed interests, but seldom flexed real muscle. He actually rubber-stamped JP Morgan’s monopolistic practices when it served larger purposes. TR couldn’t understand Fighting Bob’s willingness to challenge powerful movers and start ideological fights he knew he couldn’t possibly win.

Fighting Bob, by contrast, sees legislative debate as subservient to larger political goals. Kick-starting large battles fired public sentiment, and losing could have better long-term consequences than winning. To Fighting Bob, as Wolraich puts is, half a loaf really was worse than no loaf whatsoever, if such compromises blunted public appetite for necessary fights. Fighting Bob’s first priority was not to win incremental bargains, but to generate public outcry for genuine reforms.

Senator "Fighting Bob" La Follette
Journalists Lincoln Steffens and Ray Stannard Baker loom large in Wolraich’s narrative. Both believed their job was to hold public officials accountable to the voting public. Government officials and super-capitalists had conflicted relationships with newspapers: they’d feed information when it served their interests, then disclaim journalists later. TR managed to alienate Baker, his sometime ally, when it served political goals to disparage “muckrakers.” This embodies TR’s chameleon-like political skills.

Such skills became important in 1907, when a “robber baron” attempted complicated financial maneuvers to corner America’s copper market. When his schemes imploded, and he sanctimoniously refused to eat his debts, investors ran on Manhattan banks, and the infection soon spread nationwide. Washington lacked tools to stanch the bleeding, and the GDP contracted eleven percent overnight; without JP Morgan’s quick negotiating, Wall Street’s discussion could’ve been complete and disastrous.

Though Wolraich makes parts of this history sound disturbingly familiar, other parts are chillingly different from today. One of TR’s populist foes, Dixie Democrat “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, combined reformist populism with frankly appalling racism. Wolraich avoids mentioning race much, but white privilege and in-group protectionism simmer beneath this narrative (see Ian Haney López). That isn’t directly part of Wolraich’s thesis, and he pulls focus carefully, but it’s sometimes inevitably visible.

Wolraich tells his story with deliberate current-day motivations. He describes how American politics, which looked very different in the early 20th Century, realigned itself along now-common ideological lines, assuming a modern attention on voters. He also spotlights how the conditions that precipitated populist outrage in the pre-WWI years mirror today’s political and economic circumstances. If today’s politicians want to avoid creating another Fighting Bob, they’d better start paying attention.

Though the Tea Party positions itself as today’s insurgents, and aims to undo Progressive Era reforms, it precisely recaptures Fighting Bob’s tactics and political ethos, picking doomed fights to prolong public outrage and constantly revitalize its revolutionary character. Wolraich’s writing combines history and journalism, creating a century-old story that rings with modern urgency. Reading his story, contemporary audiences will face, page after page, the shock of very modern recognition.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Innovative Cities and Neighboring Life

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 37
Jeff Speck, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time

I'm of two minds about this book. I agree with everything urban designer Jeff Speck says about the social, physical, and environmental prices we pay for cities hostile to what he calls "the useful walk." I've seen the cultural and economic revitalization that has struck cities which implement his "Ten Steps of Walkability." I'd like to see his principles applied widely, reconnecting people to their neighbors and neighborhoods nationwide.

However, I have certain problems with his vision. They aren't completely dispositive, and are limited largely to one chapter, so future innovations will probably answer my doubts. However, my problems reflect the limitations Speck and his fellow big-city architects haven't acknowledged about their lofty goals, and they'll need resolved before Speck's "Walkable City" vision becomes widespread. Otherwise, they'll create new expenses further down the line.

Speck divides his spirited, informative, often funny book into two parts. The first is essentially a manifesto about why pedestrian-friendly urban cores matter. He points us toward a "general theory of walkability" and makes three concise, lucid points:
  1. When people walk, they have opportunities to meet new people, see new places, and have new experiences; when people drive, they zoom past real life.
  2. When people walk as a useful enterprise, they use their bodies productively; when people drive, they spend their most productive hours sitting down, and get fat.
  3. When people walk, they don't contribute to environmental decay; when people drive, every little errand burns carbon.
Counter-arguments readily avail themselves, but Speck slaps them down quickly. The convenience cars provide doesn't offset the isolation, and resultant creative and industrial suppression, they create. Habitual drivers may exercise, but most don't, and in today's marathon commute culture, perhaps can't. And while cities are notorious hubs of carbon pollution, most carbon burned in urban cores gets burned by suburban commuters.

Speck's second, much longer part comprises ten clear steps that encourage pedestrianship. Some seem obvious. People will walk where there's something to see; where green spaces renew fresh air and provide convenient public meeting places; and where mixed uses put errands, gathering spaces, and residences close together. Readers will recognize these claims from Norman Rockwell paintings and Disneyland's Main Street USA.

Other recommendations seem counter-intuitive, until Speck explains his reasoning. While trees encourage walking, broad green spaces discourage it, by making walking monotonous and separating people widely from their destinations. How cities handle public parking makes remarkable degrees of difference. And monumental buildings designed by what Speck calls "starchitects" discourage community usage and "the useful walk."

I love everything Speck says so far. Where I live, in the Great Plains, I've watched how towns which adopt essentially suburban design paradigms see their cores wither and their economies starve. And I've seen how towns that follow Speck's principles flourish. My fellow prairie dwellers bemoan the "brain drain" and wonder how to keep populations robust and prosperous. Speck replies succinctly: be someplace people want to live.

My problem arises in Chapter Three, Speck's chapter on how high-density urbanism discourages environmental pollution. Speck draws heavily on David Owen's book Green Metropolis, which contends that dense usage minimizes carbon burned for climate control, transportation, and other ubiquitous uses. Owen and Speck insist that city design actively discourages flagrant carbon abuse, and I believe them. The evidence is robust.

But the Owen-Speck model excludes two kinds of pollution unique to high-density usage. Cities require constant massive infusions of food, which suppliers must truck in. Perhaps Speck and Owen don't realize how carbon-intensive American agriculture is today, but farms burn almost as much carbon as suburbs. Cities also produce vast quantities of sewage, which generally gets unloaded today by treating it with synthetic chemicals and dumping it into waterways.

Cities employing Speck's dense mixed-use paradigm must tackle sewage removal. And American society overall must reassess our carbon reliance in agriculture and other industries. We're producing more food—and frankly, more mineral extract, more manufactures, and more stuff generally—than we need, which requires constant carbon infusions. (Other authors have addressed this problem.) Dense cities will fix some of that problem, but other concerns remain.

The move away from walkable cities reflects an American fixation on bigness. Big houses with big lawns, big cars navigating big streets, big industry fueling big consumption, and naturally, banks too big to fail. Speck's human-scale urbanism principles should help relieve at least some big, destructive problems. While pedestrian-friendly downtowns are no panacea to relieve American gigantism, anyone who's window-shopped lately knows, it's a good place to start.

See Also:
The New American Urbanism

Friday, July 25, 2014

Fancy Pantsy and the White Rapper Irresolution

Iggy Azalea
Writing in last week, Rutgers professor Brittney Cooper wrote a rather lentghy (by Internet standards) excoriation of the media attention accorded to Australia-born rapper Iggy Azalea. Iggy’s fourth single, “Fancy,” topped the Billboard Hot 100 and turned her into a bankable star. It has also drawn criticism and praise in equal degrees, mainly for its white artist’s use of traditionally black styles. This reaction is distinctly problematic.

Fear of cultural appropriation has become a major bugbear in our time of multiple political causes. Cooper objects to Iggy, a white artist, replicating African American vocal mannerisms in her singing. Though Cooper stops short of calling Iggy racist, others aren’t so judicious; MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry dubbed Miley Cyrus “racist” for twerking at the MTV VMAs. Like some black artist somewhere laments the theft of her lucrative signature move.

Personally, I find this song profoundly unpleasant. The relentlessly repetitive electronic chord (singular); the lyrics vainly boasting of wealthy excess, common among poor artists; Iggy’s forced accent and Yoda-like diction, making her sound like she’s imitating, even mocking, Tara from True Blood. Consider the opening line: “First thing’s first, I’m the realest.” Anybody who knows culture knows that proclamations of authenticity usually precede imminent bullshit. Iggy doesn’t disappoint.

But as I've written before, music isn’t a colony for my values. ATL-style rap isn’t for me. Cooper acknowledges in her article that Iggy acquits herself well; “almost without fail,” Cooper writes of when this track emerges from her radio, “I immediately start bobbing my head to the beat.” Even Iggy’s vulgar boasts of material wealth reflect black American culture’s longstanding yearning for the economic stability white American culture historically hoarded.

Cooper’s complaint, therefore, rests entirely on “appropriation,” a politicized updating of look what they’ve done to my song, Ma. She dislikes Iggy’s “sonic Blackness,” citing “the Beastie Boys, or Eminem, or Macklemore… who’ve been successful in rap in the last 30 years and generally they don’t have to appropriate Blackness to do it.” That is, Cooper dislikes how Iggy sounds black—Cooper almost seems to resent Iggy for being white.

One wonders where Cooper excavates her facts. When Eminem broke nationally fifteen years ago, I read a Revolver magazine article wherein he bragged that, when he distributed his demo tapes without a headshot, A&R executives assumed he was black. Like Elvis, whom many DJs thought black because his early 45s didn’t feature his face, Eminem borrowed black Americans’ perceived against-the-grain authenticity to bolster his message and image.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “racism” as “Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” I shouldn’t have to say this, but it bears emphasis, that one doesn’t steal from people one considers lesser, contemptible, or inferior. We steal from people we believe have something we need, but lack. That may be stuff, ideas, or perceived credibility.

Cultural acquisition always moves from poor to rich. Oh, sure, self-proclaimed culturati create rules to keep paeons obedient: poems must rhyme, or orchestral compositions necessarily beat self-taught instrumentalists, or a painting must “look like something.” But these rules represent authority’s last-gasp effort to marginalize art they consider subversive. True artists consistently find ways to circumvent fake rules and create pathbreaking, unorthodox artwork that actually touches audiences’ souls.

White artists frequently apprentice under black mentors, even when they don’t create “black” art. Hank Williams learned guitar from itinerant bluesman Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne. As a teenager, Ringo Starr sought an American entry visa to meet Lightnin’ Hopkins. Back when American music was segregated, British mariners brought blues 45s home; many of their sons, including John Lennon, Van Morrison, and Keith Richards, reintroduced black music to white America.

Cooper’s complaint isn’t without merit. Iggy has left a trail of racially problematic tweets, has only sporadically contributed to the black culture that subsidizes her, and her public melodrama edges worthy black women from the culture market. Plus, her video, which pilfers everything moveable from Amy Heckerling’s 1995 orgy of excess, Clueless, kinda sucks. Nothing in this essay excuses Iggy Azalea personally.

But “cultural appropriation,” rather than a race-baiting conundrum keeping African Americans down, is simply art’s natural progression. White Americans already pinched jazz, blues, and hip-hop from their black cousins, just like the English stole Irish music, or everybody in Sedona, Arizona, stole every Indian artwork not nailed down. Iggy Azalea’s music could help heal old wounds, or it could re-open them. The difference is in how we receive her.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Reality—For Sale, Cheap!

salem, Black Hole Butterfly

In a lawless future Manhattan, PI Rook Black traces a scientist’s murder to a secretive Chinatown underground of supertechnology, art, and crocodile wrestling. There he finds brewing war between Gasland, the organized muscle behind petroleum, and the Naranja Empire, whose solar-powered tech is reshaping society. The enemies square off over control of Shakespeare, whose prose constantly re-creates reality around us. Rook Black is a pawn in their operation.

In tone and technique, salem’s debut novel resembles classics from William Gibson and Pat Cadigan. The collision between human nature, with its dogged continuity from age to age, and our built environment, which refuses to stand still, feels almost exactly like the Reagan-era “future shock” novels I grew up reading, though rather than distrusting computers, the disquieting technology has reached a higher order. Confoundingly, this doesn’t go nearly far enough.

salem writes in slow, cerebral tones, a languorous prose poem of butterflies, Buddha, quantum mechanics, and sulfur matches. Rook Black is a gripping character, both soberly analytical and deeply sensual. His struggle to track Jack the Butterfly, who sells black-market reality to Chinese criminals, defies retelling. This isn’t some paperback potboiler you fall asleep under; you immerse yourself in salem’s lush prose, absorbing Rook Black’s struggle to understand the inexplicable.

This novel thrums with compressed energy so tight, you can practically hear the orchestral score beneath its silent prose. (salem’s career began writing unproduced screenplays.) Secrets come dribbling out, not predictable, but certainly reliable. salem’s language hides secrets: for instance, the Naranja Empire. Naranja, Spanish for “orange.” Significant? Yes, but the reasons why prove as elusive as the pseudo-reality Jack the Butterfly sells under the table.

But this same storytelling proves this novel’s greatest weakness. salem positions this novel as a sci-fi mystery, much like Cadigan or Jonathan Lethem wrote twenty years ago. But pages and pages pass without dialog, possibly salem’s Achilles heel. Though rich with introspective tone, the characters—a cast of thousands—don’t interact much. Mysteries require people to talk, to divulge secrets. We get scads of soul-searching, but precious little action.

salem’s reliance on darkness, rain, and an unchangingly bleak backdrop channels Alex Proyas’ 1998 sleeper classic Dark City, and when I realized that, problems set in. I began seeing echoes of the Wachowskis, Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels, and even Star Trek’s holodeck, stories and storytellers who cast doubt upon reality. This familiarity, this reliance on mass-media tropes we’ve already overanalyzed, takes readers outside salem’s profoundly immersive narrative.

Science fiction, more than any other genre except perhaps spy thrillers, is innately tied to the time when it was written. Our concepts of the future, our understanding of technological potential, changes regularly. Networked computers, which terrified Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, seem ordinary now. Rocket ships, far from recapturing the glamour of Spanish exploration, have less personality than dump trucks. Skiffy, generally, doesn’t date well.

But rather than address our era’s relationship with technology, salem revisits Mulder and Scully’s conspiracy theorizing. Though Rook Black gradually uncovers massive secrets, which salem reveals with grace and aplomb, they have a texture of unrelenting familiarity. salem, I came to realize, is an excellent prose stylist; but this narrative is a massive portmanteau of late-1990s stereotypes so comfy, one suspects salem has made a nest in another decade.

This is a novel of ideas. Rich, lushly deconstructed ideas, ripe with potential to demonstrate psychological profundity and social impact. salem’s characters unpack implications to make William Gibson look comparatively unambitious, expounded in language balanced on the cusp between Raymond Chandler and Allen Ginsberg. It’s both a throwback to my paperback youth, and a bold experiment. Stylistically and conceptually, I’ve seen little like this in the last twenty years.

This isn’t a novel of characters. Though salem has many characters with interesting motivations and enigmatic backstories, they don’t so much interact as collide, and each remains so bound by their respective situations, they prove slow to change, resistant to each other even under duress. Because they scarcely interact, their ideas get propounded, but only intermittently tested and refined. salem proffers profound viewpoint characters, but they interact only sporadically.

Thus, how readers receive this novel depends on what expectations they bring into the experience. I found plenty to enjoy, particularly how it recalls the science fiction that corresponded with my dawning maturity. Yet salem’s admittedly ambitious story never gains traction, partly because it gives little place to hang my attention. We have the rudiments of an excellent novel here. It just doesn’t go far enough.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Savage, Honest Dreamer

Melanie Lamaga, The Evolution of Reptilian Handbags: and Other Stories

I had read difficulty reading this book, in the best way possible. Lamaga’s fiction, a dreamscape of shifting lands and towering, beanstalk people, uses fantastic images and superhuman characters to pierce her readers’ expectations. Her surreal, André Breton-ish prose revels in keeping readers constantly back-footed and surprised. Reading her short stories resembles that moment when, awakening abruptly from a semi-nightmare, your flesh doesn’t feel like your own.

Lamaga’s debut collection compiles ten stories, written over a decade and change, the longest running sixty pages, the shortest, three. She uses familiar settings in an unfamiliar way: an Iowa horse farm becomes an unlikely refuge against laser-guided war, for instance, or the act of stripping away flooring reveals the primordial soup beneath civilization. Many stories are less sequences of events, than puzzles whose solutions arise from their readers’ psyche.

Stories range from slice-of-life vignette, to apparent free association, to out-and-out fantasy. Lamaga doesn’t link stories by tone or content; but they do share one theme, transcendence. A desperate office worker’s trials become her zen koan, and she becomes a Buddha. A suburban teenager abjures so many trappings that she becomes gossamer, drifting away on a train’s wake. A banker steps off a pier into the waiting arms of nothingness.

Or characters resist transcendence when it’s offered. “Waking the Dreamer” features a rich sybarite’s obsession with a Sleeping Beauty. But when his infatuation awakens her, she reveals hidden wrath that eradicates mere human fixations. Our nameless narrator realizes that “The snake did not deceive Eve—Eve was the snake.” Except his description, when Beauty unveils her true nature, reflects a completely different figure from Paradise Lost.

In “The Seduction of Forgotten Things,” a disaffected daughter dyes her hair purple, wanders city streets at night, and discovers the beating urban heart her parents forgot. When she meets a half-savage drifter, they form a naturalist family together. But when sudden illness threatens their unborn child, her wild-man husband returns them to her genteel origins, where she discovers she’s maybe tamed him too well. She’s become his greatest burden.

The title story jumps, comic book-like, around a world where metaphor has died. When somebody falls into a trance, there’s a chance they’ll break some bones. When a tsunami of trash crests on society, people drown on plastics and fumes they previously, heedlessly discarded. All the monsters and predators of myth linger in a dark, twisting canyon, waiting for our metaphor-free dreams to awaken them to our new, literal world.

Human dreams often reveal our dissatisfaction at civilized stability. How often have your dreams involved savage nature invading our world? Like me, you’ve probably fled waves, literal waves, of refuse returning to reprimand our profligate ways. You’ve probably wandered rain-slick streets where fishboys leap, glistening, from sewer grates. Lamaga billboards these dreams, these pre-human visions of savage, invasive nature, letting us bask in her radiant glow of terrified familiarity.

Probably most difficult for me, “Mr. Happy the Sharpshooter” spotlights an experience I share with many men. Young Frank Happy’s autocratic father used words and fists to expunge anything he considered “weak” (read here “feminine”) from his gentle, open-hearted son. Imaginative and playful, yet eager to please Dad, Frank tears himself in twain, the hardened, buck-hunting Korean War veteran everyone sees, and the sad-eyed artist behind the mirror.

Except, for Frank, this cleft isn’t metaphorical. Shuffling through life, broken-souled and desperate for approval, he discovers very late that there’s another Frank Happy, a top-rated children’s TV host. Everything our Frank lost, that Frank gained. Whenever fate flipped a coin, that other Frank won. Dad loved that other Frank, just for being Frank. So our Frank grabs a sniper rifle and goes hunting the life he should’ve had.

Lamaga’s storytelling—sometimes tender, sometimes brutal, always humane—eschews the limitations of reason and wakefulness, plunging us into the visceral ordeals everybody shares nightly. Replacing sentiment with sense, told in a range of languid, unhurried voices, she creates a hypnotic sub-reality into which we don’t climb, but fall. We drift in her stories like a slow-moving river, like an afternoon nap, like a womb.

When you begin reading, do me one favor: disregard the back-cover synopsis. Its one-sentence descriptions of selected stories don’t accurately reflect the stories, misleading readers to seek the wrong cues. Lamaga’s stories resist brief distillation. Like the dreams she channels, Lamaga’s stories deserve our full immersion, experiencing them as they unfold in full horror and grandeur. They eat you whole, and afterward, you thank them for it.