Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Lost in a Good Book

Kenneth Branagh as Henry V
I remember my first encounter with Shakespeare. It was Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 big-screen adaptation of Henry V. The local newspaper reviewer lavished lengthy praise upon its complexity, its nuance, and its almost-complete thematic reversal from Laurence Olivier’s 1944 paean to conquest. I knew little about Shakespeare, beyond his reputation, and a few oft-quoted lines (“To be or not to be,”) so I decided to give Branagh a try.

So I rented the VHS, sat down to watch, and greeted the production with… complete incomprehension. Who was this strange person in modern dress, played by Derek Jacobi, who introduced the film, and kept recurring throughout? Who are these various courtiers who appear for only one scene to speak Delphic riddles? And are these characters even speaking English? I could answer none of these questions with any confidence.

I call this my first encounter with Shakespeare, even though my 9th Grade English teacher had us read Julius Caesar several months earlier. But I have difficulty crediting that initial reading. This teacher had us perform weird exercises too hasty and premature for first-time Shakespeare readers, like designing the set, or translating the dialog into vernacular English. But several months later, this same teacher insisted we could tell Ernest Hemingway was profound because we couldn’t understand him, so I have difficulty taking her seriously anyway.

So Branagh’s Henry was my first direct Shakespeare, unmediated by interpreters or state-credentialed Cicerones. I leapt headlong into Henry and immediately got lost. I found the experience so unsettling that I didn’t repeat it for nearly two years, studiously sidling away from the Bard, except a mandatory 10th-Grade sojourn with King Lear. Again, officially mandated curriculum confused more than it clarified.

David Tennant as Hamlet
However, when Zeferelli’s Hamlet hit home video, the one with Mel Gibson, I heard the hype, swallowed my doubts, and tried again. The experience was totally different. I can’t say I completely understood everything, but I certainly followed events more clearly. I sometimes had to pick meaning from context, and many outdated words or high-flown phrases evaded me altogether. But I had a real experience this time, one I’d willingly repeat.

I figured the director might’ve made the difference, or perhaps the performers, or even the visual design. For whatever reason, it never creased my brain that I myself might’ve changed. That perhaps having thrown myself into King Henry, and even being dragged unwillingly through Caesar or Lear, might’ve changed my perspective. Only after I purchased paperback editions of several plays, and read them myself, did I realize: Shakespeare had rewired my brain.

This realization hit me like a cold slap several years later when, browsing my local bookstore, I encountered something called No Fear Shakespeare. Available for all Shakespeare’s major plays, and most of his minor ones, it offers the full Shakespearean text, with a facing-page translation into vernacular English prose. Rather than providing useful definitions of individual words and phrases, as the Folger editions I read did, it simply restates everything, with the poetry taken out.

Similar editions exist, under series titles like Shakespeare Made Easy, Shakespeare Side-by-Side, and Shakespeare ReTold. Each promises frustrated students that they needn’t strain their already overtaxed brains understanding Shakespeare; some expert somewhere, who doesn’t get title-page billing, has done the understanding already. You need only memorize the plot points likely to appear on a pop quiz, and you’re golden!

Jon Finch as Macbeth
This isn’t the place to expound on overloaded students and their teachers, suffering budget cuts and staffing shortages, aiming not for deeper thought but to ace standardized tests. We all have opinions. Rather, I mean only to state that, if students have the difficulty sanded off difficult books, I question whether they’re truly learning. By which I mean, are they truly having their brains rewired by exposure to unfamiliar ideas?

For me, the difficulty understanding Shakespeare wasn’t a bug in the system. The difficulty was the system. By forcing me to adjust my mental rhythms to match Shakespeare’s, I needed to step outside myself, to encounter new ways of thinking. I emerged transformed, better able to handle sophisticated questions and empathize with unfamiliar people, because I did the work of understanding Shakespeare myself, not outsourcing it to designated experts.

I’ve read pundits recently extolling the virtues of boredom or failure, traits putatively missing from modern education. But what about the virtue of confusion? If I’d understood Shakespeare like reading a paperback novel, I would’ve missed the joy of dawning awareness. And I fear that’s a pleasure today’s students will scarcely know.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Wisdom of Crowds, and the Money to Do It

Michael J. Epstein, Crowdfunding Basics in 30 Minutes

The rise of crowdfunding websites has traveled hand-in-glove with spreading social media. Savvy media customers use their web presence to solicit support for their entrepreneurial ventures, artistic experiments, medical bills, and more. A young couple I know is crowdfunding their fertility treatments. But not every crowdfunding venture succeeds. What makes some triumphant, and others sputter on the launch pad?

Los Angeles-based renaissance man Michael J. Epstein has used crowdfunding to support himself as an independent filmmaker and indie musician. His familiarity with crowdfunding shows a mix of academic research and practical experience. As a writer, he shows a careful balance of raconteur and scholar that most working journalists should aspire to emulate. And he explains the crowdfunding principle in ways naifs and part-timers, like me, can really understand.

Novice crowdfunders may mistake the process for the online equivalent of passing the hat. An earnest appeal, backed with some concrete example of your plans, should get at least a few people to crack their wallets, right? Not so, says Epstein. This book, longer than a pamphlet but shorter than, say, a Malcolm Gladwell treatise, delves into crowdfunding without bogging down in details. Because not everything about crowdfunding is obvious.

First, not all crowdfunding platforms are equal. Epstein doesn’t have a thorough list of all crowdfunding websites, since in today’s economy, individual sites come and go; he name-checks a few popular sites, but only as examples. For instance, Kickstarter, targeted at for-profit entrepreneurs, has an all-or-nothing mentality that encourages a certain urgent mindset. GoFundMe aims to buoy struggling individuals, while Patreon subsidizes artists and other creative professionals.

Michael J. Epstein
But even beyond finding the right platform, Epstein says, certain habits of businesslike thinking apply across multiple models. In a media-saturated digital marketplace, simply having an earnest, factual appeal isn’t enough. Serious operators need a professional logo, well-made video, concise but informative text statement, and at least a few good audio or video clips. That’s just for a minimum. This means having a good professional network; guerilla operators get overwhelmed quickly.

Finally, Epstein repeatedly returns to the idea that crowdfunders aren’t merely making a dispassionate business pitch, we’re building relationships. Which makes sense, on consideration. I favor my local grocery for convenience, selection, and value, but also because I know and trust the workers. How much more does that apply online, where we’re bombarded by appeals daily, unmoored from the urgency of needing fresh produce close to where I live?

Epstein’s pitch is detailed enough to inform readers, but brief enough to prevent discouragement. He makes generous use of screen captures, infographics, charts, and other goofballs designed for visual thinkers. Essentially, this book is laid out like a webpage, appropriately enough, since it’s designed for web semi-professionals accustomed to the Internet’s multimedia format. This makes for smooth reading for multiple audiences, without dense, discouraging blocks of text.

This encourages me to say something I don’t believe I’ve ever written in a review: maybe you’re better off getting the Kindle version. Since we read books like this for information rather than pleasure, and since you probably need the data sooner rather than later if you’re drafting a crowdfunding campaign, and since it comes conveniently pre-formatted for online reading, and hey, since it’s four bucks cheaper, having the physical book probably doesn’t help much.

Having the information contained herein, however, helps a great deal. Like many self-starting entrepreneurs, you’re probably throwing yourself against your project with more brute force than professional polish. Having a mentor like Epstein to guide you away from the most common pitfalls can save you long-term heartache, and bring more money into your project. Epstein can’t solve all your problems, but he’ll prevent worse ones.

It may, sometimes, be necessary to separate Epstein’s content from his person. A director of small-budget vampire films, he cultivates a quirky, slightly dangerous image, a sort of off-Sunset John Waters. Many photos, including one inside this book, emphasize his wide, staring eyes and uncultivated beard. Don’t be fooled by his appearance, though. Epstein writes with a cool hand, a mind for thorough detail, and an eye toward diverse audiences.

The title notwithstanding, don’t expect to really understand crowdfunding in thirty minutes. At 73 pages plus back matter, this isn’t lunch break reading. And that’s before the necessary time spent planning and practicing the principles Epstein lays forth here. This book requires readers to think and plan conscientiously. But if it gets us thinking like business professionals, planning with a long horizon, we’re already a step ahead, right?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Dying to Get Into Aleppo

Elliot Ackerman, Dark at the Crossing: A Novel

Haris Abadi wants to die. He lost his passion for living while interpreting for American army interrogators during the Iraq war, though his loyalty earned him American citizenship. Now he has bribed a few officials, made his way to Turkey, and wants to cross into Syria to join the Free Syrian Army. Unfortunately, as he learns, borders exist for a reason, to keep people like him out.

Author Elliot Ackerman’s résumé reads like a mid-Twentieth-Century British author’s, a man absurdly overqualified for everything, who nevertheless dedicates himself to telling stories. A former Marine and CIA adjunct, White House staffer and NGO executive, he now lives in Istanbul, working as a stringer on Middle East issues for American audiences. He’s also won accolades for his short fiction, and this is his second novel.

Though an American citizen, Haris is essentially a man without a country. His pronouncements on wanting to enter Syria and overthrow Assad sound idealistic at first. But, beaten and robbed at the border, penniless in Turkey where he doesn’t speak the language, his ideals prove disposable. He bounces between some half-generous street kids and a Syrian expat who has connections. But he still keeps trying to enter the war zone.

Stranded in Antep, Turkey, Haris washes up with Amir and Daphne, an unhappily married couple who crossed the border the opposite direction. They lost everything when the Free Syrian Army mishandled a weapons cache in their building. Daphne still carries the scars after being dug from the rubble. Amir is disillusioned, ghosting through Turkey’s rich refugee life, but Daphne wants to return to Aleppo and find their daughter.

Elliot Ackerman
Like Ackerman, Haris is a renaissance man, a highly educated world traveller with multiple languages and a dramatic backstory. Unlike Ackerman, he’s fallen hard in life. Landing in Detroit following his army hitch, he paid his sister’s college tuition working as a janitor. She repaid his generosity by marrying an Emiriti millionaire and leaving America. Left alone, an unwanted foreigner in a dying economy, Haris has little to live for.

Ackerman writes with a slow voice, more interested in Haris’s inner turmoil than deep pronouncements on world affairs. Readers expecting a wild ride through Syria’s active war zone will find this novel a jolt. Fundamentally, this is a literary novel, a book not about actions or events, but about us, the readers. Like Jane Austen or Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ackerman doesn’t write about a specific time, he holds a mirror to his audience.

Syria offers Haris the sacramental garb of martyrdom he seeks. He proclaims loyalty to the Free Syrian Army’s professed ideals, but seems largely unaware what those ideas are. He ballyhoos his inside contacts, primarily a man he’s only met through e-mail, a Nigerian Prince of Syrian nationalism. If he paused, he’d realize he’s probably getting scammed. But if he paused, he’d also realize he’s trapped alone with himself.

In Daphne, Haris finds a kindred soul, somebody equally trapped in the past and unable to comprehend the present. Both want something they’ll only find in Syria. Haris will regain the purpose that war once provided him; Daphne will find her daughter. Both have pinned their hopes on vapor, but that’s only because they don’t really want what they want. Syria gives them a chance to die.

Americans like to romanticize the expatriate experience. We think citizens living abroad all crowd into one apartment and dance relentlessly, like Hemingway, Baldwin, and Gertrude Stein in Paris. Ackerman throws up a glamorless contrast to that mythology, a colony of Arabic-speakers in Turkey drifting through life, no longer alive but unwilling to die. These are people without a homeland, without an anchor, without souls.

In early chapters, Haris inveighs against the evils of both Daesh and Assad. He uses Islamic language, but has no particular personal religion. When the Free Syrian Army proves as morally corruptible as the enemies he seeks, Haris quickly shifts allegiances, even seeking partnership with the Daesh operative who robbed him. He still attempts to present himself as morally upright, but readers will realize, he fools himself because he must.

This isn’t a war novel about violence and heroism. Ackerman provides a literary insight into the workings of one human mind seeking to imbue life with meaning by finding something worth dying for. This proves a frustrating and ultimately chilling journey, one signposted with all the frailties of human morals and justification. But it’s a deeply humane story. It’s about the war, but again, it’s also ultimately about us.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Things Sean Spicer is Sorry For Today

First, I’d like to apologize to Greta Van Susteren for dragging her into this. I know you already look like a waffler for jumping ship from Fox News to MSNBC, almost like you don't really stand for anything but the next paycheck. Same for your networks. So having my sad mansplaining ass on your show probably didn't help much. If it's any comfort, when they fire you and you have to move to Russia Today right behind Ed Schultz, I’ll probably be looking for work too. Hey, maybe we could set up shop together? I could be your Ed McMahon! Think about it: “HEEEEEEERE’S Greta!” No, really, think about it. Please. I’ll leave my card with your people.

To Adolph Hitler: I know we keep dragging you out of the metaphor closet like an old coat. All the crap you’ve been through, you deserve the same chance at being consigned to oblivion that we gave Genghis Khan and the guy who thought Blunt Talk would be a step forward for Patrick Stewart. If it's any comfort, we may soon have a new gold standard for awful people doing obnoxious things. Just sayin’, we may get to retire your name soon. Sleep well, Adolph.

Also, to the Jews offended I mentioned Adolph during Passover: Mazel tov. I guess I was meshuggeneh. What a schlemiel, eh? Is okay, I go through desert with you. We all one people now. Is good, right?

My sincerest apologies to the camera guy who had to watch me flail. I slipped a C-note, so now your whiplash treatment is covered by Trumpcare. But let's just let that stay between you and me. We don't want everyone thinking they can get that kind of treatment.

To the UPI pool reporter, who asked about the tax returns, and I replied “Are you high?”: I had no idea that Jeff Sessions would order a spot drug test. Also, I had no idea about your Medical Marijuana card, or your debilitating pancreatitis, or the meds you can’t swallow without your dope. I truly am sorry, and though your lifeless remains can’t appreciate my sincere contrition, I did send your wife and your boyfriend fruit baskets, so it's okay. Right?

Fort Sumter. Not really me but, y’know, I knew people. So just, I’m sorry in general for that one. While we're being honest.

My regular cabbie, Sadiq, has become the one guy I can trust. He listens to my frustrations, and his old family hummus recipe belongs in the National Archives. Seriously. So Sadiq, if you’re watching this, I’m sorry for all the things I’ve had to say about your country, your family, and your people. That Instagram you showed me of your mother is really, really… well… I shouldn’t have asked for her number, that was inappropriate. You know I don’t have the connections to get her a green card, sorry. Do they have fruit baskets in your country?

To my agent: I know I said this would be a good way to kick-start my stand-up career, but in the spirit of full disclosure, I hadn’t really figured out how to get free stage time yet. And in fairness, hey, free publicity, right? It’s the Madonna principle: if people are talking smack about you, at least they’re talking. Okay, I admit, Madonna never had to make excuses for a guy who tried to stage-manage World War III. But I never tried to dry-hump a nun in four-four time. Which is a pretty good trade-off. I hope.

My wife says I should probably apologize for rendering up our firstborn as a hostage to The Donald and his diabolical plans. Because I used to believe in him, I really did. But you and I both know he’s gone batshit crazy off the rails, and I really want to get out of this train wreck. But he has my son. So until I get my family out of this, I guess my only hope is to grip my chair arms, make peace with my Lord, and await the sweet release of death.

And finally, I apologize for always wearing the same grey suit whenever I leave the house. There’s no excuse for that shit. I had the guy at Men’s Wearhouse take my measurements this morning, and I have my eyes on a debonair pinstripe number on the closeout rack. I hope they take EBT, because once I bust my son out, you know they ain't gonna pay me the big bucks anymore.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Rule of Law in a Monopoly Society

Cell phone image of a bleeding passenger, since
identified as Dr. David Dao, being dragged off
a United Airlines flight
The great British critic GK Chesterton wrote, between the World Wars, that for most people, most times, there is no difference between Communist and Capitalist regimes. In the aggregate, no matter the system, we work for someone else, under conditions we didn't choose. We don't own our own tools, and therefore lack leverage to negotiate for better work. And in both systems, bureaucrats control our lives. Whether corporate or state bureaucrats makes little practical difference.

On Monday, we witnessed two examples of American bureaucrats so high-handed, they unified Right and Left in outrage against the corporate state. You’ve already seen cell-phone footage of United Airlines “security officers” forcibly ejecting a medical doctor from a flight he’d already legally boarded. The crew arbitrarily selected him to relinquish his seat, but citing his waiting patients, he refused. So security slammed him bodily against the bulkhead and dragged him, bleeding, down the aisle.

Almost simultaneously, the Lake County, Florida, sheriff’s department released a PR video in which the sheriff threatens imminent crackdowns on heroin dealers. Surrounded by four armed and armored deputies with balaclavas over their faces, he cast an image many viewers found eerily similar to Daesh (ISIS) propaganda videos. Sheriff Grinnell’s aggressive rhetoric sounds exactly like Jihadi John threatening vengeance on journalists, Christians, apostates, and the kitchen sink. Turn the sound off, the illusion becomes complete.

Frustratingly, both actions are completely legal. Courts have ruled that any orders given by airline pilots, however capricious, however illegal on land, have force of law. United is facing PR blowback, but they’ve destroyed baggage and killed pets before. Their overwhelming market dominance exempts them from consequences. And legal precedent permits sheriffs to threaten, lie, coerce, and bully with relative impunity. Sheriff Grinnell's video looks terrible, but is nevertheless protected by existing Supreme Court precedent.

Smarter commentators than I struggle to create meaningful definitions of the word “bureaucracy.” I won’t attempt to settle all debates here. For our purposes, let’s define a bureaucracy as a hierarchical institution that deputizes some people to enforce rules, but doesn’t accord them discretion to interpret those rules. Law officers, like Sheriff Grinnell, or their civilian analogues, like the United security officers, have rules to enforce. Only their superiors (judges, bosses) can amend those rules.

Bureaucracies require a functional monopoly. Sheriff Grinnell has complete authority to enforce law in Lake County, Florida, endowed with this authority by the civil government, and elected by the county’s citizens. Despite the myths of unarmed civilian crimefighters like Batman or Phoenix Jones, real authority to combat lawlessness is vested in the government. Even private security officers, like United’s, or real-life civilian crimefighters, like the Guardian Angels, eventually turn their arrests over to the police.

Likewise, United basically has a similar monopoly in commercial flight. Thought other airlines exist, economists will mention something called the 3-30 Rule: when three suppliers control thirty percent of a market, that market is no longer free. United, American, and Southwest Airlines, though nominal competitors, functionally have monopoly authority. They can do anything, because we cannot go elsewhere. That’s why United successfully shrugs off bad publicity, like United Breaks Guitar, because we cannot stop them.

Sheriff Peyton Grinnell
(Orlando Sentinel photo)
As always, whenever people who posess power exercise it over the powerless, apologists have come out defending the actions others consider deplorable. Without authority over their county, or their plane, how can these authorities do their jobs? This claim isn’t without merit, from the powerful side of the spectrum. This centralization of authority—commercial authority, legal authority, or whatever—certainly benefits whoever controls that authority. Americans believe only time stands between us and becoming powerful.

Except that transit of power never quite happens. According to the National Sheriffs’ Association, there are 3,081 sheriff's’ offices in America. Even if each elected sheriff served one term and retired, there aren’t enough offices for every qualified law officer in America, much less every person living under the law. And even if even if every qualified pilot owned an airliner personally, who would do booking? Publicity? Serve drinks? Power is, by nature, distributed unequally.

Our answer to this abuse isn’t fighting power with power. As Chairman Mao demonstrated, when power models reverse, the names change, but structures remain steadfast. Our society’s opponent isn’t a militarized police force or a monopolistic airline. It’s the power they represent, the domination of citizens by massive bureaucratic organizations. Our solution isn’t installing new bureaucrats, it’s empowering ordinary citizens. I don’t know how to do that yet. But the time has come to try.