Friday, June 23, 2017

More Human Than You

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 83
David Livingstone Smith, Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others

Nazis characterized Jews as rats, while Rwandan propagandists called Tutsis cockroaches. But while turning humans into household vermin justified killing them, colonists characterized Africans and Native Americans as cattle, which justified enslaving them. Both were instruments of control. To take away power from other people, we must first take away their human essence. But how do we do that, and why, and how do we live with ourselves afterward?

Philosopher David Livingstone Smith, in seeking sources to answer these questions, found that little has been written about dehumanization. The term gets discussed widely, especially in contexts of racism, sexism, and wartime propaganda. But little scholarly research has really addressed the social and psychological processes that let us perceive humans as “lower” life forms. That seems an oversight in today’s brutally sectarian times, which Smith decided to rectify.

We must begin any consideration of dehumanization with the question: what makes us human? This seems an obvious question, one easily answerable by science, but this is an illusion. Excessively specific definitions of humanity risk excluding groups, from racial categories to the disabled. Broader definitions risk including chimpanzees. Were australopithecines and Neanderthals human? Contemplate the question, and humanity becomes a philosophical rather than a scientific category.

It helps to understand the concept of essentialism here. Smith provides lucid explanations, which he clarifies throughout this volume, but the concept looms so large, it deserves some definition. Humans are different: skin color, height, language, disability. Yet across these superficial divides, we generally agree, some fundamental essence preserves our core humanity. The argument then becomes, what essence truly defines humanity? And does everyone classed “human” actually have human essence?

David Livingstone Smith
Humans, it appears, are master creators of categories and groups. While chimpanzees comprehend “Us” and “Them,” and sometimes brutally slaughter Them, only humans create narrow, intricate in-groups. Only humans create shifting alliances between such groups. Only humans institute rituals designed to reinforce such groups… and only humans show conscience enough to recognize when our group-creating inclinations harm the insiders we intended to help.

This capacity for unbounded cruelty, coupled with this unique ability to reflect on our own thinking— what Smith calls second-order thought— puts humans in the unique position of being both nature’s most destructive species, and its most creative. The two tendencies often travel together. The tendency to redefine humans into livestock, vermin, or monsters which need defeated, has often produced humanity’s most creative thinking, to our eternal discredit.

Understanding our capability for dehumanization requires delving into humanity’s most shameful history. Smith unpacks various genocides, like Rwanda, the Holocaust, the Turkish slaughter of Armenians, and Darfur. He also looks into European colonial history, where peoples once regarded as equals and allies, like Africans and Native Americans, became subhuman enemies almost overnight. The patterns Smith uncovers are chilling and informative. But as you’d expect, it makes for difficult reading.

This dovetails into humanity’s tendency to create races. Social scientists and philosophers have written on how races, far from being consistent or biologically mandated, are created and constantly reinvented by human societies. I was particularly struck, in Smith’s analysis, by how early children divide humans into groups, and how little those groups resemble the racial categories adults encourage others to fear. Racism both does and doesn’t need to be taught.

As the argument progresses, solutions become murkier. You cannot insist on transcendent human essentialism to people who believe designated groups lack human essence. And even when stereotypes of designated groups prove unreliable, bigotry remains remarkably intractable, immune to evidence. Smith doesn’t insult readers’ intelligence with false hopes or pat solutions. He makes readers live with our indictments, because nobody is immune from the capacity to push others outside humanity.

This isn’t a scientific text. Smith doesn’t rely on recently fashionable sciences like brain imaging and behavioral economics, currently voguish in mass-market nonfiction. Not only are such sciences less reliable than often peddled, but science lacks the vocabulary to describe the complex, amorphous interactions involved in this process. Humanity, and dehumanization, aren’t scientific facts to be analyzed, like amoebae. They’re philosophical concepts, changed by the fact of being examined.

Smith doesn’t pretend he has the last word. In his final chapter, Smith lays out questions that still need examined moving forward. This book represents an intermediate step in comprehending the ways human beings steal other humans’ essence. But as an intermediate, if considered with the sobriety the topic demands, this book offers us an opportunity to move forward. We could reclaim our humanity by restoring it to others.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Time For a New Economic Yardstick

Lorenzo Fioramonti, The World After GDP: Economics, Politics and International Relations in the Post-Growth Era

The Gross Domestic Product has proven a mediocre economic measurement at best. It totals the cash value of all economic transactions, but doesn’t measure costs and benefits commensurately; car wrecks and traffic congestion have cash value, but lovingly restoring Grandma’s classic Fairlane doesn’t, unless we sell it. I grew disgusted with GDP fifteen years ago, when national leaders presented shopping as the solution to the 9/11 attacks.

South African economist Lorenzo Fioramonti begins this dissertation with a brief history of Palau, an island nation once touted as miraculous for its powerful economy. After independence, it parlayed massive mineral reserves into Earth’s largest per-capita GDP. But that wealth wasn’t distributed equally, and GDP didn’t include non-priced factors, like environmental decay. When the minerals were tapped, the miracle proved illusory. Palau is now poor, physically blighted, and without hope.

Fioramonti sees a parable of modernity here. Economic measurements aren’t value-neutral; what economists count inevitably becomes what leaders and entrepreneurs pursue. Price elasticity causes an inverse relationship between market price and social value, meaning things we struggle to measure in dollars, like the environment or human communities, get forgotten… until catastrophe strikes. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Fioramonti progresses from grim history to optimistic forecasting.

GDP arose during World War II, for specifically wartime purposes: to quantify America’s ability to manufacture military supplies. Quoting several other economists, Fioramonti compares GDP to the Manhattan Project, a wartime planning tool that somehow persisted into peacetime and remains impervious to changing conditions. (It even triumphed in the Soviet Union, eventually, because the preferred Leninist measurement failed to account for the service industry.)

Lorenzo Fioramonti
But even GDP’s chief inventor turned against his creation. Contemporary critics deride GDP for its inability to incorporate environmental costs: dirty air and flammable rivers have no price, and therefore no economic weight. But GDP pioneer Simon Kuznets realized his invention didn’t encompass human costs. Worn-out workers, sundered families, and communities severed from their roots have consequences, but no price, so they don’t get figured into the GDP.

And this only includes what happens visibly. Early in this book, Fioramonti uses a familiar, but still impactful analogy. He writes that “food cooked at a restaurant and purchased by consumers is registered as part of a nation’s economy, but the same food cooked at home and shared with family and guests is not.” We could continue: grocery shopping counts, gardening doesn’t; replacing old socks counts, darning them doesn’t.

This leads directly into Fioramonti’s most important precept for creating an alternate economic measure: “one important step in shifting attention is to make the invisible visible. This is what ‘post-GDP’ scholars and activists are trying to achieve.” This proves more ideal that systematic. Though Fioramonti lists several alternate economic yardsticks devised since around 1975, none encapsulates every possible contingency. We need complementary measures, Fioramonti writes, not one-size-fits-all.

Among other topics, Fioramonti spends considerable time on what officials euphemistically call the “informal economy.” This sometimes means off-the-books accounting, like the Mafia, but it also includes everything productive we do that doesn’t generate money. Volunteer work, time spent with family, and home-cooked dinners all create value, but in ways that lack price, and therefore the GDP cannot track them. Does mom’s home cooking have no economic value?

“The GDP-induced categorization of work,” Fioramonti writes, “also hides the fact that only a fraction of people’s time is spent on formal jobs.” But other systems of measurement can include these pastimes. If the economic devaluation of environmental destruction doesn’t convince you the GDP measures the economy badly, then maybe you’ll be convinced when other measurements place value on your hobbies, community, or family. The GDP considers these wasted time.

I repeat, because Fioramonti does, that economic yardsticks are never value-neutral, despite what ardent capitalists claim. The GDP rewards whatever costs money, hides whatever “externalities” get buried off the books, and encourages reckless, interest-bearing debt. Fioramonti does a remarkable job detailing this history. Committed followers of events, like me, may have some prior familiarity with Fioramonti’s descriptions of what already exists, though he collates diverse sources in new, enlightening ways.

Then, when we’re convinced the status quo cannot continue, Fioramonti provides us the alternative. These aren’t just alternate accounting systems. They’re innovative value measurements, means of rewarding productive behaviors beyond slapping price tags on everything. Our world is changing, bringing the marketplace with it. If we don’t change our economic paradigms appropriately, history will surely leave us holding the bag for costs we’re not yet prepared to pay.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Economics of Addiction

My father has emphysema. Who wouldn’t, after fifty-six years of smoking? Though he hasn’t been formally diagnosed, his pained breathing and persistent fatigue have finally forced him to use the word “emphysema” for the first time, at age 72. He once told me he began smoking at age fourteen, though he never mentioned why; after several false starts, he finally kicked the habit about eighteen months ago.

When my family relocated from California to Nebraska in 1992, so my parents could retire near where they grew up, I immediately noticed how many people smoked. My first job, behind the convenience store counter, involved accessing the tobacco rack for customers, a position for which I now suspect I was technically underage. While it wouldn’t be accurate to say most purchases included packs of smokes, enough did to worry me.

At that time, still under the sway of neoliberal political thinking, I would’ve never attributed economic reasoning to personal habits. I just wondered why smoking seemed so pervasive in Nebraska culture compared to California. Though I knew smokers Out West, they remained primarily obscure, pursuing their habits less blatantly. My workplace never completely stopped at smoke-break time, as it did in Nebraska, where smokers herded, lemming-like, toward the doors.

But thinking about my father’s struggling health, I realized I did see something similar in California. Though people smoking weed and consuming other drugs needed to maintain more cover than smokers do, the same basic behavior obtained. People embraced work, school, and other mandatory responsibilities as clear-headed as circumstances allowed, then when duty ended, they raced headlong to whatever substance made them feel human again. Legal or otherwise.

Addiction specialist Gabor Maté writes that understanding substance addicts in terms of recreational users is mistaken. Some people smoke weed, inject heroin, snort cocaine, and consume other drugs because their substances make them feel good. Addicts don’t want to feel good, however; they want to feel normal. They want whatever suffering infects their sober lives to vanish under the comforting glow of their favored substance, even for an hour.

Cocaine and heroin are painkillers. Before they became illegal, snake-oil salesmen included these drugs in their patent medicines because, no matter whatever else their concoctions included, Peruvian marching powder made the pain go away. So when considering what turns people into coke or smack addicts, or what hooks people on other painkillers like alcohol or Vicodin, we must look not at the drugs, but at whatever pain needs killed.

Nicotine and cannabis, however, aren’t painkillers. Like Valium, another widely abused substance, they’re anti-anxiety drugs. When jitters paralyze you, having a smoke, a toke, or a tab of V really drains the tension. So if painkillers require us to find the user’s unexamined pain, logic dictates, anti-anxiety drugs require us to find the unexamined anxiety. Why would a 14-year-old from bucolic western Nebraska have anxieties that need smoked out?

Rural life is frequently precarious. The principal economic driver, farming, is constantly subject to weather, market fluctuations, and other forces individuals cannot control. Dips in commodity prices take money from farmers, but also from businesses dependent on farmers, like equipment dealers, small-town banks, and entire rural downtowns. Despite tough-talking individualist myths, rural and small-town people, the western Nebraska population, live constantly at the verge of a sheer cliff.

Compare big-city life. Even after the collapse of 2008, the financial services sector remains America’s largest industry, in dollar terms. People wager massive fortunes on a 24-hour cycle. As we learned during the last economic contraction, financial services operates like a casino, plying big winners with rewards to keep them at the table. In Vegas, the rewards include comped drinks. One icon of bankers’ lifestyles is the three-martini lunch.

So while small-town people live constantly with the anxiety of hoping they’ll make next month’s payments, big-city moguls swallow the risks of gambling away Grandmother’s retirement savings. People raised in rural life, like my dad, or in California’s suburban uncertainty, smoke the anxiety away. While Bernie Madoff-type gamblers kill the pain of knowing they’re rewarded while they’re winning, but could lose everything at any moment.

Cocaine and heroin have little presence in western Nebraska, where I live, but at my construction job, I’m among the few men who don’t use tobacco. This isn’t coincidental. People’s favored drugs reflect their circumstances, and their circumstances have dollar measurements. Though hard drugs remain the province of urbanism, where difficulty and pain define daily life, rural workers will always prefer to smoke their fears away.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Tommy Gunn's School Daze

Laurie R. King, Lockdown: a Novel of Suspense

Career day at Guadalupe Middle School will make or break Principal Linda McDonald. After turning a failing school around, Linda has managed to corral enough community members to remind her students they have a future. For one day, they’ll forget their personal dramas, the pains festering at home, and the two criminal investigations lingering at the margins, and celebrate their potentials. Too bad somebody’s coming to school with a gun.

The dust-flap synopsis on Laurie R. King’s newest standalone novel is slightly misleading. Though the story promises a violent schoolyard confrontation, the anticipated explosion doesn’t actually arrive for over 300 pages. Rather, King places the emphasis on the buildup, the suspense as a school of over seven hundred students simmers. We know something’s coming. We’re left to wonder not what, but who, and why. Because King offers multiple suspects.

Principal McDonald has shepherded her school through several powerful conflicts in her first year. A well-liked, but possibly abused, student has disappeared, leaving behind a best friend pitching conspiracy theories pinched from Doctor Who. A high-school gangland murder drags the middle school in because the only witness was one of McDonald’s students. And that’s just the problems McDonald can see. She has multiple cauldrons waiting to boil over.

There’s the kid harboring a nasty grudge and carrying something in his backpack so powerful, he can’t bring himself to think about it directly. The beautiful but damaged teen desperate to escape the stultifying strictures her political refugee parents place upon her. The principal’s husband, always fleeing his personal demons. The wannabe gang-banger desperate to prove his chops. And the janitor, known only as Tío, carrying a bloody secret.

Laurie R. King
Guadalupe MS, in the (fictional) agricultural community of San Felipe, California, has dozens of conflicting forces pushing on its students. They come from a mix of economic, racial, and cultural backgrounds: poor Hispanic migrant workers and software developers send their children to one school. Also fugitives fleeing poorly defined threats, and working families hoping to shield their children from gangs. Add heat, and watch the chaotic combination boil.

Our story unfolds, minute by minute. King offers us glimpses into different viewpoint characters’ heads, so we see the same events from multiple contexts. What one character considers a flippant comment, another perceives as an insufferable slight. Principal McDonald has at least two opportunities to deflect the looming violence, but misses them because she can’t read students’ minds. Characters live in their own brains, never knowing how close they miss.

This, King implies, is the theme of life in public society: everyone thinks their personal dramas are unique. Especially in middle school, with the simmering pressures of looming adulthood, every character sees their own conflicts, and doesn’t realize others have the same. King only addresses this indirectly, as when her wannabe gangster thinks the beautiful girls have life easy. But it’s constantly present: everyone has problems nobody else sees.

The front cover calls this “A Novel of Suspense,” which isn’t inaccurate: we know something catastrophic will happen, changing characters’ lives forever. But this isn’t like bog-standard procedurals or action potboilers. King offers an overlapping matrix of character dramas, inviting us to tease out secrets and layers. The suspense comes from wondering which of the many private controversies will eventually spill over into public violence.

King is most famous for writing novels starring Mary Russell and an obscure supporting character named Sherlock Holmes. The publisher bills this as King’s first standalone novel in over a decade. But even that isn’t entirely accurate, since there’s a brief chapter linking this novel to King’s lesser-known series protagonist, SFPD detective Kate Martinelli. It’s a fun teaser, but one needn’t know King’s prior works to appreciate this story.

If this novel suffers one shortcoming, King introduces so many characters, with their own private plotlines, that she can’t possibly defuse them all. We know, with the bloody climax coming, that King can’t resolve both the miscommunication between the clique of insecure pretty girls, and Tío’s attempt to save the gangbanger from his myths. King starts multiple interesting stories which remain unfinished. Maybe she’s saving something for the sequel.

Nevertheless, she does a remarkable job displaying not only the causes of life-changing violence, but the lives that will be changed. Middle school is a crucible, even when literal blood doesn’t spill, a dark and brooding place where everyone thinks they suffer alone. And, as we read, we realize: maybe we aren’t so different from these kids ourselves. Which is actually a liberating thought.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Götterdämmerung, the Reader's Digest Version

Daniel Kehlmann, You Should Have Left: a Novel

A successful screenwriter rents an AirBnB in the mountains to write. His studio wants a sequel, and his family needs the money. But secluded on a vacation cabin with his glamorous, bored actress wife and their daughter, the words begin to flow. Until the bad dreams begin. And right angles don’t add up to ninety degrees. And his little girl wakes up speaking prophecies of doom.

Veteran novelist Daniel Kehlmann is a household name in Germany, but remains largely unknown to English-speaking readers. This novella might change that. Mixing elements of Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, and Elizabeth Hand, Kehlmann creates the kind of creeping dread that American paperback readers love, channeled through the kind of linguistic mindset that gave us Thomas Mann and Günter Grass.

The story unfolds as our nameless narrator’s journal. On one hand, he jots notes for his screenplay, a John Hughes-like coming-of-age comedy where two “Besties” adjust to an adult friendship. The story provides ironic commentary on events building around him, as his vacation home apparently grows new bedrooms overnight, reveals a massive mountain nobody else can see, and insinuates itself into his marriage. Symbolism abounds.

The story immediately invites comparison to King’s The Shining and Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. Kehlmann doesn't even pretend to deny such allusions, though he doesn't acknowledge them either. But such comparisons, while accurate, are nevertheless incomplete. Kehlmann doesn't so much present a horror novella, as a novella of what Freud calls “the Uncanny,” the subconscious made manifest in the protagonist's senses.

The house seemingly accentuates its inhabitants’ identities. When the narrator and his wife fight, they fight like feral cats cornered in the same Dumpster. When they agree, they mesh like two hemispheres of the same brain. And when their daughter begins speaking grim, powerful words beyond her ken, they realize, almost without words, that the problem isn't them, it’s the house.

Daniel Kehlmann
Much more happens, of course. But not, I fear, enough. I like this book, and don’t want anybody to ever say I said otherwise, but man, this book is short. The story itself runs under 110 pages, which makes its $18 list price awfully steep. I read the whole thing inside three hours. And though Kehlmann is easily King’s or Jackson’s equal in scene-setting, his conclusion is abrupt, without resolution, leaving only questions.

Horror, after all, is a genre of balance. Writers must reveal enough to keep readers engaged, but withhold enough to maintain suspense. No wonder I mainly write poetry.

So I vacillate on how to review this book. For most of the reading experience, I wanted to lavish praise upon it: though he reuses tropes horror readers have seen before, Kehlmann employs them in ways that create tension and make us care about his characters. Then he just stops. His characters, complex and deeply humane, deserve more explanation at the denouement than he offers. It’s like he just got bored.

Perhaps I’m being overly critical. Kehlmann clearly comes from a literary, rather than genre, background. His emphasis rests on creating nuanced characters and telling details, rather than dawning fear. In that case, rather than Stephen King, his work more closely resembles Brian Evenson or Thomas Ligotti. As with those writers, the why of the situation matters less than its imminence for the characters.

Nevertheless, Kehlmann’s audience reads works like this every day. Veteran readers recognize both the similarities, and the differences, with King’s Jack Torrance or Liz Hand’s Julian Blake. We deserve some explanation of how our nameless narrator finds himself in this situation. Without that, the final four pages appear weirdly disconnected from what came before. Like Kehlmann was writing for a predetermined end, rather than one arising from the situation.

Translator Ross Benjamin has a long history of translating German-language writers into American English. His CV reads like a Who's Who of contemporary German writers, though most will remain unfamiliar to English-speaking audiences. The one readily familiar name also clarifies his qualifications to translate this novella: Benjamin has won awards for translating Franz Kafka.

On balance, I suppose I should recommend this book. Some of my favorite authors, like Joseph Conrad and Salman Rushdie, have difficulty writing resolutions worthy of the novels they’ve crafted. And King himself extols the short form because it exonerates authors from the imperative to explain. My disappointment arises not because this book is weak, but because it's so strong that it sets itself a high bar. This is a good novella. I just wish it was great.