Friday, May 26, 2017

Where American History Goes To Die

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 82
James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong

American attitudes toward history are deeply contradictory. On the one hand, we reverence our past and make demigods of our Founding Fathers. On the other, we’re frequently altogether mistaken, even flat damn wrong, about what they actually did. Demagogues use this factually muddled reverence to manipulate us toward ends we don’t want and scarcely understand. How did we reach this point, and how can we combat it?

Harvard-educated historian James W. Loewen became a celebrity within education circles in 1980, when Mississippi rejected a state history textbook he co-wrote, on the grounds that it focused too heavily on racial matters. He challenged this decision in court, and his victory became a landmark in First Amendment battles: states cannot reject textbooks simply because they dislike the content. This philosophy underlies much of Loewen’s later writings.

Who were the Native Americans? Was John Brown, the violent abolitionist who attacked Harper’s Ferry, insane? Who took the lead in the Civil Rights Movement? And what, really, happened in Vietnam? Your answers to these questions probably reflect how these topics were taught, or frequently avoided, in your high school American History class. They probably inform how you think and vote today. And, Loewen demonstrates, they may be wrong.

Loewen begins this, his most famous book, with twin anecdotes about how two figures, Helen Keller and Woodrow Wilson, get described in high school-level American History textbooks. Keller, a longtime labor activist who believed capitalism threatened American values, gets reduced to a child who triumphed over adversity. Wilson, a racist who invaded several countries on specious pretexts, gets elevated to a progressive icon whose economic policies delayed the Great Depression.

James W. Loewen
These anecdotes, which Loewen finds repeated across twelve textbooks widely used in American public education, represent the process by which controversy and debate vanish from American history. People who never study history beyond high school, never realize that Keller and Wilson, plus Columbus, Lincoln, and other sanctified icons, had deep conflicts and remain controversial today. Textbook authors would rather elevate heroes and celebrate triumphs, than acknowledge America’s fraught past.

Textbook history, Loewen finds, have a tendency to present history has a succession of heroes advancing American greatness, pushing us toward ever-better displays of virtue. Students get no sense of setbacks, struggles, and the difficulty we still face achieving America’s stated principles. Thus, many citizens believe the present somehow represents a decline from a storied past, and today’s controversies as irrevocably cluttered and dangerous. Which they’re not.

This sometimes requires Loewen debunking specific myths. The virtual erasure of both racial and economic factors from history textbooks leaves Americans believing the controversies over these topics are somehow recent. Even slavery gets divorced from race. Yet when Loewen reprints a pre-Civil War campaign song, “Nigger Doodle Dandy,” used to split poor white voters from blacks, for instance, America’s long history of race- and class-based divisions becomes glaringly obvious.

Other times, Loewen eschews specific myths, preferring to focus on the myth-making process holistically. How did the First Thanksgiving become a sort of American Genesis myth, one to which Native Americans are mere guests? How did poverty and want vanish from history texts? Why is the entire Twentieth Century often addressed in under fifty pages, as though textbooks fear to approach the recent past? How did so much get omitted?

Multiple explanations exist. Textbook authors write, not for students, but for textbook committees, which often don’t involve educated historians. Education departments fear the wrath of powerful private interests, which would often rather have students loyal and patriotic than open-minded. Many high schools hire history teachers to coach athletics, and they have only a cursory background in their discipline. And these are only some of Loewen’s diverse, scary explanations.

Partway through this book, Loewen says one thing I cannot support: he insists that history, alone among disciplines, is so badly taught in high school that college professors must spend entire semesters breaking students from oft-regurgitated myths. But that’s not so: Paul Lockhart says something almost identical about math, and Gerald Graff says that about English. Sadly, much higher education involves students unlearning ignorance propounded in public schools.

In a democracy, history matters to how citizens approach the present. Citizens who don’t understand that history is both contingent, and ongoing, can’t make informed decisions about their government. The failure to understand history’s themes often colors our tendency to approach the present with either outrage or helplessness. If schools won’t educate Americans, we must educate ourselves. Loewen provides the tools to begin that dangerous process.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

What Do You Call a Thriller That Doesn't Thrill?

Dan Chaon, Ill Will: a Novel

Nearly thirty years ago, someone murdered thirteen-year-old Dustin Tillman’s extended family, leaving Dustin and his older female cousins orphaned. Dustin’s testimony steered his adopted older brother, Rusty, to Nebraska’s Death Row. But DNA evidence has exonerated Rusty. Dustin, now a successful Cleveland therapist with kids and a critically ill wife, must grapple with his brother’s sudden reappearance in his life… as a fresh round of killings begins in his area.

Award-winning novelist Dan Chaon has good intentions with this novel. He takes premises from genre fiction, filtered through the techniques of high-minded literary fiction. But like a sleeper couch, he creates a hybrid that performs different functions with relative discomfort, in a way that will satisfy neither thriller readers nor literary cognoscenti. By populating his simply ordinary story with supremely unlikable characters, he leaves audiences nowhere to hang their hats.

First, Chaon’s nonlinear storytelling confounds where it should clarify, and vice versa. By stringing events together in an unsequenced montage, like a hip-hop filmmaker improvising at the editing table, events coalesce more from context and inference than organically. Joseph Conrad did this in Nostromo, where the confusion of secondhand information was partly his point. When we have access to viewpoint characters’ thoughts, as we do here, it just looks sloppy.

Moreover, as narration tapdances without chronological coherence, experienced thriller readers will start watching for whatever the viewpoint character leaves out. We understand how unreliable narrators work. We read this shit every day. Within thirty pages, it becomes painfully clear which character has omitted which important information from the recounting. This isn’t a mystery, where our protagonist must coax reality from conflicting evidence. The characters are just lying to the audience.

Dan Chaon
Chaon’s characters, besides being willfully dishonest, are also unpleasant. Not ordinary unpleasant, like Sam Spade, whose impromptu ethics define his story. Dustin Tillman, who has buried childhood trauma in marriage and career, handles his wife’s early death by descending into alcoholism and parental negligence. His son Aaron becomes a quasi-goth junkie with homoerotic tendencies, presumably because “gritty realism” sells. Dustin’s cousins use promiscuity to plug the vacancies in their souls.

The characters come across, not as hard-boiled, but as merely dickish. Everybody’s morally vacuous, but not for any story-based reason. Indeed, I’m not entirely sure even Chaon understands why his characters do anything. Dustin, a therapist, revisits his childhood with Rusty (Rusty & Dustin, geddit? Jazz Hands!) in terms transcribed almost verbatim from the DSM-V. Chaon cursorily plugs proper nouns into the description and apparently considers his authorial responsibilities thus covered.

But Dustin is a deliberately unreliable narrator. What about his son Aaron, the junkie? His described descent into addiction, debauchery, and crime, feels memorized from ONDCP pamphlets and Tarantino movies. I don’t believe these events for one damn moment. Dustin’s cousins behave wantonly because what self-respecting attractive 17-year-old doesn’t? Flashes of homosexuality, incest, and domestic abuse evidently happen because literary fiction authors have little else to elicit emotional responses anymore.

Parallel to all this, Dustin befriends a former patient, an ex-cop who deals with being benched by diving into tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theories. Aqil Ozorowski, who sounds like an error at the Scrabble factory, has identified a pattern of college-aged men disappearing at regular intervals and turning up later, drowned. He claims law enforcement is ignoring the truth. His wild surmises seem harmlessly annoying, until his pattern strikes Dustin’s family directly.

I feel so cynical describing Chaon’s work this way. His well-crafted narration, which sometimes reads more like Rimbaud’s epic prose poem A Season in Hell, deserves some mention. At the sentence level, Chaon writes well. But contra the advice sometimes dispensed by undergraduate writing instructors, writing is more than constructing good sentences. He’s chosen a genre with a dedicated, experienced audience, and apparently doesn’t realize his readers recognize the boilerplates.

Clearly Chaon wants to combine genre fiction’s gut-level sensory immediacy, with literary fiction’s thoughtful investigations of character motivation. But he doesn’t realize his thriller aspects are recycled, or that his characters treat the reader with contempt. I cannot help comparing Chaon’s story with Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands, which accomplishes what Chaon apparently cannot. Where Bauer explores her characters, Chaon acts like an exhibitionist. Bauer is morally ambiguous; Chaon is just unpleasant.

Somewhere around the one-third mark, I lost all motivation to keep reading. I realized, I didn’t care if these characters all died in a fire. I just couldn’t bring myself to persevere. That, fellow reader, may say everything you need to know about this joyless cinder block of a book.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Struggles of 2017 (As Seen From 1968)

Alain Badiou, The True Life

Western traditions and moral foundations are withering, says Alain Badiou. Religion and politics are vestiges of an older time, while capitalism reduces us alternately to children and instruments. In this series of talks, originally directed at adolescents, Badiou questions where youth culture could head in an era when we distrust the past and cannot count upon the future. Answers aren’t much forthcoming, but in philosophy, sometimes the questions matter more.

As a sometime academic and recent convert to contemporary French philosophers, I had high expectations from this book. But even I found Badiou’s prose dense, his reasoning tangential, and his conclusions unsupported by evidence. He presents an opaque philosophy, putatively for teenagers and young adults, that even grey-haired scholars may find confusing and impractical. And it verges, at times, on messianism. I can’t imagine whom Badiou is actually writing for.

Much of Badiou’s philosophy comes straight from his foundations in Paris 1968. He is both agnostic (he says atheist, but fudges), and an unreconstructed Leninist. He draws on an ecumenical selection of sources: Plato and Lacan, Rimbaud and Marx. But he doesn’t feel merely beholden to his influences; he goes beyond them, comments on their thoughts, and attempts to weave his Situationist-era roots with the smartphone age.

The result is, shall we say, chaotic. Badiou caroms from the necrotizing consequences of late capitalism; through the imposed roles of young and old, whom he believes should ally in rebellion against the middle-aged system; through importance and absence of unifying adulthood rites in a post-religious society; to gender roles and, honestly, I’ve forgotten what all else. His underlying thesis is, apparently, that modernity is confusing. Anyone could’ve written that.

Alain Badiou and friend
Not that I’d call Badiou wrong. He says plenty I find appealing. For instance, he writes how a secularized society without clear adulthood rites, traps citizens in perpetual adolescence. “The adult,” he writes, in one of my favorite quotes, “becomes someone who’s a little better able than the young person to afford to buy big toys.” Capitalism, in Badiou’s analysis, turns functioning grown-ups into vehicles of juvenile appetite.

He flinches on this later. Not people, but boys specifically, occupy a permanent teenaged wilderness. Capitalism stunts boys well into senescence, but turns girls into women from the cradle. So, tacitly, he accepts males as “normal” and females as “exceptional.” This becomes most apparent when he says if you look at a woman, “really look at her,” atheism is proved. He doesn’t say how. I know female pastors who’d disagree.

So, okay, Badiou makes weird statements and assumes his readers’ preferential agreement. That doesn’t make him wrong. Indeed, he’s a veritable assembly line of meaningful quotes about modernism’s essential vacuity. “The career is the hole-plugger of meaninglessness,” he says of how men’s adulthood is purely instrumental to capitalism. Or of women’s roles, “There are some women who are laboring oxen and some who are Persian cats.”

These statements make perfect sense to anybody who’s witnessed how society values men according to their remunerative value, and how it forces women into pre-written scripts that, feminism notwithstanding, have changed little. Readers who find modernist capitalism disappointing, like this ex-libertarian, may find themselves pumping their fists in exultation to see a scholar learnedly attesting what we’ve already thought, in terms concise enough for a t-shirt.

Yet reading his reasoning, I keep thinking: your conclusion doesn’t follow from your evidence. In one key moment, Badiou defends lengthy arguments by citing Sigmund Freud’s Totem and Taboo, an attempted psychoanalytic explanation of rudimentary religion, which I couldn’t finish because it requires more leaps of faith than the Bible. Freud’s corpus of work is mainly regarded as pseudoscience now anyway, so citing Freud doesn’t strengthen your claims.

That’s just an example, but it’s realistically representative of Badiou’s reasoning process. One suspects he starts with certain premises, like perhaps, that the financial collapse of 2008 and the rise of reactionary nationalism in industrialized nations go hand-in-hand, a premise so bipartisan that Bernie Sanders and Marine le Pen could probably agree upon that. Then he ransacks his personal papers, unchanged since 1968, to craft a justifying explanation.

Basically, I expected better from someone of Badiou’s standing. I want to say, take what you need and leave the rest; but a right conclusion from wrong reasoning is still wrong. Badiou crafts just enough useful slogans that I suspect he understands the core of the common situation. Then he lards it with weird source citations and intellectual cow paths. I just can’t figure where he’s coming from.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Why I Still Don't Want Genetically Modified Food

Much modern farming less resembles gardening than strip-mining

A friend recently shared another of those articles “proving”—to the extent that science can prove anything—that genetically modified foods are perfectly safe. Perhaps they are, I don’t know. However, the article included multiple references to “conventional” agriculture, insisting that GMO foods are perfectly equivalent to foods produced through selective breeding, which we’ve enjoyed for years, and here I definitely know something. Conventional agriculture, as currently practiced, is deeply dangerous.

That seems controversial to say. Americans today enjoy the cheapest food in world history, quite literally: on your typical grocery run, you probably pay more for packaging than the food inside it. Massive technological investments constantly improve agriculture, improving yield and ensuring continued, affordable supply for whoever can afford it. Selective breeding has produced more fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, and grain than ever before. Am I calling this improvement dangerous?

That’s exactly what I’m saying, and I’ll offer examples. According to a recent Atlantic article, a single bull who lived in the 1960s produced so many offspring that fourteen percent of all Holstein cattle DNA descends from this one specimen. Anyone who lives in cattle country knows prize cattle semen fetches premium prices on auction. This bull’s DNA quadruples per-cow milk production, but also increases likelihood of spontaneous abortion in utero. Hardly an unqualified success.

Equally important, though, and something the article scarcely touches on: 14% of Holstein DNA is now genetically homogenous. This resembles the degree of crop homogeneity that preceded the Irish Potato Famine. The rise of genetically similar cultivars, some GMO, some developed through conventional selective breeding, has produced remarkable vulnerability to crop blight, resisted only through petroleum-based chemical pesticides and intrusive technological interventions.

Pigs don't live in pens anymore; this is where your pork comes from

One episode of the Showtime TV adaptation of Ira Glass’s This American Life features a visit to a contemporary Iowa hog farming operation. The selectively bred hogs raised here produce more piglets per birthing, and therefore more meat overall, a seemingly desirable outcome. But the pigs produced so completely lack native immune systems that they cannot survive outdoors. They’re raised in clean-room environments more restrictive than those used in silicon microchip manufacture, at massive expense.

So we have livestock so homogenous that they’re vulnerable to blight, so tender of constitution that they cannot handle the outdoors, and so expensive to raise that any output gains are offset by the extraordinary measures necessary to keep them alive. So agriculturalists are backing off these approaches, as reasonable people anywhere would, right? Of course not. A combination of government incentives and corporate marketing encourages increasing output, even during times of unrestrained surplus.

Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), marketed heavily by Monsanto and Eli Lilly, promises to increase milk outputs. This despite known health effects, including distended udders and pus in the milk, and suspected side effects—rBGH is a possible, but frustratingly unconfirmable, human carcinogen. And this also despite the fact that the U.S. government has purchased excess American dairy stocks and dumped them on the ground to prevent prices going into freefall. It has done this since the 1930s.

I use livestock as examples, because images of living creatures suffering tugs our heartstrings. But this pattern obtains across all farming: fear of shortfall justifies constant excess. According to agriculture journalist George Pyle, America grows twenty times as much corn as Americans could possibly eat. So most of the oversupply gets fed to cattle, making meat insanely cheap. But cattle cannot digest corn starches, turning their shit acidic, a perfect environment for toxic E. coli strains.

That’s saying nothing of the economic impact. When NAFTA became law in the 1990s, some Americans worried that manufacturing jobs would emigrate to Mexico, which somewhat happened. But when subsidized American agriculture hit Mexican markets below the cost of growing, rural poverty, especially in the agrarian south, hit record numbers. Mexican poor sought work where work existed: in the U.S. And Americans elected a demagogue promising to build a wall keeping those impoverished workers out.

Old McDonald had an assembly line, E-I-E-I-O
Corporations sell GMO seedstock by promising increased yields. Conventional farming currently produces enough food to feed 150% of the current world population, mainly driven by petroleum-burning equipment, with fertilizers and pesticides derived from petroleum. (The Rodale Institute estimates that farms currently produce more greenhouse gasses than cars.) When food is already so oversupplied that it’s cheaper than the packages it’s sold in, increasing yields makes no sense.

Yet, as George Pyle notes, American farm policy has assumed an imminent food shortfall justifies continual increases, ever since America devised its first farm policy, during the Lincoln Administration. One friend justifies continuing this approach because, he believes, near-future environmental collapse will require genetically modified foods to save the human race. Two problems: we cannot predict environmental outcomes any better than we could predict post-nuclear war conditions. And, Pyle writes, heirloom varietals are more adaptable anyway.

Starvation exists today, and chronic hunger exists close to home. But increasing supplies, whether through conventional or GMO means, makes little difference. People lack access to food, which usually means money. MLK noted, back in the 1950s, that fresh vegetables cost twice as much in poor neighborhoods as in rich neighborhoods. High-yield GMO seeds, often pitched to cure global famine, are expensive. People too poor to buy and plant heirloom varieties cannot trade up.

So basically, the demonstrable safety of individual GMO varietals doesn’t much matter. (Rampton and Stauber question that science anyway.) If they’re similar to selective breeding, well, breeding hasn’t been benign either. And they’re customized for an economic demand that doesn’t actually exist outside corporate PR. Yet the drumbeat of safety, quantity, and productivity has made these demands common coin. That’s just missing the point. Agriculture is hurting itself just fine right now, without gene technology’s help.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Deus Est Machina

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 19
Darren Aronofsky (writer/director), π (pi)

Reclusive genius Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) has built a supercomputer in his Manhattan apartment. He hopes to compute market movements, pick stocks with machine-like accuracy, and become rich without leaving home. But his computer, nicknamed Euclid, vomits a 216-digit number and dies. Thinking he’s failed, Max discards the printout; nefarious forces find it, and he finds himself caught in a battle over the forces guiding modern life.

Darren Aronofsky’s (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan) first feature film, shot on a shoestring budget, works around its physical limitations with risky camera techniques, grim understated performances, and subtle writing. Shot on black-and-white reversal film, often from unusual angles, and cut with frenetic haste, it looks like we’re watching Max’s struggle unfold through surveillance cameras. Before long, we realize this isn’t an accidental technique.

A mathematical genius, Max impresses local children by performing complex equations faster than their pocket calculators. But he has few adult relationships. He wants reality to share math’s simple Platonic elegance, and often preplans his conversations using theory-and-experiment methods. Only his invalid mentor, Sol (Mark Margolis), shares Max’s passion for precision; they communicate mainly by playing Go, a Chinese strategy game based on strict mathematical principles.

While drinking his morning coffee, Max gets accosted by Lenny Meyer (Ben Shenkman), a gregarious Hasid who introduces Max to Gematria, a form of orthodox Jewish numerology. Curiosity overcomes Max’s usual reticence, and he lets Lenny explain the intricacies of his Biblical code-breaking. He isn’t entranced enough, though, to accept Lenny’s invitation to participate in ongoing research sessions. Especially when Lenny says they’re seeking a 216-digit equation.

Almost immediately, Max meets Marcy, an agent of Wall Street speculators, who somehow know about Max’s experiments with Euclid. They think his equations could help predict market movements, benefitting whoever controls the supercomputer. They offer Max a powerful circuit chip in exchange for access to Euclid; realizing this chip could complete his experiment (and possibly unaware of how finance works), Max accepts, permitting the agents full access to his creation.

Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) seated at his supercomputer, Euclid, in Darren Aronofsky's π

Here we see Aronofsky’s themes expressed: mathematical constancy proves reality exists, but little more. Lenny’s Jewish colleagues believe reality demonstrates God’s beneficent existence, while Marcy places her faith in market forces. Two conflicting interpretations of an imperfectly glimpsed truth each demand validation, which spirals into powerful potential violence. Meanwhile Max grasps vainly for truth unvarnished by human interpretation, but cannot have basic relationships with adults as equals.

Sean Gullette plays Max with dark, soft-spoken urgency. He narrates his own situation aloud, as though he can only understand reality when filtered through the dispassionate lens of language. This doesn’t work out well. Gullette himself apparently wrote many of Max’s narrations, playing up Max’s difficulty understanding sensory reality. Though Max believes objective reality exists, he also has delusions about surveillance and entrapment. At least one character exists only in his head.

Sol quietly encourages Max’s quixotic pursuit of undifferentiated reality. The movie implies, without stating, that Sol is a Holocaust survivor, jaded on all ideologies, but also unable to reconcile his belief in objectivity with his imminent death. When Euclid begins repeatedly producing the same elaborate code, Sol cross-examines Max. It appears Sol produced the same 216-digit sequence previously, and his health has been on a rapid decline ever since.

Throughout, images of mathematical precepts appear, sometimes more directly than others. Besides his stock-picking supercomputer, Max is fascinated by the Golden Spiral, a geometric paradigm that often serves to pique students’ interest in higher math. Number theory looms large in his calculations, but as those calculations become more elaborate, chaos theory overcomes his thinking. Confronted with the duelling theisms of the Jews and Capitalists, Max becomes more doggedly agnostic.

This movie also marks writer-director Aronofsky’s first collaboration with composer Clint Mansell. The atmospheric soundscape creates a psychological resonance with Max’s increasingly strident paranoia. Driven primarily by synthesizers and small-ensemble sound, Mansell’s score can career from bucolic afternoons in the park, to a texture like an electric drill on your teeth, with amazing speed, while never sounding out of place. It meshes so smoothly, audiences often won’t notice the score whatsoever.

Aronofsky’s works have frequently toyed with the incompatible forces driving modern life. The push between art and commerce, in The Wrestler; between beauty and mental illness, in Black Swan. Here, he insists humans need faith in something, anything, but also must realistically confront reality’s chaotic, seemingly meaningless veneer. He offers no solutions, and his resolution admits multiple interpretations. But his approach shakes viewers from their preconceived notions.