Monday, January 22, 2018

But What's It Like To Survive a Police Shooting?

Robbie Tolan and Lawrence Ross, No Justice: One White Police Officer, One Black Family, and How One Bullet Ripped Us Apart

Police shot Robbie Tolan, in his own driveway, accusing him of stealing his own car. A white officer panicked and shot the black Tolan, in a script so rote, we can probably recite it from memory: misidentification, hasty violence, media uproar, acquittal. Except Robbie Tolan did something few black police shooting victims to: he survived to tell his own tale. Now he figures we’re ready to hear what happened that night, nearly ten years ago.

Tolan lived with his parents on December 31, 2008. The Tolans were one of the few black families living in Houston’s prosperous Bellaire suburb, a community rife with common, but largely undiscussed, frictions between minorities and the police. Driving home from the store in the small hours, a white patrol officer misidentified his car as stolen, skipped verification protocols, and decided to tail the mysterious black driver. The resulting gunpoint confrontation has disturbingly familiar overtones.

Waking in the hospital with a collapsed lung and pulverized liver, Tolan, a committed athlete with a future ahead of him, faced months of rehabilitation just to walk unaided. Many local commentators suggested he should count his blessings that he had any future coming whatsoever, since many youths in his situation became voiceless statistics. Then the online death threats began pouring in, as they do in these situations. This only motivated Tolan to speak out.

This book fits into Tolan’s larger campaign. A regular media figure now, he provides a rare opportunity to witness police shootings from the other side. He’s also fought vigorously to return to baseball, without success. (He remains optimistic within these pages.) He considers himself at war with the Bellaire city government and its police department, a metaphor he uses repeatedly throughout this book, but he refuses to let that war circumscribe him, or his options.

Robbie Tolan
Besides surviving the shooting, Tolan had celebrity on his side. At 23, he was playing baseball for a regional minor-league team, building his career. His father, Bobby Tolan, batted southpaw for the 1967 World Series-winning St. Louis Cardinals. Yeah, people knew the Tolan family. His case became a celebrity cause when Bryant Gumbel interviewed him, an interview made possible by his athletic connections. His poise before the camera, discussing painful circumstances, probably helped his cause.

In a fairly unusual move, the grand jury voted to indict Tolan’s shooter on criminal charges, including aggravated assault. Tolan spoils it, so I feel no compunction in sharing: the jury acquitted his shooter. But Tolan also provides an insightful tour of the actual justice system, which shook him, since he only knew it from TV courtroom dramas. He walks us through the banal, frustrating procedures and frank boredom that characterize a real life trial.

Tolan makes a subtle, sophisticated witness. His descriptions are earthy, sensory-based, and salted with just enough vulgarity to keep cynical readers engaged. (One wonders how much that owes to Tolan’s ghostwriter, Lawrence Ross, an experienced journalist and media professional.) But he also describes how his family’s religious faith kept them anchored during his ordeals: they didn’t just fight injustice because Robbie suffered it, but because God gave them strength to keep speaking truth to power.

Other authors have attempted to situate recent police violence against African Americans in a larger context. Matt Taibbi’s recent biography of Eric Garner, for instance, is more about Garner’s world than Garner himself. But that’s mainly because most high-profile victims of police violence don’t survive to tell their own stories, and many who do lack the eloquence demanded by today’s media-saturated environment. Even Eric Garner’s survivors admit, he was a lunky guy, no media superstar.

Robbie Tolan, by contrast, has both an athlete’s strength and a media professional’s poise. Even before this book, he’d become a veteran interviewee, speaking both for himself and for African Americans generally. Therefore, this book spends less time than others on the black experience context. Tolan occasionally cites statistics and scholarly studies about police violence and the resulting blowback, for example, police officers on trial. But throughout, he keeps the narrative focused on his experience.

This book presents the longing for justice, not as an abstract philosophical concept, but as the lived experience of one man who simply wanted to drive home. How readers respond to Tolan’s story will probably reflect what the believed going in, as all such recent discussions have mostly done. Yet it provides a needed antidote to either formal stats-driven journalism or informal finger-pointing. Robbie Tolan makes clear, this is his own story, personal and important.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Just Another Beatnik Teacher Comedian

1001 Albums To Hear Before Your iPod Battery Dies, Part 10
Taylor Mali, Conviction

You’ve probably already read Taylor Mali’s poetry without realizing it. His centerpiece poem, “What Teachers Make,” has circulated online since the heyday of e-mail trees and webrings, frequently bowdlerized. But Mali, who paid his dues on New York’s poetry slam circuit, never wrote his poetry for book readers; he’s always been a performer first. Perhaps that’s why he’s released more audio recordings than books. Or maybe it’s because he’s a top-range performer.

Chicago poet Marc Smith invented Poetry Slam, but if you attend any modern slam and listen to the sarcastic humor and rapid-fire patter that tends to win, most slammers clearly want to be Taylor Mali. This album, compiling live presentations of his most significant work, reveals why. Several poems on this recording also appear in his book What Learning Leaves, but Mali has a compelling presence as a performer that you can only savvy when you hear his voice.

Audiences listening to performance poets ask two important questions: Is the poetry any good? And does the performer carry the work effectively? As a poet, Taylor Mali writes in an easygoing vernacular style. He doesn’t use the inscrutable metaphors and weird juxtapositions favored by MFA programs and awards panels. Though he certainly uses heightened language, his verse nevertheless has a plain-English conversational quality that doesn’t require a postgraduate degree to follow.

His poetic structure comes across in titles like “Falling In Love Is Like Owning a Dog,” or “Silver-Lined Heart.” Like Mali’s verse itself, these titles involve metaphors which have depth, but don’t require unpacking. We understand what they mean, though as Mali investigates them further, we increasingly understand what he means by them. As poetry, they aren’t difficult, but they reward the audience’s willingness to follow Mali on a nuanced inner journey.

Taylor Mali
In performance poetry circles, Mali sometimes gets stereotyped as a poet who writes about his teaching career. Considering the widespread influence of “What Teachers Make” (included on this collection), this isn’t unfair. But only five out of twenty-three poems on this album, including one hidden track, are about teaching. Four are about being a poet, four are about his father, and four are by other poets, featuring Mali as a member of the performance ensemble.

Mali has a distinctive baritone voice, accentuated by his performance style, which we could generously describe as “in on the joke.” He avoids common poetry slam affectations of offbeat pauses and strange, syncopated emphases. He doesn’t fear to laugh, just slightly, at his own jokes, especially on willfully humorous poems like “I Could Be a Poet” or “Totally Like Whatever.” His performance feels like a friend, inviting you to share the passionate hobby he’s spent years perfecting.

Many people encountering Taylor Mali for the first time comment upon his humor. If your high school English was anything like mine, the emphasis on somber tone and portentous themes left you feeling glum. Poetry slam, by its structure, discourages this attitude: because audiences have liberty to boo performers off the stage, performance poets learn to engage the audience’s humor and curiosity. Mali has taken this tendency further than most poets, and become a role model for others.

I'm less keen on Mali’s group pieces, especially two written by Celena Glenn. As the ensemble basically sings acapella behind the poet, Glenn’s voice doesn't carry, and the poetry disappears in a distracting soundscape. This recording also features two poems written by Mali but performed by other poets. They suffer from some lack of direction: one has flat affect, while the other weirdly over-accentuates the poetic foot. I could really have done without these tracks.

But when Mali performs his own work, he shows himself truly a rich artist. His poems run the gamut between  joy, confusion, laughter, grief, and more. Poems like "Labeling Keys," "Voice of America V/O," and "The Sole Bass" put the lie to the slander that slam poetry is shallow and ephemeral: they aren’t Walt Whitman, but they exist on many layers at once and demand just as much contemplation as the poetry you studied in school.

As a reviewer, I’ve grown weary of saying a particular item I’m reviewing isn't for everyone. That certainly isn't the case here. This CD will appeal to a diverse audience whose only criterion is open-mindedness. Like most poetry slams, this album has uneven moments, especially toward the middle of the evening, but overall this may be one of the few poetry collections in many houses that doesn't just sit on a shelf gathering dust.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Indiana Jones in the Temple of Rhyme

Aaron Poochigian, Mr. Either/Or: a Novel in Verse

One sunny weekday, when you’d rather be gallivanting around Manhattan’s privileged haunts, a call comes from your other life. Your Federal Agent handlers require your unique services to recover an ancient artifact. So you pause your daytime undergraduate identity and pursue a mysterious Chinese chest into Gotham’s rankest sewers, literally and metaphorically. But just as you think you’ve escaped this relic’s curse, an even more malevolent fossil threatens to destroy everything New Yorkers hold dear.

Aaron Poochigian is a noted classicist, famed mostly for translating Sappho’s fragments. He’s also published two volumes of his own poetry. So it’s difficult to qualify whether this is his third book, under his own byline, or his sixth. But calling it “a novel in verse” makes it sound more solemn and sententious than it really is. It’s more an Indiana Jones-like pastiche of mid-20th Century pulp potboilers, handled with a poet’s level of care.

Pressed into service, you dive into conflicts that involve alien conspiracies, ancient curses, lingering scars of Western colonialism, and more. In one early scene, you (the narrator insists on the “you” address, though you have multiple aliases) must defend a Chinese jade reliquary from a battle between Maoist insurgents and Latino gangsters, because Manhattan. But you don’t dwell on implications. You aren’t the ruminative type; you’re constantly busy plunging from one high-tension encounter to another.

Poochigian writes with the practiced confidence of a classicist, of someone intimately familiar with time-honored poetic forms because he’s maneuvered them across languages. But poetry, for him, isn’t a dead letter. He uses form because it heightens his story, which, like his shorter verse, is salted with short, punchy vernacular English. It simultaneously does and doesn’t read like conventional poetry:
Business cuts, taupe ties, and muted suits
are shrieking G-men—two more barbered brutes
churned from assembly lines of matching brothers,
each a tool as blunt as all the others.
You’ve always snobbed their brand, detested dashing
douchiness, cursed the smug conspiracy
to fix the markets of what man should be.
Lord look at them, all puff and polish, flashing
badges and sizing up your robot brain….
Aaron Poochigian
Most lines rhyme this way, though some parts are written in Saxon-style short, alliterative lines. The shift gives Poochigian’s action scenes real punch.

Other verse novels I’ve read use poetic language for long, discursive cogitation on important philosophical points; long-form poets think their outsized form gives them permission to write like Homer. Not Poochigian. Calling his storytelling “fast-paced” undersells his turbo-charged cadence. Not only does his story unspool faster than most poets would permit, even most paperback novelists would say “Hey, slow down, dude.” Yet somehow his story always feels quick, never hasty. You decide whether that’s good.

The second-person protagonist of this novel (more like a sequence of linked novellas), has the vocabulary and thought processes of a “C” student at NYU. That is, an average student at a top-flight university. He, you, whatever, has fantasies about chucking everything and becoming a real student, and he romances scholarly types who assist his investigations, in the best James Bond tradition. But time doesn’t permit him to think deeply; he’s a man of action.

This collision between the stately conventions of rhyming verse, and the frenetic exigencies of Poochigian’s story, really sell the tension. Like Indiana Jones, this story isn’t for everyone. I admit, I didn’t initially appreciate Indiana Jones, because I didn’t understand the narrative intent. Like those movies, I struggled to adapt my thinking to Poochigian’s unusual structure. I needed to get several chapters in before I appreciated his form. Some readers won’t give him that chance.

Maybe that’s the message of his title. In opening pages, Poochigian identifies Mr. Either/Or as the hero straddling two worlds, either a student or a secret agent, never quite both. But simultaneously, this book is either an contemporary adventure comedy or a traditional verse epic. And we, the audience, are either willing to follow Poochigian’s journey, or too strung up on formal interpretation. This duality dogs the entire book, forcing us readers to take sides.

So, Poochigian requires readers willing to suspend judgment. That’s not easy for everyone (certainly not me). But, like most of the best poetry, it rewards readers who adjust their rhythms to the verse. It’s just that, where most verse adjusts our rhythms to languid timelessness, Poochigian prefers craggy whirlwind modernity. I don’t think I could do that very often. But I’m glad Poochigian brought me along on his strange, Lovecraftian journey, just this one time.

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Week America Finally Surrendered

Yes, Oprah, I agree. This shit needs to stop.
Oprah for President, a pastor getting a standing ovation for admitting statutory rape, and “shithole countries.” The second week of 2018 really feels like the week America went off the rails. I’ve tried processing everything that’s happened in the last seven or so days, and been unable to do so. It seems too radical, violent, and spasmodic to permit definition. Until I recognized the overarching theme: a willful embrace of unreason.

It’s become commonplace over the last two years for the punditocracy to claim we’ve finally crossed a bridge too far. Donald Trump has finally alienated his base. Coal-burning companies have finally overloaded the climate. Papa John’s comments about NFL kneelers prove the far-right’s moral vacuity. Look!, the pundits scream. Proof, proof I say, that we’ve hit rock bottom and are prepared to reverse course! Somehow it keeps not happening.

Yet somehow, things feel different this week. We didn’t just see somebody doing something awful. Despite left-wing pledges one year ago, we’ve already permitted truly awful behavior from public figures to become sufficiently “normalized” that we’re not shocked anymore. But this isn’t awful behavior. These three incidents represent America completely abandoning historical precedent, moral foundation, and common decency, to embrace… well, I’m not entirely sure what.

It began with the “Oprah for President” outcry following her Golden Globes speech. Though probably well-meant, this push is the exact leftist equivalent to Donald Trump’s overthrow of Republican hierarchy. Pinching concepts from linguist George Lakoff, if Donald Trump is America’s “strict father,” Oprah is our “nurturing parent.” But both share an ideological core of rejecting expertise and routine competence, in favor of giving the political establishment a massive middle finger.

Pastor Andy Savage received a standing
ovation when he admitted a "sexual incident"
with a parishioner. He was 23. She was 17.
Before Oprah’s dust settled, Pastor Andy Savage confessed a “sexual incident” in a Sunday sermon, a confession that garnered a twenty-second standing ovation. Like David Letterman before him, Savage confessed his indiscretions to forestall his accuser taking her accusations public. But he sought forgiveness without repentance; he sought what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” the forgiveness we bestow upon ourselves. Importantly, he hasn’t relinquished his liturgical authority.

The collapse culminated (hopefully—the week isn’t over yet) with President Trump’s “shithole countries” comment. I’ll avoid my temptation to condemn these comments on Biblical “least of these” grounds, because this won’t persuade anyone not already persuaded. However, Trump’s comment actively spit upon American commitments going back at least to the Marshall Plan, when Americans agreed we have obligations to poorer, bleaker, less fortunate nations globally. It’s an abandonment of history.

These three incidents demonstrate a certain subset of America has come unmoored from the principles it claims to represent. By embracing Oprah, the American left has admitted commitment, competence, and dedication no longer matter in governing Earth’s most powerful nation. By not needing to undertake some form of penance, or surrender authority, Andy Savage proves even Christians prefer established power over moral foundation. And Trump has essentially relinquished America’s claim to morality on the world stage.

Somebody staging a counter-argument might observe that, in all three cases, only a minority actually believes that. Oprah ginned a strong reaction, but the Democratic party remains committed to process and organization. Andy Savage represents only one congregation, and has received massive Christian pushback. And Donald Trump has the lowest approval ratings of any President ever, at this stage in his administration.

I respond: yes, but it doesn’t take a majority. Donald Trump only got approximately one-third of his party’s primary votes, and came second in the general election. What matters isn’t the majority, but the process. Wing-nuts and lunatics can seize the process without actually winning the debate. And that’s what we’re seeing happening: because Democrats now have to answer Oprah fanatics rather than creating policy, for instance, Oprah has appropriated the system.

Irrationality isn’t entirely bad. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely has demonstrated humans’ irrational tendencies have firm foundations, which actually drive a just-minded and functional society. Indeed, complete rationality, of the homo economicus model, is both untenable and potentially downright harmful. But I’m not discussing ordinary, moment-to-moment irrationality. I’m describing a deliberate, long-term rejection of reason, and the lessons of the Renaissance and Enlightenment.

No, the problem isn’t irrationality, which is inevitable, even beneficial. The problem is defiance of what we know, an active retreat from thinking, preferring animal-level gut reactions over evidence and proof. American public discourse now apparently prefers stupid over smart. We’ve relinquished our past, sat on our asses, and forgotten our identity. I seriously question whether we’ll now ever get it back again.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Grammar Police State

“Irregardless isn’t a word!”

So began a diatribe at work recently. During an idle moment, when we had briefly outpaced the amount of work we had available to actually do, and therefore had to wait around somewhat impotently for something to happen, a guy opened his phone and began watching YouTube videos. As so often happens anymore, his attention drifted onto politics, and he began watching a comedian baiting protesters.

To judge by my co-worker’s rant, the comedian had targeted liberal and progressive activists; I later learned he’d found this video on Breitbart. But the specific content was immaterial to this particular response: caught in a minor logical inconsistency, the protester responded with the verbal equivalent of a shrug, saying “Irregardless.” The comedian began a lecture, which my co-worker repeated mostly verbatim, that “Irregardless isn’t a word.”

We’ve probably all heard this somewhere. “Irregardless isn’t a word,” lecture schoolteachers, newspaper editors, media pundits, and amateur scolds. I’ve always found this argument baffling.  What is “a word,” other than a unit of vocal sound which native speakers agree conveys some concept of meaning? If somebody says a thing, and another person understands the intent, where’s the lack of a word?

But I noticed something more nefarious here. The comedian, and my co-worker who passively received everything that passed through his head which ratified his existing opinions, wanted to shut protesters down because they used “incorrect” English. Unless you speak the Queen’s English as well as me, the argument goes, you have no right to express opinions publicly. Or, put another (possibly more accurate) way, you’re too dumb to do anything but shut up.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the word irregardlessdates back to the 19th century, but is regarded as incorrect in standard English.” Merriam-Webster identifies the word being used in 1795. So it’s hardly a neologism. It’s probably overkill; people who use it presumably want the extra “ir-” syllable for verbal emphasis which their point doesn’t need. So yeah, as verbal filler, it’s sloppy, demonstrating somebody is probably thinking on their feet. But is it really “wrong”?

Before anybody accuses me of liberal propaganda, this isn’t an isolated example of conservatives attacking progressives. We saw liberals belittle George W. Bush on similar grounds for “misunderestimated,” a supposed Bushism which Merriam-Webster actually tracks back to 1913. Sarah Palin’s “refudiate,” an apparent actual neologism, received broad mockery, even though audiences clearly understood her intent.

All these cases demonstrate a tendency, among both the punditocracy and ordinary people, to claim the opposition cannot have legitimate arguments until they savvy “acceptable” English. This standard of acceptability usually means “my English.” We won’t address the substance of your position, this argument goes, until you address my concerns about your vocabulary. Anybody can see the flaw here: my concerns will never be truly satisfied.

It's a joke. Except when it's not.
We can consider this a form of “whataboutism.” This idea, deflecting serious questions by tossing out “but what about X” questions, has gained currency because President Trump uses it frequently. But rhetoricians have known about this technique for decades, and consider it a logical fallacy. Political scientists consider it something far more insidious: a propaganda technique.

“Whataboutism” and grammar policing share a similar goal: to steer discussion away from the stated topic, onto something the other debater better understands. By crowing “Irregardless isn’t a word,” the comedian doesn’t have to address the protester’s serious sociopolitical concerns. By harping on “refudiate,” commentators avoided actually calling the question underlying Sarah Palin’s original tweet. Both techniques attempt to illegitimately steer the conversation.

Thus, both whataboutism and grammar policing serve to create the appearance of public debate, without moving toward a solution. They give the punditocracy the opportunity to talk about things going on, fill otherwise vacant time in the 24-hour news cycle, and maintain their high public profile, without actually doing anything. They don’t have to address one another on actual data, ensuring nobody feels attacked, because they’re not actually saying anything.

Further, it allows citizens to join the public “debate” without having to know anything about the issues. My co-worker, already cruising self-identified partisan sources, doesn’t have to become informed about issues, because he already knows that “Irregardless isn’t a word,” and therefore he’s smarter than the protesters getting demeaned. This secures his justification to continue as he’s always done, without needing to understand anything or stage an argument.

We often treat grammar police behavior as cute, quirky, or a necessary nuisance. But recent events prove it isn’t really neutral. At root, grammar policing is an attempt to silence others. When that applies to important public issues, we can see its more nefarious ends: the grammar police want to regulate the marketplace of ideas.