Monday, February 19, 2018

From Doomsday Cult to Donnish Doyenne

Tara Westover, Educated: a Memoir

Dr. Tara Westover grew up on an Idaho mountainside, youngest of seven children. Her parents considered her sufficiently schooled if she could read; they cared more about the imminent Apocalypse, which her father, deeply devout and plagued with visions, expected any day. After Ruby Ridge, she wondered whether Armageddon or the government crackdown would come first. Because her parents never registered her birth, to this day, Westover doesn’t know her own birthdate.

Yet somewhere in her teens, she had enough. She taught herself enough math to pass standardized tests and, at age seventeen, enrolled at BYU. College, which many well-heeled white people consider a layover between childhood and career, was for Westover a harsh collision between her isolated upbringing and the larger world. On the cusp of adulthood, she must learn rules everyone else savvied as toddlers. She must remain ever-vigilant, taking nothing for granted.

This has proven one of the more difficult reviews I’ve written, because I see myself so clearly in this memoir. No, my father wasn’t a messianic survivalist who used personal charm and physical force to control me or my family, nor did that messianism manifest in domestic violence between siblings. But like Dr. Westover, my father equated intellectual disagreement with personal disloyalty, and encouraged distrust of credentials, state, and self. Unlike Dr. Westover, I haven’t broken the spell yet.

The Westover family lived adjacent to her father’s junkyard, where she and all her siblings worked from very early ages. She emerged from a world free from government oversight, schools, and state-based tedium, but also basic OSHA safety precautions. She describes injuries that should’ve amputated her limbs or, considering her family’s aversion to immunization, given her terminal tetanus. And she got off lightly; traumatic head injuries were the norm, not the exception, among her brothers.

Tara Westover
From an early age, Westover found small ways of resisting her father’s micromanaging. Singing in church and community theatre gave her recognition that permitted an early identity. She got her first job, not for pocket money, but to justify time away from home. Yet she remains remarkably loyal throughout. I only recall her using his first name once, near the end; she mostly calls him “my father” or “Dad,” a remarkable persistence of intimacy.

Yet as she established an increasing identity outside the home, some other siblings doubled down. Her brother Shawn looms large, as successively powerful head injuries eliminate his ability to filter his actions. (Maimings are apparently a rite of passage for Westovers.) Like Dad, Shawn becomes increasingly capricious: lovingly tender one moment, lashing out with Freudian cruelty the next. But where Dad relies on shame and religion, Shawn uses physical violence as his tool of domination.

So Westover enrolls at BYU at seventeen to escape. Before her first Freshman lecture, she’d never attended one day of classroom instruction in her life. She initially majors in music, planning to lead church choirs and ensembles, and her entire education has a similar utilitarian texture. She maintains a 4.0 GPA, not because she’s especially gifted, but because losing her GPA means losing her scholarship. That would mean moving back home, or worse, accepting government aid.

But somewhere during that workaday education, Westover becomes… curious. The more of reality she learns her father’s religiosity concealed from her, the more she yearns to discover. Music becomes a sidelight; without realizing it, she becomes a skilled historian. Still battered by her father’s judgment from afar, she never fully trusts herself, until a summer opportunity at Cambridge University introduces her to paternal figures who actually encourage her. The British see something her father couldn’t.

Were Westover a novelist, we’d see a defining break where she stops being beholden to her past, and becomes her own woman, an academic and a fully realized human being together. But real life is sloppier than that. The transition requires, not one moment of dawning realization, but several little moments that, piece by piece, break her father’s conditioning. It makes me wonder: how many other people never have the sequence of opportunities to escape the past?

Sometimes I feel burdened by the chiché “this book isn’t for everyone.” Well, this book really is for everyone. I recommend it for students, to understand what education really offers beyond job skills; parents, to recognize how their choices reflect across generations; instructors, to see how flippant moments can change lives; religious leaders, to spark discussions about the difference between faith and oppression. I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t benefit from reading this book.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Unbalanced Nutrition for Unbalanced Times

When Rosa Foods introduced its meal replacement shake, Soylent, my fellow science fiction nerds couldn’t resist the obvious jokes. This product apparently originated in a world free of hammy Charlton Heston impersonations, where nobody would brandish their canister of pre-made powder and shout “Soylent Green is people! It's people!” I was surprised later to discover that the inventor intended this connection deliberately. Irony lives, I guess.

Soylent isn’t the first meal replacement shake I’ve encountered. However, it’s the first I recall that wasn’t designed as part of a health-conscious dietary regimen, such as a high-protein diet combined with workouts and timed fasts. Instead, Soylent is marketed to well-off professionals who can’t spare fifteen minutes per afternoon to make themselves a sandwich. Whip this stuff together, marketing says, and keep going without the tedium of lunch break.

Anybody attempting a meal replacement will probably have two questions: is it nutritious? And, will it satisfy me? Sadly, the answers are no, and no. Though rich in “micronutrients,” it doesn’t provide enough to fuel typical human activity throughout the day, and those nutrients are more than offset by the sugar content. And while the shake is temporarily filling, it isn’t really satiating. I compare it to plugging your hunger with a Snickers bar.

Consulting the nutrition label, one listed serving of this product contains twenty percent of your Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of several important nutrients, including Vitamin D, Vitamin C, various B-complex vitamins, and iron. It also includes twenty percent of various other substances we don’t normally consider nutrients, including copper, choline, biotin, and molybdenum. Twenty percent of all of them. Always, consistently, twenty percent.

But when we get off the “nutrients” train, the numbers get wonkier. One serving contains twenty-six percent of your RDA of fats, including thirteen percent of your saturated fats, and thirty percent of your RDA of added sugar. Replace one meal daily with this stuff, and you’ll have to skip dessert. It also provides about twenty-one percent of your daily fiber, two-thirds in the form of soluble fiber, which mostly just expands in your gut, making you feel full.

Charlton Heston (left) and Edward G. Robinson in Soylent Green

It’s that thirty percent daily added sugar that disturbs me. Current scientific thinking contends that obesity is caused, not by eating fatty foods, but by consuming more sugar than our livers can process; our bodies respond by storing the added sugar, and added liver enzymes, in fatty tissue to process later. Except that later never comes. If you ate a diet balanced like Soylent, by the time you consumed your full RDA of other nutrients, you’d have eaten 150% of your daily sugars.

Leaving aside the specious nature of RDA computations, the fact is, your RDA of sugar and sodium is a dietary maximum, while your RDA of magnesium, niacin, and other nutrients, is a minimum. Humans evolved in environments where certain substances (salt, sugar) were scarce, but others were abundant; we retain some, and piss away whatever we don’t need of others daily. Modern processed foods reverse this balance. The effect shows on our waistlines.

Even Rosa Foods wouldn’t recommend living on Soylent for every meal. But if you ate this balance at every meal, you’d get 150% of your daily sugar, and seventy percent of your sodium, before you reached your daily necessity of other nutrients. If you just had Soylent for lunch, you’d still need to eat a nutritionally rich dinner, with no dessert, and skip your afternoon Pepsi, to balance your diet. That maketh me not happy.

All that, for a “meal replacement” that basically only takes the edge off your hunger. I’ve used this to replace my breakfast, and felt myself getting hungry again only ninety minutes later; by lunchtime, I could murder a cheeseburger, and I confess, that impairs my judgement, making me crave carbs and fat. I compared this to eating a Snickers above. Yes, both make you feel not hungry. But they’re filling without being satiating. You pay for that later.

I’d be remiss in ignoring Soylent’s convenience. We’ve all had days when even preparing and eating breakfast cereal would be an imposition. But like fast food, wise eaters should indulge this convenience as infrequently as possible. Each individual use might be okay; only when it becomes a pattern does it become a problem. Users who monitor consumption, as through a Weight Watchers journal, can probably add this to their diet, if they remain mindful. Just don't make it a daily thing.

And no, Soylent isn't people. It isn't people.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Daniel Kleve and the Problem With the Heartland

The photo that made Daniel Kleve infamous. Click to enlarge.

The University of Nebraska at Lincoln has had significant free-speech issues recently. First it scrambled to reverse itself after trying to confine an undergraduate to a “free-speech zone” because she attempted to recruit for conservative group Talking Points USA. Then it demoted a graduate assistant for staging a rude and vulgar, but nonviolent, counter-protest of that undergraduate. But neither had the far-reaching consequences of the university ignoring Daniel Kleve.

For those playing the home game, Daniel Kleve, a UNL junior from Norfolk, Nebraska, was caught on camera at the 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia, “Unite the Right” rally, violently beating a counter-protester with a flashlight. Surrounded by other self-proclaimed white nationalists who remain unidentified, Kleve has the counter-protester doubled over, slamming the flashlight into his back, while other deliver kicks to his abdomen. Kleve has no discernable expression on his face.

Recently, video emerged online of Kleve boasting of his racist credentials, ginning up support among other white nationalists, and promising future violence against, well, somebody. Kleve claims the video has been deceptively edited. Nevertheless, enough video bites, screen grabs, and accusations from fellow students exist to indicate that Kleve actively opposes Blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, homosexuals, women, and the kitchen sink. This guy is, by any definition, a Nazi.

The real pearl-clutching has arisen, not over Kleve’s statements, but the university’s decision to do nothing. Citing free speech, the university has elected to take no disciplinary action for deliberately inflammatory statements Kleve has made in the past, and threats he has made regarding the future. Massive protests have precipitated around Daniel Kleve and his statements, which have partly disabled portions of UNL. Yet both sides are fundamentally misguided.

I suggest the Daniel Kleve problem isn’t that he holds these opinions, nor that he voices them in deliberately confrontational ways. Rather, Daniel Kleve has successfully drawn attention to a portion of America that we’ve attempted to stifle. This portion is physically, economically, and socially isolated from the parts we lovingly display to the world. And it forces us to acknowledge that America’s deeply divided past didn’t go anywhere.

When I moved to Nebraska in 1992, it was an overwhelmingly white state. The town I moved into had one Black family, two Hispanic families, and one Japanese family, in a town of over five thousand. In land and layout, the town wasn’t particularly different from many California suburbs I’d previously lived in. But it differed in degree of isolation: not only was the population racially homogenous, but the town was an hour away from the nearest commercial airport.

A flyer about Daniel Kleve, distributed
around UNL. Click to enlarge.
This distance from up-to-date amenities had snowball effects. We had some limited amounts of light industry creating jobs, but nothing enough to connect us to the larger, globalizing economy. Three hours from Denver by interstate, five hours from Omaha, we were too distant from large cities to get involved in their economic or cultural spheres. Corporations wouldn’t invest in our town because we were too physically distant from markets.

In such an environment, there was nothing drawing new people into town. Nobody who didn’t already have roots in the community had no reason to move in. Thus the community became ingrown, attitudes became immobile, and I was astounded, moving into town, to discover that people openly dropped N-bombs in casual conversation. Even in the 1990s, racism wasn’t concealed. Nobody used dog-whistle language. Fuck you, this town said, we’re bigots.

Since then, I’ve noticed a distinct cultural divide in Nebraska. Physically and economically isolated towns don’t disguise their racism. Neither do people who perceive themselves as disconnected from the economy: since I slipped backward on society’s economic ladder, I’ve worked in a factory and I’ve worked construction. In both fields, I’ve observed people willing to use racial language and express their bigotry undisguisedly, even right beside people of other races.

Lincoln likes to believe itself a cosmopolitan center. Omaha is Nebraska’s financial and industrial center, home to Warren Buffett and Union Pacific Railroad, but with the University and its surrounding arts community, Lincoln is Nebraska’s cultural capital. It tries to market itself as aggressively diverse. Permitting somebody like Daniel Kleve into town undermines Lincoln’s ideas, not only about itself, but about Nebraska’s place in a changing and diverse world.

Yet Kleve isn’t an outlier. He represents much of Nebraska outside the Lincoln-to-Omaha corridor, a state comprised of geographically isolated towns, disconnected from the national and global economy. This state only makes national news when snows block Interstate 80. People in Manhattan and California call this “Flyover Country.” When you hear about the “White Working Class” that supported Donald Trump, here it is.

Daniel Kleve represents a Nebraska that Lincoln and Omaha are happy to ignore. He represents a Middle America that coastal residents openly despise. By entering the centers of power in Nebraska, he forces a confrontation the self-anointed want to believe is already resolved. Unfortunately, he isn’t a mistake or a throwback. This is the heartland which our centers of power have tried to silence and ignore. If we don’t confront this soon, it will occur elsewhere, too.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

How One Girl Conquered African Chess

Tim Crothers, The Queen of Katwe: One Girl's Triumphant Path to Becoming a Chess Champion

Katwe is one of the poorest slums in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, one of the poorest nations in Africa, Earth’s poorest continent. Children born in Katwe have little hope of improving their lives. That includes Phiona Mutesi, whose mother says she was “probably” born in 1996; that’s as specific as she can be. Phiona would’ve spent her life hawking food from roadside stalls, except an accidental encounter helped her discover her hidden talent: chess.

Sportswriter Tim Crothers has crafted an epic of how one teenager, with everything against her, became a national champion and an international competitor, in a game dominated by children of the well-off. Crothers’ book serves as a biography of Mutesi, of the Christian missionary who unlocked her surprising capability, and of the urban squalor pit that brought them together. Crothers’ writing sometimes struggles to incorporate his many themes, but it’s difficult not to feel moved.

In 2002, Robert Katende, a former child soccer phenom, graduated engineering college without direction for his adult life. A Uganda native who grew up poor, he’d found religion during an extended hospital stay, so he accepted a commission from an American missionary program to teach soccer to boys in Katwe. His principal attraction to Katwe’s youth was that he brought actual regulation soccer balls into slums where kids played with balls made from banana leaves.

Despite immediate popularity, some boys couldn’t participate in Katende’s soccer program: they were so poor, even insignificant injuries could bankrupt their families, so soccer, a contact sport, was impossible. So Katende brought an inexpensive chess set into Katwe. The game was so exotic that the local language, Luganda, had no word for “chess,” yet five boyds proved eager students of the primarily intellectual game. One boy’s sister tagged along to practice one day, without warning.

Phiona Mutesi
Phiona Mutesi had almost no formal education, because her mother put her to work, aged about three, to protect the family from destitution. It was an intermittently successful effort. She was probably nine years old when she barged into Katende’s all-boys’ chess lessons. Yet Phiona proved so adept at thinking several moves ahead that she quickly outpaced Katende’s ability to coach her. Within two years, she beat every Ugandan chess champion in her age bracket.

Within six years, Phiona was Uganda’s national champion, and traveled to international tournaments, playing European and American competitors from wealthy backgrounds. Phiona sat opposite children of the white middle and upper classes before, Crothers admits, she knew how to read. Soon her story wasn’t just about chess. She became the only African her competitors’ sponsors ever encountered, possibly their only direct encounter with truly abject poverty. How many Phionas, Crothers wonders, has the world overlooked?

Crothers’ writing requires some effort. He works to maintain focus on his main characters, but real life, as journalists know, is often sloppy, lacking a narrative through-line. Thus, apart from a brief prologue, it takes seventy pages to bring Phiona into her own story. As Crothers’ mixed biography of Phiona, Katende, and Katwe generally moves among several themes, there are visible seams; chapter breaks sometimes feel like fault lines. Crothers clearly isn’t experienced in long-form.

Notwithstanding these form problems, Crothers crafts a complex, multi-pronged narrative that will attract multiple audiences. Readers of nonfiction and biography will enjoy Katende’s and Phiona’s struggles to emerge from poverty and become their own individuals. Fans of history and iinternational policy will find these protagonists’ stories informative to understand a nation that’s still terra incognita to most American and European audiences. And Christian readers will love how the heroes’ faith guided them through trying times.

Originally released in 2012, when Phiona was probably about sixteen, this book has enjoyed a recent push from Sports Outreach, the mission network that sponsored Robert Katende’s original mission. It also received a 2016 Disney film adaptation. Much of this re-release push has come from Christian sponsors, but this book isn’t exclusively Christian; non-religious readers will find plenty to enjoy, too. Crothers’ mix of history, biography, and sports will engage a complex and diverse audience.

This isn’t the kind of book that general readers often seek out. Its two main themes, chess and African poverty, aren’t exactly big audience grabbers. Yet despite Crothers’ occasional difficulty welding his many themes together, he convincingly sells his story. He’s storyteller enough that his journalism feels like a campfire tale. Perhaps this working-class reviewer can offer no better praise than to say, this book made me stay up past my bedtime to keep reading.

Monday, February 5, 2018

The One Group Bigots Are Still Allowed to Hate

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 88
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Imagine living in a community where, on average, almost one-third of your male population has been to prison. Where, in some regions, the number approaches four-fifths. Where, because your men have a criminal record, they’re forever barred from public housing, food assistance, and student loans, meaning they can’t get the three things they need to escape a life of poverty: a stable address, square meals, and job skills. For the rest of their natural lives.

You don’t need to imagine. Michelle Alexander, professor at Ohio State University, lays out copious evidence that this describes the African American community today. Outright bigotry is condemned today, and laws prohibit racial discrimination in housing, employment, and other avenues. But it remains perfectly legal to discriminate against ex-convicts. And if black Americans have criminal records at rates disproportionate to their actual tendency to commit crime, um, it’s nobody’s fault, really. So we tell ourselves.

Sometime around 1980, American fears of drugs and drug criminals permitted us to excuse remarkable leaps of justice to keep criminals at heel. Though Richard Nixon declared the War on Drugs in 1971, his war was essentially rhetorical. Under Ronald Reagan, a perfect confluence of moral outrage, conservative voting, and economic instability made Americans willing to accept paternalistic appeals to keep us safe from scary criminals. Those criminals happened, in public imagination, to be black.

So the federal government shifted focus and money away from enforcing white-collar crime and onto drugs. Anti-drug rhetoric has often focused on “kingpins” like Pablo Escobar and El Chapo; but enforcement has focused on street-corner dealers and people using at home. Aggressive police stops and searches, called “pretext stops,” encouraged slews of lawsuits. The Supreme Court so willingly acknowledged Drug War rhetoric that it’s accepted major waivers in the Fourth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments.

Michelle Alexander
Evidence indicates African Americans and white Americans use drugs at roughly the same rate, while whites are one-third more likely to deal, and three times as likely to get admitted to emergency rooms. Yet three-quarters of America’s drug prisoners and ex-convicts are black; in some jurisdictions, that number reaches 90%. Current case law, though, excuses systematic racism unless complainants can prove racial intent in specific cases. A little race-neutral dressing, and runaway racism becomes legal.

Nor do racial slants stop at the jailhouse door. It’s perfectly legal to discriminate against ex-convicts in housing, employment, civil rights, and more, so once convicted, individuals remain social outcasts forever. Ex-criminals wind up in impoverished neighborhoods, surrounded mostly by other ex-cons. This includes both public and private spheres. Even states that restore convicts’ voting rights after prison, often require such high standards of paperwork and restitution, that law-abiding citizens remain permanently outside functioning democracy.

America has the largest prison population in world history. Alexander estimates that when she wrote, in 2010, over two million Americans were in prison or on probation or parole. The American criminal justice system doesn’t just warehouse people convicted of crimes, some embarassingly penny-ante; it’s also become a major jobs program, especially in rural areas. Fixing this system would require destabilizing the American economy, at least temporarily. But economic and criminal injustice is manifest, now.

Unlike slavery or Jim Crow, control mechanisms that explicitly made distinctions between people according to race, today’s mass incarceration system is nominally race-neutral. There’s no single point we can indicate and say, “Racism lives here.” We aren’t really repressing black or Hispanic Americans by enforcing laws. Except unconscious biases running through most American minds, including law enforcement professionals, coach us to perceive stereotypical criminals as dark-hued and ghettoized. So selected communities get disproportionate police scrutiny.

Alexander admits her analogy between racialized justice and Jim Crow is imperfect. Police sweeps sometimes net white people (mostly expendable poor white trash), while African Americans sometimes become media darlings, even getting elected President. But exceptions don’t undermine the trends. America’s prisoners are disproportionately black, and African American men are disproportionately likely to have lifelong criminal records. This results in a form of legalized discrimination that, while superficially race-neutral, breaks down along distinct color lines.

To her credit, Alexander avoids prescriptive attempts to resolve this problem. She even acknowledges that repairs could create new problems. With this volume, she primarily emphasizes that a problem exists, that Americans have accepted a massive gap between the post-racial ideals we espouse with our mouths, and the racialized justice system we’ve created through our actions. She merely makes us aware. Now it’s on us citizens to decide what we’ll do with her chilling information.