Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Don't Argue to Win—Argue to Engage

Jonathan Herring, How to Argue: Powerfully, Persuasively, Positively

I used to teach argumentation theory in my freshman comp classes, and I could see the curtains lowering behind my students’ eyes. I thought, all this about coalescent design, Toulmin models, and case construction is so interesting to me, surely my students must share my excitement! Only when I saw them putting my lectures into play did I realize that advanced theory mattered little to anyone not ready for the brass tacks of legitimate argument.

Jonathan Herring, prolific British law professor and ethicist, steps into that gap with a good, brief, spirited introduction to the process of testing ideas through argument. His guide does not provide clues on how to win a quarrel or best somebody in a brannigan. Rather, he demonstrates the best way to speak well, pitch your premise, bolster it in a persuasive manner, and defend it against routine attacks. I wish I’d had this book in my teaching days.

Herring’s guide has many advantages. First, it’s slim. Readers could slip this book in a briefcase, purse, or outside pocket of a backpack for easy consultation. This jibes with its straightforward organization, so readers can find what they need. Herring divides his book into two parts: ten “golden rules” of productive argumentation, and ten situation-specific approaches to customizing argument. Together, they form a good introduction to primarily verbal debate.

To begin, Herring asks readers to know whether they really want to have the argument at hand. Are you prepared, in command of the facts? Is this the right venue to have this argument? Will this argument do more harm than good for the relationship? Is this argument even worth having? Surely we all share, at least somewhat, the experience of winning the battle and losing the war when we encultured resentments, made ourselves look ignorant, or lost a job.

This isn’t blue-sky theorizing. Herring asks us to ensure that, for instance, we know what we’re talking about, and present it in a way audiences can comprehend. Especially in a political season like this one, some people argue with nothing but a strongly held feeling, and resent it when they get trounced. Meanwhile, brainy people like me come with so much information that hearers feel deluged. This isn’t argument; it’s using facts like a club to beat hearers into compliance.

For Herring, the point of argument is not to win—which is just as well, since outright victory is rare. Instead, we should strive to reach some shared goal that lets us move forward. Therefore, in addition to what we say, Herring takes time to coach us on what we don’t say. We should listen more than we speak, he says, because only in hearing the other person can we meet their needs. And we should value maintaining healthy relationships over short-term triumph.

Herring also recognizes that not all arguments are the same. I appreciate his discussion of how to argue when the participants have unequal power. We cannot approach an argument with our kids, who are essentially powerless, the same way we approach an argument with a spouse, who should be roughly equal, or a boss, who has extreme power over us. We must customize our approach depending on the distribution of power.

Often, Herring says, arguments have little to do with the surface trigger. We can often increase productivity, heal relationships, and resolve deadlock by moving past whatever we think caused the current dispute, and addressing what lies beneath. This may mean giving up on the current dispute, or leaving some minor controversy unresolved. But if we can answer the real argument, we make real contributions to our job, marriage, or whatever.

And Herring accomplishes these goals in plain English. Back when I taught argumentation, I used a lot of technical terms, like warrant, dialectic, and topos—words I now realize I didn’t really understand. Herring writes in plain English, taking the time to flesh out his ideas with examples that should ring familiar to most readers. Even as he explains tough concepts, his language reads with the ease of a novel.

If you often find yourself going in circles when trying to sort out differences, or make little headway getting others to take your needs seriously, you need this brief entrée to simple argument. Herring makes short work of a complex subject, in a way that doesn’t bog down in extraneous detail or terminology. Hopefully, if a few people in key places follow his advice, we’ll see an improved level of discourse in our time.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Spiritual Psychotherapy for the Sickened Soul

Tim Clinton and Pat Springle, Break Through: When to Give In, How to Push Back

Many ordinary people, plagued by ghosts of the past, bring the fractured relationships we grew up with into the present. The desire to care for others or be cared for, to trust blindly or withhold trust altogether, to forgive flippantly or bear grudges for years, tends to repeat over time. But modern secular psychology has begun to catch up with the ancient truths of Christian tradition, that we can heal if we place our trust where it belongs.

Clinton and Springle assert that many of us have flaccid boundaries and codependent relationships because we have placed others in the position reserved only for God. We may give in, rescuing the object of our devotion from the consequences of their actions, or we may dominate and micromanage their choices, or we may even flee from them; but the source remains the same. Damaged relationships are a form of idolatry.

This thesis, sure to be controversial in certain circles, manages to smoothly unify the worlds of Christian theology and psychotherapy. Both are historically based on the belief that we as humans naturally have things out of balance. And, as these and other authors have noted recently, the latest discoveries in human psychology have served to ratify the bulk of Christian insights on the soul, from Paul and Augustine to Erasmus and Calvin.

Much scientific thought has poured disparagement on Christian psychology as naive. But when you read the insights of the Church Fathers, their metaphysical discourse sounds remarkably similar to recent discoveries made using fMRI and PET scan technology. True, Christian psychology got spongy when Protestant theologians tried to stay hip with post-Enlightenment philosophy. We need to reclaim the older tradition, not throw it out in the craze for modernism.

For instance, the Church Elders knew what we know now, that the homes in which we grow up determine what kind of adults we become. Homes that rob us of power may leave us feeling permanently needy and desperate, which make express itself in mewling passivity, or in a wrathful desire to control others. Just as bad, from a Christian perspective, how we view our earthly parents has an inevitable influence on how we see our Heavenly Father.

When we identify how we make idols of the people around us, we identify the tools at our disposal to correct the problem. However, because we make idols in so many different ways, any one-size-fits-all solution will fall flat. Clinton and Springle collate the various ways we as humans manufacture idols out of the people we love, and force us to ask ourselves hard questions. Only then, they say, can we address the problems.

And address them we do. Through a mix of anecdote, Socratic dialogue, and counseling, they make us take stock of how we reached the point we’re at, and only then guide us on how to get back on track. I don’t recall seeing a better integrated piece of Christian counseling than this. Most books lean to either evangelism or therapy, and use the other to bolster the chosen central track, but these authors treat Christianity and counseling as two halves of one whole.

Moreover, they address the one problem I see most often ignored in books like this: most people don’t want us to change. They receive the benefit of our illness, whether as the beneficiaries of our rescues, willing targets of our control, or controllers of our passivity. Clinton and Springle require us, as part of our healing, to confront those who would hold us back. They even provide a guide for how to prepare for, navigate, and recover from that confrontation.

Adulthood can be a scary time for even the best of us. This is only worse for those who hit physical adulthood without the healthy passages that families and adolescence should provide. Too many people have jobs, homes, kids, even grandkids, before we have the chance to pass into real adulthood. But we have a Heavenly Father and an earthly family who will support us as we go through that time of changes, no matter when it finally arrives.

No book, of course, can replace good, guided therapy. Clinton and Springle even remind us of this periodically. But as a supplement for one-on-one therapy, pastoral counseling, or support group participation, this book makes a good guide to reconcile our lives to God’s vision. The authors don’t pretend this will come easily. But, as survivors themselves and guides for others, they show that good Christian healing is possible.

Friday, May 25, 2012

One Possible Cure For Small Town Malaise

Ever since Sinclair Lewis diagnosed the “village virus” in his 1920 classic Main Street, America has remained deeply divided in its feelings about small town life. On the one hand, we often treat small towns and rural areas as bastions of earthy virtues and interlaced community. On the other, small towns often produce small minds, and serve as seething cauldrons of resentment. Unfortunately, both views are right, which means both views are wrong.

Anyone who has lived in America’s small towns recently, however, knows our rural communities are certainly one thing: marginal. This has been the state of American village life since at least the Eisenhower era, when cheap cars and postwar prosperity led to a concentration of industrial might in metropolitan areas. Small towns became stopovers on American transportation routes—and, with the rise of Interstates and cheap air travel, became not even that.

Nowadays, John Mellencamp serenades his happy memories of small town life, though his tours stay in cities large enough to support arena venues. Bill Clinton touted his birth in tiny Hope, Arkansas, while eliding that, when he was a boy, his mother moved the family to the resort suburb of Hot Springs, or that he left Arkansas altogether to commence his career. People tout small town origins, but have to leave to make something of themselves.

Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, describes studies that have indicated why some of the world’s largest cities have also proven the most creatively fertile. Where large, diverse populations interact, people have the opportunity to discover new points of view, prod others to greater accomplishments, and test each other’s capacities. Simply put, as the population increases, productivity increases, geometrically.

This thesis has its limitations. Were size the only relevant variable, Lagos, Nigeria, would be as creative and prosperous as London, which is about the same size. But if we look at those cities and neighborhoods that have proven the most productive over the years—Greenwich Village, Haight Ashbury, Bloomsbury, the Left Bank—we see they aren’t just populous. They’re also arranged to facilitate interaction among diverse populations.

Manhattan’s White Horse Tavern, famous for Dylan Thomas’s fatal drinking binge, began life as a longshoreman’s watering hole. Hampstead pubs famously draw artists, laborers, businessmen, and tourists. People meet one another across economic and social lines. Even the streets favor interactions, since crowded main roads slow traffic and advantage pedestrians. How many novels, paintings, and business ideas were conceived in Paris Metro stations, I wonder?

By contrast, the small towns where I’ve lived have a self-segregating tendency. We have working class bars, professional bars, student bars, sports bars, and their clientele never mixes. Different coffee shops and tea houses, different restaurants and businesses, cater to distinct customer bases, deepening divides. Too often, small town dwellers never meet anyone particularly different from themselves.

This is heightened by village layouts. Low land values and minimal space competition means towns sprawl. Without a car, small town dwellers are stranded, but with cars, they never meet anyone they don’t want to. People can ensure they only frequent businesses that cater to them, not ones near where they live or work. One of my town’s major coffee shops is drive-thru only, so you can enjoy your mocha frappe without any messy human entanglements.

Where communities have economy enough to encourage new building, that tendency becomes more pronounced. Single-use developments include similarly sized houses on identical lots, forbidding mixing of economic strata. They also seldom have restaurants, bars, shops, or hangouts where people can meet. They may have a few lots zoned commercial, but building costs ensure only chain businesses, like fast food franchises, can afford to move in.

In Nebraska, where I live, politicians invest much hair-pulling in wondering what it takes to keep ambitious, educated young people from leaving the state. Yet large-scale economic development funds exclusively create pedestrian-hostile towns which minimize human interaction. Even for those whose education and connections ensure economic mobility, social mobility has dwindled to insignificance. Free flow of ideas just doesn’t happen.

Shifting design priorities to boost interaction would alleviate at least part of the ennui that blankets many small American towns. If people could sit down to eat and drink in the same space as a callused tradesman and a necktied attorney, they would encounter new ideas, which they could then experiment with, until they created something truly new. If people had to walk to work, they could enjoy the surprise of simply saying hello to people they don’t see every day.

Such changes wouldn’t be a silver bullet to save America’s small communities. Many towns need to modernize their infrastructure and overcome cultural habits that defy the times. But if people could meet newer, more diverse groups, such towns would be well on their way to achieving such much-needed goals. The longer we wait, the harder it will be to overcome inertia.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Russell T. Davies, the BBC's Own Godmaker

Every one of us is, even from his mother's womb, a master craftsman of idols.
—John Calvin


Even before he gained international renown in resurrecting Doctor Who, Welsh-born TV writer and producer Russell T. Davies had a reputation for dealing in religious issues. Shows he created or oversaw, like Revelations, Springhill, or The Second Coming dealt with the complexities inherent in transcendent belief in an increasingly secularized Britain. It was an impressive output for a self-described atheist.

So it perhaps comes as no shock that religion crept into his take on the Doctor. The first overt consideration of religion I recall was in the 2005 episode “Boom Town,” when the villain Margaret Blaine, seeing the interior of the TARDIS for the first time, describes the Doctor’s vessel as “the technology of the gods.” The Doctor, played then by Christopher Eccleston, explains why he would make a poor object of worship.

Eccleston’s successor, David Tennant, displayed no such false modesty. In his very first regular episode, “New Earth,” several characters call the Doctor “the lonely god.” This is only the more blatant because some characters using this title are nuns. Then, having been identified for what he is, the Doctor proceeds to uncover the sin concealed by righteousness, heal the sick, and cast the mighty from their temple.

This establishes the Doctor in a strange dichotomy: identified as God, he also becomes his own prophet. Though the Doctor fudges what he actually believes in the episode “The Satan Pit,” he never denies being “the lonely god.” Indeed, in his repeated self-made appointment as dispenser of justice, he elevates himself to godlike status. Savvy audiences may recall Daniel 11:36-37.

We should note that the Doctor never calls himself God. In the episode “The Sound of Drums,” the Doctor explicitly rejects divine status—an action not shared by the Master, who uses mock biblical language after cracking open the sky and sending his angels down to establish an apocalyptic empire over Earth. Like the Son of Man, the Doctor does not proclaim his divinity; like Simon Magus, the Master claims someone else’s godhead.

But like Jesus, the Doctor does not stop his own humility from permitting others to proclaim his status. The subsequent episode, “Last of the Time Lords,” features the Doctor’s companion Martha traveling the Master’s shattered world. In the climactic scene, Martha reveals that she spent her travels evangelizing the Doctor as Savior of the world, and urging the nations to call on the name of the Doctor for salvation.

The Master calls this what it is: prayer. But the Doctor goes further, demonstrating the one triumphant power he has over his opposite number: forgiveness. The Master harbors powerful grudges, lashes out at small offense, and encourages others to nurse petty grievances. The Doctor overcomes the Master by whispering “I forgive you.” This not only breaks the Master’s dominion, but to undoes the damage his empire has wreaked on Earth.

I could continue. In “Voyage of the Damned,” the Doctor asserts control of the angels and has them ascend him to the highest deck. In “The Satan Pit,” he personally casts The Beast into a black hole. In “School Reunion,” he is tempted with absolute power, but rejects it because he will not arrogate such power to himself. But the repetition gets tedious.

In fairness, Davies did not invent the idea of the Doctor as God. In the original series, which ran from 1963 to 1989, the Doctor was variously mistaken for a god, a wizard, and a prophet. This came across most aggressively in the 1977 episode The Face of Evil, in which half-remembered myths of the Doctor present him as a totemic idol for a primitive tribe. This story channels Sigmund Freud’s elegant but unprovable Totem and Taboo.

Since Steven Moffat took the reins of Doctor Who, this theme has diminished significantly. But Davies retains control of the spinoff series Torchwood, featuring Captain Jack Harkness, the man who cannot die. The most recent season of this show culminates when Jack’s blood defuses an earth-shattering threat. Having made the Doctor into God, Davies makes Jack God’s risen son, whose blood takes away the pain of the world.

The prophet Isaiah complained that “the people worship things they have made with their own hands.” I doubt anybody seriously worships the Doctor, but Davies proves that even people who claim to have no god still seek divinity. And when they believe they cannot find such glory on high, people will manufacture it for themselves.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Lean, Finely Textured Bull

Congressman Adrian Smith (R-NE)
Late last week, Nebraska Third District Congressman Adrian Smith sent an e-mail to constituents under the headline “Setting the Record Straight on Lean, Finely Textured Beef.” Sent from his house.gov e-mail account, presumably at taxpayer expense, Smith’s message sets a new low for cash-and-carry politics. And despite Smith’s limited representation and low profile outside his district, this message reflects what’s wrong with part of today’s mismanaged politics.

Start with the title. Throughout the message, Smith repeats the mantra “lean, finely textured beef.” If this awkward phrase doesn’t ring any bells, think back two months to when ABC News more memorably called it Pink Slime. But Smith never mentions this name, or any details of the controversy. He simply refers to “the recent, baseless media scare,” as if national news sources conjure bugbears to torpedo businesses in his district.

Then he confuses the issue further by calling Pink Slime “a perfect example of the disastrous, real-life consequences of straying from sound-science to determine product safety”. I don’t know enough to say whether any claims or counterclaims about Pink Slime hold water, scientifically. I do know, however, that, as Rampton and Stauber demonstrate, “sound science” is a buzzword that often speaks less to scientific rigor and more to whose money greases the wheels.

Smith cannot bother to provide any countervailing science, cite sources, or define what he calls “science-based standards.” Perhaps because science, as understood by heroes like Newton and Einstein, doesn’t enter into his reasoning. Much more of Smith’s space goes into the jobs lost when the chief producer of Pink Slime had to shutter three plants, idling 650 workers—few of whom, notably, live in Smith’s district.

Job losses have become the latest political catchall whenever moral outrage threatens a given industry. Offshore oil drilling, clear-cut logging, and strip mining have all rallied defenders around the people who would lose their jobs if environmental advocates have their way. And in fairness, these industries employ a lot of workers in rural areas that have little other economy to absorb large numbers of newly unemployed people lacking portable skills.

Pink Slime arguably lost market share because it is extruded
from a tube, not carved from a side of beef, and looks gross
But extend that logic for a moment. Many other workers lost jobs when outrage led America to stop producing whale oil, napalm, and DDT. Can you imagine if stonewallers had kept these industries open based on jobless workers? The American economy proved elastic enough to absorb the temporary dislocations created when particular industries did more harm than good. Even the workers must surely admit their products didn’t advance human well-being.

By contrast, Smith has proven a mighty foe to efforts to create jobs through, for instance, repairing America’s road network, subsidizing green energy, or stimulating entrepreneurship. Government involvement in these areas, to Smith, smacks of creeping Soviet-style collectivism. But propping up factories that feed kids chemically treated scrap meat rendered from tendons and glandular tissue—that’s right up Smith’s alley.

Smith’s strange lament reaches its peak when he finishes with a survey. The two-question questionnaire would be merely patronizing if he stopped with his first question: “Do you believe controversy over lean, finely textured beef was justified?” Politicians ask this kind of ho-hum stemwinder just to let constituents feel involved. The second question is much worse: “Do you believe the USDA should work to correct the public record about lean, finely textured beef?”

We in the logic-chopping business call this a “loaded question,” because it involves stacked assumptions. Though structured as a yes-or-no question, nobody can answer without conceding the asker’s premise. Serious debaters consider loaded questions a dirty trick, because they force speakers to give credence to assumptions they would ordinarily deny. The classic example of a loaded question is: “Do you still beat your wife?”
Attempts to rebrand "lean, finely textured
beef" included this patronizing slogan

Smith assumes, for instance, that the public record should be corrected. That premise is still debatable. Scientists remain conflicted, even if we exclude media scaremongers and corporate shills. He also assumes that the USDA has not worked to “correct the public record,” although it has aggressively defended the status quo. But this doesn’t accord with Smith’s narrative of a beleaguered local employer, a fake media scare, and an absentee government.

Though I lack resources to check, Smith’s message could have been written by Pink Slime’s press secretary. Back in the Gilded Age, crooked politicians concealed that monied interests were slipping money in their pockets. Smith and his ilk don’t even try. This lowball message just looks oily, and even if Pink Slime ultimately proves safe, Smith should feel ashamed for his blatant lack of discretion.

Friday, May 18, 2012

New Millennial Economics, Part Four

Chris Guillebeau, The $100 Startup: Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future

Once upon a time, every business was a small business. Of course, nobody called them “small” businesses, because multinational corporations and faceless banks didn’t exist yet. Adam Smith, the theorist of capitalism, assumed that his model applied to small operators like “the butcher, the baker, and the brewer.” And a new generation of business guides has appeared lately for independent-minded workers who would reclaim that model.

I see two business types spotlighted in Chris Guillebeau’s latest guide to seat-of-your-pants entrepreneurship. The larger type consists of businesses like the London waitress who started a one-woman PR firm, and discovered she was so good at it that it went multinational; or the arts festival organizer who proved so good at creating buzz that it became a sensation. These are truly small businesses, one or two people, who got rich by doing a good job.

The smaller type consists of businesses like the one-man mattress emporium with which he starts the book, or the book publishers he cites occasionally. These businesses appear small, but rely on complex networks to make their business models even possible. The mattress mogul created his retail outlet from spit and staples and string, but workers on an hourly wage make his product. Publishers require contractors to print the book or, for e-publishers, server slaves to distribute the product online.

This gulf lurks under much of Guillebeau’s book. I find his larger business model admirable. Guillebeau shows how these pioneers made a marketable product out of their own knowledge, effort, and connections. My favorite is the Omaha woman who sells custom wedding dresses worldwide: I just really, really like her. But Guillebeau doesn’t examine the assumptions under his other model, which turns a profit by outsourcing the more tedious operational procedures.

Where Guillebeau deals with small businesses which are actually small, he makes a persuasive case. Many people invest years of study and go tens of thousands in debt to get MBA’s, only to become cogs in somebody else’s machine. Yet most of us have the know-how to, as he puts it, fire our bosses. The difference between those who do so, and those who make someone else rich, often boils down to having a practical vision and a useful plan.

Yet Guillebeau demonstrates the trap our current economic system sets for would-be entrepreneurs. The sight of high-rise multinational interests creates the idea that such a model is normal. If the company that sold us our business computer can ship expensive, time-consuming, banal tasks like Customer Service to India, I can contract my manufacturing to some outside entity with a clear conscience.

I ask you: if you do that, are you still a “small” business? Just because you don’t have dozens, or hundreds, of workers on your payroll, doesn’t mean you haven’t bought into the two-tiered system that led to such outrage in Zucotti Park last year. I suggest that, in such a case, you aren’t even your own boss. If your contract manufacturer, ISP, or other external business arm wants to change the terms of your arrangement, they can literally hold you hostage.

Please don’t mistake me. I like much of Guillebeau’s work, and find his business model inspiring. Too many of us remain in unfulfilling jobs that suck our souls out through our toes, because we think we have no choice. (Not me, of course. But possibly you.) For readers who can distinguish true productivity from externalized tedium, Guillebeau makes us believe we can seize our destiny back from our corporate overlords.

Guillebeau also does a good job explaining the how-to of making a market for the product you’ve created. I enjoyed his chapters on leveraging early success into continued growth, and on how to take your microbusiness into the big boys’ world, if that’s what you want. And he does a good job of showing how to turn a business failure into a learning experience (though again, that only works when you are your own best product, instead of shucking somebody else’s output).

I just fear that, despite the good points Guillebeau makes, he overlooks too many assumptions of what being “small” means. If it means you make something, whether a product or service, which you then sell to others who can benefit from your expertise, then I like it, and want to follow on his trail. If it means externalizing tedium, and getting rich off the more glamorous parts, that’s as bad as the bosses we all want to quit, and I want no part of it.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Breaking News—Media Wastes Nation's Time With Worthless Fake Story

The front page of MSN.com yesterday featured a prominent headline: “Pacquiao Rips Obama’s Views.” Readers had to open the link to find that Manny Pacquiao had voiced critical views on President Obama’s recent support for same-sex marriage. Pacquiao claims, falling back on the same heel-dragging arguments that have dominated for generations, that God meant for men to be only with women, and that the President had spat in the eye of God.

I know what you’re thinking, because I thought it too as I read the article: Manny who? Manny Pacquiao, Philippine boxer, current world welterweight champion, and media darling. Other media headlines emphasize Pacquiao’s boxing credentials in their headlines: “Pacquiao jabs President Obama on same-sex marriage stance,” CBS News. “Manny Pacquiao KO’s gay marriage,” Politico.com. Thankfully, the New York Times and USA Today ignored the non-story.

In fairness, Pacquiao is more than an athlete. In addition to holding a seat in the Philippine national legislature, he has acted in several Tagalog-language movies and TV shows. He hosts a live weekly game and variety show, which he has also used as a platform for his debut vocal album and serial entrepreneur ventures. A devout Roman Catholic, he has recently enjoyed a new burst of enthusiasm for his faith, and expressed a desire to become an evangelist.

Absolutely none of this résumé qualifies him to receive attention from legitimate news media for holding a particular political view. Pacquiao, like anybody, is entitled to voice his opinions on politics, or anything else. And it comes as no surprise that venues like FoxSports.com and ESPN have reported Pacquiao’s statements, since, as an athlete, he falls within their purview. But outside that domain, I fail to grasp why anyone should care about this faux story.

Often, the media strive to play up controversy, because the appearance of a fight boosts numbers. As the old saying goes, “if it bleeds, it leads.” Yet President Obama’s comments in support of gay marriage have failed to produce objections outside the usual, expected circles. Perhaps media professionals, desperate for a countervailing opinion that isn’t completely obvious, homed in on Pacquiao because something is better than nothing.

But this does not excuse the media for wasting my and others’ time on something that only superficially resembles a story. The time I spent watching MSN pretend to care about Pacquiao’s opinion was time I didn’t spend on something creative, uplifting, or useful. The sight of a pseudo celebrity recycling dogmatic arguments, guaranteed to convince only those already convinced, feels downright offensive when weighed against the aggregate productivity lost.

Sadly, our mass media’s news cycle insists that stories must appear, at all hours of every day, regardless of whether anything newsworthy has happened. A day spent watching CNN often offers barely an hour’s worth of insights. Candidates gave their boilerplate speeches! War continues overseas! Celebrities have irresponsible sex! Everything is reported with the same breathless urgency. The cumulative effect is wearying.

After the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, comedian Gilbert Gottfried and rapper 50 Cent caught hell for tweeting tasteless jokes about the tsunami. This comes as no surprise, since stars live in isolation from the human race and often lose sight of common decorum. So I could ignore, if not forgive, the two of them. I couldn’t figure out who I resented more, though: the media for reporting on these fake stories, or my friends who reposted the media reports on Facebook

Most surviving American newspapers have more reporters on the sports beat than the entire rest of the news cycle combined. As the number of news outlets continues to contract, those few reporters lucky enough to have a beat cling to it with pitbull-like tenacity. The writing pool in America’s newsrooms gets older, more risk-averse, and further removed from the audience who depends on them.

Meanwhile, cable news and the internet make no effort to distinguish real news from engineered “events.” Most audiences cannot sort real news, the news that makes them better citizens and more informed voters, from Pacquiao-grade fluff. As Stewart Pinkerton states, “Most people need an expert to filter, prioritize, and context [sic] information. A firehose of information without that is useless.”

Journalists once believed they had a sacred obligation to the public. Their audiences still believe that. Perhaps, in this age of “citizen journalism,” people who still believe the news matters have an obligation to start their own countervailing media. Because if we don’t hold journalists to account for their slovenly habits, who will?

Friday, May 11, 2012

New Millennial Economics, Part Three

Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times

Over half of adult Americans live in a different state than their parents. We don’t have the intergenerational links that made village life possible in the past. Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild sees this as a distinct loss, though not an unqualified one. The problem is, our needs for connection, aid, and nurturance don’t go away just because we leave the homestead. So we turn to the marketplace to fill the holes in our spirits.

Hochschild follows the arc of how humans form bonds, from courtship and marriage, to starting and raising a family, running a home, nursing the sick, and burying the dead. She combines interviews with a range of people who have paid money for these formerly intimate services, with statistics and social research. Then she clinches the sale with stories of trying to find market help for her maiden aunt in New England, from her home in California.

After all, Hochschild admits, she finds herself part of her own story. She lovingly remembers summers spent on her grandmother’s Maine farm, hoeing weeds and breaking clods, because never felt closer to her family than when they had that shared experience. But like many Americans, she followed the work. What remains of her family lives in New England, but she teaches in California. She’s forced to admit she lives the story on which she now reports.

Nor does Hochschild reflexively assume the commodification of our community needs is a bad thing, as some activists might. Your therapist, for instance, probably keeps abreast of new developments in psychology in a way village elders, witch doctors, or ministers can’t. Your marriage planner can spend time on bouquets and caterers that you, with a full-time job, can’t. Your mother’s nursing home... well. Enough said.

We have to admit, if we’re honest with ourselves, that we couldn’t do what we expect paid professionals to do, even if we wanted to. Our highly specialized economy does not leave us time to care for sick kin, teach our children at home, and grow our own food. The complexity we accept as the price of our quality of life has changed our skill sets. We don’t have the wherewithal to participate in the village commons.

Yet we never did these things for ourselves. We had parents, maiden aunts, cousins, neighbors, friends... The village commons was exactly that: the whole village in common. We knew that we could count on others to step into the gap when we became overwhelmed. Today’s mobile society, where we only see family on holidays, and don’t live where we work, doesn’t permit that kind of intimacy. Money creates a useful working substitute.

And Hochschild declares, some of these people are good at what they do. Take my favorite example, the “love coach” who helps women fine-tune their Match.com profiles for maximum return. This guy doesn’t have another job. He doesn’t have to hoe corn or split rails; he spends forty hours a week on just this. And he’s gotten it down to a science. To hear Hochschild pitch it, the $1500 this guy’s services cost (!) return more than their value to a buyer.

But for all that, we lose something when we trust our inmost secrets and needs to someone who wants to get paid. We depersonalize very powerful moments (Hochschild’s description of surrogacy in India strikes a particularly chilling note). And when we run out of money, or the person we pay moves on, we lose the network they offered us. That’s to say nothing of people who can’t afford to hire professional carers in the first place.

That’s my biggest concern, and one Hochschild approaches only obliquely. She suggests that one of the reasons many poor people postpone marriage, in just one example, because they think their ship will come in and they can have the Princess Diana ceremony she’s always wanted. I seriously fear this could create a two-tiered society, in which the egregiously rich can pay others to care, and the poor pound sand.

Hochschild examines the changes the market has imposed on our lives, not as she thinks they should be—though she doesn’t blush to admit she has an opinion—but as they are. And what she finds should set us to thinking about what we value. If money can buy us everything the old village commons gave us for free, should we care that it lacks any sense of shared heritage? Good question. You’ll have to make up your own mind on the answer.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

New Millennial Economics, Part Two

Ross Jackson, Occupy World Street: A Global Roadmap for Radical Economic and Political Reform

Last year’s Occupy Wall Street movement was branded aimless by its critics because many participants brought a range of topics to the table. But it was linked by shared opposition to the softening of ethics and restraint in the financial services sector. As more and more activists have yoked their cart to that movement, we have seen a surge in the opinion that a tiny minority of our population regards the mass of humanity as a resource to consume.

Ross Jackson asserts that Western society—and, in a globalized culture, all other societies with it—has already begun to collapse. Just because we can’t see it, just because it isn’t a rapid catastrophe, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. If we consider human society worth saving, we must bolster it right now, before the problem gets any worse. Unfortunately, we cannot repair society by doing more of what originally got us into this fix.

The economic crisis that originally motivated the Occupy Wall Street movement is, to Jackson, a symptom of a larger, more pervasive problem. Industrial society is founded on a large number of false premises: infinite growth on a finite planet, personal ambition as an economic motivator, limitless energy in the form of hydrocarbons, and technology to plug the hole when hydrocarbons run out. All these false promises show off the rot at the heart of our culture.

Jackson carefully dismantles the false suppositions at the core of today’s commercial empire, the disastrous consequences the status quo has created, and the techniques they have used to numb us to the situation. His highly technical discursion may intimidate some readers, yet he paces it so well that it unfolds like a thriller novel. Stick with him; the payoff more than justifies the setup.

Where it would be easy to accuse and cast aspersions, Jackson goes further: he proposes solutions. He warns us that our problems may well get worse before they get better, and that we will have to sacrifice our post-Enlightenment notions of freedom, which are arrogant and, he notes thoroughly, fairly recent. But the self-seeking, international anarchy, and complexity we live with today can—must, Jackson says—give over to commonsense remedies.

Although he deals with political concerns, Danish-Canadian Jackson does not weigh in on American partisan concerns. Rather, he concerns himself with a much older sense of the word “politics,” meaning the way ordinary people relate to institutions of power. And those institutions, in his telling, have become extremely powerful. Only by exercising massive authority can they convince us to accept systems that leave us so thoroughly disfranchised.

We see this when we examine how the economy really works. When we measure the economy according to how well people are doing as individuals, we see that we have remained largely stagnant since 1970, and have even gone backward. Conventional economists measure the activity of an economy, but this overlooks that the marginal expense of maintaining the status quo has become crushingly expensive.

But if we push the premises of the current economy to its logical conclusions, such expenses seem inevitable. The rapid wealth increase since the early Industrial Revolution has relied on cheap, bountiful hydrocarbons—which, even by the most optimistic estimates, are more than half exhausted. Our manufactures, our domestic comforts, even our agricultural bounty depend on a resource that is now officially running out.

Jackson counters these realities with a hard proposal for a managed transition to what comes next. We cannot, he says, fall into the next stage of human civilization accidentally. That attitude first got us into this mess. Instead, we need to take a proactive approach, and Jackson lays one out before the extreme catastrophe.

My one concern is that Jackson takes on what appear to be a large number of issues. Though he creates a solid case that the many risks he warns about represent a single umbrella problem, I fear that less dedicated readers may lapse into compassion fatigue. If environment, injustice, poverty, exploitation, and war are all symptoms of one disease, Jackson could spend more time on fewer concerns, without risking burning out casual readers.

But for those dedicated to combating today’s problems, Jackson’s vision offers hope that our situation has not become impassable. Humans created this crisis, and though some scars may never completely heal, humans can repair what we have broken. We know, regardless our our political persuasion, that the signs show our status quo cannnot remain. Jackson gives us tools to hopefully set the world right.

Monday, May 7, 2012

New Millennial Economics, Part One

Louis F. Petrossi, The Richest Man in China: Harnessing the 8 Pillars of Wealth

With the political season upon us, in a time of continued economic uncertainty, I’d like to take this week to consider contrasting views on our future. I’d like to start by looking abroad, to the country which recently overtook Germany and Japan to become Earth’s second largest economy. The People’s Republic of China may soon outpace America, and international eyes study its patterns to see how we may mimic their success.

As Louis Petrossi points out, China has produced an unprecedented number of millionaires and billionaires in the last five decades. Not surprisingly, many Westerners want to know what about Chinese culture makes such runaway wealth possible. Petrossi weighs in with only the latest in a long string of books which pitches a broadly Chinese ethos of wealth creation. Readers may like him because his book is both brief and lucid.

Moreover, Petrossi’s sutra-like approach to wealth may appeal to people who see Asia as a place of mystic possibility. It melds the rhetorical styles of various Eastern religious traditions, including Buddhism and Confucianism, to create a system whereby achieving wealth becomes a sort of secular nirvana. After all, as Petrossi asserts, wealth makes it possible for us to do good for others.

The problem is, this book is about as Chinese as beef chop suey and fortune cookies: that is, not Chinese at all. Despite its “Confucius Say” aphorisms and ah-so language stylings, this book is plagiarized, body and soul, from Western business texts. Astute readers will recognize chunks transplanted from Napoleon Hill, Dale Carnegie, and Joel Osteen. But beyond a doubt, the largest DNA donor is Rhonda Byrne.

Petrossi structures his book as a string of very short chapters in which a multimillionaire known as “Master” lays out his Eight Pillars of Wealth. These sweeping discourses on self-affirmation alternate with long dialogues in which Master answers questions from his intrepid scribe Liang. These dialogues are more specific than the chapters, but not by much. This book runs about as vague as a Sesame Street character reassuring viewers that you—yes, you!—are special.

Worse, Petrossi’s “Inscrutable Orient” idiom serves to obscure the real complexities of Chinese economics. While the self-described Middle Kingdom has produced staggering numbers of the obscenely wealthy, UN statistics reveal it has the world’s largest gulf between rich and poor. Shaun Rein, in The End of Cheap China, asserts that the state has begun to balk at this lopsidedness, but it will take years to overcome deeply ingrained inequities.

Even this fails to account for the real costs of economic “growth.” Beijing pollution has become the stuff of legend. Intricate irrigation networks that have survived since the Xia Dynasty have recently proved incapable of meeting modern demand. And the population has long since exceeded land yields. James Howard Kunstler’s upcoming Too Much Magic reveals that, in 2008, the formerly robust China became a net food importer.

This does not mean that we have nothing to learn from China. A country on the verge of collapse a century ago has become one of Earth’s great powerhouses through a unique mingling of state communism and selective market capitalism. Its strong ethic of order and industriousness has made it a model for development in uncertain times. But we must learn from China as it really is, not as our Western romanticism wants it to be.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, describes one important difference between Chinese and American cultures. Western wheat-based agriculture, he says, encourages fatalistic attitudes and an ethic that considers work an intrusion. Eastern rice-based agriculture requires intense attention and mathematically precise management. Rice-growing nations, like China, learn early the value of hard work, advance planning, and strategic thought.

Notice this does not involve chanting mantras for wealth, which Petrossi advocates. Though Petrossi does include some statements on the importance of wise saving, investment, and strategic residuals, he not only says nothing particularly Chinese, he also says little that isn’t either obvious or silly. Success does not come from believing the universe will kick money your way. It comes from perseverance, planning, and forward striving.

China has become a world-shaping force through very concrete means. Its respect for order, stringent learning networks, and system of social order have made it possible for some people to achieve previously unimaginable wealth. But not one Chinese billionaire became rich in a vacuum. And they certainly did not get rich by pleading to the universe. Chinese abundance came about through Chinese industriousness, and at no little Chinese cost.

On a related topic: Put Your Money Where Your Soul Is
Dissecting China for Fun and Profit: Troy Parfitt's Tourism Journalism 

Friday, May 4, 2012

Honest Villain, Lying Hero, Son of Venice, Iago Alone

Nicole Galland, I, Iago: A Novel 

Iago Sorzano, youngest and most extraneous son of a prosperous Venetian merchant, has lived as someone’s pawn all his life. His father has managed his military career for family advantage. The city has made him a motto of its pretended virtues, without his permission. And his blunt honesty has made him an unwitting laughingstock. Yet he soldiers on, determined to be the right man for the right situation, because his integrity doesn’t let him stop.

Nicole Galland recasts Shakespeare’s most plainspoken villain as the hero of his own respective tragedy in this sequel to Othello. Far from the knave who challenges the audience to hate him, Galland’s Iago is a man determined to live up to the standards others set for him. But a series of brutal reversals upset a man known for his honesty, teaching him to dissemble aggressively. And when he stands to lose everything, he embarks on his notorious campaign of vengeance.

Though more a scholar by inclination, Iago’s father forces him into the military, where he proves to have unrecognized genius. This moves a formerly forgotten son to the peak of Venetian society. There he meets the two people who make him complete: Emilia, the beautiful wife who matches his constant witticisms, and Othello, the foreign general who becomes his best friend and greatest supporter. Iago appears to have every blessing a rich humanist society can afford.

But the intense military environment, and the shifting loyalties of the Senate and of factionalized Italy, test every citizen. Emotions run high, and when loyal friends make mistakes they can’t take back, an honest man thinks he has no choice but to defend his honesty. Iago, formerly relentless in his pursuit of truth, becomes a sudden master of self-justification. He never sees how his desire to restore the balances only compounds the problem until just too late.

Galland does not assume any prior familiarity on her readers’ part with Shakespeare’s original play. Iago tells his story with such detail and fluidity that complete novices could enjoy this novel—and, hopefully, feel inspired to go discover Shakespeare’s original. But She also packs her narrative with subtle, telling details that will give old hands the thrill of recognition as we see familiar characters and well-known situations in a new light.

Far from some random fop Iago manipulates, for instance, Roderigo becomes a force in his own right. Though Roderigo and Iago get up to some boyhood hijinks together, Roderigo has become his own man, reversing his family’s declining fortunes and making himself someone Venice must reckon with. Accustomed to getting his own way, he sees Iago as a fellow traveller when he encounters his life’s first frustration. Iago makes it plain his old friend could not be more wrong.

Actors and critics have struggled to interpret Iago since time out of mind. Frank Finlay, in Olivier’s 1965 Othello film, played the character as a straightforward Machiavellian schemer, with his eye on the bottom line but disguised behind a remarkable deadpan. Kenneth Branagh, playing alongside Laurence Fishburne in 1995, brought an ambiguous sexual tenor to the character. But these views are not unanimous. Iago remains one of Shakespeare’s most difficult characters.

I particularly appreciate that Galland does not attempt to simplify or ameliorate the complications so many find in the character. If anything, watching her Iago perform contortions to hold himself aloof from court intrigue or social niceties, she makes the character even more complex. His unreliable first-person narration disorients us, because we cannot tell how much of what we learn reflects reality, and how much reflects Iago’s ambitious whitewash.

This Iago pushes the bounds of morality from both directions. He will challenge a fellow soldier to a competition he has already rigged, then demonstrate how he rigged it. He uses his rigid sexual mores as a tool of seduction. He antagonizes the cream of Venetian society, then pretend offense when they applaud his rough discourtesy. Galland’s Iago is a man famous for not wanting fame, honorable (in his own eyes at least) for disdaining the pretenses of honor.

Galland’s Iago makes a courtly lover and a supreme gentleman. But we also cannot trust him to tell us everything. He protests his own honesty so much that we realize the one person he has completely gulled is himself. His studied eloquence and his elaborate rationalization reveal rather more about himself than he realizes. Galland does an excellent job unpacking the possible motives of a character that has defied easy categorization for centuries.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Brief History of Undeclared War in America

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has been aggressively congratulating herself on the success of her first book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power. And well she should. It debuted atop the New York Times bestseller list, features an unexpected blurb from Fox mogul Roger Ailes, and returns forgotten history to public discourse. Yet despite her boldness and success, Maddow repeats one of journalism’s easiest and most common fallacies.

Maddow traces the gap between America’s stated beliefs and its military policy back to Lyndon Johnson. Landslide Lyndon thought he could fight an open-ended overseas engagement without Congressional say-so as long as it wasn’t a formally declared “war.” Despite political pushback that nearly killed the Democratic party, Johnson’s policies eventually found their unlikely champion, and their ne plus ultra, in the Great Communicator himself, Ronald Reagan.

In contrast, Maddow extols James Madison and the Founding Fathers. The framers of America’s constitution, she says, distrusted unchecked executive control of the military. Though they invested the President as commander-in-chief, they forbid the executive to move the military without congressional approval, making declaration of war a Senatorial prerogative. The implication is that the framers would look on recent executive privilege with great shame.

And there, Maddow makes her mistake.

Commentators on the arc of American history have some tacit agreement to hold the Founding Fathers aloof from criticism. They must surely have been men (and some women) molded by the hand of Providence, gifted with profound insight, and never given to self-aggrandizing behavior or folly. They stop being real people or historical figures, and become mere vessels of high-minded principle.

No. The Founding Fathers had the foibles of ordinary politicians. For our purposes, their rash handling of the military is fully as appalling as Vietnam or Iran-Contra. Less than two years after ratification of the Constitution, George Washington himself rallied the militia to crush the Whiskey Rebellion, an uprising of citizen farmers who wanted merely to resist usurious taxes on the only way they had of profitably moving their produce to market.

Most American history textbooks mention the Whiskey Rebellion. After all, the rebels were white. Most textbooks elide that America’s first three Presidents funnelled illicit support to the Haitian Revolution. (Loyalties varied, though: Washington and Jefferson, slaveholders both, supported the French. John Adams, who had no slaves, supported the black rebels.) And Washington prosecuted Indian wars in the Ohio River valley throughout his administration.

According to the US Army’s own statistics, over half our 250-ish shooting conflicts have been against Indians. I don’t know if this includes pre-Revolutionary conflicts like King Philip’s War or the Pequot War, sometimes called the Pequot Massacre. Many of these wars have been very long and cripplingly expensive. And our Indian wars were, to a one, undeclared.

Much was made when the war in Afghanistan exceeded Vietnam to become America’s longest overseas engagement. Many commentators called it America’s longest war, but they were wrong. Historian James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, insists our longest war was the Second Seminole War, but even he is mistaken. From 1849 to 1886, there were not ninety consecutive days of peace between the US and the Apache Nation. Skirmishes continued as late as 1924.

After America ran out of Indian nations to fight, our forces began undeclared wars away from the mainland. Though textbooks claim the Spanish-American War lasted only two months, they subtly lump that together with the Philippine War. This conflict dragged on for four years of combat in swamps and jungles. Beginning patterns repeated in Vietnam and Iraq, it ended only when news back in the homeland challenged Americans’ views on what kind of people we are.

Robert Kaplan, in An Empire Wilderness, observes that, in peacetime, Presidential policies matter less than the policies of the chairman of the Federal Reserve. Presidents know this. That’s why the US has been engaged in a shooting conflict somewhere on earth, with someone, continuously, since 1948. These undeclared wars burnish a President’s reputation, as Clinton discovered in Bosnia, but they cost America political capital worldwide.

The US Senate has exercised its Constitutional prerogative to declare war only five times. Given the risk inherent in today’s complex network of alliances, it will probably never declare war again. Yet we keep getting involved in conflicts that start out popular, and peter out into national disillusionment. As a nation, we are better than our leaders’ petty ambitions. We have the power to rein our Presidents in. The question is, do we have the will?