Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Self-Help For the Wealthy, Beatings For the Weak

Steve Olsher, What Is Your WHAT: Discover The One Amazing Thing You Were Born To Do

I fear I’ve grown jaded. Authors and publicists send me books like this, anticipating the glowing reviews I’d have written before I slid backward on society’s ladder two years ago, and I can’t write them. These authors say something which sounds right, sounds ennobling, sounds humane, and I think: “Yes, yes, yes!” Then they inevitably say something that bitchslaps the poor, and I pull a facepalm, moaning “no, no, no!”

Psychological theorists like Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and their heirs have written copiously on how every human has a purpose they’re born to fulfill. Psychologists call this “disposition;” theologians call this “calling.” Until we find that purpose, we’ll drift unmoored through life. Many have written on this; Steve Olsher proffers a systematic approach to finding your purpose. Following Olsher’s very specific steps may help unlock what you subconsciously know.

Olsher’s approach involves unpacking your history to recognize patterns. Thus, it probably helps adults more than youth, especially people trapped in unfulfilling careers and lives. It relies on the Four Stages of Learning, famous in educational circles, to help readers realize what they don’t previously know about themselves. While hints of this approach resemble Larry Winget or Rhonda Byrne, Olsher’s presentation combines multiple influences smoothly and dynamically.

I’d appreciate Olsher’s message if he stopped there. His arguments against passively accepting life’s circumstances are energizing, his exercises concise, and his approach straightforward yet potentially very surprising. Rather than surrendering to life’s whims, getting blown around “like a windsock,” as Olsher repeatedly puts it, we have responsibilities as freethinking adults to take ownership and pilot our own lives. So far, so good.

Yet Olsher inevitably keeps talking. Worse, I doubt he’s listening to himself, or he’d realize how rich, urban, and white he sounds. He openly disparages people who accept undesirable circumstances as life’s necessary trade-off. I got downright angry reading this statement: “If you’re working in a dead-end job, it’s because you choose to be there.” I don’t quote out of context; Olsher really says something so tone-deaf and economically obtuse.

Consider what this statement means. Accepting work beneath your capabilities because the local economy can’t absorb your skills, is a moral judgment on you. Taking what you can get to stay close to family, friends, and the life you’ve made, means you have failed. Nor does Olsher stop there. If you persevere in a struggling marriage or can’t shed scars of childhood abuse, you have nobody to blame but yourself.

Moreover, imagine the implications if everyone “follows their bliss,” as Joseph Campbell put it. Consider how many people really, really want to be actors, novelists, stay-at-home parents, or (let’s not kid ourselves) drunks. People become self-supporting in these fields only after years of effort and investment, during which time food never becomes optional. Does Olsher really blame them for choosing bodily sustenance over the uncertain dream?

It’s tempting to say “we can’t all be Steve Jobs.” But as Malcolm Gladwell has demonstrated, even Steve Jobs couldn’t have been Steve Jobs if circumstances broke differently. Wealthy, successful, happy people get that way because they’re prepared, Gladwell proves, but also because circumstances break their way. We shouldn’t bend to life’s whims, like Olsher says, but we’re all beholden to conditions we can’t control.

Nobody wants to clean sewers, wait tables, or operate assembly lines. But we make compromises in life. We have to. Immanuel Kant writes of the “categorical imperative”: imagine the consequences if everyone did what you propose to do now. Hopefully Olsher would agree, we must honor first commitments first. If you have a spouse, two-point-four kids, and a mortgage, you can’t drop everything to dance banghra in a traveling circus.

When Olsher moralistically blames poor people, rural laborers, and disfranchised minorities for not knowing how to sort their hash, he really pisses me off. My reaction is only compounded by the fact that, up to the moment he says something so bone-headedly outrageous, he’s absolutely right. It really frustrates me that an author can have such intellectually solid, morally defensible foundations, and build such an ugly, offensive house upon them.

Olsher joins other recent books, like Zebras and Cheetahs and Give Yourself a Raise, that dogpile on poor people and ratify an essentially wealthy agenda. Worse, I fear these books conspire (perhaps unintentionally) to construct a moral framework letting rich people blame the poor for their poverty. I’m no socialist, yet I fear such blatant displays kicking the weak cannot end well for a capitalist society, or for our democracy.

CODA: After I posted an abridged version of this review on, the author posted a strange, incoherent comment (subsequently deleted under pressure) stating, among other things: "I thank God daily that morons like you... exist because you don't have the wherewithal, ability, or desire to make an inordinate difference in our world." He also claims that nobody could interpret his book any way other than how he intended, unless they didn't actually read the book.

When I wrote this review, I was angry at Olsher's implicit prejudices and judgmentalism, but considered him misguided. I repeat, he has a solid premise, but appears unaware of its ramifications. Following this comment, which includes personal insults and attempts to silence dissent, I fear he's something worse. After 140 consecutive positive reviews, answering one negative review with personal abuse, then acting contrite eighteen hours later, is domestic abuser behavior.

Olsher's opinions are arrogant and elitist; though in fairness, this could be accidental, a simple failure to anticipate poor laborers' differing needs. Steve Olsher himself, however, is potentially dangerous.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Proving Personal Writing Still Matters

Cheryl Strayed, editor, The Best American Essays 2013

In reading this year’s edition of the Best American Essays, the format struck me before the content. Most years’ editions sequence the essays alphabetically by authors’ last names. Not so this year, where editor Cheryl Strayed organizes twenty-six essays in a manner somehow differently. The thematic structure doesn’t present itself obviously until readers penetrate well into her sequence. Even afterward, her subtleties aren’t necessarily obvious.

The word “essay” has been cheapened by generations of schoolteachers who, lacking any other term for the five-paragraph monotonies students write to prove they’ve done the reading, yclept them “essays.” But this does the idea no justice. This series returns essays to the meaning they had when Montaigne pioneered the form, calling them the French for “attempts.” As in, let’s try this shit and see what happens.

And boy, oh boy, does something happen. Strayed compiles some well-known authors, including Charles Baxter, Zadie Smith, and Nobel Prize-winner Alice Munro, but she mostly shares less famous writers who, by turning hard, unblinking eyes on their own lives, manage to recount stories that exceed their authors. These writers prove George Bernard Shaw’s adage that only the intimately personal ever becomes truly universal.

Some essays address larger topics. Walter Kirn’s “Confessions of an Ex-Mormon” answers media stereotypes about Mitt Romney’s religion by recounting Kirn’s brief flirtation with Mormonism, and how it continues to save his life. Angela Morales’ “The Girls in My Town” gently laments how economic realities create two classes in America’s wealthiest state. Jon Kerstetter’s “Triage” reveals what happens in the moment combat surgeons choose to let a GI die.

Cheryl Strayed
Others remain more insular, unpacking something specific to the author. Tod Goldberg’s “When They Let Them Bleed” correlates “Boom Boom” Mancini’s most famous fight with his own obese, self-mortifying youth. Richard Schmitt’s “Sometimes a Romantic Notion” debunks the melodrama behind joining the circus. Steven Harvey’s “The Book of Knowledge” reveals what he discovered when he reread his late mother’s letters, discovering a disquieting stranger in his house.

Strayed also includes the most chilling essays I’ve ever seen in this series, Vanessa Veselka’s “Highway of Lost Girls” and Matthew Vollmer’s “Keeper of the Flame.” These two invade readers’ consciousness with such incisive power that I dare say nothing more about them. However, Strayed places them very early in the collection, leaving readers’ nerves frayed and jangling, prepared for the profound nuances of everything that comes after.

Early essays start big, addressing the authors’ personal weight in major issues. There’s a great deal of objective fact: the 1987 Black Monday stock collapse, Mitt Romney, a schoolboy’s death in a Dallas trash dumpster. These stories have a place not only in the authors’ worlds, but in ours, and their stories impinge upon us readers as concretely as the nightly news. We respond because we recognize ourselves.

As the collection progresses, however, essays become increasingly personal. Authors start omitting details like dates, geographical addresses, and sometimes even names. The language becomes transient, narratives grow non-linear, and the essays come to resemble poetry for our aggressively non-poetic age. By inviting us into their lives, rather than visiting ours, the authors make themselves vulnerable, and we find ourselves wanting to trust them.

I’ve used prior editions of this series as Freshman Comp texts, and would cheerfully use this edition too. Strayed’s selections don’t merely showcase diverse, challenging topics—from cancer and postpartum depression and grief, to love and family and music. She also chooses authors who convey their topics well, with professional attention to well-chosen words and phrases that convey beyond their literal meaning. I can pay no higher compliment than to say this collection makes me want to try something new as a writer.

Unfortunately, as more states move to adopt Common Core educational standards, many parents don’t realize the standards explicitly discourage personal writing. Though Common Core explicitly encourages nonfiction reading, that doesn’t include essays like those in this collection. David Coleman, who co-wrote Common Core, has said: “As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.”

Yet this series’ continued success, and the caliber of writing in this collection, prove the lie in that statement. Personal writing matters because humans are empathetic beings; by sharing others’ thoughts and feelings, we think and feel more deeply ourselves. As the dwindling magazine industry dries up venues for innovative, risk-taking essays, philistines like David Coleman threaten to overtake our discourse. Editors like Cheryl Strayed stand fast against them.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Glitter and the Gore

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 23
Joseph Wambaugh, Fugitive Nights

When PI Breda Burrows accepts a bog-standard infidelity case, she considers it a typical weekday rent-payer. Almost simultaneously, a swarthy stranger attacks a security officer at the Palm Springs airport and flees into the desert. Neither realizes how they’ve set upon a collision course that will transform California’s famous über-rich playground forever. They just know that if embittered ex-cop Lynn Cutter doesn’t stop cracking wise, they’ll shoot him.

Like Dashiell Hammett, Joseph Wambaugh’s novels have a hard-bitten edge reflecting their author’s personal history, which for Wambaugh means fourteen years “on the job” for the LAPD. But Wambaugh has a Monty Python-ish sense of humor that Hammett discovered only later. Wambaugh’s characters laugh because it hurts too much to cry. And their infectiously bleak gallows humor carries onto readers, conveying his characters’ intense, inescapable suffering.

Burrows, Cutter, and their geeky tagalong, Nelson Hareem, an exuberant but green cop with sweeping aspirations, form a sort of crime-fighting family looking for a crime. Burrows wants respect as a woman PI. Cutter wants to live a sexy, glamorous life which his disability pension can’t possibly cover. Nelson thinks these two can mentor him into becoming some heroic supercop. They embody Blind Justice as scripted by PJ O’Rourke and Dave Barry.

But like Shakespeare, Wambaugh uses humor to emphasize society’s widespread tragedy. While Burrows’ Wacky Trinity tries to understand why a millionaire is making deposits in a sperm bank, a glowering Mexican stranger is stalking the outskirts of Palm Springs. They slowly discover The Fugitive is circling their client’s estate, and he bears a grudge they can’t quite explain. They only know he intends bloody vengeance, and he has the skills to kill.

Wambaugh has long used his exciting, smart novels to examine the gap between law and justice. He enlists us into his scrutiny here, as two narratives converge in a confrontation that will inevitably hurt somebody. Though Nelson is a cop himself, his extracurricular status, alongside Burrows and Cutter off the job, blurs the line between police and vigilante. The Fugitive’s payback mission proves founded on a basis in justice, but not law.

The inexact nature of justice, for Wambaugh, comes from not only from who delivers it, but from what we cannot know. His characters lack important pieces of information they need to make vital decisions, and often make disastrous choices. Wambaugh softens the blow with slapstick, but the theme remains the same: nobody can truly exercise justice, because nobody has enough knowledge. Truth exists, but we cannot comprehend it.

Not that we can’t pursue truth. In a genre overcrowded with derivative police procedurals, Wambaugh brings a level of scientific precision most authors miss. Besides a novelist, Wambaugh has also written copious nonfiction; his 1991 classic The Blooding was the first mass-market introduction to forensic DNA identification. Despite his fiction’s frenetic pacing, Wambaugh brings a sober, journalist’s eye to how police do their job.

Wambaugh peoples his novel with an ensemble of fully realized characters. Burrows, an ex-cop, divulges to readers the struggles of a modern police woman in harrowing detail: her long descriptions of harassment, discrimination, and disenfranchisement make Taliban law seem downright liberal. Lynn Cutter’s sarcastic asides seem like whiskey-soaked farce, but reveal an exceptionally precise knowledge of the powers that enforce subjection in Palm Springs.

But of all his ensemble, none evinces greater humanity than The Fugitive. Wambaugh reveals his story incrementally, slower than Chinese Water Torture, yet always keeping us ahead of the heroes. From a story perspective, this offers flashes of witty, bleak irony. But The Fugitive himself never joins the novel’s aggressively comic sequences. As Wambaugh reveals his secrets, The Fugitive became the first character in years to actually make me cry.

This novel debuted in 1992, and includes topical references: George HW Bush, Operation Desert Shield, Mayor Sonny Bono. Yet rereading it twenty years later, it never feels dated or gimmicky. Wambaugh’s surface ornaments disclose deeper truths permeating his story: Palm Springs’ innate, violent inequality. The way society prizes order over justice. How rich people want police and security, but won’t pay for them. These themes remain timeless.

If this weren’t genre fiction, literary critics would embrace Wambaugh as a paragon of layered narrative, subtle characterization, and unflinching themes. They’d examine it for transcendent truths until they drained it dry. They’d force students to read this remarkably rich story until, like with Shakespeare or Hemingway, they made generations hate what they should love. But they haven’t discovered Wambaugh yet, so he remains ours to love.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Fall of Truman's White House

Robert Klara, The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America's Most Famous Residence

Harry Truman never wanted to be President. A wartime compromise Veep candidate, he inherited the Presidency only 89 days into FDR’s fourth term, and made history, sometimes against his will. But besides a formidable job in dangerous times, Truman also inherited a dilapidated White House. Political historian Robert Klara infuses humor, insight, and panache into his novel-like tale of how Truman rebuilt the Executive Mansion.

Truman received an essentially 18th Century house, suffering terrible subsidence and a rat problem. The Roosevelts, resident at 1600 Pennsylvania for thirteen years, refused their $50,000 annual refurbishment budget as unpatriotic during the Depression and WWII. The resulting neglect, coupled with over a century of haphazard upgrades, conflicting Presidential personalities, and fire during the War of 1812, left Truman a White House ready to collapse.

America’s unlikeliest President, and his struggles to restore America’s most prestigious residence, have been largely forgotten, but make astonishingly gripping reading. With its high-stakes political wrangling, famous names, and cast of thousands, Klara’s narrative resembles a Tom Clancy thriller. That’s no mere hyperbole, since it includes assassination attempts, appalling idealistic intransigence, and the Soviet nuclear research program.

Irish-American architect James Hoban designed the White House as a gentleman’s urban manor, but he built it on spongy reclaimed swampland, erecting its massive sandstone edifice on foundations only eight feet deep. As the Presidential role evolved, an elaborate Georgian mansion appeared increasingly extravagant. Hoban’s interior, built of untreated local lumber, wasn’t updated substantially between 1817 and 1949, and rotted badly.

Klara embroiders what could have been tedious architectural discursions with anecdotes that enliven his story: the time Truman, naked in the tub, nearly fell through the floor, into a formal Blue Room reception below. The precarious antique chandelier that jeopardized a concert pianist’s life. The many fabled White House ghosts which proved to be the sound of rotten superstructure settling. This makes Klara’s tale moving, humane, and often very funny.

More than a building history, Klara writes a biography of Truman’s fraught relationship to the White House. Truman’s wife, Bess, and daughter, Margaret, notoriously hated the house. Bess hated the official secrecy that ended her longstanding partnership in her husband’s career. Margaret nearly died when a floor joist collapsed beneath her beloved piano. Truman’s women fled to Missouri every summer, driving a wedge into a formerly close family.

Plagued by professional pressures and the nascent Cold War, Truman spent increasing time in Key West. His centrist views, plainspoken manner, and Midwestern thrift alienated an aristocratic Congress. After a Republican upset in the 1946 midterms, he couldn’t admit his White House was collapsing; the political implications for the “fall” of Democracy’s home address would have been lethal. So he began refurbishments surreptitiously, paying out of pocket.

But Truman’s ferocious re-election brought enough political capital to demand significant upgrades. Just in time, too: as Stalin’s scientists detonated their first plutonium bomb, the President’s role evolved, and with it, his house needs. No longer democracy’s showplace, Truman needed his White House to serve as command center, fortress, and bomb shelter. His architects gutted the old monument, transforming the house and everything within.

Klara combines journalism with deft storytelling, unpacking scorched roof beams and sagging brick foundations so the White House becomes a storied character, rich with events and hidden implications. She proves rife with secrets that reflect her evolving status, and repurposing her for the Nuclear Age reveals secrets throughout American history. Klara’s storytelling manages breathless urgency without resorting to naked hyperbole, no mean feat in political history.

Simultaneously, Klara keeps focus where it belongs. He doesn’t attempt a sweeping Truman biography; rather, his notes direct readers to David McCullough’s renowned Truman for more details. Klara limits himself to how world events, and powerful personalities, transformed one prestigious building. This focus keeps Klara’s story concise, energetic, and readable. His history moves with brisk, novelistic pace and a flair for images and characters.

As history does, Klara’s story brims with multiple players telling multiple stories, some entering and leaving with little explanation. Unlike novelists, who streamline events and characters, Klara remains true to events, meaning readers might feel confused by his constantly evolving dramatis personae. This does require active readership, and good readers might make notes on the endpaper.

Yet Klara’s story never feels cluttered, and rewards eager, curious audiences. Klara’s Truman recognizes his Presidency’s role in changing America, and his White House makes a powerful intersection between America’s elegant past and its post-war world leadership duty. Klara shows Truman renovating America for a new age.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Laureate Looks Back On Life At 72

Billy Collins, Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems

Former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins regularly reads to standing-room audiences, and reading his poems, it’s not hard to see why. They reward multiple levels of interpretation, unpack hidden implications in seemingly undistinguished moments, and wink sly humor at playfully receptive readers. But there’s a moment in this collection where a switch flips unexpectedly. This produces a book that starts strong, but ends on a surprisingly flat, tired-sounding note.

Collins’ longtime readers know his familiar arc: an ordinary moment on an ordinary day triggers a Proustian connection, seemingly sudden but wholly consistent. Perhaps memory intrudes, or ruminations run wild—a quote from a writing text imbues a moment with unanticipated urgency, or an ancient photo in a modern building creates a discordance Collins can’t easily reconcile. Sometimes he just starts thinking, and the results surprise even himself:
“Writing in the Afterlife”

I had heard about the journey to the other side
and the clink of the final coin
in the leather purse of the man holding the oar,
but how could anyone have guessed

that as soon as we arrived
we would be asked to describe the place
and to include as much detail as possible—
not just the water, he insists

rather the oily, fathomless, rat-happy water,
not simply the shackles, but the rusty,
iron, ankle-shredding shackles…
While scholarly poets vanish into themselves, equating incomprehensibility with depth, Collins recognizes who reads his work. The baker doesn’t bake the bread he wants to bake, but the bread his customers need to eat. No wonder, in a crowded poetry market, readers seek Collins out.

Collins’ poems have familiarity not in their outcomes, which persistently surprise even attentive readers. Rather, we relish the surprise as his words expose something distinctly novel in familiar circumstances. We anticipate being blindsided, and come to prognosticate: what will he do next? Thus he forces us to reexamine our own preconceptions, and turns us into poets ourselves. Could you have created “Divorce,” which I quote in full:
Once, two spoons in bed,
now tined forks

across a granite table
and the knives they have hired.
Yes, I suspect you could have created it if, like Collins, you have practiced thinking like a poet. Collins challenges us to circumvent our learned limitations and see moments anew. At his best, Collins opens our eyes, guides us through the labyrinth of our own minds, and returns us to the start, enlightened and ready to bring his lessons in poetic insight into our regular life.

At his best. Sadly, like any of us, Billy Collins isn’t always at his best.

This book suffers moving into the “New Poems” section. Compiled for the first time, these poems lack the muscular through-line that defines his prior sections, and meander episodically. This last section, running nearly ninety pages, percolates with such Hail Mary passes as (gasp!) poems about poets and poetry. Seriously. He has a villanelle, titled “Villanelle,” about writing a villanelle. MFA instructors work assiduously to stop students doing that.
“Lines Written at Flying Point Beach”

or at least in the general vicinity
of Flying Point Beach,
certainly closer than I normally am

to that beach where the ocean
crests the dunes at high tide
spilling tons of new salt water into Mecox Bay,

and probably closer to Flying Point Beach
than you are right now
or I happen to be as you read this. [...]
Not that he stops being good. Moments of insight penetrate, as in “Digging,” about backyard artifacts unearthed, and histories imputed to them. But it becomes much harder to find such moments. Instead, he gives over to what many non-poetry readers disparage in contemporary poetry: formless prose broken into ragged, end-stopped lines. It reads like diary entries, like Collins stops pushing himself to that next level.

It pains me to say this about one of my heroes, but at 72, Collins may be getting tired. Poetry’s heightened aesthetic, its language inviting multiple interpretations, its intensively layered themes, demand time and energy. And Collins, who maintains a teaching and reading schedule that would deplete much younger men, maybe can’t dedicate himself to writing like he once could. That would explain these later poems’ rushed feel.

I love Billy Collins, and I love most of this book. Like the best poets, when Collins succeeds, he could transform our world. But the more a poet risks, the bigger his potential disappointment. Let’s just say, Collins writes more reliably than William Wordsworth; but if you read his work, recognize, not everything succeeds equally.

Poets on parade. From left: Sam Stecher, Kevin L Nenstiel (the reviewer),
Billy Collins, and Rick Marlatt

Friday, October 18, 2013

Sam Spade in the Suburbs of Hell

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 22
Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

Trusting a gorgeous girl's simple task costs Sam Spade's partner his life and lands Spade in hot water with the law. But Spade has crossed the law before in his pursuit of justice, and he won't flinch from doing it again. When the seemingly normal case of murder proves to be part of a large conspiracy spanning continents and centuries, that's just another payday for San Francisco's most ambitious detective.

Dashiell Hammett famously changed the tone of detective fiction when he moved away from simple puzzles into an unflinching depiction of how real crime-fighters talk and act. A veteran Pinkerton detective himself, Hammett understood that high-minded ideals of justice have no place in criminal investigations. His detectives, hard men of rigid honor, move among a criminal underclass so depraved, integrity becomes a liability.

Spade's particularly utilitarian brand of justice, based on consequences rather than rules, shook comfy readers out of Sherlock Holmes' essential cleanliness and lack of ambiguity, forcing us to examine what we mean by words like "truth" and "law." Sam Spade has stones enough to kill, to lie, to steal. He’ll sell out the innocent rather than risk himself. Yet his code, downright Gordian in its intricacy, remains immaculate and internally consistent.

Readers familiar with John Huston’s classic big-screen interpretation may find Hammett’s original novel disquieting. Unlike Humphrey Bogart’s chivalrous knight errant, Hammett presents Spade as a sort of maelstrom, sucking everything into himself with undifferentiating hunger. Everyone around Spade has strong feelings: cops despise him, criminals fear him, women want him. (Incidentally, women, in Spade’s world, exist interchangeably; his chest-thumpingly male ethos entirely excludes knowing or understanding women.)

Film noir, which generally rewards clear binary divisions between hero and villain even as it subverts such divisions, sanitized Spade for posterity. Cinema couldn’t stomach an antihero who sleeps with his partner’s wife, his secretary, his client, successively and concurrently; it couldn’t reconcile a man who mocks his partner, but insists his partner’s killer has to swing. It couldn’t let a protagonist answer a lady’s heartfelt “I love you” with “What of it?”

Yet the very qualities film couldn’t accept make Spade so compelling. Raymond Chandler, a generation after Hammett, wrote: “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish.” Sam Spade’s internal moral consistency, as complete yet rootless as any criminal’s, force readers to empathize with completely awful people.

In a telling early sequence, Spade admits he doesn’t carry a gun. “I don’t much like them.” Not for Hammett (who served in both World Wars) the swinging machismo of today’s pistol-packing police culture. Yet twice he points some enemy through doors which inevitably open onto death in crossfire. Spade never pulls the trigger, yet he kills his foes as surely as any assassin. Thus Hammett acknowledges the flaccid boundary between cop and criminal.

And we haven't resolved Hammett's conundrums yet. Though many writers slavishly copy Spade's mannerisms and Hammett's authenticity, society hasn't yet found simple solutions to this complex novel's dilemmas. As we now recognize that the law can't solve all problems, and we must sometimes step off the safe road to do what's right, Sam Spade's quest to resolve just one crime seems more relevant than ever.

First published in 1929, this novel captures its moment beyond the mystery genre’s purported limitations. Spade, the man of honor who nevertheless works among society’s lowest, lives in a dingy flat and sleeps in a Murphy bed. He feuds openly with the police, who consider him another criminal; he, likewise, sees cops as instruments of a corrupt system. The novel implies its villain, Casper Gutman, has police in his pocket.

Law exists, Hammett implies, to impede the people; justice, then, must be illegal. Unlike the “Roaring Twenties” myth perpetuated by that expatriate Hemingway, or his frenemy, the sybarite Fitzgerald, Hammett sees a generation split in two. Spade’s dystopian San Francisco showcases America’s glittering accomplishments, but wallows in extreme poverty. Nothing exists between. In such a space, the just man’s enemy is the state.

Before Hammett, mysteries were primarily mental puzzles with little patience for realistic social commentary. After Hammett, mysteries became straightforward morality plays, where evil exists and law triumphs. But Dashiell Hammett occupied a space where good people needed to carve their own domain, and name it justice. Between today’s boomtown financial industry and gut-wrenching urban poverty, perhaps Hammett has become timely again.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Vengeance Machine

Most readers know about the Great Wal-Mart Run of 2013. A two-hour computer glitch on Saturday, October 12, caused Electronic Benefit Transfer cards (EBT), formerly called Food Stamps, to show no limit in eleven states. Media coverage focused on two Louisiana towns, Springhill and Mansfield, where welfare recipients swarmed Wal-Mart, charging massively overloaded carts to their temporarily bottomless accounts.

Much public response has been downright ugly. The Washington Times, which has Tea Party ties, accused recipients of grabbing “everything they could get their hands on”—specious, since limits on what recipients could buy remained, even while monetary limits collapsed. And after officials corrected the glitch, the Boston Herald carped, “it’ll take the liquor stores and tattoo parlors weeks to make up their lost weekend business.”

Such vicious language permeates social media, which often magnifies reprehensible opinion. One of my contacts called the Wal-Mart throng “Pure animals,” while another crowed, “I say jail time! And loss of any and all benefits for life!” Calls for mass arrests, harsh punishments, and Solomonic righteous payback abound. Such opinions rule public feedback, as few apologists have yet appeared defending Saturday’s vulture behavior.

Nor will I defend anybody. Saturday’s events, despite their brief, localized nature, constitute theft by any definition. Just because you leave your car unlocked doesn’t mean you’ve given me permission to ransack your trunk. Public officials have already announced their refusal to honor Saturday’s charges, leaving Wal-Mart holding the bag for thousands of dollars in unlawful purchases (which, frankly, America’s wealthiest retailer can absorb).

But even with such unambiguous legal and public sentiment against Saturday’s events, opinion merchants continue whipping each other into competitive heights of outrage. The Herald and Times quotes above represent not only the common vindictive tone, but the complete disavowal of facts. Start with this important detail: outside op-ed circles, local and national sources agree that Saturday’s vulture shoppers purchased only one category—groceries.

Mansfield, Louisiana, is a poor town of barely 5,000 residents and little economy. Its population is two-thirds Black, one-third legally impoverished, and like many rural communities in this economy, inordinately reliant on public poverty protection. Springhill is wealthier and whiter, but its two largest employers, Georgia-Pacific and Trane, recently moved their facilities overseas. Not surprisingly, this has meant a substantial increase in demand for EBT protection.

Nearly twenty years ago, chronic unemployment forced me briefly onto Food Stamps, back when they were still printed on paper. The experience taught me important lessons in asceticism, since it’s hard to survive on less than five dollars per person per day. You quickly develop a tolerance for mustard sandwiches and porridge. And EBT only covers food; no matter how necessary, it doesn’t cover shoelaces, light bulbs, or other “luxuries.”

Imagine living like that for years, because your regional economy cannot absorb surplus workers. Now imagine that, for two hours one Saturday, you could purchase red meat, whole-grain bread, and unreconstituted orange juice. Hungry people do stupid things; this hardly makes news. Yet this doesn’t permit us non-poor citizens to use borderline-racist language (animals? Really?) or demand Les Miserables-ish vengeance.

This lack of fundamental empathy justifies frequently repugnant language. Howie Carr, the Boston Herald columnist quoted above, regales readers with tales of a woman’s “designer purse,” three EBT cards, and “a wad of cash that would choke a horse, all 50s and 100s.” Worse, this anecdote, and others about “layabouts” and “illegals,” come second- and even third-hand—what urban legend specialist Jan Harold Brunvand calls a friend-of-a-friend (FOAF).

Does Carr, or anyone like him, really believe such language advances the debate? When he compares immigrants and the poor to “the Tsarnaevs,” will he win anyone to his position? Probably not. Such language inflames sentiment, which makes Carr seem normal. But it prolongs debate, impedes justice, and reduces important deliberations to playground trash-talk competitions.

Rather than calibrating vengeance, how about addressing underlying problems that created Saturday’s vulgar stampede? If those Springhill and Mansfield Wal-Mart employees have kids, statistics indicate, there’s a better-than-even chance they have EBT cards themselves. We romanticise white-picket-fence communities, while rural economies bleed dry. We demonize EBT recipients, while bolstering the banks who imploded the economy in 2008.

Saturday’s Louisiana hayride is unlawful, and its perpetrators should face consequences. But it’s also limited in scope, unlikely to recur, and completely understandable from ordinary human motivations. Subsequent spiteful feedback makes less sense. Worse, it jeopardizes American standards of justice. Let’s pause, check our sentiments, and make decisions based on facts. Remember, the vengeance knife cuts both ways.

Monday, October 14, 2013

How to Give Real Advice, In Ten Easy Steps

Frederick W. Schmidt, The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Faith in Hard Times

Doctor David Schmidt had a growing family, prestigious Nashville surgical practice, and life worthy of others’ envy. Then glioblastoma, an invasive brain cancer with survival rates near zero, submarined everything. Dave’s brother, Reverend Fred Schmidt, found the usual theological platitudes he’d customarily distributed suddenly too small. Physicians, clergy, and other healing professionals couldn’t address Dave’s suffering. This made Reverend Fred re-examine everything he thought he knew.

This examination produced “The Dave Test,” a series of questions Reverend Fred believes all professionals, friends, and well-meaning strangers should ask themselves before tragedy strikes. Too often, Schmidt says, we offer advice from positions of remove, reciting memorized bromides that don’t address unmet needs. By contemplating these ten questions, before tragedy strikes, Schmidt hopes we can avoid the pitfalls of sharing advice that only patronizes others’ needs.

Too often, we offer advice based upon gut reactions, or the desire to defuse tension, and not on what actually helps others. We generally mean well, and base our suggestions on textbooks or Scripture or something somebody said. But in practice, we dismiss others’ real feelings, diminish their losses, and steal value from what they’re really facing. Because we don’t think about our advice, well in advance, we hurt more than we help.

While these unhelpful tendencies may have many immediate causes, Schmidt traces them to one shared underlying cause: our inability to face our own pain. Schmidt’s ten questions, which on further examination lead to more and better questions, allow us to unpack our own situation. Not that he wants us to compare war wounds; rather, we must first say “yes, that sucks” (as he puts it) from a place stripped of pretense.

Schmidt compiles numerous examples from his own and others’ helping missions, and his brother’s slow, sometimes degrading illness, of ways well-meaning friends and professionals sugar-coat problems and tapdance around raw situations. When we know people in genuine pain, it’s human to belittle them with pat answers. We want to speak certain magic words. It allows us to retain the illusion of control, and continue blithely disregarding our own mortality.

Instead, Schmidt requires would-be helpers to spend time alone with their own struggles, asking ourselves questions we cannot paper over. What does it mean, Schmidt asks us to ask ourselves, when we know this situation will never “get better”? Can we face important questions of transcendence and spirituality without reaching after superstition? How do we let language get between us and others, and can we turn language into a bridge?

Moreover, Schmidt insists we should spend time taking “The Dave Test” now, before the situation arises. Our most common mistake in dispensing advice is that we speak impetuously, expecting experience or book learning or the Spirit to provide answers as we talk. Thus we dispense banalities rather than speaking with meaning. If we try to open ourselves during the crisis, it’s already too late. Caregiving demands long-term preparation.

As an Episcopal priest and seminary professor, Schmidt writes from an explicitly Christian perspective. However, despite occasional Biblical citations and liturgical language, little he says is exclusively Christian; indeed, he cites examples of how his principles apply to other faith traditions. Even people with no faith can provide the care Schmidt describes, if we start by asking ourselves these important, universal questions.

If anything, I wish Schmidt went even further. His back-cover copy promises that “Life is raw. So is the language in this book.” Yet while his early chapters include the occasional s-bomb, he retreats from this as the book progresses, apparently finding comfort in liturgical polysyllables. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Schmidt admits his brother verified the rawest, most unflinching early chapters, but Doctor Dave died partway through the manuscript process.)

While Schmidt never says anything necessarily wrong, he could stand a dose of what Tex Sample calls Hard Living People, those blue-collar hardhats whose life experiences breed intolerance for falsity. Schmidt admits Dave found his greatest comfort among people who spoke from their own brokenness, lacking prefab answers, but only that moment of communion. Why doesn’t Schmidt push further into the topic he broached himself?

But even if Schmidt avoids the full implications, he lays a foundation we can build on. This isn’t a book of pat advice we can dispense flippantly; Schmidt offers a book to let us stop practicing self-deception, know ourselves intimately, and finally help others from a place of shared vulnerability. His questions, and his opportunities, transcend religion or race or sex. We all need someone who knows us where we are.

Friday, October 11, 2013


I first encountered the term “email” in a Freshman Composition textbook, in an essay by digital journalism pioneer Michael Kinsley. Not that I’d never encountered the concept before. By 1999, when I started college late, digital communications were busily revolutionizing how people communicated, allowing people to send text-based communications internationally, but also giving junk advertisers unprecedented access to ordinary citizens’ information.

No, I understood the idea of “email.” The orthography, however, took me by surprise. I’d always written it “e-mail,” emphasizing the separate pronunciation of the first syllable, /ē’-māl/. Kinsley’s spelling made the word look like it should be pronounced /ə-māl’/, with the emphasis on the second syllable. It resembled the common French name Emile, more than anything electronically analogous to the Post Office, which I still religiously used back then.

This digitally motivated shift in English orthography has not been entirely even. The corporate name Google has become a lower-case verb because of Google’s overwhelming market presence, and because English needed such a word. The comic strip character Barney Google probably helped ease us into saying “to google” when we needed to search the Internet. Yet the spelling of “to google” remains entirely consistent with preceding English language.

Not that Kinsley holds domain on spelling. The MLA Stylesheet, and other print-based usage guides, favor “e-mail,” the spelling that still seems most consistent with pronunciation to me. The Stack Exchange, a linguistics website, indicates that my preferred spelling remains more widely used. Yet the AP Stylebook changed its standards in 2011, now favoring “email” for journalists online and in print. As go journalists, so, probably, will go the vernacular.

Linguists agree that English is probably the hardest language for second-language learners to savvy. Its frequent borrowings from other languages create lopsided spelling shifts, as a word from French may align with another from Japanese, all arranged in an essentially German grammar. Advancing digital technology only compounds this confusion, because we aren’t borrowing from a real language. We lack any precedent for how to spell or organize new words.

Only that initial vowel, usually e or i, has changed how we write. We absorb inconsistencies with remarkable ease: for instance, we’ve never decided how to describe commerce occurring in an entirely digital format. Do we call it “e-commerce,” “ecommerce,” or “eCommerce”? My computer’s digital spell-check accepts the first and third options, but balks at the second, though it had no problem with how I wrote “email” earlier.

Trade names ease some of this confusion. Brands like iShares, iPad, or eBay have easily pronounceable names, because the offset capital letter emphasizes the initial vowel’s separate status. Nobody seriously expects to shop on /ə-bā’/, using an /’i-pæd/. Yet the capital letter doesn’t just steer pronunciation; it also signals these terms’ identity as wholly owned brand names. Nobody “owns” email, though it has many providers, so it won’t get capitalized.

Even the brand-name workaround doesn’t always work. E*Trade is pronounced much like email, yet the Wal-Mart-ish asterisk creates an entirely new orthography, separate from email or eBay. It’s hard to say how seriously to take this, however, since the company still formally organized as “E-Trade Financial Corporation.” The asterisk may be a mere stylistic flourish invented by advertisers. Mercifully, few others have mimicked it so far.

Electronic books may only compound this inconsistency. Not only do we have no agreed means of describing these products (e-books? ebooks? eBooks?), but the large and growing number of programming formats means that books written in one form, Kindle for instance, are unreadable in other formats, like iPad or Kobo. Authors’ surface orthography proves only the tip of the readability iceberg, and people favoring one format develop their own dialect.

While e-book entrepreneurs frantically try to invent new formats, they strive to keep them compatible with old formats, like HTML and PDF. Thus English retains its single shared past, when computers had to be compatible or they’d be useless; but it cruises toward a divided future. The market will certainly shake out certain formats (Rocket yBooks still exist, for instance, but only vestigially). But new technology will hasten new confusions.

English has never had an institution like L'Académie Française, which regulates and purifies French. We’ve never needed or wanted such an institution, and its lack keeps English adaptable to changing times. Yet technology’s rapid and accelerating shifts mean we’ll face new ideas and applications daily. Without mutual standards for new, tech-based language, English will only become harder and more opaque. Earth’s most widespread language deserves such a backstop.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The United States of Divergence

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 21
Robert Sobel, For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne had won at Saratoga

In the autumn of 1777, British General John Burgoyne led an army from Canada through New York, intending to bisect the rebellious Americans. Had he succeeded in his goal of conquering Manhattan, Burgoyne would have split the Continental Army. Northern and Southern commands would have been unable to communicate, act in unison, or reinforce each other. But Burgoyne’s campaign ended when Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold beat him at Saratoga.

In 1973, American historian Robert Sobel published his only novel, asking an important question: did history have to unfold that way? History is contingent, a fact historians know, but which remains largely unacknowledged in classrooms or popular discussions. Just because America won the Revolution doesn’t mean it had to. Burgoyne's victory would have ended the American Revolution after barely two years of largely disorganized fighting.

Multiple authors have written on the question of how an American loss, surrender, or aversion from war would have changed history. Would it mean Democracy’s crib death, or peaceful evolution of world power? Would Britain have treated American insurgents leniently, or meted harsh punishments? These and others remain important questions, because they influence how Americans, and other peoples, confront modern political rifts.

Sobel’s story, like a bicentennial textbook, examines a bifurcated American history. Many Revolutionary leaders, particularly Southern slaveholding capitalists, find themselves refugees from the land that made them wealthy. While British hegemony protects Northern intellectuals, Southern revolutionaries flee to an area nominally controlled by Spain. In their new nation of Jefferson, the American radicals plant the seed that flowers as the United States of Mexico

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Even flag-draped patriots admit America’s history reflects powerful conflicting forces. While Americans have advocated for growing freedoms at home and internationally, the bigotry that allowed slavery, racism, and the Three-Fifths Compromise survives like black mold in America’s corners. Sobel depicts North America colored by isolating our unpleasant impulses west of the Mississippi, and our most glamorous ideals east. Though somewhat Manichaean, Sobel’s narrative lets us examine divergent influences in isolation.

Britain reorganizes its colonies into the Confederation of North America, establishing a limited home government and incremental economic reforms. Over two centuries, the CNA, like Canada or Australia, gains independence by stages, evolving into a benevolent world superpower. It nurtures intellectualism, global industry, and democratic idealism; yet it doesn’t prize its military, and an increasingly polarized world often catches it by surprise.

When the Spanish crown loses its deteriorating global empire, but Mexicans aren’t prepared to govern themselves, Jefferson’s white militia fills the gap. The United States of Mexico honors Revolutionary principles, yet prefers strong military Presidents, and a central autocratic government. Its aggressive overseas adventurism rewrites the world map and makes Mexico a global player, at the cost of a powerful central government and diminished freedoms.

Unbeknownst to political heavyweights, who focus on conventional governments, this twofold North America produced a third player. The Kramer Associates start small in Mexico, but quickly become too large and powerful for any national borders. After the CNA and Mexico pick opposite sides in the Global War, Kramer halts hostilities using the strangest weapon ever controlled by a private corporation: they, not any state, perfect and deploy a thermonuclear bomb.

Written at a time when Alternative History hadn’t established its conventions, or its market as a science fiction subgenre, Sobel’s narrative doesn’t resemble the adventure-oriented dramas from authors like Harry Turtledove or Philip K. Dick. It’s clearly a historian’s work, and examines the themes of history, not the personalities or events. This makes it less marketable, yet vastly more complex. It’s not about famous historical others, or murky alien lands; Sobel writes, fundamentally, about us.

Despite his broad, sweeping sympathies, Sobel overlooks certain issues. His two swelling North American superpowers and their dualistic clash don’t include, say, Indians. And though he doesn’t treat the United States of Mexico as a mere white colony (after the first few American leaders, power shifts to Mexican hands), his dominionistic Mexican government sometimes dances perilously close to gringo stereotypes of mustachioed banditos. Readers must remember the blinders Americans wore in 1973.

Yet this “novel” isn’t supposed to reflect subtle, nuanced human details. It doesn’t have characters as such, or dialog, or other hallmarks of novel writing. It encompasses hundreds of years, thousands of personalities, and two nations whose entwined history quickly dominate world affairs. Moreover, it forces Americans to face directly the forces that have shaped our history, including the most unpleasant forces, broadcast larger than life. This is Sobel’s portrait of America’s strange binary history.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Hell On the Tundra Moss

Don Rearden, The Raven's Gift

John Morgan and his wife, Anne thought teaching in Alaska’s rural tundra would be an adventure. But when a mutant flu decimates their Yup’ik village, John loses everything he loves. When he can’t bring himself to die, he chooses his only remaining option: walk out, across hundreds of trackless miles, in search of civilization. But he finds something far worse than disease: primal man, bloody and savage, hunting his trail.

Advance press compares Don Rearden’s debut novel to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but I’d go further: hints of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket permeate the narrative. It also provides a companion to Camus’ The Plague, a sort of answer volume, but not a direct refutation. Readers can enjoy this as a character thriller, or a dialogue with recent Western philosophy.

Trekking over Alaska’s vast tundra, John must confront creeping nihilism emerging within himself. Like Homer or Jack London before him, Rearden realizes an important truth: humans cannot beat nature. Oceans or deserts or Arctic flatland abolish all human pretense. Yet we share an innate need to build something. When John encounters a blind, starving girl amid burned-out ruins, he knows a logical man would leave her, but he abandons logic.

Rearden’s non-linear narrative pits John, the Modern Man, against a range of iconic characters: the Wise Native Woman and the Children With No Past, the Men Gone Savage and the Bastion of Civilization. When everything that came before proves founded on lies, different people face this collapse in wildly different ways. Facing such diverse allies and foes, though, John and “the girl” have only one overriding motivation: to survive.

In some ways, such stories have a fatalistic inevitability. From medieval quest romances and Grimm’s fairy tales to modern apocalyptic thrillers, we expect certain necessary components. We know the hero will lose everything, undergoing trials and humiliations; he’ll uncover secrets, both his own and his people’s; and he’ll energe transformed, putatively improved. Readers could sit with a copy of Joseph Campbell and plot Rearden’s story arc with graph paper.

But simultaneously, Rearden customizes his narrative to suit his location. Alaskans love to call their home ‘the last frontier,” and like Owen Wister or Louis L’amour, Rearden knows that people discover their true core selves beyond civilization’s borders. Frontiers overthrow self-importance and learned behaviors. Only when forced to support ourselves, moment by moment, do we discover the identity lingering beneath our pretensions.

Alaska, in Rearden’s telling, completely demolishes everything people from the Lower 48 think they know. Not only does it lack roads and conurbations, city trappings which bring the illusion of control; Alaska also lacks trees, grasses, and other familiar natural landmarks. Sure, miners and tourists and other white folks think they can “modernize” Alaska. But Rearden says the flat tundra moss and thrusting mountains expose such fashionable rhetorical lies.

Staggering across time, Rearden unfolds John’s story in three parallel tracks. As an outsider teacher, John struggles with local mistrust, but finds surprising allies by rejecting traditional white narratives in his Yup’ik classroom. Fleeing his ruined village, he struggles to survive with a blind, questioning orphan in tow. And with possible civilization in sight, he must hold his new family together while fleeing a faceless enemy who hunts humans for sport.

John’s quest exposes his inmost fears, testing whether his worries matter in the larger landscape. As a mixed-race outsider, he stands with his feet in both white and Yup’ik culture—making him part of neither. Lacking either Yup’ik tradition or white scientific certainty, he manages to avoid the pitfalls plaguing many other survivors. But he doesn’t understand most people he encounters. Like Jonah, John sees, but he doesn’t know.

Rearden’s ending comes rather abruptly. Like Golding, he cannot quite let his characters embrace the Absurd, providing rescue when things seem bleakest. One almost wishes Rearden, like Camus, had let his characters surrender all hope. Ten more pages might have been revealing. What new humans might have emerged on the other side? Surely something different, darker, more visceral than Camus’ subtopical plague survivors.

But like Golding, Rearden’s minor epic will resonate with audiences not for its ending, but for its locomotive-like mass. He pushes his characters, and us with them, through the pits of human despair and casual savagery. And if he doesn’t necessarily take the final step himself, he invites readers to do so. Though he admits: you may not like what you see over there.

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Ignorance Merchants

In a strange confluence of events, this week’s US Federal Government shutdown overlapped a personal event, seemingly insignificant at first, that reveals how strange American public discourse has become. We’ve changed the terms of debate, allowing people with blatant self-interest to somehow arbitrate their own public opinion. And we’ve done so in the name of “fairness” that has actually shifted public burdens onto the most powerless.

Mainstream journalists desperately try to remain even-handed in their shutdown coverage, claiming this represents a bipartisan confluence, two parties refusing to back off their most sacred principles. Various journalists have called the shutdown a “train wreck,” a “game of chicken,” and a “staring contest.” Eager to seem even-handed, these journalists have treated this as equally President Obama’s and House Republicans’ fault, rectifiable if both ease off.

This narrative, which permeates ordinary coffee-shop conversation, is comfortingly egalitarian. It’s also flat damn wrong. Excluding comedians and partisan editorialists, only Bill Moyers on the national stage has called bullshit. Republicans announced their intent to shutter the government days in advance, demanding Democrats illegally dismantle legally passed legislation. With deadlines looming, Republicans halted debate for an entire day to let Ted Cruz perform street theatre from the Senate lectern.

I learned in grade school that treating everybody equally is different than treating everybody fairly. When Brian Morse clotheslined me from behind, unprovoked, for “being a nerd,” we both got three days’ detention for “fighting.” Everyone, from peers to teachers, called this unfair, since I’d been facing the other way and said nothing to Brian. Yet blind rules enforcement required all parties to face equal punishment, regardless of culpability.

This same militant evenhandedness has inflected political discourse, making Democrats equally responsible for the shutdown because they were in the room. Yes, Republicans announced their intent to submarine regular procedure. Yes, Republicans refused eighteen invitations to bipartisan negotiations. Yes, a sliver Republican faction boasted its desire to shutter the federal government as early as 2010. Yet both parties, we hear, must fix the problem one party has created.

Fox News’s Mike Huckabee called Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) “a squish” on Sunday for suggesting that a government shutdown wouldn’t serve national interest. This represents how low the discourse has sunk. Most senators, who generally face a more diverse electorate, and Republican Representatives from competitive districts, didn’t want this shutdown. Representatives from securely Republican districts, and rightist opinion aggregators like Huckabee, who face little challenge, did want it.

Amid this nakedly partisan shitstorm, an unrelated event penetrated my life. An author I reviewed three years ago surfaced, criticizing my review weirdly late. He calls me “very biased,” suggesting I reviewed his book with some personal agenda; but rather than refute anything I said, he complains that I’ve reviewed other products, including classic literature and non-book products, stating explicitly that this makes me less of a reviewer.

This author repeats the claim that I have “bias” twice, yet never explains what that bias is. I tried to remain fair in my assessment, but I reviewed his book honestly, and his book just wasn’t good. Merriam-Webster defines bias as “an inclination of temperament or outlook; especially: a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment : prejudice.” Yet this author essentially redefines bias as “having different interests, opinions, or ideas than me; disagreement.”

It pains me to say, this author may have better grasp of the zeitgeist than me. Current political discourse has changed “fairness” to mean throwing everybody under the bus equally; “compromise” to mean meeting the most politically connected players’ demands, no matter how illegal or extortionate; and “debate” as acquiescence. Partisan players redefine terms with abandon, in self-serving ways that keep citizens profoundly ignorant. And we reward them for it.

Good people internalize such commodified naiveté, spinning it back as their own ideas, often not bothering to rephrase others’ wrongheadedness before putting their names on it. A friend of mine, an educated professional, claimed this week that the Affordable Care Act, for which the Tea Party shuttered the government, is “not a law, technically.” When I challenged him, he said “codes [are] not laws, and acts are not laws, technically.”

Black’s Law Dictionary disagrees. “Law” is an umbrella term encompassing codes, acts, statutes, resolutions, and all other ratified legislation. Yet partisan media has floated this division, unrecognized by any lawyers in the English Common Law tradition until now, as ex post facto justification to keep the ACA debate, which legal and constitutional precedent declares closed, open indefinitely. The debate has become intellectually unmoored from prior tradition, to one side’s profit.

Partisan rabble rousers like the Koch Brothers bankroll candidates and supposed grassroots uprisings for personal gain, then solicit donations to keep fake movements alive. Fox News claims to be “Fair and Balanced,” while MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow claims “the facts skew liberal,” when both essentially distribute partisan editorials to keep true believers hooked between commercials. Rampton and Stauber have documented how paid PR flacks keep closed debates open to benefit highly connected employers.

This mass marketing of complete factual ignorance, by self-serving buyers with the connivance of supposedly independent media, leaves America’s electorate unprepared for its most important debates. James Madison, in framing The Federalist Papers, could never have imagined how mass ignorance marketing could subvert America’s founding ideals. And unless Americans stand up to demand something accurate, this ignorance merchantry will continue unabated.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Class Gaps and Money Myopia

Gordon Bennett Bleil, Give Yourself a Raise: How to Have More Money, Less Stress, Financial Freedom

Business and finance books, like all instructional non-fiction, always contain their own implicit prejudices that authors may not notice. But when outsiders who don’t share the author’s suppositions read them, these books’ limitations become glaringly obvious. Such is the case here. Gordon Bennett Bleil’s instructional precis on financial management may help urban professionals, but Bleil tacitly excludes people like, well, me.

Bleil joins a field already crowded with celebrity financial gurus like Suze Orman and Jim Cramer, who urge people to handle money responsibly and plan for the future. Bleil’s perhaps lacks the personality of Orman or Cramer, but that’s okay; his just-the-facts-ma’am approach clears the clutter that makes me distrust more theatrical pundits. And Bleil brings his own tested tools into the mix, broadening the scope of choices available to us peons.

Yet repeatedly, Bleil’s definition of Financial Freedom exposes unexamined myopia. For instance, his statements about housing and its attendant costs reveal his urban inclination. Home prices, which took such a public beating in 2008, actually remained stable in rural areas and small towns, but that’s because such low-demand markets change little. A small-town house’s cash value wouldn’t make a satisfactory urban down payment.

Then Bleil lobs bombs about savings. He says we should have six months’ living expenses saved to consider ourselves truly secure. Seriously? Schoolteachers, hourly shift workers, and entry-level employees can’t do that. If the factory fired me tomorrow, I’d survive about one month; and I only have any savings whatsoever because I have no kids. The preponderance of my fellow factory drones literally live paycheck to paycheck, dreading every medical emergency or car repair.

To this hourly wage earner, Bleil’s outlook stumbles precariously close to the much-mocked McDonald's Employee Budget, which implied burger flippers could survive just fine if they eschewed luxuries like groceries, childcare, and clothing. While America’s economy continues growing in the aggregate, our gaps in wages and wealth mean different groups bring different needs to the table. Nobody ever saved their way to riches.

Repeatedly, Bleil uses the expression “beginning your career,” implying occupational stability that people of my geographic location and economic standing don’t share. The difference may be pretty straightforward. Young professionals are notorious, on receiving their first paycheck and thinking themselves flush, for rushing out and buying stuff that doesn’t make them happy. Bleil’s systematic approach should help willing readers reconcile their lifestyle to their means, if they have means.

Yet Bleil apparently cannot stop himself from dropping asides that reveal his myopia. He says stuff that makes sense in the abstract, but if you think about them, could only come from the lips of somebody well-heeled. Consider this particularly frustrating example:
Myth: People look up to you when you have the right stuff.

Fact: Your personal self-worth is not measured by the possessions you have or don’t have…. Ask yourself, “Do I own my stuff or does it own me?”
I agree that we cannot measure our souls by our stuff, and that our possessions can own us. But that’s not the question he asked. Sociologists have extensively studied how we attribute virtue, honor, and leadership to our society’s affluent members. If we didn’t admire rich people’s nice things, Robin Leach would be out panhandling.

Likewise, Bleil includes an entire chapter on “Retirement and Investing,” which sees these two as identical. All retirement planning means sinking money into investments. Apparently Bleil doesn’t live in the America that saw its 401(k) accounts hollowed out by Enron in 2001, or the housing collapse of 2008. He also doesn’t live in the America where median income has dropped since 2008, leaving less money free for long-term investments.

I’m with journalist Helaine Olen, who calls personal finance writing a purblind juggernaut charging poor people money for the privilege of reminding them they’re not rich. When Bleil tells readers to “Give Yourself a Raise,” he implies that readers recklessly poor money down a hole. But people can only waste money if they have money. Our society has promoted wealth and devalued work; we pay handsome sums to people who flip money, while workers who create value need two jobs to make bank.

Bleil never says anything out-and-out wrong. He just assumes everyone makes MBA-level salaries, and only reckless spending and illiquid assets stand between us and glittering wealth. It apparently doesn’t occur to him that some people remain poor because they’re not getting paid well. My fellow shift workers cannot economize their way out of penury. It’s arrogant to say they should.