Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Best of 2013, Part Three

Incite a riot of new ideas.
—Jonathan Lockwood Huie
I always envisioned WordBasket as a book review resource, and still consider it that, primarily. Today’s flutter of new, daring publishing has coincided with what Andrew Keen calls The Cult of the Amateur, meaning we’re constantly awash in user-generated content, which mostly isn’t very good. To paraphrase PJ O’Rourke, the Internet gives every pissant an anthill to piss off. I wanted to create space where thoughtful reviews could thrive.

But in today’s fraught, media-driven world, it’s hard to avoid occasionally soapboxing about world issues. Because I receive diverse books representing manifold opinions, I’ve internalized many ways of reading events, and many correlations that aren’t obvious just browsing cable news. Appallingly often, news traffickers suffer because they see events in yes-or-no terms. In 2013, I discovered, we could best analyze world events by finding the unexamined third option.

The Ignorance Merchants

The saying goes: “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.” When Republicans in Congress shuttered the government in October to force concessions on Obamacare, respective sides pitched their own narratives about how we’d reached these dire straits. The two versions were wholly incompatible because, apart from any value judgments or political loyalties, one version parted company altogether with objective reality.

But this divide from veracity didn’t just happen. American mass media needs advertiser money to remain afloat, and a greedy minority profits by keeping citizens factually ignorant. Political debates that should resolve quickly remain open, sometimes for years, because privateers sell ignorance, and too many people keep buying. When a friend said something counterfactual in my presence, I couldn’t keep silent; my response became my most-shared, most-read essay of 2013.

Guns, Women, and My Friend—God Rest Her

For years, I maintained squishy moderate views on American gun rights, because the issue seemed vague and distant. Most gun debates in legislatures and media turn on high-minded principles, as removed from everyday life as discussions about astronomy or quantum physics. I could play both sides of the debate because neither side really touched me; my life remained unimpeded by either option.

Until, that is, a college friend fell victim to gun violence. Suddenly, an airy-fairy debate assumed brobdingnagian proportions in my life. Digging around, I discovered a truth neither side really discusses: guns and gun violence disproportionately disadvantage women. The most common pro-gun arguments proved founded on stray anecdotes and wishful thinking. Taking sides became not just an intellectual option; my friend’s memory made it an ethical imperative.

Sacred Vows to a Secular State

Love or hate Edward Snowden, you can’t pretend he doesn’t matter. His revelations turned Barack Obama from the first Democratic President re-elected with a straight majority since FDR, into the guy nobody acknowledges in church, almost overnight. Suddenly even Democratic loyalists couldn’t deny that, in the struggle between personal power and campaign promises, President Obama is as human as anybody else.

Far more interesting than the facts, though, the official bipartisan response demonstrated how drunk both major parties have grown with power. Both sides claimed Snowden had violated “sacred vows,” a term usually associated with marriage or the priesthood. If Republicans and Democrats share the view that the state is our spouse, or worse, our God, both sides need schooled on what “sacred” means, and where it stops.

The Vengeance Machine

In 2013, some of my titles came to resemble Doctor Who episodes, which is ironic, since Doctor Who came to resemble Internet fan fiction. But too much popular opinion also resembled Doctor Who villains gloating over others’ misfortunes. Such was especially the case when WalMart stores in Louisiana got swamped after a routine computer error in the government’s EBT system suddenly gave poor people unlimited taxpayer-sponsored grocery money.

The real story wasn’t what happened; I found the response to events much more interesting. People whipped themselves into high dudgeon, apparently competing to express the most dramatic outrage. Friends who wouldn’t harm a fly offline revealed dark, vengeful doppelgangers who would dispense moralistic payback to perfect strangers half a continent away. This newly uncovered Internet ruthlessness was so ugly, and so terrifying, that I couldn’t let it go unanswered.

Honorable Mention: A Brief Guide to America's Clandestine Economy and America's Clandestine Economy, Part Two

Regardless of political views or moral justifications, anytime anybody wants to forbid something, they apparently become willing to jeopardize their foundations to preserve their ban. American history has been, partly, a competition between official limits, and attempts to circumvent those limits. Though these are book reviews, not op-eds, both the essays themselves and the books they review reveal truths Americans may not like about our own leadership.

The Best of 2013, Part One
The Best of 2013, Part Two

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