Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Applied Stoicism and Vain Hero-Worship

Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph

I wanted to like media innovator Ryan Holiday’s brief introduction to Stoic philosophy. He eschews Philosophy 101 jargon, focusing instead on lived experiences by people who embody Stoic principles. By apprenticing ourselves to life’s rolling hardships, Holiday promises, we overcome momentary setbacks and make apparent obstacles into lasting triumphs. And Holiday promises to distinguish true capital-S Stoicism from pop images of stone-faced impassivity.

Then I got past the introduction and read the chapters. Holy schnikes.

Historian James Loewen writes that the process he calls “heroification” turns “flesh-and-blood individuals into pious, perfect creatures without conflicts, pain, credibility, or human interest.” Holiday uses object lessons from people who willfully or coincidentally lived Stoic lives. But he engages in rank heroification, not only contrasting our tumultuous lives to immobile hagiographies, but turning his exemplars’ lives into the exact opposite of what their actions really accomplished.

Yes, John D. Rockefeller pulled fortunes from extreme economic turmoil. He also dumped so much industrial filth, including gasoline, into the Cuyahoga River that the water itself caught fire. Holiday praises Rockefeller’s refusal to crack for federal prosecutors. But Rockefeller got prosecuted because he ignored laws, using his monopoly to manipulate markets. Adjusted for inflation, Rockefeller was probably the richest man ever; but he was also a criminal and profiteer.

Yes, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter emerged from prison triumphant. But he was never exonerated; prosecutors simply declined a third trial, because after twenty-two years, too many witnesses had died or moved away. During his second trial, Carter beat bail bondswoman Carolyn Kelly so severely, she required hospitalization, and he’s never explained why. Despite intermittent celebrity endorsements, Carter’s case remains far more ambiguous than Norman Jewison’s starry-eyed 1999 biopic would admit.

Marcus Aurelius
One could continue. Holiday’s blatant heroification tactics freeze complex humans in moments so abstract, it’s downright dehumanizing. Sure, Ulysses S. Grant fought admirably in war, but war’s rigors shaped his goals. In civilian life, his business ventures folded, he was a chronic drunk, and historians consider his Presidency a failure. Holiday repeatedly discusses entire groups of people, like astronauts, Allied soldiers in Europe, and “the Greeks,” like great faceless masses.

Nobody requires deeper explication in Holiday’s telling. But this isn’t just about Holiday’s narration. His human examples, basically mere anecdotes, exemplify his entire technique. Where Stoic pioneers like Seneca, Cicero, and Marcus Aurelius slowly unpacked principles as modes of lifelong training, Holiday gallops quickly through strings of bromides (“you’re probably not going to die from any of this,” “outward appearances are deceptive”) that never much occupy his time.

But Holiday hides the solution to his problems in his text. It’s hidden so deeply, he perhaps misses it himself. But quoting Epictetus, Holiday tells readers to imagine supposed sages having sex: “See them in your mind, grunting, groaning, and awkward in their private life—just like the rest of us.” Bloody good advice. Holiday could apply it to the heroes he unthinkingly extols throughout this frustratingly underexamined book.

Marcus Aurelius spent decades discovering and refining the thoughts comprising his Meditations. Life, for him, was an ongoing philosophical boot camp. He never stopped asking himself important questions: what opportunity does this challenge present? Does this worry really merit my time? What did this defeat teach me? Hardly some proverbial to-do list, Stoicism was, for Marcus Aurelius, a never-ending process of discovery and re-invention.

One could apply this same tactic to Holiday’s various heroes. Pericles became an accomplished general, in part, to overcome embarrassment for his father’s ostracism and his own weirdly misshapen head. Gandhi arrived at his nonviolent philosophy only after struggling with the morality of two world wars. No wonder Catholic activist Dorothy Day’s dying wish was to never be canonized: sanctification freezes humans in amber.

Admittedly, while he cherry-picks his facts, Holiday never says anything philosophically wrong. He adroitly encapsulates Stoic principles in memorable sayings and concise (if self-serving) contexts. But nothing, evidently, merits much of Holiday’s time. He takes Stoicism, a complex and multifaceted approach to the well-lived life, and reduces it to a checklist of platitudes. That sells books, but probably doesn’t change lives.

And that’s a damn shame. If any philosophy’s time has come ‘round again, surely it’s Stoicism. Its steely-eyed, objective approach to life contrasts with today’s highly emotive “culture of psychotherapy.” (I know, that totally misrepresents psychotherapy. Bear with me.) As frustrated as Holiday’s bullet-point approach leaves me, his energetic but ultimately unrealized thesis inspires me to reread the source materials:

Epictetus, Discourses and Selected Writings
Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations




CODA: After posting the commercial version of this review to Amazon.com, I began getting negative votes and very harsh ad hominem attacks, generally coming in clusters—I got nearly twenty negative votes in under two hours. This reaction seemed extreme for a book which, then, wouldn't be released for over a month. Only afterward did I learn that Ryan Holiday has confessed, in the past, to using Asian "click farms" to distort online feedback for his work, and work by his paying clients.

This tells me that, besides doing a lackluster job selling his philosophical standpoint, he also doesn't live by it. I've read Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, in which the author extols the virtues of a mild temper and a refusal to let others' emotions cloud one's judgment. I have a hard time imagining Marcus, or any other true Stoic, trying to manipulate public perception through covert tactics. I refer you, again, to the original source texts; Ryan Holiday is a poor salesman for his philosophy.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Amazon Economics vs. the Good Green Earth


It’s everywhere. Stacked on countertops, spilling from overfull trash cans, hiding behind furniture where exuberant housecats batted it months ago. Every week, it seems I remove another garden-sized trash bag full of it. It’s packaging. Paper wrappers, heavy cardboard boxes, manila envelopes. I practically need a backhoe to shovel all this packaging from my house to the trash, and more seemingly arrives every single day.

Since I started accepting review books six years ago, I’ve received literally thousands of individually wrapped packages. I cannot count how many books I’ve received, much faster than I can read them, and I’ve graduated to reviewing CDs, DVDs, software, small electronics, kitchen utensils… In short, anything I’m qualified to review, at manageable risk, I’ll accept. (I appreciate manufacturers seeking my opinions on diapers and feminine hygiene, but I’ll pass.)

But every review product comes individually packaged. Even products originating from the same handling source get their own boxes, envelopes, mailing tubes, or whatever. I enjoy receiving these products, because I enjoy helping quality products find their market, plus my entertainment budget approaches zero. But shipping waste exceeds food packaging, damaged goods, and any other household waste I produce. I cannot calculate how much shipping trash I discard weekly.

Technology advocates tout this as commerce’s coming wave. Brick-and-mortar retailers will dwindle, providing only perishable foods and other high-turnover goods, while Amazon, eBay, ModCloth, and One Kings Lane will dominate consumer retailing. Yet every time I think of that, I look at the overwhelming piles of waste I produce: besides packaging, consider the carbon burned in shipping, the warehouse worker-hours, the costly road maintenance. E-commerce produces too damn much waste.


Industrial capitalism has long struggled with its waste output. This might’ve seemed like an academic discussion in early capitalist days, when heavy industry meant the occasional coal-burning Sheffield factory or sloppy Rockefeller oil field. But changing commerce models have diversified waste production patterns. Anyone who’s ever received one of Amazon’s famous shipments, overstuffed with absurdly unnecessary packaging, has participated in the problem.

Though most shipping material is produced from paper pulp, and is nominally recyclable and biodegradable, that doesn’t soothe my doubts. Unlike metal recycling, which pays modestly, paper recycling has vast marginal costs, meaning you only get paid at hugely high volumes; most recyclers buy paper at pennies per ton. High storage costs, bulky transportation, and low return means most paper never gets recycled, going straight to the landfill.

It’s hardly better there, though. Because space is valuable, most landfilled garbage gets pressed down, buried deep, and covered with more trash. More than about eight or ten feet down, landfill environments are anaerobic, meaning airtight, inaccessible to the oxygen which makes biodegradation possible. Putatively eco-friendly scrap will linger, largely intact and immune to decay, potentially for centuries; my trash will outlive me by orders of magnitude.

When Amazon unveiled its prototype delivery drone last year, media spokes-folks celebrated this breakthrough in convenience. I cringed at its extravagant energy consumption. Though touted as having electric batteries, and thus not burning carbon itself, its batteries would nevertheless almost certainly get charged from today’s coal-fired electric grid. One click, I receive my books or DVDs or clothes in three hours, and whoops! My carbon footprint goes through the roof.


Whenever I haul another plastic bag full of paper waste to the curb, I’m aware I should do more for God’s green earth. I don’t have to landfill my waste output. I don’t even have to accept the stuff people thrust my way. But fixing the problem directly exceeds my blue collar paycheck’s elasticity. And though I’m uncompensated for my reviews, this free stuff nevertheless positively offsets my living expenses.

Fixing the problem would create general benefits for humankind, but only at great personal expense. Participating in the problem costs me nothing, but creates diffuse ecological liabilities. Therefore, any means of separating from the problem equals permitting “Amazon economics” to pick my pocket, albeit indirectly. The problem is systemic, and therefore the system itself needs reformed; but such altruistic collectivism has become politically and socially unpalatable in this post-TARP economy.

I enjoy the convenience produced by Amazon and other eCommerce. But its current model relies upon automotive engines, paper milling, and electric generation technology that hasn’t advanced in nearly one hundred years. Like the housing bubble, the Amazon economy cannot survive as-is indefinitely. If Americans, and humans generally, hope to continue enjoying this convenience, we must address this waste production liability now, before it creates a dangerous, disgusting crisis.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Subliminal Racism In These Disunited States

Ian Haney López, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class

As I write, partisan media are backpedaling furiously from anti-government rancher Cliven Bundy. Certain sectors made Bundy a hero because he refused to pay taxes, claiming government authority stopped at state level. But tape has come forward showing Bundy making sweeping statements about “the Negro,” culminating in asking: “Are they better off as slaves?” But nobody who reads Ian Haney López will find such language surprising anymore.

For half a century now, Haney López asserts, subliminal racial language has inflected American political discourse. Even as Americans vocally reject white supremacy, “Christian Identity,” and other unreconstructed apartheid, outwardly neutral discourse with racial implications has conquered politics. It’s surprisingly bipartisan, pervasive, and successful. Politicians who use what Haney López calls “coded racial appeals” get elected; those who avoid it, don’t.

Politicians will avoid talking about race directly. But they’ll discuss “the undeserving poor, illegal aliens, and Sharia law,” as Haney López writes, themes which have indubitable racial inferences. When Ronald Reagan talked about “welfare queens,” nobody pictured white trailer trash; his implications were distinctly anti-black. When Bill Clinton prosecuted drug-war tactics with especial vigor, citizens caught in his dragnet shared characteristics based on skin color.

Haney López calls this “dog whistle politics” because it’s completely inaudible on one level, yet irrefutably present. The connection between, say, race and “law and order,” isn’t superficially obvious. But long-term cultural cues, which correlate criminality with skin melanin, have created an unconscious stereotype of criminals as especially brown. When politicians, particularly white politicians, promise to enforce laws, cut welfare, prosecute fraud, and return the savings to you, the taxpayer, they implicitly promise to preserve and extend white privilege.

Don’t look to one political party for racial language, though. While activists hype Republican dog whistles, Haney López reports, the technique was invented by Southern Democrats, especially George Wallace, a former moderate supported by the NAACP before discovering that race-baiting worked electorally. Jimmy Carter had to walk back language about “racial purity,” and Bill Clinton supervised the execution of a brain-damaged black inmate to prove his Tough On Crime credentials.

Dog whistle language has had chilling effects on American discourse. When politicians cite old racial stereotypes without naming race, they gain plausible deniability. And when somebody points out that such-and-such has grim racial implications, the first person who says this gets called “racist.” This stops serious efforts to redress bigotry’s lingering implications, since anyone who would remedy, say, systemic black poverty, fears repercussions for bringing race into public dialog.

Such sub-rosa racial language, however, hasn’t really limited its consequences to select populations. By severing the “we’re all in this together” coalitions that propelled the New Deal and Great Society, politicians have undercut support for post-WWII social policies that fostered a growing American middle class. Far from protecting white privilege, coded racial language has democratized poverty and hastened concentrations of wealth unseen since Robber Baron days.

In this, Haney López echoes Howard Zinn. Both observe that American racism didn’t just happen; going back to colonial times, wealthy interests encouraged racial animosity because if black, red, and poor white people fought each other, they’d never join forces against the rich whites controlling their lives. Racism, then, has never ultimately been about race. Like Cliven Bundy, race-baiting demagogues want no organized opposition to them keeping gross wealth unopposed.

Haney López readily admits that your milage may vary, depending on your definition of racism. Public displays of Archie Bunker-style bigotry have become vanishingly rare in American politics. Without burning crosses and N-bombs, it’s easy to believe racism has vanished from American public life. Indeed, in later chapters, Haney López admits that opponents can defuse unconscious racial appeals, by simply using the dictionary to call them what they are.

These conclusions should surprise nobody, social conservatives least of all. PJ O’Rourke, no bleeding heart himself, observed nearly twenty-five years ago that significant public rhetoric contains oblique racial language. Gut revulsion at overt racism is, today, overwhelmingly bipartisan. If activists, politicians, and common citizens join together in refusing to tolerate dog whistle appeals, race-baiting demagogues will quickly find themselves starved for voters and funds.

Recent decades have seen undeniably ugly turns in American politics. Circumstances have hit new lows when $4 billion for food stamps elicits more outrage than $80 billion for bank bailouts. Haney López persuasively hangs this divisiveness on covert appeals to class, gender, and especially race. Fortunately, things aren’t uniformly grim. If citizens reject dog whistle language and stand together, we needn’t accept greedy forces disuniting our states for short-term gain.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Bullshit Busting For Fun and Profit

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 33
Loren Collins, Bullspotting: Finding Facts in the Age of Misinformation


“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”
—Richard Feynman


This book is based on the simple premise that bullshit vendors behave in comprehensible patterns. Identifying the techniques they use empowers citizens to think critically about powerful ideas, an important skill in a technological era when cranks have unprecedented reach. Irrational beliefs have achieved sweeping penetration in contemporary America, Atlanta-area attorney Loren Collins insists. Only informed reasoning stands between us and blathering anarchy.

Today’s Internet is filthy with people claiming NASA never touched the Moon, that tested vaccines with clinical histories cause autism, or that there’s a missing Amendment to the Constitution. These opinions have no scientific, historical, or legal precedent, yet spokespeople retain their soapboxes. And because schools shy from controversial topics, Americans hit adulthood unable to rebut faulty reasoning. Thus, good, smart people believe moonshine because it feels plausible.

In a brief biographical vignette, Collins describes growing up in Stone Mountain, Georgia, the shrine of Confederate apologetics. In college, he purposed to write an essay justifying why the Confederacy wasn’t founded on racism. But when he commenced his research, he discovered everything he’d believed was wrong. From this he learned a seemingly obvious, but frequently forgotten, axiom: that which really exists doesn’t depend on our acknowledgement for its legitimacy.

Buncombe merchants rely on different principles. Rather that disclosing evidence that withstands scrutiny, they muster innuendo, spotty reasoning, and half-remembered facts to construct self-contained narratives. Many four-flushers claim to “poke holes” in accepted theories, like evolution or Constitutional law, apparently believing that sowing ambiguity about their opponents lends them validity. They don’t have to win; they just need to create illusions of doubt.

Collins, who moonlights as a journalist covering foggery artists, exhaustively documents techniques he’s personally encountered among people who’ll believe anything but facts. These include, but aren’t limited to, rumor mongering, quote mining, and plain old denialism. Some self-made experts focus on trivial details, like would-be legal scholars who note the Constitution’s irregular capitalization in claiming the Fourteenth Amendment literally creates two classes of citizens.

Many of Collins’ targets habitually claim they’re “just asking questions.” This gives them sweeping plausible deniability: we’re not really denying science when we advocate young-earth creationism. We don’t really claim global warming is a Marxist hoax. We don’t really mean Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. We’ll just keep debates open indefinitely, despite robust evidence, despite our lack of coherence, and despite legitimate expert consensus, because we’re just asking questions.

Perhaps the obfuscator’s most valuable tool is ever-shifting expectations. Scientists, historians, and legal scholars can never present enough evidence to sway deniers’ opinions. When Barack Obama finally disclosed his birth certificate, Jerome Corsi and his ilk simply declared it a forgery and persisted attacking. But their arguments, often presented as narratives rather than evidence, remain bulletproof. Unless you can disprove their every isolated point, they consider their belief network proved.

Importantly, bullshittery doesn’t necessarily imply lying. Though Collins dedicates a whole chapter to deliberate hoaxers, many conspiracy theorists, pseudoscientists, and others truly believe the tommyrot they sell. They’re victims of “confirmation bias,” the tendency to seek evidence which ratifies existing beliefs, and hold tenaciously to disproved conclusions. Rather than convert every bunko believer, we must focus on inoculating the larger population against half-baked thinking.

Bullspotting techniques aren’t ideologically neutral, though they aren’t partisan, either. Collins concedes that political conservatives seem more vulnerable to pseudo-thought than liberals. But Collins, a self-described conservative libertarian, doesn’t just mock the right. He considers this trend a liability, since every moment spent parsing Sovereign Citizen legal gibberish or Birther paranoia is time not spent constructing legitimate, airtight alternatives to Obama-era social dogma.

The hogwash artists Collins exposes would deny this, but they’re ultimately all about power. If they truly understand, as you don’t, who really wrote Shakespeare, or who really killed JFK, or how UFOs really work, or whatever, that makes them more astute than you. It makes them more wise, more worldly, more deserving of authority, than whoever currently holds power. With real debates circulating globally, fake debates undermine legitimate authority.

Collins believes the techniques necessary for recognizing faulty argument are more important than ever. These skills can be taught, and we can learn them, but too few do, because schools and other authority structures have become pathologically conflict-averse. Thus, responsible citizens have a duty to educate ourselves. Crap vendors now imperil America’s democratic foundations, and free citizens need to make a bold stand in favor of reality.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Democracy of Culture, or, Saving the Old Hometown

A young man with Asian features and 1990s-ish heavy metal swagger sets his guitar case down before a wooden bench. That’s all it takes to claim a spot on the moderately crowded sidewalk. The guitar that emerges has a matte black finish and uncut string ends waving from the tuning pegs. When he sings a mix of originals and covers, perhaps inappropriately loud, his voice has distinct Liam Gallagher qualities.

I’m on Massachusetts Street (“Mass Street”), the heart of downtown Lawrence, Kansas, a college town in the classic sense. Locally owned businesses do admirably selling locally made and major-label clothes, small book and music stores attract customers partly by the cat sleeping on the counters, and aggressive international chains like Starbucks rub shoulders with upstart hometown competitors. A department store sells bespoke suits catty-corner from a head shop selling crystals.

Across from the Oasis wannabe, a pretty woman in mime makeup, with a remarkable ability to stand stock still between sets, makes balloon animals for children who put tips in her jar. Mormon missionaries have occupied all four corners of Mass and Eighth, distributing pamphlets to passersby; yesterday it was the Kansas Green Party. Every Sunday, a scruffy guy with a knit cap waves a “Honk For Hemp” sign nearby.

A popular local bumper sticker proclaims: “Lawrence. 27 square miles of reality surrounded by Kansas.” I know what they mean. The Kansas legislature has recently passed numerous retrogressive measures, including a “Don’t Say Gay” bill and an attempt to regionally nullify the Endangered Species Act. The state’s Tea Party-dominated administration consistently makes attempts to inhibit progress, reject modernity, and willfully engineer a Koch Brothers-friendly libertarian paradise.

But Lawrence feels different. People walk Mass Street, window shopping and tipping street performers, chatting amiably, sipping homemade root beer floats from biodegradable plastic cups. Women in hijabs and men in kippahs stroll graciously, smiling around, completely ordinary in this street scene. Sitting with a book and coffee, I watch an attractive young couple walking hand in hand. They’re mixed race, but same sex.

And everywhere, people make or consume culture. Some, like Liam Lite over here, do it guerilla-style, grabbing his place and belting out Clinton-era classics. Others partner with fixed establishments. One bookstore features a grand piano, encouraging local artists to reserve time. A local venue hosts live music, poetry slams, and occasional eloquent speakers. Many restaurants have designated spaces, intermittently used, absolutely perfect for poets and one-(wo)man bands.

Lawrence zoning laws shape how businesses interact. Many stores that normally anchor enclosed shopping malls, like JC Penney and Kohl’s, instead occupy freestanding buildings. Businesses accustomed to attracting large crowds generally build on Iowa Street, an imposing miles-long stretch of concrete parking and prefab steel structures. Customers who prefer vetted commerce in standardized chains keep safe by doing business along Iowa’s impersonal but familiar storefronts.

Mass Street attracts businesses that enjoy rubbing shoulders. Restaurants encourage sidewalk seating, permitting customer service in proprietary space directly melding into public trafficways. Chain stores and local shops overlap; Mrs. Fields shares a back wall with a hometown t-shirt screen printer, while Starbucks and locally owned La Prima Tazza stare down across the street from each other. The heart of Mass Street resembles a pedestrian mall, and remains busy year-round.

This public companionability encourages buskers, street theatre, and other democratic culture. People don’t need street performers: Mass Street’s business district is bounded by Liberty Hall on the north and the Granada on the south, sizeable theatres that attract national-grade performers, from Gordon Lightfoot and Patty Griffin to Haim and “Weird Al” Yankovic. Yet this shared public space apparently reminds locals that they can create culture, not just buy it.

Many Midwestern cities and states lament the “brain drain,” outward migration of ambitious young residents. How, they wonder, to keep potential innovators and entrepreneurs from fleeing to lucrative coastal cities to find better jobs? Repeatedly, these communities respond by authorizing newer malls and big-box chain retailers. But while these actions arguably advance communities’ commercial prospects, they privatize formerly public space and reduce opportunity for resourceful guerilla innovation.

Like Austin, Texas, or Greenwich Village, Lawrence has taken the opposite tack. Commerce happens openly, not in hermetically sealed, climate-controlled boxes. Any company can buy into Lawrence’s economy, but they must honor Lawrence culture. And as Lawrence proves, money and culture travel together. Street guitarists encourage commerce, and commerce attracts street performers. Money and art serve the people, not vice versa. And Lawrence feels like someplace real life happens naturally.


See Also:
One Possible Cure For Small Town Malaise

Friday, April 18, 2014

Total TV and the Phenomenal Logical

Paddy Scannell, Television and the Meaning of Live: An Enquiry into the Human Situation

Anglo-American media studies professor Paddy Scannell’s latest media treatise puts me in an awkward position. I disagree with his conclusions, but he challenges my disagreement on such erudite grounds that I’m nevertheless changed. His philosophical premises are so totalizing that they become brittle, shattering under slight pressure, yet backed with such surprising insights that they upend my ideology. I think he’s (often) wrong, but I’m glad I read him, and you should read him too.

Scannell takes an unusual tack, anchoring his analysis to a philosopher. Martin Heidegger, the famed phenomenologist, had intermittent anti-modernist tendencies, and specifically hated TV. But as Scannell notes, Heidegger excused himself to watch soccer broadcasts. Phenomenology, the philosophic study of that which actually is, stands opposed to Platonic ideals that disdain ordinary experience. Scannell persuasively contends that if we omit Heidegger’s baggage, his philosophy permits uniquely meaningful investigations into media technology and its modern uses.

This position isn’t simple. Heidegger’s philosophy makes tough sledding, even for trained academics. Scannell requires nearly a quarter of this book’s densely structured length just to expound foundational ideas, and expunge Heidegger’s unexamined prejudices. Thankfully, he’s careful to translate any jargon he uses, guiding readers to deeper understanding not just of Heidegger or of Scannells’ thesis, but of how both relate to lived human experience. If this is capital-P Philosophy, it’s Philosophy for the masses.

Phenomenology provides unique challenges, which Scannell never stops addressing. That which actually exists, exists under constant pressure to evolve. Platonic ideals, insofar as we apprehend them, remain constant; phenomenology needs constant appraisal. When Heidegger condemned TV, Scannell writes, TV was new and vaguely threatening. Now it has a century’s history, permitting dispassionate judgment of real, not theoretical, consequences. Scannell purposes to remedy what he considers Heidegger’s oversights, predicated as they were on novelty and traditionalism.

This has good and bad consequences. Scannell dismantles alarmism that lingers despite being decades old (he obliquely references, but doesn’t cite, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death). But his totalizing contentions lump all media together. British-born Scannell assumes intent on broadcasters’ part that makes sense, considering centralized non-profit broadcasters like the BBC, CBC, and PBS. He seems sometimes unaware, Rupert Murdoch notwithstanding, that commercial broadcasters have entirely different motives, and audiences receive them entirely differently.

When Scannell writes that TV audiences engage directly with programmed content, I ask myself, do I do that? The answer returns quickly: sometimes. When I’m well rested, interested in the topic, and watching something new, I consume TV content as deeply as any book. But when I get home following a long graveyard shift, and turn on NCIS or Top Gear reruns, I do so to be soothed, wanting something familiar, hoping to avoid engagement.

Thus my problem with Scannell’s thesis isn’t that he’s wrong, because he isn’t, not entirely. Rather, I dispute his totalizing statements. He claims TV audiences have subjective relationships with media, what he and Heidegger call “care structure,” but he implicitly assumes his care structure resembles yours, resembles mine. This not only defies scrutiny, my care structure varies by inconstant factors like time of day. A media professor and a bone-weary laborer watch TV very differently.

If audiences have active relationships with TV programming, why did Scannell write a book? He could’ve directed a documentary, streamed a podcast, or written a miniseries, but his physical artifact bespeaks tacit counterclaims. Maybe Scannell wanted to mollify book snobs and the tenure committee. More likely he understands that TV’s transitory nature, which makes Snooki, Vladimir Putin, and Mr. Clean essentially equal, spurns mental engagement beyond the superficial level. Books are the medium of introspection.

That said, I cannot entirely discount Scannell’s ideas or call him mistaken. Reading his highly technical discursus, I realize I do have a care structure with my TV, even if it doesn’t always resemble what Scannell describes. While reason says humans don’t, can’t, engage equally with Downton Abbey and Ancient Aliens, we nevertheless have some relationship with TV, even if it just permits temporary passivity. Scannell doesn’t let me flippantly dismiss all TV content together.

So though Scannell’s totalizing opinions permit easy rejoinder, I nevertheless find reading rewarding, and long to reread it, with a red pen and more time. I disagree with his many of his conclusions, but he forces me to reconsider why I disagree, challenges received wisdom, and makes me disagree on higher, more reasonable grounds. His prose is dense, his claims difficult, and his reasoning dauntingly comprehensive. Yet having read him, I feel that much wiser.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

TBBT—the Great Books Postulate

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 32
Dean A. Kowalski, editor, The Big Bang Theory and Philosophy: Rock, Paper, Scissors, Aristotle, Locke


If you’re like me, college philosophy felt long, abstruse, and tiresome. It had no apparent connection to lived experience. No wonder Stanley Fish famously declared that “Philosophy doesn’t travel.” But Gerald Graff counters that all subjects, including philosophy, need a tangible debate to make them comprehensible. Connecting philosophy to something audiences share, like America’s top-rated television comedy, makes concepts suddenly human-scale and coherent. Eternal verities that seemed distant in classroom discussions become suddenly very immediate.

This collection of seventeen brief essays by recognized thinkers uses examples and themes from The Big Bang Theory to unpack concepts in classical and modern philosophy. Rather than holding forth on some topic we feel we ought to understand because some author speaks volubly, these authors start with some interest their audience shares, building into philosophical conversation. Difficult concepts have shared, comprehensible foundations. High-minded discussions reflect our real lives.Suddenly, we’re in on philosophy’s joke.

Many articles focus on Sheldon Cooper, which should surprise nobody who watches this show. Sheldon’s failure to comprehend basic societal conventions, or appreciate anybody as his equal, permits sweeping philosophical investigations. Janelle Pötzsch uses Sheldon’s slapdash speech patterns to examine Ludwig Wittgenstein’s evolving theories of language. Donna Marie Smith uses Sheldon’s grudge against Wil Wheaton to question the nature of evil. W. Scott Clifton asks: are we bad people to laugh at Sheldon’s obvious disability?

Other characters don’t get ignored. Constantly evolving debates between the principal characters let Andrew Zimmerman Jones question what makes real science. The male characters’ romantic relationships let Mark White and Maryanne Fisher discuss gender roles in modern society. (I wish they went further: why does the show evidently consider men normative, and women disruptive?) Others use TBBT’s common dynamics to question technophilia, tolerance, family, and the show’s most pervasive theme, the true nature of friendship.

Yes, there's even an essay on superhero worship.
Like the show itself, these critics rely upon the tension between high-minded principles and mundane life to propel their thoughts. The ethics of human experimentation (for instance) can seem abstruse to non-scientists. But when Massimo Pigliucci compares these ethical conundrums to the episode where Sheldon uses operant conditioning to manipulate Penny, we understand the forces at play. Topics which formerly seemed distant, trivial, or pedantic become intimate when filtered through an experience diverse audiences share.

Latitudes range from sweeping introductory philosophy to very specialized subdisciplines. Great minds like Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and Thomas Kuhn are already well-known, and these essays link their principles to real-life debates. Alvin Plantinga and Richard Rorty remain obscure outside academia, yet their ongoing inquiries have opened paths which other philosophers now follow. These authors don’t treat philosophy as a series of closed questions; they demonstrate important debates that remain contested, pushing new boundaries even today.

These philosophers come from diverse backgrounds. Some have broad “philosophy” training, while others follow subdisciplines like Gender Studies or Political Science. Some have science backgrounds, including one physicist and one information systems specialist, while others have more general scientific training. This diversity means these authors don’t necessarily agree; just as TBBT’s characters periodically turn on Sheldon, these authors dispute one another, explicitly or implicitly. These unspoken debates are as interesting as the authors’ stated theses.

The finished product is admittedly imperfect. Though most contributors admirably translate esoteric philosophical concepts into laypersons’ English some have difficulty; they’re apparently so accustomed to writing for peer-reviewed journals that they inordinately rely on jargon. And there’s significant repetition. Several authors cite the dialog where Sheldon diagrams silicon-based DNA, and his mother mentions “But intelligently designed by a creator, right?” Editor Dean Kowalski could’ve taken a firmer hand regularizing his contributors to avoid such redundancy.

But even these weaknesses spotlight subtle philosophical strengths. If multiple philosophers consider one moment worth examining, and see multiple harmonious interpretations, perhaps that signifies how that joke transcends its moment and addresses questions plaguing the audience more generally. Kowalski compiled this book following TBBT’s fourth season; I’d eagerly read an updated volume, considering how the characters have evolved, the women have emerged, and science has changed. Because TV never sits still, and neither does science.

Kowalski edited this for Blackwell’s Philosophy and Pop Culture Series, which applies similar theoretical approaches to many pop-culture icons. Science fiction and fantasy, with their high-flown themes and metaphorical language, dominate, but non-sci-fi properties are common, too. From South Park and True Blood to The Office and Harry Potter, pop culture proves an effective learning tool for translating difficult concepts into English. TBBT’s diverse popularity, though, makes this volume a good introduction to the series.


See Also:
Remember, the Enemy's Gate is Down

Monday, April 14, 2014

Fitz Beats Alice, or, Who's Today's Real Hard Rocker?



Shock rocker Alice Cooper, whose biggest chart hit, “School’s Out,” hit #7 clear back in 1972, staged a doddering, narcissistic attack on various folk-rock groups last summer, calling them “an offense” and “not real rock’n’roll.” Granted, the acts he named, including Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers, don’t have Cooper’s face-melting headbanger bravado. But why should they? Must every upstart band strive to emulate that paragon of hard-rocking authenticity, Alice Cooper?

Fitz and the Tantrums’ 2013 single “The Walker” barely creased the pop charts, but currently sits at #2 on the US Alternative charts. Released five months after Cooper’s egomaniacal conniption, its relationship to Cooper isn’t obvious; perhaps the responsive quality is purely coincidental. But the Los Angeles sextet’s foot-stomping video makes an interesting, uncompromising response to Cooper’s dad-like insistence on his generation’s supposed authenticity, providing the needed counter-narrative Cooper overlooks.

Alice Cooper without his makeup. No kidding.
The attitude underlying Cooper’s high-profile, but frustratingly low-key, diatribe, is that aggression, violence, and theatrics remain somehow normative in rock. Cooper’s stage set has remained remarkably constant over decades, including snakes, guillotines, and fake blood. His hypermasculine swagger has also extended to previous pop culture denunciations; his 2001 Brutal Planet tour included beheading Britney Spears in effigy onstage. Seems highly theatrical hatred defines Cooper’s artistic world.

“The Walker” seems to channel similar displays of outrage. When Our Hero steps out of line at the DMV, the veritable emblem of depersonalized technological society, and begins his highly choreographed line dance of outrage, we’re aware of his performance as highly staged: he remains firmly centered on-screen, and frequently acknowledges the camera. Anyone ever trapped in line understands his wrath, but we understand we’re watching something artificially designed.

Our Hero’s anger dance quickly crisscrosses a hot Los Angeles summer day. Importantly, this ain’t no City of Angels. Against a tableau of sizzling white pavement, nameless buildings, and interchangeable cars, this city has no identity. Most of L.A. was designed by architects from elsewhere. Skilled directors for years have used camera angles to turn Los Angeles into Manhattan, Chicago, and Washington DC. Our Hero could literally be anywhere.

While Our Hero gets other outraged citizens to join his dance, none stick around very long. Time after time, he finds himself challenging authority: punching a building, scattering a cop’s pad, kicking the Denver boot off an SUV. But he always does it alone. Ultimately he finds himself trapped in a box alley, raging impotently, screaming, punching, desperate, but trapped. Then we discover this entire explosion happened inside his head.

This forces us to ask: what did he get angry for? We might ask Alice Cooper something similar. When you urge audiences to everlasting teenage rebellion, what does it achieve? Cooper himself votes Republican, identifies as a born-again Christian, and plays golf, the epitome of nondescript prosperity. He acts every bit the murderous insurgent onstage, then returns home to complete banality. What, sir, does your putative defiance accomplish?

Fitz’s Hero represents contemporary urban humanity, trapped between authentic experience and social decorum. We need driver’s licenses, current tags, and other DMV-ish appurtenances to survive; but getting them leaves us feeling dehumanized, herded, and small. Individual expressions of wrath prove ultimately useless, because when one mutineer steps out of line, everyone else just moves forward. The system continues unabated, deaf to our outrage, blind to individual souls.

When Alice Cooper debuted in 1968, America’s imagination reeled from the accomplishments that organized protests had hastened: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the largest organized anti-war demonstrations ever. One can hardly blame Cooper’s generation for thinking their macho outrage caused these outcomes. Sure, Operation Homecoming ended the Vietnam War in 1973, one year after Cooper’s peak, without changing the world. Don’t get technical.

But two generations have passed. 2014 does not essentially resemble 1972, which Fitz and the Tantrums recognize, but Alice Cooper does not. Requiring today’s stars to occupy the same black hole that holds Cooper captive is worse than ignorant. Our Hero remains trapped in line because cocky manfulness doesn’t butter your toast anymore. Outside our heads, the dreams of 1972 have died.

Again, it’s impossible to say this video deliberately rebuts Cooper’s “kids these days” outburst, though rewatch it; notice the shirtless, long-haired headbanger Our Hero jaywalks with. Notice the Doc Martens and guyliner—his resemblance to Alice Cooper is palpable. While Cooper lingers in Nixon-era egomania, Our Hero faces the uselessness of such displays in real life. Evidently Fitz and the Tantrums occupy Earth, while Cooper lives in his head.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Krazy Kat's Eternal and Absurd Songs of Love

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 31
Monica Youn, Ignatz: Poems




For over thirty years, George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comic strip featured the gender-ambiguous title cat singing strangely poetic love lyrics to Ignatz Mouse. Ignatz would respond by flinging bricks at Krazy Kat’s head, and Offissa Pupp, who absolutely adored Krazy Kat, would arrest Ignatz, which apparently made no difference. Through two world wars and the Depression, the same arc replayed thousands of times against a strange Arizona dreamscape.

Monica Youn, a Constitutional law attorney who moonlights as a poet, explodes the mind of such self-destructive love. The way Krazy Kat channels various high-minded poetic stylesgets translated into an ambitious poetic expedition that crisscrosses diverse mental landscapes, but tantalizingly never quite resolves. Appropriating the Krazy Kat persona, Youn courts Ignatz with grace and beauty, in a remarkably bleak demonstration of utter romantic futility.

Youn’s poetry is consistently image-driven, but varies in its linguistic approach. Some poems run straight and plain-spoken, all ragged ends and modern free verse. Others resemble Shakespeare, Chaucer, the great anonymous French troubadours. But even when her language runs very high-flown and consciously constructed, she retains a sly will to subvert herself, as in “Ignatz Invoked”:
A gauze bandage wraps the land
and is unwound, stained orange with sulfites.

A series of slaps molds a mountain,
a fear uncoils itself, testing its long

cool limbs. A passing cloud
seizes up like a carburetor

and falls to earth, lies broken-
backed and lidless in the scree.

This fairly accurate invocation, less of Ignatz than the characters’ shared Arizona landscape, embodies Youn’s approach to poetic structure. Her tone may run lofty and exalted, but she recalls the images of the hardpan desert and its equally sun-baked citizenry, just like Krazy Kat does. The juxtaposition runs both ways, though, as her free verse implies untapped wells of philosophical potential, a mind deep but unschooled, as in “Ersatz Ignatz”:
The clockwork saguaros sprout extra faces like planaria stroked by a razor. Chug
say the sparrows, emitting fluffs of steam. Chug chug say the piston-powered ground squirrels.
The tumbleweeds circle in retrofitted tracks, but the blue pasteboard welkin is much dented by little winds.
Though poems like these lack some objective center as such, they nevertheless encapsulate concisely the grim landscapes, and even grimmer characters, populating Ignatz’s world. The “piston-powered ground squirrels” and other steampunk images derive directly from Herriman’s surreal setting, but they also capture the mixed naturalism and technology of Southwestern culture. The clockwork images of circling tumbleweeds and steaming sparrows both warm and chill the soul.

Youn’s (and Herriman’s) austere landscape reflects the characters’ bone-dry, blasted spirits. Krazy Kat and Offissa Pupp both love in vain, pouring their dedication down a well. Ignatz hates with equally futile intensity, repelling others’ pledges of devotion with uncloaked violence. Youn seldom directly says “love” in these poems, but the sentiment percolates through her words, alongside the characters’ useless sincerity, in verses like “The Subject Ignatz”:
Even as a lawn
or tree

is more attractive
when configured

as individual
leaves

than as
a seamless

green
integument.
Individual poems defy concise synopsis; Youn frequently rejects overtly the strictures of MFA workshops (for good or ill). But together, her verses create a strange heartbreaking gestalt where the deeper one feels, the more certain one’s disappointment becomes. Love and loathing are equally futile. Though her tone only becomes clear over time, outbreaks of undisguised emotion perforate poems like “Ignatz Pursuer”:
her nostrils straining to the limits
of their stretch and her lips glued shut

and her fingers clamped over her mouth
for good measure she is running

running from Ignatz and the night
like a drumskin and her heart like someone

locked in the trunk of a car and if there were
only time god she would spit it out
An insistent, almost Pink Floyd-ish rhythm underlies this and other poems, though it frequently isn’t obvious until second or third reading. One could imagine Krazy sitting roadside, as he (she?) often did, strumming his guitar and singing these bleak, unforgiving blues to ears that will not hear. Youn’s rhythms often run so subtle that you won’t notice they’re even there until you realize your heartbeat has adjusted to match her.

Long before Samuel Beckett spotlighted life’s intrinsic futility, George Herriman showed comedic characters trapped in eternal loops of feeling and desperation. Youn borrows Herriman’s century-old imagery to tell a story both insistently modern and somehow timeless. Krazy’s feelings remain forever unrequited (each part ends with “The Death of Ignatz”), yet we share in his strange, doomed romance.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Today's Best Future Poets

Brenda Shaughnessy (editor), Best New Poets 2013: 50 Poems from Emerging Writers

They say (“they” who?) that more people write poetry today than read it, creating a bottleneck for aspiring poets. Unless you’re Mary Oliver or Yusef Komunyakaa, getting published in reputable magazines requires years-long dedication and career planning that makes software engineers look like slackers. That’s why books like this offer hope. Not only do new poets emerge, but systems exist to ensure the transition from “new” to “seasoned” poets.”

Editor Brenda Shaughnessy compiles fifty poets whose sole criterion for inclusion is that they haven’t published a full-length book yet. Thus her collection includes everyone from sturdy journeyman poets whose first book is impending, to promising students whose scanty résumés don’t matter to their dedicated backers. These are poets who cannot trade on their names and reputations. They have to stand out, because readers judge each poem on its merits.

Shaughnessy has no unifying theme. Her poets represent a diversity of styles, themes, backgrounds, and aesthetic judgments. Though we see a heavy representation of deeply personal verse in this collection, that only reflects trends in the larger poetry community. Even “personal” has personal meaning here: unlike the maudlin shoegazing sometimes prevalent in poetry classrooms, we get truly unique experiences, like Jennifer Givhan’s “Karaoke Night at the Asylum”:
When I was eleven, my mother sang karaoke
at the asylum. For family night, she’d chosen

Billie Holliday, & while she sang
my brother, a fretted possum, clung

to me near the punch bowl. I remember
Mother then, already coffin-legged—

mustard grease on her plain dress,
the cattails of her hair thwapping along

with the beat…
Several poets follow Givhan’s lead, pushing themselves beyond repeating formulae learned from other poets, until they tell stories only they could tell, in ways only they could tell them. This means blunt honesty, but it also means closely held truths: the best poetry, in this collection and elsewhere, is profoundly intimate. Poets take audiences into their confidence, often at great risk. Consider Michelle Bonczek’s “Entering the Body”:
All I could think of at first
was cooking. Of that skinned

rabbit in my freezer, fur torn, gaze
jammed between a package of phyllo

and a carton of ice cream.
Of all that succulent meat

dripping from its own skeleton,
sweet marrow, and a bottle of merlot, but

even here
I end up in the palace of longing...
Don’t let the couplets confuse you. Though both these examples share that form, nobody’s beholden to any moddish custom; even within that poem, Bonczek becomes increasingly diffuse, her stanzas growing and changing like some radio signal fighting the static. Many poems experiment with form; others eschew it altogether. And for readers still persistent in believing poetry should rhyme, there’s verses like Amy Woolard’s “A Girl Gets Sick of a Rose”:
When I asked for a pencil, they gave me a rattle.
When I asked for a hammer, they gave me a kiss.
All mongrel, no matter, I’ll stay out past dinner;
I’ve practiced the answers to all of their tests.

I’ve given up sweets, their ridiculous shapes,
Their instructions on which ones have cherries.
Everything under the sun is lukewarm;
The poppies are blooming with worry.
(I know, that’s a pretty broad use of “rhyme.” Other poems, like Claudia Burbank’s “TGIF,” featuring Greek Gods having a weekend cocktail, are more conventional. But I really, really like Woolard’s moxie.)

Each poem, each poet, is essentially self-contained. Nobody here has the cachet of Billy Collins or Natasha Trethewey, whose poems remain quite good, but whose names have indisputable brand recognition. We judge each poem on its unique merits. If one particular verse doesn’t move us, it’s like listening to the radio: wait three minutes, another song will begin. That song will be different, independent, and speak its own unique language.

Besides the poetry itself, this book includes two important appendices. “Participating Magazines” and “Participating Writing Programs” include contact information from publications and schools which submitted work for consideration from eligible writers. That is, they include means of contacting magazines that encourage submissions from journeyman writers, and schools (mostly graduate programs) that help students establish careers beyond the sheepskin. Huzzah!

Numerous best-of-year collections appear annually, and most are quite good. Whether they sample poetry broadly, or subdivide it by demographic or region or whatever, they give exciting overviews of artistry in their time. But this one’s different. It focuses on the future, not the past. 2013 is over, this collection says, but these fifty poets’ best work is still ahead. And so, by implication, is yours.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Rudyard Kipling, Imperial Bard

Rudyard Kipling, 100 Poems: Old and New

As the first English-language author to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, Rudyard Kipling remains a controversial figure. On the one hand, he manipulated language smoothly, transitioning among genres in ways few authors ever have. His novels, verse, and journalism remain standards of their various forms. But he also frequently lapsed into shocking racism, praised imperial conquest, and excused injustice. This collection covers that whole range.

Editor Thomas Pinney naturally selects some obvious choices, poems like “Danny Deever,” “Gunga Din,” and “If-” that audiences know and love. But of these 100 poems, seventy-four were never collected again between the time Kipling published them and 2013. Some have lain unread, even by scholars, for over a century. It seems Kipling habitually tore off quite good verses for friends or special occasions, published them in rag newspapers, and never looked back.

How audiences receive this collection will depend, naturally, on what those audiences hope to find. Readers who enjoy well-turned phrases and artfully constructed rhymes will certainly find them. Kipling was among the last generation of poets who worked exclusively in rhyme, and his tightly constructed verse reflects a waning courtly aesthetic of consciously forged verse going back to bards and gentlemen versifiers preceding Shakespeare or Chaucer.

Readers seeking proof of Neanderthal conservatism will find that, too. Kipling demonstrated patronizing attitudes toward women and brown-skinned peoples that would make even hardened Tories blanche today. Some of these poems include sweeping stereotypes, and more than a few drop the N-bomb. Not that Kipling forgave racism: in several poems, white racists receive swift comeuppance. But he’s remarkably frank in using such language without even an “excuse me please.”

Kipling’s verse adroitly admits multiple readings simultaneously. When he writes about, say, the joy of riding though the Indian countryside at sunrise, we can appreciate his love of nature. But the “nature” he enjoys is neatly barbered by conquered peoples to let white colonial masters ride unhindered. It’s impossible to recognize one side without seeing the other. One suspects even Kipling understood this duality, because his wordplay reveals glimpses of playfully dark irony.

Quoting Kipling’s verse is difficult. Most poems run quite long, with intricate looping rhymes that suggest party-time song and public reading. And not just long in line count, either; his lines run from margin to margin and beyond, a robust display of typography that makes contemporary free-verse poets, who often fill barely half the page, look anemic. Translating that type-bound design to the Internet loses Kipling’s original muscular momentum.

Yet occasional verses have orthographic concision that permits extraction while spotlighting Kipling’s choices. His “Bobs,” dedicated to “Field-Marshal Lord Roberts of Kandahar,” runs three pages, but its short lines and spotlighted rhymes mimic the music-hall classic “Sam Hall,” neatly encompassing Kipling’s, and perforce our, willful blindness to empire:
There’s a little red-faced man
    Which is Bobs,
Rides the tallest ‘orse ‘e can—
    Our Bobs
If it bucks or kicks or rears,
‘E can sit for twenty years
With a smile round both ‘is ears—
    Can’t yer, Bobs?...
(Eight verses in that same inflexible singalong style.)

Kipling uses this structure well, suggesting he hoped not only that audiences would read his poems aloud, but they’d join in. One can practically hear the audience shouting out “Can’t yer, Bobs?” But this participatory glory has its dark side, as in verses like “South Africa,” an apparent paean to empire’s supposedly unbreakable will:
The shame of Amajuba Hill
    Lies heavy on our line,
But here is shame completer still
    And England makes no sign.
Unchallenged, in the market-place
    Of freedom’s chosen land,
Our rulers pass our rule and race
    Into the stranger’s hand...
I find myself surprisingly willing to forgive Kipling’s Late Empire attitudes, because one gets the notion even he felt uncomfortable with his situation. Like Joseph Conrad, he seems to recognize how he’s contributing to shockingly violent inequality, yet can’t bring himself to quit the privileges his standing provides. In that way, Kipling may resemble our modern situation more completely than does our moralistic outrage just because he said the N-word.

Pinney, who also edited the first-ever truly complete collection of Kipling’s poetry, doesn’t pretend Kipling was some saint. He presents these poems as landmarks of Britain’s waning empire, as products of their time. If we read Kipling that way, without trying to make him conform to our morality, he remains a remarkable poet. But that requires us to do two difficult feats: not judge him by our standards, and not forgive him his era’s limitations.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

What Does "Inequality" Mean?

Göran Therborn, The Killing Fields of Inequality

“Inequality” has become the watchword of domestic insurgents and lingering #Occupy protesters internationally, yet we often fling this word around heedlessly. What equality has purportedly been squelched? Do limousine liberals simply want a vague semi-Soviet push to the middle? What defines the practical difference between social equality and mediocrity? Status quo defenders already ask these questions. Dissenters desperately need the vocabulary to explain what they really want.

Anglo-Swedish sociologist Göran Therborn crafts an in-depth, exhaustively documented examination of widespread inequality for policy enthusiasts and dedicated newshounds. This is not beach reading, and should not be undertaken lightly. But for its intended audience, this eye-opener challenges preconceptions and forces re-examination of tightly held beliefs. It goes beyond any similar book I’ve seen, and includes the first practical definition of “inequality” I recall among many, many heated volumes.

As his title suggests, Therborn persuasively demonstrates that inequality has lifelong consequences. Not only do disadvantaged persons die younger, they have diminished life choices and weakened productive potential. Thus, even while they’re alive, victims of inequality have less life. This applies across broad swaths of measurement, and is relative: the very successful die younger than the very, very successful, because depending on your measure, somebody always has more.

But “inequality” has multiple implications. Therborn explains the Three Kinds of Inequality and the Four Mechanisms of Inequality, establishing that different yardsticks produce different statistics. Someone may win the Resource Inequality contest, yet still struggle with Existential Inequality—just ask any rich woman who’s been accused of being insufficiently ladylike. Because different kinds and mechanisms overlap constantly, what seems fair to one observer looks flagrantly unjust to others.

Being bi-national himself, Therborn takes an unsurprisingly internationalist approach. He compares different countries’ equality leanings, both internally (Third World oligarchs make hedge fund billionaires look unambitious) and globally. Anyone seeking panaceas in other countries’ success will find Therborn’s analysis distressing. He demonstrates that even the Nordic social democracies, once touted as Earth’s most equal societies, have become more tolerant of violent inequality and accepting of pseudo-feudal hierarchies.

Therborn’s prescriptions, insofar as he makes any, are very broad and will require fine-tuning in application. He clearly considers constitutional democracy a needed check on inequality, noting that free nations have historically greater aggregate wealth and life expectancies than monarchies and dictatorships. But he concedes that, across eras and cultures, society’s bottom economic third has little influence on governance. Too much freedom, evidently, is as destructive as too little.

Likewise, Therborn admits possible remedies contain seeds of abuse. Property rights protect disadvantaged people from rank top-down theft, but can also be used to justify hoarding. Our admirable desire for security shouldn’t create an economy of guards and mercenaries, and it certainly shouldn’t encourage gated communities, which Therborn derides as “privileged compounds shut off from the plebs.” Essentially, Therborn says, any good solution applied mindlessly becomes suicidal.

This refusal to provide closed answers to complicated questions defies the approaches broadly promulgated on TV and the Internet. By forcing us to acknowledge many different, overlapping forms of injustice, he forces us to concede that we can never have a truly just society; we must decide what kinds and quantities of injustice we consider tolerable. By outlining inequality’s long history, he connects us to its present reality.

Reading his work, Therborn clearly considers equality desirable. But he urges readers to seriously contemplate what that means. He flatly disparages “simple, unreflective egalitarianism” that seeks to cook everybody in the same pot. And though he broadly mentions Marxian idealism, he mocks activists who apparently seek to apply Nineteenth Century medicine to Twenty-First Century ills. Therborn evidently intends his book as background for more intelligent, nuanced discussion of contemporary needs.

Therborn doesn’t make easy reading. His text teems with technical terminology, some undefined, and his frequent statistics and histograms requires intellectual multitasking. His recurrent in-text notes, common in academia but rare in mass-market books, sometimes slow his prose to a crawl, separating less dedicated readers from Therborn’s intended audience. While Therborn runs far shorter than Joseph Stiglitz’s bestselling The Price of Inequality, he offsets that brevity with dense specificity.

But I contend we need such density. Therborn forces readers to slow down, contemplate the facts, and test conclusions against the evidence. In a society numbed by cable-news nabobs and overheated political tweets, his refusal to provide pat answers is downright refreshing. Once free citizens recognize our obligation to creating the society we desire, and the difficulties we must overcome, perhaps we can remedy the problems we’ve created.

See also:
The American Evolution
The New Math of Inequity and Wealth