Friday, May 30, 2014

Gluten Sensitivity Insensitivity


A recent YouTube video has garnered social media applause. Late-night host Jimmy Kimmel shoves a microphone into the faces of people who eat gluten free, asking if they know what gluten is. They don’t. Kimmel is a comedian, and edited his ambush interviews to maximize laughs, but many friends I previously trusted called this montage proof that “gluten sensitivity,” one of today’s fastest-growing food issues, doesn’t exist. Gluten avoiders are ignorant, therefore the problem doesn’t exist, QED.

Many people have hopped the “gluten sensitivity” bandwagon, avoiding gluten because it appears moddish. Like fat substitutes in the 1990s, or the Atkins Diet in the 2000s, gluten avoidance gives uninformed hippies the glimmer of worldly wisdom. But their trendy behavior tars people suffering legitimate gluten intolerance. Having helped a dear friend through years of pain, embarrassment, and helplessness due to gluten problems, stunts like Kimmel’s offend me personally. So here’s a legitimate, fact-based introduction.

Gluten is a protein composite present in certain grains, especially wheat. It creates bonds between fibers, giving wheat bread the firm, pliable texture cornbread lacks. Gluten bonds so powerfully that processed food manufacturers add wheat flour to many foods you wouldn’t expect, like cheese sauces, to grant a passably food-like texture. Advertisers historically used wheat emulsion to paste up handbills and posters, because air-dried gluten sets harder than Portland cement. “Gluten,” in Latin, means “glue.”

Importantly, certain people lack the ability to digest wheat, rye, or barley gluten. Science doesn’t yet know why. In the best-known gluten intolerance, celiac disease, gluten compounds actually perforate sufferers’ intestinal walls, causing vital nutrients to leak through undigested. Left untreated, patients’ perforations become large enough to allow fecal matter directly into the bloodstream, resulting in septic poisoning. For untreated sufferers, it’s a coin toss whether they’ll starve to death before suffering lethal septic shock.

For most people who don’t suffer gluten intolerance, actual gluten digestion problems appear childishly comic. The first symptom many sufferers endure after inadvertently consuming gluten is uncontrollable farting. But when sufferers flee public scrutiny, they and their loved ones see more significant symptoms, including painful diarrhea, bloody stool, fatigue, hormone and electrolyte imbalance, migraine headaches, rheumatoid arthritis, misdiagnosed fibromyalgia, violent PMS, lupus, unexplained infertility, and (no kidding) bipolar disorder. Gluten sufferers often live functionally housebound.

Legitimate gluten intolerance tests do exist, but they have limits. The most reliable test involves a complete upper and lower endoscopy, meaning running a camera tube down a patient’s throat and another up the rectum. Though false positives are vanishingly rare with this test, false negatives run as high as twenty percent, meaning if you endure the most reliable test, and you have gluten intolerance, there’s still a one-in-five chance your results will be wrong.

Therefore, even the fact you’ve tested negative for celiac and other gluten intolerances, doesn’t mean you have no problem. Celiac diagnosis rates have increased geometrically, doubling roughly every fifteen years. That’s slow growth, admittedly, but celiac and other diagnosable intolerance rates currently run about two percent in America. If two percent of Americans had lymphoma, we’d feel outraged if comedians treated lymphoma as ridiculous, and lymphoma patients as uniformed rubes. And with good reason, too.

The friend I helped with gluten intolerance flunked her celiac test because her endoscopy missed any celiac perforations. Her doctors shrugged. She’d suffered years of severe central-body weight issues, a sign of cortisol imbalance. Her primary care physician thought she had pheochromocytoma, but was unable to locate a tumor. She was embarrassed to admit her chronic farting problem, which might’ve hastened a diagnosis, but maybe not; non-specialists aren’t much trained at spotting digestive disorders.

My friend finally visited a nurse practitioner, who observed her body structure, particularly the disproportion of her weight distribution to her skeletal structure, and identified a celiac-type sufferer. This nurse wasn’t trained at spotting digestive disorders, either; she simply recognized my friend suffering the same symptoms her own daughter, a celiac patient, endured before her diagnosis. Since my friend’s test returned what we now consider a false negative, her timely diagnosis was pure coincidence.


I’ve seen my friend if gluten quantities smaller than a bread crumb get into her food. Celiac sufferers react to gluten concentrations below twenty parts per million. I’ve seen her doubled over in pain, clutching her abdomen, sweating through the painful farts while waiting for diarrhea to hit. I’ve seen her lose emotional control, seen her attention span dwindle to mere seconds, seen her sleep north of twelve hours because muscle fatigue leaves her depleted.

So by damn, don’t tell me gluten sensitivity doesn’t exist because hippies are ill-informed. The only wholly foolproof diagnostic test for celiac spectrum gluten intolerance is to go off gluten altogether for two months or more. If symptom constellations abate, winner winner chicken dinner. Sufferers can exclude gluten, one of the more common food intolerances, from their diets with moderate effort. But false friends mocking their health issues undermine confidence, making legitimate sufferers avoid treatment.

Like prior food fads, gluten avoidance will lose its hip cachet soon enough. But legitimate sufferers will remain, needing to scrupulously police their food intake. For people with clinical gluten intolerance, their medical necessity is as real as people with peanut issues or bee sting allergies. You wouldn’t mock a religiously devout friend out of keeping kosher or halal, would you? Then how dare you mock your friend for avoiding a simple, preventable food reaction.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Mustang Meadows

H. Alan Day & Lynn Wiese Sneyd, The Horse Lover: A Cowboy's Quest to Save the Wild Mustangs

Career rancher H. Alan Day purchased South Dakota’s failing Arnold Ranch in 1988, expecting to turn it into a cattle operation, like the two ranches he already owned in Arizona and Nebraska. Then he met Dayton “Hawk” Hyde, cowboy activist. Hyde told Day about the wild mustang herds controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, costly animals that needed constant attention and couldn’t run free. Suddenly Day found his mission.

Day constructs his memoir like a classic Western novel: the proving story of a man discovering life’s mission on the land, where all pretensions melt away. Day fights intransigent government bureaucrats, hidebound cowboys, and city suits who believe they can tell country people how to behave. But his love for these confined mustangs keeps Day motivated. Then, when he gets permission for his wild mustang sanctuary, his next battle begins.

People claim to love wild horses, which have historic standing in the American West, besides just being gorgeous animals. Their rearing outlines, with muscular legs and rearing manes, are iconic even to people who’ve never ridden the range. But unlike cattle and sheep, mustangs are economically precarious. While some can be tamed and turned to ranching, many mustangs just hoover prairie grass and anger agriculturalists.

These are the proverbial wild horses that couldn’t drag you away. Mustangs are strong, willful, and spirited. Hard experience has taught them to distrust humans, who often consider them vermin and chase them away, sometimes with guns. Nobody thought Day could domesticate herds numbered in the thousands; Day resolved to prove everyone wrong. The Arnold Ranch, rechristened Mustang Meadows, became America’s first wild mustang refuge.

An adept storyteller, Day mingles autobiography with a holistic description of ranching, as both a business and a personal vocation. He describes his lifelong romance with horses, beginning when his father gifted him an undersized mustang, sized just right for a growing boy’s legs. Day remembers horses’ names, habits and dispositions. He describes them with nearly human qualities, and sometimes with downright heartbreaking poignancy. Horses, to Day, are family.

He also describes moments of remarkable violence that remind us how ordinary people treat animals. Descriptions of capturing mustangs by paralyzing them with gunshots across the spine, or disciplining willful horses by whipping them until they bleed, make the blood run cold. Not everyone loves horses like Day, and these snapshots of stunning inhumanity underline why Day resolved to bring nonviolent techniques to horse ranching.

Day pioneered a technique called “gentling the herd” on cattle adopted onto his Arizona ranch. It involves pressuring cattle to stick close together, reminding them who’s in charge. This involves minimal effort from human ranchers, and allows the animals to remain essentially wild, provided they recognize humans as dominant. But to ranchers accustomed to using force to control and domesticate livestock, “gentling the herd” proved controversial, to say the least.

Worse, Day has to persuade skeptical cowboys to attempt his unorthodox technique on mustangs, much wilder and more ornery creatures than cattle. They have limited time to sand rough edges off 1500 animals and get them onto strange pasture, and several hands insist it can’t be done. Throughout, Day must contend with the one creature more high-strung and volatile than wild mustangs: the cowboys who ride them.

Day admits his technique resembles Monty Roberts’ famous “natural horsemanship” techniques, commonly known as horse whispering. Though he began gentling the herd before Roberts became famous in the mid-1990s, the overlap of techniques is pointed and conspicuous. Perhaps, when times are right, good ideas just bubble forth like water in the desert. One hopes Day’s techniques catch on, because they’re not only more humane, but more environmentally sustainable, besides.

Despite Day’s sometimes technical topics, he never bogs down in jargon or abstruse cowboy-speak. His story has a novel’s dynamic flow, mixing Western horseback action with a family epic and a concise memoir of ranch life. In talking about government wheeler-dealing, innovative animal husbandry techniques, and more, it would’ve been easy for Day to become impenetrably dense, but he doesn’t. His storytelling never loses immediacy through long, hot, horse-filled seasons.

This book will appeal to multiple audiences. Casual readers interested in a compelling memoir or modern Western will find plenty to enjoy. Fellow ranchers interested in lower-cost, ecologically supportable techniques can mine Day’s experiences for useful pointers. This isn’t a niche book just for horse people; it touches hearts and minds across disciplines, even a pointy-headed city slicker like me. This fun, touching, smart book won’t let you go easily.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Ernest Hemingway Effect

Michael Dale
So I was watching a news report about Elliot Rodger, the attributed Isla Vista shooter who rampaged around the UC Santa Barbara campus last week, attacking anybody he could find, but especially women. According to the LA Times, Rodger targeted “the hottest sorority of UCSB,” blaming them for his sexual inexperience and feelings of isolation. He apparently believed his sexual deprivation merited blood payback. Millions of frustrated virgins must’ve collectively slapped their foreheads.

Then, without apparent irony, the program switched to a testosterone supplement ad. You’ve seen the one: the Axiron ad starring a handsome middle-aged man, resembling a scruffier George Clooney, who swaggers into his living room to his wife and kids’ open adulation. “I always say ‘be the man with the plan,’” says model and part-time actor Michael Dale. “But with less energy, moodiness, and a low sex drive, I had to do something.”

Some years ago, doctors routinely treated women’s menopausal symptoms with massive hormonal supplements. But long-term exposure to these hormones causes women demonstrable harm: rates of breast and ovarian cancer, gallstones, dementia, and stroke track positively with lifetime exposure to estrogens. Growing bodies of evidence suggest that similar consequences follow long-term testosterone supplementation, including coronary disease, gynecomastia, and (fittingly enough) chronic impotence.

Not that low testosterone isn’t serious. Between two and four million American men suffer clinical hypogonadism, which shortens life expectancy and diminishes quality of life. But barely one in twenty men with diagnosed hypogonadism receive needed treatment. Pharmaceutical companies market testosterone supplements, erectile dysfunction drugs, and other male medications, not to men diagnosed with legitimate illnesses, but to men afraid their lives are insufficiently masculine.  Call it “the Ernest Hemingway effect.”

Ernest Hemingway and friends
Advertisers have actively peddled the impression that masculinity is measured externally. The Axiron voice-over narration establishes masculinity as briskness, gregariousness, and sexual insatiability. Put crudely, real men get some constantly. It’s questionable how completely media-savvy men internalize this message; but based on his writings, Elliot Rodger evidently did. When he couldn’t prove his masculinity through sexual conquest, he apparently considered violence the next best option.

This desire to prove masculinity is hardly new. Hemingway believed that manhood had little relationship to one’s genital orientation; he believed boys became men through action. Like Teddy Roosevelt before him, he constantly created new tests to refine his inner core. These included honor in war and triumph in hunting, but also chivalry toward women, charity for the disadvantaged, and intellectual refinement, embodied in his novels.

While Hemingway’s modern variation on classical Stoicism helped establish the Twentieth Century, it also assumed a years-long learning track. Smarter critics than me have noted that advancing media technologies have stunted consumers’ attention spans. Reading the papers takes too long, and the evening news comes on too rarely; we demand information, ideas, and entertainment right now, dammit. Wired magazine notes that people reading off screens seldom read anything to completion.

Thus, people like Elliot Rodger see images of Hemingway or Roosevelt on the savannah, and think they’re entitled to have others think them masculine. They see Hemingway bagging gazelles, or Roosevelt leading a cavalry charge, not as the culmination of a years-long personal odyssey, but as disconnected moments. Some men, feeling their lives lack requisite manfulness, think they can buy virility in pharmaceutical form. Others tragically mistake cause and effect.

Teddy Roosevelt
If Rodger’s self-penned diatribe is reliable, he felt oppressed because he remained a virgin at twenty-two. Screw you, Junior. I didn’t have my first serious relationship until twenty-five. There’s no evidence Franz Kafka ever had sex, and Isaac Newton—both a learned scientist and devout churchman—boasted in his eighties to have retained his virginity. History and experience show that here’s no correlation between sexual prowess and personal merit.

But Rodger grew up surrounded by imagery reassuring him that masculinity was an entitlement, not an accomplishment. When real life contradicted his media-given macho expectations, he couldn’t reconcile the conflict. Psychologists call this “cognitive dissonance.” Most adults learn to accept this discrepancy. Rodger located its source outside himself, which, in his deluded mind, justified sudden vengeance. He wanted back the illusions real life had stolen.

Elliot Rodger’s violence is clearly an outlier. His psychological struggle is not. Journalists, researchers, and other professionals have spilled much ink about modernity’s supposed manfulness deficit. Our lives today have more stuff, yet feel emptier, than ever before. And it’s impossible to separate that gap from our media-moderated lives. How much happier we’d be if we left our climate-controlled hermitages and just spoke to one another.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Concrete Grocery Blues

The new Kearney Hy-Vee, and its massive concrete parking lot (Kearney Hub)

Readers familiar with the Iowa-based Hy-Vee supermarket chain may think I’d celebrate its arrival in my jerkwater hometown. Hy-Vee runs a similar luxury grocery model that Wegman’s or Dean & DeLuca bring to larger cities, making healthful, sophisticated food available in prior cultural wastelands. And because Hy-Vee runs an employee-owned model, it spends more on workers than investor-owned chains like WalMart, Safeway, and Kroger. What’s not to love?

Plenty, actually. When Hy-Vee’s newest store opened in Kearney, Nebraska, this month, I arrived on opening day and left carrying six grocery bags and a market tracking card. I also left with a queasy feeling about the faceless, geographically indeterminate building and enormous parking lot. Rather than merging into Kearney’s existing community, Hy-Vee paved a cornfield, dropped an anonymous cube building on it, and lit it with halogen and dreams.

This never previously bothered me. But as my wages haven’t kept pace with inflation, as many prairie locations had record-setting high temperatures this spring, and as Nebraska’s economic growth remains a shadow of American aggregate trends, much bothers me that never did before. While Hy-Vee does nothing other chain retailers don’t, its sudden appearance and aggressive growth make it a new locus for my swelling anti-corporate umbrage.

Rather than building near where working Kearneyites live, Hy-Vee chose to locate within loogie-shooting distance of Wal-Mart, Target, K-Mart, Menard’s, and the Hilltop Mall. This makes six concrete slab buildings, which could be literally anywhere, surrounded by enough parking to pave Luxembourg, closer together than six lesbians in a Penthouse Forums letter. One starts to wonder what planning genius considered this arrangement beneficial to Kearney’s interests.

Importantly, this strange conglomeration is so isolated that few people could possibly walk there. The nearest housing is a developed region behind the Wal-Mart, dominated by houses on quarter-acre lots, fronting onto looping, Rorschach-inspired streets, which may or may not have sidewalks. Beyond the first street or two, walking anywhere would require massive time investments, besides the extreme aesthetic displeasure of crossing multi-acre parking lots on foot.

That’s if you can walk anywhere. Many real estate developers don’t bother equipping new neighborhoods with sidewalks anymore. Residents drive everywhere, because everywhere is too far to walk; but developers don’t pave sidewalks because nobody uses them. Cause or effect, who can say? Either way, car dependence becomes the norm rather than the exception, walking becomes the refuge of children and the destitute, and responsible driving becomes increasingly impractical.

Find your way without a car. I dare you.

Hy-Vee built amid five enormous parking lots which are almost never full. The parking around big-box retailers and malls generally only gets used on one day, Black Friday; every other day, it sits unoccupied, putting physical distance between people and businesses, and encouraging irresponsible motoring. Yet rather than pooling with this already extant but substantially unused parking, Hy-Vee paved even more parking. Because it needs to be theirs, or something.

Lay aside how parking makes residents more car-dependent. Disregard how big-box stores building on towns’ fringes undercuts community ties. Forget how corporations, to construct essentially interchangeable buildings, must flatten the loess hills that my Nebraska ancestors, and the Indians before them, successfully farmed for ten thousand years. Even without that, these vast concrete tombstones, by their very existence, do manifest harm to the people and the land.

Though poured concrete sets solidly enough to walk on after six or eight hours, the chemical reaction that makes concrete hard continues for fifty years or more. Because that reaction runs on calcium carbonate, it exudes carbon dioxide as a by-product. Thus concrete creates greenhouse gases even without cars. It also doesn’t absorb precipitation or grow trees, so concrete is unbelievably cold in winter, sweltering in summer, and ugly year-round.

So, to reiterate: this new Hy-Vee, by its location, stands aloof from existing commerce. It forces me to burn carbon if I want better groceries. It makes locals even more dependent on cars, which, in a predominantly blue-collar town, isn’t small beer; transportation costs now outweigh housing costs for most Americans. And even without cars, this added concrete does added harm to global climate, just by dint of its existence.

To reach the Kearney Hy-Vee, I must drive four miles, past three supermarkets, two locally owned. (That’s besides groceries from Wal-Mart, Target, and elsewhere.) Though Hy-Vee has Kearney’s best grocery selection, it’s like eating the whole Cracker Jack box to reach the prize: by the time I get there, I feel sick and don’t want the reward anymore. Therefore, good groceries notwithstanding, I cannot return to Hy-Vee.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

California's Valley of Dry Bones

Sheldon Greene, After the Parch

When an aggressive mining company threatens Bran’s bucolic Central California community, his people muster every dollar they have and send him to Irvine to register their claim. But Bran, who’s never ventured far from home, finds a drought-ravaged dystopian terror. Picking his way among high-tech ruins, Bran discovers one inescapable truth in the California Republic of 2075: if rejecting corporate rule makes us revolutionaries, only revolutionaries will reject our corporate overlords.

Indie author Sheldon Greene’s fifth novel distinctly reminds me of Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three, probably the most influential book from my childhood. The sheltered foundling makes a journey, meets an enigmatic prince and mysteriously vivacious girl, and begins discovering his untapped inward reserves. Though Greene shifts settings from ancient Wales to post-apocalyptic California, the Joseph Campbell-esque mythic import remains excitingly, dangerously intact. Before Bran’s journey ends, his world will be forever transformed.

Almost immediately outside his village, Bran encounters trouble. A journey that should take three days becomes a massive overland slog because roads are impassible and technology is unreliable. Bran relies on help from a traveling illusionist and a feral child, equivalent to Alexander’s Fflewddur Fflam and Gurgi, while realizing he cannot wholly rely on them. Yet he also discovers the painful lie his rural community taught him: despite his expectations, most strangers can be trusted.

Greene, an activist attorney by day, presents a California plagued with violent inequalities. Rural poverty forces farmers to revert to horse-drawn technology, and much of the Central Valley has become salinated and infertile through overuse. Fresno and Los Angeles are criminal cesspits; natural disasters and poverty have reduced the San Fernando Valley to a graveyard. Yet massive corporations, with government connivance, would steal what little California’s poor still have. It’s the One Percent gone mad.

One could read Greene’s novel as allegory for contemporary social issues, and one back-cover quote suggests he certainly intends that. Bran rescues lovely June from indentured servitude, revealing that, without meaningful laws, nothing prevents slavery. (Or with them. June echoes recent news stories of global sex trafficking.) Bran’s company falls in with Nikanor, an itinerant musician who doesn’t share his secrets lightly, but teaches Bran, via hard experience, that life is worth living because some causes are worth dying for.

But Bran’s journey also reflects heroes, from Telemachos to Buddha to Frodo Baggins to Luke Skywalker, who ventured outside their provincial lives and discover life’s grand, terrifying scope. Like Buddha, Bran discovers suffering and death, and cannot sit mute; like Frodo, he discovers that tyranny won’t ignore his village if he remains quiet. Awareness of the world brings responsibilities. Thus Bran risks jail, death, and his community’s existence, to fight California’s oppressive, powerful Standard Corporation.

This book reflects positive trends I’ve seen in recent young adult fiction. Besides Alexander, I also see shades of Moira Young’s Blood Red Road and Maureen McGowan’s The Dust Chronicles. All deal with issues of adulthood, especially the wide gap between real life and grown-ups’ sincere but misguided attempts to keep youth innocent. We expect children to turn eighteen, Bran’s age herein, and magically have the coping tools we’ve persistently denied them their entire childhoods.

Bran understands some truths remarkably well: he’s both industrious and sexually aware. (Greene treats sex frankly, but not gratuitously, using the dictionary to call things what they’re called.) Yet his adults keep him ignorant of history, politics, and basic social literacy; he doesn’t grasp outlanders’ ordinary ways. Bilingualism is perhaps Bran’s best lesson in this book. He discovers he cannot effectively resist the Standard Corporation if he cannot speak their own language back to them.

As an indie author, Greene’s prose sometimes runs rocky. He needs a copy checker to cover his tense shifts, misplaced apostrophe’s, and comma splices; but indie publishers often cannot afford such luxuries. Also Greene, a Bay-area resident, garbles California geography: why would a trip from Templeton to Irvine pass through Fresno? One suspects Greene’s never been that far south. Such hiccups take readers out of the moment, reminding us we’re reading words on a page.

Yet despite momentary glitches, Greene crafts a taut, energetic all-ages thriller. Socially engaged readers and newshounds can appreciate Greene’s allegorical treatment of contemporary issues; science fiction fans can enjoy enjoy a meaty mythic journey. Greene’s conclusion suggests, like Alexander, that more adventures remain for this cadre, because more fights remain worth fighting. If so, I look forward eagerly to Bran’s continuing journey; his unvarnished mythic honesty offers lessons both kids and adults could profitably learn.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Charitable-Industrial Complex

Peter Dauvergne & Genevieve LeBaron, Protest Inc.: The Corporatization of Activism

Greenpeace began in 1970 as a wildcat protest against nuclear tests in the North Pacific. Forty-some years later, Greenpeace has a corporate charter, a CEO, an investment portfolio, and strict rules preventing grassroots members from going off-script. Dauvergne and LeBaron boldly question: what costs do change agents pay by organizing along a capitalist corporate model? The answers they uncover are harrowing, but not particularly unexpected.

Though they return to the Greenpeace example periodically, our authors take an expansive view of organized activism. Many formerly radical groups have adopted structures modeled on Fortune 500 companies, including well-paid executive boards and diverse, aggressive investment strategies. This includes sinking donor money into capitalist enterprises, and permitting large-scale donors to demand “return on investment” for putatively philanthropic giving. Whether this facilitates real, fundamental change, matters little to paid leaders.

Corporatized charities thus become beholden to money and other status quo influences. Rather than demanding actual systemic, radical changes (radical, from Latin: root), corporate charities accept superficial changes while letting underlying conditions fester unchanged. Bigness, briefly, encourages activist schizophrenia. Groups like Greenpeace, World Vision, and Amnesty International promise revolution to street-level members, while essentially appeasing their corporate and government allies. Activists buy into the system they claim to oppose.

Dauvergne, a Canadian, and LeBaron, from Britain, come from political science backgrounds, but we’d more accurately call this book political philosophy. They have distinct ideas about what charities, NGOs, and other activist groups should do: such organizations should resist crushing forces of wealth, power, and cozy arrogance. And they perceive their beloved change agents failing in their tasks. Thus their book mixes manifesto, goad, and plan of action.

Traditional protests, like the Chicago Haymarket demonstrations or Civil Rights marches, demanded unified group action. But corporations see groups as conglomerations of individuals, and corporatized charity encourages what Dauvergne and LeBaron call “compassionate consumption.” Rather than act together, corporate charities encourage us to spend separately, which makes individuals feel vaguely ennobled, but makes real challenges, like global warming and financial malfeasance, look too imposing for real, meaningful change.

While large-scale corporate charities essentially sell themselves to “crony capitalism,” governments and private security forces increasingly treat rank-and-file protesters as terrorists. Nor is that an exaggeration: since 9/11, government documents openly characterize environmentalists, labor organizers, and urban monks as equal to al-Qaeda. Violence has become the first resort in handling demonstrators. The NYPD, with FBI connivance, used military tactics and technology to disperse #Occupy encampments.

This dualism has chilling effects—literally, as citizen passions dissipate. Large, essentially conformist groups get corporate and government assistance, including both manpower and money. Actual dissidents and True Believers can expect arrest, or worse. Thus the very principles of democracy, including Constitutional American guarantees of free speech and assembly, become hallmarks of outlaw insurgents; law-keepers violently terminate unauthorized but completely legal public gatherings. Demanding answers from elected officials becomes criminal.

Our authors never quite say it, but when wholly legal protests get treated as “national security issues,” governments essentially declare their people enemies of the state. This changes the very foundations of Western civic authority. Protecting the charitable-industrial complex while silencing civilian dissent, governments redefine us as customers, not citizens. We’re free to buy and spend, whether altruistically or selfishly; but we’re banned from questioning our government and corporate overlords.

But not everything feels bleak. Recent social changes (cf. Jeff Speck’s Walkable City) have gradually reintroduced community ties that encourage collective action. Authentic radicals are abandoning corporate charities for grassroots activism. Simultaneously, new leaderless protest models, including the geographically diffuse #Occupy model, encourage small-scale management, responsive to local needs. Fervor lives at the street level, and while maintaining that passion remains difficult, only such naked anti-authoritarian rebellion encourages real change.

Though the authors dance around the topic, they essentially confirm one of my pet issues: bigness and bureaucracy cause complacence. Small, community-level movements retain vigor. As they describe the push-pull between transnational, corporatized “charities” and grassroots protesters, Dauvergne and LeBaron describe the true movement of civic authority: leaders would concentrate power at the top. But real activists can re-channel energy by where they dedicate their loyalties.

Real citizenship requires every citizen’s active, informed involvement. Turning the impetus for change over to corporate charities has proven as numbing as entrusting such authority to governments or capitalists. Dauvergne and LeBaron demonstrate how free Western nations have lost the compass of true democracy; but we can reclaim our direction by exercising our wits, numbers, and legitimate citizenship. It’s never all lost; sometimes we just forget our own power.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Check Your Privilege... At the Door

Alexander Hall, Princeton University

I must start any discussion of “white privilege” in current politics by mocking the word “privilege.” Though the concept has flowed through socio-economic discussions for decades, its recent faddish circulation, often used incorrectly, has cheapened its real meaning. Like “Political Correctness” in the 1990s, or “Freedom Fries” in the 2000s, its ceaseless repetition deflects from the problem it supposedly corrects. And that’s where Princeton undergraduate Tal Fortgang enters the picture.

Like most twenty-year-olds, Tal Fortgang understands reality better than you. Writing in The Princeton Tory, an opinion magazine so marginal that many Princeton students didn’t know it existed before this week, Fortgang expertly demolished the idea that white male heterosexuals get any breaks in American society, because his personal grandfather escaped the Nazis. This obviously exempts him from any advantages accruing to certain population groups. Obviously this describes honkies everywhere.

The mystery isn’t that Fortgang wrote this opinion. HL Mencken wrote that “Nobody thinks of himself as a son of a bitch,” and that includes thinking your skin melanin opened doors closed to darker-hued people. When I was twenty, I’d have agreed with Fortgang altogether. No, the mystery is: why did Time.com reprint this gormless adolescent screed? It has no business in any legitimate news-gathering organization, and cheapens Time’s brand.

Tal Fortgang
The Princeton Tory originates off campus. Its funding comes from The Collegiate Network, supported by the Scaife, Olin, and Bradley foundations. These far-right groups consider subsidizing conservative campus organizations an investment, and it’s paid off: Collegiate Network alumni include Ann Coulter and Dinesh D’Souza, bombthrowers so radical that Fox News keeps its distance. Reprinting this essay is like reprinting an unedited Koch Brothers press release. It’s beneath Time’s journalistic reputation.

Fortgang commits serial logical offenses. Start with fallacies of relevance: his grandparents’ surviving the Nazis doesn’t accrue to him. My grandparents were homesteaders; so what? He also commits the Fundamental Attribution Error, imbuing others’ statements with personal, rather than circumstantial, meaning. He assumes people contest his privilege because they stereotype him; “You don’t know what [my family’s] struggles have been,” he writes. He apparently doesn’t realize that goes both ways.

Every human exists individually, and within a social context, at the same time. Citing Fortgang’s industrious father and grandfather feels noble, and their contributions deserve acknowledgement. But they, and he, also occupy a social stratus where simply being white, male, and heterosexual opens doors. As a New Yorker, Fortgang could add “Jewish” and “suburban” to that list. One suspects Fortgang doesn’t consider himself privileged, because he’s never seen the opposite.

One also wonders if Fortgang even understands what privileges he’s received, just by his ethnic and geographical heritage. Being born in New York bestows prestige. Malcolm Gladwell dedicates an entire chapter to demonstrating how Jewish immigrants created a New York culture that shepherded their grandchildren to prestigious universities and careers. In trying to deny his privileged origins, Fortgang inadvertently admits them. And he makes himself look unlettered and ahistorical, besides.

We daily navigate the fine line between our individuality and our heritage. Everybody came from somewhere we couldn’t control; we make willful decisions about where we’re headed. People who don’t walk this line upset fundamental American values. That’s why we generally despise both the idle rich and people who build nests in the social safety net. Both expect life to pay their way because of birth circumstances they never chose.

But people who think themselves above social responsibility equally offend us. Ayn Rand idealism notwithstanding, the “rugged individualism” myth ballyhooed by would-be Rockefellers and Vanderbilts rings hollow for most Americans. Businessmen desperately need customers. Truckers need roads. Parents need roofs and three squares daily for their children. We all exist within our context, and if that context uplifts us, if it crushes us, whatever it does, it’s always still there.

By Fortgang’s own admission, he came from money. He couldn’t have gotten into Princeton if he’d napped through high school, so clearly his own effort won him admission. But in my university teaching days, I had students who couldn’t do weekend homework. Many had local jobs, while others returned to their parents’ farms or workshops. Even if they had mad academic skillz, Princeton-level workloads were always outside their horizons.

Like most undergraduates, Tal Fortgang has savvied part of life’s ever-changing circumstances, and thinks he knows what he needs to know. Various right-wing foundations have subsidized this academic half-assery, and Time has gambled its journalistic prestige by giving Fortgang a national soapbox. But most twenty-year-olds still haven’t discovered the larger world. As he continues recognizing life’s unseemly facts, Fortgang will live to understand why a little learning is a dangerous thing.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

It's a Buck Dancer's Choice, My Friends

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part One
Jim Kohlberg (director), The Music Never Stopped (2011)

This film is based on an article by Oliver Sacks, whose writings also inspired the 1990 tear-jerker Awakenings. Like that film, this one hides an essentially optimistic tale of human redemption behind a superficially maudlin, slow-moving veneer. There’s a fine line between “affecting” and “manipulative” in filmmaking, and which side of that line you see this movie on, depends on what you bring to the experience.

JK Simmons (“Law & Order,” “Spider-Man) plays Henry Sawyer, a burned out engineer whose life apparently stopped in the Eisenhower years. His estranged ex-hippie son Gabriel (relative unknown Lou Taylor Pucci) reappears after twenty years, but a brain tumor has erased all memories formed after 1970. Music therapist Dianne Daley (Julia Ormond) reawakens Gabriel’s higher functions using classic rock on vinyl, particularly the Grateful Dead, much to Gabriel’s reactionary father’s chagrin.

Simmons almost never plays lead roles, and it’s unusual for actors of his age to carry feature-length films, so we’re moving outside Hollywood’s comfort zone on two levels. Kudos for that. As Sawyer, Simmons plays a man who has stopped keeping up with society. His household decor is antiquated, even for the 1986 setting, and he refuses to learn computer-assisted drafting and other trade tools. Sawyer simply rejects all modernity.

Gabriel is supposedly around 35, but looks 18 under layers of beard. He thinks it’s only two years since he fled his father’s constricting suburban world for Greenwich Village bohemianism. Because his tumor also destroyed his inhibitions, his classic rock also lets him tell his father all the secrets he previously bottled up, but because he creates only fleeting, isolated new memories, he never gains closure, persistently revisiting old pains.

JK Simmons (left) and Lou Taylor Pucci
Because Gabriel cannot change or grow, Henry must adapt to Gabriel’s illness. A jazz purist, Henry must learn to appreciate classic rock, rebuilding himself as America’s oldest Deadhead. Even as his own health slowly fails, he becomes broadly hip, awakening himself to new experiences and previously untapped reserves of enthusiasm. Henry, in second youth, and Gabriel, trapped in permanent adolescence, finally make the connection they couldn’t in 1966.

It’s tempting to fling feminist aspersions on this film. Mía Maestro and Tammy Blanchard as Gabriel’s love interests, Cara Seymour as Henry’s wife and Gabriel’s mother, and Julia Ormond as Dr. Daley, all play second fiddle to these two men. But I quickly realized: so do all the other men. This is emphatically not an ensemble piece. All characters and relationships are subordinate to the father-son dynamic herein.

We could continue. The film situates the Sawyers, including hospitalized Gabriel, in the same suburban, preponderantly white, bourgeois environment Gabriel so ostentatiously fled. Except for one pretty Hispanic orderly, nobody confronts poor or non-white characters. And note, the only significant character of color is explicitly romanticized. Why doesn’t hippie Gabriel rebel afresh? Perhaps because, beneath its egalitarian baggage, hippie bohemianism was an innately white middle-class conceit anyway.

This film’s small-budget, art house texture eschews glamor and spectacle, but this opens other possibilities. Because director Jim Kohlberg maintains his understated tone without bogging down, he permits opportunities for quiet humor and character development. It’s so quiet, in fact, that Hollywood-raised film children may get lost. Henry’s tear-filled climactic monologue will probably strike film audiences as sentimental, but book readers will appreciate its relative restraint and lack of bombast.

Kohlberg probably spent more on soundtrack rights than his thrift-shop set design, lending the film a shopworn look but a rich, surprisingly nuanced soundscape. For instance, Peggy Lee’s version of “Till There Was You” looms large in the movie’s themes; but in one key scene, stodgy Henry replaces it with the Beatles’ rendition. This willingness to leap forward seven years is remarkable for the character, without requiring aggressive directorial jazz hands.

Browsing professional reviews, I’ve seen two basic threads: critics who hate this film because it doesn’t resemble typical Hollywood fare, and critics who embrace it for the same reason. Mass media insidership makes a difference. Audiences accustomed to, and comfortable with, Hollywood culture will find this movie contrived and lethargic. Audiences who haven’t internalized the lingo will enjoy the relaxed pace and subtle, cerebral themes.

Fundamentally, this film is about the romanticized past. Set in 1986, it pits Henry, trapped in 1950, against Gabriel, trapped in 1968. But in era-hopping, it reminds us, the past isn’t frozen. As Dr. Daley notes, we constantly rewrite history in light of our present circumstances. What past, this film asks, would we agree to lock ourselves into? And when would we set ourselves free?


Monday, May 5, 2014

Gunmetal Wizards and Muggle Democracy

Tom Doyle, American Craftsmen

How to review a book like this? Man alive. When I think of Tom Doyle’s brisk, Tom Clancy-ish storytelling, I get tangled on his distracting, frankly discouraging backstory. But when I want to disparage his setting, with its bleak implications for us Muggles, I remember how his main narrative propelled me vigorously along. Doyle leaves me with a hodgepodge of conflicting responses I cannot easily reconcile.

Cpt. Dale Morton, USArmy, wizard and assassin (!), survives a suicide run, forcing him to ask: since when does the Army stage suicide runs? Since his command falls under an all-knowing Pentagon oracle, he realizes America’s military command has a mole. Going rogue, he finds an unlikely ally in an Iranian exile’s pretty daughter, and a foe among Washington’s Puritan elite. Captain Morton must brook no opposition in uncovering top-rank treason.

I cannot deny Doyle’s riveting drama. He mixes techno-thriller canon with allusions to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and more classic American authors than I can name. (19th Century AmLit is my weak suit.) He has the double-time chase sequences and apocalyptic confrontations we expect with airport reading, balanced against smart, well-paced moments of character development, including a nicely understated, guy-friendly romance.

Oh, and what characters they are.

Character surnames seem oddly familiar, which Doyle helpfully explains quite early. Captain Morton, Major Endicott, and Colonel Hutchinson are lineally descended, respectively, from Thomas Morton, John Endecott, and Anne Hutchinson, founding New England colonists and rough contemporaries. One wonders why Doyle doesn’t go whole hog, putting everyone under General Cotton Mather and President Anne Bradstreet. Family dynamics, including surnames, remain unchanged after nearly 400 years.

Moreover, these honored American ancestors were all wizards. They, and their descendents, used magic (called “craft” herein) to manipulate history. A Morton ancestor shepherded Washington across the Delaware. A Morton assassinated Stonewall Jackson, thus preserving the Union. Morton, Endicott, and Hutchinson ghosts re-fight the Civil War nightly in a West Virginia hollow; if the Union ghosts ever lose, America will fall. Screw your efforts; only these First Families truly matter.

Holy shit. Is Doyle saying a sorcerous Anglo-Saxon aristocracy has secretly manipulated American history since pre-Revolutionary times, with George Washington’s blessing? Yes. Yes he is. And he doesn’t mean it in “Freemasons are poisoning the wells” terms; he considers this eon-spanning conspiracy an unrecognized American blessing. This benign collusion has ensured Norteamericano prosperity and peace since before we were a nation. Morton, as Doyle’s mouthpiece, simply anticipates Americans’ grateful acquiescence.

This massive, intergenerational consortium undermines Doyle’s superficial über-Republican ethos. Dale Morton repeatedly boasts his loyalty to the Constitution, yet his very presence in the Pentagon bespeaks anti-democratic inclinations. If a cabal of élite bloodlines makes every important national decision while preserving our very existence, that fundamentally torpedoes the national myth of tenacity, freedom, and Horatio Alger ingenuity. Having smart, resourceful characters doesn’t matter if their greatness comes from their pedigree.

Conservatism doesn’t bother me. Tom Clancy, notwithstanding his often naive trust in technology, was both a conservative nationalist saber-rattler and a cracking good storyteller. But the conservatism perforating Doyle’s ambient background isn’t the highly principled conservatism of George Will or Paul Ryan; Doyle presents a world where everything used to be good, everything that preserves Colonial spirit preserves goodness, and any changes represent some form of decline.

I struggle to reconcile this name-dropping orthodoxy with Doyle’s admittedly ambitious, and sometimes quite progressive, story. Where much “urban fantasy” forever recycles mystery tropes, Doyle’s use of military imagery, including contemporary Iraqi settings, breathes new life into a genre suffocating under its own weight. Coupled with his vigorous, subtly wrought storytelling, Doyle’s front-story has the forward-thinking, even revolutionary, spark of modernity which his backstory lacks.

Doyle pits Captain Morton, a rogue with an intensely moral backbone and suicidal streak, against Major Endicott, a company man who follows orders because he swears by order. The characters circle one another, frequently one coincidence away from killing each other. But while Morton incrementally realizes his mission requires information he can’t access from outside, Endicott discovers damp rot inside the Pentagon’s magical hierarchy. The foes increasingly need one another.

Perhaps what you get from this book depends on what you bring in. Doyle writes with old-school American patriotism so naked, you can practically hear Lee Greenwood over his concluding soliloquy. He still considers America a land of potential and magic. But he also looks relentlessly backward, lionizing ancestral heroes. “America,” for him, is mainly white, mainly male, and entirely Tidewater East. If that’s your America, here’s your novel.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Liberty Injustice For All

Matt Taibbi, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap

Investigative journalist Matt Taibbi begins this book with one simple question: who goes to jail in contemporary America, and for what? But he uncovers a complex moral framework which completely upends traditional conceptions of justice. How does it make sense, Taibbi asks, that Food Stamp applicants can face jail time for misappropriating $350 a month, but bank executives can literally abscond with billions of dollars and get Eric Holder’s handshake?

Taibbi’s investigation follows two tracks. In odd-numbered chapters, he demonstrates methods by which private interests and government lawyers collude to provide nigh-limitless protection for money. Even-numbered chapters provide ways America’s poor encounter the justice system, ways that include urban street-sweeping operations and Palestine-style checkpoints. It’s almost impossible to synopsize this book’s stories without sounding like I’m exaggerating or outright lying; but Taibbi documents everything in horrific detail.

In cities today, it’s appallingly easy for poor citizens to get arrested. Laws exist, which well-heeled residents need never know about, allowing police to jail persons for penny-ante crimes like idling, driving excessively nice cars, and Constitutionally protected protests. Taibbi describes one African-American Brooklynite, who was arrested, held for four hours, and forced to defend himself in court, for “blocking” an unoccupied sidewalk in front of his own house.

While this taxpaying black citizen lost several days’ wages for frankly Orwellian crimes, the Lehman Brothers bank collapse generated scandals you probably never saw on network news. CEO Dick Fuld concealed his bank’s woes with shameful aplomb, so individual investors, charities, and municipalities sunk money into Lehman until the last possible moment. Then, when Barclay’s bought Lehman’s shambling undead corpse, executives chiseled themselves bonuses totalling north of $10 billion. Seriously.

Taibbi’s method ping-pongs with blood-chilling regularity. Poor Americans get arrested for violating laws middle-class voters don’t even know exist. Obscure stipulations of immigration law deputize every traffic cop in America as ICE enforcers, meaning Hispanics get deported for being crime victims. Meanwhile, hedge fund owners place risky bets against old-fashioned neighborhood corporations, and commence lengthy gaslighting campaigns to submarine disfavored businesses, and judges systematically refuse to do anything.

Patterns emerge quickly, and Taibbi hammers them home. Government treats every welfare applicant as fraud in process, justifying bottomless investigation budgets. But when Wall Street megabanks sell fictional default judgments to unsuspecting enforcers, the very category for which legislators first wrote fraud laws, courts do nothing. There’s no reason to believe courts even realize, amid floods of robo-signed paperwork, that legitimate fraud has even happened.

Certain Wall Street stars have grown so vast that, like literal stars, their very presence distorts spacetime, market forces, and blind justice. Anyone bringing suit against them faces armies of lawyers, underfunded courts, and a Justice Department terrified of losing. Eric Holder won’t bring suits unless victories are guaranteed. But poor people get stampeded because they’re essentially helpless. Taibbi and others call this naked cash-and-carry malpractice “justice by attrition.”

The effects aren’t insignificant. The IMF estimates the 2008 financial implosion took $4 trillion from the world economy, a figure Taibbi calls “very conservative.” We’re all poorer today, so how we spend money reflects our values even more precisely. When we make Food Stamp applicants pee in cups to receive measly grocery assistance, but distribute subsidies so corrupt banks can purchase even more corrupt banks, that says something about us.

Having just reread Homer, I recognize this moral framework. America has adopted Bronze-Age social standards, in which victory, or anyway wealth, is its own justification. Poverty is literally worse than death, and poor people don’t deserve opportunities to redeem themselves. In Plato’s Republic, Thrasymachus declares: “Justice is the advantage of the stronger over the weaker.” Plato means us to reject this claim, but Taibbi shows, that’s exactly American justice today.

Despite brief discursions, Taibbi mostly doesn’t burden himself with explanations. He aims to spur outrage by demonstrating how injustice exists. He focuses on narrative over policy wonkery. However, as an amateur reviewer, I recognize Taibbi’s narrative as consistent with other current books. Readers curious about how these outrages became permissible should consider Göran Therborn and Ian Haney López, for starters. This outrage didn’t just happen; it was built.

Conservative theoreticians claim “rule of law” makes all people equal, and should be upheld. But Taibbi demonstrates that essentially anarchic economic forces have subverted rule of law, making injustice downright commonplace. The very principles upon which America was founded now struggle against wealth so vast, it buys its own justice. We deserve to feel outraged. And feeling that, as Americans, we deserve to act.