Monday, June 30, 2014

Distributism 101

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 35
John C. Médaille, Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits, and More

You can spot what values political types favor by what words they use frequently. Conservative capitalists make “freedom” their mantra, while progressives have recently harped on “inequality.” John Médaille insists both dominant positions get it wrong, that our magic watchword should be “justice.” Médaille’s concise, plain-English introduction to Distributism, a morally motivated economics, upends facile college bromides and forces us to ask what purpose economics serves.

Distributist economic theory begins with a deceptively simple premise: if citizens are nominally free, but lack the means of living independently, that freedom is an illusion. Systems which concentrate land, labor, and money in a scant few bureaucrats’ hands rip life’s means from citizens’ control, moving power up the political pyramid. Importantly, every “mainstream” economic system does this; capitalism and socialism make taxpayers choose which servitude system we prefer.

If your undergraduate economics course resembled mine, you spent countless hours graphing the supply-demand arc or mimicking the NYSE with monopoly money. Médaille demonstrates how these exercises represent ideals, measurable only in retrospect, seldom actually representing minute-by-minute decisions in constantly shifting circumstances. Real economics rarely behaves like textbook exercises, because we make decisions in conditions of incomplete knowledge. Thus we allocate our resources based on values, not mathematics.

These values include a belief that all commodities are equal; that economic forces are self-correcting and ultimately tend toward equilibrium; and that economics has objective scientific weight, like physics. These values all assume individuals exist separately and make wise decisions. Distributist theory, however, holds that individuals are sterile: I may make money, but cannot leave any posterity separate from others. For distributists, the fundamental economic unit is the family.

Distributism, Médaille writes in his second half, makes those values transparent. The illusion of market absolutism obscures the fact that markets arise from laws, traditions, and decisions made long before we had any choice. We make choices daily, unaware how prior actions circumscribe our options. If we privilege individuals over families, economics becomes a mere algebraic representation of our consumption, reducing humans to Pac-Man-like instruments of appetite.

Médaille pinches words familiar to both conservative and progressive readers, but repurposes them to serve his justice-based principles. For instance, he discusses “the ownership society,” a key libertarian precept. But libertarianism, Médaille writes, makes little sense in today’s concentrated wealth conditions. Distributed property ownership authorizes citizens to make wise decisions in consumption, employment, and investment. People without property cannot make free decisions, because they lack means to say no.

Likewise, Medaille lambastes Big Government. But he asserts that Big Industry requires government to stabilize market forces; Médaille’s foe isn’t government, but bigness. Before the New Deal, concentrated capital made economic instability and crippling recession violently commonplace. “Those who wish to scale back the extent of government involvement in the economy,” he writes, “must first analyze the failures in the economy that make heavy government involvement necessary.”

Perhaps most shocking, Médaille demonstrates how concentrated capital creates conditions exactly like notorious Communist systems. By keeping labor divided, but capital connected, workers will accept any work, however meaningless. But without meaning, workers require constant goading. Viewed from within, transnational mega-corporations resemble Soviet labor camps, where good work isn’t rewarded, nor bad work punished, so little work gets done. I can verify this from personal experience.

Dedicated readers will find inevitably find something to hate, especially when Médaille makes proactive suggestions for Distributist reform. He’ll recommend cutting some program you cherish, or shifting tax burdens in ways that bother you, or belittle some public figure you admire. His characterization of federal education policy as “useless” bugged this ex-teacher. But he forced me to examine why I hold that position, refining my position and removing the chaff.

Where capitalists and Marxists maunder over hypothetical ideals, Médaille describes actual distributed economics that could model real-world goals. His favorites, the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation and the regional economy in Emilia-Romagna, show actual distributist precepts in action. Médaille’s vision isn’t some abstract system of goals we might achieve, under mathematically precise conditions. He describes economics that currently exist, that we could apply here and now. And that makes his ideas exciting.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Is America Over?

Bruce Jones, Still Ours to Lead: America, Rising Powers, and the Tension between Rivalry and Restraint

Unfortunately, this book provides an excellent example of how to be completely right, and absolutely wrong, at the same time. It also demonstrates how an excellently researched, thoroughly documented, and useful thesis can vanish beneath the weight of leaden prose. It feels like the rudiments of a good book, waiting for somebody to complete the process, perhaps a translator skilled in rendering dense academese into vernacular English.

Professor Jones of Stanford University and the Brookings Institution has no patience for people lamenting America’s supposed decline from global leadership. He concedes that America’s “only superpower” standing, which existed unchallenged from the Soviet collapse in 1991 to the financial crisis of 2008, will probably never return. But America stands uniquely poised, by its economic might, diplomatic seniority, and military security, to lead humanity through coalition-based influence and guidance.

Jones makes this point concisely in his introduction, then spends the remainder of his book mustering evidence for why we should believe him. There’s where he makes his first mistake. As much as I enjoyed his breviloquent thesis, Jones’ best writing comes in the first eight pages. After that, he opens a firehose of information. Unsurprisingly, from that point, I began flailing around Jones’ undifferentiated prose like a drowning man.

Please don’t mistake me. I’ve grown disgusted with Americans’ propensity to make momentous decisions based on TV-friendly sound bites and context-free factoids. Fox News and MSNBC have reduced our generation’s most important national and international controversies to simplistic bromides. Political candidates build platforms around clichés so anodyne and sparse, they could literally mean anything. I cannot be alone in wanting to base my decisions, as a citizen, on actual information.

But humans think in narrative. The most effective political writers, those who attract large audiences and sell books in today’s book-averse society, have discernable through-lines. From humorists like PJ O’Rourke and Jim Hightower to scholars like Niall Ferguson and Noam Chomsky, successful commentators find the story unifying their message. Jones’ explication reads like a data dump. Without a narrative anchor, I found my mind constantly drifting.

Worse, whenever I successfully processed some informational nugget, I felt something important had been excluded. Jones repeatedly discusses people in the aggregate, particularly when lumping entire nations together for rhetorical impact. In discussing international relations, he overlooks internal circumstances, in America no less than the developing world. His tendency to average nations toward the mean overlooks important impending controversies that could have game-changing consequences in the near future.

To give just one example: mainland China has overtaken Germany and Japan to become Earth’s second largest economy. It could overtake America as early as 2030, an overtaking that travels hand-in-glove with China already supplanting America as Earth’s largest carbon emitter. But don’t worry, Jones assures us; while China and its BRICS allies may overtake us numerically, their per capita economies will never challenge us during our lifetimes.

I say: maybe so. But United Nations statistics indicate that China and the United States compete furiously for which country has Earth’s widest gap between rich and poor. America’s average wealth continues escalating; but wage-earning workers’ real pay has stagnated, in constant dollar terms, since Richard Nixon. Further, the Genuine Progress Indicator, an alternate economic model tallying significant liabilities, shows America’s economy essentially frozen since roughly 1978.

Admittedly, Jones acknowledges significant doubts reasonable readers could apply to his thesis. While America enjoyed unipolar global dominance after the Cold War, our position today is more nuanced, and possibly vulnerable. Jones writes early: “The narrative of decline is in part an inevitable corrective to the overwrought and often hyperbolic punditry about American imperial might that followed the 9/11 attacks and the start of the U.S.-Afghanistan war.”

Jones writes, however, apparently for highly informed audiences already familiar with his domain; amateur but thinking voters evidently don’t interest him. He feels no need to differentiate sweeping quantities of information or contextualize them for non-specialist readers. He simply divulges masses upon masses of data, a technique that probably works for scholars and policy professionals who already understand his context, but leaves curious generalists, like me, confused and overwhelmed.

In his introduction, Jones pitches an energetic, persuasive thesis that America is uniquely positioned, by its wealth, diplomacy, and firepower, to lead international affairs. Not dominate or monopolize, but lead. Reading this, I wanted to believe Jones’ message. But his approach to evidence leaves me overwhelmed. Hey, I’m a knowledgeable guy with an advanced degree. If I can’t find Professor Jones’ through-line, who exactly is he writing for?

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Dark Techno-Comedy of the Soul

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 34
Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

Journalists recently acted astonished to discover economically disfranchised Americans squatting in storage units. Stringers for various newspapers, websites, and broadcast outlets acted aghast to discover people sleeping in uninsulated concrete boxes without electricity, running water, or sanitary sewers. As the chorus of outrage threatened a truly screeching crescendo, I sat back thinking: these people should read more paperback science fiction.

Any synopsis of Neal Stephenson’s star-making novel must begin by recognizing something a mere plot rundown would miss: this is one damned funny novel. Though not plagued with laugh-out-loud silliness, it hints for readers to avoid taking its concepts too seriously: like, the main character is named Hiro Protagonist. Like, he delivers pizza for the Mafia. There’s your clue that, despite Stephenson’s weighty themes, you’re reading a madcap parody.

Hiroaki Protagonist co-wrote the Metaverse code, a digital reality combining the Internet with virtual reality. But corporate interests control his creations; he delivers pizza and squats in a storage unit. When anonymous forces release a virus, Snow Crash, into the Metaverse, systems begin coding a strange new language. Worse, its effects evidently warp the non-digital universe. Hiro must track Snow Crash to its source before becoming its next victim.

Critics have called Stephenson’s writings “baroque” for their structural intricacy and multiple themes; that tendency shines through here. Stephenson arcs forward, toward an extreme vision of fractured America first presented by cyberpunk novelists like William Gibson and Rudy Rucker. Technology has created massive wealth for the connected few, concentrating power into self-governing “burbclaves,” while mercenaries patrol outside streets. Unless you’re rich, in money or technology, society has essentially failed.

But Stephenson also arcs backward. The language created by Snow Crash sounds tantalizingly familiar, something just beyond the reach of recognition. As Hiro unpacks Snow Crash, he begins finding answers hidden in ancient Sumerian and Israelite mythology. Someone is trying to unwrite the Tower of Babel, returning humanity to primordial unity, but a force older than humanity has infiltrated reality’s BIOS system, jeopardizing the firmware stabilizing all of reality.

Thus, on one level, Stephenson satirizes the bleak, unremittingly self-serious dystopias emerging from America’s Death Valley Days. One scene depicts characters wiping their asses on billion-dollar bills, called “Gippers,” because American money has become worthless against Mr. Lee’s Kongbucks, a private issue currency. This directly mocks William Gibson’s strikingly reactionary take on social change under technological pressure. And it’s still funny even if you don’t get the direct reference.

But simultaneously, Stephenson darkly forecasts a grim tendency for societies that slap dollar signs on human worth. Besides those storage unit squatters, he depicts for-profit police forces waging shooting war on impoverished outsiders, hardening their burbclaves into Green Zones amid urban anarchy; “The Raft,” a floating man-made island of stateless boat people carried along global tides; and “the loglo,” a constant pervasive neon advertising radiance numbing dissenters into compliance.

Stephenson imagines a world where all human activity has been reduced to its capitalist utility. Anything we cannot value numerically has no value; therefore concepts like family, justice, and patriotism surrender to employment, order, and brand loyalty. Without unifying principles, he writes, “There’s only four things we do better than anyone else
microcode (software)
high-speed pizza delivery”
In 1992, this was a joke. Not so much now.

Unlike contemporaneous dystopian science fiction (Snow Crash falls broadly into the Reagan-era subgenre called “cyberpunk”), Stephenson also dares address religious issues. In envisioning reality as a complex firmware network, Stephenson necessarily questions the reality of its programmer, and the lengths some believers travel to uncover that programmer’s face. Stephenson’s dark vision of religiosity, merely a satire of Falwell-ish orthodoxy then, bore grim fruit during the George W. Bush administration.

If this book suffers one weakness, it’s surely the ending. Stephenson weaves massively complex elements into his sweeping epic plot; the paperback edition runs to 440 pages. But even at that length, one of Stephenson’s shorter novels, he ends with whiplash abruptness, leaving much unresolved. Maybe that’s deliberate. Maybe he wanted to catapult us back into reality with new philosophical conundrums to resolve. This novel ends still in motion.

More than twenty years after this book debuted, the jarring presence of remarkably accurate forecasts amid almost Monty Python-ish satire gives this book a bracing cold-water impact seldom seen in other well-aged science fiction. Classics by Asimov, Heinlein, Anne McCaffrey, and HG Wells stir our imaginations, but essentially reflect their times. Not so here. The chilling familiarity in Stephenson’s social, technological, and religious themes is still all about us.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Fear Your Children For Fun and Profit

“Moms of America,” the matronly voice intones from the radio, “stand up! And stop taking abuse from your kids.” Several women’s voices follows, “pledging” to squelch their adolescents’ disruptive behavior through the Total Transformation Program, which you can receive, FOR FREE, by calling a toll-free number. Just in time, too, since these moms are “living in fear of my son’s anger” and “letting my child’s behavior ruin my house.”

This ad frequently dominates radio programming in off-peak hours, especially on stations with older base audiences. You’ll also find ads on basic cable’s seedier stations, where promotional rates come cheap. It encourages parents, feeling overwhelmed, to purchase the Total Transformation Program, which markets at $350 outright, plus a further $50 monthly for 24-hour on-call support. Customer reviews on assorted websites suggest purchasers either wholly love or outright hate this program.

Quite apart from whether the program works (feedback from child development professionals is decidedly mixed), the ad’s content makes my skin crawl. By characterizing adolescent rebellion as “abuse,” it encourages customers to regard their own children as enemies, and their behavior not as bad conduct, but as relationship violence. It forces us to re-examine a word we often throw around somewhat flippantly. What, exactly, is “abuse”?

Consider other situations we call “abuse.” We may say that parents abuse their children, either through action or neglect, and adults in peer relationships may behave abusively. Capitalists, politicians, and media figures may abuse their authority. We also speak of “parental abuse” or “elder abuse” when grown children exploit or maltreat elderly parents in their care. Abuse happens when the powerful selfishly or maliciously misuse authority over peers or subordinates.

Teenagers and dependent youths have no authority. Mostly-grown kids descend into oppositional defiant behavior because they recognize that autonomy exists, and they don’t have it, but they don’t understand why. They rebel, lashing out in ways they’ll regret in only five or seven years, because they have no other visible options. Teenage tantrums occur because kids lack power, even over themselves. How, then, can they abuse anybody?

Short of outright violence, teenagers cannot abuse their parents, because they have only what authority their parents bestow. Kids may disrupt their homes and act like royal shits, but because parents have the ability to close access to autonomy, childhood revolt has limited shelf life. Your rebellious kid may exit the house stomping, but when dinnertime rolls around and restaurants prove prohibitively expensive, expect many tear-streaked apologies, and soon.

How, then, to interpret Total Transformation’s advertising campaign? Parents certainly fear their children’s temper, especially today, when economics and culture have extended the arc of infantile dependence well into adulthood. Many “children” remain reliant on their parents’ financial support, even long after they have their own spouses and kids. If sixteen-year-olds balk at living under their parents’ roof, try telling them they’ll still be there when they turn thirty.

Instead of accepting adolescent rebellion as a necessary stage of impending maturity, Total Transformation encourages parents to consider it “abuse.” When we speak of child abuse, spousal abuse, or abuse of public trust, we’re describing prosecutable crimes. Unless, again, a teen’s misconduct escalates to violence, it misses this fundamental criterion. Yet Total Transformation encourages us to think in those terms, and it’s a short step from thinking to action.

While teenage misbehavior is hardly mandatory, it’s certainly common. Many kids must defy authority to understand why authority circumscribes their behavior. They need firsthand experience to recognize that rules exist for their protection, not to oppress or limit them. While some youth accept authority figures’ benevolent intentions, or find productive ways to assert their individual identity, others need a few bruises to grasp why they must limit their youthful impulses.

Instead, Total Transformation encourages parents to see defiant kids as criminals, foes whose lawlessness they must crush. They conflate compliance with goodness, resistance with evil. Docile, obedient kids are your allies; angry, lippy kids are invading barbarians who upset your stable home. Give us your personal phone, credit card information, and trust, they say, and we’ll teach you how to silence your children like the villains they are.

Back in the 1980s, various behavior modification programs offered to reprogram rebellious teenagers. Bad grades, crude language, and routine rule-breaking were redefined, often by non-specialists, as diagnostic of significant mental disorders. Kids got institutionalized for (no kidding) not loving their parents enough. The AMA and the National Institutes of Health called these programs “child abuse,” their graduates not so much obedient as suffering Stockholm Syndrome.

Whether Total Transformation’s program actually resurrects these attitudes, I don’t know. Some parents swear by it. But Total Transformation’s advertising actively courts the same mentality, the assumption that parents should effortlessly manage kids’ actions, that motivated torture facilities like Tranquility Bay. By encouraging parents to view their own children as enemies and criminals, I fear this campaign presages much grimmer trends in mental health.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Psi

Marcus Sakey, A Better World (The Brilliance Saga, Book Two)

This review follows the prior review X-Men, G-Men, X-Files, Gee Whiz!

The Children of Darwin, a utopian terrorist organization of super-gifted genetic savants, manages to paralyze three major American cities. Nick Cooper, a former government agent whose fearlessness brought down an administration, gets drafted by the new President to help halt the escalating violence. But when he uncovers his own inadvertent responsibility, high office cannot shield his conscience. With two beautiful women’s aid, Cooper must go off the grid to resist the growing grip of anarchy.

Marcus Sakey’s prior book, Brilliance, combined science fiction, spy thriller, and political intrigue in ways that made readers re-evaluate the familiar stereotypes. It kept readers guessing, constantly throwing everything we thought we understood into doubt. Sakey tries to repeat that volume’s success, but in exactly the same way, meaning repeat readers will spot alleged twists a mile away. We start to wonder: if we saw that coming, why did Cooper, a supposed supergenius, get snookered?

Beginning around 1980, a generation of virtuosos was born, the so-called Brilliants. Less charitable citizens call them “abnorms” or “twists,” and their extreme mental abilities have earned them lasting enmity. Sakey established this backstory in his first volume, and briefly restates it here, so new readers can jump in cold. Sakey also established an important truth for Cooper, his viewpoint antihero: as Motown taught us, smiling faces tell lies. Sadly, Cooper appears a slow study.

Reviewing espionage thrillers provides unique challenges, because the elaborate, cantilevered plots are vulnerable to spoilers. So rather than recounting the plot, I’ll share my responses. Like first, conspiracy theories depend on the expectation that large groups essentially function much like small groups. Except they don’t. As Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” Sakey’s entire plot would collapse if one terrorist sympathizer simply had an attack of conscience.

Worse, Sakey attempts the exact narrative twist-n-shout his first novel played well. Twice in the first novel, Cooper realized everything he believed was wrong. He’d committed acts of extreme violence, to support what he later learned was a lie. It shocked us once. This time, when he repeats the kind of strongarm tactics that America should’ve abandoned following revelations of Abu Ghraib, Cooper just looks thick. We await the big reveal Cooper frankly should’ve anticipated.

Near the midpoint, Cooper bridles when his sometime girlfriend, a terrorist moll herself, calls him “a stormtrooper.” But she’s not wrong. Cooper uses kidnapping, intimidation, and violence to support his vision of rectitude, treating law as an impediment to weaklings. He evidently believes that, if he’s morally right, any action, however anarchistic, is perforce justified. This Nietzschean bosh-and-twaddle might hold water in John Birch meetings, but regular Americans will recognize it for garden variety fascism.

Nor is Cooper alone in this attitude. Elsewhere, several ranking bureaucrats loiter around the Oval Office, watching riots unfold in Cleveland. They repeatedly blame the Children of Darwin for the escalating violence, claiming it legitimizes posse comitatus civil crackdowns. But whatever the original cause, the COD didn’t proximally start these riots; they began when police fired tear gas into crowds of unarmed protesters. When this happened in Tahrir Square, the developed world was justifiably outraged.

In a parallel narrative, geneticist Ethan Park, his wife, and their daughter, attempt to flee a Cleveland increasingly beset by violence, starvation, and paranoia. Sakey establishes immediately how much we should like Ethan because, in his first scene, he can’t buy baby formula. Everything goes from bad to worse for the Parks, a cascade of constant heartbreak and catastrophe. Ethan’s tale follows the beat breakdown in Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder’s annoyingly ubiquitous screenwriting guide.

I hesitate to say what comes next, but I must: Sakey’s narrative precisely embodies the kind of separatist phobia that propagates in mass media like shower curtain mold whenever a Democrat is elected President. Whatever Sakey’s personal politics (which I don’t know), the extreme anti-government sentiment and lone-wolf moralism feel familiar, from The X-Files during the Clinton years to The Fugitive during Camelot. Coupled with Snyder’s beat breakdown, Sakey’s story plays to existing media-driven paranoia.

Between his totalitarian philosophy and store-bought narrative arc, Sakey manages to undermine all goodwill he purchased with this series’ first volume. If I gave you that first book, Snyder’s guide, and any randomly selected season of Kiefer Sutherland’s popular right-wing action series 24, you could write this book yourself. Sakey’s first volume managed to set high standards in an admittedly repetitive genre, upending wheezy old boilerplates. This second volume embodies everything the first volume demolished.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The New American Urbanism

Lance Jay Brown, David Dixon, & Oliver Gillham, Urban Design for an Urban Century: Shaping More Livable, Equitable, and Resilient Cities

The years from 1950 to 2000 saw massive increases in America’s suburban infrastructure. While our inner cities withered from neglect, anyone who could afford to leave, fled to spacious towns, many hastily erected, where every house had large lawns, and zoning regulations separated housing, work, and commerce. Americans embraced the Levittown model, aided by cheap petroleum and generous government assistance.

But in 2010, for the first time since the Depression, America’s largest cities grew. They outgrew an infrastructure unprepared to handle them, and they grew faster than urban designers had any plans for. For the first time in three generations, Americans want the urban life, and will accept close quarters to achieve it. But America’s urban leaders need to design cities amenable to young, upwardly mobile residents, a semi-lost skill.

Suburbanism, this book asserts, has always been an essentially American phenomenon. Where European and Canadian cities built compactly after World War II, and poorer countries never had resources for car-dependent suburbanism, America embraced spacious postwar utopian ideas regarding space use. That’s why Americans burn nearly a quarter of Earth’s petroleum: because without it, our diffuse cities, with their single-use neighborhoods and looping street layouts, are just too damn big.

Early on, this book quotes Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier, whose influence primarily echoed in America, and who championed spacious semi-urbanism’s “towers in a park” model, on why people hate built-up urban streets: “Our hearts are always oppressed by the constriction of its enclosing walls.” But fifty years of history have disproved this claim. Close-build urban streets give public life definition. Shapeless suburbanism alienates people, turning every household into a fortress.

But the Millennial Generation has rejected this suburban pattern. Propelling themselves around cul-de-sacs in hermetically sealed, carbon-burning cars has lost its appeal. Educated young Americans want to live in neighborhoods where home, work, commerce, and recreation co-exist within a few minutes’ walk. And cities which provide this quality of life have unique ability to attract and retain young innovators and knowledge industry workers. Briefly put, young Americans want city life.

Our authors note that a substantial shift in perception happened around 2008: the number of people signing massive suburban mortgages dropped off, while urban downtowns began a measurable resurgence. Owning land matters less than owning opportunity. They avoid assigning reasons, but the conclusion seems inescapable: when housing markets tanked, Americans decided tying their net worth to housing values was foolish. Essentially, the banks torpedoed a half-century of rambling suburban sprawl.

Those communities which build spaces where people want to live, will see economic growth, cultural abundance, and environmental healing in coming years. Those which don’t, won’t. This means rehabilitating existing urban cores, building new cores where none previously existed, and keeping fingers on society’s pulse. Our authors quote the designers behind recent renovations in Pittsburg: “Strengthening and protecting physical characteristics that support identity should be an integral purpose of zoning.”

This move inward will create significant dislocations very soon. Our authors quote statistics that urban neighborhoods will face a shortfall of sixteen million housing units by 2030. New demand will boost prices, driving “urban poor” into suburbs, where housing prices are already collapsing. This reverse ghetto-ism will lock American poor into car-dependent poverty. Unless governments, private developers, and voters act soon, we’ll see a radical realignment of American poverty.

But we have an opportunity, unseen since the Eisenhower years, to realign American society. Our authors provide examples, lushly illustrated, of cities which have rebuilt for pedestrians and mass transit. Former commuter towns have narrowed roads, inserted streetcars, and become desirable destinations. This book offers practical primers on how public-private partnerships, activists, and preservationists are actively reshaping American cities into places people really want to live, right now.

This book isn’t for everybody. Its squarish, two-column format and $85 MSRP reflect that it was written as a textbook. People encountering urban design principles and the necessities of public space use for the first time will find this book intimidating. For those readers, I recommend Jeff Speck’s Walkable City, which this book quotes approvingly. It recasts these authors’ admittedly dense principles in plain English for non-specialists and neophytes.

But for readers already familiar with the debate, this text provides up-to-date statistics, lavishly illustrated examples, and a thorough explication not just of how we could address these problems, but how some cities already have. Architecture students, city councils, and public advocates should familiarize themselves with this book. It provides important keys to building environmentally secure, economically stable cities where people actually want to live.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Right-Wing Romance and the Media Machine Mess

Michael Smerconish, Talk: A Novel

Political pundits and novelists communicate in completely different ways. Pundits explain everything unambiguously, because they need informed audiences; mass media pundits explain everything repeatedly, because they cannot expect today’s audience saw yesterday’s show. Novelists make choices regarding what merits the audience’s time. Michael Smerconish isn’t the first pundit to attempt novel writing. And he isn’t the first to write new styles in old, wrong, mind-numbing ways.

Stan Powers dominates drive-time talk radio in Tampa, Florida. But Powers has a secret: he’s a moderate-minded political neophyte named Stanislaw Pawlowski. He created the far-right Powers persona for the media influence and six-figure salary. When circumstance gives his I-4 Corridor audience control of a presidential election, Powers becomes an unintentional kingmaker. He must decide: does his high-powered, high-salaried job justify submarining the only woman he’s ever loved?

Smerconish, a former Republican media kingfish whose conscience unseated him in 2008, seems uniquely poised to tell this story. It’s impossible to say how specifically autobiographical Smerconish’s novel is, though it probably reflects his own Obama-era reinvention as a moderate. Unfortunately, he writes like a pundit. Nothing keeps happening, because Smerconish spends chapter after chapter unwinding Powers’ intricate backstory, emphasizing his lies and pricy self-renovation. His story never quite starts.

Pawlowski’s twenty-year career in classic rock radio taught him important interview skills. Rule Number One: let the subjects talk, they’ll give you enough rope to hang them later. Pure luck drops Pawlowski into his Powers role. $300,000 annually stifles Pawlowski’s moral qualms, at first; but with unprecedented authority to sway national affairs, and platoons of single-issue voters hanging off his every word, Powers increasingly doubts his cocky ratings-driven agenda.

Rather than let Powers’ story unfold through action and dialogue, Smerconish permits Powers, our first-person narrator, to engage in really, really long expository discursions. To cite just one example, over twenty years ago, Pawlowski had a summer fling which changed his life. But the story takes so long, and plays to such an inevitably “surprising” final reveal, that once it finally arrives, seasoned readers have grown bored waiting.

The resulting long, talky tone isn’t helped by Smerconish’s cast of thousands. Besides Powers, we get his studio entourage and corporate overlords; the full, detailed slate of Republican and Democratic challengers; Powers’ friends; his current and former loves; and a walk-on ensemble of Tea Party stereotypes so interchangeable, Powers never learns their names. Make notes on the endpaper, because nobody could manage Smerconish’s massive, intricate retinue without a cheat sheet.

And Smerconish, an attorney, inexplicably makes Powers a college washout and semi-reformed slacker. Smerconish’s attempts at Powers’ faux Beatnik rap mainly involve intrusive cuss words and frequent references to Powers’ sexual history. Smerconish—educated, married, moderate—sounds really fakey spinning Powers’ self-taught, reprobate, conservative argot. We can forgive this as inexperience, but then we ask: is Smerconish’s character building, and by extension his fiction, even necessary?

Despite my qualms, Smerconish offers plenty of red meat in his rambling, discursive story. Powers’ authority has covered his conscience like burn scars. He, and his corporate masters, cynically disparage the listeners who pay his bills, and he carefully swallows any hint of nuance. Powers admits his casual misogyny, and covert racism percolates beneath that. Powers’ descent into opportunism, and his slowly reawakening conscience, are certainly timely.

Yet one wonders why Smerconish wrote a novel. There’s nothing particularly novel-ish about Powers’ struggles, especially if Powers is Smerconish’s thinly disguised confessional mouthpiece. Many former über-Republican professionals, like John Perkins and David Brock, have published well-received conversion memoirs. Smerconish, whose hybrid positions have made him one of the few pundits to guest-host both Fox News and MSNBC, could’ve told his own story and sold a million.

Smerconish offers copious thoughts and controversies regarding the far-right media chorus he formerly occupied. Both politicians and pundits, he writes, “get rewarded for simplicity and lack of independent thought.” I believe him. But as a novel, this book feels like a contrivance chugging slowly and going nowhere. Smerconish would rather lecture his readers than create characters or situations. He’d rather pontificate than tell a story. And we can tell.

At almost exactly the halfway mark, Stan has a bizarre encounter that mainly lets him reminisce, flinging fist-sized clods of backstory, while obstructing the narrative altogether. He finally asks himself: “What the fuck just happened?” I felt likewise. Around page 160 (of 270), Stan commences yet another unnecessarily long, detailed exposition, and I tossed the book disgustedly on the table. Now I can’t bring myself to pick it up again.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Why I Can't Watch Big Bang Anymore

So when the new guy, “Nelson,” arrived at work wearing a Green Lantern t-shirt, I assumed maybe he just considered himself “in on the joke.” It wouldn’t be the last superhero logo shirt he wore. Like Leonard and Sheldon, Nelson obviously retained childlike wonder at the prospect of ordinary people using extraordinary powers in pursuit of common justice. I thought: maybe this guy and I could be friends.

The shine wore off that apple quickly. About my age, Nelson showed little interest in making male friends. Instead, his attention soon centered on one pretty Hispanic co-worker, whom we’ll call “Daniela.” Though he verbally protested that he had no romantic interest in her because she’s too young—and that’s true—Nelson’s muscularly intrusive attention became both unambiguous and disruptive. And it began wearing on Daniela.

Nelson would talk to her, which maybe sounds sweet, except he’d barge into conversations or shout over people’s heads to do so. Whenever the line stopped, instead of finding alternate work to remain occupied, he’d thrust himself into Daniela’s personal space, insisting on her attention, talking much too loud or singing along with Cool Disco-era love songs off the radio. Basically, he appeared to be attempting to wear her down.

The CBS television network recently took the unusual step of renewing The Big Bang Theory, the highest-rated sitcom since Seinfeld ended, for an eighth, ninth, and tenth season simultaneously, securing it a place on TV at least through 2017. Fans and TV professionals lionize this show for its broad reach and its popularization of fringe “nerd” culture. I’ve written four essays on how TBBT resonates with core human psychological forces.

But someone (I’ve forgotten who) recently asserted that TBBT is secretly creepy. The central relationship from the pilot episode, that between experimental physicist Leonard and aspiring actress Penny, begins with him forcing himself into her company. Penny’s initial, visible discomfort with Leonard’s affection gives way to acceptance; the seventh season ended with Penny accepting Leonard’s marriage proposal.

I rolled my eyes when first reading that opinion. Everybody knows it’s a sweet sitcom about goofy characters who lack social skills, just trying to fit in. Yeah, I thought that… until I saw somebody who apparently considers Leonard’s in-yer-face courtship technique a how-to guide. Nelson uses many of Leonard’s approaches, not least claiming to be Daniela’s friend to insinuate himself into her life, though anyone can read his intent.

Real life makes this dynamic un-funny really, really quickly

Without scriptwriters to ensure that Leonard’s surrogate is essentially harmless, and our stand-in Penny remains okay with his attention, the humor wears off the dynamic really quickly. Daniela clearly doesn’t want Nelson’s attention; when he’s thrusting himself into her space, monopolizing her time, she looks distinctly uncomfortable. Daniela’s reactions to Nelson’s behavior has progressed from bemused, to nervous, to recently looking out-and-out terrified.

Worse, Nelson remains doggedly immune to advice. When he first began mugging for Daniela, several of us warned him that she, and other women on the line, were flashing fear reactions. Nelson’s exaggerated behavior elicited giggles and laughter from Daniela. However, she never looked happy. Another co-worker warned: “They’re not laughing with you, they’re laughing at you.” But I’ve realized something far worse is afoot in Daniela’s reaction.

Many women who’ve been encultured to play beta roles to men often laugh when feeling threatened or intimidated. You’ll often see this in Spanish-speaking cultures, which have theatrically macho tendencies. Daniela frequently laughs at Nelson’s aggressive clowning, but it’s a tight-lipped laugh, her eyes wide rather than crinkly, her gaze carefully locked on him rather than throwing her head back heedlessly. Poor Daniela practically broadcasts fear signals, which Nelson ignores.

Early on, audiences accepted Leonard’s forceful behavior, and Penny’s visible retreat, because scriptwriters thoughtfully included Howard Wolowitz. Where Leonard appears merely clueless, Wolowitz’s early behavior looks actively threatening. But because he’s vanishingly small, Penny’s rejections essentially neuter Wolowitz’s menace. Notice that when Wolowitz meets Bernadette, his future wife, the writers soften Leonard’s behavior. Without a foil to alleviate our perceptions, Leonard’s initial comportment would look far less funny.

*sigh* I'll miss you, buddy
Nelson has made me aware how pervasive behavior white-collar types would consider “sexual harassment” is in blue-collar environments. Men touching women without consent, or looming into their space, is widespread. Though I’ve never seen anything overtly assaultive, Freudian behavior like tickling and poking is common. And management cannot crack down on one person without enforcing rules on everybody, which would turn time-consuming and disruptive very, very quickly.

Leonard looks harmless because writers carefully script his clueless flirtations, and ensemble characters offset his creepiness. Nelson must improvise, and nobody supports or deflects his behavior. Watching Nelson’s attempts to court a woman who’s completely uninterested, but fears flatly saying “no,” is like watching a slow-motion car wreck. Worse, he’s demonstrated why TBBT is secretly horrifying. And I can’t go back; what I’ve seen, I cannot unsee.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Swords and Sorcerers on the Sunset Strip

Greg van Eekhout, California Bones

Daniel Blackland, son of wizardry, wants none of his legendary father’s power. He watched the Hierarch of Southern California eat his father’s flesh to steal his power, so Daniel lives outside society, a penny-ante grifter keeping quiet. When a state traitor offers him the chance to burgle the Hierarch’s wizarding storehouse, though, Daniel gets his old gang back together for one last job. He only discovers too late how many lies pretty smiles can conceal.

I ought to hate this book. The author uses so many wheezy fantasy stereotypes that it resembles a genre checklist: the Boy Who Lived, magical genetic engineering pioneered by Jeff VanderMeer, even the apocalyptic confrontation common from Rowling, Tolkein, and every Holy Writ ever. Van Eekhout name-checks every fantasy cliché that ever existed. Yet I stayed up late to finish this book, genuinely concerned about these characters and their conflict. This novel surpasses its boilerplates.

Daniel, our hero, comes from a long line of osteomancers: bone wizards, who extract power from ancient fossils. Unfortunately, the most powerful magic creatures are long extinct, their fossils almost depleted, and the Hierarch has started consuming his subjects to prolong his magically extended reign. If the symbolism sounds pointed, I won’t disagree; on a superficial level, van Eekhout has written a very political novel. But the real allegory runs much deeper, defying flippant summary.

Van Eekhout’s vision of Hollyweird excess, the jagged gulfs between sunny SoCal mythology and high desert reality, suggests he’s deliberately creating the Great American Fantasy Novel. His brisk storytelling, backed by convincingly breezy Los Angeles speech rhythms, suggest a vision more ambitious than yet another sword-and-sorcery adventure. Daniel Blackland’s very existence outside the system threatens existing power structures. Corporations and kings fear his individuality. When society values subservience, van Eekhout subtly declares, originality is treason.

Los Angeles icons, from William Mulholland to Walt Disney, populate this story, their lives artificially prolonged, careers dedicated to upholding the Hierarch’s status quo. (Van Eekhout uses the word Hierarch frequently. You do the math.) This techno-feudal bureaucracy conceals true power: the Hierarch appears only at either end of this novel. By keeping the people entertained, satiated, and confused, this invisible government maintains a pecking order Angelenos cannot question, because it has become completely invisible.

When a rogue agent helps Daniel’s crew infiltrate the Ossuary, the storehouse of bones that keeps the Hierarch alive and enthroned, we realize somebody’s lying. It’s a waiting game to discover who. Ordinary relationships—Daniel’s ability to make friends and truly love—have political implications he cannot see, except in hindsight. Seasoned fantasy readers expect betrayal, conspiracy, and that final, Voldemort-ish confrontation. Van Eekhout delivers every plot point genre readers expect, but in subversive ways.

In a parallel narrative, Inspector Gabriel Argent unearths Daniel’s plan, taking his discoveries to the authorities. Gabriel is everything Daniel is not: magicless, compliant, cozy with authority. But for reasons too intricate to restate, Gabriel finds himself fleeing his state employers while his city burns. Gabriel wants ordinariness, but finds that if he doesn’t rebel, something inside him slowly dies. His desire for a blandly peaceful life seemingly contains the seeds of its own destruction.

Thus, van Eekhout’s message. The cop who can’t remain loyal to forces keeping him subservient and ignorant. The hero who tries to live a normal life, but finds himself pulled inexorably toward something greater. Van Eekhout builds a heroic fantasy around sunny Left Coast mythology, but this isn’t about some alternate California, with wizards brewing bones under the Santa Monica pier. Something important dies, he warns, when loyal citizens submissively refuse to step outside ourselves.

Not that it isn’t also a rollicking fantasy. Van Eekhout spins a heist yarn, with relatably flawed antiheroes keeping barely ahead of unimaginable, but invisible, evil they only partly understand. He dribbles out familiar fantasy tropes, they suddenly upends our expectations, or blindsides us with Poe-level grotesqueries that never become quite ordinary. Readers who don’t share van Eekhout’s anti-authoritarian philosophy can nevertheless enjoy sudden bouts of action, magical confrontations, and plenty of juicily scary monsters.

But van Eekhout isn’t satisfied giving us what we already know. In an era when organized traditionalists apparently fight for the right to serve their corporate overlords, van Eekhout reminds readers that humans exist apart from the machines that grind us. The forces of uniform blandness dominating public life, and the bought-and-paid-for legislators who serve them, want you to shut up. Van Eekhout says we become human only when we rise and break our chains.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Air, Soil, and Water—the Hard Choices Await

Robin Attfield, Environmental Ethics: An Overview for the Twenty-First Century

As I write, many locations near my prairie hometown had their earliest 100-degree spring days ever, following a winter alternating between arctic cold and appallingly dry warmth. While media pundits dither over he-said/she-said fake debates and false equivalencies, global warming is unfolding mainly as scientists anticipated. Plus we can’t drink our well water anymore, while ragweed and toxic black mold grow everywhere. We’re overdue for serious planning.

Welsh ethicist Robin Attfield lays out the terms in current and imminent debates surrounding environmental change so we can engage the issues in real, not TV, terms. Because so many venues have reduced important debates to personalities and profiles, Attfield’s intricate definitions of terms serve valuable corrective measures. While his academic prose sometimes runs to impenetrability, his attempts to clarify humanity’s top global issue is both timely and welcome.

First, this isn’t a scientific text. Though evidence-based scientific reasoning remains dismally rare in climate debates, Attfield focuses, as his title implies, on ethical concerns: not possible options, but good options. For instance, what are we saving the earth for? Do we defend the environment for humanity’s sake, or because species and habitats have intrinsic value before humans arrive? Why we save the earth colors how we save the earth.

Organized environmental responses have been historically circumscribed by near-term thinking. Not only large-scale polluters, whose motivations are widely known, but even environmental activists have maintained narrow horizons. Banning coal-burning power plants would alleviate some problems, but at what human cost? Would carbon capture technologies fix global problems, or just create new incentives to thoughtless consumerism? Easy answers aren’t forthcoming. Ethical environmentalism requires seeing empirical evidence, and seeing beyond it, too.

Cost-benefit analysis has its detractors. Back in the 1990s, a famous poll indicated Americans would support environmental reforms “at any cost”—a position Americans rapidly walked back when real costs revealed themselves. Attfield recognizes every human action has moral implications; we do nothing abstractly, but rather, every choice forecloses on other choices. He persuasively argues that tools for morally uplifting decision-making exist, if we would just use them.

Attfield has no interest in climate change deniers. He spends no particular time debating whether global warming, soil salinization, water pollution, and other environmental catastrophes are really happening; like north of ninety-seven percent of climate scientists, he simply takes these issues as proven. But how to answer these issues is far less obvious. Simply saying “don’t do these destructive things” isn’t good enough, because ramifications echo down the line.

We’re not, say, in any position to abandon carbon-burning technology yet. How, then to ameliorate the damage atmospheric carbon does to global temperatures and UV rates? Economic measures, like Cap’n Trade, essentially permit rich capitalists to hoard pollution credits, ensuring the status quo perseveres for those with money. Horse-drawn idealism likewise punishes those who cannot afford it. Where do human interests and environmental necessity converge, or do they?

As just this one example, among Attfield’s many, demonstrates, obvious answers generally prove unsatisfactory. Because environmental degradation distributes its consequences blindly across the globe, we cannot think in national, regional, or class-based terms. Attfield spends entire chapters on global citizenship, in the old Jeffersonian ideal of “citizenship,” because we cannot life with blinders on any longer. We must, individually and together, act for the future we will eventually inhabit.

Don’t undertake this book flippantly. Attfield dedicates his largest effort to defining terms. Sometimes, in areas of empirical scientific discoveries, this is fairly easy. But in areas science cannot easily designate, definitions must expand to include controversial ideas and conflicting viewpoints. Attfield strives to remain scrupulously fair, and though he excludes ignorance merchantry and flat-earth pseudoscience, he struggles to include every legitimate disputant in his intellectual landscape.

Therefore, many concepts cable news treats as concise and unchallenged, Attfield examines from diverse viewpoints. Readers weaned on facile binary TV debates may find Attfield’s nuanced, philosophically dense approach overwhelming. Hey, I read philosophy, and I find Attfield very difficult. But he’s addressing very, very difficult problems, which grow more difficult with prolonged inaction. Mass-media debates prolong dialog while encouraging passivity. Attfield’s difficult philosophy empowers us to act.

I’d like to pause and acknowledge this book’s publisher. British-based Polity has established itself as a top-ranked masthead for international philosophy, political science, and history. I’ve recently reviewed several Polity titles, by distinguished authors like Paddy Scannell, Christian Ingrao, and Jacques Lacan. By publishing (or re-publishing) some of today’s most important authors, they truly improve today’s global intellectual climate. They’re truly doing noble work.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Spiritual Fruits and Religious Nuts

Martin Thielen, The Answer to Bad Religion Is Not No Religion: A Guide to Good Religion for Seekers, Skeptics, and Believers

We’ve all seen bad religion in practice. Whether we’ve gotten burned by self-righteous judgmentalism, inflexible anti-modernism, or political drum-banging, even the most spiritual among us have gotten burned by bad religion. We’ve probably felt the temptation to abandon religion altogether. Fully one-fifth of Americans today admit of no religious affiliation. With so many pressures demanding our attention, it’s easy to walk away.

Reverend Martin Thielen begins this book discussing how the Christian denomination where he formerly pastored became entrenched in nationalism, gay-bashing, and anti-semitism. (He doesn’t name the denomination, but his official bio states his former affiliation with the Southern Baptist conference.) He, too, considered walking away. But he reveals his thesis in his title: he reinvented himself as a Methodist minister and strove to define what constitutes good religion today.

Most of those religiously unaffiliated persons, called “nones” in social science parlance, retain some inclination toward spirituality. Irreligion is on the rise, but not necessarily unbelief. Many still crave connection with transcendent principles, but feel alienated from institutions of worship. They’ve grown tired of absolutism, but believe something awaits them beyond material life. Congregations can reclaim these wanderers by emphasizing formerly common faith virtues like hope, community, and service.

This book isn’t fundamentally about faith. Thielen doesn’t entice unbelievers to change their ways. Rather, Thielen writes about religion, that is, about the communal practices that arise when people sharing faith come together. Spiritual crowds, like any other crowds, can become toxic, perpetuating base impulses and rebuffing outsiders. But when religious congregations reclaim the open, generous spirit that attracted early converts, the spiritually hungry will rejoin our table.

Moreover, though Thielen comes from a Protestant Christian background, the principles he identifies aren’t specific to any religion. New converts accept their faith because it provides guidance to their lives. Believing brings joy. Acts of worship which unify communities of believers can nourish that joy, or smother it. Unfortunately, no checklist exists of which behaviors have which consequences; Thielen encourages us to constantly reëxamine our actions, considering their consequences.

Examining which prevailing behaviors alienate, and which unite, Thielen manages to establish certain patterns. The alienating behaviors will surprise nobody. Citing Anne Rice’s famous 2010 declaration that “in the name of Christ, I quit Christianity,” he acknowledges we’ve all been there. We’ve all shared that feeling, that our fellow travelers don’t represent our beliefs. But quitting is a feeble choice, sundering communities and discouraging deeper spiritual thought. Surrender solves nothing.

Instead, Thielen insists, religious communities must recommit to principles that nourish believers’ joy. We become believers because religion prompts action, challenges evil, strengthens bonds, and encourages creativity.. Briefly, converts accept their faith and practice their religion because they want to improve this life. Blessings of heaven and terrors of hell have their appropriate place; but we believe because believing provides architecture to this life, not to the next.

Therefore, Thielen prompts, with solid Biblical backing, that we constantly revisit our choices, as individual believers and as congregations. He provides benchmarks for which behaviors uplift communities, which tear them down. We must, Thielen says, expunge arrogance, negativity, and partisanship; we must promote love, service, and forgiveness. Only those religions which hearten the soul and guide the life will survive the buffets of today’s negativistic, increasingly factional society.

Besides this book itself, Thielen has also released a Leader’s Guide and Outreach Kit. Coupled with his very short chapters, these indicate Thielen intends this volume for small-group study. I endorse and embrace this purpose, because a collection of church leaders, interested volunteers, or spiritual seekers could correlate this book to existing Biblical and denominational principles. One hopes such students, collaborating closely, could renew the religious virtues Thielen extols.

Not that Thielen’s exegesis is perfect. Indulge my recurring peeve, but Thielen’s examples run very, very short. Because he expects readers to consume each chapter essentially separately, few illustrations exceed few pages. Thielen avoids the two worst manifestations of pastoral brevity, the transcribed sermon and the moral list, which pleases me; he spends time on his examples. I just wish he carried examples beyond one chapter, avoiding the patchwork texture.

Midway along, Thielen quotes Oxford’s Cognition, Theology, and Religion Project, an interdisciplinary venture that has demonstrated humans’ innate religious inclination. If we believe the CRT Project, we must accept that not everyone shares that inclination. Thielen doesn’t attempt to ultimately prove religion or foreclose on unbelieving worldviews. He simply strives to create an intellectual space where rational belief is possible. If that is your goal, Thielen clearly succeeds.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Sing To Me, O Muse!

Homer (Barry B. Powell, translator), The Odyssey

The biggest lesson I draw from Barry Powell’s new translation of Homer’s Odyssey, is how decorous and moralistic it isn’t. I haven’t read the Odyssey since the Norton Critical Edition in 9th Grade, and like most schoolbook translations of Greek myth, that used indirection and euphemism to insert starchy Victorian morality into ancient texts. But Greece didn’t have binary, good-vs-evil ethics like Israel or Rome. Judeo-Christian principles need not apply.

Powell, an American classicist and demythifying philologist, depicts Odysseus as a truly Greek hero. His moral code rests on one quintessentially Greek precept: winners win. Period. Odysseus lies to serve his advantage. He uses physical violence against the weak and powerless. While Penelope remains chaste, awaiting her husband’s return, Odysseus sleeps with Kalypso for eight years. Sure, Homer says it’s forced, but it serves his ends, so why stop now?

Nietzsche meant this when he extolled “the will to power.” Unencumbered by Platonic philosophy or Christian humility, knowing that Hades erases all human distinctions, Odysseus has one opportunity for immortality. Only by winning, by making himself mythic, will mortals remember him hereafter. This eliminates false pretenses of meekness, politesse, or charity. Odysseus wins, by Zeus, which is why you’re reading this review 2,800 years later.

This new translation eschews the self-conscious poetry of translators from Chapman to Fagles, focusing instead on capturing the stirring emotion this text originally inflamed in Greek audiences. This reflects a thesis that pervades Powell’s career: he believes ancient Greeks loved Homer so much, they invented alphabetic writing just to preserve his poetry. Powell’s idea remains controversial, yet reading this muscular, tenacious translation, one could believe that’s true.

Powell situates Homer in his time, when mysterious ancient ruins made living humans feel small. Singing myths of bygone eras gave Homeric civilization meaning. Powell uses linguistic clues to posit a very thin biography for Homer; through process of elimination, he places Homer at Euboea in the Ninth Century BCE. Though acknowledging the ongoing controversies surrounding Homer’s identity, and even existence, Powell nevertheless hangs a persuasive biography on plausible premises.

Set in the waning days of mythological Mycenaean civilization, the Odyssey reflects ancient belief in even ancienter greatness. Odysseus embodies values that seem strange to us, yet tweak our primordial tendons. Kings rule because innate greatness gives them moral authority over the weak. Gods dispense good and evil by turns, for reasons beyond human ken. Heroes are not born; divine blessing and human effort conspire to turn mere mortals heroic.

Corollary to mythological greatness, all change equals decline. While Odysseus performs heroic feats to return home, an indolent cadre of “suitors” occupy his house, putatively wooing his wife. But the spend their days drinking wine, eating roasted meats, and apparently playing bocce ball. In Powell’s translation, these scenes have a “you kids get off my lawn” cantankerousness, verified when Odysseus rewards their sensuous mooching with swift, violent death.

Homer’s Odysseus isn’t removed from us only in time. He’s fundamentally different from ourselves, occupying a culture, a moral space, that doesn’t resemble ours. You don’t read the Odyssey; you vanish into it. As another famous time traveler said: “You can't just read the guide book. You've got to throw yourself in, eat the food, use the wrong verbs, get charged double and end up kissing complete strangers—or is that just me?”

Modern audiences often have trouble with Homeric stylings, particularly repetitive epithets: “So-and-so of the nodding plumed helmet.” Powell asserts that these repeated tropes are essential to Homer’s verse. Homer didn’t memorize 12,000 lines of dactylic hexameter; he composed the epic afresh with each telling. Thus, invoking “shrewd Telemachos” or “flashing-eyed Athena,” as Powell’s translation does, reflects gut-level narrative techniques that most modern translators simply lose.

By contrast, Powell translates neither Homer’s literal meaning nor his form. He focuses on the experience of encountering Homer brand new, a visceral experience lost in most renditions. He imbues repeated tropes, like “When early-born Dawn spread out her fingers of rose,” with an unforced freshness reminiscent of 1970s pop songs. This feels spontaneous and new, rather than (like schoolbook translations) official, bloodless, and inert. Powell’s translation moves, by damn.

If, like me, school put you off Homer, maybe it’s time to try again. Barry Powell’s visceral, risk-taking translation restores Homer’s original, heroic, somewhat dangerous immediacy. And if Powell’s theories about language are correct, all literature begins here, with the invention of the tool that makes Western Civilization possible: the alphabet. Time has come to try discovering Homer’s majesty with fresh eyes.