Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Populist Uprising—Then and Now

Michael Wolraich, Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics

Does this sound familiar? A president, famed for populist theatrics, who actually fears rocking the boat and makes alliances with Wall Street and with old-money families. A cadre of activist journalists whose ability to shine light on unseemly secrets stirs public outrage, but not always at the right targets. A single reckless financial operator gambles with somebody else’s money, single-handedly blowing a hole in America’s economy, but faces no consequences.

It cannot be coincidence that Michael Wolraich’s history of America’s so-called Progressive Era sounds almost exactly like Obama’s Presidency. The conditions that ultimately shattered the 19th Century political machines have resurged today, and the same potential for radical change (“radical,” from the Latin radix, root) seethes beneath placid public compliance. Wolraich simply serves to remind readers that such conditions exist, and the populist revolution brewing has precedent.

In 1904, the two major American political parties lacked core ideology. People lined up behind geographic and ethnic alliances, and parties basically existed to distribute patronage plums. Republicans controlled Congress, and Republican President Theodore Roosevelt swaggered across international awareness. But old-style bosses distributed connections parsimoniously, keeping money concentrated and influence locked. Government remained basically ignorant of brewing provincial discontent.

President Theodore Roosevelt
Out of Wisconsin came firebrand Governor, later Senator, Robert Marion “Fighting Bob” La Follette. His successful brand of incendiary populism fired jaded voters, seizing Wisconsin’s Republican Party from machine bosses. He advocated such subversive tactics as direct primaries for Senatorial elections, getting dark money out of politics, and calling legislators out by name for their voting records. By simply naming and shaming electors, he threatened to overturn longstanding political privilege.

As Wolraich’s novel-like political storytelling unfolds, these two political lions stake respective territory, threatening everything the other finds sacred. Roosevelt used threats of anti-trust action to limit moneyed interests, but seldom flexed real muscle. He actually rubber-stamped JP Morgan’s monopolistic practices when it served larger purposes. TR couldn’t understand Fighting Bob’s willingness to challenge powerful movers and start ideological fights he knew he couldn’t possibly win.

Fighting Bob, by contrast, sees legislative debate as subservient to larger political goals. Kick-starting large battles fired public sentiment, and losing could have better long-term consequences than winning. To Fighting Bob, as Wolraich puts is, half a loaf really was worse than no loaf whatsoever, if such compromises blunted public appetite for necessary fights. Fighting Bob’s first priority was not to win incremental bargains, but to generate public outcry for genuine reforms.

Senator "Fighting Bob" La Follette
Journalists Lincoln Steffens and Ray Stannard Baker loom large in Wolraich’s narrative. Both believed their job was to hold public officials accountable to the voting public. Government officials and super-capitalists had conflicted relationships with newspapers: they’d feed information when it served their interests, then disclaim journalists later. TR managed to alienate Baker, his sometime ally, when it served political goals to disparage “muckrakers.” This embodies TR’s chameleon-like political skills.

Such skills became important in 1907, when a “robber baron” attempted complicated financial maneuvers to corner America’s copper market. When his schemes imploded, and he sanctimoniously refused to eat his debts, investors ran on Manhattan banks, and the infection soon spread nationwide. Washington lacked tools to stanch the bleeding, and the GDP contracted eleven percent overnight; without JP Morgan’s quick negotiating, Wall Street’s discussion could’ve been complete and disastrous.

Though Wolraich makes parts of this history sound disturbingly familiar, other parts are chillingly different from today. One of TR’s populist foes, Dixie Democrat “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, combined reformist populism with frankly appalling racism. Wolraich avoids mentioning race much, but white privilege and in-group protectionism simmer beneath this narrative (see Ian Haney López). That isn’t directly part of Wolraich’s thesis, and he pulls focus carefully, but it’s sometimes inevitably visible.

Wolraich tells his story with deliberate current-day motivations. He describes how American politics, which looked very different in the early 20th Century, realigned itself along now-common ideological lines, assuming a modern attention on voters. He also spotlights how the conditions that precipitated populist outrage in the pre-WWI years mirror today’s political and economic circumstances. If today’s politicians want to avoid creating another Fighting Bob, they’d better start paying attention.

Though the Tea Party positions itself as today’s insurgents, and aims to undo Progressive Era reforms, it precisely recaptures Fighting Bob’s tactics and political ethos, picking doomed fights to prolong public outrage and constantly revitalize its revolutionary character. Wolraich’s writing combines history and journalism, creating a century-old story that rings with modern urgency. Reading his story, contemporary audiences will face, page after page, the shock of very modern recognition.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Innovative Cities and Neighboring Life

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 37
Jeff Speck, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time


I'm of two minds about this book. I agree with everything urban designer Jeff Speck says about the social, physical, and environmental prices we pay for cities hostile to what he calls "the useful walk." I've seen the cultural and economic revitalization that has struck cities which implement his "Ten Steps of Walkability." I'd like to see his principles applied widely, reconnecting people to their neighbors and neighborhoods nationwide.

However, I have certain problems with his vision. They aren't completely dispositive, and are limited largely to one chapter, so future innovations will probably answer my doubts. However, my problems reflect the limitations Speck and his fellow big-city architects haven't acknowledged about their lofty goals, and they'll need resolved before Speck's "Walkable City" vision becomes widespread. Otherwise, they'll create new expenses further down the line.

Speck divides his spirited, informative, often funny book into two parts. The first is essentially a manifesto about why pedestrian-friendly urban cores matter. He points us toward a "general theory of walkability" and makes three concise, lucid points:
  1. When people walk, they have opportunities to meet new people, see new places, and have new experiences; when people drive, they zoom past real life.
  2. When people walk as a useful enterprise, they use their bodies productively; when people drive, they spend their most productive hours sitting down, and get fat.
  3. When people walk, they don't contribute to environmental decay; when people drive, every little errand burns carbon.
Counter-arguments readily avail themselves, but Speck slaps them down quickly. The convenience cars provide doesn't offset the isolation, and resultant creative and industrial suppression, they create. Habitual drivers may exercise, but most don't, and in today's marathon commute culture, perhaps can't. And while cities are notorious hubs of carbon pollution, most carbon burned in urban cores gets burned by suburban commuters.

Speck's second, much longer part comprises ten clear steps that encourage pedestrianship. Some seem obvious. People will walk where there's something to see; where green spaces renew fresh air and provide convenient public meeting places; and where mixed uses put errands, gathering spaces, and residences close together. Readers will recognize these claims from Norman Rockwell paintings and Disneyland's Main Street USA.

Other recommendations seem counter-intuitive, until Speck explains his reasoning. While trees encourage walking, broad green spaces discourage it, by making walking monotonous and separating people widely from their destinations. How cities handle public parking makes remarkable degrees of difference. And monumental buildings designed by what Speck calls "starchitects" discourage community usage and "the useful walk."

I love everything Speck says so far. Where I live, in the Great Plains, I've watched how towns which adopt essentially suburban design paradigms see their cores wither and their economies starve. And I've seen how towns that follow Speck's principles flourish. My fellow prairie dwellers bemoan the "brain drain" and wonder how to keep populations robust and prosperous. Speck replies succinctly: be someplace people want to live.

My problem arises in Chapter Three, Speck's chapter on how high-density urbanism discourages environmental pollution. Speck draws heavily on David Owen's book Green Metropolis, which contends that dense usage minimizes carbon burned for climate control, transportation, and other ubiquitous uses. Owen and Speck insist that city design actively discourages flagrant carbon abuse, and I believe them. The evidence is robust.

But the Owen-Speck model excludes two kinds of pollution unique to high-density usage. Cities require constant massive infusions of food, which suppliers must truck in. Perhaps Speck and Owen don't realize how carbon-intensive American agriculture is today, but farms burn almost as much carbon as suburbs. Cities also produce vast quantities of sewage, which generally gets unloaded today by treating it with synthetic chemicals and dumping it into waterways.

Cities employing Speck's dense mixed-use paradigm must tackle sewage removal. And American society overall must reassess our carbon reliance in agriculture and other industries. We're producing more food—and frankly, more mineral extract, more manufactures, and more stuff generally—than we need, which requires constant carbon infusions. (Other authors have addressed this problem.) Dense cities will fix some of that problem, but other concerns remain.

The move away from walkable cities reflects an American fixation on bigness. Big houses with big lawns, big cars navigating big streets, big industry fueling big consumption, and naturally, banks too big to fail. Speck's human-scale urbanism principles should help relieve at least some big, destructive problems. While pedestrian-friendly downtowns are no panacea to relieve American gigantism, anyone who's window-shopped lately knows, it's a good place to start.


See Also:
The New American Urbanism

Friday, July 25, 2014

Fancy Pantsy and the White Rapper Irresolution



Iggy Azalea
Writing in Salon.com last week, Rutgers professor Brittney Cooper wrote a rather lengthy (by Internet standards) excoriation of the media attention accorded to Australia-born rapper Iggy Azalea. Iggy’s fourth single, “Fancy,” topped the Billboard Hot 100 and turned her into a bankable star. It has also drawn criticism and praise in equal degrees, mainly for its white artist’s use of traditionally black styles. This reaction is distinctly problematic.

Fear of cultural appropriation has become a major bugbear in our time of multiple political causes. Cooper objects to Iggy, a white artist, replicating African American vocal mannerisms in her singing. Though Cooper stops short of calling Iggy racist, others aren’t so judicious; MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry dubbed Miley Cyrus “racist” for twerking at the MTV VMAs. Like some black artist somewhere laments the theft of her lucrative signature move.

Personally, I find this song profoundly unpleasant. The relentlessly repetitive electronic chord (singular); the lyrics vainly boasting of wealthy excess, common among poor artists; Iggy’s forced accent and Yoda-like diction, making her sound like she’s imitating, even mocking, Tara from True Blood. Consider the opening line: “First thing’s first, I’m the realest.” Anybody who knows culture knows that proclamations of authenticity usually precede imminent bullshit. Iggy doesn’t disappoint.

But as I've written before, music isn’t a colony for my values. ATL-style rap isn’t for me. Cooper acknowledges in her article that Iggy acquits herself well; “almost without fail,” Cooper writes of when this track emerges from her radio, “I immediately start bobbing my head to the beat.” Even Iggy’s vulgar boasts of material wealth reflect black American culture’s longstanding yearning for the economic stability white American culture historically hoarded.

Eminem
Cooper’s complaint, therefore, rests entirely on “appropriation,” a politicized updating of look what they’ve done to my song, Ma. She dislikes Iggy’s “sonic Blackness,” citing “the Beastie Boys, or Eminem, or Macklemore… who’ve been successful in rap in the last 30 years and generally they don’t have to appropriate Blackness to do it.” That is, Cooper dislikes how Iggy sounds black—Cooper almost seems to resent Iggy for being white.

One wonders where Cooper excavates her facts. When Eminem broke nationally fifteen years ago, I read a Revolver magazine article wherein he bragged that, when he distributed his demo tapes without a headshot, A&R executives assumed he was black. Like Elvis, whom many DJs thought black because his early 45s didn’t feature his face, Eminem borrowed black Americans’ perceived against-the-grain authenticity to bolster his message and image.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “racism” as “Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” I shouldn’t have to say this, but it bears emphasis, that one doesn’t steal from people one considers lesser, contemptible, or inferior. We steal from people we believe have something we need, but lack. That may be stuff, ideas, or perceived credibility.

Cultural acquisition always moves from poor to rich. Oh, sure, self-proclaimed culturati create rules to keep paeons obedient: poems must rhyme, or orchestral compositions necessarily beat self-taught instrumentalists, or a painting must “look like something.” But these rules represent authority’s last-gasp effort to marginalize art they consider subversive. True artists consistently find ways to circumvent fake rules and create pathbreaking, unorthodox artwork that actually touches audiences’ souls.

White artists frequently apprentice under black mentors, even when they don’t create “black” art. Hank Williams learned guitar from itinerant bluesman Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne. As a teenager, Ringo Starr sought an American entry visa to meet Lightnin’ Hopkins. Back when American music was segregated, British mariners brought blues 45s home; many of their sons, including John Lennon, Van Morrison, and Keith Richards, reintroduced black music to white America.

Macklemore
Cooper’s complaint isn’t without merit. Iggy has left a trail of racially problematic tweets, has only sporadically contributed to the black culture that subsidizes her, and her public melodrama edges worthy black women from the culture market. Plus, her video, which pilfers everything moveable from Amy Heckerling’s 1995 orgy of excess, Clueless, kinda sucks. Nothing in this essay excuses Iggy Azalea personally.

But “cultural appropriation,” rather than a race-baiting conundrum keeping African Americans down, is simply art’s natural progression. White Americans already pinched jazz, blues, and hip-hop from their black cousins, just like the English stole Irish music, or everybody in Sedona, Arizona, stole every Indian artwork not nailed down. Iggy Azalea’s music could help heal old wounds, or it could re-open them. The difference is in how we receive her.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Reality—For Sale, Cheap!

salem, Black Hole Butterfly

In a lawless future Manhattan, PI Rook Black traces a scientist’s murder to a secretive Chinatown underground of supertechnology, art, and crocodile wrestling. There he finds brewing war between Gasland, the organized muscle behind petroleum, and the Naranja Empire, whose solar-powered tech is reshaping society. The enemies square off over control of Shakespeare, whose prose constantly re-creates reality around us. Rook Black is a pawn in their operation.

In tone and technique, salem’s debut novel resembles classics from William Gibson and Pat Cadigan. The collision between human nature, with its dogged continuity from age to age, and our built environment, which refuses to stand still, feels almost exactly like the Reagan-era “future shock” novels I grew up reading, though rather than distrusting computers, the disquieting technology has reached a higher order. Confoundingly, this doesn’t go nearly far enough.

salem writes in slow, cerebral tones, a languorous prose poem of butterflies, Buddha, quantum mechanics, and sulfur matches. Rook Black is a gripping character, both soberly analytical and deeply sensual. His struggle to track Jack the Butterfly, who sells black-market reality to Chinese criminals, defies retelling. This isn’t some paperback potboiler you fall asleep under; you immerse yourself in salem’s lush prose, absorbing Rook Black’s struggle to understand the inexplicable.

This novel thrums with compressed energy so tight, you can practically hear the orchestral score beneath its silent prose. (salem’s career began writing unproduced screenplays.) Secrets come dribbling out, not predictable, but certainly reliable. salem’s language hides secrets: for instance, the Naranja Empire. Naranja, Spanish for “orange.” Significant? Yes, but the reasons why prove as elusive as the pseudo-reality Jack the Butterfly sells under the table.

But this same storytelling proves this novel’s greatest weakness. salem positions this novel as a sci-fi mystery, much like Cadigan or Jonathan Lethem wrote twenty years ago. But pages and pages pass without dialog, possibly salem’s Achilles heel. Though rich with introspective tone, the characters—a cast of thousands—don’t interact much. Mysteries require people to talk, to divulge secrets. We get scads of soul-searching, but precious little action.

salem’s reliance on darkness, rain, and an unchangingly bleak backdrop channels Alex Proyas’ 1998 sleeper classic Dark City, and when I realized that, problems set in. I began seeing echoes of the Wachowskis, Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels, and even Star Trek’s holodeck, stories and storytellers who cast doubt upon reality. This familiarity, this reliance on mass-media tropes we’ve already overanalyzed, takes readers outside salem’s profoundly immersive narrative.

Science fiction, more than any other genre except perhaps spy thrillers, is innately tied to the time when it was written. Our concepts of the future, our understanding of technological potential, changes regularly. Networked computers, which terrified Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, seem ordinary now. Rocket ships, far from recapturing the glamour of Spanish exploration, have less personality than dump trucks. Skiffy, generally, doesn’t date well.

But rather than address our era’s relationship with technology, salem revisits Mulder and Scully’s conspiracy theorizing. Though Rook Black gradually uncovers massive secrets, which salem reveals with grace and aplomb, they have a texture of unrelenting familiarity. salem, I came to realize, is an excellent prose stylist; but this narrative is a massive portmanteau of late-1990s stereotypes so comfy, one suspects salem has made a nest in another decade.

This is a novel of ideas. Rich, lushly deconstructed ideas, ripe with potential to demonstrate psychological profundity and social impact. salem’s characters unpack implications to make William Gibson look comparatively unambitious, expounded in language balanced on the cusp between Raymond Chandler and Allen Ginsberg. It’s both a throwback to my paperback youth, and a bold experiment. Stylistically and conceptually, I’ve seen little like this in the last twenty years.

This isn’t a novel of characters. Though salem has many characters with interesting motivations and enigmatic backstories, they don’t so much interact as collide, and each remains so bound by their respective situations, they prove slow to change, resistant to each other even under duress. Because they scarcely interact, their ideas get propounded, but only intermittently tested and refined. salem proffers profound viewpoint characters, but they interact only sporadically.

Thus, how readers receive this novel depends on what expectations they bring into the experience. I found plenty to enjoy, particularly how it recalls the science fiction that corresponded with my dawning maturity. Yet salem’s admittedly ambitious story never gains traction, partly because it gives little place to hang my attention. We have the rudiments of an excellent novel here. It just doesn’t go far enough.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Savage, Honest Dreamer

Melanie Lamaga, The Evolution of Reptilian Handbags: and Other Stories

I had read difficulty reading this book, in the best way possible. Lamaga’s fiction, a dreamscape of shifting lands and towering, beanstalk people, uses fantastic images and superhuman characters to pierce her readers’ expectations. Her surreal, André Breton-ish prose revels in keeping readers constantly back-footed and surprised. Reading her short stories resembles that moment when, awakening abruptly from a semi-nightmare, your flesh doesn’t feel like your own.

Lamaga’s debut collection compiles ten stories, written over a decade and change, the longest running sixty pages, the shortest, three. She uses familiar settings in an unfamiliar way: an Iowa horse farm becomes an unlikely refuge against laser-guided war, for instance, or the act of stripping away flooring reveals the primordial soup beneath civilization. Many stories are less sequences of events, than puzzles whose solutions arise from their readers’ psyche.

Stories range from slice-of-life vignette, to apparent free association, to out-and-out fantasy. Lamaga doesn’t link stories by tone or content; but they do share one theme, transcendence. A desperate office worker’s trials become her zen koan, and she becomes a Buddha. A suburban teenager abjures so many trappings that she becomes gossamer, drifting away on a train’s wake. A banker steps off a pier into the waiting arms of nothingness.

Or characters resist transcendence when it’s offered. “Waking the Dreamer” features a rich sybarite’s obsession with a Sleeping Beauty. But when his infatuation awakens her, she reveals hidden wrath that eradicates mere human fixations. Our nameless narrator realizes that “The snake did not deceive Eve—Eve was the snake.” Except his description, when Beauty unveils her true nature, reflects a completely different figure from Paradise Lost.

In “The Seduction of Forgotten Things,” a disaffected daughter dyes her hair purple, wanders city streets at night, and discovers the beating urban heart her parents forgot. When she meets a half-savage drifter, they form a naturalist family together. But when sudden illness threatens their unborn child, her wild-man husband returns them to her genteel origins, where she discovers she’s maybe tamed him too well. She’s become his greatest burden.

The title story jumps, comic book-like, around a world where metaphor has died. When somebody falls into a trance, there’s a chance they’ll break some bones. When a tsunami of trash crests on society, people drown on plastics and fumes they previously, heedlessly discarded. All the monsters and predators of myth linger in a dark, twisting canyon, waiting for our metaphor-free dreams to awaken them to our new, literal world.

Human dreams often reveal our dissatisfaction at civilized stability. How often have your dreams involved savage nature invading our world? Like me, you’ve probably fled waves, literal waves, of refuse returning to reprimand our profligate ways. You’ve probably wandered rain-slick streets where fishboys leap, glistening, from sewer grates. Lamaga billboards these dreams, these pre-human visions of savage, invasive nature, letting us bask in her radiant glow of terrified familiarity.

Probably most difficult for me, “Mr. Happy the Sharpshooter” spotlights an experience I share with many men. Young Frank Happy’s autocratic father used words and fists to expunge anything he considered “weak” (read here “feminine”) from his gentle, open-hearted son. Imaginative and playful, yet eager to please Dad, Frank tears himself in twain, the hardened, buck-hunting Korean War veteran everyone sees, and the sad-eyed artist behind the mirror.

Except, for Frank, this cleft isn’t metaphorical. Shuffling through life, broken-souled and desperate for approval, he discovers very late that there’s another Frank Happy, a top-rated children’s TV host. Everything our Frank lost, that Frank gained. Whenever fate flipped a coin, that other Frank won. Dad loved that other Frank, just for being Frank. So our Frank grabs a sniper rifle and goes hunting the life he should’ve had.

Lamaga’s storytelling—sometimes tender, sometimes brutal, always humane—eschews the limitations of reason and wakefulness, plunging us into the visceral ordeals everybody shares nightly. Replacing sentiment with sense, told in a range of languid, unhurried voices, she creates a hypnotic sub-reality into which we don’t climb, but fall. We drift in her stories like a slow-moving river, like an afternoon nap, like a womb.

When you begin reading, do me one favor: disregard the back-cover synopsis. Its one-sentence descriptions of selected stories don’t accurately reflect the stories, misleading readers to seek the wrong cues. Lamaga’s stories resist brief distillation. Like the dreams she channels, Lamaga’s stories deserve our full immersion, experiencing them as they unfold in full horror and grandeur. They eat you whole, and afterward, you thank them for it.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Lost in the Amazon

Discussions surrounding the now-notorious throwdown between French-owned Hachette Book Group and Amazon.com have reached a possibly unprecedented impasse: they’re simultaneously very silly, and almost completely opaque. Everyone assumes it’s somehow related to profit sharing on e-book sales, but both sides are vague and secretive. That hasn’t stopped every mass media figure from having some half-informed opinion, as demonstrated by this abject foolishness:



Malcolm Gladwell
Beyond the fact that this display is simply beneath Malcolm Gladwell’s dignity, it proves the public face of this corporate dispute has devolved into juvenile theatrics. I encountered this video through Gladwell’s New Yorker blog, blurring the lines between individual and communal: did Gladwell share this, or did one of America’s most celebrated mass-market glossy magazines take sides in a conflict so abstruse, informed commentators can’t assure us it’s even happening in English?

Since fully half of Americans never crack another book after leaving school, this debate seems potentially futile. In today’s tough economic climate, many wage earners might answer Gladwell and Cavett by shrugging. Though Amazon currently controls half of America’s book commerce, working Americans’ lives move more broadly over who retails their socks, bananas, and motor oil. If Amazon stalls Hachette book shipment over a month, hell, buy it someplace else.

But this has significant economic implications. Hachette, which owns Hyperion and Little, Brown & Co., is one of only five media conglomerates which dominate two-thirds of American publishing. Other conglomerates include German-owned Bertelsmann, which controls Penguin, Doubleday, and Random House; Simon & Schuster, owned by CBS; and HarperCollins, part of Rupert Murdoch’s empire. Penguin’s 2012 merger with Random House narrowed an already dangerously cramped global information pipeline.

While five corporations create the preponderance of American information content, one company, Amazon, sells fully half that content. This represents another narrowing: in 1999, Naomi Klein complained that three companies—Borders Group, Barnes & Noble, and WalMart—had cornered American book sales. Two mall chains, Waldenbooks and B. Dalton, were owned by Borders and BN, respectively. Both mall chains, and Borders altogether, no longer exist.

Amazon’s market might has become so immense, it’s even ventured into content production. I’ve reviewed several books published by Amazon-owned imprints, from good authors like Tyler Dilts and SG Redling, and mediocre ones like Vincent Zandri and Barbra Annino. Nobody begrudges Amazon’s desire to broaden publishing opportunities. But if they want to monopolize the supply chain, that dances perilously close to BN’s sick-making 1998 attempt to purchase book distributor Ingram.

No company should have such power.

Economists proclaim the 3-30 Rule: when three operators control thirty percent of any market, that market is no longer free. We see that today elsewhere: ConAgra, Smithfield, and Cargill control half of American grocery manufacture. CitiGroup, Goldman, and Wells Fargo control banking. A handful of companies have become so massive that their very presence distorts market forces. Amazon and the Big Five Publishers have joined those “illustrious” ranks.

Amazon's Jeff Bezos
Therefore, turf war between Amazon and Hachette, whatever the proximal justification, isn’t distant. These corporations are struggling to determine who controls access to information. And not just any information. In today’s digital world, “information” is common as dirt; bloggers create content faster than anyone can read it. (Don’t look at me that way.) No, this battle concerns access to information screened for relevance, organized by our generation’s best minds, and presented clearly and conveniently.

Powerful Americans still read books. Business magnates, elected officials, and artists read. Behavioral economists have tracked positive correlation between willingness to read for fun and personal development, and one’s likelihood to advance, economically and socially, in this world. Therefore, when market consolidation allows one vendor to stymie access to one manufacturer, it literally narrows our nation’s overall cultural creation ability. Unchecked, Amazon’s feud with Hachette could partially suffocate economic efficiency.

Prognosticators proclaimed Internet commerce would doom independent booksellers, but indies thrive in urban markets large enough to support them. Some, like Denver’s Tattered Cover, have become legitimate tourist destinations. People who love books seek out indie booksellers, because indies share their love of books. They’re also great places to meet fellow book lovers. Indies sell books as culture; national chains sell books as content. And Internet retailers can sell content cheaper.

I like Amazon. I shop there, and my reviews kick potential buyers to Amazon’s pages. That makes this folderol more frustrating, because it’s beneath two global economic powerhouses. Surely Amazon and Hachette have enough shared dignity to resolve their conflicts without diminishing America’s already-diminished intellectual market. And if not, that’s why America still has McKinley-era Antitrust laws.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Wrong Reinvention at the Wrong Time

Josh Linkner, The Road to Reinvention: How to Drive Disruption and Accelerate Transformation

I had a grim feeling about this book when, at the end of his introduction, Linkner wrote: “It’s time to architect your own future.” From the philosophical to the economic to the grammatical, so much is wrong with that line, I can’t even encompass it. Yet because Linkner reuses this ungrammatical cliché, and others similarly vacuous, this quote became emblematic of this entire book. And reading it, frankly, hurt.

Linkner’s litany of bromides, jargon, and cherry-picked anecdotes might make sense in an absolute vacuum. If you’ve never read anything else about business and economics, Linkner sounds persuasive. But I have read, and Linkner doesn’t withstand scrutiny. Start with this: Linkner does everything short of directly quoting Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor who pioneered Disruptive Innovation theory, without ever citing him. Linkner’s best ideas are pirated.

Historian Jill Lepore, of Harvard and The New Yorker, writes that Disruptive Innovation, despite moddish popularity, has little backing evidence unless observers meticulously screen their evidence. It’s also proven functionally worthless for economic predictions: in my favorite moment from Lepore, Christensen in 2005 predicts the iPhone will crater because it doesn’t meet any measurable need. Linkner suffers similar field blindness so often, listing examples risks descending into parody.

Consider: Linkner asserts that Kmart lost its commercial relevance by inertia, descending into bankruptcy in 2002. That’s true. But by Linkner’s own standards, what happened in 2002 doesn’t matter in 2014. Corporate restructuring, strategic fat-trimming, a mutually beneficial merger with Sears, and several racy new TV ads have returned Kmart to prominence, and revenues, it hasn’t seen since Reagan’s first term. Linkner’s castigations are outdated, making him seem oblivious.

Similarly, Linkner blames Borders Books & Music’s collapse on a failure to keep abreast of cultural trends. But Naomi Klein wrote in 1999 that Borders was already systemically underpaying workers, building outlets faster than revenue growth, and edging into marginal markets, all in an attempt to outpace their biggest competitor, Barnes & Noble. Well, BN won that horserace. Linkner’s analysis would only make sense if Borders was America’s only book superstore chain.

Dedicated readers will notice that I selected these examples from Linkner’s early pages. Simply put, I stopped taking notes. Linkner says so much, so wrong, so often, that memorializing it started to feel mean. Believe me, I could’ve gotten much, much more brutal. But this is a book review, not a scholarly paper; two examples will suffice.

Linkner’s press agent pitched me this book partly through Linkner’s involvement with efforts to revitalize his native Detroit. Periodically, Linkner mentions ways Detroit, once considered America’s most failed city, is currently revitalizing itself. One wonders if Linkner reads newspapers. Detroit, which grew rapidly on expectations of money that never materialized, has been immune to economic boom cycles for about three decades, and is currently bleeding about ten-thousand residents per year.

Where, then, is this “reinvention”? Certainly not in the auto industry, which Linkner diplomatically mentions as infrequently as possible. Henry Ford’s assembly line was a workers’ nightmare that required record high wages to forestall massive walkouts (cf. Matthew B. Crawford). And most of the “disruptive reinventions” Linkner cites began after Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy filing, too recently to draw meaningful longitudinal conclusions. As flaccid examples accumulate, the pattern feels painfully self-serving.

Throughout, Linkner repeats the word “reinvention” with onanistic fixation, until it becomes banal. Reinvention, in Linkner’s world, becomes something you do constantly, regardless of market circumstances or economic limitations. It became painful to read, because in reality, you cannot constantly reinvent yourself. Eventually you must assume your mature structural role, and eventually die. Constant, internally motivated change, without regard for environmental constraints, is the operant philosophy of cancer cells.

Linkner describes himself as a serial capitalist. He recounts founding multiple companies, building their market strength, then selling them and reinvesting the proceeds in further start-ups. Now a venture capitalist, he subsidizes others who do likewise. Nice work if you can get it. But because only massively capitalized mega-corporations can purchase already extant companies outright, this makes Linkner culpable in today’s concentrated wealth and narrow market efficiency. One Percent ho!

Perhaps you’ve noticed my reuse of descriptors like “painful” and “hurt.” Linkner wants to pierce your preconceptions and lay bare your aching mistakes. But that’s not the pain I felt. Between his make-do grammar, flimsy arguments, and recycled thesis, Linkner enflamed this ex-English teacher’s longstanding sore points. I didn’t so much want to review this book as grade it. I’ve seen freshmen put more thought and research into their work.

Monday, July 14, 2014

When the Prairie Sleeps, the Mystery Creeps

C.J. Box, Shots Fired: Stories from Joe Pickett Country

Somebody’s bound to say it somewhere, so let me say it first: it’s difficult to read this book without comparing it to Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories, the collection which gave us the original “Brokeback Mountain.” Assuming you’ve read Proulx, obviously. And if you haven’t, please do, because putting these two together provides a remarkable view of the wide, arid, hardworking domain America largely derides as “flyover country.”

Proulx, a Wyoming transplant, and Box, a native, both create languid, laconic characters whose actions deliver eloquent messages that mere words couldn’t convey. Their concise snapshots reveal a people whose lives have become integrated with the landscape, giving them a permanence transcending generations. But where Proulx’s literary approach conveys Wyomingites’ diverse struggles often in stolid silence, Box, a crime novelist, observes his protagonists through the lens of violence.

Box’s very earthy, hardworking, and concise English doesn’t eliminate poetry; often, it heightens stylistic power. Describing the North Platte River, Box writes, “the current gripped the flat-bottomed McKenzie boat and spun it like a cigarette butt in a flushed toilet.” Anyone who’s seen fishing boats in shallow water recognizes that surprising yet apt simile. Likewise, Box says so-and-so’s “face was round, like a hubcap.” He uses that one twice.

This approach, free of self-conscious ornamentation, is merely the surface layer of how Box’s characters think. Too busy with work, family, and survival to be “pretty,” they distribute words with Protestant thrift, and base their metaphors on common, workaday images. Yet their often unforeseen poetry doesn’t just make us see their objects anew; it forces us to acknowledge them as deep thinkers, though they may lack fancy East Coast credentials.

Four stories feature Box’s recurrent protagonist, game warden Joe Pickett. (Non-hunters may not realize game wardens are sworn law officers with arrest authority.) Pickett’s innate feel for Wyoming’s diverse ecology, and the humans who make their living off it, recalls dime novel tropes of Indians standing outside white society, yet still maintaining certain justice. Besides Proulx, I also recalled Zane Grey’s highly moral Westerns while reading Box.

Six other stories venture outside Box’s previous bibliography, while remaining around his Wyoming heart. (Okay, “Le Sauvage Noble” is set in South Dakota and Paris, France. Allow some latitude.) The most powerful stories in the collection feature some collision between the stable Wyoming equilibrium and outside forces which would remake the prairie in their image. Box’s stories manage the constant tapdance between down-home continuity and worldly disruption.

My favorite tale, “The Master Falconer,” features a naturalist and former soldier on society’s fringes. When a powerful Saudi plutocrat attempts to buy his loyalty, believing everybody is for sale, our hero finds himself imprisoned by overwhelming pressures. His understanding of the land and people lets him construct a sophisticated noose from the Saudi’s own rope. Remarkably, this is one of only two stories where nobody dies, though several people crawl away bloodied.

Other stories span the range of Western life, turning on ways people hurt, diminish, or steal power from others. “Dull Knife” describes a hard collision between modern Indian and White societies. Casual racism won’t surprise most readers who’ve lived near the Rez, but the flippant bigotry inherent in friendly White condescension remains shocking. “The End of Jim and Ezra” flips eras, depicting the brutality that drove early American expansionism.

Not everything works equally. “Every Day Is a Good Day on the River” billboards its impending conflict so blatantly, I wonder how these characters didn’t realize they’re trapped in a suspense thriller. Box took the easy option here. But that’s one weak story among ten. I’d forgive much worse for “Blood Knot,” a flash story with no physical violence, but deep insights into how people chisel away each other’s humanity.

Box’s stories resemble Proulx’s observations of ordinary people, pushed by austere circumstances into moments of chilling hostility. Mystery fans may prefer comparing Box to Craig “Longmire” Johnson, but beyond the Wyoming setting, the comparison rings hollow. Longmire channels classic Westerns and heroic myths, Box prefers a cold-eyed look at how people cling to society’s margins today. Box’s arid Wyoming prairie symbolizes his characters’ inner brokenness.

Don’t let my high-minded analysis deter you, though. Box creates high-energy adventures that test characters to destruction, revealing their secrets not through turgid discourse, but through action and moments of bleak, inescapable honesty. I can think of no greater praise a weary night-shift laborer can bestow upon this collection, than that I stayed up way past my bedtime to finish that last story.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Liberty, the Playhouse

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 36
Michael Frayn, Democracy: A Play


When you mention Michael Frayn's name in theatre circles, you'll likely conjure up images of his classic metatheatrical farce Noises Off. But his recent dramatic works, including this, a slow-moving meditation on freedom in a plural society, When you mention Michael Frayn's name in theatre circles, you'll likely conjure up images of his classic metatheatrical farce Noises Off. But his recent dramatic works

Based on the rise of Germany's first left-of-center coalition government since the Weimar Republic, headed by the legendary, painfully conflicted Willy Brandt, and his collapse following a Societ-bloc spy scandal, this play lays bare the fragility of international relations at the height of the Cold War. At government’s highest levels, functionaries, even duly elected ones, trade secrets and confidences like children trade baseball cards.

West Germany’s postwar democracy allocated parliamentary seats based on proportional populations, not on geography, as American and British elections do. Thus German governments relied heavily on coalitions, meaning real social change came haltingly, if ever. Willy Brandt’s chancellorship, on a rare outright majority, was the first out-and-out leftist German government since Weimar days. Brandt was so liberal, Soviet operatives could’ve called his election a victory.

Elected in 1969, Brandt sought rapprochement with the Eastern Bloc, which netted him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1971. But East Germany nevertheless insinuated a spy into Brandt’s administration. What happened, and why, remains deeply mysterious; official state documents leave huge lacunae regarding actual events, particularly the personal consequences for those involved. Frayn steps into this gap, attempting to reconstruct the events around Brandt’s 1974 resignation.

Structurally, Democracy is a memory play from the viewpoint of the East German spy, Gunter Guillaume, with scenes shifting as his personal narrative demands. Frayn’s notes ask for “A complex of levels and spaces; of desks and chairs; of files and papers; also of characters…” This implies a massive stage arcology, but Frayn never gets any more specific. No specified set, few props, and only a handful of required light and sound cues make this a fairly easy staging.

Unless you count the actors and the director.

The director and the ten-member, all-male cast needs to research the history of divided Germany, the personalities of highly esoteric public figures, and even at one point the Norwegian language. Thankfully large portions of the information necessary to savvy the background for the play are found in a lengthy and detailed afterword, saving a great deal of headache in the creative process. Frayn’s encyclopedic discourse on German history, and what it says about the NATO world today, is shockingly familiar.

Frayn takes the unusual step of including a substantial bibliography, rare in modern theatre. Both Brandt and Guillaume left substantial writings, and the so-called Guillaume Affair has occasioned many books by top-flight historians and political scientists. Controversies current before I was born remain unresolved even today. Theatre professionals performing this play join an already rich red-meat debate. But that doesn't answer everything; these figures loom large in Twentieth Century history, and recreating them on stage is work.

As noted, despite substantial official documentation, insightful questions frequently outnumber verifiable facts. Frayn, a successful playwright and novelist, brings crafty storytelling technique to that gap. His presentation alternates between languid political discussions and moments of extreme intimacy, frequently inflected with surprisingly understated humor. Though never farcical, his unexpected chuckle opportunities pierce characters’ inflated pretenses.

This fictionalization sometimes muddies what really happened. In one key scene, Brandt takes Guillaume on vacation in Norway. In reality, West German intelligence had already identified Guillaume’s spying activities, and Brandt willfully fed him disinformation. Frayn, though not lying about this, mumbles it slightly, emphasizing instead a moment of intimacy bordering on homoeroticism. Truth, for Frayn, is about psychological depth, not facticity.

But the play is accessible, discussing technical aspects of German history without getting bogged down in dull repetitive detail. The characters are engaging and humanely rounded. Reminiscent of Greek tragedy, Frayn’s depiction uses a decades-old scandal to illuminate a frankly shady aspect of freedom: the people we elect must often perform acts unworthy of our support. The events happened over forty years ago, but they feel like they're happening right now.

This play may not be for general audiences; its slow, contemplative pace and its interest in a political figure most Americans have never heard of could put off casual theatre-goers. But for dedicated fans of history, politics, and theatre, this articulate and thoughtful play will leave you with plenty to chew on. Frayn’s straightforward message, backed with austere staging, will linger long after the final curtain has wrung down.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Build-Up, and the Flinch

Jodi Lynn Anderson, The Vanishing Season

Young adult novels with female protagonists generally end one of two ways: either she triumphs, then ventures forth on the next leg of her adventure, or she dies. The romanticized death, whether meaningful like in John Green, or apparently random in Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, is a beloved trope in literature for teen girls. Death, in teenage fiction, is both ennobling and redemptive. For whatever reason.

I won’t reveal who Jodi Lynn Anderson kills, partly because the death has complex ramifications, and partly because many young women die herein. I will say, this death happens with such whiplash abruptness, I have difficulty processing it, much less making it fit with anything that happened before. I like these characters, and their strange, unhasty development, so much that, when Anderson kills one, it feels both unmotivated and disappointing.

When hard times force Maggie Larsen’s family to abandon their Chicago home for touristy Door County, Wisconsin, she resists its languorous rural pace. But strangely bohemian Pauline Boden and her, ahem, “special friend” Liam Witte open Maggie’s eyes to unseen dramas seething invisibly beneath Door County’s bucolic surface. Soon they form a triangle reflecting the passions unique to young people, unencumbered by life’s tedious compromises.

But Maggie’s appearance strangely corresponds with the debut of the Door County Killer. Some enigmatic force is kidnapping teenage girls; their bodies appear, usually floating in Lake Michigan, days later, with no signs of struggle. The Killer targets older teens with public personalities and long hair, girls much like Maggie and Pauline. So their budding explorations of looming adulthood happen with the explosive happiness that only blooms in death’s shadow.

Door County, Wisconsin, along Lake Michigan
Midwesterners will recognize the tourist-driven splendor of Door County, a Norman Rockwell region on Lake Michigan’s western shore. We’ve seen towns, mostly along water, that flare up seasonally, celebrating summer with local cuisine and World’s Fair-ish willful quaintness. But Anderson’s winter narrative spotlights her summer location’s bleak underside. Her characters live in a festive destination’s dark, unattractive side, like the dispirited workers operating carnival rides.

Maggie, Pauline, and Liam love one another with the kind, disinhibited love available only to youths without careers, mortgages, and community standing. They live entirely in the now, passionately sharing one another because their selves are all they have. Their triangle turns romantic only very late (romance is explicit; sex is somewhat ambiguous). Though the girls feud over Liam, their real love, packed with simmering violence, is for each other.

Knowing the Killer stalks their futures, though, their passions have an unspoken desperate air. Maggie and Liam share their first kiss after arson partly destroys his home. Off-season community gatherings, like November’s Turkey Gobble and February’s Valentine Social, have a frantic mandatory festivity reflecting Door County’s shared grief. Our ménage à protagonists feel deeply because, implicitly, they know they may never feel anything again. “Playing it safe” doesn’t exist herein.

Hovering over events, a nameless ghost seems strangely attached to Maggie. We know nothing about this spirit, who narrates in first person, because it has existed so long, it no longer remembers itself. While our heroes discover life, with all its incipient violence, the ghost discovers itself, only to realize, too late to avert the disaster, just what connection it bears to events. Anderson reminds us constantly: death is coming.

Which makes it only more frustrating when death finally arrives. Anderson spends such time priming readers for the two converging narratives, our passionate triangle and the Door County Killer, that she derails us violently when the final answer is: none of the above. The ending (I cannot call it “conclusion”) feels grafted on from another novel, as though, exhausted from her exquisite high-tension build-up, Anderson got tired and just quit.

Anderson creates savory anticipation, so powerful that this middle-aged, Dad-like reviewer fell in love with Maggie; as Oscar Wilde wrote, “the suspense is killing me, I hope it lasts.” And then, eh, nothing. For 250 pages, Anderson creates this celebration of youthful life, and this encroaching phantom of death, cueing us to await a spectacular collision. Her actual ending, though, ducks what she’s built, leaving both threads unresolved.

I cannot tell audiences to avoid this book. I really, really enjoyed Anderson’s storytelling, right up until she dramatically flinched. I loved Anderson’s narrative, until it hit a brick wall. But many celebrated authors, like Joseph Conrad and Thomas Pynchon, have difficulty writing justified, satisfying endings. Jodi Lynn Anderson joins their number. Unfortunately, you cannot have Anderson’s beautifully executed build-up without her strangely unmotivated end.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The iPhone Generation

Kim Stolz, Unfriending My Ex: And Other Things I'll Never Do

Confession time: when I agreed to review this book, I had no idea who Kim Stolz was. Born with the Happy Fetus Trifecta of money, beauty, and Manhattanite connections, she parlayed reality TV popularity into MTV “journalism” and a Citigroup vice presidency before turning thirty. Wowser. Pulling this book from the envelope, I immediately thought: humor memoir. The design mimics books by good-looking comediennes like Chelsea Handler and Mindy Kaling.

To her credit, Stolz has higher aspirations than her CV implies. In her first book, Stolz purposes to scrutinize the Millennial Generation’s relationship with technology, embodied in her own iPhone, a relationship she variously describes as addiction, escape, and adultery. Stolz apparently considers herself typical of her generation, clothed in adulthood’s trappings but suffering protracted adolescence. And she fears her generation has vanished down a digital rabbit hole.

I doubt it. Not the rabbit hole part, which is broadly debatable; but the typical part. Stolz describes herself undertaking a digital fast, forcing her to realize she spends four-and-a-half hours daily on her iPhone. Four-and-a-half hours. Daily. My factory colleagues, many with marriages and children and second jobs despite being markedly younger than Stolz, don’t have such time. Stolz’s entire foundation assumes time resources and money others lack.

Stolz describes an active life encompassing restaurants and parties and girlfriends and casting calls, an arriviste lifestyle inaccessible to the bottom four quintiles of American economics. Then she describes failing to enjoy her lifestyle because she can’t stop checking her text messages and Facebook notifications. Everyone understands the rudeness of dinner companions checking their phones. I, however, cannot understand having that kind of money and time.

And that’s mostly what she offers: anecdotes about herself and her well-heeled friends. I have no difficulty believing that text message affairs are as damaging as real-world assignations, or that worrying about the fun you’re missing elsewhere keeps you from enjoying the fun you’re having here. But somewhere around page 80, Stolz’s writing, by sheer mass, crosses the line from anecdote to bitch session, from analysis to data dump.

Not that Stolz doesn’t back her complaints with evidence. As a seasoned pop journalist (or “journalist”), Stolz musters citations from psychologists, behavioral economists, and science reporters supporting her central claims. Trimming some unnecessary reminiscence, she might have enough content for a longish New Yorker article. She certainly would benefit from putting her factual claims closer together; verifiable facts, in this book, often lie twenty pages apart.

Oh, and what claims she makes. Digital time takes away from time spent having face-to-face conversations. Everybody knows that. Less obviously, heavy digital use has been proven to cause a diminution in measurable attention span, long-term memory, and shared social mores. Text message communication fosters disinhibition, causing banal conflicts to escalate rapidly. Stripped of Stolz’s cutesy-poo anecdotes, her conclusions, backed with solid scientific evidence, are bleak and startling.

I’m forced to conclude that, perhaps, this book isn’t for me. An old writing mentor compared certain forms of contemporary writing to the difference between listening to Beethoven versus Philip Glass. Where lovely, lovely Ludwig Van propels themes forward through linear momentum and elaboration, hearing Glass is more like pattern recognition, a slow accretion of musical motifs. Reading Stolz is like watching a pattern emerge, not a narrative arc mature.

But who, then, does Stolz write for? Not her cohort of semi-rich C-listers, especially if, like her, they’re spending a quarter of their waking hours with their noses buried in their iPhones. If her message aims to alarm fossilized old fogies like me, but her prose pitches to readers raised to avoid the dreaded tl;dr tag, I have difficulty visualizing Stolz’s intended audience. People who recognize her name, perhaps?

Having watched my students squander entire semesters checking their texts under their desks when they thought I couldn’t see, I wanted to like Stolz’s exposé. In those moments where she got out of her own way, I did. She cites good sources, which I’ll probably mine for myself later. But those moments are widely spaced, divided by wide expanses of shapeless, rambling yarn-spinning that go nowhere.

Early in her first chapter, Stolz admits she’s scarcely read a book cover-to-cover since getting her first iPhone in 2006. We can tell. She positions herself as Malcolm Gladwell for the ADHD set; but if MTV and text messaging are her core publicity platforms, I have difficulty imagining who would pay $24 MSRP to read this book. Perhaps she didn’t think that far ahead. Which, perhaps, proves her point.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Why I'm Not Conservative Anymore

I still remember when I first self-identified as “conservative,” in July of 1990, in a family-style restaurant near my house. I don’t recall the exact conversation, but for some reason, I called myself “liberal.” I didn’t know what that meant exactly, but Opus the Penguin from the Bloom County comic strip called himself liberal periodically. Like Opus, modernity’s disconnect between common decency and everyday experience left me flummoxed.

So anyway, I called myself “liberal,” which bothered my father. “So you’re a liberal, are you? What makes you liberal?”

Unprepared, I flapped my lips momentarily, before mustering a lackluster “I dunno.”

“Well, let me try this,” Dad said. “What do you think they should do with this bus stop guy in the news?” San Diego news was dominated by a serial killer who apparently stalked women at municipal bus stops.

I had this one. “Fry the guy,” I said without hesitation.

“And that,” Dad said, slapping his hand on the table triumphantly, “is a conservative position.”

Thus I became conservative. Because of a fifteen-year-old’s flippant comment and the desire to please my father, Opus became a curiosity from my past; I identified myself as conservative from that point.

My father’s conservative self-identification was weird. If you’d polled him on individual issues, he’d return mixed results: conservative on law-and-order issues, ambivalent on welfare, but progressive on race and gender, foreign aid, and financial regulation. Despite his diverse opinions, he just considered conservatism a theory for “people like us.” Thus party loyalty became an identity issue, not an ideology.

I began reading politics, but having chosen my alignment based on family loyalty, I didn’t bother with diverse sources. Particularly, I selected information filtered through humorist PJ O’Rourke, rabble-rouser Oliver North, and columnist Thomas Sowell. Factual accuracy, balanced argumentation, or legitimately treating opposition positions as worth serious consideration didn’t enter my reasoning. I simply wanted pundits to tell me what I already believed.

Sadly, I see this pattern repeated broadly. The snap judgement of a high school student too young to drive, bleakly uninformed about topics where feelings run hottest, exactly matches the arbitrary opinions dribbling forth from mass media pundits. Whenever Fox News pseudo-specialists unthinkingly demand more tax cuts, without the relevant math, or more capital punishment, or another Iraq war, I remember that befuddled teenager, eager to please his dad.

Politicians, who face actual voters and could lose their jobs for sufficiently egregious screw-ups, try to avoid such behavior; but talking heads get paid for riling up audiences, making juvenile theatrics a lucrative option. Mass-media political discourse actively discourages deep thought. TV pundits want audiences to sit passively, absorbing another’s opinions, and regurgitating them whole at town hall meetings and voting booths.

This conclusion cuts both ways.

Twelve years after first identifying as conservative, I discovered the Genuine Progress Indicator, an alternate economic model that undercuts the much-lauded Gross Domestic Product. Forced to recognize that the neoclassical economics I’d learned from school (and Thomas Sowell) sucked, I started to question every conservative principle my hand-picked sources had carefully conditioned into me. And as people do, I ran straight to the opposite extreme, which proved a rude awakening.

Having found conventional conservatism unsatisfactory, I jumped headlong into conventional liberalism. This time, I much more quickly recognized my position’s limitations. Where Laffer Curve conservatives cut taxes heedlessly, Great Society liberals won’t eliminate programs whose purpose was served generations ago. Conservatives see Affirmative Action and feminism as relics of bygone eras; liberals paint every member of the Designated Oppressor Class with the same broad brush.

Moreover, they lump incompatible issues together pell-mell. If you support active American military involvement in global situations, you must perforce oppose abortion, even in extreme cases. If you believe government should intervene when banks play baccarat with consumer deposits, you must believe direct cash transfusions can redress poverty. The binary split in American politics excludes depth and complexity. American politics has no place for doubt, nuance, or ambiguity.

Conservatives and liberals both start with the answer, and go in search of the question. They get the process of solving life’s problems backward. Rather than facing reality as it is, they frame what parts they prefer, and forcibly conform those parts to their prefab opinions. Unsurprisingly, as we keep refighting the same old fights, old problems linger. Nothing, fundamentally, gets any better.

And I’m back where I started. Opus and I can see the problem, and we can see common decency. We just can’t see why others don’t see it, too.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Affirmative Inaction

Sheryll Cashin, Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America

American race relations rests at a crossroads. While white Americans believe we’ve expunged our Jim Crow legacy, African Americans still recognize opportunities lost to wildly unequal resource allocation. At the heart of this disjunction lies Affirmative Action, Lyndon Johnson’s attempt to proactively redress historical injustice. In today’s putatively post-racial society, with an African American President, do such programs still serve, or hinder, their targeted clients?

Georgetown law professor Sheryll Cashin manages to straddle both sides of this important debate. Dispassionately scrutinizing the numbers, clearly black Americans bear multi-generational disadvantages that they cannot simply muscle through. Cashin’s analysis resembles a much briefer synopsis of Ian Haney López. But race-based scrutiny overlooks that poor whites face categorically different circumstances than the rich; Cashin writes, “Working-class whites are rarely disaggregated in these debates.”

Cashin sees the linking factor not as race, but poverty. As an educator herself, Cashin focuses on access to postsecondary schooling, which has distinct economic implications. Poor people, even what Cashin calls “low-income strivers,” have systemic barriers to education access (her lengthy demonstration defies abridgement). Lack of educational access has consequences which unspool throughout a citizen’s life. Therefore, Cashin says, poverty trumps race as a situation needing redress.

I’ll buy that. But Cashin’s solution is to focus efforts on geographically localized poverty. Public policy, like zoning regulations and the end of forced busing in the 1990s, have moved America’s poor into close physical proximity. This has racial overtones, admittedly: middle-class neighborhoods are more predominantly white and Asian, while poor neighborhoods are more black and Hispanic. While racial segregation is forbidden today, economic segregation is both legal and widespread.

Thus Cashin’s title: we should solve inequality based on place, not race. Because certain geographic regions have superior access to pre-college tutoring and career planning; because seventy-five percent of students entering America’s most prestigious universities graduated from less than one thousand high schools; because America’s college graduates now live in deep concentration, mentoring rising youth based on proximity, we must privilege geography in dispensing redress. How could anyone possibly disagree?

Easily. Cashin’s solution assumes economic segregation has remained largely constant, and will continue doing so for the foreseeable future. Sadly, reading Cashin’s well-reasoned argument, I cannot forget what I’ve learned from other authors. Jeff Speck and Brown et al. muster statistics that America’s demography is currently reversing after the 2007 housing bubble collapse. We’re living through the reversal of “White Flight,” and American poverty will soon look very, very different.

From the Great Depression until about the year 2000, those who could afford it abandoned America’s cities, creating new, largely black and Hispanic classes called “the urban poor.” But highly educated, economically mobile young Millennials now want to live within walking distance of work, commerce, and recreation, meaning they’re moving back into cities. Rich, mostly white investors have bought and renovated urban neighborhoods, pricing the poor out of their homes.

In our lifetime, we’re witnessing the biggest reorientation of money and geography since World War II. As dense urban housing becomes high-demand and prices soar, suburban housing values stagnate, even decline in certain regions. Cashin briefly addresses suburban poverty, but doesn’t linger on possibly the biggest counterargument: old neighborhoods, poor but blessed with strong social ties, are scattering outward as suburban rentals become the only housing “urban poor” can afford.

Linking poverty rectification to place assumes that money and geography have a stable relationship. Until recently, that was true, but the post-war cultural conditions that encouraged Levittown-style suburban development have reversed since the millennium, and accelerated since 2007. Geographically based programs would now either become quickly outmoded by events, or require costly new layers of bureaucracy to keep abreast of changing conditions. For obvious reasons, neither option is desirable.

Cashin makes a persuasive case that what we’re doing now no longer rectifies the problem that precipitated it. She musters copious evidence that we must recalibrate our attempts to squelch generational poverty. What we’re doing now, Cashin insists, had brief benefits, but currently only stirs the pot, keeping “low-income strivers” always one school district, one campus visit, or one need-based scholarship away from achieving the life their efforts merit.

Informed readers will have difficulty disagreeing with Cashin’s enlightening set-up. She exposes how, post-Johnson, America’s systemic problem has shifted off race, at least directly, and onto economics. But her suggestions for redress make the common mistake, creating a prior system we can plug into unique situations. She’s trying to solve a statistical problem, not a lived one, and statistics tend to squirm around inconveniently.