Friday, October 31, 2014

Bad-Acting Men, and the Women Who Reward Them

This week, the usual suspects got afflutter when Rob Bliss Creative, a self-described “viral video agency,” distributed a two-minute Web film of actress Shoshana B. Roberts, dressed completely non-provocatively, walking silently through Manhattan, absorbing catcalls and sexual taunts from random strangers. It snagged twenty million views in two days. Feminist proclaimed proof—proof!—that patriarchy trivializes women. Misogynists sent death threats. Same old same old.

This video has significant problems. Hanna Rosin notes that, though the final title card claims Roberts got over 100 catcalls, averaging one every six minutes, nearly every face shown harassing Roberts is brown. I’d go further. Nearly every shot features boarded-up windows, graffiti, and men idling curbside, classic emblems of poverty. A white woman wandered into blighted, predominantly brown neighborhoods and expected… what exactly? It’s a classic honey trap.

Worse, despite the editors’ focus on men acing loutishly, nearly every shot backgrounds men not catcalling her. If she got one-hundred come-hithers in a city of eight million people, then even just on the streets Roberts walked, that’s thousands of men notably not embracing the opportunity for misbehavior. So even if Roberts didn’t directly acknowledge the men around her, Bliss Creative gave them exactly what they wanted: attention.

I’ve written previously about feeling skeeved when men harass women. I received several e-mails after one incident put me permanently off Big Bang Theory. My story of “Nelson,” a middle-aged white guy, forcing his attentions on “Daniela,” a young Hispanic co-worker, resonated with several people. Apparently, we’ve all known somebody who treated women with such naked arrogance. Fellas, if you can’t recall anyone, take one solid look in a mirror.

Unfortunately, since writing that, I’ve noticed more complex interactions in play. While enough colleagues finally complained to force Nelson off the line, several other men treat Daniela largely the same. Many are senior technicians whose experience and skills make them difficult to replace. One machine operator, “Jack,” seems incapable of going an hour without flirting with Daniela, tickling her, attempting to startle her, and otherwise displaying sweeping Freudian behavior.

Shoshana Roberts
Watching Jack’s behavior toward Daniela, I’m clearly witnessing the very conduct for which our company wrote its sexual harassment policy. His actions make Shoshana Roberts’ verbal catcalls look tame and courteous. Daniela answers Jack (who is married) by laughing, bantering, and flirting back. Recently, Jack crept up behind Daniela, grabbed her in a bear hug from behind that pinned her arms, and lifted her clear off her feet. Daniela laughed, gave Jack a play punch in the chest, then hugged him.

You’d think they were old buddies. I wholly cannot understand Daniela’s response, given her visible antipathy toward Nelson. There’s literally no difference between how Jack treats Daniela, and how Nelson treated her, except how she responds. Nelson’s attempts to gain Daniela’s attention merited disdain; Jack’s attempts merit reciprocation. Therefore, the only discernable difference between Nelson and Jack, is that Nelson can’t take a hint.

On a personal note, I’ve tried talking to Daniela. No matter what I say, I get monotone two- and three-word responses. I’ve finally given up.

Perhaps economic class matters. Nelson, a fellow peon, has little to offer Daniela, while Jack can offer networking opportunities to climb the company ladder. (We’re emphatically not a meritocracy.) But consider the three responses Daniela’s shown. Jack and Nelson both tried to put the make on her. She responded to one positively, one negatively, for reasons I cannot spot. I tried showing her respect and talking to her like an adult; she received me with indifference.

I never particularly realized, until it happened to a woman I care about, how much time and effort women invest daily in avoiding seual harrassment, degradation, and rape. I have every sympathy with Shoshana Roberts and her message, even if I question aspects of its presentation. So when I see women creating incentives for continued misbehavior, I feel physically queasy. Yet my response matters little; the behavior continues unabated.

Who knows how many men who didn’t harass Shoshana Roberts thought they were showing her respect? Yet all attention accrued to men showing active disrespect. By that criterion, acting loutishly achieves the desired goal. Maybe I’d get Daniela’s attention if I behaved like an asshole. But even thinking that way makes me sick to my stomach, it so thoroughly contravenes my constitution and the way my momma raised me.

If women’s attention is the desired reward, oafish conduct seems to work. If women want harassment to stop, they must first subvert this reward system.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Paleoconservatism 101

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 40
P.J. O'Rourke, Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government

When Republicans swept mid-term elections in 1994, newly elevated House Speaker Newt Gingrich encouraged his fellow Republicans to do something almost completely unprecedented: rather than living full-time in Washington, DC, legislators should reside in their home districts, only commuting into Washington for Congress’s notoriously short workweeks. The results have been disastrous. Legislators who once shared neighborhoods, taverns, and taxis have become complete strangers. Nobody reaches across the aisle anymore because nobody talks to one another.

This, probably PJ O’Rourke’s most influential, least doctrinaire book, appeared halfway through the George HW Bush administration, when elected officials still kept company, and Congressional floor debates still influenced votes. Ideas mattered. Therefore, though O’Rourke’s Libertarian conservative credentials permeate his analysis of American federal government, his side-splitting timbre has bipartisan bite; he cares less about parties, more about consequences. It’s a unilateral debunking clarity broadly missing from political commentators anymore, including, sadly, from O’Rourke himself.

PJ O’Rourke made his bones doing on-set script doctor work for Rodney Dangerfield films, which comes across in his comic timing, frequently coarse humor, and knack for unornamented language. O’Rourke and his close friend John Hughes called themselves the “token conservatives” at National Lampoon magazine; later, O’Rourke wrote this book, originally as separate articles, during his hitch as “National Affairs Desk Chief” at Rolling Stone. He claimed to share an office with Hunter S. Thompson.

P.J. O'Rourke
This mélànge of influences glimmers through O’Rourke’s humor. “Democrats are also the party of government activism, the party that says government can make you richer, smarter, taller and get the chickweed out of your lawn. Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work, and then they get elected and prove it.” What O’Rourke wrote as joshing exaggeration is sober fact anymore. Elsewhere, he characterizes the three branches of government as “Money, Television, and Bullshit.”

O’Rourke describes a government beholden to conflicting forces: spending programs lingering from Great Society liberalism, underwritten with tax structures colored by the Reagan Revolution. Despite today’s ubiquitous Reagan worshippers, O’Rourke notes that, even in the Gipper’s long shadow, killing, or even cursorily remodeling, grandfathered programs was virtually impossible. O’Rourke’s unsentimental skewering of government priorities makes an excellent antidote to today’s unthinking Reagan hagiographies. (Many programs O’Rourke mocks were later dismantled under Bill Clinton, a Democrat.)

One reads O’Rourke’s description of a typical Congressman’s workday—he followed an actual Congressman for one day—with out-and-out nostalgia. Not because we ever remember doing anything similar ourselves; no, his description of eighteen-hour frenzies of meetings, debates, and gladhanding feels downright nightmarish to anyone lacking a Congressman’s ego. Rather, as O’Rourke describes his anonymous Virgil leading him around, we realize, he’s talking with colleagues, constituents, and regular citizens. Real conversations, not pre-scripted press junkets.

That human touch is broadly absent from today’s political scene. O’Rourke cracks wise about “the president act[ing] as a human augury” at budget meetings, or “the president heal[ing] the sick” by signing the Americans With Disabilities Act. Indeed, we still roll eyes at the meaningless ceremony attached to government actions. Yet these activities involve speaking with people holding different opinions. Like coelacanths, we know such beasts still exist; we’ve just never seen one.

Thus, O’Rourke’s cuttingly comical tracts reads like a time capsule. Though inarguably conservative in outlook (his disdain for public welfare and reverence for Reagan loom large), O’Rourke describes philosophical precepts uncolored by partisan cable news, web aggregators, and Koch Brothers talking points. In 1991, even talk radio was still nascent. Commentators like O’Rourke couldn’t expect ideologically unswerving audiences; communication with people who disagreed remained mandatory. This book reads like he cares what ideological opponents think.

O’Rourke describes a utilitarian conservatism here, one interested in reaching vast, diverse audiences, not just an ideological base. Tea Party loyalists certainly won’t appreciate his willingness to acknowledge complexity and nuance. But centrists and leftists would enjoy debating this version of conservatism, largely because it disdains dogma and sloganeering. O’Rourke channels Reagan’s folksy charm, Russell Kirk’s thought, and Jonathan Swift’s hilarious intolerance for hogwash. That’s why this notorious conservative enjoys many fans on the left.

Sadly, since this book debuted, O’Rourke’s views, increasingly untempered by interaction with diverse influences, have become increasingly partisan and dogmatic. He treats disagreement as indicative of stupidity, and reduces complex arguments to idiotic caricatures. Recent books have become virtually unreadable for anyone who doesn’t share his strict Libertarian nationalism. Worst, they aren’t even particularly funny. But for one shining moment, O’Rourke gathered a massive multilateral audience around this hilarious exegesis of Washington’s notorious power edifices.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Great Lesbian Murder Circus of Victorian Tennessee

Alexis Coe, Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis

On January 25th, 1892, 19-year-old Alice Mitchell brutally slashed 17-year-old Frederica “Freda” Ward’s throat on a crowded Memphis boardwalk. She apparently intended to kill herself afterward, but surging crowds prevented her suicide; after a brief delay, police arrested Alice, who never walked free again. Though gruesome, Mitchell’s actions probably wouldn’t have mattered beyond Memphis itself, until her motivations became clear. Mitchell and Ward were in love, but conservative families thwarted their plans to get married.

Mitchell’s spectacular actions, and the media pageant following, gripped national, even international, attention throughout 1892. However, these events are now mostly known only among historians and gender scholars. San Francisco-based author Alexis Coe has written on gender issues for multiple high-gloss magazines; in her first book, she purposes to return Alice and Freda to popular awareness. If telling their story raises awareness about America’s deep-rooted sexual framework, both then and now, so much the better.

Alice Mitchell’s influential, well-heeled father, a fixture in the Memphis economy, preemptively declared Alice clearly insane. Why else, he reasoned, would a well-bred white girl think she could disguise herself in men’s clothing, marry another girl, and get (gasp!) a job to support them? Alice’s defiance of Victorian gender standards quickly became a two-pronged fork, supporting her insanity defense while titillating newspaper readers nationwide. In Coe’s telling, nationwide journalism quickly descended to slut-shaming and voyeurism.

Alice and Freda made elaborate plans. Alice intended, adopting the male identity of “Alvin J. Ward,” to elope with Freda, marry in church, and set up housekeeping in St. Louis. Freda helped Alice device subterfuges worthy of Hollywood Gothic, and their letters, which remarkably survive, reveal mutual affection worthy of celebration. But when their families discovered their romance, fraught with complications that seem tragicomic after what followed, they were ordered to stop. Alice couldn’t obey.

This story unfolds with alternating tones, careful historical research intercutting with gripping narrative. Coe’s story starts with Freda’s murder, then unfolding both ways, revealing the girls’ “unnatural” romance while the sensationalized trial transforms backwater Memphis into a global hotspot. Judge Julius Dubose, a consummate showman and benchmark of spotty ethics, contrasts splendidly with ambiguous Alice, systemically silenced by the men around her, still an enigma a century after her spectacular trial and subsequent mysterious death.

Coe promises, in her introduction, to eschew complex gender politics and sexual identity ideology which colors most modern writing about this case. She’s more successful at some times than others. Gender issues dominate this story: the white men steering Alice Mitchell’s story, including her father, her attorneys, and the judge, keep bringing gender back into the proceedings. The antiquated gender standards applied to Alice’s evaluation will surely strike modern readers as pseudo-scientific, dictatorial, and bizarre.

White girls’ upbringing in 19th Century Memphis seems remarkable to modern viewers. (I say “white girls” deliberately; Alice’s lopsided relationship with an African American kitchen servant looms large in her narrative.) Segregated education cultured domesticity, submission, and servility. Strangely, though Victorians couldn’t imagine same-sex love, girls openly practiced “chumming,” a practice of affection and play courtship among schoolmates which, parents imagined, prepared girls for mature relationships with men. That’s how Alice and Freda’s romance began.

Alice must’ve been deranged, eminent physicians argued, because she suffered adolescent nosebleeds—”vicarious menstruation,” they called it. Her asymmetrical face proved homicidal capacity. Seriously, doctors, white males all, made these diagnoses. Alice’s fondness for baseball, and disinterest in dolls, ostensibly proved her lunacy. And what well-bred merchant’s daughter could possibly live satisfied in a marriage that couldn’t ever produce children? Alice and Freda’s shared acceptance of child-free marriage basically secured Alice’s ultimate “present insanity” finding.

Coe’s narrative benefits from Sally Klann’s copious illustrations. Klann recreates the visual texture of fin-de-siècle Memphis, a world removed from today’s standards. Beyond its horse-drawn simplicity, Memphis’ deeply hierarchical society divided populations by gender, race, wealth, and family prestige. (Alice’s trial coincided with the People’s Grocery Company lynching that galvanized Ida B. Wells.) Klann’s illustrations also help expand Coe’s text, which is remarkably brief: too long for a magazine article, but barely standard book length.

Reading Coe’s narrative, I received two impressions. First, alienation: the shoddy science, cash-and-carry justice, and haughty moralism make Memphis a foreign landscape. Second, recognition: these characters have their blinders, but who doesn’t? Will my grandchildren feel about our era as we feel about Victorian Memphis? We cannot know what implications we miss because we don’t know where to look. Coe’s story, like all true classics, old and new, succeeds because ultimately, it’s all about us.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Hilarious Verse and the Terrible Truth About TV

John F. Buckley & Martin Ott, Yankee Broadcast Network

Poetry has always dwelt in strange neverlands, caught between today’s commonplaces and an idealized, probably allegorical past. Poets address today’s needs using bygone methods. From Homer to the medieval troubadours to modern MFA workshops, poets have always somehow not belonged to the present. Therefore, despite repeated pronouncements of poesy’s long-overdue demise, poetry today, if anything, matters more. Barraged by media messages and ever-shifting issues too fast to comprehend, we’re all somehow outside our time anymore.

Welcome to the Yankee Broadcast Network, home of such undying television classics as “Lusts of Midgard,” “Real Housewives of Wayne County,” and “The B-Team.” This network’s gelatinous onslaught of reality TV, plaintive melodrama, and pandering blockbusters keeps audiences hypnotized, while advertisers strategically market dissatisfaction and ennui. This dystopian hangover of television’s reptile-brain impulses blurs boundaries between life and semi-scripted potboilers, reducing viewers to a dreamlike fugue where fever visions increasingly resemble MTV montages, or vice versa.

Casual readers might easily mistake Buckley and Ott’s satirical poetry for mere light verse, interesting but forgettable like Edward Lear. But as poems mount up, as verse styles both traditional and experimental tease readers’ expectations, and as pop culture references meld with ancient poetic tropes to create new hybrids, easy judgments vanish. Eighteen years ago, Ani DiFranco sang “Art imitates life, but life imitates TV.” Buckley and Ott assert those are outmoded distinctions in terrifyingly half-joking poems like “Commercials of the Apocalypse”:
When even the walls began to turn on each other
and kids kicked around skulls in the wreckage for fun,
from skin to sin they sought to sell us things, and so
advertising was born again. Who can forget Zom-B-Gone

with its blend of seventy-three special herbs and
pesticides, able to repel hordes of undead salesmen
and make scorched lawns lush once more? Doesn’t
everyone still hum the jingle from Crazy Ed’s Eyeglass

Emporium and the double-eye-patched pirate’s ayayays?
Martin Ott (right) and John F. Buckley
Poets seldom collaborate today; we’ve come to expect solemn navel gazing interspersed with outbursts of Billy Collins-style try wit. It’s tempting to parse these poems seeking which lines Ott wrote, which Buckley. But that misses the point of their extroverted, non-gloomy experiments, reminiscent of that stalwart theatre class game, “Yes And.” Try to miss the improvisational implications veritably streaming, jazz hands aloft, from poems like “Coming Soon to the Disaster Channel!”:
Tornado week features The Traveling Travails
of Tracy
, a ragdoll that flew from Tulsa to Tallahassee,
her left arm torn when it toppled a telephone pole
in Mobile, Alabama, the snapping of the pretty hem

on her tiny gingham dress sawing Baton Rouge oaks
into splinters. Will she and eight-year-old Stacy,
her newly homeless owner, ever be reunited?
Tune in Tuesday at 9PM for a whirlwind adventure!
It’s easy to recognize the time-delayed rubbernecking popular from cable TV, the hackneyed “History” Channel train wrecks too real for parody. Yet these poets capture not only the voyeuristic excess and shameless hucksterism behind the shows themselves, but also our childlike will to permit such content into our homes and minds. This perversely symbiotic relationship between producers and audience informs poems like “Better Living Through Television” and “Television Through the Ages: a Smithsonian Walkthrough.”

Buckley and Ott experiment with forms. Besides formless free verse, traditional techniques like sestina, ghazal, and terza rima appear periodically. Many of their best poems have lines too long to excerpt for review. Images which originate in one poem reappear elsewhere, giving the collection a Sherwood Anderson-like internal consistency. For example, Hayden Smunchner, evolves from promising talent, to vulgar, fawning huckster, before appearing one final time, in the painfully topical “Fireside Chat”:
The fireplace has been replaced by a TV
cracked open like a dinosaur egg, a blue
flame flickering inside the screen. President

Smunchner, half-ruined face still swoon-worthy
from the right, patiently waits for the drums
to subside, for children to trust they won’t be

eaten. The purple mountains proudly wear
their scars, the length of battlefields smoking
onscreen like Tinseltown toughs. His voice

is low, clear, reasonable—there’ll be extra
rations for rebuilders. His words are not
important; they rarely are. He has taken

>the country as a bride, the smoldering
dream of courtship denied...
Reading this surprisingly funny condemnation, we progress from cognizant laughter, to squirming amusement, to undeniable realization: if TV does this to us, we’re willing participants. We’ve chosen the passive path, while producers like YBN merely sell what we’ve already purposed to buy. Like all good, timelost poets, Buckley and Ott ultimately don’t write about TV; they write about us.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Why Gay Marriage Won't Lead To Legalized Incest

When the moderately conservative op-ed magazine The Week published an article in late September entitled How Liberals Are Unwittingly Paving the Way For the Legalization of Adult Incest, most audiences probably only noticed the absurdly long title, if they noticed it at all, and kept moving. We’ve all heard such sentiments before. Pro-gay marriage advocates have grown bored with such naked scare-mongering, while anti-gay marriage traditionalists nod stoically along, already aware such opinions are common.

I’ll paraphrase author Damon Linker’s argument. In an “anything goes” atmosphere, where we’ve progressively dismissed the taboo against homosexuality, we must inevitably accept all forms of non-coercive sex as essentially equal. This means, if blood relatives of consenting age engage in sexual relations, we’d necessarily treat their relationship like we’d treat a heterosexual marriage. The German Ethics Council, a non-binding government committee, has already endorsed this reasoning. In time, such libertarianism is an unavoidable consequence.

Damon Linker
If Linker’s argument sounds familiar, we’ve heard his core claims dribble from the lips of reactionary moralists before, from Rick Santorum to Laura Schlessinger. It was crap then, and it remains crap now. It relies on false equivalency, that all sexual expressions besides man-on-top heterosexuality are mere self-indulgence. By implication, it insists all change is decline, and in moral categories like sexuality, it makes all change into decadence. Linker aims to scare, not inform, readers.

Same-sex marriage has achieved widespread acceptance in developed countries today because we have sex for different reasons than in the past. In bygone days, when infant mortality was high, infectious diseases more commonly terminal, and economics dependent on constant resupplies of human labor, procreation had important social weight. Marriage established legitimate continuity of family authority, resource allocation, and work. Before second-wave feminism, marriage also helped establish social hierarchy: male privilege and work, versus female domesticity.

We marry, procreate, and have sex today for different reasons. First, and perhaps most important, we moderns marry for love. This sounds obvious, but that concept only extends backward to Victorian times. It’s a product of economic stability and confidence. And it corresponds with changing sexual mores: not just rising acceptance for homosexuality, but for women’s ability to divorce abusive husbands, a woman’s rights following rape, and her authority to decide whether to give birth.

By itself, we might suppose similar claims apply to sex between blood relations. Though healthy individuals cringe at the thought, we can imagine situations where adult siblings and cousins could experience romantic love. But besides reifying love, marriage serves another responsibility. Imagine society as a pyramid. Individuals form the foundation, which coalesce into families, then civic organizations (schools, clubs, congregations, etc.). These merge into local communities, then regional governments, and upward, to nationwide federal authority.

Stephanie Coontz
Marriage, whether heterosexual or same-sex, guides individuals outward, into society. Incest guides individuals inward, away from society. Incest jeopardizes rudimentary social structures by permitting individuals to retreat from their public, communal obligations. If I marry, or anyway sleep with, my sister, I don’t create new family relations, I simply perpetuate old ones. Same-sex couples wish to join public society, drive culture, and make families. Incestuous relations are cowardly, essentially fleeing contact with larger human community.

Laws regarding marriage state how society’s pyramid peak permits us, the foundation, to constitute the second level. For about seven generations, we’ve accepted that individuals form families based on love, though until recently, we’ve assumed love meant men and women. Permitting same-sex couples to legally wed asserts that love is our society’s fundamental organizing principle. Forbidding same-sex marriage associates marriage with procreation, limiting society’s foundation to its members’ sexual capability, the veriest definition of plebian.

Under that reasoning, society should retain the authority to forbid incest, even among consenting adults. When individuals have sex with blood relations, even discounting the genetic consequences, these individuals, and the families they perpetuate, essentially fragment from society. When we marry non-related individuals of either gender, we strengthen society’s bonds and build new families. With incest, we abrogate our responsibilities to common humanity. (See Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, a History for more detail in this direction.)

Conflating gay marriage and incest is a time-tested scare tactic, designed to silence debate. Reactionaries lob this one bomb into the public discourse and make somebody else clean the rubble. Essentially, it’s the opposite of discussing issues on their merits. Propagandists of ignorance like Damon Linker should be ashamed, except I doubt they’re capable of shame. Society isn’t changing, it’s already changed, and Linker’s pathetic histrionics signal allegiance to a cultural dynamic already long dead.

Monday, October 13, 2014

In the Kingdom of the Newbies

Liz Wiseman, Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work

Did you ever read a book and think the author missed her own point? Say, an author praising the ingenuity of beginners, whose unclouded vision opens doors in today’s fast-moving economy? Liz Wiseman says plenty I find laudable in this book, but suffers the very tunnel vision she attributes to others. She’s so eager to extol the contributions rookies make in contemporary business, she misses that her evidence points to a related, but very separate, conclusion.

Wiseman, a management consultant and businesswoman of varied CV, covers much the same ground Shane Snow and Jack Hitt explored recently. However, where Snow and Hitt are journalists, Wiseman, an entrepreneur and researcher, brings hard analytical sophistication to her process. She makes a persuasive case that, in disciplines where innovative thinking matters, new players and career shifters bring strategic advantages which credentialed experts often miss.

Rookies accomplish this, Wiseman writes, through aggressive networking, diversifying the knowledge base, and seeking guidance where needed. Wiseman writes: “Aware of his [sic] own lack of knowledge, the rookie embarks on a desperate, focused, diligent search, hunting for experts who can teach him and guide his way.” Oh, wait, so experts really are necessary? Rookies benefit from their willingness to defer to experience?

That suggests, not that rookies beat veterans, but that rookies and veterans need one another, forming a symbiotic relationship where each advances the other. Indeed, where each lacks the other, catastrophic consequences frequently ensue. Untutored newbies created the Clinton-era tech stock bubble. Grizzled old hands with minimal tendency to ask plainspoken questions tanked the financial and housing sectors. Imagine if either had simply shown basic willingness to listen.

Liz Wiseman
Shane Snow addressed this very topic (I had significant problems with Snow, but this wasn’t one). Though one-on-one mentorships tend to perpetuate old habits, a diffuse program where senior workers counsel up-and-comers encourages newbies to take chances, learn more, and do better. Though neither Snow’s journalism nor Wiseman’s research proves it, common sense suggests such relationships also keep veterans open to rookies’ innate wide-eyed wonder.

Further, Wiseman repeatedly extols “humility” as a rookie virtue. Rookies, she insists, are naturally humble, where veterans are cocksure, shunning advice. I say: can be. We’ve all known noobs who accept, even solicit, guidance, and pundits who talk without listening. We’ve also known old warhorses who maintain the cheerful mindset of perpetual students, and novices who prove the adage, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”

In my varied career, I’ve seen:
  • Apprentice actors who argue with directors, believing themselves unrecognized Pacinos;
  • Freshman Comp students who demand top marks because they received all A’s in high school;
  • Recent nursing graduates who unilaterally countermand doctors’ orders;
  • Graduate students picking fights with otherwise generous professors in defense of theories discredited decades ago;
  • Writing workshop participants who eagerly give criticism, but turn deaf when receiving it; and
  • Factory noobs who need bandages or splints because they reach around basic safeguards.
And I must admit, at various times, these people have been me.

Wiseman talks up “green belt syndrome,” a martial arts term for student fighters who, having received their first Dan rank, believe themselves born samurai. Wiseman clearly thinks this makes them scrappy and indomitable. But martial artists call it a “syndrome” deliberately: GBS sufferers frequently pick fights they’re unqualified to win, jeopardizing themselves and others. Some people require periodic ass-beatings to instill needed humility.

So, if neither rookie humility nor teamwork are foregone conclusions, what remains? Neither innocence nor experience seems sufficient, whether from common sense nor Wiseman’s exposition. Indeed, from Wiseman’s own evidence, I draw a contrasting conclusion, the necessity of all stages within complex organizations. Apprentice triumphalism is as unwarranted as professional self-satisfaction. Rookies need expert guidance; veterans need unfiltered newbie eyes.

Even Wiseman acknowledges this early: “Rookie smarts isn’t defined by age or by experience level,” she writes; “it is a state of mind.” Complex organizations benefit from occasional transfusions of fresh blood, whether from new hires or internal reshuffles. This doesn’t mean putting your best shellbacks to pasture, because new blood needs old. But it does require never becoming so enamored of past triumph that you miss the approaching future.

In my favorite quote, Wiseman writes, “What we know might mask what we don’t know and impede our ability to learn and perform.” I agree; I’ve seen Taylorist managers submarine their own operations by refusing floor-level advice. But that doesn’t make the diametrical opposite true. Wiseman’s so focused on rookie contributions that she apparently misses the two-way nature of the relationship.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Bartolomé de las Casas Is Nobody's Hero

An excerpt from The Oatmeal's "Bartolomé Day" comic. Click here for the full comic.

Internet cartoonist Matthew Inman published a strip entitled “Christopher Columbus Was Awful (But This Other Guy Was Not)” in the weeks before Columbus Day 2013, urging Americans to reject the “Columbus Day” title and instead celebrate “Bartolomé Day,” honoring Bartolomé de las Casas. Inman calls Bartolomé “one of the first advocates for universal human rights.” Take a moment to read Inman’s encomium to Bartolomé. Considering what we know now, he certainly seems worthy of celebration.

However, think carefully. Inman admits he gets his information, on both Bartolomé and Columbus, from Howard Zinn and James Loewen. He hasn’t read the primary sources, as indeed most non-historians haven’t. Columbus and Bartolomé wrote in an outmoded Castilian dialect more distant from contemporary Spanish than Shakespearean English is from hip-hop lingo. Though translations exist, the wide remove between contemporary linguistic standards and early Renaissance Spanish reflects massive shifts in worldview as much as language.

Bartolomé de las Casas
Bartolomé did, as Inman writes, inveigh against injustices wrought upon Indians. Born rich and titled, an encounter with Christ encouraged Bartolomé to reject his inheritance and dedicate his life to “the least of these.” He displayed a commitment modern American fundamentalists could profitably emulate: rather than resting comfortably upon the knowledge of his salvation, he considered that saving the beginning of his new life. From that point, Bartolomé endeavored constantly to live by Christ’s teachings.

But like all Christians, from Paul to Augustine, from St. Francis to Bonhoeffer, Bartolomé also remained human. This means he sometimes suffered the blinders of his times, missed the bigger picture, and spoke without full possession of the facts. In his writings, Bartolomé deplored the consequences plantation slavery inflicted upon Indians, in lands once their own. But he didn’t question plantations themselves. Thus, he advocated replacing Indian slaves with more numerous, hardier, readily available Africans.

That’s right—Bartolomé de las Casas, extolled advocate for Native American rights, wrote possibly the first surviving moral justification for the Transatlantic Slave Trade. American Indians, having never encountered either European warfare or Eastern Hemisphere tropical diseases, were dying like flies. However, the introduction of maize and potatoes into Africa had produced a population boom exceeding available land or work. Thus, Columbus created a nexus of dislocation that hurt everybody, except perhaps the wealthiest Europeans.

Harvard-educated historian James Loewen, one of Inman’s two sources, writes about something he calls “heroification,” which “turn[s] flesh-and-blood individuals into pious, perfect creatures without conflicts, pain, credibility, or human interest.” Loewen specifically wrote this to censure how American public schools teach history. My fellow public school graduates probably recall the confusion suffered when we discovered the difference between fixed, immobile schoolbook history, and the sweaty turmoil we witness nightly while watching the unfolding news.

We saw this last month with the highly publicized Colorado school walkout, when students abandoned five suburban Denver high schools to protest curriculum changes. Community groups wanted history classes to inculcate patriotism, minimize doubts about America’s greatness, and discourage “civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.” America’s struggles, often mined profitably by book publishers and Hollywood producers, because they’re important and frankly interesting, are getting squelched by semi-elected leaders in America’s public schools.

No artists captured Christoper Columbus
during his life. We don't know what he
really looked like—not that anyone has
stopped trying to create portraits
My problem with Inman’s comic isn’t that he includes only information that supports his thesis. It’s that he reduces the struggles Bartolomé and Columbus faced, which are largely the struggles still playing out today, to single fixed points. Bartolomé’s and Columbus’s views evolved unhurriedly, and though they traveled in opposite directions, they did so under mainly identical circumstances. Voter ID laws, gerrymandered congressional districts, and other lopsided, race-based legislation indicates Bartolomé’s struggles aren’t yet resolved.

Below his comic, in plain type, Inman acknowledges Bartolomé’s role in constructing the Transatlantic Slave Trade. He also quotes Bartolomé in his old age, rejecting his own former opinions. Since Bartolomé’s views arose from Christian values, we might perhaps recall Christ’s quote about one sinner who repents versus ninety-nine virtuous persons who never stray. This certainly describes Bartolomé, and it could potentially describe America, if we learn to stop celebrating the worst in our history.

Nevertheless, that disclaimer doesn’t negate the massive infographic, so huge it requires eleven .png files to display, which presents Bartolomé and Columbus as fixed, immobile creatures. This is a shame. Because Inman’s right, children should learn about Bartolomé in school. But they should learn the whole man: the challenges he faced, the internal struggle he never completely resolved, and his whole legacy, good and bad. Bartolomé deserves better than getting reduced to a mere hero.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

How Not To Change Republicans' Minds

Patrick M. Andendall, Stupidparty—Math v. Myth: Unmasking the Destructive Forces Eroding American Democracy

Watch the two big 24-hour partisan news channels sometime. Notice how MSNBC, that grand lefty spectacle, uses data. They’ll hit you with charts, histograms, maps, quotes, statistics, and relevant context like they believe nothing stands between America and liberal triumph but knowledge. Fox, however, uses facts mainly as set dressing. They’re all about moral claims, and incant moralistic language like freedom, family, and flag. Liberals believe they can educate America; conservatives prefer to moralize America.

Thus my problem with Patrick Andendall’s first book. A self-described business conservative and disillusioned Republican, he purposes to reclaim American conservatism from factual ignorance, sublimated bigotry, and fallacious reasoning. Republicans, Andendall claims, have become the Stupidparty, actively hostile to science, hypnotized by faux economics, and trapped on the wrong side of history. A former Republican myself, I support that goal. But his approach appeals mainly to readers who already understand and agree with his conclusions.

Pursuing his goal, Andendall compiles literally thousands of pull quotes, graphs, listicles, images, and citations demonstrating the ever-widening gulf between Stupidparty talking points and externally verifiable fact. Though he provides limited linking prose to connect these citations, he attempts, wherever possible, to let facts speak for themselves. Whether that means quoting Republican leaders lamenting their own party-wide stupidity, or proving how non-partisan stats contradict talking points, or whatever, Andendall provides a veritable smorgasbord of facts.

Andendall doesn’t, however, attempt to put these facts in any meaningful framework. He divides ideas into chapters, putting thematically related facts beside one another, but beyond that, he essentially trusts readers to understand why massive block quotes matter. With neither story nor moral, it’s difficult to make facts make sense. As journalist Stewart Pinkerton writes, “Most people need an expert to filter, prioritize, and context [sic] information. A firehose of information without that is useless.”

This volume does nothing to filter, prioritize, or contextualize. It also does nothing to recognize its audience’s predilections. Humans, pattern-seeking creatures by nature, seek the narrative structure in any argument, which explains why conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, born storytellers by nature. Without that narrative, we flail. Imagine reading the back of a baseball card without any understanding of terminology or statistics. Without some foundation, long factual lists and quotations become equally confusing.

Not that Andendall never attempts such contextualization. His discursion on Mormonism in particular adopts exactly the strong, morally grounded tone that his stated conservative audience readily comprehends. He contrasts Mormon words, particularly those propounded by Mitt Romney, with common Mormon actions, emphasizing those actions, current and historical, which Mormons mightn’t appreciate seeing made public. Here Andendall does exactly what his audience appreciates. Then, having briefly accomplished his goals, he dances back to lengthy listicles again.

Recent developments in behavioral economics, a discipline which merges psychology with real-world consequences, have significant impacts in political discourse. Sasha Issenberg describes how political operators fine-tune their messages, deliver specific talking points to specific audiences, and muster outrage to mobilize voters. If Ted Cruz or Elizabeth Warren sound particularly fiery when addressing the electorate, that’s not coincidental. Modern, highly technocratic political discourse is precisely fine-tuned for maximum impact. Savvy electoral operators leave nothing to chance.

By contrast, Andendall simply unloads massive quantities of information into audiences’ laps. Perhaps he trusts readers, believing us literate and thoughtful enough to understand why his block quotes matter. But political information, true or false, is common as dirt today. From fake Founding Fathers quotes and Robert Reich infographics, to mass mailers from and Americans For Prosperity, we’re drowning in such factoids. Today’s voters need help making meaning, not another squirt from the firehose.

Andendall’s print edition runs nearly 400 pages, though he admits print is an afterthought. He wrote this book to be consumed electronically, and laced it through with links to his original sources. If you carry your smartphone or tablet with you everywhere, this may make this book useful when you’re debating that favorite MSNBC bugaboo, “your uncle who watches Fox News all day.” Use Andendall’s sources to prove you’re serious, and not making anything up.

But for actually persuading committed Stupidparty voters to reject simplistic moralizing arguments and return to conventional fact-based reasoning, time will tell whether Andendall succeeds. I just doubt it. This book reads like notes for a more carefully controlled book Andendall hopes to write later. He’s courteously arranged his notes into a rough outline, but only made salutary efforts at context. Andendall’s heart is in the right place. I just feel his pen is playing catch-up.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Weeds in the Children's Garden

Johann Christoph Arnold, Their Name Is Today: Reclaiming Childhood in a Hostile World

Johann Christoph Arnold’s manifesto for renewing childhood’s infinite potential really excites this ex-teacher’s ideals… at first. I like his principles of nurturance and play as tools to develop well-rounded human beings. His exhortation for adults to spend time around children, insisting this gives us opportunities to rediscover life’s wonder. As Arnold asserts, humankind’s philosophical and religious traditions reward people who see life through the eyes of a child. Through childhood, life makes all things new.

Yet Arnold repeatedly undercuts otherwise masterly arguments by failing to recognize nuance. Presumably writing for middle-class parents besotted by modernity’s flush suffusion of distractions, he urges us to forego self-seeking behavior, much loved in today’s technological society, and dedicate ourselves to childrearing as a nigh-religious vocation. He apparently doesn’t recognize the many working-class families who, despite noble efforts, cannot dedicate copious hours to their children’s well-being. Many would desperately love to do so, but can’t.

Who wouldn’t admire Arnold’s vision of classical “kindergarten,” where children encounter a mix of guided play and incremental responsibility, as means to improve their minds without deadening their souls? Were such options readily available, this childless ex-teacher would gladly volunteer his skills. (Arnold’s “kindergarten” survives today mainly in Montessori schools.) The problem isn’t that nobody wants these opportunities, or disdains them; it’s that, at society’s bottom rungs, such opportunities exceed hardworking parents’ ability to pay.

Arnold perhaps doesn’t realize how hurtful some statements appear. He writes: “When we sit texting on a playground bench while our kids play alone, whose time are we saving?” Okay, we’ve all known parents whose children raise themselves because their noses remain buried in an iPhone. I've read the documentation. But everyone has individual circumstances. What of overworked blue-collar parents whose only personal minutes happen while kids run free? They aren’t neglectful; they’re just poor.

Some parents certainly neglect their children because they’re preoccupied with moddish distractions. Some. But Arnold entertains no other explanation at any length; for him, all failure to provide hands-on childhood nurturance stems preponderantly from bourgeois self-absorption. Many of my factory colleagues, many with working spouses and second jobs, would desperately love more time with their kids. But Arnold’s rebukes seem particularly hurtful, because my colleagues can afford neither hip smartphones, nor time at the park.

Too many blue-collar workers castigate themselves because they cannot spare childrearing time like they remember from their parents. Since falling backward on society’s economic ladder, I’ve watched co-workers reduced to rage or tears because they must entrust children to older siblings while they work graveyards, then to schoolteachers and paid caregivers while they sleep by day. They live paycheck to paycheck, unable to bequeath much when their kids hit adulthood. They don’t need further guilt.

Though Arnold resists mere instrumental valuations, and I understand why, the fact nevertheless remains that children are costly. Children require fed, clothed, sheltered, entertained, and educated for fifteen years or longer before they’re capable of making more than salutary contributions to family coffers. Certainly this doesn’t make children worthless; unless you’re Ayn Rand, all humans have value beyond simple economics. But it does force working-class parents to budget money, time, and other finite resources appropriately.

But wait—humans, including children, certainly do have economic import! Writing the above paragraph, I remember something Richard Stearns of World Vision wrote, that when his charity dug communal wells through bedrock in isolated African villages, families found themselves suddenly free to limit procreation, because they didn’t need children to fetch and carry water. Pre-industrial agrarian societies encouraged large families because children constituted the farm’s labor force. Until recently, children had innate value only laterally.

Therefore, Arnold’s vision of lost childhood inherently requires degrees of economic autonomy not shared equally. Even in economically stable America, families who don’t resemble the supposed aggregate find themselves unable to dedicate time to their children like they’d prefer. And lumping overworked, cash-strapped parents together with their negligent or heedless peers essentially serves to shame poor people for being poor. I’m sure Arnold doesn’t mean that. But his failure to differentiate nevertheless produces this result.

I applaud Arnold’s ethical framework. Many women and men, even lacking their own children, share Arnold’s vision, and dedicate lives and careers to education, advocacy, and enlightened childrearing. I taught for four years, and would’ve continued if I could’ve afforded the penurious wage. But Arnold paints with a broad brush, apparently unaware that individuals have differing motives for superficially identical actions. A society-wide problem requires a society-wide solution, not chiding individuals regardless of their circumstances.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Art Academy and the Great Rhyme Rebellion

Kate Hattemer, The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy

When a reality TV show hijacks a Minneapolis arts academy, the school idealists and misfits resent their classmates’ sudden stardom. But a unit on Ezra Pound awakens four bohemians’ desire to resist. Suddenly, their anonymous epic poem becomes the flashpoint between Hollywood glamor and free-spirited artistry. Just when it seems art triumphs over spectacle, though, these poetic insurgents discover the power media charm really wields. They must face their own part in transforming their school.

Superficially, Kate Hattemer’s first novel shows four teenagers rebelling against mindless conformity handed down by adults who hold unquestioned authority. But thinking backward, it actually deals with illusions. This includes illusions we learn from authority, like the belief in raffish artistry, or illusions sold us for duplicitous purposes, like television’s selectively edited charisma. But we’re most blinded by the illusions we create ourselves, which here means mainly the gulf between romantic malarkey and real love.

Ethan Andrezejczak, our first-person narrator, and his three fellow rhyme rebels use post-colonial traditions of long poetry to protest how TV’s “For Art’s Sake” has transformed Selwyn Academy. Ethan loves his friends wholly, but knows them, too. It’s hard to romanticize what we truly know. Thus he dedicates his greatest loyalty to Maura Heldsman, a beautiful ballerina who apparently doesn’t know him. Besides the media illusions, Ethan surrounds himself with made-up relationships with virtual strangers.

When Ethan discovers Maura needs the reality show’s top prize, a hefty scholarship, to achieve her lifelong dreams, his first illusion shatters. He cannot hate something that gives hope. But he also discovers how little he knows Maura, forcing him to choose. Does he sacrifice his illusion, or double down, making her even more unattainable? His final answer lies somewhere between the extremes. Like us, he needs his illusions to persevere in a contentious world.

Hattemer puts Ethan through remarkable changes. As his friends’ guerilla rebellion permeates the school, long-buried secrets get exposed, often at great cost. Selwyn Academy apparently harbors more layers of duplicity and collusion than a John Grisham novel, and whenever they expose one, another proves hidden beneath it. Soon, Ethan’s neck-deep in something he never anticipated. And he painfully discovers that everyone, even your best friend, even your teacher, even your unrequited love, has their price.

The magnitude of illusions Ethan must shatter is both joyous and painful. Not all illusions are bad: the illusion that he knows his English teacher permits him to delve into literature without playing academic politics. But the illusions sold to him, like those surrounding the television show he reflexively hates without first getting to know it, undermine his ability to make smart, informed decisions. Ethan’s illusions collapse, not from disenchantment, but from plain old reality.

Nevertheless, Ethan’s rhyme rebels pursue justice for their bamboozled friends, because they’re young enough to believe their actions matter. By his own confession, Ethan’s visions don’t coincide with life’s often-pitiless trajectory. Yet in refusing to conform, the rhyme rebels discover unanticipated capacities to believe, love, and strike blows against the man. Had I children, I’d wish them half the moxie Ethan demonstrates, because once you have the courage to act, nobody can take that away.

Young adult literature has seen recent great popularity with grown-ups. Despite the real-world setting, Ethan could potentially rank with Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen. We adults easily vanish into ourselves because we’ve sublimated our dreams to the harsh realities around us. We still believe our shiny dreams, but life’s pressures keep us from pursuing them. It’s hard to improve ourselves while pulling full-time jobs. Youth fiction lets us reclaim the ability to dream without limits.

Because Ethan sees life with unjaded wonder, he’s an appealing character, not just for Hattemer’s intended young adult audience, but for grown-ups, too. He makes us believe we can restore meaning ourselves when confronted by faux reality and for-profit illusions. He helps us realize we needn’t remain enslaved, provided our dreams remain vibrant. Even when dreams collide with unexpected circumstances, Ethan continues moving forward. Because he still believes his actions matter, he’s free to act.

All ages will enjoy this book because it addresses lessons we could all stand to learn: the difference between the ideals, good or ill, we project on others, and their awkward reality. The difference between art-as-art and art-as-business, and why they’re mutually dependent. The gulf between the life we planned, and the life we live. Ethan, with his dry wit and relentless self-sabotage, is a great character because he’s us. His illusions are our hope.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

It's Like a Woman Can't Win

Miriam Weeks (Belle Knox)
In one of those significant circumstances that mystically minded psychologist Carl Jung called “synchronicity,” porn actresses dominated my news feed this weekend. Nationally, Miriam Weeks, the self-described “Duke Porn Star” who performs under the name Belle Knox, briefly made the news rounds again despite doing nothing particularly new. Simultaneously, the on-air talent roster returned to Kansas City-area radio station 96.5 The Buzz following a million-dollar lawsuit.

Miriam Weeks, a working-class freshman at Duke University, gained national notoriety earlier this year by revealing she covered most of her $67,000 tuition bill by performing in online pornography. Since then, she claims, she’s become estranged from her family and friends, received everything from death threats to marriage proposals, and lost her entire student aid package. National media figures have widely embraced or excoriated her, without getting to know her.

Over two years ago, Afentra and DannyBoi, the mononymic morning drive-time co-host on The Buzz, misidentified a local law student as a “porn star,” based on erroneous listener text messages and a half-cocked Google search. This student brought suit, claiming having her name broadcast regionally undermined her reputation and damaged her mental health. After two-and-a-half years in legal purgatory, the Kansas City, Kansas, federal court awarded damages of one-million dollars.

The Buzz’s parent corporation, Entercom Media, suspended the station’s entire on-air talent stable from Tuesday to Sunday of last week, citing no reason publically, though presumably to prevent anybody saying anything actionable during the suit. Their talent returned on Monday, expressing gratitude to their listeners for continued support.  Their drive-time bush-league Howard Sterns were notably unabashed, though; Tuesday, they spent hours discussing Kansas’ big state-run dildo auction.

(Full disclosure: though I live over 300 miles away, The Buzz is my chosen radio station. I listen daily, and have downloaded music because of The Buzz’s endorsement. Thanks to Internet and smartphone technology, this local radio station now has potentially global reach.)

Afentra and DannyBoi, The Buzz's mononymic (and usually reclusive) morning drive-time DJs

The contrast between the two cases speaks volumes about America’s social values. Not just that one student embraced the moniker “porn star,” while another considered it legally actionable; but the reactions directed by the general public at the respective subjects. Miriam Weeks has attracted scorn, derision, and personal invective for being a porn star. The Kansas law student (who is named, but I’ll preserve her dignity) has received… the same.

Buzz listeners tweeted messages like “This is bullshit” and “If you dont like 96.5 the buzz then you can fuck off” when their DJs got benched. Worse, many directed personal attacks at the woman, apparently a listener herself, who brought the suit. They called her  “bitch,” insisted her suit reflected excessive law school indoctrination, and proved she had low character. Some language got even uglier, displaying vituperation and misogyny.

To their credit, The Buzz DJs rejected such attitudes. They’ve remained gracious, mostly declined on-air comment, and kept focus on their music. When fans attempted to establish a donor-sponsored legal defense fund, The Buzz declined, steering the donations toward a local battered women’s shelter. The on-air personalities themselves have kept professional, avoided stirring controversy, and demonstrated apologetic attitudes when questioned by journalists.

Vocal fans, however, haven’t shared this attitude. Besides slinging imprecations at the plaintiff, they’ve directed personal insults at a local (female) TV reporter for calling Afentra’s program “raunchy,” a not-unreasonable description, considering how they use coarse language and adult themes to court controversy and jack ratings. Though Afentra remains professional, her program’s ribald tone has spilled over into fan comments, some so shocking I won’t repeat them.

No wonder the plaintiff claims, over two years later, she can’t sleep at night. If somebody forced me to accept either the tag “porn star” or the language vocal fans have directed at her, I’d probably squirm in misery, too. Yet, considering the abuse directed at Miriam Weeks, just ignoring the appellation isn’t an acceptable choice either. Apparently, if a woman admits being a porn actress, she’s a bitch. If she denies being a porn actress, she’s a bitch.

It’s like a woman can’t win.

People react badly to change. Even people who believe themselves broad-minded and activist balk when somebody threatens their particular sacred cows. If some teenager rejects my sexual standards, we’ll isolate her. If some older student doesn’t reject my sexual mores, and gets angry at the suggestion, we’ll still isolate her. Sheltered by Internet anonymity, confident we’ll never face consequences for the vitriol we fling, the face we show is ugly.

How much better if we just talk to one another.