Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Cancer of Liberty

Tzvetan Todorov, The Inner Enemies of Democracy

Newshounds my age recall the 20th Century, when democratic ideology stood up to, and ultimately outlasted, a string of autocratic political ideas: imperialism during WWI, fascism during WWII, Communism during the Cold War. But since 1991, when the USSR collapsed, Western democracy has wheeled through multiple enemies, latterly settling on international terrorism, though struggling to identify what “terrorism” means. Though radicalists still stage salutary challenges, we lack serious threats, which evidently bothers some powerful people.

Franco-Bulgarian critic Tzvetan Todorov, who grew up under Communism, knows something about institutional enemies. From Warsaw-pact governments that maintained order by squelching dissent, to rah-rah democracy that catered to citizens’ appetites, he’s experienced a range of modern social orders. While he agrees that democracy trumps its autocratic challengers, he contends the last generation or so has seen a radical shift in Western democracy’s self-figuration. In a world without global enemies, democracies simply invent their own.

American readers will primarily recognize Todorov from his literary criticism. But he’s actually written more social criticism, including revisionist takes on the American frontier myth, and the role of conflicting humanisms in European thought. His work has a strange duality: though packed with dense implications, in that French école normale style, yet written in unaffected language committed laypeople can understand. His writing isn’t easy by any stretch. Yet he unfolds splendidly for curious, resourceful readers.

Tzvetan Todorov
Todorov perceives the arc of Western thought in terms I’d never previously considered: the conflict between Augustine and Pelagius. Where Augustine believed humans fundamentally aren’t free, and rely on divine grace for redemption, Pelagius rejected such determinism, insisting humans are free to strive after salvation. Ecumenical leaders supported Augustine, and excommunicated Pelagius, temporarily settling that debate; but Renaissance humanism resurrected the controversy. Western philosophy, especially politics and social science, now continues re-fighting that centuries-old battle.

Todorov’s own religious inclinations remain unclear in this text; he keeps spiritual themes cagily impersonal. But despite citing religious analogies, he presents a wholly humanist examination of human social structure. He asserts, like Durkheim, that in a secular age, government assumes roles once belonging to God. And as Augustinian determinism or Pelagian liberty condition believers’ relationship to divine authority, today’s modern philosophic debates center on whether ordinary citizens must challenge or submit to human power.

This takes multiple forms. Todorov dedicates his longest discourse for what he terms “political messianism.” If the state is God, and democracies outlast other ideologies (for Todorov, “democracy” and “capitalism” are interchangeable), it follows that democracy offers the proven route to secular salvation. Todorov deplores when the powerful use “free speech” to excuse beating down already-oppressed populations. He also notes the correlation between populism and xenophobia; French paranoia about headscarves looms large in Todorov’s examinations.

Unsurprisingly, in an originally Francophonic book, Todorov addresses French democracy, and EU governance more broadly, in ways Americans aren’t accustomed to hearing from our media. (First published in French in 2012, it debuted in English in 2014. I commend translator Andrew Brown for negotiating concepts with no one-to-one equivalents.) Though he addresses America’s War on Terror, this Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkey saves his greatest disdain for that corporatist toad-eater, Nicolas Sarkozy. His language is frankly bracing.

Readers may recognize one theme Todorov repeatedly addresses without directly naming it: the Western will to martyrdom. When he quotes a Danish editor comparing himself to medieval reformists for mocking Muslims, a systematically marginalized minority, I had an insight. American conservative evangelicals tout their supposed oppression, despite Christianity’s outright majority. Powerful majorities yearn for oppressed status; Todorov writes, “It has to be said that, these days, the figure of the victim exerts an irresistible attraction.”

Reading this directly after the Charlie Hebdo massacre gave Todorov’s message an urgency he couldn’t have anticipated. French law protects certain minorities; shortly after the Charlie Hebdo killings, French authorities arrested a comedian for an anti-Semitic Facebook post. Charlie mocked a powerless, ostracized minority, then cried foul when that minority, defenseless in either government or media, hit back. The subsequent crocodile tears weren’t about free speech; they basically manufactured, or recycled, a new global enemy.

This book carries the shock of recognition. Todorov repeatedly hits informed readers with insights we’ve not suspected, but have lingered unspoken behind public discourse in our time. Spokespeople for democracy’s competing visions offer powerful, but incompatible, narratives of various enemies whose overwhelming, malignant might altogether jeopardizes modern freedom, because fear of totalitarian foes energizes free citizens. But in a world where global enemies offer only symbolic challenges, democracy’s real enemies dwell within our own borders.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Monogamy in a Plural Society

John I. Cline, The Monogamy Mystery: Natural/Unnatural?
Sometimes it feels, in this age of presidential infidelities and quickie celebrity divorces, that monogamy has become another outdated cultural vestige. Public figures, even spiritual leaders and beloved teachers, make and break marriages with manic haste. Yet humans continue longing for meaningful bonds with other humans, bonds we contend should last throughout mortal life or beyond. How do we achieve where so many have failed? How can we reconcile lofty goals with common human frailties?

Bishop John Cline, a Baptist minister from the British Virgin Islands, has wrestled with these issues throughout his career. Unsurprisingly from a Christian clergyman, his considerations come from the Bible and religious tradition; but also biology, sociology, history, and current events. He guides readers through difficult, sometimes contradictory reasoning pathways, ever mindful that, for most people, issues of fidelity, forgiveness, and union aren’t mere academic discussions or philosophical premises. They reflect our dangerous everyday lives.

Cline’s answers might strike many Christians as unorthodox. His examination of changing mores through history, and meanings of key Greek scriptural terms, means many principles my generation grew up hearing repeated constantly, aren’t really biblical. Cline encourages thinking Christians seeking monogamous fidelity to separate legitimate ethical foundations from mere learned customs. This isn’t easy. Cline’s long, sometimes convoluted reasoning, reminiscent of Aristotle, provides a model for serious, intellectually engaged debate between habits and timeless truths.

Bishop John I. Cline
Quoting science, Cline admits monogamy runs against apparent human nature. Mammals generally aren’t biologically cued for lifelong fidelity. We know from experience, however, that social experiments throwing monogamous bonds overboard haven’t produced happier societies or greater prosperity. Since humans uniquely build societies designed to persist beyond the changing seasons, we have singular responsibilities to build social structures based on trust and loyalty. This often pits our biological drives against what our brains recognize as true.

To paraphrase and oversimplify, Bishop Cline encourages readers to perceive marriage as a process, not a state of being; not that we are married, but we pursue our marriage through life’s stages. This means understanding our own identities, rather than grabbing fleeting emotional highs. It also means understanding the real foundations of durable relationships, rather than what romantic comedies and paperback potboilers offer. Real relationships, Cline says, are both subtle and frequently less than obvious.

Too often, people get married for reasons unable to sustain lifelong commitment. Cline lists several “rules of engagement” to help readers ensure they’re getting married for the right reason. Rules include: “Marriage was not designed to make you happy,” “Aspire to achieve the God standard for marriage,” and my personal favorite, “Do not fall ‘in love.’ Understand it!” These rules contradict what we’ve learned in countless Top-40 songs, but they encourage a mindful marriage.

Also, when infidelity happens—as, for many couples, it almost inevitably will—they need concrete plans for getting around it and reconstructing their relationship. Cline isn’t sentimental or misty-eyed about ideal marriages. His pastoral career has involved counseling collapsing relationships, and he’s studied marriages through good times and bad. He’s surveyed parishioners, perhaps not altogether scientifically, and understands our beliefs often don’t match our actions. Therefore, he says it’s necessary to plan for awful eventualities.

Infidelity isn’t easy; Cline admits sometimes separation is best. Even Jesus left infidelity as the exception in his divorce ban. But for couples determined to persevere, he counsels certain traits, like honesty, friendship, and repentance. These attitudes, like monogamy itself, aren’t natural to humans; we generally dissemble, bear grudges, and act defensive. But Cline, like countless theologians and social scientists before himself, calls striving families to aspire to something higher, something truer than their feelings.

I especially appreciate Cline’s concluding remarks dedicated to the young. Christian leaders often inculcate youth with traditions inherited from Western culture, often without firm religious or scientific foundation. Cline, by contrast, uses plain English to evaluate the difference between sex and relationship, between near-term satisfaction and long-term growth, and between real and false respect. We all desire relationships, whether romantic, platonic, or spiritual, and when youth’s feelings run high, guidance in finding relationship is priceless.

Today’s frantic, high-pressure culture encourages ordinary people to take a passive attitude toward their relationships. This often results in early burnout, tragic indiscretions, and painful splits. Bishop Cline’s book, sophisticated but not long, provides tools necessary to resist such passivity. He helps eager singles construct meaningful relationships, busy marrieds sustain what they’ve built, and grieving survivors heal the wounds of betrayal. He doesn’t offer to make tough situations easy. Sometimes, difficulty is its own reward.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Jewel Of Denial

Jude Watson, Loot: How To Steal a Fortune

Young March McQuin doesn’t have friends. He has his dad, world-class cat burglar Alfie McQuin, and the next job. When Alfie tumbles off an Amsterdam rooftop, his dying words to March leave ask more questions than they answer: “Wait a month. Find jewels. Follow the falls to day.” Suddenly March finds himself an orphan with a quest. He doesn’t know, initially, he’s also the quarry in a decade-old diamond heist.

Jude Watson has written wildly successful young adult novels in corporate-owned franchises, particularly The 39 Clues and Star Wars, plus some freestanding dramas under her real name, Judy Blundell. Watson now channels the energy and panache of her franchise fiction into a stand-alone youth mystery. Her story channels the energy of postwar Ealing Studios dramedies into a modern setting aimed at mid-grade readers, and their parents.

March was his father’s apprentice, but even masters make mistakes. Captured by Dutch police, twelve-year-old March, an American citizen, finds himself shipped to an American group home, and forcibly reunited with the sister he’s never met, Julia. Jules. Seems Alfie stole a cursed moonstone necklace ten years ago, which prophesied his twin children’s deaths on their thirteenth birthday. Now they have one month to repay their late father’s debts.

Watson’s preteen target audience will enjoy her spirited, muscular storytelling of industrious kids determined to outwit malicious, predatory adults. Parents will appreciate Watson’s weaving of sly cultural references, little winks to the kind of antihero movie Cold War studios produced staring Michael Caine or David Niven. Kids won’t get the allusions, certainly. But like all good young adult writers, Watson tells a ripping yarn that only grown-ups will truly understand.

Escaping the group home, the McQuins find themselves the brains of a preteen James-Younger Gang. They have until next full moon to reunite the seven cursed moonstones, separated by Alfie’s hippie fence. Aided by an undersized hacker and a streetwise thug, March and Jude begin a trek spanning from Manhattan to Frisco to Barcelona. Success means independence and wealth. Failure means death by falling from a great height.

Whatever action our heroes take, something awful turns up. The McQuins occupy a world of David Mamet-ish intricate deceit. Jules and March occupy a world driven by honor and retribution, not honesty and justice. Every adult they meet works some angle, usually unsavory, and slaps dollar values on everything, even kids. The McQuins must outthink, outmaneuver, and outlast opponents who’ve had ten years to plan every move.

I’ll concede, my middle-aged, dad-like side initially reared its ugly head. Building a story around children who steal remorselessly, and pitting them against adults of uniform villainy, seemed to convey a questionable moral. Child psychologists debate whether youth can really understand dramatic irony. Grown-ups have savvied antiheroes, from Bogey to Jason Bourne, but we know how to admire without emulating. Are such characters really age-appropriate?

But I realized, kids are more sophisticated than adults admit. I admired Han Solo, but never mimicked him. The heist movies Watson references arose from a time of remarkable economic inequality, when unscrupulous people had so thoroughly stolen wealth, dignity, and power from the commonweal, that übermenschen could only restore balance by stealing everything back. In a cynical, individualistic age, the McQuin Gang represents restorative justice and resistance to power.

They also represent family. Alfie McQuin, whose disembodied presence persists with March posthumously, was certainly a scoundrel and thief. He also prepared for his children’s future, taught March a lucrative skill, and showed unconditional love. (Combining elements of The Lavender Hill Mob and Obi-Wan Kenobi, Alfie begs a performance by the late Alec Guinness.) In a world of ambiguous loyalties and moral compromise, the McQuin Gang becomes a counter-cultural family.

Thus, I realized late, the McQuin Gang isn’t about its crimes. It’s about unity. When life becomes so unavoidably hostile that guile becomes the only worthwhile weapon, and when distrust becomes so rife that what trust you purchase incrementally becomes precious, you need to have faith in somebody. Confronted by Machiavellian adults who no longer believe the system they’ve created, our youthful heroes discover the power of unbridled unity.

Watson’s McQuin Twins discover society isn’t about laws, as family isn’t about blood. When failing decency reduces everybody, even children, to dollar signs, four youths, abandoned by “polite” society, collaborate to reclaim their common humanity. If that means skirting the law, humiliating corrupt adults, and besting thieves at their own game, well, why not? We make life from opportunities we’re given. And the McQuin Gang wins.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

State of the State of the Union


Say what you will about President Obama, he’s a damned good speaker. Of course he is. As a politician, it’s his job to speak eloquently about whatever presses on America’s collective consciousness. When he talks about stimulating American industry, he certainly earned that rare bipartisan standing O. When he said “If you want the job done right, hire a vet,” even I wanted to hire a combat veteran.

Watching his State of the Union Speech on MSNBC last night, though, I found myself getting cheesed off. Not by the President, whose speech was almost wholly anticipated, considering he pre-leaked all his talking points. No, I got cheesed with MSNBC itself, which ran a scrolling chyron across the bottom of the screen. It began with a single question: “Do you agree with what President Obama is saying right now?

The chyron switched periodically between asking that question, and various methods of calculating the answer. A red-versus-blue bar gave aggregate numbers (unsurprisingly, given MSNBC’s leftist audience, the agree bar seldom dipped below 85 percent). A cartesian graph calculated the actual number continuously, not only representing agreement levels minute for minute, but disaggregating responses by party affiliation.

This caused the coverage of a legitimate news event, on a purported news network, to resemble a teenager live-tweeting a concert. While President Obama desperately appealed to viewers’ better angels and tried to invest a deeply divided Congress with his agenda, and John Boehner tried not to make obvious faces at the President’s shoulder, MSNBC preferred to distract viewers by selling their own opinions back to them as news.

Even Senators Bob Menendez and Elizabeth Warren weren't immune from the chyron

Arguably, the numbers did have interesting implications. Sometimes Republican, Democratic, and Independent respondents tracked close together, while sometimes they spread further apart. Somewhere around the 27-minute mark, the three lines came almost exactly together, and tracked together for nearly two minutes. Then, though the numbers spaced themselves out again, they never reclaimed the wide divides of the first ten minutes.

Ed Schultz, whose longtime show has attracted blue-collar union voters to MSNBC, a network otherwise dominated by policy professionals and scholarly wonks, pioneered this technique. He commences his show with some question, usually so lopsided that any casual viewer can predict his leftist audience’s response. Presumably he does so hoping his audience feels involved when he reads the final tally at the end of the show.

But what works on a nightly prime-time talk show doesn’t necessarily translate into a major event. Viewers who tune in for a significant news moment like a Presidential speech generally would like to pay attention to the President. We cannot do so with a constantly moving chyron across the bottom third of the screen. Despite the myth of multitasking, most human beings cannot divide their attention that way, so we understand less of both together than either alone.

Every major cable news network maintains chyrons during their news. Both Fox and CNN maintain a scrolling headline ticker across the bottom of their screens, along with boxes featuring rolling weather reports, stock tickers, and “stay tuned” sluglines, which repeat 24/7. MSNBC usually stops their chyron during their top prime-time ratings winners, but retains it during their lower-rated daylight programming.

The running tally helpfully told legislators when their base wanted them to applaud

This produces a bizarre contradiction on networks supposedly dedicated to disseminating facts: (1) enough happens worth your limited attention that we can fill an entire broadcast day, and (2) nothing is particularly worth paying attention to. These networks seemingly cannot decide whether to take themselves, and anything they say, seriously. Dedicated newshounds get frustrated trying to process constant contradictory input. One wonders why anybody keeps trying.

Somebody could argue that such devices serve their purpose. Many cable news viewers leave their preferred network running as background noise, or catch glimpses in restaurants, airport lounges, and other public spaces. Many public TVs run with the sound off, making the chyron the only part of the screen image audiences really get. And savvy viewers can separate meaningful from meaningless content. We can imagine somebody saying that.

But jamming a chyron into the State of the Union says the networks believe even this, the hallmark moment of American democracy, isn’t really worth your whole attention. It encourages unthinkingly goofy behavior: “The majority of people who agree with me think Obama said something worthwhile! I’ll think that too!” It subordinates content to technological format. It rewards smartphone-level short attention spans.

MSNBC must, certainly, do whatever pays the bills. But in this context, they’ve created a hulking gap between their featured content and their stated principles. Next time MSNBC’s celebrity anchors rend their garments, complaining that American voters have supported some unsavory candidate or agenda, here’s hoping they remember, and rue, this moment.

Seriously. On that network, does anybody doubt the real answer to that question?

Monday, January 19, 2015

Evil Storytellers From Finland

Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, The Rabbit Back Literature Society

Children's author Laura White has become Rabbit Back, Finland's most famous recluse, a veritable Far Northern Greta Garbo. Every member of her renowned Literature Society has become famous for nigh-magical writing, but she hasn't accepted any new members in thirty years. When mousy schoolteacher Ella Milana catches Laura's eye, that precedent changes. Then Laura disappears. Curious, headstrong Ella finds herself an orphan among Laura’s disciples, and resolves to discover the Literature Society’s carefully buried secrets.

Jääskeläinen's publishers have slapped the "fantasy" label on this, apparently his first novel translated into English. But that's a marketing contrivance. His storytelling approach more resembles the bastard offspring of Shirley Jackson and Jorge Luis Borges. Between his languorous pace, nonlinear timeline, and intense character focus, Jääskeläinen creates what Franco-Romanian critic Tzvetan Todorov called “the fantastic”—that liminal space between dreams and waking, where reality doesn’t constrain possibility, and human illusions of control break down.

Ella gets adopted into Laura White’s Rabbit Back Literature Society shortly after her father’s death. But before Ella’s tutelage begins, Laura literally vanishes on a wisp of snow, leaving Ella orphaned a second time. (Jääskeläinen’s symbolism is pervasive, and often unsubtle.) Ella coaxes Literature Society members to divulge their stories, a process they call “spilling.” Slowly, they spill one secret even they’ve mostly forgotten: they previously had another member, a boy genius who died young.

Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
Much of Jääskeläinen’s novel deals with how Laura White turned young disciples into genuine writers. Since Laura vanishes before Ella’s real training begins, Ella must become her own teacher, assembling her apprenticeship piecemeal from other Literature Society members. This proves taxing, since members have essentially stopped talking to one another.She uncovers less a Platonic artistic ideal than a band of intellectually profound, emotionally stunted man-children, bound together by a cerebral form of Stockholm Syndrome.

Laura White (or Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen?) evidently doesn't believe in writers "creating" narratives. Rather than invention, Laura sees art as a process of stripping away learned pretenses. Writers are fundamentally antisocial, because they trade in truth, divorced altogether from sentiment. Literature Society members mine each other for stories, a process Jääskeläinen tacitly likens to cannibalism. Artists wring truth from themselves and one another, slowly, painfully, with all the grace and prettiness of a back-alley appendectomy.

Members of the Rabbit Back Literature Society are all talked out. They’ve only created globe-spanning art by consuming each other’s stories, and they find themselves so depleted, they’ve retreated into near-complete isolation. Ella provides fresh meat, not only a source of her own stories, but new questions that force members to retell old stories in new ways. Vampire-like, they start consuming Ella, but she has only one overwhelming quest, to find the enigmatic boy genius.

Most of this book consists of characters telling one another stories. Ella teases out confessions buried so deeply within her new colleagues, even they’ve forgotten the unvarnished truth. Picking facts from the prettified narratives they’ve created to excuse themselves, to themselves, proves grimly difficult. In return, Ella’s colleagues demand stories from her, stories that require her to examine herself in ways she’s never previously attempted. Ella learns the easiest person to lie to is herself.

Words create reality. That’s Jääskeläinen’s thesis throughout this book. Literature Society members create transcendent art from words, which others receive, and are transformed. But they keep words away from other areas. They’ve so thoroughly erased the boy genius’s name from shared memory that he’s essentially vanished from history. But reality needs stories, so when Literature Society members stop telling new ones (nearly all have lapsed into undeclared retirement), local library books, virus-like, start rearranging themselves.

Ella, a literature scholar who started creative writing only late (like Jääskeläinen), discovers a vein of terrible abuse beneath her sometime literary heroes. These authors create art only by damaging themselves, and one another. After catching one mistreating another with apparent sadistic glee, Ella realizes: "Maybe that's what happened when people became writers and knew each other so well that there was no need to speak anymore. Authentic communication was quickly replaced by written drama."

This is a difficult book, populated with sharp-toothed antiheroes, frequently digressing into long, talky detours, with a cynical, almost demonic view of human creativity. It’s also dreamlike, thoughtful, and humane, with frequent flashes of unexpected humor. It straddles the line between popular novel and Platonic dialogue, driven less by events than Jääskeläinen’s rich, ever-evolving ideas. It demands readers as committed and thoughtful as itself. Not everyone will like it. But it offers plenty to love.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie

Please witness something you probably haven’t seen if you’ve been following English-language news coverage of last week’s Charlie Hebdo massacre: actual Charlie Hebdo art. TV Journalists have characterized their illustrations as “editorial cartoons” and “satire journalism,” but when R. Crumb used similar art in his groundbreaking Fritz the Cat comics, it was labeled pornographic in several markets. Even Charlie’s own masthead calls their product “journal irresponsable,” Irresponsible Journalism. Let’s ask ourselves, then: irresponsible to whom?

In the days immediately following last week’s shootings, the “Je Suis Charlie” slogan became global. People who didn’t speak French posted it as their Facebook pictures. American journalists rushed to Charlie’s defense, though few newspapers and no national TV networks opted to reproduce their art. Although moving the American President is slightly less onerous than moving the Eiffel Tower, conservative leaders lambasted President Obama for not locking arms with David Cameron and Angela Merkel in Paris.

One wonders if those same conservatives would continue their rhetoric if they’d witnessed the cartoon of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit butt-fucking. Yes, I’d consider that an accurate description. Really, there’s no other word for what Charlie depicts on their front cover. Likewise, they’ve published images belittling the Holocaust, ethnic Algerians, and anything else they dislike. This ain’t The Onion, folks; Charlie made its reputation pissing off people with little recourse when openly provoked.

Let’s be clear: Charlie didn’t take down the powerful, hector the corrupt in high places, or speak for the disfranchised among the French people. Despite pluralistic left-wing claims, it essentially endorsed the powers that be. The French government systematically marginalizes ethnic Algerians, and Muslims generally, much like American culture marginalizes African Americans. Free speech exists to protect minority opinions and counter-culturalists; Charlie, by contrast, essentially supported the government’s stated position regarding a historically poor minority.

Americans may not realize that, among modern nations, only the United States has a written Constitutional guarantee of unobstructed free speech. Even democracies like France and its EU allies circumscribe certain speech acts the majority finds objectionable. Anti-Semitic literature, Nazi imagery, and Holocaust denial are strictly prohibited in France, Germany, and Canada; they’re tightly controlled in Britain, using the same laws that restrain pornography and slander. French free speech is a philosophy, not a law.

Notably, Muslims enjoy (if that’s the word) no such protections. Already mostly poor, downtrodden for their accent and skin color, unable even to live outside ethnically stratified ghettos, they’re powerless against white French dominance. Much like African Americans, who must walk on eggshells, conscious that their every move gets judged as representing their entire race, French Muslims are aliens in their society. For most, an Eric Garner-style death is the best they can hope for.

Charlie chose not to use its national—indeed, international—platform to defend an oppressed people or challenge the majority. Given the chance to pierce the veil French people wear obstructing their view of the Muslim minority, mostly immigrants from France’s former colonial empire, it instead chose to deepen the antagonism France’s white majority feels toward its weak and subjugated. Charlie purposefully kicked the weak, dared them to kick back, and wept publicly when they did.

If this isn’t an abuse of free speech, nothing is. Indeed, it’s the very behavior demonstrated by men who complain about feminist oppression, claiming they don’t really have “male privilege,” just because life isn’t frictionless. Charlie’s mostly white staff, which comes from mostly Catholic heritage but, like most French artists and academics, has expressed agnostic tendencies, is firmly entrenched in the majority. If the powerful provoke the powerless, they don’t get to claim oppression retroactively.

The Kouachi brothers, defenseless against a hostile but protected media, could suffer silently. But would you? Imagine if an American media conglomerate ran a blackface minstrel show. Should African Americans take that lightly? Should they limit themselves to sign-waving protests? While I never advocate violence, it’s difficult to believe the powerful could insult the powerless, over the course of years, and act aggrieved because somebody, egged on by international money, encouraged them to fight back.

I reject violence as political manipulation. But in my own life, I’ve discovered I, too, have the capacity to respond violently when provocations mount up, and unelected overlords treat submissiveness as a cardinal virtue. I’ve never killed anybody, but I understand why people feel that powerless. America has its own angry, scared, excluded populations. If nakedly baiting the powerless makes Charlie an international hero, well, don’t act surprised when violence visits our shores, too.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Wes Moore's Very Busy Life

Wes Moore, The Work: My Search for a Life That Matters

Wes Moore has lived a varied and kinetic life. Born poor amid hardscrabble circumstances, he nevertheless enjoyed a muscular support network that hoisted him upward, smashing barriers few African American youth successfully beat. Many peers, lacking his support, faced similar challenges and collapsed, an experience recounted in his blockbuster first book, The Other Wes Moore. That book, like its author, shattered barriers. This one, well… doesn’t.

Moore’s prior volume ended with Moore headed for college, triumphant over life’s adversities. This one commences with Moore boarding a plane for Britain, a newly minted Rhodes scholar. Where his first book covered a specific theme, the struggles that guided a child out of the stark poverty that crushed his peers, this second lacks a unifying through-line. Moore expects us to glean meaningful lessons from his life experience, but he avoids making decisions about what to include, what to leave out.

From Oxford, Moore caroms into an internship at the nascent Office of Homeland Security, through a big-spending but brief career in high finance, into the peak of fighting in Afghanistan while America’s focus held on Iraq. Completing his national duty, he returns to America, assumes a career in public service, and eventually campaigns for Barack Obama. Moore has enjoyed a very active, socially engaged life. And he wants to share it all with you.

Each major portion gets equal space in this book gets an equal-sized chapter. His career in international finance, a highly remunerative but unsatisfying career characterized mainly by marathon work hours followed by frenetic London pub crawls, gets exactly the same treatment as his engagement at Forward Operating Base Khost, Afghanistan. And by exactly the same, I don’t just mean length. Moore describes everything, but everything, in an unvarying, mild, synoptic tone, frustratingly free of details.

Wes Moore
It's impossible to completely accept Moore at his word. Like most political and religious memoirs, events in Moore's story reach us through a filter of the message he hopes we'll take away. Except in Moore's case, his filter is unusually visible. Moore stuffs his paragraphs with what Duncan J. Watts calls "narrative sentences," sentences that describe, not events or circumstances, but Moore's moral message:
"I had a job that many people, especially in those days before the financial crises to come, respected, even if they didn't quite understand it. Things were good and I was lucky. So lucky that I wanted out."
Then, Moore pairs every autobiographical chapter with a matching mini-chapter about someone else whose official biography demonstrates the point he already extracted from his own story. As if his style wasn't high-handed and sententious enough. These "Profiles In Courage" draw heavily from their subjects' official press bios and Moore's interviews. Because obviously captains of industry and career bureaucrats will tell their own story honestly if you ask.

Moore's strange blend of self-mythologizing and motivational boosterism reads oddly detached. In his introduction, Moore describes parachuting into an Afghan free-fire zone, promising intimate tales of battle, and lessons learned therein. But that proves his most concrete description. His actual war experience plays second fiddle to long historical discursions, aphoristic lectures, and other people's stories. Moore himself remains curiously distant.

In my teaching days, one student, an Iraq veteran, wrote about his wartime experience. He described his vehicle getting hit by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), killing two men under his authority and maiming a third. He woke in a field hospital thirty-six hours later, permanently deaf in one ear. An Iraqi militant who'd lost a leg planting a miswired IED lay dying in the next bed. While he struggled to heal, my student also struggled to comprehend the moral breadth that let US doctors tend a member of the opposition who had tried to kill him.

Now that's a memoir, dammit! He needed only eight pages of detailed prose to nutshell how war shatters young men's illusions of glory. Though he recounted his difficult personal trial, he offered no pat resolution; he admitted writing was part of his healing, that the conflict remained active in his head, that no easy answers were forthcoming. He invited me along on his journey, but avoided signposting the destination. We just walked together.

Perhaps Moore thought he needed a sequel to justify his adult life. Perhaps he signed a contract, and after his debut success, his name became remunerative. But if somebody asked me to grade this manuscript in college, I’d say: needs concrete detail. This feels like an outline for several manuscripts Moore now needs to write.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Mr. Darcy Paradigm, or, Why Gentlemen Are Endangered

Colin Firth as Fitzwilliam Darcy
This week, a friend directed my attention to an article entitled You've Found A Real Man, another piece of tedious clickbait designed to mock today’s supposed lack of gentlemanliness. While I concur that a dearth of chivalry has become problematic in America, we’ve achieved a point where the natural pushback has become as bad as the problem it purportedly redresses. This listicle actually lowers the tone of discourse, in ways thinking people should find shocking.

The article, published without a byline, is problematic in itself. Advice includes such unbridled bullshit as:
  • He can balance both swag and sophistication and a career and a personal life without too many proverbial exclamation points
  • He reads actual books and newspapers and holds opinions on everything from scotch pairings to world events all the while understanding that not all of his opinions are facts and that not everyone has to agree with him
  • He has a career, a hobby, a family of close friends and a favorite way to have his steak prepared and he isn't the least bit intimidated when the woman in front of him shares these qualities
In the abstract, I don’t dispute any of these principles. We’d all love that kind of time, information, and worldliness. Self-improvement has been a lifelong cardinal value for me, one I wish more men—hell, more people—shared. The lack of intimidation before strong women is admirable. Observed in a vacuum, these perfectly praiseworthy traits redound warmly to anybody who pursues them.

Clark Gable as Rhett Butler
But consider what “swag and sophistication and a career and a personal life” implies. It requires “real men” to have enough time and money to invest in a diverse life that’s somehow both self-interested and other-centered. This model of leisurely gentlemanliness, what we might call the “Mr. Darcy Paradigm,” assumes real men have income without work commitments, glamor without time constraints, and employment completely segregated from personal time.

Well, but Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy inherited his money. That model of gentlemanliness reflects an essentially aristocratic social structure, separating control of wealth from creation of value. Certainly we have that in America today, but not every woman can date some Manhattan hedge-fund manager. Though aggregate American wealth now exceeds what we had before the 2008 collapse, but if you disaggregate the super-rich, ordinary Americans are hurting.

Set that aside, though. Return to this listicle’s opening chapter. Reread the sentence that states: "every man and woman on the planet should be made to watch ‘Gone With The Wind’ at least twice, if only to teach men how to be men and women how to separate them from the boys.” Read it again. Now read it again. Go on. I’ll wait.

I haven’t seen Gone With the Wind recently. I cannot comment authoritatively upon the movie. Therefore, I must retreat into the book and ask: does this anonymous author mean the scene where Rhett mocks Scarlett’s callused hands as innately unladylike? The scene where he leaves her as recompense for her having changed from a lily-white flower of antebellum gentility? Or the scene where he punishes her constant manipulations by raping her—to her apparent approval?

That model of “gentlemanliness” is repulsive to me. Margaret Mitchell’s classic novel depicts a relationship predicated on constant power politics, jockeying for Machiavellian advantage, which divides winners from losers. Mitchell breaks the narrative at multiple points to propound how things used to be good when men were men, women were women, and white trash and slaves knew their place. But the world she describes is distinctly unsavory.

Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski—
the man you're actually likely to get
An ongoing New York Times series details how today’s employment situation has disproportionately impacted men. Though everyone makes do with less anymore, today’s conditions undermine accepted standards of manliness. As good-quality blue collar jobs become perpetually difficult to find, as more men embrace jobs once reserved for women and children, traditional heads of household retreat into surliness and resentment. The future looks less like Rhett Butler, more like Stanley Kowalski.

Which reminds me, there’s that rape theme again. Many women I know, victimized by men, would celebrate the retreat of certain aspects of traditional masculinity.

My opinion about these shame-mongering listicles is already documented. They only exist to heap shame upon the already disfranchised, to kick the weak for being weak. This author, too cowardly to sign his/her own name, belittles men on dating websites for insufficiently resembling matinee idols. But society owes itself the dignity of a real masculine identity that gives everybody, men and women alike, something to strive towards.




On a related subject:
The Ernest Hemingway Effect

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Other Autobiography of Malcolm X

Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon, X: A Novel

Detroit Red has fallen afoul of Harlem’s nastiest gangster, and probably will die. Postwar America’s a tough place for a young black man, and even his prodigious hustling skills can’t survive forever. Desperate and scared, Detroit Red begins tracking backward in his life, recovering the memory of his prior life as ambitious young Malcolm Little, and the path that will eventually turn him into Malcolm X.

Ilyasah Shabazz, acclaimed public speaker and sometime civil servant, has written one prior book about her father, and one about being his daughter. She admits having no memory of her father, who was assassinated when she was an infant; like many young idealists, she discovered his teachings in college. She’s spent her adult life rediscovering her father while living up to his example, and has invited us to join her on that journey.

Everyone—teachers, peers, family, everyone—recognizes young Malcolm as a natural leader. His overwhelmingly white schoolmates elect him class president, and he aspires to a legal career, despite his penny-ante hustling and shoplifting to pay family bills. But his teacher tells Malcolm that, outside school, he’s always “just a nigger,” destined for tradesmanship, maybe. Disgusted, Malcolm hops a passing bus for Boston, determined to become his own man.

Malcolm Little, the future Malcolm X
Once there, Malcolm discovers two worlds. His sister introduces him to The Hill, a remarkably integrated community, where Malcolm nevertheless feels alienated from its affluence. Roxbury, by contrast, is mainly black, a neighborhood where fast talking, keen observation, and guile get instantly rewarded. This suits Malcolm’s natural gifts, and guided by a mentor (who may have duplicitous motivations), Malcolm soon wears fine fedoras and expensive zoot suits.

This, Shabazz’s second book about Malcolm X, aims for high-school readers, but like most YA fiction, invites all ages to participate. Shabazz reconstructs the Back East culture of institutional racism, economic destitution, and political nihilism that kept black Americans segregated, even in progressive Northeastern cities. Her evocation of jazz-age aspirations, and deep-rooted inequality, immerse readers in the miasma of World War II-era city life.

Shabazz’s story travels within Malcolm’s memory. Suddenly slipping into memory, Malcolm encounters his father, whose idealism couldn’t prevent a lynching, and his mother, diagnosed insane by Michigan authorities for refusing welfare handouts during the Depression. His parents encouraged Malcolm’s learning, and his many siblings apprenticed him in leadership. He enjoys remarkable advantages in an era of overwhelming bigotry. But he witnesses blatant injustice white peers never have to face.

Ilyasa Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X
But he dedicates those skills toward dangerous ends. His constant thievery costs his widowed mother a job in deeply segregated Lansing, and he organizes his brothers into a bush-league mafia. In Roxbury, he embraces a lifestyle of curbside swindling, easy credit, and under-the-table work, and when Boston proves too small for his ambitions, he replants himself in ritzy, corrupt Harlem. Shabazz paints Malcolm as a Mario Puzo antihero.

The future Malcolm X appears a very conflicted figure herein. This isn’t ordinary hero worship; as first-person narrator, Malcolm confesses to bleak cynicism that excuses gaming the system. The illusion of wealth during periods of widespread poverty entices him into rash decisions with disastrous consequences. His apprenticeship in crime presages his jailhouse conversion. Given the skills to become a leader or a desperado, Malcolm initially makes the wrong choice.

In ways not necessarily obvious, Shabazz also invites audiences who don’t remember Malcolm’s War-era milieu to rediscover the past. Malcolm’s fondness for Glenn Miller and Marcus Garvey, his discovery of three-card monte and 4-F ostracism, encourages readers to investigate the past for themselves. Shabazz clearly anticipates high-school-aged readers to rediscover American history through her book, but this aging white guy felt inspired to blow the dust off some period CDs.

Shabazz’s intense mix of historical detail and introspection goes beyond Malcolm’s bestselling autobiography. This isn’t only about one man; Shabazz writes about Malcolm’s time, but also about ours. The overt Jim Crow bigotry Malcolm discovers permits contemporary readers to recognize how far America has come since eras of institutional racism. But subtly closed doors and tacit injustice remind us that important barriers still exist; we confront them every day.

This novel isn’t a political broadside, like The Autobiography of Malcolm X, nor a position piece, like Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. It’s an opportunity to uncover the circumstances that turned a promising youth into an ambitious criminal—and then into one of his generation’s greatest leaders. It’s also an opportunity to observe what choices we make daily, and an invitation to engage with our world.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Scottish Slumgullion in the CID

James Oswald, The Hangman's Song

Detective Inspector Tony McLean angers his superiors easily. His headstrong policing techniques, trust in justice over procedure, and frequently lethal resolutions tax Edinburgh’s finest leaders beyond breaking. So they’ve seconded this veteran homicide detective onto sex crimes. But when a suspicious string of hangings overlaps with a human smuggling operation, McLean finds his loyalties torn. He starts working two cases, in two divisions, simultaneously. That leaves him defenseless when seemingly supernatural events invade his house.

If that sounds excessively complex, I certainly won’t disagree. Scottish sheep farmer James Oswald exploded onto literature’s map under two years ago when his self-published first novel outsold bestsellers by established veterans. He sparked a bidding war, every self-published author’s dream, which few seldom achieve. Now his publishers, confronted with a complicated manuscript of George RR Martin-level volubility, seem afraid to ask him to pare it into bite-sized chunks, lest they alienate their golden goose.

Oswald floats three parallel stories. In one, Scottish pimps are secretly shipping Eastern European prostitutes from Edinburgh to parts unknown. Since that’s the opposite direction from where human smugglers usually travel, Inspector McLean’s spidey sense goes bonkers, especially when one prostitute proves British-born. The Sex Crime Unit detectives consider tracking the mastermind very low priority, even after Edinburgh’s flashiest pimp gets slaughtered. McLean suspects inside corruption, which may extend all the way to the top.

Meanwhile, several hangings occur across Edinburgh in quick succession. Every death involves hempen rope, a rare commodity anymore, and the knots appear identical. McLean’s station chief, a bureaucratic placeholder who considers McLean an unreliable Dirty Harry type, squelches the investigation as mere predictable suicides. Each successive hanging, though, brings circumstances closer to McLean’s door. Between managerial incompetence and criminal shrewdness, McLean must decide who he can trust, before he faces his own personal hanging tree.

James Oswald
Elsewhere, McLean’s sometime girlfriend, a dedicated crime scene tech, awakens from injuries sustained in Oswald’s prior novel. All isn’t well, though: all memories of her last fifteen years have vanished. Unable to resume adult life, Emma moves into McLean’s house, striving to get well. But as days turn into weeks, then months, things get only worse. Why won’t Emma heal? What bizarre lengths will McLean attempt? And why does Emma’s live-in carer ask such questions?

Somebody should’ve asked Oswald to subdivide this nearly 500-page book, enormous by genre standards, into two volumes. And then kill one. The sex crimes story has gripping themes, engaging characters, and genuine detective work. The hanging story sprawls out, leaving massive plot holes, until McLean tumbles bass-ackward into the accidental truth, which Oswald pinches from a CSI episode I found scorn-worthy ten years ago. McLean’s pseudo-scientific resolution, once finally achieved, elicits not catharsis but laughter.

And Emma’s story… well. It starts strong, channeling the pain and trauma that linger with anybody who’s ever been victimized by violence. I assumed Oswald must’ve spoken extensively with trauma specialists and victims, because initially, it precisely resembles the efforts I’ve undertaken to guide loved ones back to productivity. Then, sadly, it turns silly, incorporating unearthly woowoo concepts pinched whole from George Romero films. I pulled a facepalm and moaned: “I had such high hopes…”

That Oswald uses supernaturalism in a noir mystery doesn’t bother me. I love authors like Jim Butcher and Greg van Eekhout, whose novels are fundamentally hardboiled thrillers, where magic (or magical realism) plays the same role guns do for Dashiell Hammett. Oswald, though, doesn’t integrate the themes. We’re trucking along, immersing  ourselves  in gritty procedural horror, when—wham! Devil worship! Trapped souls! Demonic artifacts! Particularly since Oswald kicks the resolution into sequels, it doesn’t fit.

This really hurts, because Oswald writes so well, I want to like him. His characters have unique personalities, with motivations often invisible until the truth emerges. Tony McLean’s tortured struggle between justice and law reflects issues Americans will recognize, particularly after Sandy Hook and Ferguson. Emma’s suffering, before it turns terminally silly, will ring bells for anyone who’s ever suffered violence, and those who care for them. I desperately tried to like McLean, and Oswald.

Basically, between the overlapping stories and unmotivated cross-genre borrowing, Oswald attempts too much. Like a goulash with too many ingredients, even Oswald’s best efforts vanish into a bland, soggy mess. This really pains me, because he offers so much to like, that seasoned mystery readers find themselves rooting for him. This should be a much better book. But if Oswald cannot bother separating his best gems from the surrounding dross, I shouldn’t have to either.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Small Towns In Hell

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 44
Nick Reding, Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town


Magazine writer Nick Reding discovered crystal methamphetamine’s pervasive effects in 1999 while pursuing another story. A powerful drug that city-dwellers never saw was busily transforming rural America’s cultural landscape, almost completely unseen by city dwellers. But Reding’s Manhattan-based editors disdained this story. The mostly white, overwhelmingly poor meth problem was largely invisible to America’s urban journalism community. Then, in 2005, a country doctor attracted media attention. Suddenly, editors acknowledged the story Reding needed to tell.

Oelwein, Iowa, is a deeply divided community. The bucolic, but tragically underpopulated, Main Street evokes Norman Rockwell comparisons and pastoral nostalgia. A significant cadre of attorneys, doctors, law enforcement officers, and other skilled professionals attempt to maintain that culture. But behind curtained windows in Oelwein’s Third Ward, a silent population of tweakers, cookers, and their families maintains a shadow economy. Where work has abandoned the white rural working class, meth provides alternate but bleak, meaning.

Meth, Reding discovers (as rural dwellers have known), doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Though the Reagan-era Farm Crisis has receded from national attention, attracting desultory attention whenever FarmAid concerts circulate, the consequences still linger. Old MacDonald Sold His Farm, manufacturing in America scarcely exists anymore, and money stopped rolling into rural regions. Those who lacked money when catastrophe struck, remained trapped in America’s new rural poverty. For more on the topic, also see George Pyle.

Nick Reding
Reding’s diagnosis of Oelwein’s—and by implication rural America’s—enervation defies one-sentence synopsis. A former railroad hub and capital of regional culture, Oelwein dwindled when passenger rail vanished and the Interstate bypassed their area. More recently, the “vertical integration” of agriculture under corporate control, with the attendant diminishment of wages in the one industry that formerly bolstered regional economies. Honest, salt-of-the-earth workers saw life pass beyond their control. Meth provided illusions of meaning and autonomy.

But meth’s uniquely white, working-class differs from other drugs. Where heroin or cocaine encourage slovenly behavior and mushy thinking, meth users feel energized, work hard, and think lucidly… temporarily. Under the trade name Benzedrine, doctors once prescribed meth to cure insomnia, depression, and schizophrenia. It still treats these conditions, until toxic levels accumulate, when it causes them. Poor rural workers embrace meth because its effects bolster their Protestant work ethic. It’s a virtual miracle drug.

That’s meth’s magic appeal. Reding writes: “It was as though… a sense of nihilism had become endemic to Oelwein.” Invisible to national media, maltreated by out-of-town corporations, and unable to even work meaningfully, rural poor turned to meth because it returned what they believed life had stolen. Meth, Reding discovers, isn’t the story. Though I’m oversimplifying for concision, the story is the conspiracy of incomprehensible forces that trivialized white rural people and demeaned their work.

Reding traces meth’s history, from its advent as patent medication and cure-all, through developing black markets and ignorant vilification, into America’s most profitable illegal narcotic. Without ever mentioning Breaking Bad, Reding debunks sweeping generalizations and War On Drugs mythology, preferring real users and their unique experiences. His incisive views and telling details make discussions with everyone, from Oelwein’s mayor to a meth cook whose business literally melted his skin off, both cringe-inducing and remarkably humane.

Ultimately, this isn’t a book about meth. It’s about the pressures that impact rural America, and human reactions to it. It’s about corporate rapacity, country perseverance, and changing culture. It’s about city-dwellers’, including the media’s, pervasive neglect of rural issues. It’s about what lets some people surrender to despair and addiction, and what makes others stand fast. Like other insightful nonfiction, from In Cold Blood to Silent Spring, it matters because it’s finally about us.

In his afterword to the paperback edition, Reding laments that many reviewers focus on this book’s bleak, negative implications. This ignores the book’s entire final third, where Mayor Larry Murphy, joined by a passionately engaged citizenry and welcoming business community, managed to revitalize Oelwein’s downtown, attract work, and give an old town new purpose. Oelwein’s miracle isn’t portable; certainly. This isn’t a blueprint for small-town renaissance. However, Reding reminds audiences that no malaise is terminal.

We rural dwellers often feel invisible, not only to city-based national media, but to our employers, our community organizations, even ourselves. It’s tempting to believe we suffer alone, because outsiders cannot see our problems. But Reding calls this “The Death and Life of an American Small Town,” because it demonstrates the forces that conspire against us, and our capacity to resist those forces. Reding tells some painful truths, but this is a defiantly optimistic book.