Friday, February 27, 2015

The Package Tour of the Damned

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 46
Steven P. Unger, In the Footsteps of Dracula


First published in 1897, Bram Stoker’s Dracula has never fallen out of print. Nearly 120 years later, it continues to inspire spinoff literature, movies that mostly misunderstand its heart, and Gothic teen culture celebrating a walking afterlife. It also, like Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters, inspires a massive tourist industry dedicated to recapturing the milieu that created the juggernaut. But Dracula tourism mainly lacks a centralized guidebook… until now.

Steven Unger walks backward through Bram Stoker's epoch-making classic to find a journey that not only could have really taken place, but which you and I could follow. Mixing history, travel, and literary criticism, Unger turns Dracula into an experience we can share with other fans. Unger's "Dracula Trail" is a journey with two legs, and if I had the money, I'd follow them both tomorrow.

On the first leg, Unger leads us along Dracula's trip through England. Though he admits that parts of this trip have been heavily commercialized by a lucrative Dracula industry, it's notable how much of Stoker's England, from the Yorkshire coast to the heart of London, is still there. Seeing Dracula's major stops is not only possible, Unger makes it seem downright easy.

It seems difficult to believe, but many locations highlighted in Dracula really exist. A remarkable number of them survived the Blitz, and remain visible to outside viewers. The house where Mina Murray roomed with giddy Lucy Westenra at Number 4, The Crescent, is a private residence, not open to tourists, but its stolid Victorian edifice remains, Unger writes, “unchanged since the 1890s.”

Vlad Tepes, the inspiration for Dracula. This was the only
portrait painted of him during his lifetime.
Besides literal locations, like the Whitby fish market, and historical events, like the wreck of the Dmitry, which made their way into Dracula, Unger also visits the generous tourist industry which has arisen surrounding the novel. Both Yorkshire and London host several museums, libraries, and pubs dedicated to Dracula tourism. A generous visitor himself, Unger finds Dracula sites welcoming to outsiders, and the Goth youth who frequent them quite friendly and personable.

Unger’s second leg takes travelers through Romania, which seems like much more of a safari. Dirt-poor and ravaged by Communism's ghost, Romania is still substantially terra incognita to the rest of the world. This is still a world of horse-carts, pristine ruins, and windswept villages. But in Unger's capable hands, it also seems like the most exquisite destination an adventure tourist could hope for.

Romanian Transylvania retains its mystique for modern travelers mainly because it remains, centuries later, terra incognita to outsiders. Under warns travelers to not expect mobile phone service or WiFi while visiting Transylvania. Romania has, however, accomodated itself to other Dracula-related travel matters. It’s possible to find the exact (ahem, “exact”) hostel where Jonathan Harker ate Robber Steak. And notorious dictator backfilled a “Castle Dracula” into the previously almost vacant Borgo Pass.

This book is lavishly illustrated with original photographs throughout. Unger's street scenes, sweeping landscapes, and charming people are half of this book's appeal. Sadly, the photos have the look of having been taken in color and digitally rendered greyscale. Though six photos are printed in color on the back cover, I wish I could see more the way Unger saw them. Perhaps an accompanying website would be in order?

Unger's history of Vlad Tepes is also an eye-opener. Most of us have probably only encountered Prince Vlad because of Dracula. I had no idea, until this book, that he's considered a national hero in Romania. He seems an intensely fascinating character, and I'd like to do more reading. I caught Unger dropping some minor historical inaccuracies, but not enough to diminish my reading enjoyment.

Apart from these two minor flaws, the greyscale photos and the innaccuracies (presumably corrected in the third edition), this is a fun, exciting, readable book. I'm not a big traveler, but this book makes me want to set out and re-discover what Stoker knew over a century ago. Having undergone two significant revisions since I first read it five years ago, it’s now even more thoroughly detailed, with even more photos and maps.

Like Shakespeare tourism or Dickens tourism, Dracula tourism is a real thing, a lively industry. This book, slim enough to fit in an outside coat pocket, provides a valuable overview of many unpublicized locations available to Dracula tourists. So much of Dracula's world is not only real, it's still there, and you and I can visit it. Unger already did, he shows you what he found there, and he explains how you can find it too.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

In the Beginning, There Was Violence

Bruce Hoffman, Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947

Georgetown University political historian Bruce Hoffman starts with a simple question: does terrorism work? In current political parlance, the answer seems obvious; heads of state repeatedly decry terrorism’s inefficacy. Yet newly declassified British documents have shed light upon Britain’s governance of the Palestinian Mandate between the World Wars, which Hoffman says tell a different story. As fascism’s rising tide reorganized world Jewry, and Palestinians found themselves colonized, violence began that still remains with us today.

When Britain inherited huge Palestine from the defeated Ottoman Empire, the Balfour Declaration publicized Britain’s intent to create a Jewish homeland. This immediately caused problems for Palestinians, because they were there, and Jews were not. Though European Zionists took this opportunity to relocate into their historic homeland, the pre-World War I Jewish population was vanishingly small. Jewish land purchases, inflammatory rhetoric, and utopian politics made Palestinians fear their historic nation would soon cease to be.

British Commissioners attempted to keep peace between Zionists and Palestinians. This wasn’t easy, though. The Balfour Declaration persuaded Palestinians that Britain was pro-Jewish; attempts to respect existing Palestinian property and legal claims persuaded Jews that Britain was pro-Palestinian. Britain’s succession of High Commissioners tried to remain desperately fair while quelling ethnic violence, but both offended parties believed their respective grievances so inherently right, any discussion was necessarily wrong. Britain found itself hated by every party.

Professor Hoffman’s secondary title is somewhat deceptive. Despite promising a history of the arc from 1917 to 1947, over half that time gets very short mention herein. Hoffman keeps focus primarily on flare-ups of violence, neglecting other arcs of history outside his purview. Thus, despite momentary ethnic explosions in the 1920s, the first sixteen years don’t matter much. Periods of simmering hostility notwithstanding, Hoffman’s real narrative momentum begins in 1933, with Hitler’s rise to power.

Bruce Hoffman
European Jews displaced into Palestine had little interest in existing traditional power structures. Palestinians, who previously distributed access to holy sites quite generously, found new immigrants circumventing their control. Each side considered the other disruptive, not without reason. Jews ignored Palestinians’ traditions; Palestinian imams urged anti-Jewish violence from within their mosques. Palestinian Muslim mobs drove the entire Jewish population from Hebron. Jews responded by organizing the Haganah, a “self-defense force,” actually an unofficial paramilitary army.

Herein lies Hoffman’s core thesis. Jews and Palestinians used political violence to marginalize populations they considered undesirable. When Britain intervened, both parties turned their guns on what they considered a colonial occupier. Though Britain held the Mandate desperately, long after states like Iraq and Saudi Arabia became independent, ultimately the Crumbling Empire succumbed. To Hoffman, this proves terrorism sometimes works. Sometimes, dedicated ideological organizations, facing a larger enemy, can use violence to achieve political ends.

Personalities loom large in Hoffman’s exposition. One, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, dominates the entire Mandate period. A Russian Jew who fought for Britain during the war, he later became a Zionist politician and general. His mix of political skill and ruthless military efficiency made even his Jewish allies fear his influence, particularly because of his fervent anti-socialist leanings. He became a sort of Jewish Michael Collins, and like Collins, the nation he created ultimately took his life.

Jabotinsky, Imam al-Qassam, and other outsized personalities represented only the public face of dangerous utopian thinking. The city of Haifa, a peaceful enclave of Muslims, Christians, and Jews, could’ve provided a model of charitable co-existence; but demagogues stirred grudges to the boiling point. When Jews found themselves unwelcome in Muslim-dominated Jaffa, they founded the neighboring city of Tel Aviv, a rare example of willful social engineering that survived the tumult of Twentieth Century political confrontation.

Despite coming from a mainstream, non-academic publisher, this book isn’t streamlined pop history. Hoffman’s scholarly approach features long paragraphs, dense prose, and many source notes. Readers unaccustomed to reading academic writing may find his prose difficult, almost to the point of impenetrability. Even this seasoned scholar found reading required careful pacing: I needed to limit myself to bite-sized segments to digest his intense style. Budget yourself plenty of time to truly savvy Hoffman’s lengthy discursion.

Still, notwithstanding Professor Hoffman’s style, his content is both intense and edifying. The patterns of partisan violence he describes still represent conflicting parties in the same region. Recent rhetoric from Benjamin Netanyahu precisely resembles historic declarations from Ze’ev Jabotinsky. And low-tech modes of political violence still propel wars with no front line. Hoffman only lightly addresses how the history he describes reflects the present we currently live in. But mostly, he just doesn’t have to.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Goodman's Digital Dystopia

Marc Goodman, Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

It always bothers me when I concur with a book’s core assertions, and must recommend audiences not read it anyway. With nonfiction, this usually happens when an author draws our attention to neglected topics, especially those which have often unexamined implications, but the author doesn’t stage the argument well. Maybe it reflects my background in teaching composition, but nothing sours my appreciation like an undifferentiated firehose of information. Such is the case with Marc Goodman.

Ex-LAPD turned global digital security consultant, Marc Goodman has participated in increasing corporate and private security measures. This gives him boots-on-the-ground familiarity with how organized crime, espionage specialists, and crafty teenagers abuse today’s networked world. When ordinary citizens send credit card information across WiFi or smartphones, when social networks market access to private eyeballs, and when market trackers create massive profiles of everybody online, we’re unprecedentedly vulnerable. As Goodman puts it, “Mo’ Screens, Mo’ Problems.”

My problem isn’t anything Goodman says. Informed audiences should already understand his broad outline, though he helpfully provides clarifying details. Those Terms of Service agreements you accept without reading? The average American would need 76 eight-hour workdays annually to read them all. PayPal’s Terms of Service runs nearly 40,000 words—longer than Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, without characters or motivations. Even if you read them, most include stipulations that “they” can change terms without notice.

Meanwhile, criminals have developed elaborate processes to circumvent security. Goodman notes, security specialists must anticipate every possible attack; lawbreakers need only find one liability. Meanwhile, thought leaders like Ben Horowitz recommend deliberately selling bug-ridden early drafts of software, using paying customers as uncompensated beta testers. This leaves consumers vulnerable to spiteful pranksters, the Mafia, and even China’s People’s Liberation Army, known to have deliberately hacked corporations and citizens to expropriate American and international trade secrets.

Marc Goodman
No, my problem isn’t what Goodman says, it’s how he says it. Goodman divides his text into three parts, and Part One, which consumes nearly half the book’s mass, unrelentingly dumps chilling crime data in readers’ laps. Between tales of deliberate crime, squicky corporate data hoarding, and actual malicious destruction, it mounts up. Goodman doesn’t break this litany of misery, except for the occasional half-page snippet of exposition, for over 150 pages, leaving readers tired.

This results in a phenomenon familiar to many professions, from government reformers to Christian missionaries: compassion fatigue. People reading narratives of poverty, oppression, or in this case crime, quickly become discouraged when statistics accumulate. With individual narratives, people feel moved to act; when patterns develop, people become discouraged and fatalistic. According to philanthropist Richard Stearns, that happens appallingly early: when naming actual victims of inequality or crime, people become discouraged when the pattern hits… two.

Thus Goodman says many right things in exactly the wrong way. I’d use exactly this strategy to discourage audiences about their ability to address current problems. Rather than keeping focus on one problem, or one constellation of problems, and appropriate correlating solutions, he completely segregates crisis from resolution. We get crushed by the weight of problems long before reaching the solutions, assuming we do reach the solutions: I frankly got tired and made tortoise-like progress.

Certainly, Goodman also discusses redresses to these problems. But he does this only so late that many readers have already either given into nihilism, or joins the Luddites. Perhaps Goodman thought the story arc from Hollywood dramas, where everything generally gets worse and worse until our white-hatted hero reverses things, would convey his message emotionally. But this isn’t some scripted drama. The answer isn’t Liam Neeson kicking everybody’s ass. This really happens to real people.

Goodman doesn’t trade in hypotheticals. He doesn’t invent threats that need addressed in the airy-fairy future, because he doesn’t need to (though he does sometimes extrapolate). Horror stories abound in nonfiction, from joshing teenagers hijacking municipal rail control networks, to massive data leaks at Symantec. Yes, that Symantec, which manufactures Norton security. Despite the “Future Crimes” title, Goodman details threats that exist right now, and risk becoming even more perilous as our networked technology increases.

I struggled to retain Goodman’s thread beneath the mass of techno-legal horror tales. I should be Goodman’s target audience, since I support his fundamental thesis about digital vulnerabilities. Just as most citizens cannot comprehend their investment portfolios, we also cannot manage our digital privacy individually. Goodman raises important questions for both private and regulatory consideration. These issues will increasingly color life in coming years. Goodman just stages his claims in ways that leave me despondent.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Stupidity For Sale


The abject idiocy of certain people who claim to speak for the public good continues to baffle me.

Late last week, veteran journalist M.D. Kittle wrote a pig-ignorant screed on Wisconsin Reporter, a regional website affiliated with right-wing umbrella group Watchdog.org. Kittle inveighed against any reforms of higher education that persisted in requiring any liberal arts core, insisting that anything other than job skills doesn’t comport with the Wisconsin Idea, a guiding principle of Wisconsin’s higher education system.

I’m accustomed to students complaining about liberal arts requirements. A classmate of mine mocked his additional history prerequisite as a mere money-making racket, a demonstrably nonsensical claim at a land grant university, where tuition barely scratches the surface of costs borne by taxes and endowments. As a teacher, I recall one student bellyaching: “Why study math? I’ll never need to factor polynomials for the rest of my life.”

Kittle takes this complaint, which I understand from students—who by definition don’t recognize their own best interests—and extends it to truly ridiculous ends:
The escalating cost of higher education is due in no small part to an outmoded liberal arts belief that forces computer science majors to take Lithuanian pottery or some other course in order to obtain a degree that is supposed to say the student has the skills to do the job at hand. At the end of the day, it’s safe to say IBM and Microsoft don’t give a damn whether their employees can operate a kiln.
You’re right. Employers don’t care if new hires possess such skills. And, other than arts majors, only an idiot would take such minutely specialized courses. Except at the most high-aspiring research universities, you’ll have difficulty finding anyone who even offers such particular courses to undergraduates. And anybody stuffing their CV with such esoteric subspecialties deserves the ding such choices attract.

However.

Conservatives, like those who run Watchdog.org, formerly advocated restoring firm liberal arts curricula to contemporary universities. The National Review editorial board openly endorsed toughening core studies when Jesse Jackson was organizing protests against “Western Culture” courses. What happened? When did the American Right decide against upholding traditional standards in higher education?

Only in America do families send youth to universities to achieve job skills. America has a highly regarded network of well-developed trade schools, which leaders like President Obama have advocated strengthening. And well they should. While university degree holders have greater lifetime earning potential, trade school graduates have greater immediate earning potential. Tradespeople with associate’s degrees can earn enough, right away, to start paying bills and raising families.

Yet people like Kittle, and the students he cites, want the prestige associated with university credentials. They just don’t want that boring old university education. Rather than elevating themselves to the complexity of university standards, they want universities lowered to mere skills training facilities. Their desire for a la carte education treats universities like shopping malls, and professors as service providers, not mentors or caregivers.

Worse, this attitude is crushingly passive. The desire for mere skills training reduces education to the mere transmission of information from one brain to another, an approach that provably doesn't work. Moreover, students claim they want skills training, but I know they don’t. When I tried lecturing my students, their eyes visibly glazed. When I engaged in dialog and asked questions without obviously correct answers, they came alive again.

Students, by nature, don’t know what they want and need. Important concepts reveal themselves only laterally, often in surprising ways. As I've written before, we never study topics for their own sake. Music is beautiful, but music also relies upon strict mathematical relationships; music is math made tangible. Likewise, literature is a compressed form of thinking, and the ability to comprehend literature is, manifestly, the ability to have empathy.

And, yes, Lithuanian pottery is a stupid course. Besides art majors, only somebody unthinking would take that class. But art history courses provide introductory studies in complicated visual communication, absolutely essential for engineers, physicists, and other skilled professionals who deal in spatial relationships. Just because some twenty-year-old doesn’t grasp why liberal studies doesn’t matter, doesn’t excuse adults indulging their ignorance.

Students who only study their job eventually do their job exactly like everyone else. Employers treasure college grads because they can break the mold. But libertarians like Kittle don’t want such individuality. In reducing education to job training, Kittle by extension reduce schools to industrial parts manufacturing. And those parts are students. I’d consider that sufficient reason to be outraged.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Übermensch

Henry Cavill as Superman
People who don’t read comic books probably don’t realize that DC Comics halted, and completely restarted, their iconic Superman character in 1986. During the Crisis On Infinite Earths, the first of three times (so far) DC has shaken out its frequently unreliable continuity, they ironed out other characters’ kinks; but with Superman, they just  chucked fifty years of inconsistent backstory. Christopher Reeve’s beloved Superman simply ended. The current Superman is less than twenty years old.

In today’s crush of franchise reboot movies, 2013’s Man Of Steel seems superficially ordinary. With Christopher Reeve deceased, Brandon Routh’s starring turn in Superman Returns widely jeered, and director Richard Donner basically retired, relaunching the Superman film franchise in accord with the 1986 comics restart probably appeared logical. But screenwriter David S. Goyer and director Zach Snyder actually made probably the biggest change to Superman’s arc ever: they’ve removed him altogether from ordinary human affairs.

Recalling Donner’s iconic 1978 Superman, audiences will probably remember Christopher Reeve ducking into telephone booths to change costumes, emerging to stop cat burglars attacking skyscrapers, and catching a mugger’s bullet intended for Lois Lane. At various times, he caught falling spacecraft, righted tumbling buildings, chucked world powers’ nuclear arsenals into the sun, and re-flew the American flag on the moon. During periods when Americans believed our future was probably truncated, Superman renewed faith in order.

Introduced during the Great Depression, Superman hit American consciousness during years when a combination of organized crime and top-level corruption left citizens feeling powerless. With war brewing in Europe and lawlessness in America’s streets, Superman reassured struggling youths that a pure heart, and occasional well-placed violence, could restore justice to our land. Donner’s film, four years after Charles Bronson’s bleak Death Wish, reignited belief in integrity when officials literally suggested abandoning Manhattan to the Mafia.

Michael Shannon as General Zod
But today’s focus has shifted. One recalls White House whistleblower Richard Clarke, who complained that FBI director Louis Freeh remained fixated on catching bankrobbers and other criminals when terrorism had become America’s biggest threat. A musclebound white vigilante cannot out-punch criminals today, when literal bankrobbers can haul one billion dollars without entering the bank. Note that, in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, when Bane wanted to wreak terror and undermine society, he attacked Gotham’s stock exchange.

Costumed crime-fighters seem naive and passé anymore. Mere crime lacks panache. As Matt Taibbi reports, the financial swindlers who torpedoed our economy in 2008 waltzed because nobody could agree on jurisdictional protocol, while poor and minority citizens face punitive consequences for spitting on the sidewalk. Order feels like the problem, not the solution. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and ISIS threaten America’s interests internationally, while the Sinaloa and Zeta cartels have reportedly established economic colonies within America’s borders.

Therefore, Snyder’s Superman doesn’t fight crime. How could he? Even Superman can’t punch Goldman Sachs, or rustle up decentralized organizations like the Zetas. In comics, Clark Kent’s father, Jonathan, taught his son to exercise social responsibility via his powers; being superhuman gives Superman duties to society. Snyder’s Jonathan Kent teaches young Clark to fear human society. While arguably not wrong, this change reflects a society-wide flight from public obligation in our time of atomized hyper-individualism.

Snyder’s Superman never does anything public-spirited. Truth, Justice, and the American Way mean nothing in this milieu. Even when General Zod appears, and Superman makes himself visible, he does so primarily out of loyalty to Lois Lane. He has no compunction engaging supervillains in massively destructive dust-ups along Kansas main streets, and when Zod’s army of Kryptonian misfits begin terraforming Earth, Superman abandons the massive nuclear crater in Metropolis’s downtown to rescue Lois Lane. Again.

This isn’t the behavior of a superman; this is the behavior of an übermensch. This Superman demonstrates no interest in becoming part of society’s evolution, protecting humanity’s downtrodden, or ensuring law and order. He shows a strictly ad hoc, self-serving moral underbelly, and when he finally fights Zod one-on-one, Superman arguably does as much damage to Metropolis as Zod does. The Superman I grew up with was everybody’s hero. Snyder’s Superman is somebody to fear.

In the final scene, Superman destroys a surveillance drone and demands his solitude. Snyder’s Superman has essentially surrendered any role in human society. And though we’re promised Superman’s involvement in a Justice League movie, that’ll surely represent a major turnaround for a character basically disinterested in justice or order. This ain’t hay, folks; how we depict our mythic heroes matters. The stories we tell about our heroes are ultimately the stories we believe about ourselves.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The War On the War On Drugs

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 45
Johann Hari, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs


President Nixon first used the phrase “War On Drugs” in 1971, but Harry J. Anslinger, founding director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, used war metaphors in the 1930s. The Harrison Act, which banned formerly legal tinctures of coca and opium, passed in 1914, and under American pressure, other governments passed similar blanket drug bans. Yet somehow, drugs and their attendant problems persist. Drugs underwrite Mexico’s ongoing civil violence, and undergird American poverty. What gives?

Anglo-Swiss journalist Johann Hari, who has witnessed drug addiction in his family and admits struggling with amphetamine abuse himself, unpacks the global drug war, a quest that carries him from the Vancouver to Juárez to Liverpool, and from Great Depression to the Great Recession. The facts he uncovers challenge top-level sacred cows. Many common assumptions, from drugs themselves to addicts’ motivations, come under fire, daring readers, regardless of their politics, to evaluate their prior prejudices.

From its foundations, the drug war has reflected its generals’ values above science. Anslinger believed addicts so subhuman that any legal overreach was acceptable to squelch them. He made exceptions, though: Anslinger made destroying Billie Holiday his personal mission, but gave Judy Garland a free pass. Anslinger’s prohibitionist tendencies, and sense of moral mission, created entire new classes of criminals. He also empowered the Mafia by channeling control of world drug trafficking into organized crime.

Johann Hari
But Hari doesn’t linger in the past. Scarcely has he laid out the drug war’s historical foundations, than he rockets into its present-day ramifications. Comparing Brooklyn turf competitions with Mexican cartel violence, Hari shows how American prohibition basically subsidizes both sides of the ongoing conflict. But some people have chosen to stand fast. From a cadre of Juárez schoolchildren, to a former street pusher turned scholar, Hari profiles activists who prove today’s circumstances aren’t inevitable.

Why do drugs remain immune to police pressure? Interviewing law enforcement professionals, Hari shows that drugs don’t behave like other crimes. Where rounding up burglars reduces burglary stats, rounding up drug traffickers has little visible impact. Drugs have economic drivers most other major crimes lack, meaning when cops bust one pusher, somebody somewhere is hungry enough to fill the gap. Many police have become disillusioned, and begun pressuring for new approaches. (See also Howard Rahtz.)

This economic momentum also changes how we address addicts. Our current approach treats all drug users equally, squeezing them into marginal status. Anyone with a drug record is unilaterally excluded from government jobs, student loans, public assistance, and other hands up. This means convicted users, turned loose again, has few opportunities to earn a living, except to resume their former drug war roles. The drug war thus becomes a self-sealing argument, destined never to change.

And who, exactly, are these addicts? Anti-drug programs like DARE, and Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, have been driven by Harry Anslinger’s moral impetus, but recent science calls common rhetoric into question. Researchers Hari interviews, like Gabor Maté and Bruce Alexander, have studied addicts as they actually are. They’ve made some remarkable discoveries, not least of which is: addicts have plenty in common before they ever discover drugs. Maybe if we treated underlying needs…?

Change is certainly possible. The city of Vancouver, British Columbia, saw an organized movement by local addicts that changed how the city treated its poorest citizens. Since then, Vancouver addicts’ life expectancies have expanded by ten years. The states of Colorado and Washington both famously legalized recreational marijuana, though for very different reasons outsiders probably missed. Entire countries, like Portugal and Switzerland, changed their addict treatment programs, and violence, disease, and overdose death all plunged.

For Hari, this isn’t merely academic. He bookends his journalism with personal narratives of loved ones who’ve descended into addiction, and how his researches have forced him to change how he treats them. Hari also briefly alludes to his own struggle with amphetamines as a binge-writing tool. He neglects to mention that his amphetamine abuse submarined his British journalism career. This book represents Hari’s efforts to confront the damage he’s done, and reclaim his integrity.

This book represents cause-oriented journalism, in the best way. Hari begins with a simple premise, that what we’re doing now doesn’t work, and another way must exist. He doesn’t start with simplistic alternatives in mind, and admits struggling with the conclusions his sources imply, because they contradict everything we think we know about drugs. But even if we cannot accept everything he discovers, Hari nevertheless gives us reason to hope today’s failed approaches can change.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Those Who Don't Learn From History

A march by right-wing German nationalist group PEGIDA. The banner reads:
"Nonviolent & United Against Faith Wars on German Soil!"
Notice the trash bin containing both an Islamic flag and a swastika.

Recent news coverage of anti-Islamic protests in Europe have begun trickling into America, possibly despite America's’ best efforts. Generally, if it doesn’t involve Downton Abbey or timeshares in Ibiza, it’s hard to get Americans interested in European events beneath the national election level. Yet recent rallies by Germany’s PEGIDA nationalist movement, or France’s frankly creepy Front National party, have disturbingly familiar textures. And they reflect worrisome prospects in America’s domestic politics, unless we keep watch.

Steve Wick’s The Long Night, a biography of pioneering journalist William Shirer, describes Shirer’s time in Europe after World War I. Arriving in Hemingway’s Paris, he knocked around, enjoying the same nightlife that America’s legendary expatriates recorded, while attempting to find stringer work for American newspapers. But sometime around 1930, Europe’s economy imploded. Shirer, working for Edward R. Murrow and NBC, watched the Europe he loved descend into street violence, serial blaming, and early fascism.

Wick, quoting Shirer, does better describing Europe’s decline than I could. But watching news arising from today’s EU, and its eerie parallels in certain American political sectors, the historical patterns defy easy dismissal. Lavish lifestyles, subsidized by hefty consumer debt, came crashing like Jenga pieces when creditors could loan nothing further. Those who profited from ill-considered acquisitions found what they’d acquired suddenly worthless. Seeking to shift blame off themselves, they sought a designated scapegoat class.

Both PEGIDA and the Tea Party claim no racial motivation whatsoever, as Hitler and Mussolini did; yet they seek scapegoats easily recognizable by external characteristics. Jews, Gypsies, Arabs, Mexicans—regardless of particulars, the visible themes remain. The population that enjoys power perceives itself newly powerless, and seeks another population to blame. Problems always originate somewhere else. Importantly, they believe themselves oppressed by this otherwise powerless minority, whether it’s “Jewish bankers” or “illegals stealing our jobs.”

Tzvetan Todorov acknowledges that the last several years have seen a resurgence in European race-based bigotry. Yet he insists this doesn’t mean a return to Depression-era Fascism, but rather closing the book on that historical gulf. One wonders how that works. PEGIDA and the Front National are repeating behaviors familiar from world history textbooks, which doesn’t exactly suggest winding back the clock. Indeed, since familiar behaviors follow familiar precursors, it’s naive to expect different outcomes.

A Front National campaign poster from 2010. It reads:
"Enough Anti-French Racism, We're At Home!"

Lutz Bachmann, leader of PEGIDA, was recently shamed into hiding after a photo surfaced of him posing as Hitler. PEGIDA, to its credit, disavowed Bachmann altogether. Yet the underlying thinking was all too visible. Certainly, to joke about Hitler doesn’t make one secretly fascist; considering my occasional Hitler, Archie Bunker, and Old South wisecracks, I cannot cast aspersions. Yet Bachmann didn’t just make this joke; he preserved it. He was only ashamed at getting caught.

Britain elected David Cameron PM, and Germany retained Angela Merkel, despite their policies being massively unpopular. France voted out Nicolas Sarkozy, the first French President turfed out after one term since 1981, but that basically involved French voters holding their noses while name-checking the other guy. Marine Le Pen’s nationalist, anti-immigrant Front National, possibly Europe’s most overtly racist political force, came within ten points of final-round elections, reflecting French disaffection with the two mainstream parties.

On American shores, voters elected a wholly Republican Congress, while asking legislators to support policy platforms specifically opposite to the Republican agenda, apparently without irony. Louisiana Congressman Steve Scalise continues trying to walk back sometime racist affiliations. Sarah Palin gets agitated whenever somebody points out far-right policies have lopsided racial implications, claiming anybody who notices racism is secretly racist. “States’ Rights,” that pre-Civil War shibboleth of people nerving themselves to treason, has seen uncanny resurgence.

For history readers, the pattern is unmistakable. Europe descended into fascism in the 1930s, and the principle enjoyed remarkable American popularity; the unabashedly pro-Hitler folk hero, Charles Lindbergh, was a presidential front-runner until the outbreak of European violence derailed him. The conditions that precipitated transnational fascism in 1933 exist today, in both Europe and America. The fact that similar responses have cropped up in multiple countries should persuade doubters that we have cause to worry.

History readers have the reassurance, though, that history is written. We know what happened before, and why; we know how similar circumstances have arisen today, and we have the capacity to say we won’t repeat yesterday’s disasters. Elected leaders, media professionals, economic touchstones, and ordinary citizens have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to stand fast against creeping fanaticism. We have the power to repeat, or resist, history’s tides. Our next steps depend entirely upon us.

A common Tea Party slogan. I shouldn't have to state the parallels.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Neurocapitalism

Valeh Nazemoff, The Four Intelligences of the Business Mind: How to Rewire Your Brain and Your Business for Success

First-time entrepreneurs stereotypically commence their careers with one of two approaches. Either they rely upon unique flashes of creative insight, which may show glimmerings of inspiration; or they front an analytical, data-driven technique that mainly repeats what others have accomplished previously. Valeh Nazemoff believes real success combines these two approaches. But having aggregated the left and right brains, she immediately identifies wholly new components.

Nazemoff, a business consultant whose résumé includes Walmart, Lockheed Martin, and several government agencies, lumps intellectual approaches into four angles: Financial, Customer, Data, and Mastermind Intelligence. Each serves specific roles within business structures, and each subdivides into further unique specialties. Her description runs short, punchy, free of ornamentation, and her discursive technique attracts a very self-selecting audience. Only you know if that includes you.

First, what this book isn’t. Nazemoff doesn’t use a narrative approach, like Malcolm Gladwell or Duncan J. Watts. She doesn’t tell stories to introduce concepts, and doesn’t consciously connect her important points to historical precedent. She assumes audiences already share her fundamental interest in “neuroeconomics,” and proceeds directly into difficult, sometimes jargon-laden explanations of complicated topics. Nazemoff demands an audience as dedicated to her topic as herself.

This produces a very slim book, under 120 pages including back matter. She doesn’t bother fleshing topics out once she’s introduced them; much of her text consists of bullet lists, schematics, and flow charts. Though occasionally she introduces narrative elements that connect hypothetical ideas to concrete examples—one extended interview with a Veterans’ Administration administrator comes to mind—she largely assumes you understand her thesis without clarification or object lessons.

Valeh Nazemoff
Similarly, though Nazemoff names concepts, she doesn’t elucidate instructions. She frequently throws business terminology aggressively, like a thought grenade, and trusts audiences to comprehend what she’s said and why it matters. Very complicated principles like PR or social media marketing get named, but nothing further. Nazemoff’s principles rely upon readers’ prior familiarity with business technique; she basically assumes an audience already versed in MBA procedures.

Therefore, Nazemoff’s target audience doesn’t encompass aspiring entrepreneurs or sole proprietors. Throughout the text, Nazemoff implicitly expects readers to have a functioning business plan, and a managerial team segregated into utilitarian departments. She often mentions the separate but overlapping responsibilities of marketing, HR, and legal departments. Thus her assistance will primarily profit organizations large enough to foster actual departmental structure.

Not that entrepreneurs need not apply. Garage innovators and store-front start-ups can adapt Nazemoff’s technique. She just doesn’t write with such an audience in mind.

Rather than coaching newbs in rudimentary entrepreneurial principles, Nazemoff instructs established businesses in applying sophisticated approaches to existing plans. Oh, and what approaches she describes! Nazemoff anchors her precepts in “neuroeconomics,” a burgeoning discipline that, like its cousin Behavioral Economics, studies the core neurological origins of human action. By understanding how economic forces stimulate the prefrontal cortex, Nazemoff says, we can predict human economic action.

This is especially important because Nazemoff, unlike standard neoliberal economic business pros, doesn’t demand economic behavior follow famous graphs. The supply/demand arc, the Laffer curve, and other famous mathematical representations don’t appear herein. Instead, Nazemoff admits, your business is subject to unpredictable forces like “the economy, legislative mandates and regulations, customer and partner needs, technology implementations, and of course your competition.”

In such fluctuating environments, Nazemoff writes, human judgement becomes the one utility we cannot standardize and commodify. You must assess and respond to changing circumstances, which requires awareness, not only of your own deeper mental processes, but those of your clients and competitors, too. When is cooperation more economically viable than competition? What means of governing near- and long-term payoff ensures durable client loyalty? What patterns make our lives comprehensible?

These questions, Nazemoff explains, have no single answer. Rather, by understanding how human brains work, and what networks of action produce which common outcomes, we can make informed predictions and respond accordingly. Nazemoff reminds me of Duncan J. Watts, who writes that outcomes are never inevitable; we must resist the impulse to believe, because some event transpired, that event was deterministically predictable. Instead, we learn to read complex, sometimes contradictory evidence.

Consultants write books like this to support their business structures. They send copies ahead to advertise their services, or leave copies behind to memorialize their precepts in clients’ practices. Sometimes they merit reading separate from the consultant herself; usually they don’t. Nazemoff’s writing, because she eschews the journalistic touches Gladwell and Watts employ, makes tough reading. But it’s detailed, innovative, and up-to-the-minute enough to justify professionals’ time.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Life Of Woman In 1001 Books

Samantha Ellis, How to Be a Heroine: Or, What I've Learned from Reading too Much

Upon a literary pilgrimage to the Brontë sisters’ isolated Yorkshire home, British playwright Samantha Ellis asked herself several important questions. Who’s a better female role model, Catherine Earnshaw or Jane Eyre? Why did Jo March and Anne Shirley apparently quit writing? In a life modeled on classic authors from Jane Austen to Margaret Mitchell, how much is truly her own? Seeking answers, Ellis returns to her beloved library, and rediscovers the controversies of literary womanhood.

Ellis combines literary criticism and intimate memoir to tell her own story, which, unpacked from its context, proves not her own. For Ellis, books aren’t artistic creations or cultural artifacts. Where too many academic critics treat literature scientifically, like some distant tribe they research dispassionately, Ellis has cozy relationships with her books. She allows literature to transform her, and she in turn transforms her literature; Laura Ingalls and Lady Lazarus become inextricably part of her.

Growing up amid London’s close-knit, often insular immigrant Jewish community, books form Ellis’s connection to larger society. Starting with literature’s established canon, mostly British with generous samplings of American and Commonwealth, she incrementally molds herself on fictional templates: rebellious wives, headstrong daughters, tempestuous women, unconventional girls. Where her community imposes standards of religious and cultural conformity upon her, she seeks adventure, glamour, satisfaction. She chases what, in books, appears to come easily to her heroines.

Her relationships with books resemble relationships with people. She embraces them, struggles with them, learns from them, and—to her constant chagrin—eventually she outgrows them. Just as with friends, our relationships with books change us, revealing our options to us, teaching us to view other people more completely, guiding us to understand ourselves better. Thus, though her books have the same words, in the same order, as yours, each one is unique to her.

Samantha Ellis
“I’m beginning to think all readings are provisional, and that maybe we read heroines for what we need from them at the time,” Ellis writes, explaining her supposed misreading of EM Forster’s A Room With a View. But this line echoes forward and back throughout this book. Giddy childhood friendships with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, or LM Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, soured when both heroines, to please overbearing patriarchal husbands, flatly quit writing.

Sadly, each stage of growing up brings new disillusionments. The heroines of childhood, created by broadly Victorian authors like Frances Hodgson Burnett and LM Montgomery, don’t survive Ellis’s teenage transition to social consciousness. An astonishing range of literary sexual temptations, from Judy Blume to Jilly Cooper, challenge her parents’ chaste authority. Fellow Cambridge alum Sylvia Plath carries Ellis through college, but becomes an albatross afterward. Each life stage’s charming mythology falls away with each evolution.

But Ellis also rediscovers why these heroines matter as adults—just because she’s written these ideas down doesn’t mean they’ve become fixed. Only as an adult does Ellis finish reading Alcott’s novels, and learn that Jo March vetoed her husband and resumed writing. Rereading Plath after adult-onset seizure disorder colored her life, she realizes Esther Greenwood isn’t heroic because she suffers; she’s heroic because she perseveres. Reading, like love, is a constant process of reinvention.

Diverse readers may find Ellis’ experience very particular. Despite her aggressively international reading selections, her story is intensely British, intensely Jewish, intensely female. As a literary critic, she doesn't indulge illusions of thematic transcendence or proclaim erudite judgements as “death of the author” or “chain of signifiers.” Ellis isn’t an academic; she writes about writers to make them clearer, to herself if nobody else. I contend her particularity, her personal approach, makes her truly universal.

Not that she’s averse to scholarly criticism. Alongside her love affair with novels, Ellis describes consciousness-raising encounters with Germaine Greer, Susie Orbach, and other feminist revisionists who influence her outlook. Once she discovers the tools to read favorite novels more critically, she discovers unexamined implications that frequently run so horrifying, I remember twice reeling back from Ellis’s text, moaning “holy shit.” Ellis also learns that literature sometimes counters critics; it’s okay to argue with scholars.

Books, like Swann’s famous macaroon, have powerful psychic abilities. Cracking the spine on some childhood favorite instantly transports you back to that moment, that period of your development, your ideas and hopes and loves. Ellis relives her life, sometimes nostalgically, sometimes ruefully, through the novels which once enlivened her. The result is sometimes shocking, but always honest. And, in examining her journey through a lifetime’s greedy reading, she encourages us to revisit our journey, too.