Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Must Readers Finish Every Book We Start?

J. Robert Janes, Betrayal, and Chris Cander, Whisper Hollow

I remember telling my students: “Nobody’s ever too tired to read.” Then I started working at the factory. Not only did I find myself leaving my best, most constructive energy on the production floor, but several colleagues admitted them missed having the youthful leisure to read for recreation. I incrementally realized that others jettisoned reading from their priorities like I’d jettisoned learning to restore car engines. Two books recently re-awakened my awareness of this choice.

Canadian novelist J. Robert Janes has published fifteen mystery novels set in Occupied France. His latest novel, the freestanding Betrayal, relocates Janes’ historical thrust to divided Ireland in autumn, 1941. Mary Ellen Fraser, an Ulster doctor’s wife, has fallen in love with a German POW, and volunteers to smuggle letters to her German’s beloved cousin. Except, she discovers too late, she’s actually running coded communiques to Admiral Dönitz, commandant of the Battle of the Atlantic.

Janes lards his prose with passages like this: “By himself, Dr. Fraser was a saint, a prince of a man.” Ignore momentarily Janes double-dipping from the cliché barrel. Rather than having Mary Ellen’s husband reveal himself through action or speech, Janes reveals his characters with adjectival phrases, many lengthy. Descriptions of characters’ appearances occupy entire paragraphs. They resemble character notes from a screen treatment. Would Janes perhaps rather write motion pictures or Downton Abbey-like miniseries?

Between these scenes, lush with description but short on character motivation, Janes frequently lapses into lengthy historical discursions. He makes historical figures, like Dönitz and Churchill, active characters in his story, then translates their internal thoughts into lengthy historical expositions. Besides mind-numbing asides on the burgeoning war, he includes repeated footnotes. David Foster Wallace did this satirically; Janes keeps a straight face. Thus Janes overloads his audience by apparently failing to make basic authorial choices.

American author Chris Cander addresses broadly the same time period, but more epic scope, in Whisper Hollow. The company town of Verra, West Virginia, is a seething cauldron of guilt, repression, and deferred immigrant aspiration. Free-spirited Alta Krol and self-flagellating Myrthen Bergmann live in constant cross-purposes, their feud symbolizing the competing drives of poor immigrants’ children throughout the Twentieth Century. Meanwhile, Giovanni “John” Esposito squelches his modern ambitions under economic necessity until they finally explode.

I wanted to like Cander’s Colleen McCullough-like ambition and sprawling historical backdrop. But she lost me when I recognized two early scenes she’d recycled. Young Alta’s first encounter with her glamorous new sister-in-law, and the dreams this inspires, recollect Fitzgerald’s classic “Bernice Bobs Her Hair.” And John’s argument with his father, “If the mine was good enough for me, it’s good enough for you,” is so wheezy, Monty Python mocked it over 45 years ago.

After that, I couldn’t stop recognizing borrowed moments. Cander ransacks the Twentieth Century American canon; it’s impossible for well-read audiences to avoid recognizing Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Jim Harrison, and others in Cander’s prose. Even her prose stylings evolve as she proceeds, from Jazz Age tones in the 1920s, through the clipped austerity of the Depression, to the Found Poetry patter of the 1950s and 1960s. This reads like a jigsaw puzzle of other, better-known authors.

Though Cander and Janes are established writers with lengthy CVs, these novels both feel like student efforts. Janes has about 250 pages of story in a 470-page book, but keeps adding in historical details like he obsessively needs to include everything he discovered during research. Though he has moments of character interaction between windy expositions, he situates them so far apart, I’ve forgotten what happened previously, and must strain to understand why anybody does anything.

Cander, by contrast, overwhelms readers not with facts, but with influences, like she’s afraid the story she wants to tell couldn’t measure up to whatever she read in literature class. Trained writers knows that type. Their workshop submissions resemble last summer’s Hollywood blockbuster, or slavishly mimic the Dead Masters dominating AmLit courses. Maybe some people prefer not encountering anything new. But I suspect Cander’s well-read target audience will consider this an interesting pastice, at best.

Self-help author Gretchen Rubin writes about struggling to accept that she needn’t finish every book she starts. Many critics insist you cannot really savvy a book without finishing every page. But such critics are career paid writers; words are their life. My factory colleagues, many with families and second jobs, have limited reading time. Boring, derivative, or needy novels are an active imposition. Writers who want actual readers today should keep this limitation in mind.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Wandering Jew Redux

Shulem Deen, All Who Go Do Not Return: A Memoir

Shulem Deen found his home among the New Square Hasidim in his teens.They provided him everything a good Hasidic boy wants: acceptance, family, guidance, home. But not answers. Moving into adulthood, embracing an arranged marriage and a lifetime of Torah study, he found millennia-old dogma unsatisfying. And when modernity intruded upon his obstinately unchanging community, his boyhood faith slipped away. So one day, amid ordinary ritual and family life, Shulem Deen found himself expelled.

Hasidim, like Shakers or the Amish, draw admiration and scorn in equal measure from outsiders for their exceptional devotion, besides their rejection of modernity. But like Amish, Hasidic communities are independently governed, and each population enjoys (if that’s the word) unique standards stemming from tradition and reason. Deen’s community, the Skverers, founded by Ukranian exiles during Stalin’s purges, are so conservative that, in Deen’s telling, even other Hasidim find their insularity and single-mindedness forbidding.

Nevertheless, Deen recounts a conversion experience so passionate, it’s hard to doubt his one-time sincerity. Raised among diverse Hasidic communities in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Deen stumbled across the Skverers accidentally, almost lazily. Once there, however, he discovered a people deeply unified behind shared customs, profound mutuality, and Daniel-like refusal to accomodate this world’s influences. Deen elegantly captures Emile Durkheim's assertion that religion emerges, first, to unify the people; God appears in religion, if He does, only subsequently.

What they’re unifying into matters, though, in ways Deen initially misses. The Skverers share an appalling fear-based ethic: fear of outsiders, fear of heterodoxy, fear of their own flesh. As Deen describes the events preceding his wedding, observant readers will feel afraid for him: he lacks vocabulary to identify his own body parts by name, and his elders deliberately obfuscate factual knowledge. Deen’s community so fears change, that any frank discussions produce reflexive primal terror.

This includes important faith-based issues. Though Deen, like all observant Hasidic men, spent years studying Mishnah and Talmud, records of Judaism’s great historical debates (rather than studying, say, algebra or job skills), the Skverers consider all debates closed after Maimonides died. When Deen’s modern experience differs from historical precedent, he cannot manufacture pat explanations. Worse, modernity’s three great temptations—AM radio, a library card, and the Internet—increase Deen’s questions. Blind faith no longer suffices.

In Deen’s description, moving outside faith lacks Richard Dawkins’ beloved Road-to-Damascus conversion to secular clarity. Instead, dawning unbelief is scary, trapping Deen outside his beloved community, lost in modernity’s solitary, nihilistic hinterlands. Lacking the experience secular peers obtained decades earlier, modern life becomes fraught. Deen must negotiate such minefields as job hunting, making friends, and building a life without community support. Meanwhile, his ex-wife demands the kids remain Hasidic, permanently dividing him from his children.

Religious memoirs, including memoirs of agnosticism, never really describe situations as they existed. Deen crafts moments to expose how the Skverer community attracted and embraced him, then how it failed to encompass his growing needs. Therefore, we cannot read Deen’s account as objectively describing what happened. People, including his rebbe, wife, and children, become essentially characters in Deen’s arc; life’s sloppy, chaotic events get reorganized into a plot. Deen admits structuring events into a story.

Within those confines, Deen describes the terrors that accompany losing faith. When one’s community prizes uniformity of thought above all else, knowledge becomes sinful, so we share Deen’s stolen thrill of reading children’s encyclopedias at the public library. When one’s community cultivates a fortress mentality, besieged by vast worldly wickedness, discovering like minds outside undercuts everything else, so when Deen discovers conservative Christians on AM radio feel persecuted, too, he realizes his people aren’t unique.

But where modern necktied atheists proclaim secularism as onerous religion’s antidote, Deen learns, discovering himself means leaving others behind. Though forced into an arranged marriage, he loved his wife, and cherished his children. But they didn’t share his journey. When the Skverers expelled deen, his family tried following him, but ultimately couldn’t. They belonged among their people. He didn’t. Modernity, like religion, requires embracing important ideas, and those who do, must abandon those who cannot.

A Jewish friend tells me ex-Hasidic memoirs have become real hot commodities recently. Though outsiders frequently lump all Jews together, Judaism in today’s society is as fragmented as Christianity, and while some seek religion’s nourishing community, others reject its burdensome bonds. That’s why this book succeeds, because it ultimately isn’t about Shulem Deen. It’s about us, and the frightening, ambiguous, transcendent questions we face daily. In today’s turbulent world, can we ever know certainty again?

Friday, March 20, 2015

A Real Manifesto For American Schools

Tom Little and Katherine Ellison, Loving Learning: How Progressive Education Can Save America's Schools

Tom Little joined Oakland, California’s Park Day School in 1976 as a volunteer; he became a teacher, then the school’s principal, ultimately dedicating 37 years to one community-minded school. When its founders began, Park Day simply wanted to expand what citizens believed schools could accomplish. Then Little discovered the history of Progressive Education, a movement that became highly influential after World War I. Little discovered that he existed within a century-old continuum of educational aspiration.

Progressive Education, like its rough contemporaries Waldorf and Montessori schools, arose in the early Twentieth Century, from broadening awareness of deep psychology and dissatisfaction with rote memorization. Its foremost proponent, the philosopher John Dewey, popularized an educational model based on activity, cooperation, and social justice. It won international acclaim, and influenced Finland’s much-lauded national education system. But it fell on domestic disfavor in its American homeland during McCarthyism, when the word “Progressive” became political poison.

Despite criticism and mockery, Progressive Education remained viable, continuing as the dominant philosophy in several private and public schools, scrappy bootstrap educational startups, and even occasional entire school districts. Armed with Lawrence Cremin’s The Transformation of the School and zeal for education, Little helped reestablish Progressive schools’ nationwide support network, and became downright evangelical for his newly rediscovered theory. His book mixes memoir, history, and educational theory for a diverse introduction for educators and parents.

This theory will initially attract diverse adherents from across the political spectrum for one simple reason: it openly rejects standardized tests. Park Day doesn’t have any standardized testing in lower grades, permitting it only among high school students. Some are even stricter. As Americans balance declining STEM scores with revulsion for “teaching to the test,” Progressive Education actively resists reducing educational principles to Scantron sheets. It emphasizes students as developing human beings, not future workers.

The late Tom Little
But it’s far more than anti-technocratic jargon. Progressive Education, in Little’s telling, stresses holistic child development, including psychological well-being and bodily health, alongside academic standards. It positions teachers as guides and fellow travelers, not taskmasters or bosses. It utilizes students’ natural interests, rather than forcing them into obedience and regimentation. It cooperates actively with parents and community leaders, emphasizing education as lifelong participation, and school as preparation for, not separate from, students’ future adult life.

This means complex, intensive curricula starting early. Students study art and music, not because these topics are nice, but because they develop well-rounded citizens who’ll embrace science and public policy without sullen resistance. When teachers voluntarily relinquish authoritarian control, permitting students latitude to experiment and discover (with guidance), they enjoy learning. Little notes that, when many Progressive school graduates enter college and the workforce, they struggle to understand why conventionally educated peers resent taking initiative.

Though Little doesn’t say this explicitly, Progressive Education touches deeply on something running through American education. Despite school’s compulsory ubuquity, as Dana Goldstein observes, we’ve never agreed what schools should do. Progressive Education has a thoroughgoing mission of social betterment through personal development. Little gives examples of what this means, far beyond simple bromides about “volunteering.” Progressive Education isn’t about fitting students for possible future jobs. It’s about expanding justice by creating engaged, curious citizens.

Little dodges one obvious objection. He admits one year of Park Day tuition runs over $20,000, meaning students are either born rich or subsidized by scholarships. The emphasis on small classes, intensive participation, and field learning inevitably drives up costs, and Americans today notoriously don't want to pay for anything. To really apply Little’s precepts broadly, as we arguably should, we’ll need money from somewhere. Little kicks that important problem problem to policy wonks.

Even notwithstanding this, Little’s precepts deserve broader study and discussion. Diverse writers like John Taylor Gatto and Jonathan Kozol have observed that we compel children into schools, then starve teachers for money, structure students’ days to ratify unjust social hierarchies, and blame teachers when nothing gets better. Little presents a theory that rejects top-down “reform” proposals that bind schools’ hands. Teaching, in Little’s telling, happens at ground level, and is about relationships, not test scores.

This is Tom Little’s first book; it’s also his last. He admits he researched this book for twenty years while organizing America’s Progressive schools into a veritable union. But in the final stages, doctors diagnosed Little with Stage IV bone cancer. Having passed in April 2014, this book represents his lasting legacy, his manifesto for meaningful school reform. He poses challenges and offers solutions that all schools should take seriously. This book is unbridled opportunity.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Well-Engineered Self

Gretchen Rubin, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives

Attorney turned author Gretchen Rubin has previously written about how people become happy, and why they don’t. A trained legal researcher, she brings a scholarly eye to her projects that isn’t exactly journalistic. She writes with a mix of acumen, anecdote, and humor that reaches certain audiences where they live. Now she turns her attention to the question: how can we make happiness self-supporting?

Humans, Rubin writes, are necessarily creatures of habit—we have to be. Easily forty percent of our daily activities function habitually, on neurological automatic, because we cannot spare the mental focus to make every decision consciously. But often, we fall haphazardly into habits that don’t bring satisfaction, and often obstruct productivity. Rubin encourages additional mindfulness about our habits, and engineering them directly.

Well-built habits begin with self-knowledge. Rubin acknowledges that many self-help books falter because authors assume their personalities are somehow normative. Rather than one-size-fits-all prescriptivism, Rubin begins by coaching readers through steps to recognize their personality types. She broadly outlines what she calls the Four Tendencies, which somewhat resemble the MBTI types, but not really.

I concede doubts about these Tendencies immediately. Rubin’s descriptions of Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, and Rebel run broad as newspaper horoscopes, so inclusive that most people could recognize themselves in these categories. I recognize Questioner and Rebel in myself by natural tendency, and Obliger and Upholder encultured by my upbringing. Actually utilizing these tendencies will require substantial efforts at winnowing.

Gretchen Rubin
Leave that aside momentarily, though. Because subsequent chapters on the “Pillars of Habits” have robust roots in hard science and personal observation. Too often, we reprimand people for not fixing their own hash by undifferentiated willpower; pop visions of habit formation rely upon common sense, not replicable science. But as Duncan J. Watts writes, common sense is often neither common nor sensical.

Some of Rubin’s pillars are internal, particularly her emphasis on diligent self-monitoring, while others are more external, like the need for human accountability. Some straddle this divide, like writing firm schedules, which start internally but create an external document which demands users’ respect. Either way, they underscore that humans need a combination of self-awareness and public mutuality that’s become too rare anymore.

Once habit-forming behaviors commence, Rubin unveils the steps necessary to encourage productive habits, and discourage counterproductive ones. For instance, we’re more likely to continue patterns which we perceive as convenient, and halt those we consider inconvenient, so engineering our lives so desirable behaviors are also handy matters. Similarly, she suggests “pairing,” or linking something we ought to do with something we want to do.

Readers may find Rubin’s abstention chapter most controversial. We’ve heard the claims: I can occasionally indulge this behavior without becoming habitual, or once an addict, always an addict. Debates over addictive habits, from drugs to porn to workoholism, rehash this point, with people insisting that whatever works for me, works for everyone, QED. Rubin dares suggest that humans are individuals, and you’ll know whether you can safely chip.

Perhaps Rubin’s most revealing chapters deal with rewards versus treats. Though we may consider these interchangeable concepts, Rubin demonstrates they’re definitively not. Treats uplift our spirits, giving us motivation to continue onward. Rewards, and their close cousin, finish lines, permit us to consider the process “done.” As Rubin notes, and you’ve probably noticed yourself, once we halt desirable behaviors, getting started again is nearly impossible.

This book essentially isn’t for me. Rubin’s message often overlaps with Charles Duhigg and Kelly McGonigal, without their scientific grounding. In my experience, I (and many others) need the science to remind ourselves why certain processes work, and aren’t just mindless ritual. With her instructional bromides and coupled with upbeat anecdotes, Rubin more resembles a motivational speaker, and writes for audiences who need motivation over data.

Also, my opinion is somewhat colored: I read Rubin directly after Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream, about the drug war. Quoting multiple researchers, Hari demonstrates that addictive behaviors—the worst of all bad habits—result markedly from childhood abuse or social isolation. Since many of Rubin’s precepts involve social connections and unearthing buried causes, she’s perhaps stumbled onto principles with yet-unexplored mass social implications.

Within those caveats, Rubin writes an engaging book with many actionable principles. Though she doesn’t get into technical details, her points are specific enough that most people could actually apply them in ordinary circumstances. And though early precepts sometimes run vague, Rubin’s overall approach gives readers tools enough to improve their regular choices to create better circumstances and better lives.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Antigravity's Rainbow

Daniel Torday, The Last Flight of Poxl West: A Novel

Veteran magazine writer Daniel Torday’s debut full-length novel starts strong. His parallel narrative, of an aging war hero’s renewed glory and his young admirer’s unquestioning reverence, carries readers’ attention gracefully for a while. But pages accumulate upon pages, and Torday starts making weird choices. Veteran readers quickly see where he’s headed. And I find myself struggling to pick the book up again.

In 1986, Poxl West, who joined the RAF during World War II and later became a Boston-based Shakespeare scholar, publishes Skylock, his memoir of flying sorties over Hamburg. He quickly finds himself thrust into the rare air occupied by luminaries like Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi. Poxl’s nephew, Elijah Goldstein, watching from the sidelines, admires his uncle’s stratospheric rise. But, they both discover, increased renown leads inevitably to increased scrutiny.

Torday runs his narrative along two tracks. In one, he reproduces West’s full text of Skylock. Born Leopold Weisberg in Czechoslovakia between the wars, Poxl wants only to inherit his father’s factory, avoid his mother’s infidelities, and fly open-cockpit aeroplanes. But Anschluss changes his plans. Poxl flees the coming disaster, beginning a years-long pattern of running away. Until one day, during the London Blitz, he finally takes a stand, and joins up.

In the second track, Eli Goldstein recounts the whirlwind surrounding his uncle’s book release. A genuine Jewish war hero! What’s not to love? But as fame increasingly embraces Poxl West, the unprepossessing uncle who introduced Eli to Shakespeare vanishes into the past. Hero worship quickly transitions into resentment as the very triumph that brings Poxl global acclaim estranges him from the family who supported him through lean times.

Daniel Torday
Torday’s book spotlights the lingering consequences of guilt. Poxl West’s memoir reveals a prodigious capacity for love, but an equal capacity to flee conflict. His repeated flights from life’s un-pretty aspects exact their toll: he leaves pieces of himself in Leitmeritz, Rotterdam, Grimsby. Even joining the RAF costs dearly, as German bombs find the woman he left behind. Flying bombing runs becomes the embodiment of “flight,” in all its aspects.

Young Eli, simultaneously, can’t reconcile his feelings about Uncle Poxl. He extols his uncle to anybody who’ll listen: friends, classmates, Hebrew school peers, complete strangers. He defends Poxl against creeping bourgeois animus. But his own increasing resentment at Poxl’s absence weighs upon him. He cannot admit his feelings, even to himself. The harsh collision between boyhood illusions and reality’s unforgiving existence becomes Eli’s unwanted coming of age.

But if guilt colors everybody’s perceptions, Torday also inflects that theme with issues of time. Poxl, writing his memoir forty years after the war, represents a man outside his era. A scholar of the long-dead, he’s also the last surviving member of his bomber crew. He deals poorly with the living. Eli, recounting events nearly thirty years later, cannot prevent everything he knows now transforming his perceptions of what happened then.

Torday’s premise and theme set such high standards, I feel bad reversing myself and submarining all the praise I’ve previously heaped upon him. But everything happens on exactly the same level. Poxl’s ardent wartime romances, made more urgent by death’s imminent specter, vary little in tone from his midnight bombing runs. Eli’s admiration for his uncle, and his later demand for answers, have the interchangeable uniformity of Mad-Libs.

Seasoned readers feel Torday’s parallel tracks building to an inevitable collision. It’s an axiom older than Sophocles that, the more characters feel one way at first curtain, the more certainly they’ll feel the exact opposite when the final curtain falls. Love must inevitably transition to heartbreak, devotion into disappointment. Torday leaves himself little wiggle room to impress his own creativity into this apparently inevitable arc.

Our final confrontation feels so foreordained that, somewhere beyond page 150, I began skipping huge chunks, trying to reach the destined conclusion. And, sunny gun, I was right. In 1986, Poxl West’s self-imposed tragedy might’ve seemed surprising and sudden. But today’s climate of magazine scandals, Oprah’s Book Club, and deadline journalism brings its own perspective. We’re only left to sort victims from perpetrators, tragic heroes from arrogant postmodern myth-makers.

I’ve religiously avoided spoiling Torday’s climactic reveal, though that probably matters little. Torday, sadly, signposts his destination almost from the beginning. Torday’s early chapters beautifully establish the tension inherent in Jewish identity following the Shoah. His later chapters become fatalistic, inescapable, less an act of art than a phenomenon of gravity. Maybe he put himself into an impossible literary situation. Oh, I just wanted him to do better.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Doobie Newbie Blues

Click to enlarge
The image at right appeared on a friend’s Facebook feed this weekend. Having recently become interested in the sociology of drug use, and the forces that make illegal drugs a desirable choice for so many people, I’ve developed a reflexive distrust of blanket statements about how drugs work. So I decided to don my Snopes cap and investigate this claim’s truth value.

Though floated by various law enforcement, civil service, and public interest groups, this image originates with the American Lung Association. The ALA’s original source material verifies the picture’s essential claim, that marijuana (hemp, cannabis sativa) certainly does deposit more tar on human lung tissue than commercially manufactured, legally sold tobacco cigarettes. As it stands, this claim appears substantially true.

However, reading the source requires understanding basics of argument analysis. If I had my way, Darrell Huff’s 1954 classic How to Lie with Statistics would be required reading in every American middle-grades classroom. Anybody familiar with Huff’s principles will immediately recognize, reading the ALA’s statistics, that they’re guilty of several mistakes. For our purposes, the most important is “Comparing the Incomparable.”

By their own admission, the ALA compares machine-manufactured cigarettes, tipped with cellulose fiber filters, with hand-rolled marijuana doobies. Nearly everyone agrees that cellulose filters reduce the quantity of tar, fine particulate matter, and other matter from cigarette smoke. However, there’s no agreement whether that actually has significant health benefits. Provided they remain moist, meaning alive, tarry lungs continue to function.

Promo art for Reefer Madness, possibly the most
moralistic, wrong-headed anti-drug propaganda ever
There’s also wide agreement that filters don’t obstruct the inhalation of nicotine. The neurologically active component in marijuana smoke, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), literally cannot kill you at any quantity. We cannot say this about nicotine, which is so lethal that only by diffusing it into microscopic particles, and inhaling it amid hot smoke into the lungs, can it have any narcotic effect without instantly killing the consumer.

Also, the ALA compares cigarettes, manufactured under highly regulated standards, to marijuana, which is grown, distributed, and consumed with no purity standards whatsoever. Cigarette manufacture and sale is strictly regulated by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). This gives ATF remarkable authority to control tobacco purity, and gives consumers confidence regarding what their smokes are made of.

Marijuana, by contrast, remains exclusively in control of criminal enterprises, which can enforce standards only via assassinations. Once marijuana supplies reach street customers, we have no confidence that our wacky tobaccy hasn’t been thoroughly adulterated with pine needles and lawn clippings. Drug dealers are known to stretch supplies by cutting cocaine with baking soda, or heroin with chlorine bleach.

Therefore, if the marijuana consumed by regular users has damaging health consequences beyond ordinary THC effects, well, why is that? It’s hard to differentiate actual marijuana effects from those created by drug prohibition. Say whatever you will regarding the moral implications of corporate regulation. But anyone concerned about public health will agree that having government oversight of food and tobacco production beats not having it.

The Camberwell Carrot, the iconic oversized doobie in
the 1987 British classic Withnail and I
America has attempted limited-scale regulations in this manner. Besides the four states and the District of Columbia, which have all legalized personal marijuana possession for personal consumption, several states (the number changes so quickly that I cannot find reliable sources) have legalized medically prescribed marijuana. But the patchwork of state regulations, and ease of interstate transit, makes even this regulation slapdash and unreliable.

This being the case, any reasonable person must consider the ALA’s conclusions unreliable at best. On multiple levels, they compare diverse products that have little overlap. Imagine if the FDA published a white paper comparing patent-pending pharmaceuticals with homeopathic peach-pit cures. If the FDA proclaimed the natural superiority of lawful, government-approved products, tested in their own labs, we’d have legitimate reason to pause.

The ALA, therefore, demonstrates less about marijuana itself, and more about the destabilizing consequences of drug prohibition. By concentrating control of drug commerce into criminal hands, we provide economic incentives to organizations like the Sinaloa and Zeta cartels. Anti-drug advocates might insist that drugs are bad, and I agree. But simply banning them doesn’t make demand go away, simply reorganizes his routes of transit.

Users embracing marijuana for many and diverse reasons, just as people embrace legal drugs, like nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine. The distinction between which drugs are prohibited, and which remain lawful, has mainly moral rather than medical foundations. If merely being dangerous were sufficient, we’d have banned liquor and tobacco generations ago. How about, rather than cloudying the debate with tar, we get to know users as humans?

Monday, March 9, 2015

Mr. Lincoln's Very Long Shadow

James M. McPherson, The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters

Visit any American bookstore, and head for the History section. Though world history in all its flavors enjoys generous shelf space, two periods occupy the greatest share. World War II and, especially, the American Civil War retain unmatched holds on American imaginations, in ways that bespeak our identity as a nation. If the Revolution created the American state, the Civil War created the American People. Its legacy remains very present, 150 years later.

Princeton historian James McPherson, whose half-century career has helped shape current attitudes about the Civil War, purposes here not to create a new history of the American Civil War, but to ruminate upon its import. This proves valuable because, reading along, it’s impossible to miss the resonances between the history McPherson describes, and today’s live issues. In McPherson’s telling, the past is present, and something we must wrestle with to this day.

Why did General Grant and Admiral Farragut succeed, while General McClellan and Admiral DuPont failed? The traits which defined our winning commanders still describe what characteristics we seek in politicians, business professionals, and other leaders. Or, how about this question: who freed the slaves? Most Americans reflexively say “Abraham Lincoln” or “the Thirteenth Amendment,” but McPherson musters diverse evidence proving this question defies any single simple answer.

McPherson traffics, not in knowledge, but in debates. Many essays respond to, or argue with, other historians, whose opinions and interpretations reveal how hotly contested the Civil War’s heritage remains. These responses sometimes seem inconsistent. In one essay, he disputes Yale theologian Harry Stout’s assertion that the Union cannot claim Just War status under conventional Christian mores. McPherson systematically dismantles Stout’s facts, and presents a persuasive counter-argument.

James M. McPherson
His very next essay, however, rejects Mark Neely’s account that the Civil War was characterized by “remarkable restraint.” Though McPherson says General Sherman “did not even commit the ‘wanton pillage’ of Southern legend,” he nevertheless cannot countenance the claim that a war which killed two percent of the American population showed “restraint.” Thus McPherson demonstrates his greatest point, that the Civil War resists pat answers and simple nationalistic bromides.

One essay, “Lincoln, Slavery, and Freedom,” describes how, throughout the war, the Union’s core motivating issue evolved, and with it, the American principle of freedom. North and South were divided by competing definitions of freedom: Southern slaveholders believed Northern regulation impeded economic freedom, the freedom of wealthy individuals to own and exploit other human beings. McPherson quotes Southern documents that precisely echo contemporary Tea Party definitions of freedom.

Elsewhere, an essay about General George McClellan, America’s youngest General-in-Chief ever, presents a stark split. McClellan succeeded Winfield Scott in command because his will to execute swift, unambiguous action apparently provided the moral backbone Lincoln demanded. Except, once he assumed command, this gentleman soldier became paranoid, indecisive, and timid. The change in McClellan highlights the gulf between American peacetime and wartime cultures.

And McPherson’s final essay stretches beyond the war itself. Radical Republicans attempted to force justice into Southern law, but declared victory around 1877, and went home. Southern Democrats then wrote bigotry, exploitation, and injustice into their laws—laws which remained enforced a full century after fighting ended. Some economic firebrands have attempted, recently, to roll back history to those post-Reconstruction times, forcing McPherson, and us, to ask: who really won the war?

This slim book, under 170 pages plus back matter, doesn’t pretend to resolve every question the Civil War raises. Not really a single book, but a collection of twelve essays, McPherson assumes readers’ prior familiarity with Civil War history. His broad view stretches from the war’s roots, in the racialized propaganda of the Mexican-American war, to Reconstruction’s long shadow, when the Confederates who lost the war arguably won the peace.

For James McPherson, history isn’t dead accumulations of facts. History encompasses debates about motivations, ways living societies define concepts like “justice” and “freedom,” and what bedrock principles make America truly American. To McPherson, the American state may have begun in 1776 (or 1789), but the American nation, the people who define themselves according to consistent principles and just laws, achieved adulthood between 1861 and 1865.

Now, McPherson never explicitly highlights the similarities between Civil War history and the present. He never comments directly upon current events; his historical ruminations only unfold through the Civil Rights Movement, and then only briefly. But he needn’t actually say any more. Attentive readers will observe that, on multiple issues—gun control, economic restraint, leadership, and more—the past is, in McPherson’s telling, visibly present.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Immemorial Memorial

The McCormick memorial, viewed from the street
The Aaron McCormick memorial sits in the 3500 block of Clinton Parkway, in Lawrence, Kansas. Directly behind it sits a bank, while off to one sits a brewpub, but its block is dominated by a massive Hy-Vee grocery store and surrounding strip mall. Half a block from the memorial, one of Lawrence’s major municipal bus stops disgorges students and workers throughout the day, attracted by the location’s proximity to commerce, food, and several suburban-style apartments.

Unfortunately, almost nobody walks past the memorial itself. Though it sits along a sidewalk nearly wide enough to land small aircraft, most people getting off the bus either walk the other way, toward the crosswalks connecting the stop to housing, or cut across the grass toward the grocery store. The sidewalk remains mostly disused, except by occasional cyclists. Clinton Parkway’s wide, straight lanes permit, even encourage, in-town commuters to carom past close to highway speeds.

This precipitates the question: if we construct a memorial, and nobody witnesses it, have we remembered anything? Memorials, like America’s famous memorials on the Mall in Washington, or London’s ubiquitous blue plaques created by English Heritage, encourage passers-by to step outside themselves and connect with their people’s shared past. Yet 20th Century American suburban design ensconces people in climate-controlled cars and encourages them to shoot past communal geography, comfortably secured in an eternal, high-speed present.

Lawrence, Kansas, exists in constant tension. Though Lawrence’s historic downtown attracts tourists, shoppers, and culture seekers statewide, its more far-flung streets reflect modern interpretations of urban design. The post-WWII architect Le Corbusier popularized the belief that humans find traditional, pedestrian-friendly streets intimidating, and encouraged an urbanism based on starkly vertical buildings separated by swaths of green space. My generation grew up on massive lawns abutting sidewalks virtually unused by anybody old enough to legally drive.

But Le Corbusier’s vision of humans frolicking in wide expanses of foliage proved naive. Though tree-lined streets make walking a sensual pleasure, crossing wide expanses of undeveloped greenbelt is boring, and huge lawns push everything far apart, making useful pedestrianship both impractical and unpleasant. Few adults walk anywhere as a daily pursuit. Reliance on automobiles means Le Corbusier’s vaunted greenswards have mostly been buried under concrete and repurposed as parking, perhaps mankind’s most dehumanizing invention.

"A gift to the city of Lawrence
in memory of
from his family and friends
May 1999

by Aaron McCormick
as interpreted by Prof. Elden C. Tefft
site design by Kim T. Tefft"
Aaron McCormick’s memorial includes no information about McCormick himself. Presumably, from the copper sculpture, McCormick was an artist, though his vision has been re-interpreted by somebody else here. Nothing, not even dates, identifies McCormick for passers-by; he could literally be anybody. Presumably, the donors who subsidized this memorial intended it for those who knew McCormick personally, a geographically constant way to retain him within living memory. I initially mistook the memorial for the bus stop.

Apparently, I’m not the only person who cannot connect with this memorial. Despite being surrounded by foliage, from a foreground of low-growing juniper to its backdrop of tall bushes, the site is shamefully littered. Cigarette packs, half-shredded Styrofoam cups, and hardened french fries surround the artwork. The accumulated detritus suggests community members, insofar as they see this memorial at all, consider it a place to congregate for lunches and coffee breaks, then abandon their trash.

Whoever Aaron McCormick was, his memory deserves better than casual litter. Yet whatever organization created this memorial hasn’t sent enough caretakers by to remove the trash. This forces me to wonder whether McCormick’s loved ones ever visit his memorial. Wedged between Hy-Vee’s massive flat parking and Clinton Parkway’s vast, runway-like acreage, its placement seems designed to actively discourage casual visitation. It’s too small, too unobtrusive, and too damn far from anything to attract foot traffic.

Other privately owned public places have better maintenance in Lawrence. Private donors converted a vacant lot along Massachusetts Street into a Japanese-style Zen garden, a tranquil haven amid the street’s constant commerce. (Ignore the spilled bongwater smell.) This space gets used. But Mass Street’s shoulder-to-shoulder design encourages pedestrian traffic. People already present, already walking, visit this park amid their day. Clinton Parkway has no such pedestrian traffic; visiting the memorial requires interrupting one’s existing routines.

The Aaron McCormick memorial encourages viewers to pause, reflecting silently on life’s fleeting nature. Yet placing it amid suburban sprawl designed to discourage introspection contradicts that purpose. In this tiny space, half the area of a typical one-car garage, individualistic ideals of urban design collide with human desires for stillness and transcendence. But the collision goes unnoticed. We who discover this space must wonder: what future exists for communities existing entirely in an all-encompassing present?

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Dare to Keep Kids Off Street Justice

Chuck Wendig, Atlanta Burns
“Recent films in which the good lawman comes to grief when he tries to fight the system (Walking Tall, Serpico) have the moral ‘Don’t stick your neck out’, but this may not be what the directors intend. … Content lies in the structure, in what happens, not in what the character say.”
—Keith Johnstone
Atlanta Burns never wanted to be a high school Charles Bronson. She simply saw an act of bullying in process, and stopped it. But now she has a reputation as the girl who “gets things done,” and local students begin hiring her to fix their hash. Sadly, Atlanta quickly discovers that fixing the awfulness in her face sometimes empowers the awfulness hiding behind her back.

I truly want to enjoy Chuck Wendig’s cult novel, now making its transition to mainstream audience awareness, but Wendig keeps getting in my way. His themes of peace through superior firepower would make me uncomfortable in an R-rated movie, much less a YA novel. And structurally, it mimics recent trends in screenwriting that reveal how Wendig would probably rather write a treatment script.

Chapter One starts with Atlanta witnessing three bullies whipping a Latino kid’s ass. A PTSD survivor herself, Atlanta maces all three, earning one new ally and three bitter foes. This follows Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! structure, starting with a selfless act of undisguised heroism. Except it places a brown person in the role reserved for a small, defenseless animal. You understand why that’s problematic.

Atlanta herself represents an aggressive doubling down on the Sam Spade story model. Deeply damaged, she views grown-ups with learned distrust. She believes in justice, but resents order. Thus, confronted with fellow students oppressed by adults, she commences what criminologists would charitably call a vigilante rampage, rebalancing the scales by whatever means come available.

She confronts two enemies herein. (This book combines two stories previously published separately.) First, a White Pride subculture perpetrating hate crimes on high school homosexuals conceals darker secrets permeating the adult community. Then, a schoolgirl’s horribly mangled puppy opens doors on suburban dogfighting, and a shocking pay-to-play violence ring.

Chuck Wendig
Admittedly, Wendig tells these stories well. His prose flows fluidly, with telegraphic dialog and Elmore Leonard-like punch. If Wendig told this story with adult characters, I might not seek this book out, but I’d certainly appreciate his eye for telling detail and apt phrasing. Perhaps he follows occasional philosophical cow paths, and Atlanta sometimes soliloquizes, but in writing this dense, we can spare occasional minutes for authorial social conscience.

No, my problem isn’t anything Wendig says, nor how he says it. It’s that everything accumulates, everything mounts up, until we see something hiding behind Wendig’s explicit narrative. Atlanta preaches anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-violence sermons while wielding guns and nightsticks. Wendig’s progressive social message camouflages nihilistic themes of humankind’s irresistible, ultimately savage nature.

This story putatively presents Atlanta as the antihero, a deeply flawed but basically admirable Warrior Woman standing fast against bullying teens and corrupt adults. But she gives me a different vibe. She deliberately antagonizes authority, trades justice for money, and has a strictly ad-hoc ethical code without external foundation. Basically, she has the psychology of a criminal.

Atlanta ain't Nancy Drew, kids.

She doesn't follow standard NRA guidelines about firearms safety, social engagement, or "good guys with a gun," either. Pointing a gun, whether or not she actually uses it, is her first choice. Her gun technique is so haphazard, only authorial grace keeps her from killing somebody. Because her technique resembles Seventies cop dramas, mercifully immune to blowback.

Seriously. At one point, she fires near another kid and misses his head by under twelve inches. With a borrowed Ladysmith revolver. Bullshit. Nobody, outside Hollywood, has such precision with a handgun.

My concern, or one anyway, is: what if teens consider what they read normative? Sometimes violence stops even worse violence. But not often, and even less when that worse violence has official status. Handguns, action heroes notwithstanding, are unreliable, and make better threats than tools. Powerful people use populist resistance to justify crackdowns. Answering evil people in their own language mainly ratifies their bigotry.

Wendig clearly wants us to derive moral lessons from Atlanta's exploits. He even concludes by citing weblinks to anti-hate crime and anti-dogfighting activist groups. But I have difficulty separating Wendig's moral from Atlanta's actions. The ultimate moral is seemingly: if anyone violates your values, shoot them. Or threaten to, anyway.

I think we've all seen too much Nietzschean street justice recently, don't you?

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Revolution In Reverse

Jay F. Hein, The Quiet Revolution: An Active Faith That Transforms Lives and Communities

I admit accepting this review book for one quirky reason: the title recollects Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution, a book I enjoy and admire. I find the idea of revolutionary Christianity exciting, as the ongoing liberal/conservative divide in contemporary politics overlooks the poor, sick, and imprisoned Jesus calls believers to serve. But it’s hard to imagine a book less similar, a message less concordant, than this book.

Jay F. Hein headed President George W. Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives during Bush’s second term. He oversaw government partnerships with religious charities. As you’d imagine, that partnership drew secular outcry, and occasionally still does, as Barack Obama has maintained this office into his administration. But the news eventually abandoned the hue-and-cry when its practice proved uncontroversial and frankly banal.

I’m divided about Hein’s thesis. I generally concur with his insistence that secular government can profitably cooperate without violating the First Amendment. He mentions (rather, name-checks) numerous innovative charitable institutions that pursue general social ends, just coincidentally driven by spiritual motives, which the Bush administration aided. These weren’t proselytizing missions; these were social charities driven by love of God or the gods.

Simultaneously, though, I cannot overlook what Hein doesn’t mention. Dead silence on President Bush’s longstanding refusal to address the processes which make people poor to begin with. Even as Bush chaperoned this new public/faith cooperative into America’s consciousness, it oversaw tax cuts during preparations for war—a combination of elevated spending and truncated revenue unprecedented in American history.

Jay F. Hein
That’s saying nothing about Hein’s relentlessly glowing encomium to President Bush personally. He fleetingly mentions Presidents Clinton and Obama, besides occasional nods to Carter and Reagan, but repeatedly dedicates pages and pages to President Bush and his relationship to OFBCI-funded charities. One needn’t read long to realize, Hein isn’t praising Christian charities, he’s fundamentally praising George W. Bush… and, implicitly, Jay F. Hein.

Hein writes that the Bushes “used their White House platform to show that government can help place problems before the public, but it is only the heroic work of community partners who can solve them.” In other words, despite vibrant praise for President Bush giving heartwarming speeches and showing up to shake occasional hands, he delegated to volunteer charities responsibilities once willingly accepted by professional public servants.

Practically speaking, the OFBCI’s greatest liability wasn’t its partnership with religious charities. Rather, it changed the tone by outsourcing civic responsibility to private organizations, which by definition lack government’s pan-social influence. Hein mentions tweaking tax codes to encourage and reward charitable giving. What about tax codes that tax investment dividends and monetary flips at half the rate of wages? That seems problematic.

Moreover, kicking active responsibility to independent charities redoubles the burden upon private givers. Recall Paul Piff's 2012 report that, despite occasional high-profile philanthropic largess, the poor actually give to charities, as a percentage of income, at nearly twice the rate of wealthy Americans. Moreover, while poor giving largely goes to religious and civic action groups, the rich substantially give to research endowments, higher education, and the arts.

I cannot reconcile Hein’s “cut a check to charity” ethos with Claiborne’s gritty Christianity. Claiborne relinquished his middle-class white birthright to live among Philadelphia’s poorest, most disfranchised denizens. His modern monastery sits between two brothels; desperately poor prostitutes and junkies comprise his core congregants. Claiborne has courage I lack. Hein, by contrast, encourages part-time Christianity. I recall the Parable of the Widow’s Mite.

The worst consequence I imagine is: what if religious charities become too dependent on government money? Even as outsourcing makes America’s poor more dependent on charity, the charities need more government money. This makes charities more compliant to government demands, less likely to challenge injustices—in short, it turns religious activists into government representatives. It makes the church a government bureau.

Shane Claiborne describes one protest: when Philadelphia outlawed sleeping in parks, to criminalize homelessness, his group had a mass sleep-in. The resulting court case overturned the legislation as unconstitutional. Christianity needs that rebellious streak, that Bonhoeffer-like willingness to challenge the powerful in high places. Could Doctor King have defied Alabama law if Alabama signed his paychecks?

The “Quiet Revolution” Jay F. Hein advocates isn’t a revolution in charity, it’s a revolutionary subservience of church to state. When Church and State become entwined, State arguably gains moral heft, but Church becomes a government bureau. This defangs the largest organized body capable of challenging state-based injustice. That means a shrinking of opportunities for everybody who can’t purchase power.