Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The ADHD Revolution

Dale Archer, MD, The ADHD Advantage: What You Thought Was a Diagnosis May Be Your Greatest Strength

If you give methylphenidate (Ritalin) to a child who doesn’t need it, that child will become mechanically fixated on repetitive tasks, no matter how meaningless, no matter the lack of reward, demonstrating what doctors call “robotic tendencies.” I always thought this mean to kids, until I started working at a factory, where unshakeable fixation and robotic tendencies were positively encouraged. That, arguably, says everything about why ADHD diagnoses have skyrocketed in the last thirty years.

Bestselling author Dr. Dale Archer wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD himself until after beginning his medical career. He openly gives thanks for that. He attributes his professional success to his condition, which makes him ambitious, mentally agile, and intolerant of busy-work. And his accomplishments are exportable. As he writes: "Simply put, ADHD can be best understood as a brain with a very low boredom threshold (yes, this is greatly simplified, I wish it were so easy)."

Several entrepreneurs, discoverers, media figures, and others Archer identifies show ADHD diagnostic traits. However, when regarded as features rather than disorders, these traits acquire new distinction. These include an ability to juggle multiple responsibilities, carefully learned composure under stress, and relentless curiosity. Though it’s impossible to diagnose the dead, Archer notes that many famous pioneers apparently demonstrate ADHD symptoms, and grow bored with settled living and wage earning. Archer even calls ADHD “the explorer gene.”

Dr. Dale Archer
Perhaps most beneficial, Archer identifies “Bingo Brain,” the quality of seeing every ball moving at once. Where linear thinking produces linear results, the ADHD brain sees multiple balls in motion, makes connections others haven’t seen yet, and creates new meaning from life’s plentiful raw material. Archer spotlights multiple high-flying stars, from design impresario Ty Pennington to the CEO of JetBlue Airlines, who attribute success to Bingo Brain showing them patterns nobody else has spotted yet.

Archer never claims ADHD isn't serious, or that nobody needs medication to control symptoms. Some people’s faculties are irreparably shattered. But too many doctors prescribe powerful drugs as a first, rather than last, resort. In America, where insurance companies make treatment decisions and Big Pharma markets directly to doctors and consumers, ADHD diagnosis rates in 2014 stood above 11%, far higher among boys. In Britain, where health care is nationalized, ADHD diagnoses stood below 2%.

Too often, especially with children, diagnoses come based on undesirable behaviors in group settings. Schoolteachers, underpaid and short-handed, recommend students for heavy stimulant treatments following disruptive classroom comportment. According to the DSM, doctors should prescribe anti-ADHD drugs only following two-hour diagnostic sessions, but predominantly cannot afford such time, writing scripts within three minutes. Most such prescriptions are written by GPs, not trained in diagnosing psychological situations. All in an effort to silence noisy, curious children.

Most such criticisms are written by journalists, physicians, and other white-collar professionals with little working-class experience. I contend that economic issues loom large here. Many children from overstuffed classrooms graduate into employment in overstuffed factories or cube farms. The skills we claim kids should learn in school take second place to real workplace skills like shutting up and buckling down. We diagnose kids, and increasingly adults, on flimsy grounds and questionable science, to subordinate them.

Some people certainly benefit from medications, provided they know what they’re getting themselves into. Just as antidepressants blunt all emotions, anti-ADHD meds channel all thinking, even beneficial thinking. Archer quotes entrepreneur Mark Neeleman on taking Adderall: "When I am on it I am like a machine and can't stop working." Neeleman, according to Archer, takes medications three days a week to accomplish nuts-and-bolts business responsibilities, then goes natural four days to think like an entrepreneur.

An ADHD patient himself, Dr. Archer identifies several shortcuts and work-arounds successful ADHD superstars have invented. Some are individual, from “brain dumping” and leveraging technology, to exercise regimens and productive relationships. Others are more diverse and complicated; a few verge on begging society to reorganize itself to stop compounding ADHD problems. Archer openly longs for “progressive” classroom education permitting more adaptability to individual needs. If he’s serious, I’d suggest he consider Tom Little’s Loving Learning.

ADHD isn’t some picnic, neither for its sufferers nor those who love them. Archer acknowledges it brings significant complications and makes life burdensome for many people. But for those willing to embrace their diagnosis as an opportunity, rather than a disorder, it opens distinctive windows on life’s little-seen viewpoints. Bosses and schoolteachers will medicate you to enforce your conformity. But if you prefer a life of creativity, exploration, and risk, ADHD may be your ticket.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Black Tar on the Prairie

C.J. Box, Badlands

After small-town paperboy Kyle Westergaard witnesses a one-car rollover accident, he discovers a mysterious packet ejected from the car. Too naive to understand what he’s uncovered, he finds himself unwittingly possessing a massive brick of meth, heroin, and marked bills. He also places himself, his struggling ex-junkie mother, and several bystanders in a Salvadoran cartel’s crosshairs.

Rancher turned novelist C.J. Box ventures outside his well-established Wyoming comfort zone to introduce an entirely new story. This novel travels to fictional Grimstad, North Dakota, modeled on Williston, a controversial oil boomtown. Box embraces hot-button issues, describing a town whose rapid expansion brings attendant crime and dislocation. Grimstad’s blossoming future has made paper millionaires, but cauterized the town’s historic past.

Veteran detective Cassandra “Cassie” Dewell, newly installed as Grimstad PD’s lead investigator, anticipates the opportunity to reinvent herself in a new town. But a gruesome, highly public murder on her first day shoves her immediately into hot water. Rich, ruthless drug merchants have muscled into a town changing so rapidly that every newcomer becomes suspect. A former Norman Rockwell town has become a war zone.

This very ambitious story addresses multiple themes simultaneously. Sheriff Kirkbride immediately details Cassie to investigate… something, he’s less than forthcoming. She immediately discovers an atmosphere of top-down distrust permeates Grimstad. Not just the PD, either; ongoing feuds between newcomers and oldtimers, management and labor, white and brown, make every encounter a political two-step worthy of Congressional elections.

Meanwhile, Kyle’s mother’s current boyfriend, a sterling specimen of meth burnout, devises plans around the recovered drugs. The Westergaards’ landlord has served notice, hoping to garner higher rents from better-paid newcomers, and T-Lock thinks Kyle’s windfall will answer their prayers. But T-Lock is so stoopid, the cartels so ruthless, and his plan so transparent, that he puts himself, Kyle, and all of Grimstad in evil people’s sights.

Cassie’s twin investigations pierce through layers of accumulated detritus in Grimstad’s evolving economy. Mentored by grizzled Sheriff Kirkbride, Cassie discovers a town with a future so vast and all-encompassing that its past has vanished. Money shatters generations-old social webs, leaving little besides resentment and boredom. It has become ideal breeding ground for addiction and abuse.

Box paints a bleak but compassionate tale of nouveau riche corruption in a region formerly very staid and settled. New workers rushing Grimstad wind up living in “man camps,” makeshift lodges and trailer parks about as cultured as Old West gold camps. Newcomers have little interest in Grimstad’s traditions; oldtimers who previously struggled for every dime would rather sell out and leave. There’s lots of money, but little to do.

Rural drug abuse, Box makes clear, doesn't hit communities like Grimstad from nowhere. Illegal narcotics are a nigh-inevitable consequence of money intruding on communities unprepared for its catastrophic side effects. The town has gotten rich from convenient access to petroleum from the Bakken Shale, some of the most valuable crude oil on Earth. Also some of the most inflammable. This matters later.

Box uses fiction to enact concepts I've recently seen described by journalists like Nick Reding and Johann Hari: geographic isolation. A widening gulf between work and pay. Little to do, in weatherbeaten prairie towns, but work and get high. A male-to-female population ratio comparable to prison. Box makes clear something elected leaders miss, that drugs aren’t a moral crime, they’re an economic crime.

For all his social conscience, Box almost misses one point. Throughout the book, Cassie feels awkward being the only woman on an otherwise all-male police force. She instructs another officer to “Call me Cassie”—and from there forward, Box’s narrator only calls her Cassie, while addressing men by their surname. I couldn’t tell if Box made a deliberate choice, or Cassie can’t think of herself by surname, or the men simply don’t respect her enough.

This matters. How much Box respects his female protagonist matters.

I’m willing to forgive plenty, because Box raises several issues—poverty, community, race, history—which he doesn’t yet settle. This book bears several hallmarks of the first in a new series, Box’s second. The troubled heroine, the unresolved quest, the ominous foe whose presence underscores the “monster of the week”... I suspect we’ll see more from Cassie, and questions like these will get fuller treatments.

C.J. Box has previously demonstrated his mystery-writing panache. Here he couples rich storytelling with razor-sharp commentary. Mystery readers will enjoy a good, tautly paced thriller, but prairie dwellers will also get the cold shock of recognition. This isn’t a story; this is our lives.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Thank God for the California Drought

The drought plaguing California for several years now has produced diverse results. Some commentators complain about “water wars” as coastal cities and rural inlands, desert South and arboreal North, have squabbled for control. Others indicate, half ruefully, half gleefully, that Global Warming science predicted this outcome decades ago. Whatever consequences California faces, there’s no doubt that Beach Boys-era Left Coast excess has probably ended.

Drought commentators inevitably mention, with portentously straight faces, the likely failure of California’s agricultural industry. Though we generally associate the word “agriculture” with wheat-growing states like Nebraska, or cattle-ranching states like Colorado, California is actually America’s most lucrative agricultural state. This includes valuable, and water-intensive, crops, including America’s largest output of water-intensive crops like avocados, broccoli, and tomatoes.

Water management systems dating clear back to California’s legendary water wizard William Mulholland, if not earlier, have previously allocated justifiable quantities to urban, suburban, and rural uses. These systems have previously absorbed changing uses, like unanticipated population growth, suburban sprawl, and irrigated lawns. But these uses have required reliable snowpack on the Sierra Nevada mountains, snowpack now at unprecedentedly low levels.

I suggest: this isn’t an entirely bad proposition. Not only has overabundant water encouraged Sunshine State development that jeopardizes irreplaceable natural habitat, it’s also encouraged overproduction of food. Simply put, America’s industrialized agricultural system produces more food than Americans can possibly eat. This, in turn, hastens Cold War-style global food economics, as well as slovenly, wasteful attitudes toward the produce on our own tables.

Farmers today maintain the illusion of “rugged individualism,” of fierce independent operators husbanding the land separately, letting Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand of the Market guide reasonable, informed decisions. But critics from Wendell Berry, a farmer himself, to agriculture journalist George Pyle, have called that stereotype ridiculous. Farming today is guided by federal subsidies, corporate contracts, and debt instruments which virtually require wasteful overproduction.

American farmers today literally produce twenty times as much corn (maize) as we could possibly eat. We don’t consume enough corn-on-the-cob, corn chips, cornbread, and Tennessee whiskey to justify current corn outputs. American corn farmers desperately scramble to find markets to unload excess produce. This explains why ag-state legislators, like former two-term Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE) encourage ethanol fuel production, although scientists consider ethanol prohibitively inefficient. When corporate food distributors and industrial operators can’t find markets for American produce, America ships that food overseas, calling it “food aid.” We justify ourselves by sending it to nations where crop shortfalls have created pinched food access among the poor, especially in chronically impoverished African and Asian nations. However, as Pyle notes, this undercuts the market value of native agriculture, often driving native farmers off their land.

This hits Americans close to home, too. When NAFTA lowered trade barriers between Mexico and America, Ross Perot predicted a “giant sucking sound” of industrial jobs heading south. Instead, when subsidized American agriculture hit Mexican markets at below the cost of growing, rural Mexican poverty hit seventy percent, bankrupting poor peasant farmers. Many thus affected headed north following work, creating America’s current undocumented immigrant problem.

Observant critics might read my complaints about agricultural overproduction, and observe they don’t describe California’s situation. The USDA only directly subsidizes five crops: corn, wheat, rice, sorghum, and cotton, crops whose long shelf life requires aggressive market stabilization to offset commodity price swings. California’s favored water-intensive crops, including strawberries, almonds, and grapes, aren’t subsidized, because of their short field-to-table horizon.

True enough. But subsidies have peripheral effects: ridiculously overproduced corn, for example, turns into cheap cattle feed, indirectly subsidizing beef production. State and federal monies subsidize one precious agricultural necessity, water. From Kansas wheat to Vermont apples to California pistachios, farmers profit from federal subsidies making water so cheap, it appears free. But as with cheap beef, this apparent lack of cost is an expensive illusion.

Subsidized water encourages farming in California regions naturally semi-arid and marginal. Particularly involving water pumped off the Colorado and other rivers, or drilling underground aquifers, cheap water has permitted farming in previously dry, sandy regions with limited soil fertility. Not in California alone, either. Nebraska, where I live, has benefited from subsidized water, center-pivot irrigation, and federal price supports—and our state aquifer is now jeopardized.

California’s ongoing drought is disastrous, undoubtedly. It threatens many people’s livelihood, and will jack food prices nationwide, possibly worldwide. But it also provides farmers, and their federal supervisors, opportunities to revise and update America’s wasteful agricultural system. We can patch the crisis temporarily, or revise the underlying problem permanently. Our choice.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

America Has a Hero Worship Problem

Donald Trump
By now, we’ve all seen the footage. Republican presidential aspirant Donald Trump, at the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa on Saturday, describes losing faith in Senator John McCain (R-AZ) for squandering the 2008 presidential campaign. The moderator pipes up, in a voice half joking, half whining: “But he’s a war hero!” The Donald snipes back: “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

Okay, Trump’s comment was completely classless and lacking common human empathy. But c’mon, in some polls, nearly a quarter of likely Republican primary voters support Trump’s bid, which surely reflects attraction to his blunt, unreconstructed style. It surely isn’t Trump’s policy positions—he’s enunciated none—or his personal charm. Trump leads in many major polls, and will probably dominate next month’s debate stage, because he openly belittles career politicians and Washington insiders, especially fellow Republicans.

Rank-and-file party leadership has aggressively defended McCain, partly because Trump’s inexcusable language risks tainting the debate pool, but mostly because it gives them opportunity to squelch an uncontainable maverick. The irony of supporting McCain on these terms deserves mention, but let’s continue: the moderator whom Trump out-shouted possibly deserved a decent tongue-lashing. That obsequious party toady didn’t defend McCain’s national service or war record. He threw “war hero” out to deflect a completely unrelated argument.

America loves creating war heroes. From Congress Critters who themselves got Vietnam-era student deferments, but slap “Support Our Troops” magnets on their bumpers, to ordinary citizens stopping BDU-clad grunts in grocery lines to say “Thank you for your service,” we love honoring our veterans. Media harridans from Fox to MSNBC gleefully chased Eric Shinseki from President Obama’s Cabinet when VA backlogs became too embarrassing to deny. Honoring troops rivals football for America’s real national passtime.

John McCain
Unless it involves actually doing anything. America’s all-volunteer military, which knew a recruitment surge following the 9/11 attacks, has recently pitted, requiring loosening of Defense Department standards so convicts and dropouts can enlist. We cry foul when VA backlogs apparently hasten veteran suicides, but repeatedly re-elect legislators who consider VA spending “waste” and stonewall medical treatment, medical health, and veterans’ housing reform. We love to name-check our soldiers’ sacrifices without addressing our veterans’ living conditions.

Few veterans have enjoyed John McCain’s post-military star trajectory. Veterans have higher rates of unemployment, homelessness, and substance abuse problems than the general population. They’re more likely to wind up imprisoned, their voting rights stripped and the freedom they fought for legally curtailed. My own sister, who did two hitches overseas during Operation Iraqi Freedom, had a job application unlawfully wadded up in her face because employers couldn’t be bothered with her continuing Reserve commitment.

This goes double for non-white, non-male veterans. As a percentage, Native American men are more likely to join the Army than any other racial group. They’re also the most likely to face unemployment upon discharge. Despite recent outrages over college sexual assault, women are more likely to face rape in the military than any other career field. The Army’s own numbers concede that one in three military women get raped, often by a direct superior.

“Support our troops” generally has little basis in actual troop actions. In 2005, I joined several local citizens in petitioning our Congressman, a Republican, to support peaceful withdrawal from Iraq. Then-Representative Tom Osborne refused, saying that to withdraw would “dishonor” the service of those who’d previously fought. By 2005, a slim majority of Americans already recognized that Iraq had slipped beyond military solutions. But our Congressman used troops to justify throwing good money after bad.

This weekend’s attempt to use Senator McCain’s war record as shield against criticism is entirely consistent with this trajectory. Rather than attempting to challenge Trump on his vacuous policies, his reliance on personal insults, or his basically incoherent demeanor, the moderator defended McCain by name-checking his “war hero” status. Okay, so The Donald handled the deflection disgracefully. But he shouldn’t have needed to handle it anyway. The moderator used a distracting, ridiculous non sequitur argument.

If we really considered soldiers heroes, we could express our admiration in useful ways. We could provide returning veterans with meaningful, uplifting work. We could pursue systems of internal military justice so women and soldiers of color know America has their back, at home and abroad. Or, here’s a wild thought, we could stop committing American lives to useless wars that only glorify politicians who never risk themselves. That would really be “supporting our troops.”

Monday, July 20, 2015

Alan Moore's Catastrophic Comix-Up

Legendary comics writer Alan Moore
Over the weekend, Alan Moore, possibly the most famous living comic-book professional who doesn’t draw, drew attention when a year-old interview gained new traction. In it, Moore, famous for epics like Watchmen and V For Vendetta, belittled his audience, claiming that “this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence.” Moore left his comics-reading audience, understandably, feeling mugged.

It’s tough to take Moore’s complaints seriously, since he’s famous for hating everything. Before attacking his audience, he previously scorned his media adaptations, his publicists, and his publishers. In this interview, Moore claims he’s retiring from public life altogether, but readers familiar with Moore’s history might justifiably wonder if that’s because nobody wants him around anymore. Still, Moore’s anti-comics complaint deserves one concise follow-up question:

Does Moore think retreating from modernity is a bad thing?

The current popularity of superhero movies and, to a lesser extent, TV series, partly reflects advancing technology. Notwithstanding my complaints about recent Superman and Batman films, the technical production qualities have generated cleaner, more elegant screen pictures than Richard Donner or Tim Burton ever imagined. But people won’t embrace well-made pictures that merely clunk; any Roger Ebert anthology can prove that. Superheroes address an unmet need, one which I fear is still going sadly unmet.

Alan Moore’s own creative heyday coincided with the frenzied final days of the Cold War. V For Vendetta addressed this obliquely with its image of Britain collapsed into Fascist nationalism. Moore invoked the Cold War directly with Watchmen, where a nuclear-powered man and his cadre of costumed übermenschen strive to prevent man-made Armageddon. Moore’s best work bespoke the perfectly reasonable belief that modernity proved human society fragile, one misstep away from massive bloodshed and anarchy.

Henry Cavill as Superman
We might consider that time comics’ third great blooming. Throughout the Twentieth Century, comics produced their most engaging stories and most durable characters during periods of great instability. The Great Depression saw DC inaugurate their classic “Trinity” of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, all expressly pitched as “crime fighters.” Early opponents, whether malign capitalists like Lex Luthor or gangsters like the Joker, wanted to get rich by subverting society’s rules and watching hard-working citizens burn.

Stan Lee spearheaded comics’ second blooming in the 1960s. Though he’d earned his stripes writing others’ characters, like Captain America and Namor the Sub-Mariner, he and his company, Marvel Comics, really flourished with Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four: gifted, misunderstood, mostly young heroes dedicated to protecting a society that mostly despised them. As with DC’s Depression-era classics, it’s impossible to separate Marvel’s peak product from the hippie epoch during which it was written.

So comics’ three greatest periods, measured by the durability of their characters and stories, coincide with times when the historical tide left common citizens feeling powerless. Not for nothing did audiences flee into fantasies of superpowered (or, as with Batman or V, super-skilled) characters driven to resist the crushing weight of reality. The modernity Moore mocks comics readers for fleeing is characterized, for most people, by feelings of defenselessness, impotence, and isolation from history’s trends.

Over the last fifteen years or so, superhero movies have attracted fresh attention to classic comics. The movie which ushered the current trend in, Bryan Singer’s X-Men, jibed with millenarian fears common in 2000; its sequels reflected the public drumbeat for war after 9/11. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, featuring an American imprisoned in China, reflected America’s souring world relationships after Operation Iraqi Freedom. Superheroes, by nature, touch symbolically on lingering needs in the public psyche.

Chris Evans as Captain America
The problem superheroes face today isn’t escapism. That’s always been their advantage, not their liability. Rather, superheroes haven’t adapted to current situations. Batman pummeling bank robbers during the Depression, or the Fantastic Four battling alien invaders during the Vietnam War, don’t really require symbolic unpacking. But as I've observed previously, “Even Superman can’t punch Goldman Sachs.” The problems society faces today are much larger and more diffuse than those faced when classic superheroes first debuted.

Reading Moore’s complaints about superhero comics, one suspects Moore merely resents his own status as back number: once an industry leader, he’s currently about ready to be embalmed. Comics are struggling with sluggish sales lately, as most media are. Yet iconic characters like Batman and Wonder Woman retain their cultural relevance; even Green Lantern survived an embarrassing film adaptation because his struggles matter. While audiences continue feeling powerless, they’ll keep needing stories of super-powered champions.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Holy Vigilante, Batman! (Part Four)

Who is the Real Voice of Alfred?

Jeremy Irons
Jeremy Irons’ voice just exudes charm. Most people who’ve seen him perform would agree with that statement. Over a forty-five year career, his most prominent roles have traded on him playing somebody suave, unflappable, and dapper. Certainly, that trend cuts both ways: some of Irons’ most memorable roles involve disingenuous charm, from Scar in Disney’s The Lion King to Adrian Lynn’s completely unnecessary 1997 Lolita remake.

This makes Irons a noteworthy choice to play Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler and right-hand man, in the upcoming Batman Vs. Superman spectacular. Unlike fellow British actor Henry Cavill as Superman, or Welsh actor Christian Bale as the prior Batman, Irons plays Alfred in his own voice. As have Sean Pertwee in Fox’s Gotham, Michael Caine in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and Michael Gough in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman campfest.

This rotation among actors has significant effects. Advance trailers show Irons speaking with what linguists call Received Pronunciation (RP), the first live-action actor to do so since Gough. Caine, as an aging Alfred, speaks with Caine’s own postwar middle-class London accent, a dialect actually disappearing in Britain. And Pertwee, a sometimes contender to play lead in Doctor Who, speaks a gruff working-class accent, almost but not quite Cockney.

Comic books, being an innately silent medium, don’t enunciate Alfred’s accent. Though early appearances portrayed Alfred comedically, and tried phonetically spelling his accent (“Mawster Bruce,”) Alfred’s Britishness has been largely tacit and accepted throughout the comics run. Thus comics largely traded on stereotypes of stiff upper lip British constancy, without digging any deeper. We accept Alfred as “English,” a broad category that says everything while meaning nothing.

Michael Caine
Alfred’s backstory remains studiously vague. During the 1990s Alfred briefly quit Wayne Manor in outrage; when Batman found him later, he was doing Shakespeare in repertory. Since American theatres generally perform Shakespeare with either general American or RP accents, we can assume Alfred speaks RP. Except that British actors are aggressively trained in accents, in ways American actors aren’t; any stage accent Alfred delivers can’t be considered definitive.

This matters when considering how adaptations handle Alfred’s accent. Most British actors adapt their voices to suit changing roles. Gough, Caine, and Pertwee all paid dues playing gangsters and horror monsters before gaining enough fame that their voices became part of their brands; and as noted, Irons’ characters often use charm to conceal moral corruption. Every Alfred actor originally found fame playing characters basically Alfred’s diametrical opposite.

In 2007, Cardiff linguists Coupland and Bishop, with BBC assistance, surveyed British volunteers for their attitudes regarding accents. Their results are perhaps not surprising: in subjective opinions, British residents rated urban accents better than rural, rich better than poor, white better than black. They also rated the RP, the accent preferred by journalists and public officials, as “normal” British English. Accents become a shorthand for how we value individuals.

Americans similarly consider RP, sometimes called “BBC English,” more normal than regional accents. Like the Midwestern hum Bale and Cavill adopt as “General American,” foreign and domestic listeners agree “normal” accents exists. (Directing a play, beaucoups years ago, I asked one auditioner whether she could do accents. She boasted of her “British accent.” I asked which British accents she could do; she said “I don’t understand.” She didn’t get the part.)

So, Gough and Irons portray Alfred having a “normal” British accent. By implication, Caine’s and Pertwee’s accents are “abnormal.” Yet, given Caine’s history in movies like Zulu and The Italian Job, critics regard him as iconically British; short of Prince Harry, one struggles to imagine casting an actor who more embodies Britain. So Caine somehow is British without sounding British, in the “normal” sense. He simultaneously embodies and defies stereotype.

Michael Gough
Pertwee, meanwhile, gained fame playing gangsters, roughnecks, and soldiers. Americans raised on Masterpiece Theatre may consider his gravelly, proletarian voice nonstandard, but his career history implies, whenever he opens his mouth as Alfred, that he’d take a bullet for young Bruce. Without needing to say anything specifically, Pertwee’s “abnormal” accent informs audiences that Bruce Wayne has a fierce warrior protecting his future.

Thus every actor portraying Alfred reinforces his innate Britishness, but conveys entirely different characters. Just as Keaton, Bale, and Affleck clearly play different Batmen, these divergent actors create unique Alfreds, each with distinct relationships to Bruce. Though directors consistently stuff Alfred into largely interchangeable suits, these actors need only speak to stake their particular interpretations. Simply with their voices, actors define their particular Alfred—and, by implication, their particular Batman.

Part One: Sanctifying Civilian Justice
Part Two: Defining Justice in a Nihilistic Universe
Part Three: Bane's Dichotomy Between Servitude and Chaos

Monday, July 13, 2015

Dear Jeb—Bite Me

An open letter to former Florida governor and current Republican presidential hopeful John Ellis "Jeb" Bush
When I was small, during the Rah-Rah Reagan years, the band Alabama hit number one on Billboard’s country charts with their song “40 Hour Week.” They sang explicit praises for the kind of people too infrequently praised in American pop culture. They acknowledged jobs famous for long hours and bad pay, including assembly line workers, waitresses, and truckers. Importantly, they praised the idea that forty hours was enough.

I recalled this song late last week when you, Jeb Bush, proclaimed that “people need to work longer hours.” That phrase got abstracted from a longer, far less controversial statement about improving the economy, so I’m willing to extend limited forgiveness. Like Mitt Romney’s “I like being able to fire people,” it’s arguable whether this statement really reflects its speaker’s intent. This could all be a terrible mistake.

John Ellis "Jeb" Bush

Except it’s consistent with statements economic reactionaries have embraced for years. Back in 2011, Herman Cain barked: “If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.” Donald Trump claims Americans could get rich if, like him, they’d forego sleep. (Forbes magazine, hardly a liberal propaganda rag, identifies Trump’s wealth as roughly a 50-50 mix of self-made and inheritance. Born with a silver head up his ass.)

You’ve carefully clarified, Jeb, that your statement meant getting underemployed Americans back working, not wringing longer hours from full-time workers. I agree. But your unredacted statement rings consistent with economic libertarians, at least back to Ayn Rand, that hard work and long hours cause wealth. Because, duh, wealthy people work long. Ask yourself, then: do you really believe everyone who works long gets wealthy?

Back during my factory days, I regularly volunteered for overtime. I pulled six- and seven-day weeks regularly, even when it wasn’t mandatory. Being raised Republican, listening to country acts like Alabama laud sweat-of-your-brow perseverance, I cannot shake the belief that doing more earns more reward. It certainly earned me time-and-a-half. But I kept watching people working shorter, less productive hours, nevertheless getting promoted over my head.

Rewards went, not to workers who did more, but to workers who connected better with management. Those better able to josh friendly, to remain in management’s good graces and therefore in their memory, got promoted to positions of higher pay and autonomy. They often enjoyed such promotions despite lower work hours, less demonstrated competency, and strictly expedient work ethic. This forced me to realize something deeply uncomfortable:

If I want to get ahead, doing my job is an inefficient use of my time.

America isn’t suffering because people aren’t working enough. Americans, overall, work more than any other nation, at less rewarding rates, for smaller rewards. Both anecdote and statistics bear this out. Working longer hours differs from getting more done. History and science prove that, if we give workers forty hours' pay for thirty hours' work, more work gets done overall, while we increase gender parity at work and home.

Henry Ford first introduced the forty-hour work week, nearly a century ago, not because he felt warmly toward his workers, but to increase productivity. Back then, twelve-hour days and six-day weeks were standard. But Ford’s money men discovered that forty hours appeared to be the point where boredom and fatigue set in, causing workers to lose judgement, make costly mistakes, and undercut Ford’s bottom line. Reducing hours increased company productivity.

Henry Ford
Serious labor commentators suggest something similar now, reviving the Depression-era call for a thirty-hour work week. Though still a tiny minority, these activists recognize that unequal distribution of hours, lack of autonomy, and plain old exhaustion currently cost America’s economy greatly. Despite some fringe demands for basic universal income, nobody seriously campaigns today to abolish work. We just want to see work valued appropriately.

Your statement, Jeb, reflects that you, like me, grew up believing that work translates, necessarily, into reward. Unlike me, you’ve probably never hammered nails or assembled car parts to pay your rent. Before politics, you worked in banking, real estate development, and management consultancy. Sure, being born connected helped. So did never seeing your life dwindle to weekly checks because you needed the money.

Country music isn’t Marxist utopianism, Jeb. Acts like Alabama reflect Americans’ belief that work should imbue workers with dignity, meaning, and stability. But between underemployment for some, and underpay for others, forty hours seems a distant memory. Telling Americans to work longer doesn’t just make you look out of touch, as some have suggested. It makes you look unaware of what work actually is anymore.

Friday, July 10, 2015

White Faces In Blighted Places

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 52
Tom Zoellner, Come See the Mountain

The silver mines of Potosí, Bolivia, once extracted such rich reserves that they massively enriched the Spanish crown. Spaniards who would never actually visit the Americas ordered colonial administrators to enslave Indians by the thousands to extract silver for export. In Europe, Potosí became synonymous with boundless wealth; in Bolivia, it became a watchword for despair. And exploitation didn't end when Spain lost its colonies.

English professor Tom Zoellner visited Potosí, an extinct volcanic caldera, in 2014, and like any good academic, felt compelled to write about his experiences witnessing... something. He expected to find bleak-eyed laborers reduced to mechanical repetition, in the best Marxist tradition, but thanks to moonshine and coca leaves, the workers, still mostly Indians, demonstrated remarkably good spirits. He didn't come prepared, however, for the massive influx of Euro-American tourists.

Zoellner quotes Lennon and Foley, Scottish researchers who coined the term "dark tourism" to denote people who deliberately visit places where something awful has happened: murder scenes, war zones, Nazi sites. He also acknowledges the trend in "eco-tourism," visiting places of ecological significance, like tropical rain forests and majestic rivers. Zoellner combines these two ideas to describe people who deliberately visit places of man-made ecological blight: "dark eco-tourism."

This concept involves duelling impulses. Zoellner compares dark eco-tourism to religious pilgrimages, when fat first-world citizens travel to places where extreme poverty collides with mineral wealth, making people desperate enough to sell resources (like silver) cheaper than dirt. These pilgrims come with penitent self-flagellation in their hearts for their exploitative consumption. But they also reduce workers to mere spectacle, and their work to geek demonstrations for the rich.

Dark eco-tourism may take many forms. Cruise ships, Zoellner describes, have recently made Arctic runs to watch glaciers calve off icebergs that diminish the polar icecaps. Whenever hot, dry climate has produced unprecedented fires, especially in places like California and Australia, gawkers almost compulsively flock to witness the devastation, sometimes while fires still burn. Our planet's gradual collapse into thick, carbon-choked nihilism, has become a part-time sideshow display.

Yet it serves distinct purposes. Zoellner himself, visiting Potosí, feels sufficiently moved by the devastation he witnesses, to seek and interview workers who've spent more hours inside the mountain's labyrinthine, largely anarchic tunnels than in Bolivia's famed sunlight. Dark eco-tourism inspires Zoellner to give voice to these workers, trapped in IMF-designated abject poverty, and carry their story outward. But the money, gifts, and tchotchke industry keeps them trapped.

A street in Potosí, Bolivia, with a view of the mountain where the silver is mined.

Silver prices have fallen recently. Unlike gold, nobody hoards silver against predicted economic collapse, and the dwindling market in film-based cameras has whittled silver nitrate demand to near zero. This, however, in Zoellner's telling, creates a perverse incentive network: falling prices induce greater demand for workers to extract greater yields, hoping to cover shortfalls by quantity. Much like American farmers overproduce to subsidize overproduction, Potosí miners hasten their own impoverishment.

These problems are compounded by lack of oversight in mining operations. Unlike US mineral extraction, where single companies like Massey or Peabody control geographic and economic regions, overseen by government regulators, gangs of mine "cooperatives" crisscross Potosí with near-complete impunity. Large portions of the mountain are in imminent danger of collapse, probably atop men (and they are almost exclusively men) working deep within the meandering, poorly supported tunnels.

Meanwhile, the white tourists gawk. Offered the opportunity to swing a miner's pick or pull a mine cart, many briefly embrace the chance, before quickly returning the job back to its original worker. Some emerge from the experience swearing they'll never complain about white-collar jobs again. Others acquire greater respect for economic injustice, and swear to change their exploitative consumerist ways. Few, however, emerge changed enough to stop buying silver.

Zoellner mixes fact-based journalism with subtle, psychological storytelling to create a difficult dual portrait. The grotesque collision between the tourists who can walk away from this grim spectacle at will, and the workers who cannot, reflects the collision within our own lives: I could stop buying electronics made with coltan extracted from Zaire. I could stop driving my carbon-belching pickup and grow vegetables in my lawn. But you already know I won't.

This represents my second encounter with Deca (, a writers' cooperative, after McKenzie Funk's The Wreck of the Kulluk. Deca works to bring well-written nonfiction, longer than magazine articles but shorter than books, to readers in affordable digital format. This is a beneficial application of new technologies to socially desirable ends. They do good work, and deserve all the assistance the market can offer.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Upon the Starship Sophocles

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 51
Robert Silverberg, The Man in the Maze

A bizarre alien encroaches on the human space, stripping defenseless mankind of our free will. We can't communicate with these aliens, so we can't fight or appease them. Our only hope is Dick Muller, who, in mankind's first contact with extraterrestrials, was permanently maimed and cannot live with humans anymore. However, his precise injury enables him to show the aliens we are a thinking species. Unless he rejects the human race that previously rejected him.

Over a sixty year career, Robert Silverberg has used science fiction’s heightened realism to examine the strange circumstances which make humans distinct. Recognized classics like Dying Inside, about a psychic losing his telepathic ability, or Son of Man, about humanity’s distant future, embrace themes of constant versus changeable human characteristics. Silverberg’s contribution to Ellison’s Dangerous Visions, “Flies,” features a man cursed to violate human society’s unwritten rules. Humanity is Silverberg’s most copious, productive inspirational topic.

Everyone around Dick Muller can sense his soul. It rolls off him like waves of odor, a stench of humanity nobody should have to endure. Unable to remain around humans, he retreated into The Maze, a mysterious alien artifact on an otherwise lifeless world. Filled with deadly traps, ravenous vermin, and unexplorable technology, nobody could possibly reach the center of The Maze… except Dick Muller. Now humanity’s most ambitious representatives must tempt Muller back out.

Robert Silverberg
Structurally, Silverberg bases this 1969 novel on Sophocles’ ancient Greek tragedy Philoctetes. His modern retelling stays short, sweet, and to the point. It doesn't pause for discursive considerations of the meaning of life or the nature of the human beast; that would belabor a subtle point and lose the larger meaning. Silverberg creates sophisticated characters, drops them into a situation pushing humanity to its breaking point, and lets symbolism arise without particularly talking about it.

That said, Silverberg doesn’t create some deep-space action spectacular. The whole piece carefully considers humanity’s animal limits, and what makes it possible to live with one another. Its most profound passages are talkfests where human interlocutors Boardman and Rawlins (representing Sophocles’ Odysseus and Neoptolemus, respectively) use reason, evidence, and sometimes flat-out lies to persuade Muller that humanity deserves saving. Silverberg preceded current trends by decades in suggesting that humankind’s innate worthiness isn’t obvious or necessary.

Silverberg’s deeply conflicted trio reflects different responses to this central question. Boardman has flippant disregard for moral niceties like truth or loyalty; he measures strategies by their outcomes, not their ethics. He represents Odysseus, a character often sanitized for classroom reading, so some audiences may experience shock at his naked amorality, undiluted by sentiment. Yet Boardman also campaigns most blatantly for humanity’s preservation. Like Homer's Odysseus, Boardman has one operant moral principle: winners win. Period.

Muller entered The Maze nine years earlier, knowing its lethal traps, hoping to die. Yet the stench of human nature, which makes him intolerable to other mortals, opens The Maze to him; he survives despite his best efforts. His enforced isolation has let him uncover truths about himself, truths which first harrowed his soul, until he couldn’t deny them anymore, so he embraced them. Facing himself alone inside The Maze, he has become completely human.

Between Boardman’s Nietzschean morality and Muller’s sickeningly obvious humanity, Rawlins represents, well, us. He sees the threat jeopardizing humankind, and hopes Muller, whose visible soul will show the telepathic aliens we’re sentient, will agree to return. But unlike Boardman, Rawlins has scruples. He considers some tactics off-limits, because he’d rather lose free will than lose his soul. When Muller first shows him how repulsive a human soul is, however, he’s forced to question even that.

Silverberg squares these three characters in a nexus of honesty, lies, and half-truths so intricate, we cannot know which truth to accept. The honest characters are also the most hideous; the lying schemers have our interests at heart. This intricate balancing act, set against a background of inhuman lethality and apocalyptic threat, demonstrates why readers love science fiction, because by pushing reality to its brink, it has a unique ability to tell the unvarnished truth.

This silver-age SF gem presaged such Silverberg classics as Dying Inside, a more singular meditation on similar themes. It also dovetails into the New Wave of science fiction, in which the great source of speculation isn't scientific advancement, but the limits of the human being. All in all, it becomes a forward-thinking insight using a framework as old as time. Deeply challenging, it belongs to a class of book that just doesn't get written anymore.

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Brooklyn Jewish Boys' Auxiliary League and Transnational Bomb Squad

Jonathan Papernick, The Book of Stone: A Novel

Matthew Stone is alone on Earth now. Since his imposing father’s death, Stone lacks relations, skills, or purpose, his life circumscribed by the copious library his father, The Judge, bequeathed him. But when a rogue rabbi and a zealous g-man pressure Stone to relinquish secrets even he doesn’t know, he realizes his father concealed untold power deep within his beloved books. Now he races to liberate family secrets before they imprison him.

One back-cover blurb describes Jonathan Papernick as “an utterly original writer,” which is palpably untrue. Seasoned readers will recognize the same Jewish literary heritage that nourishes David Mamet, Jonathan Lethem, and countless less-famous writers. Papernick’s story isn’t even original to Jonathan Papernick; this novel is a reworked re-release of Who By Fire, Who By Blood, by “Jon” Papernick. This book follows trails already familiar and well-respected.

Don’t misunderstand me. Though Papernick participates in Jewish literary tradition, he doesn’t merely obey it. Like his protagonist, he darts into and out from tradition, suddenly religious, now humanist; alternately separatist and assimilated; militantly Hebrew and steadfastly Anglophone. He uses tradition without ever feeling anchored to it. Thus, Papernick’s story frequently feels familiar without ever becoming common. What readers receive will reflect what they expect.

Stone comes from deeply mixed birthright. His grandfather Julius Stone reputedly served as triggerman for the notorious Brownsville Mafia. Julius’ son Walter Stone rejected Julius, studied law, and became The Judge. But The Judge was reputedly corrupt, doctoring cases to let fellow Jews walk. And after The Judge’s death, it appears he funneled money to violent Zionist organizations, possibly using Julius’ old connections. Connections hidden in Stone’s bequest of books.

Jonathan Papernick
Abandoned by his mother, dominated by his father, unwilling to learn Hebrew or participate in Jewish religion, Stone makes the perfect picture of half-secularized Brooklyn turmoil. But following The Judge’s passing, Stone realizes everything he believed was fabricated. His mother had reasons to flee. The Judge’s coldness probably represented a long plan cut short by mortality. Getting both criminals and cops off his back may require returning to the faith.

Deep among Stones secrets lies Fairuza. Following a rather self-indulgent collegiate breakdown, The Judge packed Stone off to a West Bank kibbutz, thinking time spent in the Homeland would cure Stone’s vapors. But Stone fled to Jerusalem, where he romanced Fairuza, a beautiful Palestinian Christian, embodiment of everything The Judge despises. Stone could’ve defied The Judge, but didn’t; Fairuza’s faith after Stone’s return to America proves his biggest guilt, and most powerful secret.

Papernick’s publisher markets this novel as a “thriller,” which perhaps isn’t altogether true, considering how Papernick’s cerebral storytelling somewhat mutes his story’s thrills. Papernick writes deliberately, thoughtfully, more interested in characters’ motivations than cinematic display. This cultivates dawning awareness rather than shocking jolts. Despite his gangland milieu, Papernick clearly prefers guiding audiences to deep revelations, than peppering us with sudden explosions.

This tone requires certain trade-offs. Anyone buying this novel expecting James Patterson-ish plot-driven commotion will find Papernick’s style confounding. Protagonist Stone (consistently addressed thus, “Stone”) spends early chapters enrapt in long, wretched self-pity. He requires nearly a quarter of this book’s considerable mass to overcome inertia and begin unpacking The Judge’s riddles—though that quarter proves immensely valuable later. Getting into this book requires some effort.

Persistent readers will find this book rewards such investments with generous dividends. Stone finds himself inheriting the nexus of a transnational conspiracy that should’ve been his father’s responsibility. Forced into his father’s footsteps, the path he’s always avoided, Stone begins reevaluating everything he’s ever believed, including himself. Reality, as Stone knows it, proves to be a massive edifice of lies; I didn’t mention David Mamet frivolously earlier.

If the review volumes I’ve received accurately reflect the larger publishing world, 2015 is proving the Year of the Jew. I’ve received three times as many Jewish-themed books in 2015 to date as I’ve received since I began reviewing. But this trend isn’t uniformly self-congratulatory. Besides giddy autobiographical novels and laudatory histories, I’ve read apostasy memoirs, novels of deceit, and this often-opaque tale of self-loathing and ethnic violence.

This novel doesn’t reveal its secrets lightly, not to its protagonist, and not to us. It resists casual beach reading. But for readers willing to brave Papernick’s densely plotted writing—and his annoyingly low-key tone—will find a story reflecting Jewish America’s, and all America’s, struggles between tradition and individuality. Don’t undertake this novel flippantly. It demands big sacrifices from intellectually engaged readers, but offers generous rewards and vast insights in return.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Aesthetics of the Damned

Jacques Rancière, Figures of History

Larry Rivers, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1953

Back around the middle 1990s, the Centre Pompidou, one of France’s nerve centers of public intellectualism, commissioned Marxist philosopher Jacques Rancière to write mid-length essays coinciding with exhibitions of film and art, respectively. These essays provided snapshots into Rancière’s thought, without needing to grasp his exceedingly dense prose stylings. But the essays languished unreprinted, and untranslated into English, for nearly twenty years. Until now.

These essays, one on historical film and one on art-on-canvas, focus a socially engaged conviction onto Twentieth Century art expression. Such artworks, Rancière contends, represent a distinct relationship with power. This may reflect the power exhibited by traditional control centers— he commences by describing a powerful general instructing peasants how to kneel before the czar— or the power artists exercise in determining what does, or doesn’t, merit immortalization in art.

Rancière, whom humanist thinkers would consider a patron saint of the 1968 uprisings if sainthood didn’t require transcendence, maintains a sideline in modernist aesthetics. Yet for him, as for George Orwell, art and politics are inextricable: all art carries a message, and that message resonates with institutions of power. Art may lack political party, but it exists within a social continuum of power and subordination. Rancière purposes to pick this continuum apart.

Reading these essays involves a trade-off. Anyone familiar with Twentieth Century French philosophy knows authors pride themselves on hermetic inscrutability; finding a thesis or through-line is often prohibitively difficult. So it remains here; but in exchange, these two essays together total under 100 pages, and are essentially self-contained. This permits more casual reading, since you needn’t have savvied Rancière’s preceding corpus, though it never becomes easy.

Jacques Rancière
For Rancière, “history” isn’t some objective facts which students can memorize. We constantly make and remake history, he contends, with the stories we tell about the past. Rancière, in the second, and probably more digestible, essay, identifies “four senses of history” and “three forms of history [art].” Therefore, many debates active today about how to utilize history in the present exist because people don’t realize they’re using different sense and different forms.

In Rancière’s first essay, he focuses on historical representations in cinema, both documentary and artistic. The camera, he says, is essentially an instrument of power: it shows what directors, writers, and in state-controlled media, what politicians want it to show. Yet being inanimate, its power is offset by remarkable passivity. This tension comes across in storytelling techniques that combine staunch realism with novelistic narrative. The combination, he implies, sits uneasy.

His second essay deals with painting, though its implications could apply to all static art. He particularly focuses on modernist aesthetic, which distorts and upends conventional historical narratives. This sometimes involves ventures into the pre-modernist milieu that nurtured modernism; he particularly appreciates the twin threads of rebelliousness and commercialism implied in Francisco Goya’s works. This reflects how art simultaneously challenges and appeases power.

Rancière’s choice of source material may stymie non-Francophone readers. His film essay name-checks multiple art films, mostly French and German, mostly from the 1980s and 1990s, which you’ve probably never seen. Throughout his art essay, I recognized only two named artists, Goya and Warhol. The book provides no reference illustrations, a severe limitation; I found myself searching images on my smartphone every few minutes. Digital image-checkers will aid in reading.

Nevertheless, Rancière provides an engaging survey of how visual arts read history. His revisionist Marxist perspective shines throughout his telling; for him, aesthetics inevitably reflect power structures, an interpretation that certainly won’t sit with the “I just want to be entertained” crowd. However, as he carefully dismantles the unspoken assumptions permeating art’s sweeping gestalt, it’s hard to deny his viewpoint may have some legitimate foundation.

This book strikes a difficult balance. It isn’t easy fun-time reading, certainly. But compared to most philosophy by living thinkers, Rancière included, it’s remarkably accessible, with an eye toward audiences who haven’t already exhaustively read Rancière’s back catalog. This makes an interesting introduction to contemporary Marxist aesthetic, or an alternate viewpoint for art and film buffs. But however you elect to read it, rest assured, it asks questions you’ll struggle to answer.

To conclude on a digression, this is the latest review book I’ve received from Cambridge, UK-based Polity Books. This imprint publishes a mix of English-language originals and translations, especially from French. I’ve previously reviewed Polity authors like Bruno Latour and Christian Ingrao. Every Polity title has left me feeling challenged, my thinking altered, and I only regret that each ends, leaving me eager to learn more.

Goya, The Shootings of May 3rd 1808, 1814