Wednesday, September 30, 2015

My Joint Address to Congress: a Proposal

Outgoing House Speaker John Boehner
Dear Speaker Boehner:

Congratulations on your newfound standing. By formally announcing your retirement from elective office, but retaining the Speakership for yourself, with its attendant responsibilities and authorities, for another month, you’ve become possibly the freest person in Washington today. You still have the ability to control legislative agendas on the House floor, you still control access to the speaker’s rostrum, but you’re forever free from looking to your next election.

You’ve used your five-year Speakership to invite many respected people, American and international, to address Congress, and many have accepted. Some such guests have been acclaimed, like Pope Francis; others have been controversial at best, like Benjamin Netanyahu. Yet you’ve nevertheless used your authority to stimulate debate and kickstart needed discussions at home and abroad. As one who fears the dominion of an unchecked executive over democracy, regardless of the party, I do appreciate an activist legislature.

Therefore, I encourage you to seize your newfound authority to invite someone to speak whom nobody circumscribed by future electoral responsibilities would ever dare invite: Me.

I’m nobody. That’s right. I control nobody else’s fate. I’m neither a head of state nor a corporate CEO, which in these days of multinational gigantism are almost interchangeable. Nobody consults me for religious, ethical, philosophical, or political guidance. This blog, which I’d hoped would be somewhat self-sustaining, has in four years barely netted the price of dinner for two. I sway the economy only inasmuch as I decide, day by day, whether to buy Goo-Goo Clusters or organic bananas.

Yet I’m a highly educated person doing blue-collar work. I straddle the line between two Americas, a substantially progressive, aggressively multi-culti academic nation versus a hard-working, despised, but nevertheless loyal world of conservatives and libertarians. I’ve seen both the offerings and the limitations each way of life offers America. And I’ve seen firsthand why the polarizing divide that reduces Washington to stunning inefficiency doesn’t reflect America whatsoever.

Pope Francis
University liberals notoriously believe that, if poor workers simply enjoyed greater “education,” they’d immediately join the revolution. As though somehow, only massed human stupidity stands between us and demi-Marxist utopia. Meanwhile, professional conservatives notoriously campaign on moral issues which whip voters into high dudgeon, then govern on economic issues that privilege the already privileged. Both sides basically treat Americans as too dim to understand their own affairs.

Meanwhile, I’ve found myself in an environment most outsiders don’t realize exists. Since I started working construction, I’ve been horrified to witness how deeply segregated the workplace is. Not just racially, though that too: we have black brickmasons, white electricians, hispanic machinists, and more. And they’re all completely male: of nearly 100 workers, I’ve seen two women. Though I’ve seen some overlap among populations, it’s mainly isolated clusters.

But no. The real segregation I’ve seen runs much deeper. It’s the complete separation of skill sets into dedicated groups, who seldom communicate, and fight over insignificant patches of territory. Communications happen between crew heads, who regularly get into heated pissing contests, mainly because they control so little that every inch becomes worth dying for. Though I’ve never seen actual fists flying, the language I’ve heard gets pretty cutting, the insults savage.

Remember the scene in Witness, when Harrison Ford joins the Amish community in a barn-raising? We not only behold him internalizing the Amish communal values of work and mutuality, we even see him sip gently off the lemonade and pass it on. I cried; didn’t you? That doesn’t happen in today’s construction environment. We must erect such massively complex buildings so fast, that huge numbers of people never talk, much less share anything.

C'mon, Mister Speaker, you could show this
guy up at his own populist game
We’re building a high school. Certainly, we want schools that enjoy quality appointments, like a good kitchen, up-to-date science laboratories, computer access, and more. But to achieve this result quickly, we’ve fobbed the actual building onto despised people: racial minorities, the poor, and people who, like me, simply bet on bad college majors. We’ve segregated people along lines more powerful, more intractable, than race; we’ve created an entire population of “menial” people for “menial” jobs.

What better opportunity than this, Speaker Boehner, do you have to address this yawning gulf in America today? This isn’t a Republican-Democratic or Conservative-Liberal issue. Rather, it exposes the unintended consequences of today’s culture. We have architects who’ve never driven a nail, laborers who have no autonomy over their labor, contractors who’ve never seen the jobsite. You could help us address this chasm, Mister Speaker, by simply inviting somebody eloquent and experienced to speak.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Death Clears Its Throat

Wendy Corsi Staub, Blood Red: Mundy's Landing Book One

Rowan Mundy has achieved the middle-class dream: handsome husband, three distinctive kids, and home ownership in her Upstate New York hometown. But for fourteen years she’s concealed the frightening day she almost committed adultery. Almost. Now somebody’s sent Rowan a reminder, reawakening long-buried paranoia. She feels her world constricting, and well she should, since her stalker has planned a bloody revenge, and the final blade will soon fall.

Wendy Corsi Staub is one of America’s most prolific authors, having over eighty titles on her résumè, including romances, YA novels, and her signature psychological thrillers. Her stories mainly focus on domestic themes. This one exposes resentments sunk deep beneath a seemingly flawless marriage. Her idea, and her opening chapter, promise smart characterization with sharp Freudian edges. Her unfolding narrative, unfortunately, makes me shout “Get on with it!”

Fourteen years ago, Rowan and a neighboring househusband, feeling trapped by suburban Westchester doldrums, commenced an emotional affair. Happy circumstance prevented them consummating their infidelity. Rowan successfully buried her indiscretions, relocated her family, and reinvented herself as a schoolteacher and mommy. But a threatening package, wrapped in a newspaper from the day she almost transgressed, appears in the mail, threatening everything she’s achieved.

Mysterious Casey somehow knows everything Rowan did. Casey blames her for, um, something, and has cultivated an elaborate revenge scheme guaranteed not only to hurt Rowan, but also humiliate her throughout her hometown. Casey has stalked Rowan relentlessly, coaxing her into snares of her own making. Until everything bears fruit, though, Casey seeks satisfaction by brutally murdering fair-skinned, redheaded single women. Women who remind Casey of Rowan.

Wendy Corsi Staub
Staub’s story begins well. The tension between Rowan’s WASPy self-recrimination, and Casey’s BTK-like cruelty, promises an interesting tale contrasting the violence we do ourselves, versus the violence we do others. Staub promises that, anyway. She could actually trim her 400-page book by nearly half if Rowan simply stopped believing she could fight her monstrous, invisible enemy single-handed, told her husband the truth, and accepted her loved ones’ support.

Instead, Rowan internalizes everything. She attempts to uncover her enigmatic stalker without telling anybody who doesn’t already realize what she’s done. This means contacting her almost-lover and the only person she’s ever confessed to, her harshly judgmental sister. She stacks lies atop other lies to prevent her husband and son realizing what she’s done. Soon she’s lying so readily, so glibly, she cannot remember whom she already told which lies.

Before long, observant readers realize the edifice of untruths she’s constructed, and the constant suspicion she requires to maintain that edifice, has become more destructive than the infidelity which never actually happened. We lose sympathy, wondering why she repeatedly compounds her predicament by adding new deceptions to old. Worse, these deceptions add no new information, simply keeping the narrative circling for hundreds of pages while advancing only incrementally.

Meanwhile, Casey’s spree becomes increasingly disproportional to Rowan’s detective work. Staub carefully prevents us learning anything concrete about Casey: between the androgynous name, Staub’s avoidance of pronouns, and Casey’s masterful disguises, we know less the more Staub explains (sorry, Laurie R. King did that non-reveal better). Only one fact remains, that Casey demonstrates skill and pleasure in murdering pretty redheads with straight razors. Are there no brunettes in Staub’s world?

Staub further slows the narration by introducing needless viewpoint characters. Though we mostly discover this story through Rowan and Casey’s eyes, Staub periodically shifts perspectives. This makes sense when, say, Rowan’s husband or son offers needed context for the ongoing story. But Staub introduces new characters, gives them long expository chronicles, permits them only minor contributions, then never uses them again. I scratch my head, wondering: “What did that contribute?”

Please don’t misunderstand. This book isn’t awful. Staub delivers moments of genuine surprise and touching character. These moments usually happen at chapter breaks, and Staub has unusually long chapters for genre fiction. This means that Staub’s most affecting moments happen sporadically, after long discursions where Rowan glumly studies her shoes and Casey foreshadows morbid carnage. The overall texture resembles long, languid hammocks between moments of remarkable humane power.

Just shy of page 200, Rowan thinks to herself “She’s never felt so alone in her life.” I realized: I don’t care. Rowan’s story starts well, but as it continues, it stops advancing. Watching her dig herself deeper, when everything would resolve itself if she’d simply tell one person the truth and accept help, gets repetitive. A story I initially enjoyed gets wearing. Simply, I lost interest and stopped caring.

Friday, September 25, 2015

This Is How Poetry Pierces Our Bounds

Martin Ott, Underdays: Poems

I immediately liked Martin Ott’s latest, deeply autobiographical poetry collection when the first poem, “The Interrogator In Retirement,” began with these lines:
He’s waiting for the reverse
metamorphosis, for the extra
feelers to fold in or fall off,
to wake one morning a man.
Ott’s unsubtle but well-placed literary reference pings off his own military career, which clearly still troubles him. But if I found these lines smart and engaging, I knew I’d love Ott’s verse just pages later, with the opening of “Survivor’s Manual to Love and War”:
Death is a loving dog
with no children or chew toys
to occupy its attention.
It will lick you into submission,
this inevitable pack instinct,
to join the vast departed.
I first noticed Martin Ott nearly one year ago as co-author, with John F. Buckley, of the collection Yankee Broadcast Network. That collection’s hilarious, gimlet-eyed angle on American celebrity culture had crafty ways of making me think it’d pander to my anti-mass-media prejudices, then upsetting my expectations in ways both shocking and illuminating. Ott, working solo, extends that tendency, but along lines more personal and melancholy than that collection permitted.

Martin Ott
Like the best poets, Ott feels simultaneously familiar and jarring. Reading lines like “Death is a loving dog,” the contradiction between mental frames will, and should, dislodge our expectations.  Yet we inevitably recall other poets with similar approaches, like T.S. Eliot or John Ashbery, who have done similarly. If Ott plants surprising crops, he nevertheless farms well-tilled ground.

Ott’s best poems have a narrative quality, a cogent through-line, once common with poets like Browning or Tennyson. But Ott combines this almost retro storytelling ability with very contemporary sensibilities about language. I appreciate this dualism, because it gives readers firm grounding to anchor their attention, while immersing us in his surprising insights. Most poets either guide us, or defamiliarize us; Ott, notably, does both:
Ten days of rain a year in Los Angeles
invokes the legend of sheathed umbrellas.
My mother once told me a story
about a boy who lost an eye
on an umbrella’s undercarriage.
Mary Poppins has proven that you can
get swept away by unbridled passion.
Is an umbrella actually an umbrella?

—”Why I Don’t Carry an Umbrella”
I once believed that poets, like Ott, whose metaphoric language and unexpected leaps reveal surprising truths, just see life differently than us readers. Perhaps, like Van Gogh, light hits their eyes in personal ways that we consumers cannot share. But reading Ott, I realized: he doesn’t see differently than me, not prospectively. He uses language to help himself see anew. He’s just invited me along for the journey.

No, Ott doesn’t contribute some unique viewpoint, so much as construct one through language. His contribution is less some pre-existing attitude, more a willingness to test his personal experiences by milling them with words, a stone-bladed metaphor excising everything ordinary from his ordeals until their truth shines through. Sometimes, as with his military career, Ott explains what truths he’s revealing. Other times, facts fall away as unnecessary trappings:
She is a whisper filtering through shadowy
office ducts, a wind chime for coworkers,
a snare drum to delivery men, a Stradivarius
to the woman in the corner office. She is
the guttural chant that drove a thousand times
a thousand workers to erect a pyramid of gossip,
a stairwell that groans a symphony of sex.

—”What is Left”
One feels, reading the specificity of images that continue accumulating, that “she” is a real person, not some agglomeration of personal stereotypes. But Ott cleaves off identifying characteristics as mere, needless facts. The truth lies beneath anything concrete we’d describe in a police report or dating profile.

That, perhaps, represents Ott’s greatest contribution. His language sometimes includes specific details—Los Angeles, Fort Leonard Wood, Naked Lunch, J.D. Salinger. Yet his language mills away accidents of form, the history of accumulated expectations. Ott invites us to join him removing everything unnecessary from experience, like Michelangelo removing everything from the marble that isn’t David. The result is both collaborative and unpredictable:
The white page is an eyeball
rolled back on the verge, glowing
with knowledge of the depths.
It is a blizzard beyond snow-
caps or celestial freeze, blinding
nothingness, numb fingers to be
cut. The white sheet fills our bed
with unwritten tomes of exploration,
fear stained into it, a serif font.

—”Ink Quake”
I love poetry that invites me on a journey. Reading Ott, I feel I’ve journeyed beyond myself, and returned refreshed, restored, new.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

It's Time to Starve Donald Trump

Donald Trump in an uncharacteristically mild mood
In one of the weirder episodes this campaign season, on MSNBC last night, professional talking head Lawrence O’Donnell repeatedly interrupted an ongoing interview with writers for the National Review and Huffington Post, legitimate writers for legitimate partisan opinion journals, to report Donald Trump’s latest live tweets inveighing against Fox News host Megyn Kelly. This happened multiple times. With serious op-ed journalists before him, O’Donnell preferred to read The Donald’s tweets aloud over interviewing legitimate experts.

Sadly, despite its unapologetically weird texture, this circumstance isn’t unusual this year. Trump has openly antagonized journalists, mocked legislators, called his opponents nasty names, and figuratively shat upon his party during live televised debates. He’s gotten up onstage for supposed policy speeches and, plainly operating without a script, punted on saying anything substantive or specific. His campaign has combined the decorum of a Don Rickles routine with the coherence of a fifth-grader off his Ritalin.

The defining characteristic of Trump’s campaign, though, isn’t his slovenly bombast. It’s the legitimate news outlets’ willingness to televise, document, and reproduce his weird tirades. Trump has needed to perform far fewer speeches, town halls, and press junkets than other Republican primary contenders, because journalists interview him in his Manhattan skyscraper, and broadcast these interviews, replete with softball questions, with unedited adulation. Donald Trump doesn’t need to seek news coverage; news coverage willingly seeks him.

These same journalists then complain that other candidates can’t get coverage because Trump is “sucking the oxygen out of the room.” This expression has become cliché with repetition; everyone from Glenn Beck to Lee Camp repeats this phrase to describe the situation. This seemingly implies that Trump is something which has happened to a passive, defenseless America, like Hurricane Katrina. Fact is, Trump hasn’t sucked up the oxygen; journalists have fanned the oxygen toward him.

Trump has learned that, to get prime coverage on major news networks, he need only say something bigoted, misogynistic, or pig-ignorant. Even conservative outlets which once endorsed him, Fox News chief among them, have condemned him for race-baiting, ad hominem attacks, and dismissing women as unnecessary for their looks. But in drum-beating against him, his critics inevitably give him time more suitable for candidates who have something important to say. This narrows our national debate.

Donald Trump is a classic narcissist, a self-aggrandizing blowfish who requires validation from others, and demands our attention by doing something stupid. We all had that classmate in middle school who interrupted boring lectures by demonstrating his ability to fling paper wads with Nolan Ryan-like accuracy or fart le Marseillaise on command. Remember what happened when the teacher publicly reprimanded that kid? It provided the attention he so desperately needed. Donald Trump is that kid.

The negative reward doesn’t just cover Trump, however. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes the Availability Heuristic, a now-common principle of perceptual psychology. In brief, whatever concepts come readily to mind, whatever ideas we perceive as most immediately available, seem more relevant to whatever topic we’re discussing than ideas which require some effort to recall. Wall-to-wall Trump coverage keeps him prominent in American minds, making him and his weird opinions seem more important than he actually is.

Consider just one example. During the 2014 midterm elections, when politicians and journalists extensively covered the Ebola outbreak, Ebola ranked high on polls of priorities Americans wanted candidates to discuss. After the elections, discussions of Ebola went quiet; now the disease doesn’t even place on similar public opinion polls. Because Ebola scares sprang readily to mind when pollsters asked, it seemed a very important and urgent public policy issue, right until the moment it didn’t.

For voters who don’t follow issues closely, the more coverage Donald Trump receives, the more readily available he seems. He’s successfully pushed the term “anchor baby” from policy wonk call-in shows to mainstream news coverage, and forced other, more moderate candidates to weigh in on building border walls. The more coverage he gets, the more mainstream his opinions seem to part-time politics watchers. He isn’t just sucking up the oxygen; he’s sucking up good sense.

Our solution with Donald Trump, as with that middle school pinhead, is to stop giving him facetime. If he desperately craves attention, don’t give it to him. Treat him like mainstream media once treated Lyndon LaRouche or Dennis Kucinich, as too extreme to justify valuable print space or broadcast time. If we starve him for attention, he’ll go away, because he needs adulation, and if he needs to go elsewhere to find it, he’ll go.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Before There Was Harry Potter, There Was...

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 58
Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea

Sparrowhawk, an arrogant young wizardry student, wanted to impress his classmates by conjuring a beautiful spirit from myth. Instead, a shadow, a nameless thing black with destruction, answered Sparrowhawk’s call, and escaped his dominion. Now scarred and barely made a journeyman wizard, Sparrowhawk has one quest, spanning the vast archipelago of Éa and beyond: find his shadow, before it absorbs his power and destroys the world.

Ursula Le Guin was already somewhat famous in 1968 when this novel debuted, targeted at the then-nascent Young Adult market. She envisioned a tale of wizards not grizzled and grey, but young, untempered, and hopeful. In some ways, Sparrowhawk presages characters like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, but with one notable difference: Le Guin posits no external villains, no Voldemort, no Sauron. Evil emerges, seeping and destructive, from within.

Born gifted on an island famous for its wizards, Sparrowhawk grew up hearing successive mentors predicting his eventual greatness. So many teachers prophesied he’d become the grandest wizard of his age, that Sparrowhawk eventually believed them. He thought himself immune to consequences. Once he learns otherwise, he spends the remaining chapters attempting to restore the balance he disturbed, learning self-control on the way.

Le Guin’s story shows clear influence from writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein, writers whose conscious mythmaking had, by her time, made fantasy into a mainstream, if disrespected, genre. However, where the authors who colored her visions were Christian, Le Guin’s story reflects humanist, existential values. Good and evil are man-made categories, not eternal verities; we’re defined, Le Guin implies, not by our beliefs, but by our actions.

Ursula K. Le Guin
This places Sparrowhawk in an unusual position. He knows the myths of gods who raised the islands from the sea, but cannot rely upon them for salvation. He controls magic, and has inadvertently glimpsed the hereafter, but this offers him little comfort. Sparrowhawk’s world isn’t truly atheistic, Nature has its spirit and volition, but humans save or damn themselves. Perhaps even the gods wait upon humans for their salvation.

Proceeding episodically, Le Guin recounts the processes that nurtured Sparrowhawk’s arrogance, then the counterforces which urged him to rediscover humility. Sparrowhawk is no Harry Potter, no prophesied child of deliverance; his ethics aren’t innate. Though he first attracts mentors through deeds of bravery and self-sacrifice, he increasingly believes himself separate from humanity. He becomes more interested in burnishing his image. He proves painfully good at attracting powerful new enemies.

If one word describes young Sparrowhawk, it’d be: willful. He defies his first patient master because he desires to rush headlong into deeds of power. He studies tomes beyond his capability, perilously inviting evil into his house, to impress a pretty girl. He argues with teachers, disregards caution, and attempts to outshine more experienced students. His willfulness only increases, until it nearly costs him and his friends their lives.

Then he reverses himself. Only through suffering does he discover the far-reaching ripples his actions started, and he spends years attempting to mend what he once broke. Piece by piece, Sparrowhawk finds the wounds his shadow once opened, and strives to heal them. He knows, though, he’s approaching a catastrophic confrontation, since only blood makes true recompense for sin—"So at least his death would put an end to the evil he had loosed by living."

Nobody would mistake this novel for new. Besides Le Guin’s episodic storytelling, now frowned upon by professional writing texts and market-savvy editors, her constructed, Homeric narrative voice seems markedly dated. Nobody would write this story today, certainly not in this way, which covers nine years of Sparrowhawk’s life in ten fairly long chapters. Considering J.K. Rowling needed twice this many pages for one school year, times have certainly changed.

Yet arguably, this dated quality reflects what dedicated readers want. Publishers mass-produce paperback fantasy today, carefully designed to offer audiences minimal challenge, to pass lightly under their gaze with virtually no friction. Le Guin’s classical style, like Tolkein’s Saxon bardic voice or Homer’s long, spun rhythms force readers outside themselves. We cannot read this book lightly. She casts a spell and, using nothing more than words, we find ourselves transported, transformed.

This story of a wizard learning power first, and wisdom only latterly, arguably has greater significance now, amid our nigh-magical technological do-funnies, than when Le Guin first wrote. To understand our present, and ourselves, we sometimes must travel outside reality and glimpse ourselves only slantwise. This book offers important lessons, but it also offers engaging characters having adventures. That’s why both youth and adults can enjoy this masterpiece equally.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Are Human Beings Just Slaves To Our Genes?

Richard J. Perry, Killer Apes, Naked Apes, and Just Plain Nasty People: The Misuse and Abuse of Science in Political Discourse

Journalists love telling this story. They don’t love science’s more careful approach, its willingness to admit doubt, and they certainly don’t love walking such reports back when new evidence proves sensationalism isn’t justified.

Veteran anthropologist Richard J. Perry returned from retirement to write this book, protesting the way journalists, textbook writers, and others preserve the idea of “biological determinism.” This means the idea that we’re beholden to our genes, that we evolved to behave in a certain way, and smart observers can describe all behaviors in purely genetic terms. This has significant classist and racist implications. It also influences contemporary public policy debates.

Popular culture desperately loves the idea that genes cause, meaning I have some genetic predisposition for X, or some people pass bad genetic tendencies onto their children simply by procreating. Perry writes how eugenicists use half-glimpsed knowledge of genetics to justify excluding certain people from public services or poverty protection, for instance. These beliefs, rendered unfashionable after World War II, nevertheless survive in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology.

But Perry describes how what we know about genetics, and growing knowledge in fields like epigenetics, forbids us to make blanket statements about other people’s fitness, or their right to do something as simple as procreate. We don’t have any evidence that absolute traits have been passed on from humanity’s distant ancestors. We cannot look to Australopithecine justifications to explain modern behaviors, or justify helping disadvantaged populations.

Though Perry’s book runs short, under 200 pages plus back matter, his argument is complex and compelling. He describes how scientists, and non-scientists with little knowledge but remarkable storytelling skill, have woven narratives about human evolution. Considering how little we know about early humanity, these stories are often circular: genetic behaviors must have caveman antecedents. And caveman tendencies must survive, because genes survive.

Evolutionary psychologists try to understand contemporary human behavior in terms of how
Stone-Age Man might've responded to the environment. Which, Perry says, is futile, because
we just don't know very much about how our Paleolithic ancestors really lived.

Perry notes one little-considered implication: this means humans once evolved, then stopped. The scientists Perry criticizes, many of them pseudo-scientists, see humanity entirely in terms of the Pleistocene. (Perry keeps saying Pleistocene.) Somehow, if a condition didn’t exist in our stone-age ancestors, it has no bearing today; people’s behavior can be described and comprehended entirely via inherited traits. As though nutrition, poverty, abuse and oppression have no bearing.

We know that’s not how genes work, though. Genes only represent innate capacity; how genes express themselves depends on a complex range of factors.Perry describes how media critics write the ways we treat people out of the genetic (or epigenetic) equation. If everything descends from Stone-age ancestors, then we cannot help communities expressing maladaptive behavior; we’re better off letting undesirable people die so their bad genes don’t pass on.

This should scare engaged, scientifically and politically literate readers. It creates scientific justification to extend unjust regimes, and moralize kicking the poor. Many evolutionary psychologists would deny their racist tendencies; yet their theses inevitably create biological lineages of bad people doing bad things. It creates in-group goodness and out-group wickedness. The implication is: we’re good people, our genes should survive. I have more right to procreate than you.

The idea that some people deserve better, because of circumstances of birth, smacks of aristocracy and the right of superior people, the Will to Power. Though the once-popular idea that paupers, brown people, and peons should just die has thankfully gone underground, abused science nevertheless justifies draconian policies that entrench the poor and extend their poverty. Perry describes how such ideas got sticking power, and why the science, frankly, sucks.

Perry substantially eschews anthropological terminology, and where he must use it, he carefully defines terms. He doesn’t write for scholars and scientists; he writes to communicate scholarship to interested outsiders. His approach invites both seasoned scientists and interested novices into this very important debate. As a translator, Perry frames the debate, not in ideological absolutes, but the story of how people came to believe such awful things about our descent.

I’d like to believe most serious-minded people feel justifiably offended when anyone suggests the poor are genetically inferior and should just die. But at this writing, many rabble-rousing legislators are actively pursuing ideas of sterilizing the poor to squelch generational poverty. Rather than fixing circumstances, they’d rather kill the poor. That says painfully much about the state of today’s debate, and why books like this are more important than ever.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Bringing Water to the Promised Land

Seth M. Siegel, Let There Be Water: Israel's Solution for a Water-Starved World

“I will make rivers flow on barren heights,
   and springs within the valleys.
I will turn the desert into pools of water,
   and the parched ground into springs.”
—Isaiah 41:18
As 2015 winds down, and we look backward on history’s hottest recorded summer ever, perhaps it’s time to consider the future. As entrepreneur and philanthropist Seth Siegel writes, changing rain patterns severely threaten human populations. The California drought offers a foretaste of impending crop failures, urban stresses, and ecological catastrophe. Siegel directs our attention to the one nation with a long history of forward-thinking water policies: Israel.

The state of Israel has pioneered important advances in how to use and improve our water consumption since before the state existed. They've developed ways of moving water from where it exists to where the people need it, allowing high-yield agriculture in regions traditionally arid, even in historic deserts. They’ve improved water use techniques, increasing farm yields with less water, while cities consume less, leaving farmers and wildernesses more.

Siegel provides an intriguing mix of history and science, describing not only what advances Israel has made in water management, but also why it made particular advances. He describes the unique political, economic, and geographic pressures shaping Israeli water policy. The mix of intense regional water close to lifeless desert was, recently, almost unique to Israel. But as Siegel notes, if environmental trends continue, similar conditions may soon exist globally.

First, Israeli culture doesn’t disparage water. Children never sing “Rain, rain, go away.” Israel nationalizes water access, making all water everywhere a common good. While American libertarians campaign to repeal laws against rainwater collection, Israel maintains a strict enforcement policy: rain barrels aren’t a right. Hoarding or misusing water isn’t abstract moral wrong; Israel considers water abuse theft from the people, and prosecutes water hogs accordingly.

Because water is scarce and distributed unequally by nature, sharing and distributing water has the same aura of civic responsibility in America that we get from, say, joining the military. Responsible water use isn’t some mere principle; it’s a foundation of common civic government. By basing much public philosophy on communal responsibility to water, Israel’s government might superficially resemble American conservatism; but it expresses very different impulses in actual policy.

Israel's National Water Carrier, a triumph of modern civic engineering

But Israel couples this nationalizing with incentives for more egalitarian, democratic water management techniques. According to Siegel, much municipal water in Europe and America gets lost to leakage, but Israel has created technologies designed specifically to curtail leaks and limit mechanical waste. Especially since home leaks often aren’t noticeable until they’ve created significant structural damage, the shift to preventative identification has both public and private benefits.

Israeli engineers, working through public-private partnerships, have invented more intense, ecologically specific irrigation technologies: Siegel extols drip irrigation, invented in Israel and now more commonly being adopted in other nations and continents. Israeli agronomists have created new plant variants that put more growth into edible fruits and flesh, less into inedible stems and foliage. This boosts agricultural yield from limited water applications, costing less in transpiration and wastage.

Israel’s National Water Carrier, which moves water from the moister north to the arid south with minimal evaporation, rivals the Interstate Highway System as a marvel of public-spirited engineering. Israel has found ways to recycle urban wastewater into clean, fresh irrigation, and connect water where it is with soil where water’s needed. Siegel describes the public commitment to water in ways familiar to Americans praising George Washington every July 4th.

This book describes technologies, social movements, and other important forces in language accessible to non-specialist readers. He describes very intricate advances in aquifer management, farming, and sewage removal, without bogging down in terminology. Siegel’s storytelling resembles a novel: much like Leon Uris, he makes Israeli history moving and alive. He’s just discussing water, and water policy, rather than war.

Siegel delves into the history of Israel’s water consumption style. It didn’t just intend to create better water usage; many of its techniques were invented to facilitate land grabs in places like the Negev before Partition in 1948. Some readers might find the political opportunism distasteful, and the implications for Palestinians who farm in more time-honored ways has harsh undertones, but Siegel spotlights the advances themselves, not transnational politics.

Informed readers realize water management issues aren’t one nation’s problem anymore. Droughts in California and floods in Texas signal new times for handling clean, drinkable water. Siegel’s descriptions of Israeli advances give world peoples hope that, as climate changes, human ingenuity can manage these changes proactively.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Death in the Food Factory

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 57
Erika Hayasaki, Drowned by Corn

On the piping-hot morning of July 28, 2010, four young boys climbed inside Bin Number 9 at a western Illinois grain depot to keep the produce moving on high-speed conveyors. They didn't know that OSHA regulations required them to wear safety harnesses when inside a bin, or that management was forbidden to run the conveyors with someone inside, or that the job, defined as legally dangerous, was strictly off-limits to workers under sixteen, as two of them were. They just needed the summer work.

When fifteen-year-old Wyatt Whitebread became trapped in the grainary's downward suction, two friends, Alex "Paco" Pacas and Will Piper, dove in to save him, becoming trapped alongside him. Engulfed in grain and immobilized by its weight, the boys suffered a trauma called "compression drowning," when surrounding weight makes inhaling impossible. Whitebread and Pacas died submerged in loose corn; the effort to rescue Piper took over seven hours and dozens of volunteers. But Piper's journey was just beginning.

Journalist Erika Hayasaki combines George Pyle's factual detail withNick Reding's narrative panache to craft a story of how industrialized, mechanized agriculture squeezes the life from small American towns. This squeezing isn't usually as literal as these boys suffered, though that's becoming increasingly common. But as big-city economic forces strip small towns of meaningful work, forcing teenagers into dangerous jobs under untrained supervisors, Will Piper's odyssey has become painfully familiar.

The deaths in Bin Number 9 were completely avoidable, and left indelible marks on their already impoverished town. But Will Piper, already smoking weed to cope with intractable boredom, found himself plagued with nightmares and survivor's guilt, which compounded his already-present problems. He couldn't hold jobs, dealt drugs to pay bills, and tumbled into disastrous relationships, both sexual and otherwise. After his brief flirtation with small-town heroism, his frequent run-ins with the law made him into a pariah.

A mannequin demonstrates the correct way to avoid dying in a grain bin. From the
Department of Agriculture blog essay You Can Die in a Grain Bin in Less Than 60 Seconds

Industrialized agriculture incubates the perfect storm of forces to witness how complicated and fractious American life has become today. Everyone needs to eat, but we’ve pushed the process of food creation onto others. We’ve made the means of human survival into low-paid peon work. Meanwhile, the plentiful work and now rural living costs have attracted racial minorities into farming areas once spotlessly white—though much actual work remains strictly segregated by sex.

Alienated from his community, seeing his work devalued, Piper became the embodiment of everything scientists agree causes addiction. Life became a self-feeding spiral of shame and avoidance. Without portable job skills, Piper drifted, the epitome of rural disaffection in a culture which openly disparages its own agrarian roots. Will Piper, not Norman Rockwell, represents the real forces and mores driving rural America’s bleak, underpaid hardscrabble lifestyle today.

This almost-book-length essay's official description implies Hayasaki will deal with the social and economic forces that spur underage kids to accept difficult, dangerous work for shameful wages in America's agrarian communities. This is deceptive; in fact, Hayasaki focuses on the long-term consequences Will Piper suffered for surviving. Rather than assessing the overall circumstances coloring rural communities, Hayasaki prefers Piper's character-driven story. This isn't about the disaster; it's about the survivor.

Which is fine. Though I wish Hayasaki addressed the context that made the Bin Number 9 disaster occur, other authors have done so already. Read alongside Pyle and Reding, cited above, Hayasaki's account lays bare the pain plaguing the hearts of contemporary small towns. Though I fear Hayasaki's account is possibly incomplete without the context these other authors provide, committed readers may find this personal tragedy enough to get them reading about the larger social catastrophe.

Too often, the poverty and loss of local control stemming from industrialized agriculture go unaddressed, most especially in those communities hardest hit. Because farmers aren't unified, it's difficult to challenge the monolithic corporations that would rather hire underaged teen workers than deal directly with farmers. Because everybody fears rocking the boat, big festering wounds lurk at the heart of many small American communities. And it risks getting worse before it gets better.

Hayasaki's account may help America begin addressing this painful gulf. If it gets big-city buyers communicating with the small-town farmers who produce the corn they eat, wear, and burn every day, perhaps we've made some incremental progress. Hayasaki's storytelling makes the Bin Number 9 disaster and its aftermath zing with compressed emotional impact. If she doesn't say everything about small town circumstances, she certainly gives the problem a human face.

And that may not be everything America needs, but it's a good solid start.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Secret Relationship Between Corporations and Brains

Brady G. Wilson, Beyond Engagement: A Brain-Based Approach That Blends the Engagement Managers Want with the Energy Employees Need

One buzzword has appeared frequently in business guidebooks I’ve received for review: engagement. Because authors mostly haven’t defined that word, I’ve assumed that derives from topics taught in MBA classrooms. It’s definitely something quantifiable, as it entails “engagement scores.” Mostly I’ve shined the topic off as just another opaque metric which management consultants cite to remind us they’re more educated than us peons.

Canadian consultant Brady G. Wilson believes engagement, while important, is half the continuum. Early in this book, he describes what he calls The Engagement Paradox: “the more companies focus on engagement, the more disengagement they produce.” Having read something similar recently in research psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, I’ll buy that. For Wilson, engagement means nothing for workplace teams lacking energy.

And whoopsie, Wilson immediately repeats that frustrating mistake from other business writers: he never defines “energy.” Does he intend that workers remain frenetic, bouncy, and gregarious constantly? One recalls Susan Cain’s discussion of how MBA programs prefer extroverted applicants, even when they observably don’t listen or communicate reciprocally. The term “energy” is broad enough to render conflicting, even contradictory, meanings if left undefined.

Let’s postpone that debate, though. Because Wilson otherwise uses sound evidence to make sound, thorough claims about ways leaders can make measurable differences in employee outcomes. He breaks his process down into ten chapters, each summarized by simple, easily memorable bromides: “Manage Energy, Not Engagement.” “Trust Conversations, Not Surveys.” “Meet Needs, Not Scores.” It’s hard to dispute Wilson’s arguments.

Wilson relies heavily on up-to-date science and field research to describe how stats-driven management styles consistently disappoint, because they don’t reach workers where their hearts live. In my favorite chapter, for instance, Wilson explains how too many managers rely upon in-house metrical evaluations to gauge employee engagement, when they should have conversations with their workers. I've said something similar myself previously.

Brady G. Wilson
Thus, Wilson crafts something seemingly paradoxical: a data-driven explanation of why smart managers shouldn’t over-rely upon data. Instead, wise managers find ways, through face-to-face conversation, managed tension, and shared vision, to encourage employees’ energetic investment in corporate outcomes. As Wilson observes, many workers would surprisingly rather have autonomy, flexibility, and strength left for their families, than more pay.

I’ll buy all that. Even without any meaningful definition of “energy,” Wilson pitches a smart case for how existing management techniques discourage committed workers and reward people who only do the minimum. He also crafts an engaging counter-proposal, a vision of corporate management focused on keeping workers energized, customers happy, and numbers high. He pitches an engaging alternative to today’s tightly controlled, essentially meaningless corporatocracy.


I’ve worked both blue-collar and white-collar jobs. Too often, traditional laborers find their labors criticized and micromanaged by time-and-motion “experts” who treat employees like machines. Executives and supposed skilled workers get shunted into “cube farms,” immune to personality and visually similar to cattle pens. Both environments convey to workers the same unspoken message: you’re just tools for our use.

Wilson pitches an intriguing alternative course for managing corporate workplaces. However, he tacitly accepts the inevitability of corporate governance. He fails to question how the modern workplace itself, where employees don’t own the products of their efforts and frequently cannot see the value-added aspects of their jobs, innately creates the energy-sapping conditions against which he otherwise eloquently rails.

Wendell Berry notes that most Americans don’t work where they live, giving them no motivation to take longer views. Matthew B. Crawford describes how corporatocracy relentlessly reduces all jobs to their component parts, making “skilled” jobs as meaningless today as they made manual labor during the Gilded Age. And Dr. Stephen Ilardi notes that mental illnesses flourish because humans aren’t designed for seated, indoor, repetitive tedium.

I could continue. The same science Wilson musters to underscore his alternative management techniques also demonstrates that human brains aren’t interchangeable with machines. Corporate culture, which inevitably slots individuals into jobs that perhaps start challenging, becomes tedious as workers realize how circumscribed their horizons really are. Worker energy dwindles because corporations intrinsically turn employees into cogs.

If energy is the solution, perhaps it’s time for managers to re-evaluate the source of the problem.

I like Wilson’s vision, within its parameters. His reliance on actual science, rather than abstract algorithms, makes a refreshing change from other consultancy handbooks. His use of relevant examples from his own portfolio gives his prose an active, personal edge. If you share Wilson’s starting premises, many of which remain unvoiced, you’ll find plenty to like. Just realize, not every topic he broaches gets explained.