Thursday, March 31, 2016

Our Incredible Shrinking Globe

Jeffrey E. Garten, From Silk to Silicon: The Story of Globalization Through Ten Extraordinary Lives

It’s exceedingly difficult to separate books about economic forces from one’s opinion about these forces. Yale economist Jeffrey E. Garten has crafted a remarkable book about globalization, anchored not to abstruse mathematics and distant political machinations, but to the biographies of ten exceptional people who pioneered modern transnationalism. This book is readable, informative, and personable. But this old Distributist can’t help thinking Garten has overlooked his most important points.

Most readers understand globalization, if not from high-speed bond trades and massive offshoring of blue-collar jobs, then from election-year stump speeches about trade deficits and the TPP. Garten recasts this debate in personal, humane terms. Enterprising individuals devised ways that goods, populations, and ideas could move freely, unshackled by prior limitations. This ambitious invention puts all human experience within ordinary persons’ grasp, though never without cost.

Garten unpacks ten important lives that, in various ways, made our world smaller and more accessible. Some are world leaders, like Genghis Khan, Margaret Thatcher, and Deng Xiaoping. Some are financiers and business leaders, like banker Mayer Amschel Rothschild, oil baron John D. Rockefeller, and Intel CEO Andrew Grove. And some you’ve never heard of, like communications entrepreneur Cyrus Field and revolutionary statesman Jean Monnet.

To a certain extent, Garten acknowledges globalization’s loaded, explosive implications. He describes “the two sides of globalization—the dislocation and destruction that it can inflict and the peace, modernization, and prosperity that it can create.” Sounds fair-minded, right? But this quote describes Genghis Khan, a name virtually synonymous with violent nationalism and rapacity. Not exactly a name the Trans-Pacific Partnership sponsors want hung on their efforts.

Jeffrey E. Garten
Admittedly, as Garten describes, Genghis standardized commerce along the Silk Road (thus this book’s title), separated governance from religion, and established history’s first trans-continental postal service. He also slaughtered dissidents, starved peasants, and shipped the spoils of war home to Mongolia, which produced nothing besides warriors. That thread, of how globalization concentrates power and its attendant wealth upward, permeates this entire book—though the implicit downsides are often buried.

It’s possible to repeat this critical pattern with nearly every chapter. Yes, Prince Henry the Navigator opened trans-oceanic trade and scientific inquiry. He also quickly jettisoned his putative moral justifications in favor of trade, especially the slave trade, a generation before Columbus. Mayer Rothschild created pan-European banking connections that permitted money to trade as freely as goods. He also funded both sides of the Napoleonic Wars, probably prolonging the violence.

Garten’s first three biographies are of out-and-out imperialists: Genghis Khan, Prince Henry, and Robert Clive, the Englishman who subdued India. Of Garten’s ten biographies, only two don’t require Garten to paper over something completely awful: Cyrus Field, who masterminded the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable, and Jean Monnet, who laid the diplomatic foundations for the EU. And given the ongoing Euro crisis, Garten must acknowledge well-founded, if blinkered, criticisms of Monnet.

I have two favorite quotes. After an entire chapter lavishing praise upon Margaret Thatcher for undoing the postwar welfare state, steamrolling workers’ rights, and glorifying the financial services industry, Garten writes: “Indeed, the very connectedness that Thatcher’s policies encouraged has created a counter-requirement for more cushions, more redundancies, more advance planning to avert catastrophes—in other words, more government involvement.” That feels like the lede, not a summing-up thought.

Shortly thereafter, Garten writes: “Along among the industry leaders, [Andrew] Grove had the courage to respond to industry slumps by cutting budgets, cutting jobs, and forcing staff to work longer for less money.” Wow, that’s courageous. Did workloads and paychecks return to pre-slump levels? Not according to one IT professional I know in California. Grove, alongside Jobs and Gates, engineered what Jill Andresky Fraser calls the White-Collar Sweatshop.

Rereading everything I’ve written, I realize it appears I hate this book. Not so: Garten has crafted an engaging, human-centered history of a force most private citizens probably consider an impersonal mass. He separates globalization’s facts from the slogans which dominate both sides of the debate, and expounds details too difficult to fit on a protester’s placard. He opened this old Distributist’s eyes to implications I’d never considered.

Rather, I mean Garten writes from a particular position, with a particular goal. His writing serves that goal. Smart, critical audiences can profitably read this book, while recognizing the limitations Garten has set himself. By making globalization human, Garten makes its costs humane. I can express my reservations in straight, uncluttered English, as I couldn’t a week ago. I wish more policy debates were as human-scale and flexible as this.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

A Christian and a Scholar

Marc Cortez, Christological Anthropology In Historical Perspective: Ancient and Contemporary Approaches to Theological Anthropology

I’ve written repeatedly on this blog about my frustrations regarding how Christian authors seemingly write down to their audiences, keeping believers at primary-school levels. No wonder “no religion” has become America’s second-biggest religious label: our biggest religion has become boring. I’ve specifically criticised Phil Rehberg and Johnnie Moore, to name only two, for keeping intellectually ambitious Christians trapped at the Bible 101 level indefinitely.

Thus it heartens me to see Zondervan, a house mainly famous for publishing the New International Version (NIV) Bible, getting heavily into distributing Christian scholarship for mainstream audiences. Though owned by HarperCollins, and thus technically part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, Zondervan remains operationally independent, and dedicated to Christianity over political ideology. And it’s demonstrated a welcoming attitude to theological debate, hard scholarship, and dedication to knowledgeable, informed Christian faith.

Wheaton University professor Marc Cortez has chosen, with this book, to address one of theology’s more arcane corners, the intersection of the study of humanity with the study of Christ. Rather than trying to create a truly encyclopedic umbrella of this discipline, which he admits early would be difficult, even futile, he chooses case studies of past writers. The result is interesting, deep reading for enthusiastic, scholarly-minded Christians.

Cortez sets himself an interesting set of parameters. He unpacks writings of seven religious scholars, from Gregory of Nyssa in the 3rd Century CE to the still-living James Cone, analyzing how they understand humanity through the lens of Christology. If that sounds obscure, it is: “Christology” is the academic study of Christ, understanding Him not through Jesus’ teachings or actions, but through Christ’s unique being.

Christology is so specialized that, of the four canonical Gospels, only John significantly addresses it. The Synoptic Gospels approach Christology head-on only through Peter’s confession and Jesus’ defense before Pilate. It also compounds understanding Cortez’s points, as it entails understanding humanity, monolithically, through the divine manifestation of Christ’s dyophysite nature. Functionally, Cortez places the key to understanding human outside humanity. You can imagine how fraught this makes his exegesis.

Nearly every chapter includes some disclaimer how, despite the superficial appearances, each respective author Cortez unpacks really has a truly Christological anthropology. This despite not only the seeming evidence, but even the criticisms his subjects levy on one another: throughout chapter 4, Cortex defends Friedrich Schleiermacher against Karl Barth, the subject of chapter 5. These theologians’ interpretations of both anthropology and Christology are deeply loaded, and sometimes contradictory.

It’s important to note that, when Cortez says “Anthropology,” he doesn’t mean what non-sectarian university Anthropology departments mean. The theologians Cortez considers seek the true definition of human nature prior to the circumstances of life, like upbringing and culture. Secularist anthropologists largely abandoned this pursuit in the 1960s, acknowledging life’s circumstances as defining, not accidental. Thus Cortez is initiating an intellectual pursuit that doesn’t travel outside strictly theological circles.

That’s especially compounded by the specific contexts each theologian writes from. In Cortez’s telling, Gregory of Nyssa spends considerable time parsing how necessary the biological body, especially sexuality, really is to human nature. Martin Luther expounds on how the righteous shall live (act) by faith (belief)—thus humans naturally translate knowledge into action. And James Cone, possibly America’s foremost Black Liberation Theologian, defines humans by race and relationship to power.

Thus, as with studying Scripture, more knowledge leads to less certainty, or anyway it should. The authors seemingly contradict one another; sometimes, as with especially prolific authors like Luther or Barth, they appear to contradict themselves. But arguably, this represents what we in the logic-chopping business call “an essentially contested debate”: that is, the positions gain definition from being contested. The point isn’t to win, but to test new ideas.

In that, Cortez succeeds. His case studies challenge audiences’ preconceptions, widen avenues of discussion, and introduce new ideas. Non-scholarly Christians probably won’t read Gregory of Nyssa or Karl Barth; most probably haven’t even heard of Friedrich Schleiermacher or John Zizioulas (I hadn’t). But Cortez makes their key ideas accessible, in plain English with ample footnotes. He invites us into the debate. And that, more than “winning,” truly matters.

This book joins Zondervan’s recent additions to challenging theology for non-seminarians. I’ve already reviewed Five Views on the Church and Politics, part of a series Zondervan publishes on today’s most important spiritual debates. Part-time Christians seeking vague affirmations or easy beach reading will find this volume imposing. But serious-minded believers seeking more intensive insights into their faith with find this book rich, as few mass-market Christian books are anymore.

Friday, March 25, 2016

In Defense of Books On Amazon

The Raven Bookstore, Lawrence, Kansas
This past weekend, I visited Lawrence, Kansas, and as I do whenever I’m in down, I swung by The Raven Bookstore. I picked up a book and a low-gloss literary magazine. Lawrence is fortunate enough to have three good-quality, locally owned bookstores within highly trafficked one block. While chatting with the clerk, she thanked me for purchasing there, rather than online. I smiled, returned her thanks, and said: “Shopping here is so much more of a sensory pleasure than Amazon or wherever.”

The words had hardly passed my lips before I realized the import. I permeate my blog with buying links to Amazon, who directly provides over half the books I review. I purchase from Amazon semi-regularly, more so since my town’s biggest bookstore basically retooled itself as a tchotchke outlet. Without Amazon’s recommendation features, I probably never would’ve discovered several books that have proven formative in my understanding of modern life.

But I also realize many good critics with unimpeachable reasoning have condemned Amazon for coarsening America’s publishing industry. Novelist/poet Ursula K. le Guin has characterized Amazon as “the BS Machine.” They’re regularly chastened for undercutting individual entrepreneurs, with good reason—though Wal-Mart has arguably done more in that direction, for far longer. Simply put, Amazon has narrowed the publisher-to-purchaser pipeline, at great social cost.

Still, I can’t bring myself to buy it.

Lawrence, Kansas, is wealthy, educated, and progressive-minded enough to have supported its historic downtown while neighboring communities rushed to build malls. This continuity proved foresighted, as malls and big-box retailers collapsed en masse during the Great Recession. Because malls involve massive buy-in costs, they’re prohibitively expensive for indie stores. Entrepreneurs and local owners absolutely require old buildings in classic communities, which don’t exist everywhere, to remain economically viable.

Amazon's first, highly controversial, brick-and-mortar store in Seattle, Washington
Before Amazon, high-minded critics blamed book superstores like Borders or Barnes & Noble for the then-current publishing environment. Before that, it was book racks at airports and drugstores. Or they blamed mall stores. This invariably overlooks one important point: such “downmarket” book-buying opportunities make reading, and literacy, available to people who are too geographically isolated, socially marginal, or poor to visit high-end indie retailers.

Such criticisms bespeak unquestioned economic privilege. As Naomi Klein put it over fifteen years ago, “media types tend to care more passionately about where they buy their books than where they buy their socks.” Some might immediately claim that Amazon sells socks and other staples; books have long-since receded from their retailing spotlight. But that’s consistent with Klein’s overall point, that retail consolidation has overwhelmed most Americans’ buying options.

Big-box discount stores amalgamated purchasing of life’s most important commodities several generations ago. I can enter any Wal-Mart SuperCenter at 2 a.m. and purchase food, electronics, clothing, car parts, and ammunition. Anything I can’t purchase at these stores could, charitably, be characterized as “luxury goods.” Poor Americans in particular, including those who work for Wal-Mart, can hardly afford to shop anywhere else. Amazon is an afterthought for such customers.

Nor is big-box buying exclusive to America’s poor. Levittown-style suburbanism, which made home ownership available to working-class citizens with GI Bill benefits after World War II, are deeply immune to localism, and lack downtowns like Lawrence. Despite empirical evidence that nobody wants new suburban developments anymore, developers keep building them, mainly because they’re cheap. But risky, independent-minded ventures, like the Raven, are priced out of suburbanism just like malls.

Interior of the Raven Bookstore, Lawrence, Kansas
Besides this, we must remember where the purchasing happens, not just by whom. The last indie bookstore in my area folded, priced out by a chain store, when Amazon was still a money-losing experimental venture. Once the chain store had absolute dominion over the local media goods market, it repurposed itself, making books marginal. My nearest large bookstore is an hour’s drive away; my nearest good bookstore, much further.

(In fairness, a new indie opened here later. However, it mainly sells remainders, salted with tables of bestsellers and local authors. It’s interesting, but unprepared to compete more widely.)

No, Amazon isn’t perfect: it uses monopsony power to squeeze publishers, and floods markets with cheap books. And it excludes those who can’t buy on plastic. Dedicated complainers have many populist grievances against Amazon’s business model.

But Amazon makes books available in rural, suburban, and poor areas in ways physical stores just can’t. Complaints about Amazon’s market domination, like complaints about mall stores a generation ago, reek of unexamined economic privilege. In an economy where books have become hard to find, it makes sure literacy is available. That’s something worth defending.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Syria We Never Knew

Charles Glass, Syria Burning: A Short History of a Catastrophe

The conflict in Syria began when police arrested some youths for scattering anti-administration graffiti. When authorities detained and tortured the youths, locals began a peaceful protest, and police followed standard procedures: they attempted to disperse the crowd by opening fire. This usually works. For whatever reason, in 2011, outside forces distributed weapons to “defend” the protesters. Outside observers expected the Assad administration to collapse after mere weeks.

Charles Glass has written extensively on the Northern Levant, besides reporting for ABC News. During the Lebanese hostage crisis of the late 1980s, Glass was captured by militants, held for over two months. Among American journalists, few have more experience with Levantine history and politics. As the Syrian conflict approaches its sixth year, as over half the population has been displaced, either internally or internationally, he offers badly needed context.

Under the dominion of “President” Hafez al-Assad from 1970, and his son Bashar al-Assad from 2000, Syria knew levels of internal stability not necessarily enjoyed by other Middle Eastern nations. Minority populations of Alawite, Shiite, and Druze Muslims, alongside various Christian populations and even Jews, knew longtime peace. The administration was autocratic, certainly, but it secured durable sectarian harmony that translated into economic prosperity and political constancy.

The peaceful protesters, mostly secular and democratic, expected NATO forces to bolster them with air power like they did with Libya’s rebels; that support never came. The Assad administration expected to swiftly, efficiently quiet dissident protests, like they have time after time; outside forces kept the opposition alive. With each side believing victory imminent, they never prepared for a years-long sectarian conflict. The citizenry has grown openly weary of war.

Charles Glass
Worse, the secularized protesters got supplanted by religious absolutists, who quickly coalesced into two factions. The Free Syrian Army is about as democratic as the LRA, and has attempted, without success, to rouse the nation’s Sunni majority into pogroms against minority populations. The al-Nusra Front became theocratic and intolerant, especially after it found allies in Iraq’s al-Qaeda subsidiary. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi folded the two groups together into the Islamic State.

But Glass doesn’t limit himself to the current conflict. As with most uprisings and state-sponsored oppressions in the Middle East, the Syrian conflict has origins in history, some well outside living memory. Glass finds instructive background, sometimes only obliquely parallel, in three prior conflicts: the Lebanese Civil War, the Great Syrian Revolt of 1925, and Seferberlik, the Syrian rebellion against Ottoman oppression during World War I.

Glass’s most engaging, and longest, chapter addresses the Great Syrian Revolt. When Syrian emirs overthrew the Ottoman yoke, they expected liberty for what they called Greater Syria (which includes Lebanon, Palestine, and Transjordan). Their European allies had different goals. The region fell under French and British mandate, which drew unhistorical borders and attempted to force modernization on populations that didn’t particularly want Western-style governments. They rebelled, as colonized peoples do.

The Great Revolt, in Glass’s telling, doesn’t precisely mimic the current rebellion. It didn’t have the absolutist religious fervor the Islamic State brings, and it had more clearly defined personalities guiding the rebels. But in broad strokes, the similarities are unavoidable: a high-handed government, deaf to the people’s pleadings. The multiple rebel paths converging on Damascus. The complete failure to electrify popular support, leading to petty struggles for insignificant ground.

One other parallel remains important, the involvement of foreign proxies in tribal conflicts. Back then, France packed its native army with Alawites eager for opportunity, leading to today’s Alawite-dominated Assad regime. Today, Bashar al-Assad absolutely demands support from Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, while the rebels enjoy support, sometimes under-the-table, from NATO, Turkey, and the theocracies of the Arabian Peninsula. Multinational balances of power turn on whatever outcome Syria eventually produces.

Like many journalists, Glass mostly avoids policy prescriptions through most of the book— which isn’t very long. Only in his afterword does he look toward future options available to stop the fighting. Outsiders will need to relinquish certain demands, especially that Assad abdicate; awful as he is, we’d prefer him to the other options currently available. But it wouldn’t take much to starve the FSA and Islamic State of materiel.

This book fills a much-needed gap in ongoing policy debates. Journalists run two-minute stories, while legislators seek the “good guys” and presidential candidates promise to “carpet-bomb the desert.” But Glass, whose career turns around Greater Syria, brings great detail. His history is thorough; his current events maintain exacting journalistic standards, answering questions even veteran news addicts haven’t understood. Until now.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Did Norman Spinrad Predict Donald Trump?

Norman Spinrad
Donald Trump’s run up America’s political ladder has baffled pundits, party insiders, and anybody who got a B or better in 11th-grade American Civics. He lacks a policy platform, speaks in generalizations so broad that even career politicians can’t understand him, and engages in a magnitude of undisguised race-baiting seldom seen since Barry Goldwater cratered in 1964. He shouldn’t succeed, and serious commentators remain baffled that he does.

I say Trump’s critics need to read more paperback science fiction.

Norman Spinrad has always courted controversy. One early novel, Bug Jack Barron, published by British editor Michael Moorcock, was so ahead-of-its-time, and so frank on politics, that he got condemned, by name, on the floor of the British Parliament. Though observers have noted a utopian impulse in Spinrad’s works, he maintains a broadly cynical attitude regarding the present and near future. Norman Spinrad generally believes things will get worse before they get better.

In 1985, Asimov’s Science Fiction published a lightly bowdlerized version of Spinrad’s novella “World War Last.” Three years later, Bantam bundled the uncensored story together with three other Spinrad novellas in the collection Other Americas. All four novellas feature some vision of America where economic inequality, political opportunism, and plain rot have conspired to reduce America to a ghost of itself. Long out of print, this collection has become available again thanks to Kindle publishing.

In “World War Last,” Samuel T. Carruthers has made his reputation as a used car salesman bu refusing to sell “Cheap Jap Junk.” His billboards, featuring himself dressed as Uncle Sam, make him iconic to Southern California’s reactionary nationalist segment, so a transition to politics seems natural. With Obama-like haste, and Donald Trump-like policy vagueness, he finds himself billed as America’s next President. Until he vanishes for several days, turning up gibbering weird, incoherent slogans.

Original paperback cover art
Across the globe, the Soviet Politburo is unable to elect a premier. (Note the scientific foresight, six years before the Soviet collapse. Sci-fi authors are perceptive, but not prophetic.) So the Party’s technocrats fit the former premier’s corpse with an artificial intelligence system that reads political sentiments, matches them to the premier’s speeches, and tells the Party what it wants to hear. The USSR is trapped in a death spiral of revisiting past, moribund policies.

Between these two puffed-up adversaries stands Hassan al Korami, despot of a tiny, oil-rich desert emirate. Korami has appointed himself caliph of all Islam; Muslims worldwide have responded with yawns. After all, Korami is all ambition, no authority. He has no air power, and is reduced to begging international arms dealers for rudimentary nuclear technology. But he has money and power enough to kidnap, drug, and brainwash America’s next President.

The parallels with current politics couldn’t be more direct or brutal. The American nationalist, the Russian demagogue, and the Middle Eastern would-be potentate constitute a tripod of international instability. None can gather their shit together to really challenge the others. But each has authority enough to enflame global sentiments. As two nuclear-armed opponents half-ass their way toward Armageddon, Korami sits back, prepared to claim Earth’s smoldering remains for his weird, self-serving version of Islam.

Desperate for resolution, “Uncle Sam” Carruthers invites the Soviet premier for a summit meeting. But addled on hash, sex, and self-made mythology, Carruthers picks Caesars Palace as the venue— and the Soviet AI agrees. Nothing could be worse for either. Carruthers would rather gamble and screw than conduct national affairs. The premier’s corpse, kept fresh by icy Moscow weather, begins rotting in the Nevada sun. The metaphors scream out Reagan-era political decay, on both sides.

Literary critic Joseph Anthony Wittreich (and not Mark Twain, as sometimes attributed) once wrote: “History may not repeat itself but it does rhyme.” Here we see the themes of history, at least as perceived by Americans, echoing themselves in Spinrad’s writing. The very concerns that permeate this novella, including photogenic political fatuity, bad political ideas given zombie-like reanimation, and world powers playing into small operators’ fear machines, are playing themselves out on this year’s electoral stage.

Spinrad’s prose refines then-current issues into low comedy. High-minded topics like nuclear war and bad political maneuvering mingle with dick jokes and profane puns. But as with the best comedy, it uses broad laughs to make us think about the most profound and timely truths. If anything, “World War Last” more accurate to our time than to its own. Between Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and that demi-religious gasbag Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Norman Spinrad’s time has come around again.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

We've Gone On Holiday By Mistake

Paul McGann (left) as "I." Richard E. Grant as "Withnail."
1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part Six
Bruce Robinson (writer-director), Withnail & I

One fog-shrouded afternoon in autumn 1969, two unemployable losers decide they’ve earned a vacation. A more mismatched pair you cannot imagine: a cynical burnout who directs his self-hatred outward, and a meek but promising youngster, terrified of earning his best friend’s contempt. Their story, a lightly fictionalized memoir, provides a hilarious window into a dun-tinged era when a starving artist could still survive in London.

Writer-director Bruce Robinson based this melancholy comedy, his debut in the big chair, on his experiences trying to break into acting in the late 1960s. He played Benvolio in Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, and claims the director ham-handedly tried to seduce him—an occurrence which this movie exaggerates to heights of cringe-inducing slapstick. In 1969, he shared a walk-up flat with Vivian MacKerrell, an actor primarily famous for drinking himself to death.

Richard E. Grant plays “Withnail,” a self-destructive tornado of malice who schedules his entire life around ways to maintain his alcohol flow. He lives in squalor, abuses his agent, drinks entire days into blackout oblivion, yet cannot understand why he cannot secure work. He reserves special disdain for his flatmate, “I,” played by Paul McGann. (Fan theories contend McGann’s character is actually named “Marwood,” only tangentially evidenced by the dialog.)

McGann’s character retains Swinging London’s fading optimism following the Hippie Era’s slow death. He still attends auditions, believing opportunities await the diligent. But he mistakes Withnail’s sodden monologues for philosophy, which he internalizes. “We are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell,” he soliloquizes, “making an enemy of our own future.” Thus he arrives at the idea of taking a long-overdue holiday.

Richard Griffiths as Uncle Monty
Withnail’s uncle, Monty, owns a cottage in the Cotswolds, which neither burnout has ever seen. So they dust off their best Sunday suits and pay a call. Uncle Monty is played by Richard Griffiths, who portrayed an equally repellent uncle in the Harry Potter films. Like the lads, Monty once dreamt of acting, but having money, never felt desperate enough to, y’know, audition. His aggressively swishy mannerisms threaten their sensibilities.

Nevertheless, they get the cabin, for which they prove supremely underprepared. Without electricity or running water, they’re virtually isolated. They arrive during the rainy season, without food or clean clothes, their booze cache already severely depleted. Holiday-making proves even more work than actually working. All this before that fateful midnight when, without warning, Uncle Monty arrives unannounced. He has his own ambitions which, in 1969 Britain, are still technically illegal.

Robinson creates an expressive visual palette. His London is visually rich, from the ancient stone buildings to the sleek, modern Bakelite tables of the local diner. But the boys, in their substance-addled lifestyle, reduce their environment to undifferentiated grey. Withnail sits on a brightly lit bench in verdant Hyde Park, so wrapped in his misery that he can only notice his own colorless, vodka-soaked phlegm.

They likewise miss the wonder of the Cotswolds. From green grass to orange peat fires, dry-stone walls to rolling hills, the countryside offers constant visual wonders our lads miss, because they walk with their heads down, hands in their pockets. They wear grey flannel coats topped with their lank hair, a pair of shuffling sad sacks already moving through this life like ghosts immune to life, vitality, or humanist joy.

These characters’ bleak despair finds manifestation in their namelessness. By contrast, Uncle Monty has a first name, as does Danny, their sardonically hilarious dealer. Monty represents Britain’s past glamour, while Danny revels in transition, loving how London is shedding its staid, Christian, imperialist past. They stand at opposite poles, yet both are wholly alive, as our boys, in their present-centered despondency, aren’t. Past or future, they both live in hope.

Funding for this film came partly from Handmade Films, George Harrison’s hobby company that also bankrolled Monty Python’s classic Life of Brian. Harrison’s involvement greases a rich soundtrack that not every period film can afford. Hendrix, King Curtis, and the Beatles give this film a richly realized soundtrack that immerses audiences in the period. With Harrison’s help, this movie moves beyond mere period curiosity, into a glimpse of another era.

Released in 1987, this movie expresses nostalgia for pre-Thatcher innocence, probably fictional,  that characterized the late Eighties. But viewing it today, it offers another layer: a periscope into a time when artists could afford to starve. Like Manhattan or Frisco, London has moved beyond young strivers’ ambitions. But in this story, “I” suffers indignities until he overcomes. Because in the Sixties, ambitious contenders could still win.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Outhouse Politics

This essay contains language and images which may not be suitable for all readers. Consider this your first and only trigger warning.
Click to enlarge

Sometime back, I referred to Donald Trump as an expression of the worst aspects of America’s collective id. The description wasn’t entirely unique to me; after saying it, I learned pundit Sam Seder had recently said something similar. Me, I pinched the description broadly from British journalist Mick Hume's description of coarse behavior at Premier League football matches. But the point remains valid, whoever coined the idea.

That point returned, vibrantly, when I recently visited the outhouse at work. My city’s public high school, still only half-built, doesn’t yet have running water, and even if it did, we construction workers aren’t permitted to pee in the clients’ porcelain. We still use plastic porta-johns located strategically around the site. While voiding our bladders, we have the opportunity to glimpse the inner workings of our co-workers’ minds. The view isn’t always pretty.

Humans moving their bowels put ourselves into a strange position. Sitting down, britches around our ankles, we’re beholden to the most fundamental animal demands our flesh places upon us. We’re completing the final, unsavory arc of transforming undifferentiated nutrition into human productivity. We produce art, finance, cities, farms, and copious amounts of shit. But even while defecating, the human mind remains a place of constant, if disgusting, productivity.

>Reduced helplessly to Freud’s “anal stage” of psychosexual development, human minds run in various directions. Sometimes this manifests as the simple desire to do something orderly in an innately disordered, messy environment, like playing tic-tac-toe on the walls. Other times, this results in empty displays of power. For many subcontractors, even bowel movements—the first control most people learn—are strictly timed. So they assert whatever control they can.

Click to enlarge

This results in graffiti. Surely nobody’s surprised by this. We’ve all seen toilet stalls defaced with slogans, doggerel (“Here I sit, broken-hearted”), and undying affections of “Jimmy + Kathleen 4EVA” above the toilet. Construction workers assert their existence using the tools most readily available, generally a Sharpie or a utility knife. They cuss, strut, declare themselves, and otherwise demand respect, while shitting without washing their hands.

Non-English graffiti tend to be the most simple. This may mean completely non-verbal symbols: swastikas and Confederate flags are dishearteningly common. Considering that the least verbal presidential candidate, a man who has publicly proclaimed “I know many big words,” has received the endorsement of white supremacist organizations, the correlation between bowel movements and racist symbols rings familiar. They’re both expressions of powerlessness, or anyway the feeling of powerlessness.

I’m less able to explain the crude illustrations of genitals. Nearly every outhouse includes at least one drawing of a scrotum and erect phallus, usually at a seated man’s eye level. One features the phallus with a smiley face and skinny legs, making it resemble a strutting ostrich, testicles standing in for fluffy plumage. Maybe the artists are compensating for their emasculating jobs by tagging everything with their dicks.

As I've written before, construction is undoubtedly the most segregated job I’ve ever held. The various subcontractors—brickmasons, electricians, roofers, concrete finishers—have very little interaction. They mostly only speak with us, the general contractor, and even then only when they need something done. This segregation has frustrating racial overlap: we have Black, Hispanic, and white subs, and almost no overlap. Races don’t speak, share, or cooperate here.

Click to enlarge

So we have bilingual graffiti. Spanish graffiti runs very simple: the longest Spanish graffiti I’ve read says “Chinga tu puta madre.” Fuck your whore mother. That’s about as sophisticated as their graffiti gets. Sometimes there’s overlap. In one outhouse, somebody wrote: “El Chapo is watchin” [sic]. Below that, in bold block handwriting: “I hope he fucks ISIS up, that coward Obama isn’t doing shit.”

Then there’s plain English. Most isn’t overtly political (beyond the swastikas). But the mix of schoolyard name-calling (“faggot!”) and religious exhortations (“Jesus saves”) bespeaks a singular motive, to exert power over others. Whether by tearing others down or making converts, both messages convey the same point: I actually have the power my job superficially denies. I’ll use it over you. And I’ll exert it here, the one place I can.

Donald Trump talks like outhouse graffiti; there’s no other way to express it. His blunt sentences, short vocabulary, repeated slogans, and flippant vulgarity sound exactly like the language on plastic porta-john walls. Though he hasn’t done anything as blatant as draw swastikas on his venues, he hasn’t needed to. His appeal reaches two-year-olds sitting on the pot—and grown men grasping the one daily moment they have to themselves.

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Fine Line Between a Mystery and a Whiplash Injury

S.G. Redling, Baggage

What’s worse: when a book feels so predictable, you see where it’s headed from page one? Or when the author deliberately coaches you to consider her book predictable, only to pull the rug from under you on page 200? Asking for a friend. That friend happens to be S.G. Redling.

February 17th doesn’t like Anna Ray. That’s the day her father died violently when she was eleven years old. It’s the day her husband hanged himself last year. Anna and her cousin-slash-enabler Jeannie celebrate 2/17 annually by getting blackout drunk—which doesn’t differ much from other days. Except this year, Anna sobers up to discover a cloying, excessively affectionate co-worker has been murdered in a manner clearly targeted at her.

Two lessons I remember from college creative writing classes:
  1. The longer you withhold your Big Reveal, the bigger it’d better be.
  2. The more adamantly your protagonist believes X on page one, the more surely X gets proven false by the end.
Redling violates both. Her structure is complicated enough that explaining the violations is impossible without spoilers, so bear with me. I’ll try to explain without giving too much away.

Anna, an assistant ombudsman at a secluded liberal arts college, doesn’t want male attention. Her husband hasn’t been dead one year. But nerdy art professor Ellis Trachtenberg doesn’t know that; he keeps pressing her with unwanted gifts and attention. His on-campus murder one snowy midnight feels almost relieving. Until, that is, Anna discovers the killer disfigured Ellis’s remains in ways eerily similar to her father’s death. The police notice, too.

S.G. Redling
The story unfolds in two parallel paths. In one, Anna narrates her story in traumatized shoe-gazing alternating with bursts of juvenile drunken self-immolation. Despite being nearly thirty and employed, the circumstances surrounding her father’s death keep her from embracing adulthood. Her mother sends regular letters from prison, which Anna hides, unopened, in a shoebox. Jeannie, her cousin and adoptive sister, joins her for celebratory binges. Anna is a functioning alcoholic.

The second path flashes back to Anna’s history. In third-person, we approach Anna’s father’s death circumspectly (her husband’s death merits only one late, hasty chapter). A failed artist and raging drunk, nobody apparently feels bad when Pops’ remains appear. But Anna concertedly buries the circumstances, terrified to address them directly. This exclusion becomes pointed when Anna divulges the full truth to her troubled husband—but not us. We’re getting stonewalled.

Redling presumably knows seasoned mystery audiences have certain learned habits. Among these, we pay attention not only to what authors say, but what they omit. As Anna repeatedly discusses her history, particularly her father’s death, we notice she’s remarkably circumspect about the event itself. She never actually specifies the killer. Veteran readers can’t help ourselves: we start a suspect list, and quickly winnow it down to only one likely prospect.

I say she “presumably knows” because Redling subverts those habits. Her Big Reveal is that we’re wrong, the death happened exactly like everyone assumes, our suspect list was a waste of time, and… what? Redling outright lied to readers by omission? I don’t mind red herrings. Reading thrillers without them gets boring. I mind when the false path deposits me, not at some unanticipated conclusion, but back at the beginning.

My doubts began with the first flashback chapter, where Jeannie’s mother shows Jeannie a newspaper clipping about the murder. Jeannie has a suitably horrified reaction, especially to the accompanying photograph, and—chapter break! Without telling us anything about the text or photo, we leave that behind, not returning for 150 pages. That’s where I began feeling Redling was treating us unfairly, withholding information the characters have available from the beginning.

Mysteries thrive on hidden information, I understand. Authors cannot tell us everything from the beginning, because facts must be uncovered incrementally. But this isn’t really a mystery; the procedural element is scanty, the police characters thinly developed, existing to propel the plot and (not kidding) burst through doors in timely manners. The mystery is ancillary to what could’ve been a character novel. Redling just withholds information to deliberately mislead us.

I’ve previously reviewed one S.G. Redling novel, dubbing Damocles one of the best books I read in 2013. That novel’s slow, cerebral pace excited me, spotlighting an element often overlooked in genre fiction. So I had high expectations from this novel. If she’d skipped the mystery, focusing on a promising character destroying herself to evade trauma, this could’ve worked. But as genre mystery, it feels more like a chain yank.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

How To Be Politically Incorrect

via the New York Times
With this week’s commanding Republican primary victories, frontrunner Donald Trump hasn’t outright secured the nomination, but he’s made anybody else getting a complete majority very, very unlikely. If we aren’t facing an inevitable Trump major-party candidacy, we’re certainly facing the humiliation of a lead political party having to second-ballot their presidential nomination, something unseen since 1952. Even if he loses, Trump has already made political history.

Whenever media pundits discuss this unfolding tragicomedy, they inevitably play one among a small handful of soundbites: somebody praising Trump for being “not politically correct.” Trump started that notion himself, repeating it with drum-like persistence, until his supporters have adopted the talking point themselves. It’s often coupled with the phrase “refreshing honesty,” with the implication that “political correctness” involves somehow lying. But that’s as far as formal definitions go.

Trump has used his rostrum to condemn Mexicans, Muslims, women, and journalists, creating several concentric circles of “insider” authenticity. In Trump’s case, political correctness clearly implies having no filter between his brain and his mouth. That couples especially darkly with how crowds at Trump gatherings behave. While praising their candidate for his divisive logorrhea, they’ve turned angrily, sometimes violently, on protesters, African Americans, dissidents, and students.

So. If Donald Trump says what I’ve been thinking, however ill-considered and contentious, he’s “not politically correct.” If somebody without money or microphone access says what they’ve been thinking, we’ll attack. Thus we encounter one basic problem with arguing from undefined terms: we can make them mean whatever we want. Politicians are often mocked for their vague rhetoric, certainly. But this exposes the violent potential in me-first language choices.

I first encountered the expression “politically correct” in a Reader’s Digest article in 1989. Though nominally nonpartisan, RD has frequently published articles praising Republicans, condemning solid climate science, and defending the status quo. This particular article presented “political correctness” as a legitimate complaint left-leaning ideologues used to shame and silence conflicting opinions. Raised Republican in that pre-Google era, I never doubted that article’s sound journalism and objectivity.

Except we don’t live pre-Google anymore. Five minutes of web searching reveals (really, try it) that “politically correct” was a term first used in Maoist revolutionary circles to maintain purity. Like most things Maoist, it imploded once the revolution became the state. The very concept became so embarrassing to leftist circles that by the 1970s, American progressives used the term to jokingly chide one another for drifting into doctrinaire thinking.

By 2000, sociologist Barry Glassner cited outspoken conservatives using the “politically correct” handle to belittle attempts to set public standards. As Glassner noted, most of the cases conservatives quoted actually consisted of attempts to define what constitutes polite versus rude behavior in public. Language that once sounded normal in public discourse, like using racial terms for minorities, or coarse, sailor-like language to describe women, probably shouldn’t survive in modern discourse.

That, though, was 2000. In some ways, the complaint has become more solid. Even Marxist writer Mick Hume openly complains that the desire to muzzle potentially inflammatory speech has reached dystopian heights. Comedians John Cleese and Chris Rock refuse to play the once-prestigious college circuit because “speech codes” have become so restrictive that they feel forcibly silenced. As Hume notes, good comedy is almost always cutting; nice people aren’t funny.

So maybe the Trumpistas have something. Maybe what sounds inflammatory from Trump’s mouth reflects an internalized self-censor. So what then becomes okay? That’s difficult to say. My heavily Republican father finds Donald Trump so offensive that he’s speculated on shooting the guy. Is that politically incorrect? Or is that something the Secret Service might investigate? And what makes that different from race-baiting and other trademark Trump behavior?

Billy Connolly
People embracing political incorrectness are basically inveighing against a term without real meaning. Comedian Billy Connolly, a self-described “hippie”, complains (in a video sadly unavailable in America) that “political correctness is destroying us all.” Connolly’s definition of political correctness: backup warning signals on garbage trucks. Categorically not the same as calling Mexicans rapists. Anybody can lump anything they dislike into “political correctness” and act vindicated for speaking against it.

Thus we reconcile the gap between Trump’s speech, and his attempts to silence dissent. Political correctness isn’t anything, or rather, it isn’t any one thing. It’s an attempt to control the discourse, not by the politically correct, but by their opponents. If you shush me, that’s political correctness. If I shush you, I’m a free speech hero. “I’m not politically correct” has become the new political correctness.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Those Legendary Belfast Vowels

Adrian McKinty, Rain Dogs: A Detective Sean Duffy Novel

Everyone assumes English journalist Lily Bigelow leapt off Carrickfergus Castle to her self-inflicted death. But autopsy reports confirm that, somehow, someone murdered her inside the locked and shuttered monument. Detective Inspector Sean Duffy can’t believe it: an actual locked room mystery. Those never happen, but he just received his second. Is someone gaslighting him? Or are grim forces conspiring to bury Northern Ireland’s darkest secrets?

Irish expat Adrian McKinty’s fifth Sean Duffy novel references prior novels, but is essentially freestanding. RUC Detective Sean Duffy solves crimes in Carrickfergus, outside Belfast, during the heart of the Troubles, that period when Northern Irish sectarian violence reached its historic peak. His police work is solid, but he picks unproductive fights, which keeps him from rising through the ranks. His approach, and career arc, resemble a Northern Irish Inspector Morse.

Lily Bigelow followed a Finnish trade delegation to Carrickfergus, hoping for juicy leads about international development in Britain’s most underdeveloped corners. But her questions seldom addressed the Finns. She seemed more interested in scaring up a controversy surrounding public figures in London, a controversy spanning leaders in media and government. But her notebook is missing. To chase down her killer, Duffy must re-investigate her story.

This investigation propels Duffy from Belfast to London to Helsinki, and finally unto Finland’s Arctic frontiers. He gradually unpacks a massive multinational conspiracy to re-victimize those already traumatized by the Troubles’ persistent violence, victims wholly unable to defend themselves. I daren’t spoil McKinty’s big reveal. Suffice to say, Duffy uncovers a (very real and historical) cabal, not unlike a British Bill Cosby, only longer, wider, and far more destructive.

Adrian McKinty
McKinty’s prose style takes some some getting used to, especially for non-Celtophiles. He utilizes the frequently terse, telegraphic voice common among the Irish working class, a voice so distinctive that the familiar can almost hear those legendary Belfast vowels. Very lengthy passages and fraught discussions vanish quietly into three-word sentences. Newcomers may struggle somewhat with first-person narrator Duffy’s brusque style:
“Office. Window. Lough. Coal boats. Rain.
McCrabban and Lawson sitting there on the sofa, Gregorio Allegri’s comforting (for a Catholic) Miserere on the record player.
‘I don’t like it,’ I said.
‘What don’t you like?’
I pointed at Lawson. ‘He has put a seed of doubt in my head. A seed which has grown into a virulent little shrub of doubt.’”
Readers unaccustomed to Gaelic dialects may find this off-putting. McKinty’s sentences, where they don’t run one or two words, are often purely subject-verb, sometimes giving his storytelling a feeling like he’s outlining something he hopes to complete later. Yet readers willing to persevere will adapt, finding his stylings absolutely correct for a character who thinks in an altogether unornamented style. Duffy speaks briefly because he thinks clearly.

Sadly, for his smart language and concise historical storytelling, McKinty paints himself into a corner. Having chosen a historical focus for his narrative, an event that wouldn’t actually get addressed for nearly a quarter century after this novel’s setting, McKinty can’t actually change history. Though Duffy solves the mystery to his own satisfaction, he cannot resolve things legally, nor bring closure to victims. Thus McKinty’s story less resolves then peters out.

Which is a shame, because before that irresolute ending, McKinty has crafted a first-rate character mystery. Besides the procedural circumstances, Duffy is a complicated character himself. A hipster before anyone invented that term, Duffy struggles to remain intellectually and aesthetically pure in a world of U2 and cheap television. He idolizes Muhammad Ali, accepting grunt duty just to meet The Champ. He numbs his powerful internal conflicts by smoking blunts in his off hours.

Throughout, Duffy struggles with issues of character. His much-younger girlfriend has moved out, but they give mixed signals about actually being over one another. His former colleague has entered the PI business, tempting him with a lucrative paycheck, if he’ll simply leave his scruples at the door. Paranoia runs so pervasive, he can’t get into a car without checking for bombs anymore. Circumstances repeatedly remind Duffy he could enjoy a cushy life, if he simply stopped caring.

Maybe McKinty set standards so high, so early, that any resolution would seem disappointing. Which goes double for a mystery where real life chose the resolution for him. McKinty crafts a novel that’s really, really good, right up to the “sad trombone” conclusion. A story this good deserves a better final page. Well, McKinty implies Duffy’s story isn’t over. Perhaps he’ll get the resolution he deserves in the next book.

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Rain Demons, Part II

Paige McKenzie, The Awakening of Sunshine Girl

This review follows the previous review The Rain Demons

Sunshine Griffith sees dead people. Since her sixteenth birthday, the constant press of souls demanding her ministrations has become downright massive. As a luiseach, a Celtic healing being tasked with guiding souls into the afterlife, her newly manifested abilities risk becoming a full-time job. But she’s still untutored. A new mentor offers her guidance, but his motivations appear mixed. She soon realizes, she’s less his student than his experimental subject.

Writer-actress Paige McKenzie (with ghostwriter Alyssa Sheinmel), with her second Sunshine Girl novel, takes her story in a surprising new direction. The first volume was a contemporary spin on classic haunted house stories, combining vintage Shirley Jackson-ish horror with coming-of-age urgency. This second volume pushes on themes of identity and calling the first book only implied. It’s truly a sequel, not a retread of the prior book.

Newly minted in her supernatural abilities, the previously orphaned Sunshine meets her stone-faced, purposeful father. Within pages, she’s whisked away to study her powers, only to discover a crumbling, mostly abandoned campus. Think Hogwarts if everyone just left. While Sunshine studies with the only luiseach she’s ever met near her own age, her father conducts strange lab experiments. His discoveries may save humanity, but may cost Sunshine her life.

Reading this book, it’s impossible to avoid acknowledging the debts McKenzie owes to older authors. Sunshine is both the lastborn of her kind and the most powerful, a recurrent theme in Orson Scott Card’s novels. Her apprenticeship in a distant, sultry land, coupled with the “No, I’m Your Father” leitmotif (is her father heroic or villainous? I’m still unsure) will inevitably draw comparisons to The Empire Strikes Back.

Paige McKenzie, in a promotional still from
The Haunting of Sunshine Girl on YouTube
But McKenzie redeems this transparent borrowing by astutely incorporating Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth structure, which Card and Lucas also liberally appropriated. Volume One, I can say in retrospect, represented Campbell’s “Departure” pattern, with the Call, Refusal, and Threshold clearly signposted. This book explores the Initiation aspect, with Sunshine’s Trials, Atonement, and Apotheosis. Seasoned readers know what Volume Three brings—and Volume Three will happen, as the abrupt ending here demands.

Sunshine’s father, Aidan, spirits her from cold, rain-drenched Washington, to his university in central Mexico. This represents both opportunity and threat for Sunshine, since he quickly admits she’s hunted. Seems Aidan’s first experiment blew up, creating massive unintended consequences, for with fellow luiseach hold Sunshine culpable. He leaves her two choices: study her powers and become mature, or let the predators among her own kind destroy her.

In parallel, Sunshine’s platonic boyfriend back home, Nolan, continues researching to discover whatever knowledge will unlock Sunshine’s abilities. A strange new woman enters Nolan’s life: youthful but possessed of uncanny knowledge, Helena steers Nolan’s researches in directions she admits serve her own ends. Helena serves the two roles Campbell reserves for “Woman”: Goddess and Temptress. But her connection to Sunshine pushes Nolan into corners he cannot possibly escape.

Some of McKenzie’s storytelling techniques will seem familiar to veteran YA audiences. Sunshine, as our first-person narrator, feels compelled to describe her awkwardness. Apparently her hair goes wild, and she considers herself clumsy. Her adorkable self-figuration stands at odds with her great confidence, poise, and having multiple young men wholly devoted to her. Apparently a tendency to drop things makes her more approachable to her intended teenage readers.

Like most “urban fantasy” novelists, McKenzie makes the most of the collision between her heroine’s ancient heritage and modern setting. The terrible cell phone reception at quasi-Hogwarts looms large in this story. The campus provides fortress-like protection for Sunshine during her adolescent vulnerability, like Dagobah. So the villains must threaten those she loves to draw her out voluntarily. The only question remains: will she, like Luke Skywalker, fall for it?

Of course she will. Like the Buddha or Ulysses, Sunshine is living out a primordial journey, a literal expression of the metaphorical transition we must all make into adulthood. (That’s why I like science fiction and fantasy, because they can address vast themes without being yoked to “realism.”) We don’t read books like this to be surprised or derailed, but to witness something classic re-enacted for a living generation.

Neither McKenzie nor her publisher make any bones about this being a bridge volume. She doesn’t dither introducing new readers to events from Volume One; there’s a brief refresher, then she jumps in with both feet. This energy continues throughout the entire novel. The story ends in motion, promising something even bigger. And I’ll be there. McKenzie pulls readers along with courage, grace, and aplomb.