Monday, May 30, 2016

How To Win By Appearing To Lose

Chris Voss with Tahl Raz, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It

Hollywood depictions of police or corporate negotiations generally star some big, swaggering action figure, who swaggers in, shoots from the hip, and makes demands. Chris Voss, former FBI international hostage negotiator, now in private practice, wants you to know: if you that, you’ll probably lose. But you’ll also lose if you follow negotiation tactics long taught at business schools. His time-tested approach, developed in the field, is more complex and subtle. It’s also more successful.

All negotiation, Voss holds, is about listening, acquiring information, and remaining receptive to the other side. It isn’t about being stronger than your opponent or holding their feet to the fire. Many issues claimed regarding negotiations nowadays, like “never apologize” and “deal from strength,” make bad policy, because they limit avaliable options and leave the other side feeling ignored. People enter negotiations hoping to be heard, respected, and helped. A negotiator’s goal is to listen.

Thus, Voss’s approach includes terms like “tactical empathy,” “accusation audit,” and “mirroring,” all of which stress listening to, and anticipating, your opponent’s needs. Voss emphasizes the value of asking questions—which should always be open-ended, since yes/no questions merely affirm what you already know. They also leave the answerer feeling defensive, which makes them less receptive to negotiation overall. Traditional, “rational” approaches back the other side into corners, leaving them feeling powerless and without autonomy.

Chris Voss
Negotiation requires extending the illusion of control, even to criminals and outliers. “Dealing from strength” feels good, but seldom works. When negotiators attempt to demonstrate strength or act muscular, they telegraph that they won’t listen to even completely reasonable demands, which encourages defiance and extremism from their opposite numbers. It’s tactically better to permit your opponent the illusion of control, while gently nudging them toward your desired conclusion through unrestrictive questions. Demanding compliance simply produces resistance.

Effective negotiators therefore open themselves to powerlessness, at least in the near term. In my favorite quote, Voss writes: “Creative solutions are almost always preceded by some degree of risk, annoyance, confusion, and conflict.” Yet permitting confusion and conflict to run their course forces opponents, whose demands often start very nebulous and wooly, to crystallize their thoughts into language, which makes action possible. Equally, if not more, important, it makes goals concrete, and therefore verifiable.

These techniques may appear counterintuitive, especially to audiences weaned on classical rhetoric or MBA-school negotiation tactics. As Voss writes, traditional approaches begin with assumptions of humans as essentially rational actors, which we now know to be true only under certain, controlled conditions. By permitting the challenger the illusion of control, by letting them voice their grievances, Voss’s technique lets emotions and irrationality run their course. Then reason can assert itself, and solutions can be tested.

Voss discusses this as the difference between your opposer saying “that’s right,” where they agree with your underlying point, versus “you’re right,” where they falsely agree, mainly to shut you up. Simply mirroring their statements can persuade hard-liners to buy into your solution. When people agree with your message, rather than with you as a person, they’re more inclined to consider your demands, and more inclined to agree when they feel they’ve been listened to.

This doesn’t mean simply giving them everything they demand. Asking what Voss calls strategic questions, generally open-ended and involving the words “what” and “how,” forces people who may be issuing unrealistic conditions, to recognize the reality of brass tacks. It forces them to translate ideas they may hold abstractly, in an airy-fairy sense, into words which become actionable. When ideas coalesce into language, demands often become more manageable. Listening to others turns ideas into action.

Good negotiators thus make the other person feel heard and respected, which encourages them to translate their thoughts into words. Negotiators voluntarily sacrifice the illusion of control, the language and trappings of aggression, to allow the opponent to realize better long-term solutions. This sounds impolitic in a world of brash authoritarian posturing and Breitbart-driven “don’t apologize/deal from strength” machismo, but generally work better in the long term. This should be what really drives successful argument.

Voss’ ideas flourish because they derive from experience. Having navigated both the law enforcement and big-business worlds, his principles have endured diverse, often savage tests, and proven themselves persistently effective. And they flourish because Voss writes well: this book unfolds with the tension of a novel, blending theoretical explanations with “mean streets” examples. Whether you’re rescuing a hostage, negotiating your salary, or keeping a discussion alive, this book offers tools for measurable, real-world success.

Friday, May 27, 2016

No, Don't Give Captain America a Boyfriend

Okay, I'll concede: the phallic symbols are already there
This week, the #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend hashtag achieved sufficient mass on social media that even a square like me noticed. I don’t frequent fan boards, visit comic cons, or otherwise participate in fan culture. I largely stopped following comic books in the late 1990s, when time constraints forced me to choose between keeping backstories straight, and my college education. Yet this week, this fan-driven fringe movement crossed into the mainstream.

The logic goes, Marvel Comics’ Captain America and his longtime sidekick, Bucky Barnes, show such chemistry together (far more than Cap and obligatory love interest Sharon Carter) that they should have a romantic relationship. Besides contradicting longstanding comics canon, this logic has drawn much-needed criticism. It basically asserts that the boys in eighth-grade Phys Ed were right, and two men cannot be emotionally open to one another without being “gay.”

Which is a huge step backward for everybody, of course. While some might applaud the essential mainstream arrival of “the love that dare not speak its name,” the reasoning is basically restrictive, declaring male emotions are the exclusive province of gay men. Smarter critics than I have observed this. My complaint is even more fundamental than that: it asserts that all emotional openness is romantic, or rather, sexual.

Fans have tried to manufacture romantic undertones for other same-sex pairings, including Finn and Poe in Star Wars, and Doctors House and Wilson on House. But fans love pairing off beloved characters—“shipping,” in fan parlance.They’ve tried hooking up Elsa and Anna from Frozen, Alex and Justin Russo from The Wizards of Waverly Place, Sam and Dean Winchester from Supernatural, Dipper and Mabel from Gravity Falls, and others.

For those playing the home game, those last four fan ships are all siblings. Admittedly, the creative teams behind them have given fans the cues they’ve become accustomed to seeing as precursors to romantic relationships; but that’s the problem. We’ve reached sufficient sexual saturation in popular culture that we cannot imagine fictional siblings getting along without reading love-story subtext into their relationships. We look for sex where there’s none.

Thus, the fan push to drive Cap and Bucky together, at least on-screen, doesn’t represent a triumph for LGBT liberty. It represents a failure of our baseline for human interaction. It isn’t that it makes emotions “gay,” though it does that too; rather, the most important point is that it makes emotions sexual. All psychological closeness between two people, regardless of genital orientation, thus becomes a nascent sexual encounter.

Years ago, my prim mother complained about the trend toward sexual “liberation.” When we don’t govern our sexual impulses, she warned, we risk them governing us. And if we don’t place limitations upon our sexual desires, then we start seeing sex everywhere, unmoored from the basics of creating human communities. As youths do, I laughed my mother’s concerns off. How Victorian an attitude, seeing threats in unashamed expressions of sexuality!

Now I’m witnessing my mother’s predictions coming true. The cues we’ve grown to associate with sexual desire include emotional openness, trust, comfort in one another’s presence, and no fear of casual physical contact. If Anna and Elsa fight for one another’s bodily and psychological freedom, then they must want to sleep together, the logic goes. But these aren’t sexual traits, they’re the group underpinnings that bind human societies together.

This is how they originally drew Bucky: as a kid.
For those not offended enough by the fan ship
This isn’t hay. Cultures where people don’t feel free to communicate across racial, gender, or family lines, like Iran and Russia, are economically stagnant. If we create a culture where two women cannot trust one another without outsiders thrusting them into bed together, we undercut the systems that make American society vibrant. If we make people fearful to communicate, and feel, openly, society risks going backward, not forward.

This controversy somewhat represents the medium. The hashtag has emphasized the cinematic Captain America, and movies elicit reactions from the gut, or lower. In seventy-five years, there’s been no meaningful push to give Cap a boyfriend in the comics. Perhaps this reflects that the comics’ Bucky, unlike the movies’, was originally a kid sidekick. (Until recently, he also had that rarest of superpowers: he actually stayed dead for decades.)

Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t recommend actual gay people repress themselves; research demonstrates how harmful that is. Healthy openness to natural sexuality benefits us individually, which strengthens our culture. But we all, individually and collectively, need healthy non-sexual relationships, unconstrained by gender. We’d resent strangers throwing us into bed with our best friends. Fictional characters should receive the same basic dignity.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Problem With Business Books

David Thomas Roberts, UnEmployable!: How To Be Successfully Unemployed Your Entire Life

Near the beginning of this book, Texas entrepreneur David Thomas Roberts includes this spurious rhetorical question:
What is the Gig Economy?
Essentially, it’s the proliferation of a new generation of Micro Businesses.
No. The Gig Economy describes economic transactions based on short-term or one-off engagements with independent contractors. ├ťber drivers and AirBnB hosts are the most visible examples. Some people enjoy the relative independence such jobs provide, but critics deride how gig economics shifts overhead costs onto workers, while profits drift upward to service aggregators. As in other parts of life, truth probably resides somewhere between the extremes.

This symbolizes my problem with Roberts’ business guidebook. When he discusses broad entrepreneurial theory, I keep thinking he knows his business (pun intended). But whenever he gets down to brass tacks, he shows himself elementally misinformed, blinded by hindsight bias, confused between anecdote and fact, or flat damn wrong. His words became difficult to read without lapsing into outright anger, because he never realizes his own inherited preconceptions.

Like, for instance, his claim that people are poor because they choose poverty. Because they’d rather work for somebody else than go guerilla; because they’d rather finance a car than have money; because they’re “financially illiterate.” Maybe some actively choose this. But he’s describing the situation of poor people everywhere, who need money first, live further from their jobs, and have fewer opportunities to learn fiscal skills.

David Thomas Roberts
Or Roberts’ claim that “most young Americans believe they deserve the same lifestyles that may have taken their parents twenty or thirty years to achieve.” They said the same about my generation. But in 1992, it took a new, white, male entrant into the workplace seventeen years to achieve the level of financial independence workers achieved in four years in 1972, because of weakened labor laws, stagnant wages, and the end of post-war exuberance. It probably takes longer now.

Or his claim that college education is riddled with “leftist propaganda” that churns out “little Communists.” Roberts is right that MBA programs produce good corporate suits, not entrepreneurs; aspiring start-up operators should probably study math anyway. But Roberts’ understanding of educational culture hasn’t advanced since 1977. As rhetorician Gerald Graff reports, English was once the go-to major of future independent businessmen.

It’s very difficult to stick with Roberts, because he mistakes subjective impressions for objective facts. Besides the above examples, he also disparages his stepfather for toiling in a corporate superstructure for trivial rewards. But I’d bet my paycheck, if we unpacked Roberts’ financial history, we’d find his stepfather’s labors gave Roberts enough financial footing to venture out fearlessly. Like Donald Trump, few “self-made men” grew up really, really hungry.

Even his claim that entrepreneurial failure is a mere launchpad toward future success bespeaks well-connected urban preconceptions. (Roberts’ professional life has centered on Houston, where simply being white confers certain advantages.) Business failures are badges of honor in Manhattan, East Texas, and Silicon Valley. Not so much for poor people. When farmers, inner-city storefront operators, and rural dwellers experience business failure, it’s usually permanent. That’s where WalMart greeters come from.

Roberts situates this book as an entrepreneurial how-to. But chapter after chapter, he writes an autobiography. Finally, I realized: he thinks his success is portable, and we should simply imitate him. But the old saying goes, the plural of anecdote is not data. There’s no longitudinal analysis of business trends, or comparisons between successes and similar failures, or even any understanding how America’s economy has changed since Roberts was twenty-one.

Evidence suggests Roberts doesn’t even understand his own situation. Early on, he claims: “For years now, my wife and I have been in the top 1/10th of 1 percent of incomes in America. We have reached a seven-figure net worth.” Except, according to Bloomberg, reaching the top point-one percent requires a minimum net worth around $20 million—eight figures. Like many Americans, Roberts believes himself richer than he actually is.

Sociologist Duncan J. Watts of Microsoft Research describes what he calls “creeping determinism”: the tendency to assume what happened was inevitable, because it happened. That’s my problem with Roberts, and business books like his. He presents his career as a progress from success to success; even failures are successes in fetal form. It’s not analysis, and therefore not useful to aspiring entrepreneurs like me.

I’ve given warm reviews to business books on this blog before. But the longer I review, the harder that becomes. I’ve grown aware of the problem with business books, that they avoid analyzing their own accumulated preconceptions.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Harry Potter and the Absence of God

Dan Vyleta, Smoke: a Novel

This novel commences with a late-night kangaroo trial in the toilets of an elite British boys’ school. Combining the worst of church confessional with Maoist self-critique, it pits vice-ridden youth against a completely virtuous head boy. We know his complete virtue because his wholly white clothing lacks stain. He asks pointed questions, many frequently hurtful, to expose any concealed sins, which lesser boys reveal when their bodies emit visible Smoke.

What Philip Pullman did for Narnia, Dan Vyleta here does for Harry Potter, essentially reconstructing the story without the original’s moral certitude and Christian backbone. Though this story lacks out-and-out wizardry—Vyleta’s worldview forbids characters to impose their will on reality—the parallels are undeniable, and profound. Though Vyleta won’t displace J.K. Rowling’s cultural primacy, he crafts an engaging, smart counter-narrative, and a fun, thoughtful fantasy besides.

Young Thomas Argyle, orphaned scion of a disgraced minor aristocrat, Smokes like nobody before him. In this world, every sin creates Smoke from human flesh, a malodorous vapour making secret vices visible to everyone. But where others have wispy Smoke, color-coded according to their sins, Thomas’ sin is thick, black, and undifferentiated. He’s something new, something unprecedented. And that scares the squeaky-clean, self-contained nobles of Smoke-drenched England.

Vyleta’s trio of protagonists are almost-perfect mirrors of the Potterverse trio. Where prophecy heralds Harry Potter’s heroic triumph over certain evil, science predicts Thomas’ slide into irrevocable vice. His sidekick, Charlie Cooper, is intellectual but lacking direction; he takes orders from Thomas because he needs purpose that Thomas’ passion provides. They’re joined by Livia Naylor, not book-learned, but blessed with acquired rectitude and bloodless adherence to rules.

Dan Vyleta
All three must unlearn years of adherence to England’s moral strictures. This isn’t easy. They venture outside England’s well-manicured gardens in pursuit of truth, a journey that leaves them trapped in a coal mine, wandering London streets, and finally traversing that triumph of early-industrial England, the London sewer grid. No mystic caves or enchanted castles for these heroes. They must traverse the soot-stained infrastructure that British aristocracy seeks to hide.

The dust-flap copy implies our protagonists encounter a Matrix-like conspiracy that everything they think they know is lies. That proves an ultimate subplot, one never really resolved (perhaps Vyleta’s saving something for the sequel). Rather, the story pits three intrepid heroes, blessed with more grit than information, against a massive bureaucratic machine that performs backflips to keep sin from England’s doorsteps. The result is altogether darker, and more morally ambiguous.

Issues of trust arise: who can our youthful protagonists trust when power is distributed unjustly? Schoolmasters have unvoiced personal agendas. Churchmen have no particular theology, mainly worshiping the forms of order. Even Lady Naylor, Livia’s mother, a mentor to young Thomas, keeps secrets with especial aplomb. She has knowledge our heroes need, and dominates them by withholding it strategically. Is she Dumbledore or Voldemort? We never can really tell.

Our heroes have entered a domain which Anglo-American anthropologist David Graeber calls “total bureaucratization,” that state where instruments of control are so comprehensive, they become invisible, and thus unquestionable. Science, religion, education, government, and industry all maintain cantilevered secrets. In Rowling, we generally know characters’ motivation from their actions. Vyleta assumes powerful people lie to disguise their intentions, clothing themselves in false righteousness, a painful lesson for our high-minded students.

If anything, this novel’s greatest enemy is absolute thinking. At various points, the young heroes attack various enemies, an ever-shifting pinwheel of antagonism, never fully grasping the bureaucracy that actually threatens them. In Rowling’s world Voldemort’s evil is never questioned; only how to defeat him is. Vyleta suggests “evil” is a useless umbrella term. The youths never doubt their own rightness, and adult wrongness, even as their mission wildly vacillates.

It isn’t accurate to call Vyleta’s world atheistic. This story isn’t Godless, just lacking in certitude. God joins countless other institutions in becoming a pervasive “maybe,” less important to England’s self-proclaimed holy than rectitude. These characters never abandon the language of religion, accurate for Victorian England, but gradually outgrow the illusion of certainty. Burgeoning surety of purpose prompts the characters to abandon reliance on transcendent verities.

This novel isn’t fast beach reading. It requires an investment of time and mental energy. Despite its young heroes, it isn’t YA fiction; it appears targeted, rather, at adults who previously embraced Rowling’s Joseph Campbell-ish “hero’s journey.” It makes an interesting companion volume, a friendly but uncompromising debate partner challenging Rowling’s staunchly conservative moralism. Vyleta here becomes one of fantasy’s truly good new voices.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Superheroes and the Meaning of the City

Comic books have a long history of pitting superheroes against one another
Superhero fatigue hit me slightly sooner than most movie audiences. When fans on social media began bewailing the excessively long fight scenes, bleak post-nuclear cityscapes, and nihilistic resignation of Zach Snyder’s Batman Vs. Superman, I remember thinking: I said almost exactly the same after the denouement of the first Avengers movie. After the Chitauri ravaged Manhattan, the smoking holes looked identical to those from Man of Steel, and I quit.

What motivates moviemakers to blow up entire cities? I ask rhetorically, knowing that throughout the late 1980s and most of the 1990s, comic book writers loved battles that ravaged entire city blocks and neighborhoods. Following the runaway success of Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, which culminates with half of Manhattan dead, the comics industry widely misinterpreted why readers found that climax effective, spotlighting the shock value of massive destruction and death.

I stopped reading comics, partially, because mainline publishers fell into a rut of using casual slaughter to attract audiences. It looked slovenly, and worse, it created a world bereft of consequences when superheroes would go unquestioned after creating untold suffering. Though I lacked the vocabulary to express it then, I grew disillusioned because comics increasingly relied upon a fundamental Nietzschean misunderstanding of human nature to get cheap jolts from readers.

But American culture has changed since then. The violence of 9/11, and the alarmist rhetoric of Homeland Security, created an atmosphere of paranoia unseen since the duck-and-cover drills surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis, and fears of massive death caused by self-described ├╝bermenschen, once the exclusive domain of nerds, have become mainstream. Cities as smoking craters were once the stuff of science fiction. Now they’re America’s mainstream cultural mythology.

Do heroic poses amid a ruined city move audiences? Only you can decide
Citizens once migrated to cities in pursuit of careers, prestige, and security. That last seems especially important. Early European walled cities provided such security that farmers lived in town, commuting daily to their fields, rather than risk barbarian invasions (or, later, feuding lords). American cities provided stability against angry dispossessed natives and roaming outlaws. That’s saying nothing about economic and artistic opportunities that only happen amid large populations.

But the Cold War changed things. Cities, which once provided (some) protection against destruction, became targets of nuclear onslaught. Especially as crime rates became truly terrifying during the 1970s, American attitudes toward cities changed. This especially reflected changing transportation technology: as people could afford to live further from work, they did. “White Flight” drove the wealthy from cities, which made predictions of urban decay self-fulfilling.

This peaked during the 1990s Militia Movement. Self-proclaimed survivalists holed up in mountaintop cabins and prairie ranches, believing isolation gave them added security. As sociologist Barry Glassner notes, runaway fears often strike after the actual threat has passed; the Militia types (who have seen a recent, but smaller, resurgence) were essentially reacting to threats that were, by that time, twenty years old. Conveniently, they also separated themselves from law-abiding neighbors.

Cities have the illusion of target-rich environments. 9/11 created the impression that terrorists would seek major urban centers for mass destruction, particularly since the attackers chose a target they’d attempted to demolish eight years earlier. Fearmongers claimed that terrorists, or inside agents claiming to be terrorists, would turn American cities into images of Beirut’s legendary Green Zone. The fact that this kept not happening never discouraged the professional soapboxers.

This picture doesn't serve my theme; I just really like that it exists (source)
Comic books, and the movies they’ve inspired, have always leaned somewhat conservative. With their heroes’ interest in order, usually disguised as “justice,” the medium has always defended the status quo against anybody forcing too-rapid change. In the Depression, when the medium originated, this made sense, because those forcing change were frequently mobsters—or their bought-and-paid-for elected officials. Cities, with their radical revolutionary tendencies, needed controlled.

Alan Moore emphasized this in Watchmen, when one of the enemies the “heroes” targeted was black revolutionaries. That world had become so immune to change that it featured President Nixon’s sixth term in office. That world needed some destruction, some anarchy. Moore’s thesis, that a world dominated by comic book superheroes would probably be pretty awful, shouldn’t have inspired much imitation among the longstanding titles. But it did.

Now the movies are dominated by primal fears of massive destruction in the places citizens move seeking work. Filmmakers will destroy New York, Manhattan, or anywhere else, because they don’t realize how terrible their world has become. They tacitly market defenseless timidity. Comic books, and comic book movies, supposedly foreground their wonderful, heroic characters. But their real theme is more subtle: you are completely helpless.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Can the Environmental Debate Be Saved?

Frederic C. Rich, Getting to Green: Saving Nature: a Bipartisan Solution

Environmental protection once enjoyed broad bipartisan support. Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt were ardent naturalists, preserving natural domains for hunting, camping, and general aesthetic pleasure. Richard Nixon and Congressional Democrats, offended by flaming rivers and chewy air, collaborated to pass sweeping environmental protection laws. Amid partisan rancor, environmentalism offered rare bipartisan goodwill. But America has passed no meaningful environmental laws since 1990. What changed?

Frederic C. Rich, Manhattan corporate attorney and sometime Green activist, calls the partisan split The Great Estrangement. He traces the history of how American conservatives, once nature-friendly and conservationist, became ardently anti-environmentalist, and the debate devolved into Left versus More-Left. He also postulates (awkwardly late) a solution to return conservatives to the discussion, opening the possibility of reversing a quarter-century stalemate. I just wish he weren’t demonstrably wrong.

Rich describes how tubthumping media spokespeople like Glenn Beck and Newt Gingrich turned movement conservatism against environmental issues. The outcome baffles him: “It is not entirely clear,” Rich writes, “why these efforts succeeded in arousing in so many conservatives an active antipathy toward Greens.” But to us dedicated news-followers, it is clear: anti-environmentalism was part of a massive slate by which hyperpartisan leaders screened out “Republicans In Name Only.”

Like Rich, I’m a discouraged former Republican. I witnessed the Great Estrangement from both sides and finally concluded that the Global Warming evidence, though incomplete, was more complete than evidence that vaccines prevent disease, or that smoking causes cancer. The evidence maybe wasn’t airtight, but it was robust enough to justify action. My right-wing former fellows answered that charge by moving the goalposts, forcing me to abandon them.

Frederic C. Rich
This makes Rich’s sudden shifts onto excoriating environmentalists feel weird. He aggressively chastises environmentalists for harboring pinkos and partisans. The counterproductive environmental rabble-rousers he cites lack Glenn Beck’s media reach, or Newt Gingrich’s political might, but Rich believes that, if such people exist at all, they’re undermining the Green cause. Without stating it outright, Rich essentially demands environmentalists punish heretics and dissidents as avidly as movement conservatives have.

Statements that organized environmentalism has become “too leftist” make little sense, coming directly after describing how movement conservatives made anti-environmentalism a shibboleth of membership. If liberals kicked conservatives out of Greenpeace, that’d be one thing. But movement conservatives don’t believe the debate exists. Republicans have thrown their lot in with Young Earthers and seven-day creationists, yielding the Nixonian middle ground altogether. That’s not leftists’ fault.

Environmentalist circles remain fraught with debate. What needs fixing, and how? What constitutes reliable yardsticks for environmental health? If right-wing answers aren’t forthcoming, it isn’t because solutions are prescriptively partisan. We can’t say only one side dominates the debate, when the other side has walked away. If the Chiefs quit a half-finished game against the Broncos, we wouldn't say the game became “too Denver,” we’d say Kansas City forfeited.

Rich crossed my line when he pilloried Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate both broadly and incorrectly. Rich misrepresents Klein’s thesis so completely, I must conclude he never read beyond the title. I’m less familiar with Rich’s other cited sources, especially conservative sources post-2004 (when I left the movement), but if he’s warped one source, he’s probably skewed others. That includes sources I’d otherwise disagree with.

If I cannot trust Rich’s history, I have difficulty stomaching his future remedies—which he starts so late, I admit my mind had already wandered. His history, riddled with factual inaccuracies, hindsight bias, and “he-said-she-said” quibbles, doesn’t lend itself to reliable predictions. This book reeks of what sociologist Duncan J. Watts calls “creeping determinism.” I wanted to like Rich’s ideas; but sadly, early chapters write checks later chapters can’t cash.

Historians sometimes describe a certain kind of specious historiography, “Whig History,” where amateurs describe history as a progress toward liberal democracy, knowledge, and goodness. I’ll postulate an opposite, “Tory History,” which describes history as a decline from some putative peak of greatness, usually just before the historian got that first workaday job. Rich situates the pinnacle of environmental bipartisanship just before his adolescence. Everything afterward is a steady downhill slide.

Because book publishing has long lead times, Rich couldn’t have known this title would appear just as Donald Trump clinched the Republican presidential nomination. However, that makes this book entirely timely. Not only in Rich’s mostly unfulfilled premises, either; it’s timely to remind Americans that appeasing a factually wrong opponent makes you factually wrong, too. We need bipartisan solutions to nonpartisan problems. But not at the cost of objective reality.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Women Deacons? Who Cares? or, Christianity's Original Sin

Julian Guthrie’s book The Grace of Everyday Saints describes a San Francisco Catholic congregation forced from their historic building by esoteric church bureaucracy. Angry, heartbroken congregants organized themselves to resist the closure. They met in a Russian Orthodox Church’s basement, made alliances with (and sought forgiveness from) gay rights organizations, and became fixtures in SanFran’s busy activist community. Forced from their church, they arguably became more Christian than ever.

I couldn’t help remembering Guthrie’s description of St. Brigid’s congregants when news broke this week, that Pope Francis would commence a commission to study admitting women into the Roman Catholic deaconate. Not that he’d start ordaining women; that he’d ruminate letting them become deacons. Sure, that will mean occasional women’s voices from the Catholic pulpit, and something’s more than nothing. Many Catholics are celebrating this hypothetical future possible slight change.

But this makes me wonder: is the church itself the heart of the problem? Generations after women began to vote, hold office, start businesses, and own property, Christianity’s largest church might consider letting them preach, part-time, unpaid. This joins a litany of opportunities Christianity had to oppose systemic oppression, and failed. Sadly, this private Christian must conclude, while Christianity teems with potential for individual gravitas, Church itself embodies the problem.

Whenever anybody cites Christianity’s history of bad decisions, somebody else posits a counter-argument. Yes, the church supported wars, often unjust wars, from the Crusades to Vietnam, but Christians from Tertullian to Dr. King opposed wars. Yes, the church justified first slavery, then segregation, but abolitionists, Civil Rights activists, and modern dissidents have drawn inspiration from their faith. Christianity has straddled both sides of most debates from ancient to modern times.

Notice, however: while the church, a bureaucratic institution, repeatedly supports movements that draw lines between individuals and peoples, the opposition comes from individuals and parachurch organizations. Reformers cite individuals, like William Wilberforce and Daniel Berrigan. The status quo has organizations, and whenever it cites individuals, it’s generally organizational leaders, like popes and bishops. All power, even religious power, tends to support oppression and division, while vibrant individuals oppose them.

Historically, Christianity appealed to early Romans because it offered powerful personal dignity. Women flocked to Christianity because it gave their lives meaning beyond their ability to bear children (see the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla). Men, like Martin of Tours, converted partly because it gave them purpose beyond military service. In both cases, these actions were powerfully counter-cultural, elevating human worth above its utility to reigning secular powers.

But institutional churches, like bureaucracies everywhere, are primarily self-serving. They exist to preserve themselves, and thus not only resist to social movement, they often mimic the secular authorities they were instituted to oppose. When women, Blacks, the poor, or whomever, lack secular power, they mostly lack religious power too. This bolsters my belief, that when church and state become entwined, it isn’t the state that’s changed by the interaction.

This isn’t a uniquely Catholic problem. Lutherans today extol Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom before Hitler’s machine, but turn mumble-mouthed when reminded that German Lutheranism allied itself with Hitler, letting him reorganize their structure. The largest Black denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was founded because early Wesleyan Methodists refused to ordain, and in some congregations even commune, Blacks. As for the Anglican Communion, I commend to your attention Prince Charles.

Reverend Jim Wallis has called racism America's Original Sin, a term not original to him. But we might say Christianity’s Original Sin is its tendency to draw lines between people. With its longstanding institutional desire to be liked, and to get along with secular authorities, Christianity has embraced a willingness to separate women from men, Black from white, poor from rich, foreign from native-born nationalist.

Sadly, it’s impossible to create divisions between groups without establishing a dominance hierarchy. Just as “Separate But Equal” in American law created second-class access to public resources, saying women have different, but equally important, contributions to the Body of Christ inevitably pushes women into inferior standing. Of course, no individual can do everything. But precluding anybody from any position by gender creates intractable second-tier standing.

Private Christians have a long history resisting injustice. The Church, sadly, has a long history of perpetuating injustice, even in many cases creating or expanding it. Saying change comes eventually, and urging oppressed groups to remain patient, isn’t good enough. Injustice is happening now, and the Church is justifying it. Commissioning a study is a sop. Christians must challenge their church to uphold Christianity’s standards.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Great Scottish Oil Wars

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part Eight
Bill Forsyth (writer/director), Local Hero

Houston businessman “Mac” MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) has everything early-Eighties yuppie affluence brings: a penthouse condominium, sleek car, frosted-glass office in a prestigious high-rise. His company, Knox Oil, taps him to conduct a sensitive negotiation to acquire strategic land in Scotland, mostly because his name sounds Scottish. More comfortable with machines, Mac demurs, but has no choice. He arrives to find a pristine fishing village largely untouched since World War II.

Audiences too young to remember the 1980s might not understand how important North Sea oil really was. Alongside a strike in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, several Scottish oil strikes, beginning in 1978, helped break the second OPEC oil embargo, overturning that decade’s economic malaise. Getting valuable British-controlled petroleum to landside refineries became a global security imperative. Texas oilmen like T. Boone Pickens became global folk heroes.

Mac meets his local liaison, Danny Oldsen (Peter Capaldi, in one of his earliest roles), a slick-suited Glaswegian who’s as uncomfortable in rural Ferness, Scotland, as Mac. Neither likes face-to-face negotiations; both prefer phone negotiations and teleconferencing, then becoming the big thing. But they gamely soldier on, meeting Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson, Star Wars), the village’s publican, innkeeper, accountant, and general business professional. Did we mention it’s a small town?

On its surface, this movie appears a typical fish-out-of-water comedy. Mac and Oldsen, thoroughly modern technocratic professionals, must negotiate with an entire community where most residents share one public phone. Mac commands more money than Ferness has ever seen, and wields it with brazen abandon. But the humor of their interactions conceals deep inner violence, because Knox Oil intends to raze the village, replacing it altogether with a refinery.

Peter Capaldi (left) and Peter Riegert in Local Hero

Not only will this end generations of village history, as area marine biologist Marina reveals, any pipeline into Ferness will devastate wildlife. Thus Knox promises to destroy not only the village, but also any chance of future on-site rebuilding. The villagers, surprisingly, don’t mind: immune to myths of rural simplicity, they want out, and oil money offers their ticket into modernity. Though they feign indifference, hoping to increase the offer.

But to Mac’s surprise, as he adjusts to village rhythms, he no longer shares their desire for modernity. Mac and the villagers each have what the other wants. Though the villagers envy Mac’s car, condo, and money, he finds them empty—especially has he falls in love with Gordon’s wife Stella (Jennifer Black). He covets their face-to-face interaction, humane pace, and physical purity, the very qualities the villagers would escape.

Negotiations stall as one villager doesn’t want to leave. Due to intricacies of late-medieval land law, local beachcomber Ben apparently owns most of the beach Knox needs for its refinery. As villagers form feuding camps over their future, Mac sees the community he loves slipping away. We, however, see a deeper rift made explicit. Modernity is very lonely, and cripples its staunchest devotees, but the alternative is very arduous and uninviting.

We also see the violence people do their most sacred beliefs because they cannot see themselves clearly. Victor, captain of a Soviet fishing trawler that often moors off Ferness, has stashed his secret offshore accounts with Gordon, turning the perks of Communist standing into capitalist wealth. Gordon seems ready to sell everything, including the business that gives him community standing, knowing nothing awaits him after he closes the sale.

And Mac himself loves Stella so deeply, he’s willing to trade his entire career for her, but he never speaks with her. That embodies everything wrong with himself. Money has shrivelled his humanity so completely that, when exposed to rural simplicity for mere days, he’d chuck everything, not knowing what he’s committing to. He could lose it all, and eventually does, without ever really understanding what he hopes to gain.

Though critically acclaimed, with a rare 100% fresh rating on, this movie has never had much market traction. It went almost unnoticed upon release, and has had cult viewership at best. Much better received was its soundtrack, the first composed by Mark Knopfler. It employs the moody, synth-driven textures he’d later expand in The Princess Bride, and which others would appropriate, usually with less success, for years to come.

Someone once said, comedy works best when it tells the truth. That’s what this movie does. Stuffing absurd characters into an entirely too plausible situation, it reflects its insights back onto its audience, because it’s finally about us. Reality makes us choose between wealth and simplicity, between tradition and modernity. It’s funny because it’s painfully accurate.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Death in a Lifeless Place

Andrew Michael Hurley, The Loney

The receding tide at the Loney, a desolate stretch of beach along Morecambe Bay in Lancashire, England, reveals the gruesome remains of a murdered child. A nameless London recluse recognizes the place, and the body, from his boyhood, when his aggressively devout Catholic mother made annual pilgrimages to a nearby holy well. Our narrator, Smith, has buried his secrets for forty years, but knows everything will spill now. So he has to control the narrative.

Andrew Michael Hurley’s first novel, published in Britain in 2014 and making its global debut, comes with a laudatory cover blurb from Stephen King. No wonder, since it’s essentially a Stephen King novel: superficially a horror thriller, it actually encompasses the consequences when childhood traumas rear their ugly heads in adulthood. It also addresses misplaced beliefs and human inability to comprehend the world objectively, common King themes. It’s a King novel with a Limey accent.

Throughout his life, Smith has been his older brother’s caretaker. The brother’s named Andrew (coincidence? I think not), but everyone calls him Hanny. Mute and perpetually childlike, Hanny communicates in sign language only Smith comprehends. Hanny’s parents, Mummer and Farther, along with several fellow London parishioners, make an annual pilgrimage to the Loney, hoping holy well water will make Hanny whole. This despite the evidence it hasn’t yet, which has pushed Smith into nihilistic malaise.

Though presented as a thriller, this book is principally a family drama about religion. Our narrator struggles—or, more accurately, fails to struggle—to reconcile his mother’s deeply held beliefs with the evidence that life is a meaningless mechanism. But it also encompasses families’ difficulty communicating the most significant topics. Mummer and Farther, Smith, Father Bernard, and the parishioners share their concern for Hanny. They just talk past one another translating that concern into action.

Andrew Michael Hurley
Every year, the parishioners visit the Loney’s holy well on Easter Monday, force-feeding Hanny supposedly sacred water that consistently makes him gag. They occupy the same late-Victorian rental property, visit the same pre-Reformation church, pray the same prayers. The persistent ritual gives their lives shape; for them, ritual comes first. But Smith notices the ritual produces no measurable results. Early on, he seems ambivalent about belief and practice, though this eventually lapses into outright unbelief.

However, from page one, we know something the characters cannot know in the midst of events: Hanny really gets healed. He becomes voiced and sociable; eventually he becomes a married Anglican priest in a prestigious London parish. While Mummer and Farther hope Hanny’s voice gets restored, we wonder how, and by whom. Mummer, whose faith lapses into abusive fanaticism, hopes God will intervene. We wonder who comes wearing God’s face. Her future is our past.

While the urbanized, middle-class parishioners occupy their rental cottage, praying, locals notice and resent their presence. Taking the visitors’ presence as an affront, they find ways to insinuate their way into the house, extracting information from the parishioners while disclosing little themselves. Very Straw Dogs. Like many places in Northern England, pre-Christian traditions survive in Lancashire, dressed in sacramental drag. As sweaty local rituals encircle the clean, pious Londoners, we brace ourselves for the confrontation.

There, ultimately, is where this novel flails. If Hurley stuck with his strongest components, the brutal collision between faith and evidence, he’d have a powerful novel. Smith describes his parents’ willful blindness in excruciating detail, though later chapters imply Smith has his own blinders he’s worn so long, he’s forgotten they’re there. These parts really sing. However, he foreshadows his supernatural thriller elements so long, they’re an ultimate let-down, especially since they mainly happen offstage.

Hurley writes best not about the demonic, but about how humans conjure their fears into reality. He throws characters onto their own devices and lets them struggle. Both faith and unbelief appear as human attempts to impose meaning on the universe, which both prove equally unsatisfying. People struggle to communicate, understand, see, but are circumscribed by the evidence of their senses. Either way, we must make the Nietzschean journey through nihilism to find our meaning.

This novel has enough, in its struggles between faith and senses, to energize deep, inquisitive readers. Smith’s attempts to understand his family, couched within his failure to understand himself, make for deep reading. But audiences seeking the big, final Stephen King-ish conflagration will find his distant supernatural elements ultimately unsatisfying. Read this novel for its quiet, internal struggle, not its apocalyptic showdown. Because the former more than makes up for the lack of the latter.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

A Plague of Visible Women

Holly Miranda
I couldn’t help realizing my MP3 player seemed to have more women’s voices coming out of it than other music players at work. Officially, we’re not supposed to have radios, MP3 players, streaming audio, or other music on the jobsite, but unofficially, more people have them than don’t. Like me, many people have loaded music onto their phones, or play audio streamed through their data networks. And almost none seemed to play women at all.

By contrast, my belt-loop speaker keeps belting out female vocalists: soloists like ZZ Ward, Holly Miranda, or Meg Myers, or bands with singing front-women, like Wolf Alice, Lucius, or Florence + the Machine. In a workplace soundscape dominated by growly macho posturing, I seemed to have an inordinate number of women’s voices surrounding me. It sure felt like my sound was unusually woman-dominated. So like any intellectually curious explorer, I sat down and counted my vocalists.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered barely a third of my songs had female vocalists. I tried changing my counting methods: counting groups with both male and female vocalists, like Grouplove or Of Monsters & Men, as women, men, both, or neither, while excluding instrumental tracks with no vocalist whatsoever. But no matter what rubber-numbers trick I played on myself, the conclusion remained inescapable. My playlist seems woman-dominated, where actually, female vocalists still play second fiddle.

Meg Myers
That’s harsh reality for a man who considers himself progressive-minded and egalitarian on women’s issues. I could make facile excuses, noting that most radios in my male-dominated workplace don’t play any women whatsoever, or that my playlist is more fair-minded than others’. But that’s cheap excuse-making, and I know it. Women make up half the human population and, as anybody who’s attended open mic nights knows, way more than half of today’s aspiring young artists.

My area has two “classic rock” radio stations. One occasionally plays artists like Pat Benatar and Heart, but the other doesn’t play women at all. I know they once played Janis Joplin, but she’s vanished. A stroll through classic Billboard charts reveals women have always been influential in rock music. Powerful, popular women, from Peggy March and Petula Clark to Suzi Quattro and Patti Smith, have virtually disappeared. They’ve written women out of rock history.

I recall the discovery that many of historic America’s best-selling books have practically evaporated. Catharine Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie, one of the 19th Century’s best-selling novels, is vanishingly difficult to find anymore, and others have completely slipped my mind. Though women have always been the greatest producers and consumers of fiction, only male-written books get termed “literature” and deemed worthy of study in schools. Women’s books are termed “chick lit” and generally die with their authors.

One could continue indefinitely. Painter Lee Krasner’s legacy lives almost completely in her husband Jackson Pollock’s shadow. Novelist Jonathan Franzen, famous outside his fiction for egocentric ramblings and curt dismissal of other authors, gets multiple accolades for individual novels, while equally acclaimed female novelists like Sue Monk Kidd and Barbara Kingsolver must work like assembly lines just to break even. Even athletes like Hope Solo and Danica Patrick do cheesecake photos to pay the bills.

ZZ Ward
We’re not talking fringe figures here. These are among the public world’s most accomplished women, yet they vanish behind men who, though undoubtedly good, aren’t better than the women. Even when the women are inarguably better (Abby Wambach, not Landon Donovan, is America’s highest-scoring soccer player), their accomplishments are considered second-string. Even I, apparently, lose track of women. Despite occasional “Well, Actually” mansplaining, nobody’s ever offered a justification for this disparity that I can digest.

I thought my playlist was female-dominated because sometimes, two or three songs with female singers would play consecutively. That’s better than most other workers’ playlists, since unless it’s Top 40 or Kurrent Kountry, they probably play no female singers. But one-third isn’t a preponderance of women; it merely reflects that, at some important level, I still consider female vocalists exceptional. Which means that I still regard male vocalists, and maybe other artists too, as “normal.”

Unfortunately, I have no ready alternative for the situation. If a man who considers himself allied to women’s issues still makes this mistake, there’s no near-term remedy for the men I work with, who use racist, sexist, and nationalist slurs in common conversation. There’s little chance the situation will change in the larger culture any time soon. However, the more aware we become of this imbalance, the more likely we make a healthy future remedy.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Manhattan Fraudster Squad

Camille Perri, The Assistants

It starts stupidly enough: Tina Fontana, executive assistant to Manhattan's biggest media mogul, accidentally double-bills her boss's airline tickets to the company expense accounts. The resulting check is a rounding error for the unsubtly named Titan Corporation, but large enough to write off Tina's student debt. She considers the resulting fraud a one-time incident... until an accounting aide catches it. To buy silence, Tina launches a relatively ambitious embezzlement ring.

Somewhere around page 120, I began sketching notes for a diss review of Camille Perri's debut novel. It's not bad, really, just self-consciously topical and vague in language, and I prepared to teasingly upbraid Perri's reliance on stock characters and safe, market-tested situations. But I kept reading, and somewhere after the one-third mark, her tone changes. The story remains anodyne and remarkably low-friction, but becomes distinctly more readable and engaging.

Seems Emily, the gorgeous but insecure (and possibly alcoholic—her vaunted beauty won't withstand that wine intake) accounting gnome, also has insurmountable college debt. Tina starts double-billing nickel-and-dime expenses, which Emily quietly buries. The perfect crime, until a mid-level auditor skims the books. The ladies soon find themselves underwriting everyone else's lingering debt, straddling the line between The Devil Wears Prada and The Bling Ring.

Meanwhile, Kevin, a handsome rising star in Titan's legal department, begins courting Tina. Their unlikely romance flourishes, though her self-recriminations about the embezzlement, which dance perilously close to whining, keep her from truly committing. She misleads him about her extracurricular activities. That's how, in a "loose lips sink ships" moment, he accidentally makes an online journalist think she's about to save America from student debt. Then the floodgates really open.

Camille Perri
Tina, Perri's first-person narrator, makes snap decisions about other characters, which we're supposed to consider binding. She judges other women by wardrobe, hair, and cup size. She wonders why Kevin chooses her, since she repeatedly reminds everyone how flat-chested and androgynous she is. This latter never gets resolved, because he's the only male given any depth in this female-centric ensemble, besides her boss Robert, who speaks in folksy gnomic Texas-isms.

Plus, Tina's guilty conscience gets pretty annoying. Long after she should've developed thick skin from all the fraud she's committed, she remains as skittish as a middle-schooler caught pinching from Mommy's pocketbook. Don Corleone she ain't. This timidity results in philosophical asides about as deep as Pretty Little Liars soliloquies. Does Perri think childlike self-doubt makes her protagonist more human? Because I kept hoping Tina would act like a grown-up.

But after the slow, chugging introduction, a change occurs. As increasing numbers of glamorous, well-put-together female assistants begin approaching Tina for relief from their student debt, she realizes her "imposter syndrome" is entirely in her head. Everyone around her who doesn't have assistants, is probably yoked into debts that keep them scared, desperate, and compliant. Manhattan splendor absolutely requires peons too burdened to rebel against their subjugation.

That's where Perri develops an actual thesis. Early on, Tina describes her penny-ante Robin Hood scheme as "an Oxygen network original series waiting to happen," and I yawningly agreed. But once Tina discovers virtually everyone shares her feelings of fiscal despair, her dominant trait shifts from despair to action. Realizing her problems are normal, that everyone around her also suffers in silence, motivates her to get off the pot.

Not that she stops acting relentlessly nice. Even once the story develops actual cojones (a word this story loves and overuses), Tina remains committed to us liking her. She mostly flinches from confrontation, unless she already controls the table, so little is actually risked. The story mostly centers on discussions around kitchen tables and trendy Midtown taverns. These conversations remain polite and idea-driven; disagreements primarily involve allocating the loot.

Joseph Stiglitz notes many young college graduates have high aspirations, but accept lucrative, meaningless jobs to subsidize their debts. I have an MA and work construction; I sympathize. But dreams postponed become dreams abandoned. This novel does best when addressing these issues. A little Cagney and Lacey proceduralism could've driven Tina past kitchen-sink drama, into the themes that clearly excite Perri.

Perri's press biography states she wrote this book's first draft while working as an executive assistant. Therefore we can attribute this story to Perri's wish fulfillment, and Tina's self-flagellation to Perri's own imposter syndrome. That lends this novel a certain authenticity, and probably bolsters the understated humor. If only Perri set Tina free to risk without being the authorial proxy, this novel might've transitioned from merely good to great.