Monday, August 29, 2016

The White Working Class Is Revolting!

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 72
Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: the 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

The first thing that surprised me about Professor Nancy Isenberg was that she doesn’t apparently define “class” economically. She doesn’t discuss how we treat the financially poor; she focuses attention on how society treats its nonconformists, those who reject upper-class white social graces. Americans extol the poor, at least verbally. But roll up your sleeves and piss on your lawn? You’ve stepped outside American culture.

Class, like race, reflects less our actual state of being, and more how others treat us. Marginalized people behave in marginalized ways. From the beginning, Isenberg shares my great reservation about Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird: though forward-thinking on race, Lee proves herself downright reactionary regarding non-conforming poor whites. Like many Americans, Lee assumes those born crude will remain crude forever.

Isenberg unfolds America’s fraught history of class chronologically. Unlike the mythology our society feeds us from childhood, America’s earliest white settlers weren’t, mostly, Europe’s hardiest stock. They weren’t religious refugees or intrepid adventurers. Europe, and England especially, saw America as ready landfill for the homeland’s “waste people,” the vagrants and beggars which literate Europe undisguisedly compared to excrement and trash.

Europe sent its lowest inhabitants to America, and those who survived—which was by no means guaranteed—managed to rebuild themselves as hardy. But that happened only later. Only after that first generation, often reduced to cannibalism, died out, did anyone lionize their putative accomplishments or make them heroes. In Isenberg’s telling, this pattern of posthumously celebrating those the upper crust condemned in life repeated itself, verbatim, after Westward Expansion.

Nancy Isenberg
White America’s Founding Fathers made great noise about American refusal of European aristocracy. But they mostly just said that; their actions seldom matched their words. Isenberg dedicates one chapter each to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, who each arose from, erm, humble origins. Both praised the idea of class-free mobility in their writings. But both fronted legislation designed to keep the poor firmly placed, with little hope of improvement.

Franklin and Jefferson both wanted an open Western frontier for reasons identical to why England wanted American colonies: to dump unwanted poor whites. Early white frontier settlers were mocked as “squatters” and “crackers,” terms as hateful in their time as the N-bomb. The American bureaucracy essentially promised poor whites they could advance socially, since they were white, while reminding them they were often socially lower than slaves.

Not that the system was inflexible. As Isenberg notes, certain poor whites have infiltrated America’s higher echelons. She speaks briefly of Davy Crockett, and extensively of Andrew Jackson. Frontier politicians have often needed to prove they could play the fiddle, smoke with vigor,  and drink corn liquor. Mass movements of organized poor have frequently reversed the social order, though usually only for brief stretches before money and power reassert themselves.

This played heavily into the Civil War. Each side rhetorically attempted to prove themselves the true heirs of Anglo-Saxon hardiness, immune from class consciousness, though both lied outright to do so. Simultaneously, each side embraced the insults their opponents slung: Abraham Lincoln wore fashionable tailored suits, while adopting the “mudsill” slur Jefferson Davis hung on him. The Civil War was a rhetorical battle, as much as military.

But the language hit new lows during the eugenics movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. “Well-bred” Americans long believed class traits bred true, but Darwinian evolution provided pseudoscientific justification for class bigotry. Half-understood science made a nasty witches’ brew with political demagoguery. This ugly, venom-driven movement culminated in the Supreme Court legalizing the state forcibly sterilizing anyone, mostly women, declared unfit to procreate.

Though the eugenics movement petered out, its underlying philosophy survived. The Civil Rights movement functionally pitted Blacks, who only wanted a fair shake, against poor whites, who previously accepted their lot because hey, at least they weren’t Black. This demonstrates how thoroughly, in Isenberg’s telling, race and class are accompanying social issues. Race and class are both power contests, pitting the powerless against the helpless, resulting in culture-wide paralysis.

Isenberg’s analysis continues into the present, when the white “underclass” rose against its fetters, and others squashed it down again. From Elvis Presley to Bill Clinton, much American culture in living memory has pitted rich establishmentarians against poor whites, no longer embarrassed and, now widely literate, no longer silent. This isn’t the first lower-class rising, certainly but the longest-lived. So much remains unresolved and dangerous.

In Donald Trump’s America, one wonders where the battle goes next. Two things are certain, though: the battle wasn’t unpredictable. And the poor didn’t fire the first blow.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Humans Are the Worst Monsters

Stephen Graham Jones, Mongrels: a Novel

Our nameless narrator has been raised by wolves. Literally so: the grandfather, aunt, and uncle who raised him are werewolves. And like American werewolves everywhere, they live rootless, impermanent, undocumented. Foreigners and fugitives in their native land. Our narrator’s aunt and uncle want our narrator to finish high school, live straight, and have opportunities they never had. He wants the savage, uninhibited life he thinks his family enjoys.

Veteran author Stephen Graham Jones makes different use of werewolves than I’ve seen recently. Where other authors’ werewolves apparently represent collapse into pure appetite, Jones offers more a sense here of wounded outsidership. These werewolves aren’t just outside, they’re driven out, even if it’s by their own fear. But saying that, I can’t attest if that’s entirely true. Jones goes further, pushes deeper, than his superficial horror narrative suggests.

This novel comprises nine linked novellas about our narrator’s life bouncing around the American Southeast. The episodic structure sees him confronting some aspect of his own or somebody else’s past intruding on the present. We could read different facets of coming-of-age into stories of these narratives. Or we can immerse ourselves into the experience, intense as windburn, of hitting young adulthood in an entirely present-tense world.

Dedicated literary types can read deeper levels into even the superficial level. (Jones teaches college writing, so that’s probably not incidental.) Aunt Libby is pure self-sacrifice, destroying herself slowly to provide better opportunities to the next generation. Uncle Darren only works to afford his junk food and women, living to indulge himself. Both, importantly, want our narrator to make different, better choices—choices he doesn’t want to make.

Stephen Graham Jones
The end suggests werewolves’ outsidership is somewhat chosen, because they can’t get together, can’t organize. But can they really not? Perhaps they simply believe they can’t because they couldn’t in the past. They accept an ancestral sense of outsidership, because they’ve been pushed down so long, they can’t assert control anymore. So really they lack the learned skills of power, and thus cannot pass those skills onto their children.

Our narrator’s orphan status is part of that. He cannot learn his family’s skills because he only has family one degree removed. The power flowing through them, through him, doesn’t merely come naturally. At the conlcusion we learn that some have learned to tame that power, but that’s learning. It isn’t natural. Even the skill of learning must be learned, which our narrator hasn’t had a chance to do.

Werewolves therefore aren’t just an expression of id, they convey widespread cultural elements we’ve striven to crush altogether. Though Jones is Blackfeet Indian himself, and incidental evidence suggests his characters are po’ white trash, we should resist the temptation to read in a color-coded system here. Rather, Jones makes us consider a system of opportunity, and how them that has, gets. Our narrator never had any chance to learn.

But our narrator also emphasizes his freedom: he reads, and in the final pages, he writes, so he has an opportunity, somewhat self-made, to learn, which his ancestors haven’t shared. He needn’t necessarily repeat yesterday’s patterns. Not everybody has his opportunity, and it seemingly isn’t  distributed evenly, so we can’t use the old canard that “anybody can work hard and get ahead.” Life is just unfair that way.

So this story expresses an element of fatalism. We’re all prisoners of our situation—in the final novella, Jones’ characters are literally prisoners of circumstances they cannot control, hostage to capitalism’s objectifying forces. But don’t mistake fatalism for defeatism: Jones also nurtures soft-spoken optimism, because while all humans remain part of where we came originated, we’re more than that. We’re also who we are.

Our author makes this clear very early, establishing storytelling as important to our experience. Grampa’s stories are, our narrator stresses, lies, but lies leading to deeper truths. Sometimes he successfully decodes those meanings, finding the human element beneath the subtext, and sometimes he doesn’t. But even when he can’t, he leaves us with his own story which itself can be unpacked. He’s lying about lying to get at deeper truths.

I fear this review has made this novel look pointy-headed and self-consciously literary. I’ve analyzed the subtext, without explaining the rush of pulse-pounding horror on the surface. It’s a monster story, folks. But for Jones, like Stephen King, the monster represents something far worse; families and secrets are the real source of horror. They’re also the only hope of redemption. That balance between monsters and angels makes us truly human.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The End of the 1960s

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 11
Martin Scorsese (director), The Last Waltz


In November 1976, the original line-up of The Band played its final concert at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. In a brassy move for an act who never cracked the Top Twenty, they decided their finale needed a heroic send-off. Through a combination of business savvy, old-boy networking, and sheer Bill Graham audacity, they grabbed a set from the San Francisco Opera, and got Martin Scorsese to film their production.

The resulting performance straddles two worlds. They make music with the passion, the zeal that made their first two albums, and their Woodstock performance, so iconic. But the performance is so polished, its massive guest list so sprawling, that it becomes a commentary on post-hippie rock excess. Scorsese elicits some of the best performances ever filmed. But he also exposes the decay incipient at rock music’s profligate core.

Though they formerly backed Bob Dylan, and received more column inches in Rolling Stone magazine’s first decade than any other act, The Band never enjoyed their mainstream breakthrough. Their highest-charting single, “Up On Cripple Creek,” stalled at Number 25, and their most iconic song, “The Weight” (“Take a load off, Annie”) never hit the Top Forty. Though influential with other artists and songwriters, they never found a larger audience.

The audience they found, however, helped them organize this concert. The Band and Scorsese together leveraged a massive guest list that includes Dr. John, Van Morrison, Emmylou Harris, Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, and a four-song set with Bob Dylan. The performance becomes a showcase of then-powerful rock luminaries. Checking these acts’ chart histories, however, reveals that nearly every one’s chart peak had passed.

If it’s true, as Andreas Killen wrote, that the 1960s basically ended in 1973, then this 1976 concert, already an oldies act, represents how idealism lingers after its influence tapers off. The camera work, capturing Robertson from low heroic angles, and the literally operatic stage, display the Band as superstars, masters of their art form, but also somehow mainstream, somebody trustworthy enough for an opera set and a multi-million-dollar production.


Tragically, with its cast of thousands, including Muddy Waters, Ringo Starr, and Neil Diamond, this concert becomes a massive send-off to the havoc of the 1960s. The Band’s best-known work comes from its first two albums, released in 1968 and 1969, firmly establishing it in the long-haired Woodstock era; but like its guests, The Band kept soldiering well into the Seventies. The Band was essentially lingering after its welcome had already worn out.

Like DA Pennebaker’s equally disturbing Don't Look Back, which followed Dylan’s 1966 British tour, this movie showcases an artist whose identity has become public domain. Caught between being dangerous and being accepted, The Band play music that never stops rocking, but lacks the poisoned edge they once enjoyed. In ethics, they still strike blows against mediocrity. In practice, they’re as assimilated as John Denver, a safe post-hippie rebellion for dads.

Which is, in many ways, heartbreaking. The music remains iconic. The production of “The Weight,” performed here as a duet with the Staples Singers, is arguably more artistically ambitious than the 1968 album version. Stage performances of classics like “Up On Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “I Shall Be Released,” have a new-raw edge their overproduced pop successors could never replicate.

But they’re also noticeably well-barbered and clean-shaven, the picture of mainstream assimilation. As they’ve grown more artistically capable, they’ve lost their danger. Perhaps their untrained youthful vigor provided the risk they once enjoyed. Or maybe they’ve been well-paid too long. As they become capable of attempting more complex, nuanced music, they lose the savage ambition they showed as kids. They’ve become an enterprise, not a band.

This mainstreaminess comes across in the extended interview sections. Though recovered footage shows Scorsese spoke at length with all five founding members of The Band, what makes the final cut primarily showcases songwriter Robbie Robertson. He’s visibly discussing topics he knows little about. Legend says Scorsese and Robertson got stoned and recut the film to make Robertson the star. The product, unfortunately, makes him look like a douche.

In sum, this film is a mixed bag. It spotlights an act whose best work is behind it, celebrating their retirement by surrounding themselves with icons of a dying generation. But it also captures some of the most exciting, dynamic rock performances ever filmed. It’s hard to finish the interview sections without laughing derisively. And it’s hard to finish the concert without feeling you’ve witnessed something religiously transcendent.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Piece of Donald Trump That Passeth Understanding


We already accept that, when Donald Trump says “policy speech,” what comes dribbling from his mouth won’t have much intellectual heft. This Tuesday’s “Law and Order” speech, delivered in West Bend, Wisconsin, within spitting distance of the Milwaukee riots, was no different. It sounded like anything written by a randomly selected white sixteen-year-old angling for a B in American Civics. But one phrase particularly grabbed my attention.

Very early on, Trump attempted to situate himself by identifying this week’s Milwaukee riots as a “war on police.” Speaking to what local media called “a mostly white crowd,” Trump claimed that mainly black rioters protesting police brutality, often in physical confrontations with police, made black communities demonstrably less safe. And he repeated the war metaphor several times, emphasizing riots as a battle between lawfully constituted police and… well, what?

That’s an important question. Trump directly opposed “the narrative of cops as a racist force in our society,” insisting that the police actively keep black populations safe. If so, we mustn’t acknowledge the rioting crowd’s strict racial composition; that would pit police against Milwaukee’s large black population. But the rioters weren’t driven by a splinter sect, like Daesh or the Mafia, a strict organization that law enforcement could legally disperse.

This leaves the uncomfortable possibility of the police attempting to suppress the people. If we deny the rioters either a group identity or an organizational leadership, they become merely a spontaneous outpouring of emotion by massed citizenry. And whether we support this citizenry’s actions, this definition has the police attacking, and attempting to silence, the people. This conclusion should make even the most avid justice seeker question their loyalties.


In The Utopia of Rules, American anthropologist David Graeber notes, almost passim, that almost every police drama begins with our hero cop in hot water. Watch any randomly selected big- or small-screen cop drama, and you’ll notice this pattern. Dirty Harry is always on reprimand for excessive force. Elliott Stabler gets dragged before Internal Affairs so often, it becomes a running gag in his show. Monk is on indefinite suspension.

To Graeber, this means we audiences, primed to see our hero as embodiment of justice, tacitly acknowledge that justice is the opposite of order. The bureaucracy that controls police activity isn’t fundamentally interested in rebalancing the scales or rectifying inequity; it’s interested in keeping circumstances quiet. If this means countenancing injustice, or finding the level and kind of crime the population is willing to live with, so be it.

Anyone who’s ever interacted with police already know this. Police are squeamish about getting into domestic violence allegations, gang troubles, and other abuses, unless somebody actually, physically dies. Anti-stalking laws are among America’s most chronically unenforced. Nobody has been jailed, or even tried, for the casino behavior that tanked the economy in 2007. But try driving an untagged vehicle, and see how quickly you attract police attention.

Even we white people, who have little reason to consider ourselves chronically targeted by law enforcement, experience this. We know we’re more likely to get prompt police responses for a sloppy lawn violation than reporting sounds of violence next door. If we’ve ever called the cops and timed their responses, we already know the law isn’t impartial. The mechanisms of bureaucracy care more about tidiness than justice.

Trump attempted to position attempts to maintain a lawful environment in American cities as a decidedly pro-African American issue. Indeed Trump, hardly known for deft or sensitive phrasing, used the term “African American” over a dozen times, possibly a personal best for calling people what they want to be called. Yet he showed no awareness of unjust economic, bureaucratic, and demographic trends that leave African Americans feeling marginalized.

To clarify, it doesn’t matter whether black Americans really are marginalized. We can have that discussion elsewhere. The modern bureaucratic structure leaves African Americans feeling marginalized, and especially for poor blacks in crowded cities, police are the most common friction point between daily life and bureaucracy. The police are catching flack for today’s bureaucratized lifestyle, which is itself fundamentally more orderly than just.

Frankly, I could’ve written Trump’s speech in my more conservative youth. I could’ve said blacks hurt themselves when targeting the police. But like Trump, I would’ve missed the core point, that African Americans aren’t targeting individual cops. They’re targeting a PD, a justice system, a bureaucratic structure they consider structurally unjust. If there’s a “war on police,” the next front should include anyone who thinks justice matters more than quiet.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Well-Mentored Educator

Diane Hunt, No Failing Students: Seven Teaching Strategies I Used as a Substitute Teacher to Take Smart But "Problematic" Students From "Failure" To Success In One Academic Quarter (45 Days)

As Common Core educational standards, originally murky to outsiders, have come more into view, initial resistance has translated into grudging toleration. Acceptance as normal must surely come next. But while standards give teachers important landmarks of achievement, they don’t necessarily provide guidance in turning those standards into lesson plans. A nascent cottage industry of lesson design has arisen, in print and online, to close this very important gap.

Educational consultant Diane Hunt brings a very nuts-and-bolts approach to educational design. This book, which runs under 100 pages plus appendices, focuses exclusively on designing lesson plans that encourage learning in the K-12 environment. She invests no time in theoretical underpinnings or the psychology of learning. Instead, she keeps attention focused on what specific classroom activities translate directly into measurable improved student outcomes.

Hunt’s product begins with that oft-disparaged classroom classic, the pre-test. (She calls it “pre-assessment.” To-may-to, to-mah-to.) This lets teachers get an accurate baseline reading of where students begin; it also cues students into important concepts in future lessons. It shows students what they need to know, not in some abstract sense (“This is a right triangle”), but in a concrete context that invites students into the germane discussion.

Once teachers grasp their students’ pre-existing knowledge base, Hunt guides them into the process of “multiple intelligences.” Here’s where I get somewhat leery. In my teaching days, I’d often hear students say: “But Mr. Nenstiel, I can’t really learn from books and classroom discussions. I’m a visual learner.” Whatever the science, this actually meant they wanted more videos, PowerPoint presentations, and other passive learning tools presented in darkened, nap-friendly classrooms.

Diane Hunt
By contrast, Hunt provides fact-based evaluations of the different intelligence types, how they respond to different stimuli, and how to approach their respective needs. This is especially important in contemporary public school classrooms, which are organized to be cost-efficient, not really to provide desirable outcomes for particular students. Veteran teachers already know they have to teach against the system; Hunt’s approach provides important tools in how to do so.

Hunt also avoids the kicker that many teachers find off-putting about multiple intelligences. Because every student learns slightly differently than every other, teachers often fear getting sucked into a vortex of very fine hair-splitting, essentially running separate lesson plans for each individual student. Anybody who’s ever had to design side projects for even one student knows how frustrating that is: it’s functionally a whole other course load, without commensurate pay.

Not so here. Hunt writes: “Students like choices. I would come up with two choices from which students can select. In addition, I would offer choices in areas where my students would be having the most difficulty.” In other words, by offering students just enough autonomy to delve into their own problem spots, Hunt gives students power to customize their experience. Solo or group work? Book reading or hands-on experience?

As an aside, former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss, now an independent consultant like Hunt, writes that inexperienced negotiators often come across high-handed, offering authoritarian, unconditional demands. This doesn’t work, and mostly shuts discussion down. Negotiations proceed when the participant with the weakest position has the illusion of control. If education is similar to negotiation, giving students some control improves the outcomes, even if teachers tacitly control the choices.

Hunt’s seven basic steps dismantle the learning process into bite-sized chunks which teachers can make fit their forms. This stretches from pre- to post-assessment, including vocabulary, which looms large in her process. It even goes into post-post-assessment, why she believes giving students opportunity to change their grades matters. The process seems best customized to STEM subjects, but this ex-English teacher sees where it applies to the arts, too.

As I mentioned earlier, Hunt doesn’t discuss the empirical science behind her lesson design. She simply lays out a structure which teachers apply to their discipline and their classroom. However, what she writes is entirely consistent with recent advances in our understanding of human learning. This includes both external experiments in psychology, and internal observations in neuroscience. Anyone interested in learning the “why” should consult Benedict Carey’s How We Learn.

It’s become downright axiomatical today that teachers are overburdened and undersupplied. While legislators speculate on paying teachers more money, teachers themselves continue to want what they’ve always wanted: parental and community support, enough supplies for every student, and continuing education. This book won’t, of course, supply all that. But it may provide the classroom management skills less experienced teachers need to fully fortify their students.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Lady Chatterly's Live-In

Laurel Saville, North of Here

Miranda Steward has lost everything. A succession of tragedies kills her brother and father, leaving her mother incapacitated. Unpacking family paperwork reveals her father’s investments were horrifically interlocked; having grown up rich, she discovers it was all paper, and she’s virtually homeless. Thankfully her family handyman, Dix, offers her solace in his Upstate New York cabin. Until a dashing stranger from her past barges in, threatening her recovery.

Laurel Saville’s third book, and second novel, reads like an incomplete draft presented for consideration in an MFA workshop. Were I critiquing this novel, I’d say: details matter. As it stands, this manuscript reads like an outline upon which the author intends to hang humanizing details later. Saville synopsizes massive time spans in one sentence, reveals character traits through narrative rather than action, and basically tells, not shows.

Lemme offer one example. Very early, Miranda visits a Matlock-like hometown attorney to unravel her late father’s finances. Saville writes: “Warren recognized her as someone who immediately, unknowingly, unintentionally, tapped into a man’s protective instinct.” Adjective alert! Since Saville’s description immediately preceding this sentence primarily illustrated Miranda’s looks, I remain unclear what this weird, looping sentence means. It tells us what to think about Miranda, but not much why.

This, sadly, characterizes Saville’s storytelling. Though she offers us tempting glimpses of Miranda’s handyman Dix doing weirdly nice things for abstract reasons, she interrupts this otherwise interesting moment for a lengthy narrative discursion on how he’s a great guy because he’s a great guy. He also, Saville assures us, doesn’t understand how his niceness makes him unusual, or why anybody should care. He’s just unremittingly nice.

Laurel Saville
The result is passive. Our reading is passive, because we don’t see characters do any thing and draw meaningful conclusions; Saville just tells us what those conclusions should be. The characters are also passive. Miranda, despite a college education, bobs helplessly through life, like flotsam. Dix does nice things because he’s a peachy guy. His generosity protects her from life’s frictions. Something always seems imminent, but nothing ever quite happens.

Well, until Darius enters. I think we’re meant to understand Darius’ spiderweb-thin connection to Miranda’s brother offers Miranda a chance to reclaim her former upper-class life. This despite Darius’ messianic back-to-the-land philosophy, whereby this son of upper-class privilege hopes to become artistically poor. He’s nailing a local girl on the side, a loveless affair that bespeaks sex as power struggle. The symbolism is ham-handed and unsubtle.

Darius comes across as some weird spoiled manchild with delusions of simplicity. Where Dix is truly rustic and undemanding despite his education and manifold skills, Darius is a college dropout, cack-handed repairman, and gadabout. Like bad boys everywhere, he has vague charm, but where ideals translate into action, he’s citified, blustering, hopeless. With Dix nearby for comparison, one wonders why Miranda doesn’t simply laugh

Except I’m misreading everything. These characters aren’t humans, they’re ciphers for a mythic exploration of Miranda’s long-postponed transition to adulthood. Dix represents honesty and work. Darius represents permanent adolescence. Even the Adirondack setting isn’t a realized place, it’s a fairytale transition space, like Cockaigne or Tatooine. I’ve praised mythic stories before, friends. But this one is so underwritten, so awaiting humane telling details, that it reads like a bedtime story.

Saville’s structure propounds this. Though I think she aspires to literary standing, her vague, low-friction story doesn’t permit sufficient introspection for this. But her very long chapters and block-like paragraphs are too imposing for pop bestsellers. There’s little sense who Saville wrote this book for. Except, perhaps, herself: I mentioned MFA workshops earlier. My grad school experience suggests student writers often expound their personal adulthood struggles.

In outline, this story has something to recommend it. I could imagine Saville transforming this into an interesting adulthood fable if she peeled away everything unnecessary, indistinct, or vague. A Maxwell Perkins-style editor with aggressive vision might’ve helped. He also might’ve warned Savill to kill amorphous, expendable sentences like this: “she cried so much over the next six months that she felt dessicated, like something left in the desert.”

Roger Ebert once wrote that, if nothing happens in a movie’s first reel, nothing probably will happen. One reel of film runs approximately eleven minutes, or ten percent of a typical feature movie. The equivalent, in a book this size is, if nothing happens by page 35, nothing probably etc. Sadly, in this book, nothing quite happens. Something is always about to happen, or happens off-scene, or happens in flashback. But never quite now.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

That Wasn't a Dog Whistle, Friends

Dog whistles are subtle. Donald Trump is not. (Reuters photo)
Speaking in North Carolina Tuesday, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, whose notorious off-the-cuff comments make George W. Bush look poised and eloquent, fired off one of his most inflammatory statements yet. “By the way, and if [Hillary Clinton] gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” he told a handpicked crowd of loyal sign-wavers. “Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don't know.”

It’s hard to imagine anybody more explicitly calling for violence against one’s political rivals. In stating that “Second Amendment people” could “do” something about Secretary Clinton’s political appointments, he was pretty unambiguously advocating armed attacks on anyone the audience disagrees with. He could defensibly hide behind the equivocal “maybe” and “I don’t know” in the statement, but that’s condom talk. The deed is done, regardless of DNA evidence.

Besides the statement itself, which is pretty damned appalling, I have been thunderstruck by how commentators have handled these comments. When a friend casually called this a “dog-whistle threat,” I dismissed that as flippant misuse from a non-specialist. But Rolling Stone magazine also blatantly called it “Trump's Assassination Dog Whistle,” and despite their rock music roots, RS is a respected journalistic source. They should know that isn’t a dog whistle.

I’m somewhat unclear where the term “dog whistle politics” originated. Like many semi-technical terms, it gets bandied around in often slapdash conditions. However, it does have specific meaning. According to legal scholar Ian Haney López, author of the book Dog Whistle Politics, dog whistles involve language that is superficially neutral, which can be argued away as trivial or functionally meaningless, but which includes allusions target audiences recognize as loaded language.

Haney López cites, by way of example, Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” of 1968. Facing ignominious defeat before not only Democrat Hubert Humphrey, but also hugely popular independent candidate George Wallace (who ultimately won five Southern states), Nixon began a campaign citing a demand for increased “law and order.” These terms are at least somewhat neutral, and even many bleeding-heart liberals agree a free society absolutely requires rule of law.

Ian Haney López
However, as applied, Nixon’s rhetoric didn’t single out the groups nonpartisan Americans agree are criminals. Nixon didn’t target muggers, rapists, and killers. Nor, in an increasingly globalized economy (driven by that cutting-edge technology, the Telex), did he single out shady derivatives traders and stock-swap swindlers. Instead, he inveighed against the ill-defined malefactors who made Americans fear to ride the bus, who interfered with the mechanisms of civil defense.

Nixon’s intended audience knew clearly who he meant. Law-abiding citizens putatively feared to “Go Greyhound” because of Freedom Riders, who protested segregation of public transportation by boarding buses en masse and deliberately sitting together. And the mechanisms of civil defense were being sabotaged, not by cop killers or Weather Underground bombers, but by draft dodgers. “Law and order” meant cracking down on civil rights protesters and hippies.

That, friends, is a dog whistle. Nixon rode a wave of public outrage to the presidency by ginning up middle-class, white opposition to two derided populations. He stirred high feelings without naming his target. He could deny ever baiting hippies and Blacks, because he never explicitly did. Whereas Trump, small-fingered opponent of subtlety, directly called “Second Amendment people” to “do” something. Only true believers and paid spokesmodels could misinterpret that.

Trump’s comments came quickly after saying that “Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the Second Amendment,” according to NBC news. This latter statement is entirely consistent with Republican talking points: the idea that Democrats will seize Americans’ legally protected firearms has been unquestioned dogma on the organized Right for generations. This although no Democrat has suggested banning anything but high-yield assault weapons since Jimmy Carter.

That, arguably, is a dog whistle, since it implies without stating anything, that Democrats don’t respect the Constitution. I’ve seen sources who unambiguously declare that Democrats lack Constitutional foundation, often themselves relying on vague, choppy legal understandings. Trump didn’t say Clinton dismisses the entire Constitution, but insisted, without source, that she considers parts disposable, apparently by executive action. Committed followers of Rightist dogma know what that means.

Dog whistle language works, partly, because it goes unnoticed. When Ronald Reagan spoke repeatedly about “welfare queens” in 1976 and 1980, even staunch critics took months to realize his audience understood those “queens” were black. Trump’s statements were so unsubtle, the backlash began before his speech ended. That wasn't a dog whistle, friends. That was a flaming bazooka of turd gravy at a church picnic. Keep things in perspective.

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Other Ever After

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 71
Amber Sparks, May We Shed These Human Bodies: Stories

A desperately solitary suffragette finds love in a bitter winter, and hates it, cursing her heirs for the burden. A banal schoolteacher, riven with heartbreak, finds himself the only survivor of a family plagued by heart disease. A school devises a curriculum for future teenage superheroes, but finds itself accidentally cradling a nascent supervillain. A young girl escapes her family ghosts, only to find the ghosts are her actual family.

Amber Sparks’ debut collection channels fairy stories and folktales, but in a contemporary setting, a permeable world where dream logic infiltrates our banal technological lives. It’s tempting to compare her work to Magic Realist authors like Borges and Kafka. But these very short stories, some under one page, represent a distinct Amber Sparks style that accepts influences, without remaining slavishly dependent upon them.

Early stories in this collection more obviously imitate Sparks’ fairy tale influences. The opening story, “Death and the People,” features a literally embodied Death simultaneously vacating the entire Earth. But massed humanity, initially embracing the opportunity for a clean break, discovers something unexpected in the Afterlife: eternal, transcendent boredom. This story, and some closely following it, blatantly resemble the narrative voice of the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault.

Like the classic fairy stories, Sparks’ narratives are a collision between tone and content. Her voice of naïve innocence suggests a storyteller unaffected by life’s petty discontents. But like Red Riding Hood, her characters’ attempts to display basic independence explode in their faces. Hers is a world where people find themselves blown back into dependent, pre-written roles, though less from moral veracity than because it’s tough to fight indoctrination.

Amber Sparks
As the collection progresses, however, Sparks breaks from the storybook voice. Her tone becomes darker, more aggressive, deeply unsentimental. Stories like “Cocoon,” about a visit to an old-folks’ home gone terribly wrong, or “Vesuvius,” wherein a public figure’s wife reclaims control of her life by destroying what her husband loves, maintain the ethereal tone while refusing to be cute. These stories brim with the violence implicit in our postmodern situation.

Individual stories vary in tone from whimsy, to seductive bedtime story, to outright horror. Collectively, however, a through-line develops of a world still suffused with the wonder children take for granted. Though only a few tales involve recourse to the supernatural to explain this wonder-working influence, Sparks nevertheless evokes the speculation that, behind the world we all equitably see, resides another world visible to the blessed, or cursed, few.

Reading Sparks, I cannot help remembering Maria Tatar, who writes that children enjoy stories for different reasons than adults. Reading, for children, involves immersion into a deeply sensory world to which they haven’t become inured, like the adults around them. Children want experiences that, with their underdeveloped bodies, they cannot directly have. Stories then become ways, not to escape real life, but to immerse themselves more fully in reality.

Something similar happens reading Amber Sparks. We, as adults, have the bodily capacity to participate in real life’s wonder. But a life comprised of compromise, belittlement, and need, inevitably stunts our spirits: adults are capable of doing profound things, we just don’t do them. Sparks attempts, mostly successfully, to recapture the grand spirit children share, reconstituting that magnificence in full-grown bodies. She encourages the audacity we craved as kids.

“Urban fantasy” has become a mainstream genre in today’s publishing world. Generally, this means fantasy stories with contemporary settings, heroic quest epics that superficially resemble noir thrillers or bodice-ripper romances. But arguably, Amber Sparks deserves the “urban fantasy” moniker better, because her narrative uses the ambling, transcendent fantasy of childhood bedtime stories, transplanted into a close-set, claustrophobic adult world of city streets and sooty jobs.

Even the book’s physical design emulates this childlike clarity. Running under 150 pages (plus back matter), this book’s mass resembles children’s storybooks. Many pages are tinted to look faded and old, like yellowed heirloom pages: Mommy and Daddy are sharing the stories we loved when we were your age, Sweety. In that moment, we’re all immersed in childhood storytelling passion together, untethered by jobs or boring old physical age.

As a storyteller, Sparks captures the collision between childhood wonder and adulthood capability, often overlooked by other writers, because audiences overlook it in themselves. She encourages us to believe, unencumbered by demands of money or responsibility. Even if we can’t stop being boring grown-ups every day, Sparks gives readers permission to dream big for an afternoon, an hour. And we finish reading, feeling like we’ve been given a gift.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Stockholm Syndrome—the Home Game!

Elizabeth LaBan, The Restaurant Critic's Wife: a Novel

Lila Lippincott Soto is restless. She left a high-powered but rootless executive job to marry a journalist, who conveniently made a nest for her. But Lila’s husband, Sam Soto, has become an influential restaurant critic, a job that’s distorted his goals: his desire for anonymity, while pursuing a highly public career, has created pressures on Lila. Stranded at home with two children under five, she starts questioning her life choices.

Reading Elizabeth LaBan’s most recent novel, I initially thought I’d uncovered the author’s fictionalized couples therapy session. LaBan, like Lila, lives in Philadelphia. Both have two children. Both are married to restaurant critics. The early chapters broadcast the novel’s possibly autobiographical nature, leaving me feeling voyeuristic and creepy. I don’t read novels to roll, puppy-like, in the author’s dirty laundry.

As the story unfolds, however, circumstances turned dark. Lila, our first-person, present-tense narrator, keeps playing Sam’s increasingly desperate need for anonymity as frustrating but charming. He invents costumes to pass as pop stars, businessmen, and other non-journalistic people whom three-diamond restaurants would never pander to. (Seriously? Elton John is your safe disguise?) And he demands his wife participate, even as her pregnancy goes beyond her due date.

What a card, huh? Except, amid all that, Lila starts becoming afraid to answer the phone or door, lest she somehow compromise Sam’s anonymity and earn his ire. She notes Sam wants to exercise authority to veto Lila’s friendships, since one neighborhood friend’s husband owns a restaurant Sam will likely eventually review. Sam keeps Lila isolated on their pedestrian-unfriendly suburban street, not working, raising a preschooler and a newborn full-time.

Elizabeth LaBan
These are classic textbook warning signs of domestic abuse. Sam’s behavior, which becomes increasingly demanding and disruptive, could’ve come directly from the pamphlets distributed free in battered women’s shelters. Though Sam never raises a hand against her (in the portion I read before disgust stopped me), his psychological manipulation tactics, designed to shame and silence his wife, filled me with visceral horror.

Yet LaBan never stops playing Lila’s story like domestic comedy. Lila describes Sam’s latest unreasonable demands with rueful humor; you can practically hear her scoffing, “Garsh, what a dork.” She seemingly thinks resuming her old executive career will give her life meaning, as though nesting, a common behavior of people with kids, were somehow the cause of her malaise. Like, to shake her pervasive despair, she need only rediscover herself.

And I’m reading, thinking: “Holy shit, she thinks this moonshine is cute!” By “she,” I might mean Lila or LaBan. Since one is apparently the other’s proxy, the difference is slight. But throughout, Lila reveals circumstances profoundly horrifying to people familiar with abuse patterns. Sam proposed because Lila got pregnant. He expects his career to dictate her behavior. He makes grandiose proclamations about money. And it’s always, somehow, endearing.

LaBan’s storytelling suggests she thinks she’s writing about a woman who needs to reclaim her personal identity, and just needs to figure out how. Well, arguably so. By persuading her to abandon her career, friends, goals, and autonomy, Lila’s husband has debatably seized her identity, which she needs to grab back. She should start, at least, by telling her husband to back down. Possibly from the safety of a shelter.

I have personal reasons this worries me. Three women I know got trapped in abusive relationships. One wasn’t physical, though that marriage still demonstrates external signs that make me cringe. Another ended in acrimonious divorce. The third escalated in ways outsiders didn’t see, because she didn’t tell anyone what happened. We only realized the relationship had entered a doom spiral when it ended, abruptly, in gun homicide. Totally not kidding.

This book weighs in around 300 pages; I quit reading around the one-third mark, because Lila kept making joking excuses for Sam’s behavior. She never demonstrated enough self-awareness to challenge Sam’s pernicious abuse. I was promised a domestic comedy, but received a joking exposé on a psychological manipulator and his enabler. And I can’t tell whether the author even realizes what she’s created—possibly what she’s lived through.

Maybe circumstances changed after page 100. But that’s too late for me; I already felt like I’d stepped in manure, and it was creeping up my leg, and couldn’t wash it off. Maybe the abuse turned physical, and thus inarguable. Maybe Lila has her fill, asserts herself, and reëstablishes balance in her marriage. But after LaBan played abuse as cute for 100 pages, I couldn’t stomach any more. The horror was just too much.