Monday, November 27, 2017

Growing Up in a Land of Priests and Martyrs

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 85
Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis: the Story of a Childhood, and Persepolis 2: the Story of a Return

Marjane Satrapi was ten years old when the ayatollahs overtook Iran. Formerly educated in a French-language school with classrooms integrated by gender, she found her life uprooted and turned sideways. Teachers who, one year, told students the Shah was chosen by God, the next year told students to rip the Shah’s photos from their textbooks. Who can blame her for developing a drifting, nihilistic view of life?

Satrapi’s memoirs, written in graphic novel form, first appeared in French in four volumes at the height of the 1990s “comix” craze; they were later reprinted in English in two volumes. (A one-volume edition exists.) Like most comix artists, Satrapi embraces an auteur mindset, with a single writer-artist, and minimal editorial influence.This permits an introspective, deeply personal approach to her telling her own story.

Perhaps the most important theme in Satrapi’s memoirs is the contrast between her family’s secular, Westernized upbringing, and the increasingly repressive, theocratic regime. Before the Islamic revolution of 1979, Satrapi’s parents participated in anti-Shah marches, believing the eventual revolution would be primarily Marxist in nature. Imagine their shock when the ayatollahs became the revolution’s driving force, and eventual ideological captains. Like many, their sense of betrayal was palpable.

Not that their Western ideals excludes Islam. As a child, Satrapi believes herself a prophet, in a lineage with Zoroaster, Jesus, and Mohammed. She has intimate conversations with God to understand her confusion. Later, as an adult, she quotes the Koran fluently when religious police attempt to squelch her voice. But the Satrapis’ religion doesn’t yoke them to the past. History, for them is a march toward secular democracy.

This battle between secular and theocratic mostly happens behind closed doors. Satrapi’s parents attend parties where everyone drinks homemade wine, wears neckties, and dances to American rock, emblems of Western excess. On those rare occasions where Iran opens its borders, they smuggle in posters and cassettes of Marjane’s favorite American heavy metal artists. But they also hang blackout curtains and bribe cops, because the state encourages snitching on one’s neighbors.

Marjane Satrapi
Later, as an adult, Satrapi studies art in Iran’s state-run universities. But Iran’s draconian modesty codes mean that, in life drawing class, the models must wear massive, billowing gowns. Satrapi organizes illicit after-dark classes where peers get to draw tasteful human nudity, in the Renaissance style. Her demands evolve consummately: where once she bought bootleg American music, she graduates to bootleg American contraception.

Satrapi’s two-dimensional, black-and-white art, consistent with the comix movement, permits readers to see Iran through her eyes. We can see clashing crowds of protesters and counter-protesters without her having to write long-winded descriptions— and her flat, cartoonish art reveals how screaming ideology strips everyone of individuality. Later, she uses cutaway reveals to expose, say, how women dress beneath the veil, how they express individuality in a state that demands conformity.

It’s possible to read Satrapi’s memoirs as moments in Iranian history; that’s how they’re often marketed. A nation’s struggle to overcome its past requires it to decide what future it wants to embrace. Satrapi’s liberal, educated family embraces the homo economicus model, believing an Islamic version of rational humanism will inevitably overtake the country. They simply don’t anticipate the confidence that religious conservatism promises people who feel dispossessed.

But like the best classic literature, Satrapi’s memoir is fundamentally about its audience. As Marjane first witnesses her parents’ collisions with religious authority, and later embraces such conflicts herself, it’s impossible to avoid noticing that both sides wear ideological blinders. Satrapi uses absolutist thinking to confront absolutist religion. How often, we wonder, do we ignore our own absolutism? What sacred cows do we refuse to sacrifice, and not even notice?

Satrapi sees the world in black-and-white because, essentially, she’s a child. As the story progresses, her art becomes more sophisticated and fully dimensional, because she herself becomes a more sophisticated soul. She loves her people, and when her parents ship her to Europe as a child for safety, she returns as an adult. But eventually, even that collapses under state pressure. To remain human and sane, she has to leave.

In some ways, Satrapi retains her childhood aspirations to prophethood, Like Jesus said, a prophet lacks honor in his homeland. By exposing us to the corrupting influences of absolutism, Satrapi encourages us to understand the complexity of fellow humans. We cannot manage change without loving one another; and we cannot love without knowing one another. But Satrapi’s prophecy rejects dogmatism. Truth is messy, because it’s finally made of human beings.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Al Franken and the Abuse of Insider Power


Show of hands: whose buddy ever drew a dick on your face while you were sleeping?

When I was nineteen, I traveled to South Dakota with a church group. Sharing a motel room with several of rowdy teenagers, I fell asleep around ten PM, my usual time. I awoke fifteen minutes later to raucous laughter: I’d slapped myself in the face when my roommates drew a dick on my cheeks with shaving cream, and I tried to shoo the irritant away. The only adult in the room suggested and encouraged this behavior.

I’ve always known that you’re totally powerless when you sleep. That’s probably why children hate being ordered to bed, and certainly why, when they’re old enough to understand some of the world’s dangers, they frequently refuse to fall asleep without a trusted adult around. But that incident really solidified for me what an act of trust falling asleep in public really is. You have to believe others don’t have malicious intent.

That’s why, the longer the Al Franken controversy continues, the more it bothers me. The ongoing revelation of sexual predation in American politics, journalism, and entertainment continues growing, but it’s usually something pretty straightforward: Roy Moore targeted minors, forced himself physically upon them, and used his public authority to demand their complicity. Even his supporters understand why that’s completely awful, though they justify it.

Franken, by contrast, in his pre-senatorial days, did something more insidious. He didn’t out-and-out sexually assault journalist Leeann Tweeden; judging by the photograph that’s surfaced, he possibly never even touched her. (The alleged forced kiss happened off-camera.) But Tweeden trusted her fellow travelers on the USO plane enough to fall asleep in their presence. And Franken drew a metaphorical dick on her face.

Whether drawing literal vulgar images on somebody’s face, or doing hover-hands over her boobs, as Franken got photographed doing, the point remains the same: to pause a person humiliation for being powerless. Somebody who is awake has remarkable power over somebody who is asleep. The waker could draw vulgarities, take embarrassing photos, take sexual advantage, even stab the sleeper. And the sleeper can’t stop it.

And be honest, Franken wouldn’t have photographed the prank if he didn’t intend to show anybody else. His purpose was to demonstrate his power over another human being, because she made the mistake of considering him trustworthy. Physical pain or psychological distress probably mattered little. This is the ultimate insider humor, the sharing of jokes at a powerless outsider’s expense. Not unlike jocks bullying nerds.
Yeah, this crap never gets old. Unless you need to sleep. So yeah, unless you're human.

All this happened after Franken postulated, in his book The Truth (With Jokes), that he could run for Senate. He’d at least contemplated a life in public service, a role that, depending on the attitude you bring, either involves subjugating yourself to the greater common good, or ruling over others. Since eschewing comedy writing, Franken has used common-good rhetoric in public. But this photo demonstrates a self-superior, ruling-class mentality.

I know, from experience, how such humiliations undermine one’s ability to trust others. Since I was nineteen, I can count on my fingers the number of people I’ve shared sleeping quarters with, who weren’t related to me by blood. It’s very difficult for me to relinquish control that way. I can’t possibly be alone: chronic sleep deprivation, and its related behavior, carb-loading, are among America’s leading causes of obesity, heart disease, Type-II diabetes, and other ailments.

By definition, America’s representative government requires citizens to relinquish control, voluntarily, to others. They’re nominally people we choose, but in today’s party-driven system, where we often choose between elephants and jackasses rather than actual human beings, the selection is often a lesser-of-two-evils choice. By seeking public power, Senator Franken asks Minnesota’s voters to entrust public control into his hands.

That photograph, sadly, demonstrates that we cannot him with such authority. In two different public statements, Franken disclaimed that photograph as a joke gone awry. Even if that’s true, remember what he considers funny: this person’s body needs rest, so she trusted me enough to fall asleep, haw-haw. That isn’t a funny group laugh, it’s pointed mockery at another’s expense. It’s taunting the powerless for lacking power.

That’s why I must cut Senator Franken loose. Sure, he’s not my senator; I’ve never had any influence in Franken’s career. But as a voter, I have input. And Franken cannot effectively represent anybody, constituent or citizen, when he arrogates power that way. He’s demonstrated rot at his philosophical core. When given power over others, he uses it for his own aggrandizement. That’s why Senator Franken has to go.

Monday, November 20, 2017

North America's Other Bloody Border War

Hispaniola, in a map from the Encyclopedia Britannica

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 84
Michele Wucker, Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola


Though it’s impossible to say with precision, many historians believe the spot where Christopher Columbus first landed in the Americas is in Haiti. Archeologists have found remains of a rudimentary wooded village with European structures near modern Cap-Hatiën. This means that, though Native Americans had a rich, complex pre-Columbian civilization, modern written history in North America begins on the island of Hispaniola.

So it’s particularly puzzling why Haiti and the only country with which it shares a land border, the Dominican Republic, remain essentially terra incognita for English-speaking Americans. Ivy League-educated journalist Michele Wucker, who specializes in crisis points and why nobody prevents preventable explosions, turns to this issue in her first book. The answers she uncovers aren’t pretty, because they indict us first-worlders in the ongoing cataclysm that is Latin America.

Inspired by the American Revolution, Haitians became the second Western Hemisphere colony to overthrow its European masters. Though that war dragged for thirteen years, and cost far more lives, it produced North America’s second independent nation, and the first dominated by an entirely black, formerly enslaved population. Sadly, Haiti didn’t establish freedom right away; strings of coups, royalist pretenders, and overseas occupations meant Haiti’s first free election didn’t happen until 1989.

Haiti controls approximately one-third of Hispaniola; the Dominican Republic controls two-thirds. Though the French controlled Haiti, the former colony of Santo Domingo bowed to Spain, who didn’t treat its colony so cruelly, but also didn’t extract as much wealth. Santo Domingo didn’t rebel against Spain for decades, and when it did, it petitioned the United States for statehood, and was declined. So naturally, Haiti invaded.

Michele Wucker
The Dominican Republic celebrates its Independence Day, not from the Spanish colonial overthrow, but from the ouster of Haiti in 1844. From this moment, we get an ongoing struggle of economics, power, and race that makes American civil rights struggles look placid and well-behaved. Violence between nations, particularly by relatively wealthier Dominicans against chronically impoverished, and black, Haitians, marks the identity of Hispaniola to this day.

Wucker uses cockfighting as a metaphor to understand this battle. White Americans perceive cockfighting as a barbaric activity, one which we prosecute as inhumane and backward. The nations of Hispaniola, however, see cockfighting much like we see horseracing, as a perfect union of human trainer and animal capability. The Dominican capital, also called Santo Domingo, has a glamorous, state of the art cockfighting arena like Americans have football stadiums.

Haiti’s border with the Dominican republic wasn’t codified and made enforceable until the United States occupation of both nations, during and after World War I. This became important later. Haitians sneak into Dominica much like Mexicans sneak into Texas, crossing a border into a country where they’re not wanted in pursuit of work. An ironclad border made sneaking in a more definite activity, which introduced new risks and rewards on both sides.

During Dominica’s Trujillo dictatorship, from 1930 to 1961, the government cracked down on illegal Haitians. This crackdown started as an ordinary law-enforcement issue, but as unelected government leaders whipped up nationalist sentiment, the crackdown escalated to violence, some of it extreme. Dominica’s massacre of Haitian immigrants, which partly overlapped the German Holocaust, competed for one of the Twentieth Century’s bloodiest genocides. Consequences echo down Hispaniola’s history to the present.

And it’s impossible to deny the racial implications of this genocide. Upper-class Dominicans consider themselves “white,” and have nine gradations of racial identity, down to “black,” which is Haitian. (Most Haitians have unmixed African ancestry.) It’s a shock to many “white” Dominicans when they emigrate to the United States seeking work, and discover that, in America, they’re considered Black. The implications for the United States are glaring, and painful.

Throughout, Wucker keeps her emphasis mainly on the Dominican Republic, the larger, wealthier, paler-skinned neighbor in this arrangement. She strenuously avoids commenting upon larger world affairs, except where the global context contributes to Hispaniola’s conditions. (For instance, the way Haitians and Dominicans both travel to America for economic opportunity.) However, it’s tough to avoid noticing parallels with Mexicans in America, Muslims in the EU, and other perilous border crossings.

However, like the best classic literature, Wucker’s journalism isn’t really about its subject. Ultimately, it’s about the audience, challenging us to understand our position in the world arrangement. We’ll maybe never personally visit Hispaniola; we’ll never engage in bloody race-baiting or cockfighting. But we, individually and collectively, are part of the system that makes this possible. Where, Wucker asks, do we stand? And what will we finally do?

Friday, November 17, 2017

Order In the Court of Public Outrage

Senate candidate Roy Moore (R-Alabama)
I mostly applaud the recent shakeout of sexual harassers in public places. Since Hollywood’s casting couch horror stories and Washington’s power-mad gropers have long been an open secret, it pleases me to see somebody finally being held to account. But I fear, in the last week or so, we’re seeing something I never anticipated from this scandal: the court of public opinion is massively overruling due process.

Okay, some powerful people probably deserve to have their careers torpedoed by what’s happening. Louis CK’s frank confession to past sexual misbehavior, and the mumbling non-denials out of Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein, have brought their recent ostracism on themselves. Frankly, Louis CK deserves credit for having balls enough to admit his past crimes, even as he deserves the ass-beating he’s now getting in the media.

But a different dynamic plays out in the cases of Roy Moore and Al Franken. These politicians both deny, to greater or lesser degrees, the accusations against them, but they’re both being treated as guilty. Calls for Moore to quit his Senate race, and for Franken to quit the Senate, have fallen out, not necessarily along partisan lines, but certainly according to group loyalties. Still, neither has confessed to, nor been convicted of, anything. Yet.

Maybe they should be. Moore has five accusers (that I know of), and they tell remarkably similar stories: targeting minors less than half his age, touching them without consent, then using his elected authority to demand their silence. Franken has one accuser, whose charges date back to when he was a comedian, and unlike Moore’s accusers, she has photographs. If he got caught on camera once, it probably happened other times, when cameras weren’t present.

Both deny their charges. Moore does so categorically, saying all his accusers are lying. Franken dismisses his accusations as a joke which fell flat. (I never liked him on SNL anyway; his Stuart Smalley character, in particular, was an unfunny slam on homosexuals and treatment seekers alike.) Moore has demanded proper legal charges be filed, knowing they can’t at this late date. Franken has submitted to an ethics committee investigation, like he had any choice.

Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota)
The fallout has been downright predictable. Moore’s evangelical Christian supporters invent stupid excuses for his behavior, though he’s slipped into second place. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and his colleagues, say they believe Moore’s accusers, though they continue mush-mouthing their responses to President Trump’s more numerous accusers. Senator Cory Gardner has suggested the Senate won't let Moore get seated, which would be unprecedented.

Congress has literally never preemptively prevented a legally elected member from being seated. It has very rarely even expelled a sitting member, and other than seventeen members expelled when their states joined the Confederacy, it has only happened when convicted of very serious charges. Congress expelled William Blount in 1797 for treason, and Michael Myers in 1980 and James Traficant in 2002, both for bribery and other financial malfeasance.

Meanwhile, the breakdown among progressives on Senator Franken is stark. Democratic Party loyalists praise his “leadership” for not impugning his accuser, and submitting to ethics inquiries. But people more loyal to principles than party began tweeting demands for his resignation within hours of the accusation. Unfortunately, this opens other terrible doors: if one single accuser requires resignation, could anybody accuse anyone of anything?

In both cases, well-meaning but misguided advocates clearly haven’t thought the implications through. If Republicans prevent Moore taking his seat, they’ll have to explain why they won’t hold Trump equally accountable; more likely, they’ll crumble as they did with Trump. And if Franken gets pressured into resigning without a hearing, it sets a precedent existing Senators won’t like (his accuser is a sometime paid Hannity commentator).

The Senate, and America, must hold both men culpable for their actions. Both should receive hearings, or face consequences if they refuse. But the Senate is a deliberative body, which exists to test ideas through open debate before foisting them onto the public. Sure, letting a seriously suspected sexual predator decide our laws has harrowing implications. But they gave Bob Packwood a fair hearing, and they had his confession on tape.

These charges are serious. Our lawmakers need to hear the accusers, and hold their peers accountable. But I fear we’re starting to see the ramifications of public outrage: moral panic, where accusations matter more than evidence. From Salem witch trials to the McMartin Preschool Trial, that never ends well. In times like these, we need due process more than ever.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The London Victorian Ladies' Social and Necromantic Circle

Molly Tanzer, Creatures of Will & Temper: a Novel

Lady Henrietta “Harry” Wotton’s glamorous salon has become somewhat bereft since her brother Oliver died. Oliver’s love, and Harry’s best friend, the portraitist Basil Hallward, has retreated into seclusion with Oliver’s painting. But, rootless in his grief, Basil has permitted his nieces to reside with him, temporarily, in London. Harry finally revives when she considers the woman fencing master Evadne Gray and her sister, Dorina. Yes, Dorina Gray.

On her blog, Molly Tanzer describes her latest as “a feminist retelling of The Picture of Dorian Gray with sword fighting and demons”, which is partly accurate. Though Tanzer uses Oscar Wilde’s only novel as her launching point, she doesn’t simply retell the novel; and the swashbuckling supernatural elements, though good, come remarkably late. She basically offers two overlapping books: a subtle historical relationship drama, and a heroic quest narrative.

Tanzer’s prologue mimics Wilde’s first chapter, note for note, though eschewing Wilde’s self-conscious authorial repartée, which is historically witty, but fake-sounding to modern ears. Instead, Tanzer focuses on relationships. Wilde’s characters use language to play status games; Tanzer’s characters use language to build, and tear down, bridges. The result is familiar to period literature buffs, but cuttingly contemporary for paperback genre readers.

Evadne and Dorina Gray are country girls, though that means something different for each. Evadne is adult, recently jilted, suddenly at loose ends: she only values strength, which she measures by her fencing ability, and rectitude, which has recently been shattered when the student vicar she loves betroths another. Dorina, meanwhile, is seventeen, secular, hedonistic, and… well, things explode when Evadne happens upon Dorina with another girl.

Molly Tanzer
There, immediately, we see Tanzer deviating from Wilde. What Wilde had to describe in coded language, Tanzer spells out immediately—probably has to, since modern readers aren’t accustomed to parsing hints. This theme continues. Once in London, the barely-legal Dorina begins aggressively courting Lady Henrietta, who attempts to maintain her distance. The demon living in Lady Henry’s brain, though, desperately desires the beautiful, sensual Dorina.

Oscar Wilde claimed that his trinity of characters, Dorian, Lord Henry, and Basil Hallward, represented three aspects of himself. It’s tempting to assign such meaning to Tanzer’s characters. She marginalizes Hallward, but foregrounds Evadne, keeping the three-legged stool standing. A Jungian psychologist would call the sisters one another’s shadows: adult versus adolescent, pious versus hedonistic, disciplined versus sensual. And so on.

The Gray sisters’ lifelong stalemate gets interrupted by Lady Henry, who resembles both, and neither. She has wealth and dignity, but disdains gender conventions. She encourages Dorina’s interest in art and sensual pleasure, but maintains polite remove. Lady Henry attempts to cultivate both sisters’ greatest strengths, but somehow invigorates Dorina’s hedonistic side, while alienating polite, self-contained Evadne. And most importantly, she channels demons.

See, there’s where problems erupt. Tanzer dangles that demonic influence episodically, but for most of the book, it’s oblique and distant. For chapter upon chapter, we have a historical novel about two sisters attempting to reach adulthood, but failing, because they cannot accept each other. Then suddenly, around the two-thirds mark, the demonic influence becomes central. Sword battles erupt on London rooftops. The book’s entire tenor changes.

As good as Tenzor writes, I cannot evade the fact that she’s created two parallel narratives, one of which idles for hundreds of pages before exploding violently, while the other proceeds carefully and thoughtfully, then gets sidelined by the action. One starts without really finishing; the other finishes without starting. I’d pay cash money to read either of these books, or one that blends them together without a hiccup.

Je suis frustrated.

We have, essentially, two books, fully realized, beautifully written, juxtaposed upon one another. Tanzer’s first two acts channel the kind of neo-Victorian writing created by A.S. Byatt and Sarah Waters. Then, in the final act, Tanzer offers urban fantasy from the mold that produced Jim Butcher and Seanan McGuire. Don’t mistake me: they’re very good books, and I enjoyed reading both. But there’s a scar where Tanzer stitched them together.

I legitimately enjoyed this book, and recommend it for audiences like me, who read both classics and contemporary genre fiction recreationally. She views Wilde’s classic characters from a contemporary perspective, one which rewards readings based not only on sexuality, but gender, class, and religion. My customer review has barely scratched the surface. One could follow Tanzer’s themes so much deeper.

Just be aware, going in, this journeyman author takes unconventional risks. Many of them pay off. But when they don’t, they leave a visible mark.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Gunfire Nation, Part II

The following essay is a continuation of my previous essay, Let's Just Accept It: We're Gunfire Nation
The church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, that brought guns
back into the mainstream discussion

Earlier this week, I wrote that we Americans need to stop fooling ourselves. Years of mawkish posturing can’t negate the fact that we’re apparently okay with some avoidable gunfire deaths, provided no measures whatsoever get taken to reduce access to guns among those most likely to use them recklessly. I still believe that; but I received some pushback from strangers who disagreed with my reasoning. I’d like to address three different objections, in order.

First, one respondent claimed that Americans “still have a higher chance to die by a fall.” No further clarification. Since “fall” is a vague category, I can’t quite confirm or deny this likelihood, especially since workplace falls get classed separately from “accidental falls” by stats collectors, so the exact number is somewhat murky. But a second respondent claimed “stats from 2013 give… 556,000 deaths from falls.”

I can’t find any such statistic anywhere. According to the CDC, there were 31,959 “unintentional fall deaths” in 2014, or ten per 100,000. Also according to the CDC, there were 33,594 firearms deaths in America in 2014, or 10.5 per 100,000. So if we believe the CDC numbers, you aren’t more likely to die of falls than gunfire. That’s just not true.

Then, the comparison between falls and gunfire falls down on one important distinction: we do something about falls. We require stairs to be built with handrails, elevators to have Otis safety clamps, excavations to be fenced off, and even natural cliffs and crevasses to have safety rails if they’re accessible to the public. We consider fall protection a priority, even if it runs up production costs.

This OSHA graphic demonstrates that we take falls very seriously, at least on paper

In my industry, construction, falls are a constant hazard. In any situation where workers could fall more than six feet, OSHA requires some combination of written warnings, orange cones, wooden safety rails, elastic fall harnesses, and other anti-fall protections. My subspecialty at work is specifically constructing handrails and other safety protections. Though we’ll never eliminate all fall deaths, we labor to eliminate all avoidable fall deaths. We consider the effort a moral imperative.

A second respondent mused vaguely that “Gun regulations in the past have not had much of an effect and new ones proposed, such as liability insurance would have about 0% efficacy in preventing gun deaths.” There may be something to that. The 1994 Assault Weapons Ban led to fewer mass shootings with semi-automatic weapons, but other weapons categories picked up the slack. And the liability insurance proposal is, at best, untested.

However, I never suggested any form of further regulation. In my essay, I specifically mentioned intelligence-gathering, and I stand by that suggestion. We now know that the shooter in Sutherland Springs, Texas, had been convicted of beating his wife, been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility, and been dishonorably discharged from the Air Force, according to the Washington Post. All these should have disqualified him from legal weapons purchases.

Yet according to Time magazine, the shooter legally purchased a rifle and two handguns, which police recovered at the scene. Apparently the Air Force never bothered telling relevant authorities about the shooter’s past, so the shooter faced no impediments to building a small personal arsenal. This failure to share important information painfully resembles the intelligence failures we discovered following 9/11. Apparently, we’re really bad at learning.

So that respondent is right; new regulations probably won’t work. We need, instead, to use information we already have, proactively, to identify people who give warning signs. We already use domestic intelligence to track chemical fertilizer buyers, so nobody can build a Timothy McVeigh-style truck bomb. Nothing but lack of will stops us doing the same with guns.

A David Horsey cartoon for the Los Angeles Times, dated 2013

My third respondent claimed that “The insurance proposal is simply a way to make sure poor people can't have guns.” There I must call complete bullshit. We require car owners to purchase liability insurance, even though statistically speaking, in America, the poorer you are, the further you live from work, and public transit: poor people need cars. We have no problem offloading expenses onto those who can least afford them. Until guns enter the picture.

Honestly, each of these three respondents has the grains of truth. We face many risks, some more imminent than guns. Regulations have a spotty record at best. And we shouldn’t perpetuate the idea that poor people can’t have nice things. But none of these statements really negates my point: that as a nation, we lack the will to do anything about misused guns. I believe my message still stands.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

To Live and Die In a Tokyo Office

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 23
Akira Kurosawa, Ikiru


Fiftyish Tokyo bureaucrat Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) lives like a man already dead. Widowed and bored, he repeats the same meaningless tasks so frequently, he no longer remembers names and faces. His grown son and daughter-in-law live with him, but largely ignore him. Then one day a routine doctor’s visit turns sour when he gets the news: he has a stomach ulcer. Except it’s an open secret, “ulcer” is a euphemism for cancer. He’s dying.

Writer-director Akira Kurosawa is famous for making black-and-white samurai epics, and indeed, this is a rare Kurosawa film not featuring legendary samurai actor Toshiro Mifune. Its mid-century setting, as Japan makes the transition to industrial modernism, reflects a nation without much sense of identity. But by demonstrating a grey-faced bureaucrat’s struggle to discover himself, it gives Japan a hero of liberty and initiative. Kanji isn’t yoked to Japan’s past, Kurosawa says, so neither are you.

The story involves a neighborhood association’s attempts to turn a marshy, mosquito-infested vacant lot into a playground. Kanji Watanabe is just one among dozens of bureaucrats who bounce the association from office to office: parks, public health, land use, the fire department. Nobody wants to take responsibility for making a change. But Kanji, suddenly conscious of his own mortality, and aware how his ex-assistant has become more vibrant doing work she loves, finally steps up.

Stomach cancer forces Kanji to make choices. Formerly, he assumed he had decades to improve his job, correct his self-centered children, and generally do something worthwhile. Now he has under a year. He pursues his ex-assistant, who assumes he has untoward romantic interests, but when pushed, he only wants to understand why she seems so much happier. She reveals her secret; he is moved; he greets mortality as the crowd sings “Happy Birthday To You.”

Ikiru: original theatrical poster. Click to enlarge
Remarkably for a big-screen movie, the protagonist dies before the halfway mark. The entire back half of the film (this was before three-act structures dominated filmmaking) deals with Kanji’s co-workers, half-drunk at his memorial dinner, gradually realizing how he turned his life around during his final months. Told through flashback and dialog, their dawning awareness speaks volumes in a country that, to this day, still prizes collective action, and sees change as progressive, not revolutionary.

This movie bears consideration in light of America’s recent romance with zombies. It’s easy to forget, following franchises like The Walking Dead and World War Z, that in the original myth, zombies weren’t ravening murderers. Zombies repeated their living roles, like job or family life, infinitely, mindlessly. The fear of zombies wasn’t getting eaten, it was getting trapped in a meaningless life without even being aware. Kanji is a zombie. But he’s given another chance.

Even Kanji Watanabe’s name reveals his essential meaninglessness. His personal name, Kanji, also signifies the Japanese writing system: this man spends his life signing papers. “Watanabe” is one of Japan’s most common surnames. Japanese culture conditions citizens to work toward the common good, and Kanji Watanabe, the bureaucrat, is the apotheosis of this. Except that, by denying himself, he’s not helping anybody else, either. Living without meaning has left him, and his job, without direction.

Released just months after America’s occupation of Japan ended, this movie represents a conscious attempt to redirect Japanese culture. Though Japan’s feudal aristocracy was formally abolished in 1869, the dispossessed lords shifted focus, became capitalists, and continued dominating the country. People like Kanji have always done the state’s grunt work. By suggesting that an ordinary sararīman (a slur for suit-wearing white-collar worker) could change his community, Kurosawa urged other Japanese wage workers to actually live.

Kurosawa was famous for introducing Western literature and art into Japanese film. Before this film, he adapted Dostoevsky’s The Idiot; five years after, he turned Shakespeare’s Macbeth into The Throne of Blood. This film borrows heavily from Leo Tolstoy, particularly The Death of Ivan Ilyich and The Kingdom of God is Within You. This cross-cultural borrowing probably explains Kurosawa’s popularity in America and Europe. Though slow-moving by Hollywood standards, Ikiru is definitely a multicultural undertaking.

This movie requires a patient audience. It lacks Kurosawa’s signature action sequences, has almost no background music, and is driven by dialog. Viewers accustomed to movies telling them how to feel may find this disorienting. But viewers willing to embrace Kurosawa’s cerebral storytelling will find a life-affirming message carried by a character we genuinely root for. Even if we’re not Japanese, we all risk becoming Kanji Watanabe. And we all have the choice to live.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Let's Just Accept It: We're Gunfire Nation

First Baptist Church, Sutherland Springs, Texas

Too soon. Old news. Repeat. We’ve heard this cycle before. After one nut riddled a Connecticut elementary school with semi-automatic weapons fire; after a distraught, drunken gambler tallied over 600 casualties at a Las Vegas country music concert; now we’ll probably hear it again following the Baptist church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Clearly we Americans have no intention of doing anything about this. When do we admit: this is apparently just who we are?

If we use the DoJ’s favored definition of a “mass shooting,” meaning a total dead or injured of four or more (not counting the shooter), then by one count, Sutherland Springs was the 377th mass shooting in America in 2017 alone—a year with nearly two full months remaining. It was the thirty-eighth mass shooting since Las Vegas, over one per day. The previous day saw four mass shootings, for one dead and twelve injured.

According to published FBI statistics, the incidence of mass shootings continues to rise, while almost every other category of violent crime has enjoyed (if that’s the word) steady decline since 1991. You’re safer from murder, rape, armed robbery, arson, and aggravated assault, than at any time since before current traditional-age college students were born. But mass shootings have become so common, they don’t even make national news until the death toll climbs into double digits.

Frustratingly, we know reams of information about these events. The shooters are mostly white, almost entirely male, and generally suicidal. Target choices generally fall into two categories: shooters who attack their own families, and shooters who attack public places. Schools, shopping malls, cinemas, concerts, and evangelical churches make tempting targets because they involve large numbers of people packed into confined spaces with limited access to exits… and the shooters don’t much care who they hit.

We accept the necessity to hang “no guns” signs on schools, churches, and other gathering places, because some people consider it their God-given right to take guns anywhere they aren’t specifically forbidden. Starbucks? Really? This despite the demonstrable fact that guns make hostile situations worse, not better. I’ve submitted to pat-downs and bag searches going into concerts and festivals, because I know I’m not packing iron, but security cannot tell in advance who might be.

The now-iconic file photo of concert-goers escaping carnage in Las Vegas, Nevada

One man attempted a shoe bomb, and now we must strip to our socks to get on a plane. One jackass attempted an underwear bomb, and now we must permit TSA agents making minimum wage to hit second base. Many American schools and shopping malls have metal detectors and a permanent police presence like a permanently occupied Belfast housing estate. Yet 2017 has been among America’s worst mass-shooting years ever, and nobody asks about guns.

(I have friends who, whenever violence like this happens, inevitably note that these aren’t the worst shootings in American history; the massacres at Sand Creek and Wounded Knee were far worse. And they’re not wrong. Those historic catastrophes took considerably more lives, and are regarded now with shame. But those mass murders were American troops acting in unison. That’s like saying Chancellorsville was worse than a modern urban gang skirmish: they’re not the same thing.)

Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t support blanket gun bans. Even if I considered that a good idea, it’s deeply impractical, because there are currently more firearms than adult citizens in America—and we don’t know where they all are. A well-maintained gun can last decades; American soldiers in Afghanistan recovered working Enfield rifles from the Second Anglo-Afghan War. Gun roundups would require invasive police actions that even the staunchest “Blue Lives Matter” types would despise.

But we’re not discussing every gun, or every gun owner. We have the technology and manpower to spot, and investigate, most people stockpiling weapons, without violating the Constitution. The Aurora, Colorado, cinema shooter was reported to law enforcement, who did nothing. That story repeats itself. Despite “Broken Windows” promises and street-level crackdowns, the police, a primarily bureaucratic institution, will do little until blood spills. Any woman who’s ever filed a stalking report already knows that.

Yes, we have the technology to fix the problem. But we don’t have the will. We’ve accepted a massive proliferation of weapons of war as the apex of American freedom, more important that having faith that we won’t die because we attended a concert. That’s the face we present to the world, and we need to be brave enough to stop lying about it. America has become Gunfire Nation. And apparently we’re okay with that.


Follow-up to this essay: Gunfire Nation, Part II

Friday, November 3, 2017

How To See the Truth in a World Gone Blind

Isaac Lidsky, Eyes Wide Open: Overcoming Obstacles and Recognizing Opportunities in a World That Can't See Clearly

Isaac Lidsky first hit the national stage as a child actor. One of the inaugural cast from Saved By the Bell: the New Class, he had high expectations… which were largely dashed when NBC discovered they couldn’t cast new actors in old roles. He struggled to find his feet, and had nearly done so, when life dealt him a second blow: a diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa. He was doomed to spend his life going blind.

Lidsky’s first book is cross-marketed in health, business, and self-help sections, none of which encompasses the author’s level of ambition. Lidsky mixes scholarship, autobiography, and philosophy in a book that deals deeply with what it means to see the world. Our eyes only provide raw data; if we want to see, we see with our minds. Unfortunately, at times, Lidsky also proves the adage that there’s none so blind as one who will not see.

Network interference, and his already failing eyesight, derailed Lidsky’s acting career at an age when other boys still wonder what they want to be when they grow up. But his parents leveraged his television prominence to start a charity advancing retinitis pigmentosa research (there’s still no treatment or cure.) At the same time, Lidsky graduated Harvard Law School, clerked for a Supreme Court Justice, and launched a Manhattanite career younger than I even started college.

At this stage, and throughout this book, Lidsky mixes memoir, and lessons learned from both success and failure, with hard scholarship. His years as a law clerk trained him well in methods of research and writing: this book reads like a more seasoned author’s product, without the digressions and cow paths most business professionals’ first books face. Lidsky lets facts drive his argument, and when he interjects personal philosophy, he knows the purpose it serves.

Isaac Lidsky
Except… this taut writing lets Lidsky direct our attention, so it’s tough to notice what he leaves out. Just one example: In one chapter, Lidsky’s TV career is puttering out. His character proves less popular than Screech, and with network hopes pinned on this tentpole franchise, they need numbers. Lidsky finds his Hollywood dream turning into a real disappointment. Then—shazam, he’s nineteen, attending Harvard Law, determined to live on his own. What happened between?

This diversion happens so fast, I just assumed he was telling his story non-linearly for improved effect. So I forgot it. Only when I consulted my notes did I realize he just basically dropped the thread. Maybe he left it because that story basically fizzled, and there’s nothing left to describe. Or maybe he’s whitewashing something truly horrific. I have no idea, because he doesn’t tell us. It’s tough to evaluate what never gets said.

Please don’t mistake me. Lidsky uses sight and blindness as remarkable metaphors for personal and professional triumph. He tells stories, for instance, about trying to negotiate Cambridge streets with failing eyes, and later, D.C. streets completely blind. This provides insights into screening meaningless data from real content that provides him literal and figurative direction. His transition from normal, if famous, teenager, to ambitious, self-directed adult, provides lessons many adults I know could stand to learn.

Yet Lidsky apparently thinks, as many self-help memoirists do, that his successes are portable; to achieve Lidsky-like success, simply employ Lidsky’s checklist of lessons. He apparently overlooks ways he started from a position of advantage. Consider his acting career, which commenced when his parents drove him to auditions for local TV commercials. Later, they flew him cross-country, on their own nickel, to audition for NBC. He was coached to consider his own success basically inevitable.

Years later, burned out on lawyering at an age when peers were paying down student loans, Lidsky took a career aptitude survey and determined his correct career was, ahem, CEO. Nice work if you can get it… which he did. Because a well-heeled friend purchased him a foundering Florida tile company. This doesn’t discredit Lidsky’s accomplishments: he turned a building subcontractor around during the housing downturn. But maybe I could, too, if somebody fronted me the money.

I found plenty to like in this book. Lidsky’s principles of controlling what we see by yoking our thoughts, have significant merit. But they apply to him too: it really feels like he doesn’t grasp how others ensured he didn’t start from zero. Like other self-help memoirs I’ve reviewed, this is a case of “take what you need and leave the rest.” Because you aren’t Isaac Lidsky, sadly, and Isaac Lidsky isn’t you.