Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Biggest Rock Stars in Nashville

1001 Albums To Hear Before Your iPod Battery Dies, Part 12
The Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo

Critics sometimes floated the Byrds as America’s answer to the British Invasion, especially the Beatles, and this wasn’t completely unfair. They gave songwriters Bob Dylan (“Mr. Tambourine Man”) and Pete Seeger (“Turn! Turn! Turn!”) their first number-one chart hits. They pioneered the folk-rock, psychedelia, and moody singer-songwriter genres. So when their sixth album dropped in 1968, fans probably expected more of the same.

Yet this album swerves so seriously from anything that came before, it gave listeners audio whiplash. Critics loved the album, then and now, and it had a terrific influence on other musicians, but audiences didn’t know how to interpret a serious rock band’s careen into another genre, one often regarded as at war with rock. Music historians occasionally call this the birth of “country rock,” but by any serious standards, it’s a full-on country music album.

This album opens with “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” a Bob Dylan composition from the Basement Tapes. But this arrangement, layered with steel guitars and twangy electric lead, sounds little like either a Bleeker Street folk club or Roger McGuinn’s distinctive jangly Rickenbacker 12-string. Fans couldn’t comprehend what they’d heard. Despite Dylan’s famous non-linear lyrics, this tune sonically would’ve fit nicely on most AM country radio back then.

By 1968, the Byrds were down to only two original members. David Crosby had found another home singing close harmonies, while Gene Clark had become a solo singer-songwriter, critically lauded but commercially mediocre. Original drummer Michael Clarke had become a session musician, and would never regain his prior fame. Only lead singer McGuinn and bassist Chris Hillman remained. Desperate to record, they hired Hillman’s cousin Kevin Kelly on percussion.

Most significant, however, they hired Gram Parsons as guitarist. McGuinn considered him a sideman for a planned one-disc history of American music. Parsons, however, had a passion for country music dating from when a friend played him a George Jones record years earlier. He found a kindred spirit in Chris Hillman, whose music career began by picking mandolin in various bluegrass outfits. Teaming up, Parsons and Hillman lobbied successfully for a serious country record.

The Byrds in 1968 (l-r: Kevin Kelly, Roger McGuinn, Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman)

Besides two Dylan tracks, this album includes one each by the Louvin Brothers, Merle Haggard, and Woody Guthrie. McGuinn and Hillman composed no original tracks for this album; despite being award-winning musicians, even at the Byrds’ height, they didn’t write much, trusting Clark and Crosby for original material. However, they include two Parsons compositions: “One Hundred Years From Now,” a concert barn-burner, and Parsons’ trademark song, “Hickory Wind.”

Parsons’ love of George Jones drives the sound. It has a rough-hewn fifties honky-tonk texture, but the rhythm section of Chris Hillman and Kevin Kelly gives the band a well-defined low end much like the “Bakersfield Sound,” pioneered by Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, that was contemporaneously transforming country music. This complexity does borrow heavily from rock music, but little resembles later country rockers like Lynyrd Skynyrd or Marshall Tucker.

The Byrds’ longstanding fans regarded this diversion as too extreme. Rock-and-rollers saw country music as reactionary music for white trash, while country fans considered the Byrds ignorable long-haired hippies. The album died on arrival. However, as often happens when something artistic breaks new ground, much of the reaction simply reflected discomfort with something too new and different. Once forgotten, this album now has influential cult following.

Besides core band members, this album includes contributions from several veteran Nashville session musicians, including Earl P. Ball, Jaydee Maness, and Clarence White. (White would later become a band member after Parsons quit.) This complex, layered sound gives the album a legitimate country music vibe. Ten to twenty years after this album’s release, its influence was clearly audible in most Nashville country music.

Despite Parsons’ influence, Columbia Records discovered at the eleventh hour that a contract with a prior band prevented them using Parsons’ vocals. Roger McGuinn rushed into the studio and re-recorded six songs Parsons had already sung, mimicking Parsons’ style. On the Louvins’ “The Christian Life,” this sounds almost like parody, like McGuinn held country music at arm’s length. By “Hickory Wind,” however, he’d found, and embraced, Parsons’ voice.

This album basically consigned the Byrds to permanent “cult” status; they never regained mainstream prominence. But it marked a seismic shift; less than ten years after its release, groups like the Ozark Mountain Daredevils and Pure Prairie League had Hot-100 hits, while Waylon Jennings covered rock gods like Neil Young. Two warring genres began collaborating, and it happened right here. Music would never be the same.

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Day Daddy's Girl Had To Grow Up

Jennifer Handford, The Light of Hidden Flowers

“I had aced every test I had ever taken, but I had also failed to grow up, and of that fact, I was now suddenly keenly aware. I was smart, but I wasn’t wise. I had clung to my role as my father’s child.” (Page 49)
I sometimes complain that books tell me what to think or feel, but rarely do they contain something so akin to a thesis statement as the above quote. As protagonist Melissa “Missy” Fletcher faces her steadfast father’s apparently sudden senility, she realizes she has accomplished little in life. It isn’t a dawning realization from evidence, either. She has a divine afflatus so abrupt, one suspects she knows she’s a character in a novel.

This novel commences on Missy’s thirty-fifth birthday. She insists she doesn’t work for her father, a successful financial planner in Richmond, Virginia; she’s a full partner in the family business. The mere fact that Dad’s the company’s public face, while Missy handles market forecasts, mundane paperwork, and other behind-the-scenes tedium, doesn’t make her inferior. Anyway, she keeps telling herself that, and by implication, us.

But one sunny morning, Frank Fletcher, pillar of Richmond’s financial community, forgets his well-rehearsed banter. A seemingly insignificant “senior moment” marks the beginning of a pattern, as memory slips, blown judgement calls, and getting lost become remarkably common. It takes 100 pages for a neurologist to confirm it, but don’t worry, the dust-flap synopsis spoils the reveal: Dad has Alzheimer’s disease. Missy has never felt so alone.

With postponed adulthood suddenly thrust upon her, Missy doesn’t know what comes next. She’s dating a handsome but uninspiring tax analyst across town. He’s asked her to marry, but she dithers, because he’s so plain-vanilla (literally so: vanilla ice cream is about the only thing he gets excited for). I can’t fault Missy’s ambivalence. She’s a foodie, he enjoys TGIFriday’s and tap water. She wants to visit Italy, he considers Yellowstone an adventure.

Jennifer Handford
Missy grasps the hypocrisy in this judgement, though. She chose her college and career specifically to keep close to her father and hometown. Despite longing to visit Italy, the one time she attempted travelling anywhere, paralyzing fear forced her off the airplane; her bags went to Florence, she stayed home. (This is Missy’s only deeply investigated fear, but she misconstrues even this. Since panic struck before takeoff, I think she fears, not flying, but travelling.)

Most tellingly, Missy Facebook-stalks her high school boyfriend. She admires his glamorous wife and three handsome children. Because Joe selectively curates his life, though, we know what she doesn’t: Joe’s wife has left him, he lost one leg in Afghanistan, and his daughter suffers major depression with suicidal ideation. Wait, he’s getting divorced while she’s contemplating loveless marriage? Which character will crack and divulge the truth first?

Perhaps we’re supposed to consider Missy an unreliable narrator. Though she spends chapter after chapter reminding us how homely, geeky, and uninspiring she is, occasional chapters told from Joe’s viewpoint stress Missy as elegant, beautiful, and awesome Missy is. Though Joe is unhappily married and raising emo kids, he’s clearly paused his heart, waiting for Missy to return. Anyone who’s reconnected with their high-school crush in their thirties cringes inwardly.

I make fun, but there’s a decent coming-of-age story underneath Handford’s authorial baggage. As Ernest Hemingway once wrote, adulthood isn’t a matter of turning twenty-one or whatever, it’s about taking possession of your own life. Just because Missy doesn’t start doing that until she’s thirty-five doesn’t make it less meaningful. Today’s generation knows that technology, economics, and other forces often force “adults” to continue living like kids for years.

Sadly, when I mention Handford’s authorial baggage, there’s lots of that. She overextends Missy’s adolescent hand-wringing well beyond necessity. It takes too long to reach Dad’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, especially since we already know it’s coming. Then the disease progresses so quickly, we feel pity, not empathy. Her romantic life has more red flags than a Soviet parade. We, the readers, desperately want Missy to get out of her own way and do, well, anything.

One wonders, reading this novel, whether any editor anywhere, at any point, took Handford’s manuscript and said, “You need to have characters act, not narrate.” We know Handford has the ability to write with telling detail, because she describes financial documents and dinner preparations with exquisite specificity. She just doesn’t use such skills on human interactions. Handford, through Missy, holds her audience at arm’s length. In the end, I just got bored.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Bloody Streets of Clockwork City

Morgan L. Busse, Tainted: the Soul Chronicles, Book One

Katherine “Kat” Bloodmayne is among the first women admitted to the World City Academy of Science. Like her father, Kat trusts science to explain her steampunk world precisely. But she harbors a secret: when passions run high, she can call fire from her fingertips and kill with her mind. When a spoiled son of wealth attempts to compromise her, Kat virtually destroys him. She has to flee everything, including her father, whose motivations are less than fatherly.

Morgan Busse’s fourth book, first in a new series, is a smorgasbord of genre clichés and boilerplate changes. The literary purist in me wants to lambaste the novel’s derivative content and well-worn tone. Yet Busse so eagerly acknowledges her borrowings, and so gleefully invites us into her clockwork world, that I can't hold it against her. It’s almost like we’re in on the joke with her.

Stephen Grey, formerly World City’s youngest police inspector, quits the force when events undermine his faith in law and humanity. Now he hunts criminals as a “Fugitive Recovery Agent,” because it sounds classier than “bounty hunter.” One ordinary day, Kat Bloodmayne arrives in Stephen’s office, scared and desperate. Tragedy follows close behind her, hitting Stephen right in the heart.

Together, Kat and Stephen escape World City just ahead of bloodthirsty lawmen. Standing at the brink of their empire’s frontier, they seek the only doctor who might cure Kat’s condition, a researcher disgraced for bringing the soul into scientific discussion. Their desperation for answers makes them vulnerable, and in the genre tradition, that makes feelings run high. But before they profess to one another, Stephen discovers what Kat’s been hiding. He may never trust her again.

Morgan L. Busse
Reading along, it feels like Busse has smooshed two shorter novellas together to create one standard sized novel. In the first, Kat’s passion for science, and Hermione-like dedication to learning, drive her into conflict with the patriarchy. She stoically bears the cost, however, in hopes of winning her scholar father’s love… a hope doomed from the outset. Meanwhile, Stephen’s love for law is matched only by his love for a society heiress. In one brutal day, both loves are shattered, stunting his ability to trust anyone.

The second novella, which Busse clearly enjoys more, judging from the attention to detail she invests, begins with a moment of violence. A handsome but amoral fellow graduate forces himself on Kat; she defends herself with her only tool, her superpower. Pursued by scientists who consider her a specimen, she turns to Stephen, the only person she can trust. Together they escape the comfort of civilization for the rigors of the frontier, where they may find themselves, if they live long enough.

As noted, my literary purist inclinations initially made me tetchy when Busse signposted the comfy tropes she pinches from genre classics. But I pushed through my grad-school habits long enough to realize: Busse knows exactly what she's doing. She makes no pretense of art and literature, she's kicking her heels up and having as much fun as she can stand. And she invites us to join her in her barn dance of genre abandon.

Like most steampunk fiction, this novel foregrounds a premature collision between modernity and tradition. World City has built an empire of science and gleaming, multi-story architecture. (When they say “science,” they mainly mean “technology.” There's little pursuit of pure knowledge.) But this capital built on modernism willfully ignores that most of the empire is still poor, hanging on for dear life. Our heroes must venture into the wild to find the answers technology can’t offer.

This novel comes from a dedicated Christian publisher, and there's a definite subplot of faith. Kat, raised without religion, must understand her soul to contain her superpower’s destructive edge. Stephen rejected childhood religion when the law and his fiancé both betrayed him. Faced with threats that put them outside their society, both Kat and Stephen start to pray. But this theme never becomes overbearing or preachy. Readers can simply enjoy a good boilerplate genre thriller if they want.

If one theme runs through this book, it’s this: science is reliable, but people aren't. When humans turn science to selfish ends, we have to find our center outside ourselves. Eventually, we’ll our own frontier, asking ourselves the same questions that plague these characters. Busse mercifully refrains from preaching at us, even at her most overtly religious moments. But she does present one possible answer to questions that are more universal than we might like to admit.

Friday, September 7, 2018

I Don't Give Two Rips About Your Fake “Resistance”

An open letter to the author of the New York Times anonymous op-ed published earlier this week.

Dear Self-Important, Anonymous Insider:

You clearly want everyone to consider you the hero. You call yourself “the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” the “adults in the room,” and the “steady state.” You treat yourself like a bulwark against national and, presumably, global anarchy that would ensue if President Trump had unrestricted access to enact every whim crossing his mind. But we ordinary Americans see you for what you really are: complicit.

Do you really think that, because you’ve stopped the President from calling an airstrike on Ciudad Juarez, or whatever, we’ll forget you’ve helped preside over the most capricious, lawless, harmful executive administration in generations? If you’re part of the administration, you were there when ICE forcibly separated refugee children from their parents at the border. Or when NATO basically promised to keep going without us. Or when the President cuddled a dictator in Helsinki.

By any reasonable standard, America’s place in the global network is less certain, less stable, less worthy of praise than it was when your President took office. He’s backed us away from climate accords, despite global warming having a more robust scientific consensus than Newton’s Laws of Thermodynamics. He’s alienated trade partners in East Asia, the EU, and even North America. He’s made our diplomatic position with Iran more precarious.

Don’t get me wrong. President Obama has plenty of problems history will hold him accountable for: deporting more immigrants than any President in history, or signing death warrants on foreign nationals with drones, or basically holding the door for financial industry insiders after they imploded the economy in 2007 and 2008. Things weren’t sunshine and free beer three years ago. I don’t have rosy-eyed false memories.

But the administration you serve, which has enacted policies I can only assume you approved if you have the kind of authority your op-ed purports, has made things objectively worse. In an attempt to recreate supposed lost greatness, which perhaps existed during the Eisenhower administration, you’ve severed America’s ties to the global community, and to reality. America, and the world, don’t look like they did in the 1950s.

For starters, back then, America could unilaterally do whatever it wanted, largely because Europe and Asia were busy filling bomb craters from World War II. Only America had the manufacturing and agricultural capabilities to rehabilitate the world. But those conditions don’t exist anymore, and won’t again without major global conflict, which nobody should wish for. This is worse than naive pining for the past. It’s a complete divorce from reality.

You can claim that President Trump’s presence allows you to do some abstractly defined good for America, provided you restrain his impulses. You cite three specifically: “effective deregulation, historic tax reform, [and] a more robust military.” I think you’re full of beans. Effective deregulation? This presidency wants to return asbestos to the market. Asbestos, a known carcinogen at any quantity! Whose life is improved by this?

Your tax reform promised every American a $4000 pay increase. Instead, America’s largest employer, Walmart, offered its seniormost employees a one-time $1000 bonus. Your tax “reform” has resulted in the most massive concentration of wealth and resources in history. But like massive tax cuts throughout history, the benefits don’t reach Americans with jobs. Or didn’t you notice the correlation with your recent freeze on federal workers’ pay?

As for your more robust military, are you serious? We proved in two things in Iraq in 2003: first, that no foreign adversary can challenge American military might without nuclear weapons. But second, we suck at nation-building and other cleanup operations after the shooting stops. Why bother making Earth’s most powerful military even more powerful? We need a more robust diplomatic corps to prove anything on the global stage.

Who, then, is your posturing for? Trump supporters, who already believe a “Deep State” conspiracy shackles their President from messianic transformation of the system? QAnon types, who think inside leakers have magic powers? Democrats, who want someone to restrain Trump’s racist rambles and nationalist gut reactions? None of these types will thank you for what you’ve done. You’ve only succeeded in digging your grave a little deeper.

In short, your “resistance” actually worsens ordinary Americans’ lot, jeopardizes our standing internationally, and makes cataclysmic collapse more likely. You strutting across the pages of the Newspaper of Record, patting yourself on the back because things would be so much worse without your intervention, only reveals the depths of your Administration’s moral bankruptcy. You aren’t the resistance, friend. You’re just another collaborator.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Prisons Men Build For Ourselves

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 28
Jairus McLeary with Gethin Aldous (directors), The Work

Twice a year, a large number of men march, willingly, into New Folsom, one of California's harshest maximum security prisons. They do this to participate in four days’ group therapy with some of America’s most hardened violent criminals. In 2009, filmmaker Jairus McLeary followed three men who participated in this therapy session, allowing outsiders, for the first time, to witness one of the most intense learning experiences available.

This documentary got released in 2017, after nearly a decade of production holdups, to almost no notice at the time. Which is both sad, because people missed the ability to learn from the content, and perplexing. Perhaps editing required consultations with clinical professionals to ensure the therapeutic impact wasn’t lost; that might explain the extensive “special thanks” credits. It might also explain why it’s hard to watch this documentary without tears.

Though the therapy session includes dozens, perhaps hundreds, of inmates and civilians, McLeary focuses on just six. Vegas, Kiki, and Dark Cloud are inmates, all affiliated with gangs on the inside as well as the outside. Their names are almost certainly pseudonyms, adopted perhaps because all three purport having cut gang ties. All three continue atoning for serious crimes, both against the state of California, and against humanity.

Outsiders attend for reasons entirely their own. Brian, young and angry, has problems with authority, bounces from one meaningless job to another, and casually picks fights. His inmate mentors immediately recognize him as a prisoner in the making. Charles, fortyish and pudgy, never knew his inmate father, and fears repeating family sins with his own children. Chris simply hasn’t done much with life, and hopes to understand why.

Other, more popular documentarians might have failed to handle what follows with appropriate dignity. Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock would’ve inserted themselves into the narrative, or used intrusive voice-over narration to tell audiences how to perceive. Network newscasters might interview their subjects looking directly into the camera, expounding on important take-home themes. Either way, they would’ve told us what to think.

Promotional image for The Work

Instead, McLeary withholds authorial judgement upon his subjects, content to let the camera simply observe events unfold. We watch over subjects’ shoulders as they occupy their therapeutic circle, seeing ways to open themselves to honest experiences. This proves difficult for all, especially the inmates, whose all-male environment fosters attitudes of extreme stoicism. The movie never directly comments on toxic masculinity; it never needs to.

This matters, if for no other reason than that his subjects clearly don’t have firm mental understanding of their own situation. Following one exercise, the facilitator instructs the men to write down their insights about their own unfulfilled desires; the results are mostly trivial bromides. “I don’t want people to tell me what to do,” Brian writes. “I want to be happy,” says Chris. Both miss what really motivates these desires until the eleventh hour.

Rather than traveling inward, the most important moments are actually physical. Near the beginning, Kiki, one of the inmates doing a life bid for murder and armed robbery, struggles to mourn his sister’s death. Surrounded by men, he can’t open up sufficiently, until the facilitator instructs him to stop clenching his jaw. Without this defense emerging from his body, Kiki cannot squelch his emotions any longer; he becomes able to truly mourn.

Similarly, near the end, Chris finally drops his ironic distance and admits his problem. Where others have abusive or absent fathers, Chris’s father simply dismissed and ignored him; he drifts listlessly now, awaiting approval that will never come. (Here I paused the film and left the room.) The men appoint a father figure, then make Chris push through a wall of men’s arms to confront him. Pushing from the chest to reach his “father” unblocks Chris’s impediments.

These men find their mental blocks in their bodies. Not all successfully overcome them; one suspects Dark Cloud will face many more sessions before achieving release, and Brian may still do time eventually. But those willing to confront the physical barriers they’ve learned, almost all from fathers, manage to achieve some level of acceptance. These men’s struggles are just beginning, but they have tools forged for the purpose.

This movie’s all-male environment may seem off-putting to some, but reflects the prison background. It also reflects the patriarchal limitations these men must overcome: being a “real man” is both their goal, and their enemy. After four days’ therapy, they’re perhaps somewhat closer to achieving that goal. This movie doesn’t offer pat solutions, but it does offer goals.

Friday, August 31, 2018

The Process of Art, and the Art of Process

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 91
David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking

From an early age, most people make art. Children love to draw, sing, tell stories, and stage theatrical sketches. Yet at some point, nearly all of us stop. We all have unique reasons for this surrender: lack of mentorship, bad experiences with critics, the need to focus on “useful” skills. But every expressed reason boils down to one deterrent: fear.

Ted Orland and David Bayles teach photography at the University of California. As such, they’ve encountered every excuse aspiring artists use to justify not making art. Harsh criticism, especially from parents and teachers, often breeds a fear of making mistakes or being wrong. Lack of moral support after graduation leaves even accomplished artists feeling listless and alone. Hunger narrows the artists’ horizons. You name it, they've heard it.

The difference between successful career artists, and disappointed ex-artists, our authors insist, is how they approach this fear. Working artists have this fear, even learn from it, but don’t let it determine them. “When you act out of fear,” our authors write, “your fears come true.” Instead, they approach fear as an opportunity to continue improving, to grow as artists, and to create work that makes important conceptual leaps between pieces.

Yes, this sounds like a bromide. We all heard something similar in high school, and we’ve seen comparable fine-sounding axioms on motivational posters in workplaces worldwide. Bayles and Orland distinguish themselves from the mass of self-help books and creativity boosters (they pointedly eschew the word “creativity”) by focusing on how they, and artists they know and work with, translate these bromides into actions and outcomes.

David Bayles (left) and Ted Orland

The authors approach multiple aspects of artmaking with an eye toward keeping us engaged, even when the process seems overwhelming. Lack of goals, for instance, often impedes artistry: without an exhibition, pending sale, or letter grade, it’s difficult to create intrinsic motivations. That’s perhaps why so many artists stop creating after finishing school. They discuss the creation of meaningful goals to maintain momentum through down periods.

They also discuss education’s discouraging impacts. Though schooling is necessary for most people, its effects can often, inarguably, be discouraging for actual art. This includes both students, whose artistic expression gets subordinated to “skillz drillz,” and teachers, whose energy often goes into teaching rather than creating new art. The process of striking a balance isn’t easy or obvious, but our authors show ways it happens, and why.

Worst of all, of course, is fear of making mistakes. They write, “You find reasons to procrastinate, since to not work is to not make mistakes,” and I feel pangs of recognition. In childhood, our parents enthused wildly about us making something, anything; somewhere, though, adults around us became focused on identifying our mistakes. And not screwing up became more important than the act of creation.

No wonder so many of us stop creating… or bury our creations in a closet somewhere. Yet the importance of human imperfection remains a thread throughout this book. Without flaws, we have nowhere to go to make the next conceptual leap into further art. Just as important, without flaws, our audiences have no dissonance to resolve internally, and therefore little relationship with the art. Imprefection isn’t just inevitable, it’s desirable.

Even the simple recognition that we don’t have to face these fears alone provides motivation to keep creating. Many artists (including me) stop creating new art because we feel we’re alone, or because the rejection slips seemingly isolate us from others. The process of art is truly contradictory: we’re engaged in forms of self-expression, but cannot create strictly for ourselves. Our authors’ anecdotes reconnect us to our audiences, and to our peers.

As photographers, the authors draw the most references from photography. They probably cite Ansel Adams more than any other artist, talking about ways he bucked critics, maintained his vision, and stood fast against discouragement. However, our authors draw generously from other genres, citing Frank Lloyd Wright, Ezra Pound, and countless other artists from across the spectrum. This process really applies to all artists, not just one category.

I admit, this fear plagues me too. The fear that everyone will recognize me as a hack, or that the business aspect of art will overwhelm the creation aspect, or that I’ll drown in rejection slips and vanish, unnoticed. Therefore I read this book again every few years, to remind myself I needn’t face these fears alone. Art can be a discouraging calling. We must remind ourselves that this discouragement isn’t a barrier, it’s part of the art.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

To Die and Kill in the American West

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 27
Terrence Malick (writer/director), Badlands

Kit Carruthers wants more from life than small-town South Dakota can provide. He’s cultivated a deliberate James Dean image and rebellious swagger, but his town will only provide him work collecting garbage in the late Eisenhower years. One afternoon, he happens upon the much younger Holly Sargis, who shares his big dreams. But Holly’s puritanical white-bread father disapproves of their relationship, so naturally, Kit buys a gun.

It’s hard to find a director more esoteric than Terrence Malick. In the 1970s, he produced two critically acclaimed movies, both considered classics, then simply vanished for twenty years. Though he has re-emerged, and become prolific, his Garbo-like silence has become his trademark; he remains hermetically sealed, communicating with humanity only through his films, which remain acclaimed, though often difficult to watch.

This film, shot independently on a shoestring budget, features two future Hollywood stars. In classic fashion, both play roles much younger than themselves: Martin Sheen, at 33, played Kit Carruthers as 25, while 24-year-old Sissy Spacek playes 15-year-old Holly. Though both actors convincingly play their characters’ ages, both characters have the kind of disappointment and premature aging that often characterizes small-town life. They look simultaneously young, and older than dirt.

Holly watches with remarkable dispassion when Kit shoots her father and torches her house. She neither commits enthusiastically, nor particularly resists; we’re left wondering whether she cares much either way. This becomes their respective characterizations: Kit cares deeply, but mostly about himself, and lashes out at insignificant provocations. Holly cares little, and despite her tender years, already drifts through life resigned to constant disappointment.

Martin Sheen (left) and Sissy Spacek in Badlands

The lovers begin a road trip across the American West, constantly accompanied by Kit’s gun. Everything else changes. They steal food, clothing, and cars almost randomly, but the lovers and their gun remain together, an unholy trinity for their own religion. Like traveling evangelists, they visit homes and towns across the Upper Midwest, but they don’t celebrate anything or bring hope. They just kill, because it’s all they have.

Malick subverts many tropes of movies set in the American West. Rather than glofifying the landscape, he trivializes it; despite the iconic vistas of the Black Hills and the Prairie, he holds focus on the foreground characters, keeping the background fuzzy. To the characters living in it, the landscape isn’t uplifting and honorable, it’s just the world around them, so constant that they can’t see it anymore. It’s bedroom, kitchen, and toilet to them.

Likewise, though American mythology celebrates the renewal created in wide-open spaces, Kit and Holly don’t somehow become, cowboy-like, the real people they’re meant to be. Without civilization to provide form, they become increasingly shapeless, unsure of themselves. They have nobody to talk to but each other, so they increasingly double down on their existing personalities. Kit becomes angrier, more passionate, while Holly becomes taciturn and fatalistic.

These tendencies are amplified because Malick doesn’t use much soundtrack music. Not that there’s none; one of Malick’s trademarks is the use of compositions by Carl Orff, and he samples from Orff’s percussion classic, “Gassenhauer,” so generously that recent recordings sometimes give that piece the parenthetical title “Theme from Badlands”. Yet in moments that cowboy directors would lavish with orchestral score, Malick backs with footfalls, the wind, the car idling.

This creates a stark, austere screen picture that forces viewers to pay close attention to the characters. Without familiar cues to guide our reactions, we simply stare, dumbfounded. Many audiences find this movie difficult to watch; I generally go years between viewings, because Malick’s lack of emotional signposts makes the experience very raw. Unlike, say, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, this movie forces honest, spontaneous reactions, like pulling teeth without anaesthesia.

Malick’s supporting characters make much of young Martin Sheen’s resemblance to James Dean. Sheen himself cultivated this impression, and Malick permitted Sheen remarkable latitude in designing his character mannerisms. Kit genuinely excels at receiving attention; on those few occasions when he and Holly aren’t talking past one another, he becomes likeable and human. But his usual isolation makes his angry side recur; inevitably, he returns to being the killer.

Critics have assumed Malick meant some indictment of white, small-town America’s tendency to beige conformity. But Malick never says anything explicitly. Audiences have to decide what this movie really means, drawing from a palpable lack of clues. Like real life, we have to create meaning ourselves, meaning isn’t handed to us by the creator. That, ultimately, might be Malick’s message: in our most human moments, we’re totally alone.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Woke Fantasy and the Misplaced Epic

Robert Jackson Bennett, Foundryside

Sancia Grado, the best thief in Tevanne, has used her unique talents and magical trinkets to nab the biggest score of her career. Now she waits to get paid. But while her fence dithers, she starts handling the gewgaw she nicked… and it talks back to her. The story it tells, of imbued magic so powerful that it could cause civil war, gives Sancia second thoughts. So she hesitates just long enough for all four noble families to start chasing her.

Somewhere around page 50, I started to notice: this novel doesn't have many human characters. Not that author Bennett doesn't have people and dialog and action, but rather, that his people mostly obey the plot. Only the most important characters have internal motivations or thoughts or, mainly, names. Bennett mostly identifies them by physical traits, especially missing appendages or teeth. And they don't do anything; they mainly either oppose the protagonists, or dump information in their laps.

While Sancia worries what to do with Clef, the sentient key that might upend Tevanne civilization, Gregor Dandolo, Captain of the waterfront patrol, hunts her doggedly. Seems Sancia stole Clef from under Gregor’s protection, and if he can't recover it, his career, and the reforms he’s enacted, are finished. So he goes all John McClane on Tevanne’s underworld, wrathful to recover the missing artifact.

The John McClane reference isn't throwaway. While Sancia’s superhuman thieving skills resemble a Dungeons & Dragons character, Gregor resembles an American action-movie hero. He investigates the crime, solo and rogue, with a combination of pithy banter, detective skill, and well-placed violence. In his first meaningful scene, he single-handedly smashes five toughs and humiliates a crime boss in his own tavern-slash-brothel for information.

Robert Jackson Bennett
I suspect Bennett intended some insightful statement on contemporary society. Tevanne has become wildly rich with “scriving,” a magical technique that lets those who can afford it, automate the production of saleable handicrafts. But this booming economy mainly benefits the already rich. While the four noble houses live in gleaming palaces, most city residents sink further into squalor. Importantly, they blame themselves for their poverty.

So yeah, the symbolism is unsubtle. I like Bennett's message.

But having a good message doesn’t matter if the story doesn't keep readers engaged long enough to follow the thoughts to their conclusion. Instead, I got focused on Bennett’s writing choices. Like having only three characters—Sancia, Gregor, and Clef—who show even the slightest traces of introspection. When Sancia walks into rooms, and characters pour her some wine and start explaining the world to her, I can’t see the narrative through the authorial fingerprints.

Similarly, I keep trying to identify Bennett's sources. Between Sancia’s Ocean’s Eleven-ish thievery, Gregor’s hard-boiled Raymond Chandler investigative techniques, and Clef talking like Han Solo, Bennett's story resembles a massive Hollywood goulash. The voice doesn't match Bennett's pre-Renaissance setting. At first, Tevanne resembles early Venice. But then I realized where I’ve read this before: Camorr, the setting of Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards novels.

Bennett can't even keep details consistent. Sancia explains to Clef the elaborate, humiliating tortures Tevannian lawkeepers use on criminals. Then not five pages later, she explains how Tevanne doesn't actually have laws lest rules tread on noble house toes. Okay, minor issue. But after spending several chapters on Tevannian lawlessness (Gregor’s Water Watch notwithstanding), Gregor expresses outrage when city toughs use a “strictly outlawed” weapon.

The difference might reflect the gap between Sancia, born poor and streetside, and Gregor, scion of a noble house. But that explanation struck me only later. While reading, it felt merely sloppy, another sprawling inconsistency which neither the author nor the editor corrected. I slapped the book down, frustrated that Bennett couldn't keep something so basic straight.

Between the inconsistency, the transparent borrowing, and the characters busily explaining the world to one another, this novel reminded me of a first-semester undergraduate writing workshop. The author has an idea, but not the skills necessary to execute them. I understand that, of course. Everyone has to pay their dues. I was there once too.

Despite my bellyaching, I find plenty promising in Bennett's story. I like his politics, appreciate his protagonists, and see seeds worth nurturing. The book before me simply reads like an early draft of something that, with time, should’ve been much better. Time and feedback could've turned this into something with a fully developed ensemble, stronger sense of historicity, and fewer visible seams. This isn't a bad book; it just shipped when it still needed time to bake.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

How Flint, Michigan, Got Its Water Crisis

Mona Hanna-Attisha, What the Eyes Don't See: a Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City

Flint, Michigan’s water crisis began as a rumor—and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, head of pediatric residents at Hurley Medical Center, a teaching hospital in Flint, pooh-poohed those rumors. The water’s fine, she reassured her patients. Don’t hesitate to mix it with baby formula, and certainly drink more water than soda. Until an old friend brought evidence, she refused to believe city water had more lead than a contaminated smelting plant.

Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s memoir of the Flint water crisis hit shelves just as the city made the decision to stop distributing potable water to residents whose tap water still flows brown. She makes a persuasive case that the water crisis resulted from human actions, and has human solutions. What’s more, she demonstrates the official intransigence that made this national disgrace possible. Too many powerful people keep turning blind eyes.

There is no scientifically safe level for lead in water or food. None. Even the slightest amount has lifelong health consequences once it gets inside the human body. But a leaked EPA report, which political appointees strove to bury, revealed Flint’s municipal tap water had lead contamination running sixty times the EPA’s official “action level” where regulations consider panic acceptable. Rather than fixing the lead, appointees tried to discredit the source.

When Dr. Hanna-Attisha brought these findings to Flint’s public health administrators, they offered a stunning response: water isn’t a public health concern. Take it to municipal utility people. Thus begins a bureaucratic runaround in which, even when appointed leaders acknowledge the problem exists, actual actions are somebody else’s responsibility. Apparatchiks would rather defend their shrinking administrative patches than serve public good.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha
Dr. Hanna-Attisha mixes personal memoir, political exposé, and history of public health concern. She didn’t come into her advocacy position accidentally. Her personal history positioned her perfectly to speak when public adversity came her way. Daughter of Iraqi Christian refugees who fled Saddam’s arbitrary purges, she inherited a passion for solving looming social problems. Her parents taught her the importance of education, and commitment to causes bigger than herself.

Public health, as a discipline, arises because human communities have become too large, interconnected, and complex for individuals to take responsibility for their private health. Hanna-Attisha describes John Snow, the Victorian Englishman who first connected London’s frequent cholera outbreaks with improper sewage disposal. There, as with the Flint water crisis, officials refused to believe their continuing policies created disastrous health consequences downstream.

For Dr. Hanna-Attisha, public policy, private health, the managed health system, and information distribution are linked issues. She describes how efforts to control access to information kept people, including herself, ignorant of the water crisis long after accumulations of lead had measurable health impact. And the lack of coordination within the health system prevented alarms from sounding, even after science began gathering evidence. No problem happens in isolation.

The Flint water crisis didn’t just happen. Flint elected an idealistic young mayor and an activist council to offset the continuing economic drains caused when General Motors abandoned the city. Yet the state, utilizing emergency management law, stepped in, overruled the city council, and began a program of cutting financial costs, without regard for human consequences. One of the first changes, was shifting Flint onto a dirt-cheap, but untested, municipal water source.

This isn’t coincidental. Flint, a majority Black city in a majority White state, had its elected city government overruled unilaterally. Dr. Hanna-Attisha points out that nearly every emergency manager in Michigan oversees a majority Black community. She compares the outcome to the Tuskegee experiments. Black Michiganders don’t know where their water, civil defense, sanitation, and other basic services come from, which Michigan is okay with, because they’re poor.

Once Hanna-Attisha becomes aware of the evidence for measurable health problems from contaminated water, she pushes public officials to do something. She initially maintains her faith in the system—after all, she’s employed by the Michigan State University system, she’s a public servant too. Only when they prove deaf to public entreaty, immune to scientific evidence, and more beholden to bureaucracy than common good, does she shift focus to strategic media appeals.

Dr. Hanna-Attisha isn’t what you’d normally consider a public revolutionary. She’s a teacher and doctor, someone who does her job for the love. But in her telling, her love of children and medicine made public resistance necessary. Reality backed her into a corner, and she responded with action. Like the best movie heroes, Hanna-Attisha was prepared to do the right thing, and she acted. That makes her a hero.

Monday, August 20, 2018

The Moment Dogs Made Us Human

Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his wolf (Chuck, a Czechoslovakian Vicak) in Alpha

The movie Alpha begins with its principal character Keda’s (Kodi Smit-McPhee) funeral. After a mishandled moment in a bison hunt, Keda gets flung from a cliff and trapped on a ledge overlooking a ravine, dazed and senseless; his tribe mistakes him for dead, and his father builds him a ritual cairn. He passes through the ceremonies of death, which probably makes this the first of the remarkably literal moments of heroic journey in this movie.

Director Albert Hughes sets this story in “Europe, 20,000 years ago,” a convenient time for historical dramas, since there’s remarkably little history available. We know humans existed, because we’ve recovered bones and rudimentary tool heads, but no known documents, textiles, or complete settlements exist. This lets Hughes liberally combine influences of Tibetan, Inuit, Siberian, and other cultures, to create a hybrid that exists somewhere in the mists of human subconscious, unburdened by boring old facts.

The Hero’s Journey has existed, as a philosophical concept, since at least the 19th Century, but is probably best known from Joseph Campbell. It postulates the idea that mythological experiences share a similar structure, which reflects the human experience across cultures. The hero, who both represents everybody and mentors humankind, passes outside civilization, wanders the wilderness, and returns home transformed, ready to teach us. Think the temptations of Christ, or Buddha’s long journey to enlightenment.

For Keda, this journey is unusually literal. Abandoned by his people, ritually dead and buried, he goes outside civilization because civilization has walked away from him. In a world with only the most rudimentary technologies, Keda cannot survive alone. But early on, he proves himself soft-hearted, unable to kill an already subdued boar, even for food. So when he wounds a wolf that tries to kill him, Keda still cannot leave this predator to die.

Hughes utilizes this preconscious environment well. His Ice Age hunters have elaborate systems of ritual, but no particular religion. Other than occasional references to ancestor worship, the people’s rituals are remarkably utilitarian. Keda and the other youth undergoing manhood rites have tattoos placed on their hands and arms, but these aren’t totems of glyphs; they’re maps to navigate the steppes by the stars. The people’s cairns aren’t holy sites, they’re signposts back to the village.

Kodi Smit-McPhee as Keda in Alpha

Keda nurses his wolf to health, thinking they’ll achieve some ill-defined truce, until it returns to its pack. The idea of humans and wolves working together apparently never crosses his mind. Keda lives in a world where humans use animals for their parts: flesh for meat, skin for textile, bone for tools. But apparently no human has ever decided to cooperate with another species. In Keda’s world, human tribes collaborate peacefully, but not other species.

This movie rejects Thomas Hobbes’ interpretation of human motivations. Life among the people is not “nasty, brutish, and short,” nor is it a “war of all against all.” The movie’s opening scene depicts a bison hunt performed with military precision… until Keda’s accident. In Keda’s world, humans work together. So when he, abandoned by his people, meets a wolf abandoned by its pack, the transition to cooperation requires little leap. Humans are primed to collaborate.

This is a remarkably optimistic interpretation of humanity. We’ve become accustomed to the Ayn Randian interpretation of humanity as essentially competitive, of life as an essentially savage zero-sum game. We construe war, distrust, and advantage-seeking as innately human; think Arnold Schwarzenegger in T-2, intoning dolefully how it’s in human nature to destroy ourselves. Albert Hughes dares reject this, instead believing, as an increasing cohort of sociologists do, that early human survival necessarily required open-hearted cooperation.

From this environment, Keda ventures forth. He’s learned to trust other people; but part of his adulthood rituals also involve surviving a good pummeling, since life outside the village is frightening and painful. Humans we trust, nature we fear. We depend upon animals, but we don’t share with them; that belongs only to humans. But Keda, scorned for soft-heartedness, sees in animals the qualities we trust in humans. Keda sees animals as souls like his.

This openness allows him to do something no human before him has ever accomplished: work equally with animals. His alliance with his wolf comes because he takes natural human cooperation and extends it to all species. And when they return from his journey in the wilderness, becoming, in the people’s eyes, alive again, he’s prepared to lead humanity to its next stage. Keda isn’t exactly a prophet, but he’s truly a teacher of his people.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Not With a Bang, But a Whimper

Claire North, 84K

“The man called Theo Miller” has fallen afoul of his employers. He works in the Criminal Audit Office, and his job is assessing fines for crimes—£30,000 for rape, £84,000 for murder, £400,000 for “acting against corporate interests.” He lives a quiet life and avoids making waves, for one simple reason, he isn’t Theo Miller. He killed Theo Miller and assumed his identity. But someone from his old life has just resurfaced.

The title of British author Claire North’s latest novel deliberately channels George Orwell. But the world she creates more resembles Terry Gilliam’s 1985 comic dystopia Brazil, without the comedy. A massive mega-corporation has overtaken society, and government has become an extension of corporate interests. Everything has been reduced to pound signs and price tags, including human life. It’s Theo Miller’s job to assign the price.

Into his carefully controlled life comes Dani Cumali, whom Theo knew before he became Theo. They had a teenage fling, before corporate interests drew them into different worlds. Something happened since then, something that changed Dani’s life forever, and she wants Theo, with his government connections, to look into it. She never says she’s blackmailing him, but the threat of exposure looms over everything she says.

This story unfolds on two parallel tracks. In one, the past, Theo tries to juggle Dani’s demands with his steady bureaucratic job, while denying to himself how he’s culpable for the disadvantaged situation Dani has fallen into. In the present, a secretive woman, Neila, finds Theo beaten and bloody in the street, and nurses him back to health on her houseboat. Part of the story’s driving mystery is, how do these two strands ultimately join together?

Claire North
North’s prose style takes some getting used to. She writes in a vernacular, conversational style reminiscent of David Mamet or Harold Pinter, that probably sounds more realistic if read aloud. She enjambs paragraph breaks mid-sentence, uses looping non-standard syntax, and wanders on cow paths. This creates a certain intimacy, but also requires more than usual concentration to read. I’m a theatre guy, and even I found following her sentences taxing.

Her voice certainly doesn’t help North’s low-key storytelling. Theo Miller has build a safety net comprised entirely of going unnoticed and not rocking the boat, and North embodies that in her prose: it takes chapter upon chapter to convince Theo to do anything. When he finally does, the results are horrifying—but then, sure enough, Theo finds some way to stumble back into his habitual inactivity.

Dani wants poor, hapless Theo to find the daughter the state stole from her. The story implies the government passed moral judgement on Dani for getting pregnant out of wedlock. We wait with bated breath for Theo to realize the possibility the child could be his, a wait that becomes frustratingly long, because he only knows exactly as much as the story requires him to know. He isn’t so much thick as gormless.

That, sadly, becomes this novel’s persistent description. North creates an interesting universe in which libertarian attitudes have led to a for-profit government, a reading that is, in British terms, half Tory, half UKIP. But she anchors our ability to see that universe on a character so shapeless and inert, so completely passive, that the whole story quickly becomes a cipher. We’re hostage to a viewpoint character with no viewpoint.

North’s chapters featuring Neila sadly underline this. While Theo lies recovering on her houseboat, delusional when he isn’t asleep, she wanders London’s parks, taking in the natural world that’s becoming increasingly rare because it isn’t profitable. These chapters serve North’s theme, but to a disproportionate degree, little or nothing happens during these chapters. I started skimming, waiting for the story to resume in earnest.

Which, sadly, it too infrequently does. I fear sounding like some semi-literate Philistine saying this, wishing life was more like the movies, but in a society where people are often pressed for time, and reading is a luxury not everyone can equally afford, authors can’t negligently waste readers’ time by filling chapters with talky exposition and inert thematic content. Not for nothing do most bestsellers have chapters under ten pages long.

Perhaps the most telling thing I can say about this novel is: at some point, I realized I’d set the book down, and hadn’t picked it up for nearly a month. In fairness, I feel bad about that. North has created an interesting setting that I wanted to like. But she’s given little pressing reason to keep reading.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Gleaming Towers of L.A.

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 26
John Badham (director), Nick of Time

Soft-spoken accountant Gene Watson (Johnny Depp) steps off an Amtrak in Los Angeles with his daughter, on just another day. Newly widowed, Watson is still adjusting to single fatherhood, running his business while raising a daughter. But when he trips an aggressively rude skateboarder, we realize Watson has massive amounts of compressed rage beneath his veneer. The same thought hits Mr. Smith (Christopher Walken), who approaches Watson with a badge.

Back before tax levies and an acrimonious divorce turned Johnny Depp into the ego that ate Hollywood, he famously sought only roles that provided some intellectual or artistic challenge. This meant he worked classics like Edward Scissorhands and Donnie Brasco, but also losers like Private Resort and L.A. Without a Map. This was probably his biggest bomb, returning under a quarter its production budget. Yet in the years since, it has also become a half-acknowledged classic.

Once segregated from the crowds, Smith and his associate reveal their true intentions: this has become a hostage situation. We now have your daughter, Smith tells Watson, while handing him a revolver and a box of ammunition. We demand that you assassinate the governor of California, who’s only a short cab ride away. If, in one hour, the governor isn’t dead, your daughter will be.

This movie’s signal tone is claustrophobia. After the initial scene in the Amtrak station, the entire movie takes place inside Los Angeles’ iconic Westin Bonaventure hotel, a landmark of gleaming glass-and-steel architecture. This means the movie has almost no outdoor shots, and therefore no long-angle shots. Everything happens very close to the camera; even crowds are circumscribed by space, their echoing cacophony emphasizing how we’re stuck indoors.

Nor does space make the only claustrophobic limit. This movie is also pinioned by time: the ninety minutes we spend watching this movie is how long the events require to actually take place. Other than a few brief moments,we follow Gene moment-for-moment through the worst afternoon of his life. The camera becomes a mirror of Gene’s private hostage drama; if he’s trapped, so are we.

Johnny Depp (left) and Christopher Walken in Nick of Time

Trapped inside the Bonaventure, Watson discovers a gold-plated world where people display their wealth, but nobody talks to one another. The governor, played by four-time Oscar nominee Marsha Mason, is surrounded by fans, donors, and hangers-on. Everybody wants something from her, so when Watson tries to warn her about the assassination attempt, his becomes just another voice in a crowd. Violence gets drowned out by the tedium of political life.

Worse, Smith is bird-dogging Watson’s every step. Whenever Watson tries to speak up, Smith shushes him, with an implicit threat to Watson’s daughter. If Watson deviates from Smith’s script, he finds himself in for a pummeling (gut punches are the order of the day). One starts to wonder, if Smith has a script so perfectly prepared, why doesn’t he do the shooting himself? Turns out there’s a reason, and that reason is appropriately dark.

But Watson finds one reassuring ally. Huey, a disabled veteran working as the hotel’s shoe shiner (Charles S. Dutton), has a sense of honor exceeding his lowly employment status. (Try to ignore the inherent Magic Negro stereotypes.) Huey plays dumb to get bigger tips from his customers; but he proves well-connected within the Bonaventure’s staff. If you ever needed proof why organized labor is beneficial, Huey’s ability to make things happen quickly provides it.

Johnny Depp quietly underplays Gene Watson, a downright timid man whose clean-pressed demeanor conceals grief and savagery boiling within him. Watson resents Smith’s attempts at control, which simply exaggerate the ways 1990s California, with its gleaming architecture and stark inequality, controls workers. Watson’s clean, white-collar demeanor apparently goes only clothing-deep. His increasingly disheveled appearance mirrors the passions he can no longer contain.

Themes of confinement drive this film. Stuck inside the building, events unfolding in real time, Watson can’t escape, not even through the cinematic mercy of camera cuts. He can only resist by turning the system’s confines against those who threaten his family. But he quickly identifies the system’s limitations and exploits them to save himself. Watson doesn’t break the system, he simply finds the system’s weaknesses and uses them.

British-American director John Badham has done diverse work, from entertainments like Saturday Night Fever and Short Circuit, to punchy topical dramas like WarGames and Criminal Minds episodes. This movie draws together several themes from throughout Badham’s career. Though the film failed upon initial release, fan reception has given it second life. It definitely bears repeat watching.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Alex Jones and the New Techno-Government

Alex Jones
Facebook and Google have given me massive ethical twitches recently. As Earth’s two among biggest websites, they draw massive amounts of business into their webs every day. It’s virtually impossible to communicate with a mass English-speaking audience without going through these two companies. But as privately held companies, they have the ability to enforce personal, often arbitrary “community standards” on content produced by ordinary citizens. They have become the ultimate privitization of the public sphere.

This most readily manifests in “adult” content. YouTube (a Google subsidiary) and Facebook both assiduously screen images of boobs, sexual content, vulgar or violent memes, and anything else that might curl Aunt Mabel’s hair. I have no problem with that, theoretically. Except I do, because both Google and Facebook are so vast, and functionally screen so much undifferentiated content ordinary people receive, that making these concepts disappear from their sites makes them basically disappear forever.

So I’m conflicted about Facebook and YouTube’s decision Monday to scrub notorious troll Alex Jones. This moon-faced whack-a-mole, notorious for preaching everything from “Pizzagate” to Sandy Hook “crisis actors” to saying Democrats plan to launch a “Second Civil War,” finally pushed even Facebook and Google’s studiously neutral content critics too far. They’ve decided to starve him of oxygen. Part of me wants to shout: “Thank God! Maybe we can get serious, grown-up discussion going again!”


Between them, Google (which owns YouTube) and Facebook (which owns Instagram) control over half of planet Earth’s Internet advertising revenue. They aren’t just content gatekeepers; they profit handsomely from deciding what you and I see. Though neither company has official state standing, both have power and reach autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping must drool over. Making somebody disappear from these sites has consequences so far-reaching, the word “censorship” isn’t out of line.

How do we process entities like this, which have greater reach than William Randolph Hearst or Rupert Murdoch ever dreamed of? Google and Facebook have state-like power, but no state-like democratic oversight. Most shareholders have no idea what contributes to “community standards” on these sites. Even many people enforcing standards make snap decisions. Try this experiment: report a friend’s perfectly innocuous statement for violations. Betcha it’ll disappear, because monitors can’t actually read every reported violation.

Mark Zuckerberg
This isn’t even an issue of whether certain speech is acceptable. Like most First Amendment absolutists, I draw the line at incitements to violence. Saying something like “Person X is stupid and shouldn’t breed” is offensive, and deserves scolding. Saying “Get your rifles, Person X is gonna die” crosses a line between speech and action. And when somebody with a platform reaching millions of listeners, simply saying anything requires a diligent conscience and constant scrutiny.

Yet as we saw in 2016, during the first great “fake news” wave, propagandists can produce meaningless, fact-free gibberish that nevertheless motivates a base already primed for anger. We’ve seen what angry people do: they carry guns into pizza joints to verify conspiracy theories. They shoot a roomful of journalists. They hector parents of a murdered child so badly they have to go into hiding. This isn’t free speech fallout, it’s the consequences of actions.

Google, Facebook, and their subsidiaries thus find themselves in a precarious situation: they are private companies with the reach and influence once exclusive to governments. In order to survive, in order to do business and remain viable, they must exercise the discretion of the state. Their so-called community standards, like “no boobies where children can see them,” now have semi-governmental weight behind them. Companies no longer just live by community standards, they now set them.

This is simultaneously comforting and horrifying. It means companies now step up and take responsibility for ways people use their products, even when they use their products recklessly. Corporations have too often sworn off culpability for their products: think gun and cigarette manufacturers. If Facebook and Google can own their products’ behavior, and enforce some bottom minimum for accountability, then maybe so can Philip Morris or Smith & Wesson. I mean, probably not, but maybe. Someday.

Yet when governments silence unacceptable speech, we understand who they answer to. When states say flag burning and incitement aren’t protected speech acts, we (hopefully) realize the government answers to its people. (Pipe down, North Korea.) Corporations don’t. Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg are accountable to, I assume, somebody, but who? And what ensures they use their unelected, state-like authority reasonably? These questions should scare even we who are happy to see Alex Jones silenced.

Friday, July 27, 2018

The Great Plastic Straw Distraction

Wow, talk about a straw man argument!

I’ve seen little move faster than the Great Plastic Straw Meltdown of 2018, except perhaps the backlash against it. Plastic straws are toxic, non-biodegradable, and contribute to clogging our oceans with continent-sized islands of trash; but the disabled, stroke survivors, and the elderly need straws to swallow liquids. Whose goals are served by each side? Why are they so strident? And are they both missing the biggest question?

The outrage around plastic straws assumes you, personally, eschewing your disposable sissy stick with fast food, can halt the planet’s mounting collapse. Really? Seven billion people, many of them creating trash every day, and you expect me to believe one simple habit change can fix the problem? Of course not. Because the problem isn’t one throwaway product, it’s a massive throwaway culture. My straw habits barely make a dent.

To even reach the restaurant where my disposable straw becomes an issue, I must drive my carbon-burning car across roads paved in carbon-emitting concrete. I must travel from one air-conditioned environment to another, often idling at red lights and other traffic controls. God knows how far my beverage was shipped before my straw came anywhere near it; colas require ingredients imported from Africa in diesel-burning container ships.

Our economy is premised on an assumption of limitless inexpensive goods, services, and energy. We expect food to be fast and cheap, cars to be as attractive as they are speedy, and houses to have autumn-like comfort even in bitter winters and scalding summers. We burn lights all night, heat water we never use, and live unbelievable distances from our jobs. And we discard unbelievable quantities of domestic refuse.

click to enlarge
As a construction worker, I have firsthand insights into the ways our economy generates waste. Depending on the job size, we throw away more garbage daily than my house generates in a year. Off-size scrap, slightly damaged product, trimmings from site installation, and workers’ personal trash, all go straight into the dumpster. Though some materials, particularly unmixed metals, get recycled, they’re the definite minority.

Some of this waste is manifestly harmful. The United States Gypsum Corporation, America’s largest drywall manufacturer, warns builders to return unused scraps of product to them for recycling, because if that stuff gets landfilled, it can acidify groundwater. Yet I’ve witnessed how this almost never happens. Drywall leftovers go straight into the dumpster, because saving and returning it is costly and time-consuming, and cost efficiency triumphs over all.

I prevent some of this waste by grabbing packing pallets that would otherwise get landfilled, and rebuilding them into rustic furniture as a hobby. I’m proud of how my skills at furniture-building have progressed in recent months. But as an individual, I can only redirect limited amounts of product from the dumpster. I’ve watched perfectly good structural wood get landfilled because I couldn’t possibly take, store, and use any more.

hus my problem with the “individual responsibility” model inherent in the plastic straw debate. My individual decision to not take a swizzle stick cannot possibly make enough difference, amid all the waste generated by our system, in the trash going into our landfills, waterways, and oceans. No matter how solemn my intentions, I can’t do enough to really change the trajectory of an economic structure that demands cheap, disposable stuff.

Whether you use or refuse plastic straws is a distraction, plain and simple. Though I haven’t tracked the controversy to its source, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover industry front groups have pushed this low-grade moral panic on America’s buying public to make them feel personally responsible, deflecting attention from the system that profits whenever we throw stuff away. Rampton and Stauber write extensively about how this distraction motivation works.

I don’t want to disparage the impulse to do right in our consumption habits. But the “ethical consumption” model pushed in the anti-straw argument essentially standardizes the idea that the market environment simply exists, and isn’t created by laws, practices, and traditions. It exonerates manufacturers who create massive waste in generating our cheap stuff. And it offloads responsibility for ethical choices onto individuals who, by definition, cannot do enough.

By all means, if it’s within your power, refuse the plastic straw. Something is better than nothing. But don’t think, because you’ve skipped the straw, you’ve done your part. Use that as a launching point to transform, not just yourself, but your relationship with a system dependent on massive human indifference. And don’t get distracted by those who want you to think you’ve done enough.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Über and the Flaws of Economic Purity

So it’s true I avoided using Über for as long as humanly possible. But it was also true that my truck was seven miles away, across an unfamiliar town, up and down fairly hilly terrain, in ninety-degree heat. Funny how solidarity with the working class and all that other undergraduate Marxism goes out the window when faced with odds like that. So I downloaded the Über app and hailed a ride, because the alternative felt too horrible.

I’ve mustered dozens of reasons why I avoid Über: I already have a vehicle, or I distrust drivers who aren’t licensed and bonded for liability, or their presence in my medium-sized community is too small, or I’ve read horror stories of Über drivers abusing their power over defenseless passengers, especially women. Blah blah blah. Truth is, I researched their business model, and I dislike it. It centralizes control, diffuses overhead onto drivers, and structurally prevents organized labor action.

Reading into Über’s business structure, I’ve seen how they control driver access to customers, and vice versa, through a digital algorithm located God-knows-where, controlled by God-knows-whom, and drivers can accept or reject the terms. Unlike locally owned cab services, who know their dispatcher and the other drivers, Über workers are anonymous, even to each other. Workers who never meet one another can never organize for better wages: according to one report, Über pays poverty wages.

This epitomizes the problem underlying American, and increasingly international, capitalism: we’ve found ways to work around market forces and drive wages down for people who actually create value. The person who drives people from place to place, who returns me to my truck so I don’t have to walk ninety minutes, and can use that time for something productive, gets paid less than the person cooking my burger. I don’t value his labor.

Libertarian economics considers this perfectly normal. A product or service is worth exactly as much as people willingly pay for it. If we’re unwilling to pay more for this driver’s service, that sets the market floor; and if that floor stays too small to pay the drivers’ bills, well, they voluntarily affiliated with Über, they can voluntarily disaffiliate themselves. That’s how markets work.

I object to this reasoning because it treats markets like a universal constant, much like how Isaac Newton treated gravity. That just isn’t true. As economist Hernando de Soto writes, market forces derive from a system of laws, regulations, and traditions so intricate, we often cannot see them. This invisibility works to the advantage of those who profit from that system, because they can pretend they’re beneficiaries of the Invisible Hand, and not winners picked by the state and by fellow plutocrats.

Thus the system always keeps costs low and prices high. Labor, materials, and time have values which can be controlled. The lower we can push these values, while keeping floating prices high, the more uncontrolled profits we can muster. If the Martin Shkreli catastrophe taught us anything, it’s that capitalists citing “the market” demand profit margins that would make Colombian drug barons blush. Fiddling expenses like labor throw impediments in the path of such runaway disparity.

Okay, we know all that. We know it. And yet I still called an Über.

Because I know economics devalues work. I know market forces reward the already well-rewarded, while those who actually create value get punished. Yet it was still hotter than hell, and my truck was a ninety-minute walk away. And if I stood on principle and accepted my personal disadvantage so the rich couldn’t profit of some poor fella’s labor, it wouldn’t make that guy’s need for money go away. Somebody else would still disadvantage him.

So yeah, in a moment of physical discomfort and economic malaise, I paid somebody poorly to do difficult work for me. I joined a system of exploitation I’d eagerly rail against in a bar somewhere (while a waitress making minimum wage replenished my drinks). Because while market forces are artificial, one natural fact remains: one person’s momentary need is another person’s opportunity.

Sitting in another person’s car, listening to his Spotify feed and watching an unfamiliar city roll by, I had plenty of opportunity to reflect on my choices. I know what I believe, but you can’t eat beliefs. Moral purity is a fleeting illusion in this world. And, dammit, very hot days make sticking to your guns impractical. Deep down, economics is a human enterprise. And like humans everywhere, I am a flawed and beautiful beast.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Rebecca Roanhorse's Bloody Homeland Blues

Rebecca Roanhorse, Trail of Lightning: the Sixth World

Maggie Hoskie lives in a trailer on the margins of the  Diné (Navajo) homeland, nursing her hurts while awaiting… something. A former apprentice of her people’s most respected monster hunter, she lives at the dawning of the Sixth World, when gods and monsters of Diné myth return in force, so yeah, there’s plenty of monsters to hunt. She just doesn't feel ready. But duty calls, she steps forth, and she faces something all her training never prepared her for.

Native American myths occur frequently in urban fantasy, but usually as a side plot, driving themes of anti-modernism. Indians live in a supernatural time warp, unaffected by technology or, y’know, changing social mores. New Mexico author Rebecca Roanhorse takes a different tack: rather than the past, her characters occupy the near future, a dystopian hellscape familiar from recent novels and movies. Yet it also feels unfamiliar, because mose white readers don’t know Diné tradition.

Jolted from her maundering, Maggie confronts a monster that doesn’t resemble the past. It looks human. So she consults her people’s greatest medicine man. He saddles her with his grandson and apprentice, Kai, a handsome, urbane gentleman as alienated from Diné mainstream as herself. She doesn't want the partnership. But the monsters come from somewhere, and are clearly man-made, so she needs the help. So he holds her nose and proceeds.

Though this is her first novel, Rebecca Roanhorse is already an award-winning writer for her short works. That experience shows. She creates a fully realized alternate reality, which she describes to readers without that shopworn trope, the Respected Sage Explaining Reality To Everyone. Roanhorse eases us into the Sixth World, providing as much information as readers need, when we need it. it feels like we step into a story already happening, rather than getting the introductory data dump.

Rebecca Roanhorse
Dinétah, the Navajo homeland, didn’t rise against its subjugation so much as survive while the United States fell. When the Big Water happened, washing away North America’s major population centers, white government was unprepared, and billions drowned. Dinétah stepped into the vacuum, defended its people, and became a nation. Except then, the monsters came. The Diné found themselves thrust into a world of mythology, magic, and divine chess. Maggie is just another pawn.

Maggie doesn’t want to fight monsters anymore. But something has to pay the bills. So she commences a quest that takes her from Dinétah’s biggest city (which uncannily resembles Mos Eisley), to the fringes of her homeland, including regions she’s never seen before. Her journey has a Philip K. Dick-like quality of passage through dreamland, where ordinary rules of physics and society are suspended. Anything can happen, and often does. And Maggie bears awestruck witness.

Roanhorse does something I really appreciate. Before page thirty, she backs her heroine into a corner, where Maggie must do something desperate: she kills a child. Sounds bad when I say it, right? It’s even worse when it happens. Too many writers follow the advice to establish their characters’ heroism by doing something selfless, like saving a puppy, in early chapters. Roanhorse demonstrates her protagonist’s lack of heroic qualifications. Maggie doesn’t have virtues, only guilt.

This guilt motivates Maggie’s continuing journey, though. She clearly hopes to expiate her guilt through accomplishment, and possibly regain the attention of her former mentor, the immortal Neizghání. Maggie remains vague what that attention means. She isn’t the little girl who once waited patiently on her mentor’s teachings anymore, after all. Yet somehow, she remains fearful about the commitments that adulthood would entail. Like her people, she occupies a liminal space between freedom and colonialism.

Maggie attempts to discard Westernized standards of Good vs. Evil, and live her people’s traditional morality, but she can’t. She admits her language remains inflected with the vestiges of Treaties and other compromises with power. That makes Kai’s intrusion into her world especially confounding. He’s a medicine man, versed in his people’s tradition, but he’s also Westernized in his values. He represents admixture that Maggie, and the Diné generally, try to purge. They just can’t.

This combination of ancestry and modernism, of oral tradition and technological progress, characterizes the immersive reality Roanhorse has created. Her characters live the conflicts, and they invite us to join them. By the end, little is resolved; even the monsters prove less important than the human influences that let them into our world. Yet even without some pat resolution, we feel like we’ve undertaken a hard journey. Roanhorse’s characters brought us somewhere. But where, exactly?