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?

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Batman Movie We Need Right Now

Our first glimpse of Victorian Batman

Two shadows have fallen over Victorian Gotham. One, a human-sized bat, has most criminals running, scared of its theatrical violence and bleakley absolute moral code. The other is Jack the Ripper, doing what Rippers historically just do, terrorizing those the state least cares to predict, especially poor, destitute women. Street justice and moralistic judgement personified. These forces will inevitably come into conflict; they must. Our only question is, which will ultimately represent Gotham’s beleaguered soul?

The 2018 movie Gotham By Gaslight copies the premise, but not the story, of Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola’s 1989 comic of the same title. Resetting Batman in America's Gilded Age, the time that most resembled the economic inequality which birthed Batman, lets artists play around with bat mythology, keeping the core story intact, but stretching it to encompass larger themes. This movie is about Batman, but like good art everywhere, it’s also about us.

Batman launches his crime-busting enterprise by bringing the pain to a Fagin-like ringleader. So yeah, he initially aspires to simply fight street crime. But within moments, pained cries redirect him to a gruesome, precisely targeted murder. Batman quickly crosses paths with a female vigilante who shares his morbid interest in this crime. But the equally mysterious Selena Kyle has no patience for Batman’s theatrics. Women are dying, women like her, and someone needs to act.

Zach Snyder’s DC movies have faced much-justified criticism, including mine: their lack of heroic optimism, characterized by opponents as “cynicism,” seems to violate what superheroes do. This tone made sense in movies like Watchmen and 300, which dealt with desperate people in hopeless circumstances. But superheroes essentially require belief that something better than the present could potentially exist. Steampunk Batman apparently knows the difference between gritty realism and amoral nihilism, which Snyder’s antiheroes have forgotten.

Steampunk Batman and Selena Kyle square off, after intruding on one another's investigations

Animation director Sam Liu presents a deeply principled Batman, aligned with municipal charities, steering street orphans to a local activist convent, picking fights with law enforcement when they’ve forgotten the meaning of justice. Remarkably, Liu also shows Batman getting his ass kicked: both Selena Kyle and the Ripper are equally prepared for a fistfight. Worse, as we increasingly realize, the Ripper’s ethical motivations run as deep as Batman’s, making both men’s violence equally, brutally incorruptable.

Batman’s appeal has long centered on the fact that he doesn’t have to care. Rich and opulent, he could relax in the luxuries his money could afford, as many did in the 1930s, when the character debuted. This alternate universe makes clear this still applies: in a Gotham so impoverished that men turn to theft, and women to prostitution, just to eat, the city’s wealthy look forward to a richly appointed and cosmopolitan World’s Fair.

Yes, Bruce Wayne need not care. He need not let anybody into his inner circle. But he does: besides employing street urchins and permitting conspiracy theorists to spout their crackpot theories in his ear, Wayne’s closest ally is a nun, Sister Leslie, who has nurtured countless Gotham foundlings. When poor, desperate women are murdered in alleyways, Wayne takes their deaths personally. Unlike Snyder’s gratuitously brutal Batman, this Batman cares, even though he doesn’t have to.

Because Batman cares, he inspires others to care too. Near the beginning, as stated, Batman rescues three urchins from their Fagin-like ringleader. These urchins are named Dickie, Jason, and Timmy—a deliberate reference for comics aficionadoes. When Batman rescues them, they’re desperate, scared thieves, and they quickly return to that life, because it’s what they know. But it doesn’t take long before they’re participating in Batman’s crusade, even when common street wisdom says to run.

Bruce Wayne gets handed an important clue by Dr. Hugo Strange

This doesn’t come without contradictions. Supporting characters lavishly praise the World’s Fair (and Bruce Wayne’s financial support) in early scenes, that veteran fans realize, by the end, it will burn. The only question is how. The thing Wayne’s money has created, Batman’s pulp justice must destroy. In the end, one of Batman’s young Robins says: “It was all phony anyway. We'll make somethin' new, somethin' better.” And we, the audience, think: yeah, we probably will.

Comic-book mythology generally has one underlying ethic: a pure heart, backed with well-placed violence, can restore justice, eventually. That’s what Steampunk Batman does, too, bringing the beat-down in honor of those abandoned by society and economics. He identifies an enemy and pummels him into submission, restoring hope to Gotham's hopeless.Yet he does more, too. By caring when he doesn’t have to, and fighting when he could lose, he gives us permission to believe again.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Gothic Forest in the New Millennium

Julia Fine, What Should Be Wild: a Novel

Young Maisie Cothay can kill or resurrect at a touch. Not just humans, either: she has accidentally resurrected winter-killed grass, taxidermy, and roadkill. Because of this, her widowed father raised her in her family’s ancient stone-walled manor house, in almost complete isolation, since birth. But at age sixteen, she finds herself without a guardian, scared and truly alone. So, like girls everywhere, she prepares for an epic quest.

Debut novelist Julia Fine creates a sort of Modernist Gothic tale, a story about a girl who cannot exist with society, but whose coming of age makes her desperately lonely. It has all the classic Gothic components: mysterious old house full of relics, dark forest, moving pathways, evil inheritance. Fine combines these elements with a dawning adulthood, with all the complexities that entails, in a symbolic Mulligan stew that’s remarkably unsubtle, but nevertheless pretty satisfying.

Maisie’s father raises her in Urizon, a massive, labyrinthine house that’s been in her late mother’s family for generations. She grew up with only books for companions, which explains her strange, Jane Austen-esque manner of speaking in the early 21st Century. Maisie’s only friends were Mrs. Blott, a grandmotherly woman from town, and a dog named Marlowe, the only living thing that resists the mortal effects of her touch.

Urizon overlooks a mysterious, trackless forest. Local legends abound of villagers who wandered into the forest and emerged, days or weeks later, gibbering deliriously about how the pathways move behind them, so they cannot find their way out. Despite encroaching modernism, the forest remains a primeval source of terror. We know, though Maisie doesn’t, how seven women in her matrilineal genealogy wandered into this forest… and are still watching her.

Julia Fine
It’s tough to review books like this. Fine deliberately defies Rule Number One of postgraduate writing workshops: hide your sources. It’s impossible to read this novel without noticing how the Brontë sisters, Daphne du Maurier, and Shirley Jackson have influenced Fine. Ambitious readers could profitably do a source study on where this novel fits in Goth-Lit history. Fine’s biggest contribution is moving her main story into a world of smartphones and GPS.

This placement within a literary continuum could be criticism or praise. Reading this novel, I never stopped noticing Fine’s genre influences. However, I never stopped noticing Fine’s genre influences, yippee! Though it’s possible, even easy, to identify where Fine appropriated plot elements and character types, she handles them well, constructing a story where the pieces fit smoothly, without a sense of being stitched together.

Fine keeps the novel’s setting fairly ambiguous. The Elizabethan manor house, overlooking a village straight from The Wicker Man, suggests England, as does the gradually revealed family line, dating back to the Iron Age. But certain cultural markers, including Maisie’s generous use of Americanisms, suggest a North American setting. Such ambiguity of place reflects Gothic tradition: the story is usually set everywhere and nowhere, to literary sticklers’ chagrin.

I can muster one definite criticism. Around the one-third mark, old age takes Mrs. Blott (what a perfectly Dickensian name!). Her role—old, maternal, vaguely sexless—transfers to her university-age nephew, whom Maisie can’t help noticing is handsome, with his runner’s physique and curly hair. This leads to Maisie’s nascent sexual awakening, which Fine describes in terms of her body: breasts, thighs, and other chicken parts. She sounds uncannily like a male writer.

So yeah, spoilers but not really: Mrs. Blott dies, Maisie’s father evidently wanders into the forest that sometimes takes people, and Maisie finds herself without guardians for the first time. But she gains her first connection with a human being near her own age. Maisie and Matthew resolve to rescue her father, though they don’t know where to begin. This commences Maisie’s symbolic rise to adulthood, in which sexuality inevitably plays a part.

Of everything Fine addresses in this novel, the one thing I wish she handled more subtly was Maisie’s sexuality. Other parts of her relationship with Matthew, and others, flow naturally, especially for a girl who experiences life primarily through books. The fantasy aspects never seem pasted onto the coming-of-age narrative. Fine is realistic where realism works, and Gothic where supernaturalism serves her story’s needs.

This book primarily appeals to readers who already appreciate the Goth-Lit tradition, who understand how Fine’s consciously anachronistic storytelling serves a purpose. Audiences unfamiliar with Gothic tropes may find her choices confusing. But for the correct readers, Fine creates a supernatural story just realistic and relevant enough to add something new to the tradition.

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Flames of Passion, and Their Smoldering Remains

Catherine McKenzie, Smoke

Elizabeth Martin awakens one Tuesday in September to the smell of smoke. A career wildland firefighter, she swings into well-programmed Emergency Mode; but her husband Ben reminds her she’s retired for the sake of their marriage, and needs to act like it. Naturally, Elizabeth ignores her husband and races headlong into danger. There she discovers this man-made disaster has joined the long list of things threatening her illusion of domestic bliss.

Across town, Mindy Mitchell tries to get her friends, the Coffee Boosters, to do something generous for the fire’s first victim. Once Elizabeth's best friend, Mindy fell out with her a year ago, and now follows a group of manipulative suburban harpies she dislikes but can’t leave. To her horror, Mindy learns her son Angus has fallen in with a similarly dysfunctional peer group. Worse, Angus’s group may be responsible for the fire that's one shifting wind away from overrunning their entire town.

Veteran author and Montreal attorney Catherine McKenzie writes about the ways people fail to communicate, and how far our intentions fall from our consequences. Elizabeth and Mindy face the Cooper Basin Fire from opposite directions, but both stand to lose everything. The symbolism is unsubtle, but effective. The solution lies one conversation away, if the women can overcome their differences and talk.

These two women each want what they think the other has. Deferential, conflict-averse Mindy admires Elizabeth's apparent confidence, while Elizabeth, childless approaching forty, admires Mindy’s domestic stability. Elizabeth and Ben have agreed to divorce before page one, but still sleep in the same bed. The reason for their estrangement develops incrementally throughout the book. Mindy, meanwhile, marches listlessly through married life without much talking to her husband or kids.

Catherine McKenzie
These women’s difficult domestic situations evolve for readers against the unfolding backdrop of the Cooper Basin Fire. After a hot, dry summer, conditions are perfect for a sudden flashover event in the grasslands surrounding the mid-size, touristy resort town of Nelson. McKenzie is resolutely vague on where Nelson exactly is. Elizabeth, originally from Ottawa, gives hints it might be in Canada, but evidence suggests it’s probably in Wyoming.

Nelson’s city fathers want desperately to contain the fire, not only to preserve their community, but to protect easy tourist dollars. Wait, wasn’t that the backstory of Peter Benchley’s Jaws? Yes it was, and much like there, McKenzie uses the contrast between human facades and natural disaster to explore how fragile society actually is. The beauty, art, and commerce Nelson’s leaders preserve, come at the price of sweeping injustice under the rug.

Reading this book, I feel torn in multiple directions. The three relationships which play centrally in this novel—Elizabeth’s marriage, Mindy’s family, and the women’s friendship—could all heal nicely if people just spoke to one another. And the forces they fight against, particularly Elizabeth’s boss in the county attorney’s office and Mindy’s bitchy friends in the Coffee Boosters, come across as venal villains recycled from postwar Hollywood screwball comedy.

Yet I read this book, cover to cover, in two sittings. Analyzing the individual pieces, they seem initially pretty low-stakes; why can’t everybody ignore their baggage and remember there’s a massive grass fire threatening their town? But that’s the grad-school writing workshops talking, where everything has to be somehow massive. This novel’s parts coalesce into something stronger, the battle being for what narrative the characters accept as real.

Because real life often appears low-stakes, doesn’t it? The individual moral compromises we make to maintain our relationships, do our jobs, and not be alone in the world?  Only when they come together, when we realize each individual compromise has contributed to a mountain, does life have the momentum we associate with drama. McKenzie has written a story we cannot analyze for its elements, which appear boring separately; we must consume the whole thing together.

Elizabeth doesn’t talk to Ben, nor Mindy to her family, nor the women to one another, because humans fall into patterns of avoidance. The most important topics in our lives are also the ones we most assiduously resist discussing, because the emotional resonance rings too hard. Instead, we fall into preordained patterns of work, domesticity, and meaningless friendship. Only when something threatens to burn it down to we change.

This book wouldn’t pass a postgraduate writers’ workshop. Having been trained to overanalyze my own work, I realize I’ve fallen into doing that to others. Yet reading its parts together, this novel has a much more complex, sophisticated texture than its individual parts. I’m glad I swallowed my reluctance and kept reading, because this novel proved much greater than I had any right to expect.

Friday, June 22, 2018

America Has Surrendered an Important Global Battle

John Moore's heartbreaking image has captured world attention

Late in his book Stamped From The Beginning, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi makes a point I’d never considered before (one among many): America’s elected officials didn’t embrace the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s because it was right. They didn’t write laws extending voting rights, police protection, and public schools to African Americans because they felt fuzzy inside. They weren’t moved by some overwhelming change in America’s social conscience.

They did it because they knew the world was watching.

Following World War II and the upheaval caused by carpet bombing and the Marshall Plan, America had the moral heft necessary to change the world. We alone had the military might, economic power, and simple numbers to help create a better world. Granted, this happened because Europe and Asia had been bombed into oblivion, their industrial and cultural bases obliterated to expunge global fascism. But still, America had a unique opportunity in world affairs.

This opportunity wasn’t unchallenged, though. Having paid the high cost of two world wars, the Soviet Union desperately didn’t want to meet the postwar global landscape alone. Having established COMINTERN and the Warsaw Pact, it settled into a long-term global strategy session. It provided strategic help to revolutionary anti-colonialists like Patrice Lumumba and Fidel Castro. And it waited.

As the public face of capitalism, liberal democracy, and Enlightenment freedom, America needed to press the case before a global audience that our model of government better suited the world’s needs than Soviet mandatory collectivism.And we couldn’t do that if we kept designated groups subordinate at home. Civil rights weren’t merely a social good in the 1950s and 1960s; they were a PR front in the Cold War. A front we fought aggressively.

I couldn’t help remembering this fact as President Trump’s concentration camps for immigrants became a national and international news-gathering controversy. John Moore’s heartbreaking photograph of an unidentified two-year-old girl weeping at the border over her separation from her parents, has become an international phenomenon. This has become the face America currently presents to the world. And it’s a face we should all feel ashamed of.

This isn’t hay. I’ve written previously that America won the Cold War in part by subsidizing art, science, and education. Come to our side, we pledged the world through our actions, and you’ll have more beauty, more knowledge, and more opportunities for upward advancement than any other system our planet offers. We won partly on this platform. Then, having won, we burned the platform to the ground.

This, sadly, is how the world will see America for years to come

It’s impossible to disregard America’s precarious place in today’s world. Having won the presidency partly by telling voters “the world is laughing at us,” Donald Trump has prosecuted his presidency by openly disregarding global opinion. He’s launched tariffs on our allies in NAFTA and the EU, sometimes in defiance of treaties, while snuggling up to notorious opponents of freedom like Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-Un.

Donald Trump is apparently immune to scrutiny, at home or abroad. He shows no awareness that people watch him, as America’s public face, and make determinations about how trustworthy Americans are on trade, rights, or economy. He doesn’t care that he’s telling the entire world they can’t trust us to keep our word, uphold our values, or present the global community a better choice than complete anarchy.

And I’m forced to wonder what’s the alternative.

The only countries capable of seriously challenging American global dominance today are China and Germany. China is currently on track to becoming history’s longest-surviving one-party state, and for obvious reasons, history takes a dim view of potential German world hegemony. This means we’re facing a potential future world without any sort of moral leadership, and the alternative is international lawlessness. Today’s economic and military complexity absolutely demands some form of world leader.

America absolutely needs to resume its former practice of showing the world its best face. We won the war against Soviet Communism, in no small part, by rejecting our worst impulses and enshrining antidiscrimination into our laws. Admittedly, we still have long strides to achieve the potential of our goodness. But showing the globe the worst aspects of our racist past is essentially surrendering the international PR front.

Donald Trump needs to become aware that the world watches him. Sadly, our era’s defining image may be that notorious G7 stare-down between Trump and Merkel. The forces who captained World War II are back at it again. And that, sadly, is the face the United States is currently showing the entire world.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

What Does It Mean To Be “Black”?

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 91
Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped From the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America


What makes a racist? Tough question to answer. Despite Americans’ persistent myth of racial progress, most of us have seen the continuing occurrence of outright bigotry at least occasionally. Smarter writers than me have commented upon how racism remains written into America’s social code, even when dressed in race-neutral language. But what if the problem runs deeper, and influences more decisions, than even most Americans realize?

Historian and African Studies professor Ibram Kendi admits, in his introduction, even he’s imbibed racist ideas, which he only recognized when he began writing this book. Racism remains as widespread in America as the air we breathe; spotting it sometimes takes a radical effort of countercultural thinking. Kendi and I hope Americans will, after reading this book, speak boldly against racism we see. Even when it doesn’t look like naked bigotry.

Racism didn’t always exist. St. Augustine explicitly rejected creating divisions among people; we’re all descended from Adam, he insisted. Aristotle and Ibn Battuta said something similar. Not until the 1460s, when Portugal conquered Ceuta, in Morocco, and brought Moors back for slave markets, did Europeans start seeing different-colored people as separate races. The Portuguese needed a moral justification to sell human beings captured in war, and racism was born.

That establishes Kendi’s theme throughout this book. American folk wisdom holds that slavery and segregation arose from widespread racist ideals, but Kendi says this reverses cause and effect. He writes explicitly on page 174, and implicitly elsewhere: “Racist ideas always seemed to arrive right on time to dress up the ugly economic and political exploitation of African people.” We could say the same about other races too.

Professor Ibram X. Kendi
Kendi identifies three threads in American racial thinking. (Race, for Kendi, means White and Black. He briefly acknowledges other races, but they aren’t his focus.) Segregationists believe Black and Brown people are innately inferior, and should remain separate from mainstream White society. Assimilationists believe Blacks aren’t innately inferior, but their culture and behavior are; if Blacks simply learned to comport themselves more White, inequality would wither.

Against these two threads, Kendi poses pure Antiracists. These people oppose all attempts to divide people, whether biologically or culturally, into constructed racial categories. This gets complicated, because many Assimilationists call themselves Antiracists, even while embracing categories.. It’s also complicated because many superficial Antiracists engage in what Kendi calls “colorism,” exemplified in the old schoolyard rhyme “If you’re black, get back.” Remaining actually Antiracist requires constant vigilance.

Racism has evolved throughout American history; it has never been only one force. Kendi observes that evolution through five figures he believes exemplify the stages of American history: Puritan preacher Cotton Mather, Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison, pioneering Black scholar W.E.B. du Bois, and activist Angela Davis. They focus threads in American history, while their own evolving opinions reflect their time, and racism’s changing demands.

Jefferson, for instance, was anti-abolitionist, but also anti-slavery, at least in his writings; he struggled with the contradictions, but never reconciled them before his death. Du Bois started out accepting Assimilationist ideas of Europe’s cultural superiority, and Black people’s obligation to “improve” themselves in White eyes. His opinions shifted as he realized Black improvement usually resulted in Whites moving goalposts, and as he had firsthand encounters with Africa.

If these important American luminaries can struggle with race and liberty, Kendi says, then our own ongoing struggles mean we’re still capable of improving. But only if we let ourselves. American race history hasn’t been a progress from improvement to improvement. We’ve seen several setbacks, some shockingly recently, when race relations have moved away from communication and freedom. And we’ve seen Black Americans struggle with how to define themselves.

Don’t undertake this book lightly. Kendi peers deeply into historical events your high school history textbook elided to maintain its optimistic tone. His investigations of the economic motivations behind American racism, and the way race relations evolve to keep labor cheap and compliant, are often harrowing. Reading this book, you will feel great regret and sadness over bad choices made, historical opportunities lost, and Americas that could have been.

Kendi’s forward to the paperback edition includes acknowledgement that Donald Trump complicates American race issues. The most outspokenly racist President since Woodrow Wilson, Trump challenges our myths about eternal improvement. Yet Kendi refuses to concede to pessimism. No, everything isn’t sunshine and eternal progress in American race relations. But, Kendi says, we’ve seen enough improvement, enough times, to believe that addressing this problem is maybe possible. Maybe now is the time.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The City of Lost Livestock

Rosamund Young, The Secret Life of Cows

The Young family has operated the same livestock farm in northern England’s Cotswolds region for over sixty years. By Rosamund Young’s description, they were organic farmers before the term “organic” was invented. They didn’t expect to pioneer a movement; they just bought a farm and, knowing little about livestock, they let the cattle graze where they wanted. The effects on their cattle were both unexpected, and instantaneous.

Rosamund Young actually puts little of herself into this book. She has written about the complex personalities and unique behaviors of livestock living on her property; she exists, for us, only in relationship to her cattle. Yet she presents her animals as dynamic individuals, whose bucolic adventures have the depth of Thomas Hardy townsfolk. In tone and content, Young reminds me of reading James Herriot as a child.

Outsiders often see cattle as uniform, interchangeable, and stupid, Young says, because we see them from outside. If left to themselves, livestock know their own best interests. (Young’s anecdotes mostly focus on cattle, but she also raises, and occasionally writes about, sheep, pigs, and chickens.) They find the best grasses, form friendships, raise their calves, and generally make a community. And they do this without high-handed human intervention.

One young cow has such tender sensibilities that she won’t cross wet fields; getting mud on her shanks is beneath her dignity. Another simply disdains human help and does her own thing, until the day her hooves get tangled in barbed wire, forcing her to quietly permit humans to disentangle her. Several anecdotes dwell on mother-daughter relationships which, when calves aren’t weaned for milk, last for years. Cows often help raise their grandchildren.

It takes a herd, apparently.

Rosamund Young with Dot, one of her cows (photo from The Guardian)

Young spins stories of her animals, with the aplomb of an old friend trading stemwinders at the watering hole. There’s a hint of the peat-fire British rural pub in her storytelling. She doesn’t enforce chapter breaks and beginning-middle-end structure on her stories. This sometimes makes her anecdotes difficult to follow, especially if you put the book down overnight. But it gives her stories a personal touch missing from scholarly texts.

There’s serious science behind raising animals naturally. Grass-fed beef is higher in nutrients, less prone to parasites, and is generally considered tastier. Such science isn’t Young’s emphasis, however, and she frontloads it in her long introduction. Rather, she emphasizes how herds, when permitted to graze freely and interact naturally, organize themselves around raising children and protecting one another. Left to themselves, livestock form a community.

This stands in contrast to industrial livestock farming. In her introduction, Young describes scientific research indicating that cattle raised in confinement get smaller and smaller skulls across generations, as their brains go unchallenged. Cage-raised chickens need their beaks removed to prevent them pecking one another to death, because they’re bored. Industrially raised animals become stupid, violent, and less healthful for humans.

As a former educator, it’s impossible for me to avoid obvious comparisons. State-run schools, like confined animal operations, operate for cost effectiveness, not the well-being of the children, or those who will employ the children later. Though schoolteachers, like hired farmhands, generally love their work (and accept penurious wages for that love), they’re inadvertent participants in a system that harms their charges and graduates ill-prepared product.

Save that for later, though.

By standing back and providing the help her livestock needs, when the livestock needs it, Young describes how animals flourish, live long lives, and produce beautiful children. But more than that, her animals husband the earth, each species consuming just the right foliage, each individual consuming the right balance. Young describes streams running clear and classical British hedgerows waxing prosperous because the animals husband nature, and she husbands the animals.

Young admittedly elides one important fact: she’s raising these animals for food. Though she briefly mentions her family cleans, dresses, and sells its own meat, it scarcely comes up again. And she keeps talking about “cows,” with only a few anecdotes about “bulls.” This allows her to avoid mentioning that bulls are sorted from an early age: a few become breeding stock, the rest become meat, usually around sixteen months.

Though I wish Young addressed the meat issue better, that’s incidental to her point. She prefers discussing how animals organize themselves without humans steering them to our convenience. Raising animals naturally may be more time-consuming and costly in the near term. But her animals to well, feed humans abundantly, and nurture their own land. Let’s remember that cattle aren’t stupid, they’re subtle.

Monday, June 11, 2018

A Serious Bible For Serious Times

Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again

Rachel Held Evans’ fourth book commences with a vital question: how can modern Christians read the Bible receptively? Given its bouts of misogyny, genocide, and intolerance; its apparent scientific illiteracy; and its often contradictory moral compass, how can we take the Bible seriously? Despite Evangelicals’ common claim, nobody reads the Bible literally; all believers select what they consider authoritative. Why, then, don’t we chuck the whole thing out?

Raised conservative Evangelical, Evans describes her childhood relationship with the Bible as a “magic book.” She loved church, attended a Christian college, believed the dogma. But adulthood left her disillusioned, like many of us. Reading the Bible with grown-up eyes, she discovered it little resembled the picture books and Sunday School flannelgraphs of childhood. She struggled with doubt, left her church, and began questioning everything.

Years of mentorship under theologians, academics, pastors, and street-level Christians taught her to understand the Bible, not as textbook or instruction manual, but as story. Human beings think in narrative. We need important concepts in ethics, science, politics, and other topics translated into stories before we understand them. And that’s what these biblical writers did, providing stories for peoples struggling to find their places in an often oppressive world.

To help understand what she means by “story,” Evans rewrites biblical moments into modern forms. Job’s argument with God as a screenplay set in a modern Christian university. The autobiography of the Samaritan Woman at the Well. Peter walking on water as a Choose Your Own Adventure. Biblical writers told these stories in the language of their time; Evans makes a stab at retelling them in our language.

Rachel Held Evans
Many Christians’ nagging desire to find universal aphorisms in Scripture blinds them to the remarkable characters and epic struggles which permeate the Bible. We read national histories, but also family histories; pitched battles and lingering wars, but also deep internal struggles with doubt. These stories resemble our own stories, the generational memory of favored grandparents and national myths. We indulge the same impulses that drove the biblical authors millenia ago.

This isn’t a mere storybook, however. A seasoned journalist, Evans combines deeply personal, even autobiographical, ruminations on the Bible with the latest scholarship on how stories bind humans together and raise a thinking mind. Her personal struggles with faith share equal footing with public debates about stories’ meanings, especially amid changing values about sexuality, gender, and politics. Our world is changing; how does that affect our stories?

One story features a First-Century pastor reading one of Paul’s epistles to the congregation. We forget that Scripture was written to be read aloud, an engagement of multiple senses in public. In both her stories and her chapters, Evans attempts to recapture the wonder first-generation Christians must have felt discovering Jesus for the first time. We lose the plot when we become hypnotized by strict exegesis or seek moral absolutes.

Scripture admittedly does have occasional blunt declarations of truth. The Commandments, for instance, or the Levitical laws. But nobody (except the most Orthodox of Jews) applies all laws equally; we have stories, experiences, moments that help us decide which truths apply. The Bible, Evans writes, isn’t one book; it’s several books, written across several centuries, a panoply of stories feuding to provide the best explanation of the reality we share.

I especially like when Evans notes that Christians use Scripture to foreclose debate. “The Bible says X, so do it!” Jews, by contrast, use Scripture to commence debate: “The Bible says X, what does that mean? Did it come from a context? Does this commandment ring through the ages, or must we strive to understand God’s will now?” Christians could profit from reclaiming this spirit of debate.

Evans wrote this book in the year surrounding her first child’s birth. Unsurprisingly, questions of how we pass stories from generation loom large in her investigation. The Bible represents a sophisticated oral and written tradition specifically intended to preserve a people’s heritage and beliefs across the span of time. Evans doesn’t have simple solutions. She simply says we must not fear to bring the eternal story into our changing world.

Maybe the Bible isn’t a “magic book” anymore. Maybe adults, facing a world very different from that which birthed the Bible, must have a different relationship with the story than we once did. But Evans invites us faithful doubters to reclaim the story heritage our ancestors took for granted. Maybe then we can rediscover what it means to love and have a relationship with our beloved Bible.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Han Solo Deserves the Right to Die

Han Solo at the end of his journey.

The pop culture brouhaha recently circles almost entirely around the latest Lucasfilm extravaganza, Solo: a Star Wars Story. The debate largely moves around fans who gush enthusiastically about how awesome it is, versus industry critics casting blame for its lackluster take and slow momentum. Is Solo a statement about where we currently exist as a society? Or a numbing admission that we’ve reached Star Wars exhaustion? I can’t help wondering if there’s an Option C.

I shouldn’t have to say “Spoiler Alert,” but look away: Han Solo dies in The Force Awakens. They finally gave Harrison Ford a heroic death fighting the good fight, which he wanted thirty years ago. But having given Solo the valiant end his character earned, Lucasfilm, owned by that ultimate profit machine, Disney, cannot stomach letting the cash cow die, so they begin filling in details from before. They’ve created the opportunity to keep him alive forever.

Characters like Han Solo exist within a psychological arc for their audiences, a process of discovery. While Luke Skywalker fights to discover his inheritance with the Force, Han Solo, who has no parents or inheritance, fights to discover his identity. He struggled to connect with something. The first time we meet him, he boasts of his fast ship and superior smuggling skills. He tells Luke “Don’t get cocky,” tacitly admitting the ship can’t handle two egos.

Han Solo at the beginning of his journey
Because George Lucas didn’t know whether he’d ever get to make The Empire Strikes Back, he gave Han Solo what could’ve been a satisfying ending, when Solo helps destroy the Death Star. But by the next movie, he’s back to fretting over his debt. He’s also trying to annoy Princess Leia into loving him, which, in 1977, probably looked charming. However, in the #MeToo context and my burnout on the Leonard Hofstadter model of courtship, he looks, frankly, creepy.

But again, Solo chooses the self-sacrificing path when he helps the Princess escape certain death on Hoth. Throughout the remaining footage, he survives torture before being frozen, helps overthrow a gangster, and accepts a military commission to help destroy the Empire. Because he’s chosen an identity, a cause he’s willing to embrace. He’s stopped living for the next adrenaline rush and accepted that life is worth living, because something’s worth dying for.

Which explains why I felt disappointed, in The Force Awakens, to discover he’d returned to smuggling. He’d returned to his life of thrill-chasing, basically, because the production house wanted to rebuild the dynamic from Episode IV. We had the young Jedi idealist (Rey/Luke) and the escapee from Imperial dominion (Finn/Leia); we needed the arrogant pilot to complete the triumvirate. No wonder Poe Dameron spent the movie mostly offscreen.

But his time was over. He wasn’t free-flying and giddy anymore; as a father with a grown son and a grizzled beard, he couldn’t be the lawless man-child we once loved. He had to mentor the new protagonists. So when the protagonists graduated his tutelage, he needed, like Obi-Wan Kenobi, to die. No, not retire, die. Not only did the story need to assure he wouldn’t suddenly return, but he’d earned the right to sleep.

Be serious here: can you imagine Han Solo dying quietly in bed, surrounded by his grandchildren? Of course not. Han Solo isn’t the kind of character who retires from the story. If he can’t die standing up, it compromises his entire identity. He’s learned, across his narrative arc, that life matters because it could end, so he needs to fight. The culmination of such a journey must be dying while fighting to make life worth living.

Han Solo at the... wait.
What the hell is this?
So yeah, I had problems with Solo returning to his beginning, but he received the end he deserved. The end we, his audience, deserved. We watched him develop from an overgrown teenager, addicted to adrenaline in lieu of human connection, to someone who stood for something, and who ultimately died standing up. Finally, his journey was complete. And then… Walt’s people brought him back! Arrgh! Why? Because he had more to learn? Of course not.

In fifth grade, I remember mourning because Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain ended. I wanted the story to continue forever. Yet it took only a little while to realize: that character fought so much, so hard, so long. He’d earned the right to be done. Now I needed to commence my journey, not substitute his. Likewise, Han Solo’s story has definition because it has a beginning, middle, and end. But Walt’s people can’t accept that.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Problem With Comedians Is... Comedians

Roseanne Barr
ABC’s decision to fire Roseanne Barr, and cancel her eponymous sitcom, should surprise exactly nobody. Smarter commentators than me have exhaustively chronicled her history of repellent and impolitic statements on social media. Disney, which owns ABC, initially ordered her completely off Twitter to prevent exactly what just happened; when she couldn’t comply, they cancelled the highest rated non-sports show on television.

I have no sympathy for Roseanne. She broke one of today’s few hard-and-fast rules. While many celebrities engage in off-and-on dog whistling, legal scholar Michelle Alexander writes that naked appeals to undisguised bigotry are the one thing completely off the table. If a racist appeal contains even the slightest ambiguity, we’re willing to accept it, and plug our ears to more nuanced debates. But Roseanne couldn’t follow even that minimal standard.

Yet her firing brings something to light that I cannot lightly disregard. Today’s massive Hollywood shakeout boils down to a cultural reconsideration of what we consider acceptable behavior in a public figure. Roseanne’s coarse behavior, which granted her TV’s top Nielson ratings in 1989, gave her the nostalgia tip to a second Number-One position in 2018. But ultimately, despite getting a diverse panoply of producers and writers, they couldn’t separate the show from the star.

Comedians are, too often, not pleasant people. The stories surrounding implosions by comedians like Gilbert Gottfried, Dane Cook, Michael Richards, and others, have achieved a sort of folktale luster. Lenny Bruce helped transform our post-WWII attitudes about acceptable language, but he also descended into drug-addled psychosis, and his final shows were little more than screams of vulgarity. George Carlin nearly did the same, but returned from the brink.

Gilbert Gottfried
I’ve often wondered why so many comedians act like shit human beings. I’m not the only one. British journalist Mick Hume notes that nice, polite, well-spoken comedians are seldom funny. American journalist Olga Khazan, quoting other researchers and philosophers, notes that good comedy has a consistent theme of transgression and darkness. Comedy regularly rewards misbehavior, vulgarity, and morbidity. Then I had a realization.

Listening to Wait Wait Don't Tell Me on NPR one Saturday, I puzzled over the panelists’ ability to spontaneously come up with funny lines about news stories they were hearing for the first time. Their skill at inventing something funny seemed unreal. I occasionally riff a good line, but when I do, likely as not, by the time it comes to me the conversation has already moved on. How to they not only invent lines, but sell them in time?

Easy, I realized. They do this all the time. They wrap their brains around the process of saying something funny, to the point where they realign their thinking. A carpenter doesn’t need to contemplate how to frame a house, or a stock trader doesn’t need to weigh multiple reports, they just know their jobs. In the same way, a comedian just knows how to say something funny. That’s what comedians practice every day. That’s what they train their brains to do.

And if, as Olga Khazan says, humor has a necessarily transgressive component, comedians train themselves to transgress. They adapt their brains to see the world unlike other people, even if that means offending the masses. To the comedian, only seeing something nobody has seen before, and translating it into words, really matters. Comedians, in short, reprogram their brains to violate consensus social standards… and get paid for it.

The sitcom writers’ room brings some of that transgressive thinking under control. Having six or eight peers to workshop ideas and kill ones that don’t land or that cross some invisible line, ensures the most completely offensive material dies privately. (At least hypothetically.) Individual stand-up comedians do something similar by road-testing their material. But social media rewards instant thoughts, meaning nothing separates the trained transgressor from the moment.

Michael Richards
For over thirty years, Roseanne’s career has turned on saying things so awful, yet supposedly true, that audiences feel liberated to laugh at their own experiences. She’s spent her entire adult life training her brain to reject common restraints and say things we wish we had ingenuity and liberty enough to say. But separated from performance conditions, which bring her back under control, that turns into a direct line into her id. Which happened this week.

In short, comedians are awful human beings; they train and study awfulness for years to achieve the heights of their business. But the performance environment places a filter on that awfulness. Without somebody to workshop their ideas, the words dribbling from their mouths can appear feral, or worse. And that’s what happened to Roseanne. No wonder other awful people, from comedians to the President, have ghostwriters do their tweets.

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Innocent Victims of the #MeToo Moment

Harvey Weinstein
I have to give Harvey Weinstein credit—though it pains me to say. His decision to surrender to the NYPD last week and face sex crimes charges, even knowing he has no public support anymore, shows a certain depth of character. Don’t get me wrong, I think he's guilty, and hope he faces jail for the severity of the crimes against him. But I respect that he didn't hide behind his money, like he could have.

Yet I can't help remembering Paige McKenzie. An aspiring teen actress and writer, McKenzie produced and starred in a string of Blair Witch-like YouTube videos entitled The Haunting of Sunshine Girl. When her videos went viral, she snagged a development deal to turn her story into a trilogy of novels and a TV series. I reviewed her first two books on this blog; they were very good.

Her development deal was with the Weinstein Company.

I’ve checked McKenzie’s Facebook and Twitter feeds, and found no indication Weinstein behaved inappropriately toward her. Thankfully. Considering one charge Weinstein surrendered for involved forcing himself on a college student, the mere fact McKenzie is very young probably wouldn't have discouraged him. If she survived a Weinstein encounter with her dignity and artistic integrity intact, I hope she keeps plugging. Those were some damned good books.

But this puts me in an awkward position. I’m happy to see recent movement toward shaking sexual violence and exploitation from the entertainment industry; nobody should have to submit to sexual subordination in order to do the job they love and believe in. But simultaneously, the shakeout has, at least in the near term, a narrowing effect on the industry. Chances are, McKenzie isn’t the only content creator getting squeezed by this temporary market contraction.

One fears sounding like an apologist. Rapists definitely need held to account. Yet right before its collapse surrounding its founder’s public implosion, the Weinstein Company was among the biggest movers in Hollywood, commanding the same clout as generations-old industry masters like Disney. People came groveling to Weinstein to make deeply held ambitions come true, because making and distributing a movie costs more than most individuals will ever see.

Since at least the 1990s, when I began paying attention to such things, culture commentators have inveighed against the conglomerate structure in entertainment and media. The process of “vertical integration” means that just five or six companies control the largest number of book publishers, movie studios, record labels, and more. With Disney’s impending absorption of most of Fox Studios, that number is likely to contract further; remember, Disney already owns ABC, ESPN, Marvel Comics, and Lucasfilm.

Paige McKenzie
Harvey Weinstein, to his credit, powered through that. Working first through Miramax, then the Weinstein Company, he plowed into the business, became a kingmaker, and challenged the traditional Hollywood dream factories. He branched into books, magazines, and television, all often disparaged as “dead” media, and produced successful content. While heritage companies like United Artists, Orion, and Carolco collapsed around him, Weinstein managed to build something.

But, like successful men throughout history, Weinstein’s wealth and influence made him feel entitled. We’ve seen it before. From French royalty to American real estate developers, those who enjoy society’s rewards begin demanding more and more. Some people believe they ought to overthrow governments, as the leaders of the United Fruit corporation did in Latin America. Others think they ought to become world leaders, like Donald Trump.

Yet in every situation, sex becomes a perquisite. Watching the Donald Trump/Stormy Daniels catastrophe unfold before us, informed news consumers should remember how often sex has warped world affairs. The Hittite Empire probably ended over a marriage to an Egyptian pharaoh's widow. Henry VIII, Alexander Hamilton, and Bill Clinton all felt entitled to sex, and abused their power to continue receiving it. Harvey Weinstein is just one among many.

And Weinstein would’ve probably continued trading sex for access to the industry, as he had for years, if cultural currents hadn’t converged on him. Casting couch horror stories have been Hollywood fodder for generations; and people, mostly women, eager to get into the business, have accepted it as a degrading but commonplace entry into the business. Many women probably traded their dignity for access. Some eventually outgrew Weinstein, mercifully.

Sadly, not everyone did. Paige McKenzie’s Facebook page includes appeals for Patreon donors to keep her tentpole franchise going. After four years of development hell, McKenzie finds herself back at the beginning. She doesn’t deserve to get squeezed for Harvey Weinstein’s sins. Yet she’s living proof that bringing justice to a malefactor, like Weinstein, can bring accidental injustices on the innocent, like her.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Is Infidelity Really Inevitable?

Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, MD, Infidelity: Why Men and Women Cheat

It’s difficult to know how common infidelity might be in today’s sexually amorphous society. However, once it happens to you, the chance of lingering damage is 100%. Psychologists who study people who have been betrayed by their spouses say the damage resembles combat stress disorder, and people who have survived infidelity often spend years learning to trust again. How can we prepare for, or survive, this kind of trauma?

Manhattan psychologist Kenneth Paul Rosenberg started out as an addiction specialist, and he insists the neurological mechanisms of addiction strikingly resemble those of addiction. Hear me out. Though Rosenberg explains it better than I could summarize, in brief, addictions appear to mimic the human need for love and attachment. Addiction basically happens when our love impulse gets misplaced. Having read Johann Hari and Gabor Maté, I find this painfully plausible.

Discussions of “infidelity” sometimes stumble because we don’t have a consistent definition. Does infidelity require sexual intercourse? Rosenberg says no; if you excuse your flirtations because they don’t get physical, the damage to your marriage could be equally devastating. Yet even Rosenberg admits many of his own friendships with women are characterized by sexual tension. So clearly more factors than just “what we do” matter in calibrating infidelity.

Infidelity, in Rosenberg’s telling, has certain predictable neurological patterns. No matter the nuances of your real-life circumstances, the cheating brain goes through mechanical motions which scientists can map and diagnose. By understanding these, you can potentially identify when your thoughts stray into unfaithful directions, and prevent thoughts turning into actions. You can also reverse the trend if you’ve already strayed over the line into infidelity.

Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, MD
The real pain comes, not in your own unfaithfulness, but in discovering your spouse has betrayed you. (Rosenberg embraces moral terms like “betrayal”; he doesn’t hide his loyalties on the issue.) The one person you must trust the most, the one you turn to when others undermine you, becomes the one you actually trust least. You find everything ripped from beneath you. That’s where the PTSD-like damaging repercussions come in.

Fortunately, even in this moment, neuroscience offers us remarkable insights into handling and recovery. We know exactly what motivates people’s behavior in moments of betrayal: the desire to confront the wrong person, for instance, or our tendency to obsessively seek further evidence, a tendency neuroscientists call “pain shopping.” Yes, that’s a real term. And again, by understanding our harmful tendencies, we can avoid falling into the most common traps.

Rosenberg confronts one of the most common human failings in unstintingly scientific terms. This means using hard quantitative research to consider behavior that often has more than one cause. Unfortunately, though the dust-jacket synopsis promises the latest research, Rosenberg admits infidelity is difficult to study longitudinally, and some of his cited research is decades old. I find this regrettable, because all science reflects the era it was conducted in.

But in maintaining his scientific eye, Rosenberg doesn’t have some illusion of complete objectivity. As a clinical therapist, he salts his research descriptions with narratives culled from his practice, including group sessions and couples therapy (he works to maintain confidentiality). After all, no matter how scrupulously scientific his desires, infidelity is a human behavior, with all the complexity and nuance humans bring into the discussion.

Be aware, this means frank discussions of sex. Sometimes, Rosenberg uses the dictionary to call things what they’re called, but he also uses common vernacular language to ensure a general audience understands his meaning. Don’t say you weren’t warned when his language occasionally turns coarse. That said, there were some occasions where I felt his “plain English” ventured into unnecessary vulgarity. Let your values decide.

Rosenberg starts from an assumption of committed monogamy; though he has a chapter on open relationships, polyamory remains mostly outside his scope. He doesn’t, however, assume either heterosexuality or formal marriage (though he uses marriage language as a shorthand). Therefore, he remains approachable for most people in serious relationships. His precepts are scientific enough to apply to differing relationships, yet personal enough to customize for your unique situation.

Infidelity isn’t inevitable, and despite many cheaters’ self-justification, not everybody cheats. But some do, and when that happens, the consequences can go far beyond the sexual realm. Rosenberg wants you to honestly evaluate your situation, to gauge whether your relationship can survive, and how you can recover from your partner’s, or your own, betrayal. He doesn’t pretend it will be easy. But, given appropriate tools, Rosenberg believes that healing really is possible.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Meg Myers and the Cost of Being an Artist



Meg Myers’ newest video, “Numb,” took me by surprise. It starts out static, Meg reduced to merely one among several office drones sitting in low-top cubicles in the “white collar sweatshop,” engaged in mindless behavior that makes somebody else rich. Repeated close-ups on a photocopier make a nice touch. She appears to set us up for a message about mind-deadening work. I expected it so thoroughly that the first hand touching her made me jump.

To date, most of Myers’ songs have been about love, sex, and heartbreak. In some ways, this track resembles “Nowhere Man,” the Beatles’ first non-love song, which opened new vistas for their songwriting, but also for their musical composition. Like that song, “Numb” has introspective themes of identity, asking: Who am I when everyone else isn’t looking? The video, directed by Clara Aranovich, overlaps these themes. But, I suspect, it does something beyond even that.

That first startling hand proves an abrupt turning point in the video. Like the first gun in Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” the first hand intrudes on our expectations, transforming our experience, coloring everything that comes after. Once the first hand has entered the picture, other hands begin forcing themselves into the camera range, and with it our awareness. By the chorus, she peaks at eleven people simultaneously adjusting her hair, clothes, arms, and face.

Bob Boilen at NPR talks about this video as a commentary on “innocent touching” and imposition on female bodies. That definitely looms large. But Boilen casually mentions, then walks away from, something equally momentous. This is Myers’ first single since she broke with Atlantic Records, the label that released her first two EPS and her first LP. I’d wondered why she hadn’t released an album in almost three years. Betcha she’s been wrangling in court.

Myers has a few DJs and dedicated fans who evangelize her music. I’ve shilled her work to anyone who will listen for half a decade. But she’s never made a mainstream breakthrough, partly because she refuses to release a radio-friendly single if she doesn’t believe in it completely. Record labels are notorious for their interfering ways, demanding something commercially successful. They’re corporations, after all. The battle between art and commerce is as old as art.

Watching this video, I can’t help noticing the people touching Myers don’t just fondle her face, hair, and clothing. These forms of “innocent touching” are among the most common impositions people make on women, the kind that progress from rudeness to aggression to harassment. But they go further: they start positioning her arms. These people don’t just want to touch Meg, they want to control her, and her floppy, marionette-like movements represent that control fantasy.

By placing the video’s first act in a workplace, and the second at home, director Aranovich says something about the two environments where people, especially men, attempt to control women. Bosses define women’s workplace actions; and remember, music for Myers isn’t a hobby, it’s her job. Then women come home, where fathers, boyfriends, husbands, kids make demands. These demands, like workplace comportment demands, are individually small. But it doesn’t take long before they add up.

Work and home are the two most common places where women, where humans really, find meaning. And when these places deny us meaning, we start shuffling through life, Muppet-like, miming the behaviors others expect of us, without investing our souls. That’s one definition of “numb,” that feeling of disconnection between our bodies and our spirits, especially when be become too tired to rage silently against the injustice. We become robots in our own meaningless lives.

This problem is compounded for artists, because outsiders think they have controlling interest. I can’t help remembering D.A. Pennebaker’s movie Don't Look Back, which followed Bob Dylan’s 1966 British tour. Almost everyone Dylan met, including fans, label executives, politicians, and other musicians, wanted their fingers in his pie, until he began lashing out. One wonders when Myers will snap at fans like me who got pissy because she cut her hair.

Or has she already?

Myers’ latest video definitely hits women’s issues squarely. Though I, and other men, have endured “innocent touching,” rarely do men experience it to the constant, degrading degree inflicted on women. Yet I see a second, equally prominent theme, distinct to musicians and other creative professionals. People who make their living baring their souls, like Myers, must face micromanaging from outsiders who “mean well.” Innocent touching doesn’t just degrade artists, it attempts to steer their souls.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Where Did Women's Rights Begin?

Olympe de Gouges, The Declaration of the Rights of Women

Maybe it reflects my American public-school education, but for years I didn't know organized Feminism existed before the Seneca Falls Declaration. I read excerpts of Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill in college, but thought them outliers. I had no idea anyone published a bestselling Feminist pamphlet as early as 1789.

According to the introduction, Olympe de Gouges, a renowned literary stylist and abolitionist in her day, greeted the French Revolution as a necessary tonic to systematic oppression. Yet when the revolutionary National Assembly passed its Declaration of the Rights of Man, she read it and realized it meant “Man” in the narrowest, most literal sense. Clearly the revolution still had no place for people like her.

So she published this pamphlet as a rejoinder. Structured in the form of a legislative resolution, it consists of seventeen straightforward articles, most only one sentence long. But these articles are bookended between de Gouges’s poetically styled prologue and epilogue, in which she lays out the idea that citizenship means little of it excludes half the population. If only men are free, she asserts, freedom remains an illusion.

These ideas are surprisingly mild by today’s standards. Besides insisting that women have the right to vote, hold office, and own property, de Gouges asserts such positions as, that women who commit crimes should face trial and serve sentence like any man. It’s amazing this was ever controversial. Yet her ideas were so dangerous that when the Terror of 1793 struck, she was beheaded, alongside Robespierre and Marie Antoinette.

Portrait of Olympe de Gouges
This declaration of women’s identities, rights, and responsibilities might profitably revitalize modern gender debates, and excite feminists. Sadly, this book might not. This book reproduces de Gouges’s Declaration in full, with biographical notes and a brief introduction to context. Each article of her declaration is illuminated by a thematically relevant contemporary art. And there’s where we run into the problem.

De Gouges’s articles, printed in gigantic 48-point type that looks thin on the page, get lost between the brightly colored art panels. Printed in an exaggerated four-color style, the art looks like 1980s-era comic book pages. Their style ranges from what look like construction-paper collages, to New Yorker cartoons, to elaborately detailed watercolors. It’s hard to focus on the tall, skinny sans-serif type when brightly colored pictures draw our attention.

Then, between each article and its matching art, the uncredited editors have sandwiched a selection of open-source quotes which are, more or less, relevant to the preceding article. From famous names like Emma Goldman, Simone de Beauvoir, and Victor Hugo, to young and dangerous thinkers like Virginie Despentes, Naomi Wolf, and Julia Kristeva, these quotes spotlight feminist thinking through the ages. As the names suggest, the French are overrepresented.

Sadly, this results in what rhetorician Gerald Graff calls “hit and run quotes,” lines and passages (some exceedingly long) just thrown out there without context or clarification. Presumably the editors thought this mass would accumulate into some kind of point. Without linking text, it’s not only sloppy, but it also vastly exceeds in length the Declaration it’s meant to supplement. Olympe de Gouges gets lost in her own book.

Included with this volume is the 1967 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. This declaration is structured remarkably similarly to de Gouges’s declaration, and that isn’t coincidental: a mere 176 years later, her ideas had become commonplace and acceptable. Though the UN declaration was non-binding, it became a basis for international legislation improving women’s lot worldwide.

Yay for progress, I guess.

These two declarations together represent the progress of women’s rights from the Enlightenment to the modern era, a progress that has been violently irregular, and cost one of its pioneers her life. This is important. Notwithstanding the current #MeToo moment, women’s rights have historically taken a back seat to racial and economic struggles. Perhaps the time is right again for Olympe de Gouges to become the worldwide sensation she once was.

I just wish this book was better organized. This edition looks like half coffee-table art book, half disorganized information dump. De Gouges’s important, ever-relevant content gets lost between the images, quotes, and other content. I might have liked more context for de Gouges herself; if a well-informed reader like me knows little about her life and times, general audiences, distracted by news blurbs and mass media, probably knows less.

In short, I like the idea of this book. But it seems designed to lose its message amidst the spandrels. That’s a shame.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Changes Are Coming to WordBasket

I’ve had my Amazon.com reviews yanked.

After eighteen years and over 1,700 reviews, Amazon has rescinded my reviewing privileges and deleted my reviews. They do this because I violated their rules, accepting items for review at their creators’ expense. This is a common tactic for small manufacturers and indie publishers, to get attention to products that would otherwise go unseen. Without resources for saturation advertising and global distribution, they depend on willing third-party reviewers to carry their words.

This seems particularly unfair to the kind of pop-up content creators that a platform like Amazon makes possible. However, recent news of fake Amazon reviews reveals how a handful of producers (or their agents) toss around tiny commissions, some as little as $10, and distort the market. So it’s a mixed bag, a slight to legitimate reviewers like me who occasionally accept kitchen knives or pre-release CDs for review, but a necessary defense of Amazon’s territory.

It’s also a debate for another time and venue.

More relevant, for the small but dedicated audience this blog has cultivated, is: this leaves my reviewing up in the air. Though I sometimes get more fervent responses from readers for my opinions on popular culture and current events, book (and occasional movie and music) reviews have been this blog’s lifeblood for the last seven years. They represent over two-thirds of my content, and the reason the largest number of users have visited.

And without Amazon, I have no means of getting new books. I mean, certainly, I could purchase my own, and I sometimes to review books I’ve purchased, usually under a separate header, the “1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies.” Even then, I reserve that header for books that I believe are a cut above the general, books that moved me enough that I want to share the experience of having read them with you, my audience, whom I regard as friends.

The largest number of review books comes, instead, from authors, agents, publishers, or Amazon itself soliciting my opinion. Amazon is cracking down on fake reviews because obvious shill reviews hurt market share and can submarine an otherwise good product. But a well-written third-party review can draw business, which publishers hope to continue. And because I’ve developed Amazon cachet, some professionals seek my opinion, which they consider worth money.

I love reviewing. I love the challenge of taking my abstract ideas about the experience I had with books (or other products) and translating them into words. I like sharing that experience with fans and friends. I like participating in the effort of separating worthy from unworthy content in a world that has become saturated with content. Reviewing has made me a better reader, which in turn has, I hope, made me a better writer.

But reviewing hasn’t been particularly lucrative. In the six years I’ve been writing this review blog, I’ve sold only a few products through my links, and made maybe enough to take a lady out to dinner twice. Besides the lack of remuneration from reviewing, I’ve also paid a cost in the time I haven’t spent doing my own writing. I’ve cultivated cachet with my words, but only in response to others doing real creative work; my own writing has stagnated.

These reviews won’t stop overnight. Because I work ahead, I have several reviews written from before I had my privileges revoked, and review books half-read which I will probably go ahead, finish reading, and review. However, without my pipeline of content, the supply of new reviews is likely to dry up pretty quickly. This blog will soon lack for content. And I suppose, if I’m being fair, that’s my own fault.

So, I’m taking the opportunity to rededicate myself to my own writing. When I look over the manuscripts half-finished, the written content I’ve created but not sold or gotten in front of a ready audience, I can’t help realizing this blog has exacted a cost. I only have so many hours in the day, so much strength necessary for the writing act, and I’ve spent it on other people’s writing. It’s time for me to return to my roots and be an actual writer myself.

This blog won’t stop. I will still share reviews, because I believe doing so makes me a better writer, and a better reader. But I cannot afford to write with the dedication of a newspaper columnist anymore, striving (and often failing) to produce three columns per week. Production will become more sporadic as this blog becomes what it should’ve been: a hobby.

I’m sorry it took a reprimand from Earth’s biggest retailer to remind me why I started reviewing in the first place. But I suppose I can either sit around feeling sorry for myself, or I can, in Neil Gaiman’s terms, create good art. I choose the latter path. I thank you, my audience, my friends, for six good years. Let’s go onto the next adventure together, shall we?