Wednesday, January 31, 2018

What Is This “Economy” I Hear So Much About?

Donald Trump delivering his first State of the Union address

Twenty years ago, I was an outspoken Republican who hated Bill Clinton. You name it, I hated it: his wag-the-dog military policies, his sententious preaching about ethical responsibilities, his well-documented womanizing. The man just got under my nails. My fellow Republicans and I had a stock response whenever he did something we considered horrible, we trotted out the same response: “But at least the economy’s doing good!” *eyeroll*

Imagine my surprise, two decades later, after my politics shifted, seeing Democrats trotting the same response to Donald Trump. He accepts credit for the lowest unemployment rate since, ahem, Bill Clinton, and the lowest Black male unemployment rate ever, and Dems roll their eyes. The economy apparently falls second to whatever moral and ethical issues we consider paramount. And by “We,” I mean whatever party doesn’t control the White House.

The economy provides a shield for whomever has power. The Clinton Administration saw unemployment dip below five percent for the first time in twenty years. The Trump Administration stands poised for the lowest unemployment rate since Lyndon Johnson. Everything is good, right? Yet my rent hasn’t been on time in over a year, I cannot afford to save for retirement or even dinner out, and Walmart remains America’s largest employer.

So what is this mythical “economy” I hear so much about?

Following Trump’s first State of the Union speech, the National Association of Manufacturers paid to push a Twitter hashtag, #YearWon, purporting that Trump’s first year marks some high of market analytics. Record High Manufacturing Output! the accompanying video touts. 16,000 New Manufacturing Jobs Each Month! The video doesn’t cite sources, because it isn’t fundamentally about facts; it’s about ginning support from the already convinced.

All economic reports swing according to two variables: what factors economists consider noteworthy, and what information economists have. Economist Lorenzo Fioramonti writes that standard GDP measures, which aggregate the very rich and highly productive together with the furloughed and poor, are always outdated, possibly by years. And John C. M├ędaille writes that calculating market inputs always involves what economists call “imperfect information.” Which is exactly what it sounds like.

The #YearWon push assumes high output and hiring equal improved conditions for workers. But neither number correlates with actual pay. Ramping up hiring, without a concomitant increase in wages, results in more poorly-paid peons. Without revenue and autonomy, simple hiring is basically serfdom. And productivity, measured with dollar signs, tells us only what corporations receive, not what they share with actual workers.

Bill Clinton delivering the 1996 State of the Union address

Low unemployment is desirable, obviously. More people working means more people participating in society’s most basic exchanges: buying food with the products of their labors. But simply calling people employed doesn’t mean they’re active in the economy. Most children with Saturday lawn-mowing businesses make enough money to count as, technically, employed. Adults need something more robust to participate in the economy. And the economy needs more from them.

Watching the #YearWon video, it implicitly assumes that increased manufacturing, measured in dollars, naturally caused increased hiring. Yet if America has increased manufacturing, it’s been mostly behind automation. When I worked in the factory, I observed how much of the manufacturing process is controlled by machines. Humans participate only when parts or processes are asymmetrical, requiring two eyes to make informed judgements. Which isn’t very often.

Raw numbers, disaggregated from where the money comes from and where it goes, tell us remarkably little. Adam Smith and Karl Marx, whose conflicting economic visions fueled our last hundred years, both walked into factories (mostly in England) and described what they saw, assigning numerical values and mathematical functions only latterly. They didn’t think their graphs and histograms were reality; they acknowledged they were only attempting to describe.

That’s the mistake I keep seeing contemporary economists making: they think their models prescribe reality, rather than describing it. Models like the supply-demand arc and the Laffer Curve are treated as magic keys that cause economic reactions. This is categorically untrue. Our economy is the actual exchange of labor, goods, and money. If statistical models don’t work, or produce incorrect predictions, then the models are wrong and must be discarded.

In other words, the economy consists of us. White or black, rich or poor, documented or undocumented, we are the economy. And any policies or models that exclude us, with our ethical concerns and lived experiences, are perforce wrong. This isn’t about political parties; both are guilty of magical thinking. It’s about a systemic disdain for ground-level work. Our economy will continue foundering until this problem is resolved.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Immigrant Dream and the Post-Colonial Nightmare

Sharon Bala, The Boat People: a Novel

A rusty, filth-strewn freighter drops over five hundred Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka on Canada’s west coast. Among these refugees, Mahindan and his six-year-old son hope to create a new life away from the violence that cost them their wife and mother. But the Canadian government fears this ship hides members of the Tamil Tigers separatists, prepared to recruit and attack inside Canada. Soon, these poor, hopeless refugees’ status becomes a global contest of wills.

Sharon Bala’s debut novel couldn’t be more timely, hitting shelves amid such circumstances as the American immigration debate, and Brexit. As first-world superpowers debate what they owe global neighbors, Bala frames their story from the “foreigners” perspective. This ongoing battle develops through three viewpoint characters, all non-white, all outsiders to Canada’s power structure to various degrees. Since this freighter really does shelter terrorists, Bala forces the question: how much injustice is permissible to prevent violence?

Mahindan once believed the peace process would stabilize his homeland. He and his wife dared to open a business and start a family. In flashbacks, we get the episodic story of how Mahindan lost everything, except faith that the future is possible. But in Canada, he finds himself housed in a prison, his son foisted onto strangers, his legal status in permanent limbo. Picked over like an unadoptable puppy, even his faith starts to fade.

Priya Rajasekaran, in her post-law school residency, got picked to aid a veteran immigration lawyer because she’s Sri Lankan. Her mentor basically believes, because she’s brown, she speaks Tamil. But she was born in Canada, daughter of immigrants who wanted to assimilate. She doesn’t understand Tamil language or culture, much less immigration law. Getting dragged through Canada’s sluggish, politically motivated immigration courts provides a harsh education, awakening curiosity about heritage she didn’t know she had.

Sharon Bala
Grace Nakamura is third-generation Canadian. Her family business got expropriated during the war, but she considers the past a dead letter; she’s worked hard to achieve a trusted position in Canada’s government, and her future remains bright. She starts at the Immigration Review Board just as the politically unpopular refugee freighter case hits. Struggling with both these unwanted “foreigners” and her Westernized children, Grace is unprepared when her elderly mother begins divulging long-lost family history.

Bala’s three characters bring three different understandings of immigration, insidership, and the Canadian dream. Each character has dreams, which veteran readers already know will crash on the shoals of reality. The question is, when longed-for future collides with grim present, which will change? Each character also has a past, which we discover incrementally: in Mahindan’s case, though flashbacks, while Priya and Grace must tease personal and ethnic heritage out from evidence and other people’s stories.

Each character also brings an entire ensemble into the story. Mahindan’s fellow refugees have multiple reasons they fled Sri Lanka. Bala teases our expectations, keeping us guessing which is secretly the Tamil Tiger we know is aboard. Priya’s fellow attorneys, aid workers, and volunteers have different reasons they care about immigrants, some more noble than others. In order to do her job, Grace must untangle the morass of ideals and loyalties amid Canada’s entrenched bureaucracy.

Bala’s use of Westernized immigrants brings an interesting spin to post-colonial literature. Where authors like Arundhati Roy or Amitav Ghosh write from the colonized perspective, Bala reminds us that even in a successful country like Canada, with its primarily European cultural heritage, most people’s families came from somewhere else. Though Canada sloughed its directly colonial status in 1867, its history within British dominion colors its constitution today. Though seldom considered as such, Canada is post-colonial.

Therefore, immigrants have distinctive standing within Canada’s social structure: they provide a reminder that Canadian “heritage” is conferred, not innate. Bala depicts ranking politicians channeling, and possibly creating, nativist sentiment to keep these refugees in permanent limbo. Before long, it becomes clear, white Canadians fear these refugees, not because one or two might be dangerous, but because they remind Canadians how tenuous their own grip on citizenship really is. They remind us we’re immigrants, too.

This novel requires readers willing to adjust themselves to Bala’s timing. An immigrant herself, Bala captures the ponderous rhythms of Canadian immigration courts in excruciating detail. But she also captures the human drama behind the superficially joyless procedures. By turns emotionally packed and languid, Bala’s storytelling brings readers through the extremes of her characters’ experience. Not everybody gets what they want, in Bala’s unsentimental world. But she lets us glimpse what her characters really need.

Monday, January 22, 2018

But What's It Like To Survive a Police Shooting?

Robbie Tolan and Lawrence Ross, No Justice: One White Police Officer, One Black Family, and How One Bullet Ripped Us Apart

Police shot Robbie Tolan, in his own driveway, accusing him of stealing his own car. A white officer panicked and shot the black Tolan, in a script so rote, we can probably recite it from memory: misidentification, hasty violence, media uproar, acquittal. Except Robbie Tolan did something few black police shooting victims do: he survived to tell his own tale. Now he figures we’re ready to hear what happened that night, nearly ten years ago.

Tolan lived with his parents on December 31, 2008. The Tolans were one of the few black families living in Houston’s prosperous Bellaire suburb, a community rife with common, but largely undiscussed, frictions between minorities and the police. Driving home from the store in the small hours, a white patrol officer misidentified his car as stolen, skipped verification protocols, and decided to tail the mysterious black driver. The resulting gunpoint confrontation has disturbingly familiar overtones.

Waking in the hospital with a collapsed lung and pulverized liver, Tolan, a committed athlete with a future ahead of him, faced months of rehabilitation just to walk unaided. Many local commentators suggested he should count his blessings that he had any future coming whatsoever, since many youths in his situation became voiceless statistics. Then the online death threats began pouring in, as they do in these situations. This only motivated Tolan to speak out.

This book fits into Tolan’s larger campaign. A regular media figure now, he provides a rare opportunity to witness police shootings from the other side. He’s also fought vigorously to return to baseball, without success. (He remains optimistic within these pages.) He considers himself at war with the Bellaire city government and its police department, a metaphor he uses repeatedly throughout this book, but he refuses to let that war circumscribe him, or his options.

Robbie Tolan
Besides surviving the shooting, Tolan had celebrity on his side. At 23, he was playing baseball for a regional minor-league team, building his career. His father, Bobby Tolan, batted southpaw for the 1967 World Series-winning St. Louis Cardinals. Yeah, people knew the Tolan family. His case became a celebrity cause when Bryant Gumbel interviewed him, an interview made possible by his athletic connections. His poise before the camera, discussing painful circumstances, probably helped his cause.

In a fairly unusual move, the grand jury voted to indict Tolan’s shooter on criminal charges, including aggravated assault. Tolan spoils it, so I feel no compunction in sharing: the jury acquitted his shooter. But Tolan also provides an insightful tour of the actual justice system, which shook him, since he only knew it from TV courtroom dramas. He walks us through the banal, frustrating procedures and frank boredom that characterize a real life trial.

Tolan makes a subtle, sophisticated witness. His descriptions are earthy, sensory-based, and salted with just enough vulgarity to keep cynical readers engaged. (One wonders how much that owes to Tolan’s ghostwriter, Lawrence Ross, an experienced journalist and media professional.) But he also describes how his family’s religious faith kept them anchored during his ordeals: they didn’t just fight injustice because Robbie suffered it, but because God gave them strength to keep speaking truth to power.

Other authors have attempted to situate recent police violence against African Americans in a larger context. Matt Taibbi’s recent biography of Eric Garner, for instance, is more about Garner’s world than Garner himself. But that’s mainly because most high-profile victims of police violence don’t survive to tell their own stories, and many who do lack the eloquence demanded by today’s media-saturated environment. Even Eric Garner’s survivors admit, he was a lunky guy, no media superstar.

Robbie Tolan, by contrast, has both an athlete’s strength and a media professional’s poise. Even before this book, he’d become a veteran interviewee, speaking both for himself and for African Americans generally. Therefore, this book spends less time than others on the black experience context. Tolan occasionally cites statistics and scholarly studies about police violence and the resulting blowback, for example, police officers on trial. But throughout, he keeps the narrative focused on his experience.

This book presents the longing for justice, not as an abstract philosophical concept, but as the lived experience of one man who simply wanted to drive home. How readers respond to Tolan’s story will probably reflect what the believed going in, as all such recent discussions have mostly done. Yet it provides a needed antidote to either formal stats-driven journalism or informal finger-pointing. Robbie Tolan makes clear, this is his own story, personal and important.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Just Another Beatnik Teacher Comedian

1001 Albums To Hear Before Your iPod Battery Dies, Part 10
Taylor Mali, Conviction

You’ve probably already read Taylor Mali’s poetry without realizing it. His centerpiece poem, “What Teachers Make,” has circulated online since the heyday of e-mail trees and webrings, frequently bowdlerized. But Mali, who paid his dues on New York’s poetry slam circuit, never wrote his poetry for book readers; he’s always been a performer first. Perhaps that’s why he’s released more audio recordings than books. Or maybe it’s because he’s a top-range performer.

Chicago poet Marc Smith invented Poetry Slam, but if you attend any modern slam and listen to the sarcastic humor and rapid-fire patter that tends to win, most slammers clearly want to be Taylor Mali. This album, compiling live presentations of his most significant work, reveals why. Several poems on this recording also appear in his book What Learning Leaves, but Mali has a compelling presence as a performer that you can only savvy when you hear his voice.

Audiences listening to performance poets ask two important questions: Is the poetry any good? And does the performer carry the work effectively? As a poet, Taylor Mali writes in an easygoing vernacular style. He doesn’t use the inscrutable metaphors and weird juxtapositions favored by MFA programs and awards panels. Though he certainly uses heightened language, his verse nevertheless has a plain-English conversational quality that doesn’t require a postgraduate degree to follow.

His poetic structure comes across in titles like “Falling In Love Is Like Owning a Dog,” or “Silver-Lined Heart.” Like Mali’s verse itself, these titles involve metaphors which have depth, but don’t require unpacking. We understand what they mean, though as Mali investigates them further, we increasingly understand what he means by them. As poetry, they aren’t difficult, but they reward the audience’s willingness to follow Mali on a nuanced inner journey.

Taylor Mali
In performance poetry circles, Mali sometimes gets stereotyped as a poet who writes about his teaching career. Considering the widespread influence of “What Teachers Make” (included on this collection), this isn’t unfair. But only five out of twenty-three poems on this album, including one hidden track, are about teaching. Four are about being a poet, four are about his father, and four are by other poets, featuring Mali as a member of the performance ensemble.

Mali has a distinctive baritone voice, accentuated by his performance style, which we could generously describe as “in on the joke.” He avoids common poetry slam affectations of offbeat pauses and strange, syncopated emphases. He doesn’t fear to laugh, just slightly, at his own jokes, especially on willfully humorous poems like “I Could Be a Poet” or “Totally Like Whatever.” His performance feels like a friend, inviting you to share the passionate hobby he’s spent years perfecting.

Many people encountering Taylor Mali for the first time comment upon his humor. If your high school English was anything like mine, the emphasis on somber tone and portentous themes left you feeling glum. Poetry slam, by its structure, discourages this attitude: because audiences have liberty to boo performers off the stage, performance poets learn to engage the audience’s humor and curiosity. Mali has taken this tendency further than most poets, and become a role model for others.

I'm less keen on Mali’s group pieces, especially two written by Celena Glenn. As the ensemble basically sings acapella behind the poet, Glenn’s voice doesn't carry, and the poetry disappears in a distracting soundscape. This recording also features two poems written by Mali but performed by other poets. They suffer from some lack of direction: one has flat affect, while the other weirdly over-accentuates the poetic foot. I could really have done without these tracks.

But when Mali performs his own work, he shows himself truly a rich artist. His poems run the gamut between  joy, confusion, laughter, grief, and more. Poems like "Labeling Keys," "Voice of America V/O," and "The Sole Bass" put the lie to the slander that slam poetry is shallow and ephemeral: they aren’t Walt Whitman, but they exist on many layers at once and demand just as much contemplation as the poetry you studied in school.

As a reviewer, I’ve grown weary of saying a particular item I’m reviewing isn't for everyone. That certainly isn't the case here. This CD will appeal to a diverse audience whose only criterion is open-mindedness. Like most poetry slams, this album has uneven moments, especially toward the middle of the evening, but overall this may be one of the few poetry collections in many houses that doesn't just sit on a shelf gathering dust.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Indiana Jones in the Temple of Rhyme

Aaron Poochigian, Mr. Either/Or: a Novel in Verse

One sunny weekday, when you’d rather be gallivanting around Manhattan’s privileged haunts, a call comes from your other life. Your Federal Agent handlers require your unique services to recover an ancient artifact. So you pause your daytime undergraduate identity and pursue a mysterious Chinese chest into Gotham’s rankest sewers, literally and metaphorically. But just as you think you’ve escaped this relic’s curse, an even more malevolent fossil threatens to destroy everything New Yorkers hold dear.

Aaron Poochigian is a noted classicist, famed mostly for translating Sappho’s fragments. He’s also published two volumes of his own poetry. So it’s difficult to qualify whether this is his third book, under his own byline, or his sixth. But calling it “a novel in verse” makes it sound more solemn and sententious than it really is. It’s more an Indiana Jones-like pastiche of mid-20th Century pulp potboilers, handled with a poet’s level of care.

Pressed into service, you dive into conflicts that involve alien conspiracies, ancient curses, lingering scars of Western colonialism, and more. In one early scene, you (the narrator insists on the “you” address, though you have multiple aliases) must defend a Chinese jade reliquary from a battle between Maoist insurgents and Latino gangsters, because Manhattan. But you don’t dwell on implications. You aren’t the ruminative type; you’re constantly busy plunging from one high-tension encounter to another.

Poochigian writes with the practiced confidence of a classicist, of someone intimately familiar with time-honored poetic forms because he’s maneuvered them across languages. But poetry, for him, isn’t a dead letter. He uses form because it heightens his story, which, like his shorter verse, is salted with short, punchy vernacular English. It simultaneously does and doesn’t read like conventional poetry:
Business cuts, taupe ties, and muted suits
are shrieking G-men—two more barbered brutes
churned from assembly lines of matching brothers,
each a tool as blunt as all the others.
You’ve always snobbed their brand, detested dashing
douchiness, cursed the smug conspiracy
to fix the markets of what man should be.
Lord look at them, all puff and polish, flashing
badges and sizing up your robot brain….
Aaron Poochigian
Most lines rhyme this way, though some parts are written in Saxon-style short, alliterative lines. The shift gives Poochigian’s action scenes real punch.

Other verse novels I’ve read use poetic language for long, discursive cogitation on important philosophical points; long-form poets think their outsized form gives them permission to write like Homer. Not Poochigian. Calling his storytelling “fast-paced” undersells his turbo-charged cadence. Not only does his story unspool faster than most poets would permit, even most paperback novelists would say “Hey, slow down, dude.” Yet somehow his story always feels quick, never hasty. You decide whether that’s good.

The second-person protagonist of this novel (more like a sequence of linked novellas), has the vocabulary and thought processes of a “C” student at NYU. That is, an average student at a top-flight university. He, you, whatever, has fantasies about chucking everything and becoming a real student, and he romances scholarly types who assist his investigations, in the best James Bond tradition. But time doesn’t permit him to think deeply; he’s a man of action.

This collision between the stately conventions of rhyming verse, and the frenetic exigencies of Poochigian’s story, really sell the tension. Like Indiana Jones, this story isn’t for everyone. I admit, I didn’t initially appreciate Indiana Jones, because I didn’t understand the narrative intent. Like those movies, I struggled to adapt my thinking to Poochigian’s unusual structure. I needed to get several chapters in before I appreciated his form. Some readers won’t give him that chance.

Maybe that’s the message of his title. In opening pages, Poochigian identifies Mr. Either/Or as the hero straddling two worlds, either a student or a secret agent, never quite both. But simultaneously, this book is either an contemporary adventure comedy or a traditional verse epic. And we, the audience, are either willing to follow Poochigian’s journey, or too strung up on formal interpretation. This duality dogs the entire book, forcing us readers to take sides.

So, Poochigian requires readers willing to suspend judgment. That’s not easy for everyone (certainly not me). But, like most of the best poetry, it rewards readers who adjust their rhythms to the verse. It’s just that, where most verse adjusts our rhythms to languid timelessness, Poochigian prefers craggy whirlwind modernity. I don’t think I could do that very often. But I’m glad Poochigian brought me along on his strange, Lovecraftian journey, just this one time.

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Week America Finally Surrendered

Yes, Oprah, I agree. This shit needs to stop.
Oprah for President, a pastor getting a standing ovation for admitting statutory rape, and “shithole countries.” The second week of 2018 really feels like the week America went off the rails. I’ve tried processing everything that’s happened in the last seven or so days, and been unable to do so. It seems too radical, violent, and spasmodic to permit definition. Until I recognized the overarching theme: a willful embrace of unreason.

It’s become commonplace over the last two years for the punditocracy to claim we’ve finally crossed a bridge too far. Donald Trump has finally alienated his base. Coal-burning companies have finally overloaded the climate. Papa John’s comments about NFL kneelers prove the far-right’s moral vacuity. Look!, the pundits scream. Proof, proof I say, that we’ve hit rock bottom and are prepared to reverse course! Somehow it keeps not happening.

Yet somehow, things feel different this week. We didn’t just see somebody doing something awful. Despite left-wing pledges one year ago, we’ve already permitted truly awful behavior from public figures to become sufficiently “normalized” that we’re not shocked anymore. But this isn’t awful behavior. These three incidents represent America completely abandoning historical precedent, moral foundation, and common decency, to embrace… well, I’m not entirely sure what.

It began with the “Oprah for President” outcry following her Golden Globes speech. Though probably well-meant, this push is the exact leftist equivalent to Donald Trump’s overthrow of Republican hierarchy. Pinching concepts from linguist George Lakoff, if Donald Trump is America’s “strict father,” Oprah is our “nurturing parent.” But both share an ideological core of rejecting expertise and routine competence, in favor of giving the political establishment a massive middle finger.

Pastor Andy Savage received a standing
ovation when he admitted a "sexual incident"
with a parishioner. He was 23. She was 17.
Before Oprah’s dust settled, Pastor Andy Savage confessed a “sexual incident” in a Sunday sermon, a confession that garnered a twenty-second standing ovation. Like David Letterman before him, Savage confessed his indiscretions to forestall his accuser taking her accusations public. But he sought forgiveness without repentance; he sought what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” the forgiveness we bestow upon ourselves. Importantly, he hasn’t relinquished his liturgical authority.

The collapse culminated (hopefully—the week isn’t over yet) with President Trump’s “shithole countries” comment. I’ll avoid my temptation to condemn these comments on Biblical “least of these” grounds, because this won’t persuade anyone not already persuaded. However, Trump’s comment actively spit upon American commitments going back at least to the Marshall Plan, when Americans agreed we have obligations to poorer, bleaker, less fortunate nations globally. It’s an abandonment of history.

These three incidents demonstrate a certain subset of America has come unmoored from the principles it claims to represent. By embracing Oprah, the American left has admitted commitment, competence, and dedication no longer matter in governing Earth’s most powerful nation. By not needing to undertake some form of penance, or surrender authority, Andy Savage proves even Christians prefer established power over moral foundation. And Trump has essentially relinquished America’s claim to morality on the world stage.

Somebody staging a counter-argument might observe that, in all three cases, only a minority actually believes that. Oprah ginned a strong reaction, but the Democratic party remains committed to process and organization. Andy Savage represents only one congregation, and has received massive Christian pushback. And Donald Trump has the lowest approval ratings of any President ever, at this stage in his administration.

I respond: yes, but it doesn’t take a majority. Donald Trump only got approximately one-third of his party’s primary votes, and came second in the general election. What matters isn’t the majority, but the process. Wing-nuts and lunatics can seize the process without actually winning the debate. And that’s what we’re seeing happening: because Democrats now have to answer Oprah fanatics rather than creating policy, for instance, Oprah has appropriated the system.

Irrationality isn’t entirely bad. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely has demonstrated humans’ irrational tendencies have firm foundations, which actually drive a just-minded and functional society. Indeed, complete rationality, of the homo economicus model, is both untenable and potentially downright harmful. But I’m not discussing ordinary, moment-to-moment irrationality. I’m describing a deliberate, long-term rejection of reason, and the lessons of the Renaissance and Enlightenment.

No, the problem isn’t irrationality, which is inevitable, even beneficial. The problem is defiance of what we know, an active retreat from thinking, preferring animal-level gut reactions over evidence and proof. American public discourse now apparently prefers stupid over smart. We’ve relinquished our past, sat on our asses, and forgotten our identity. I seriously question whether we’ll now ever get it back again.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Grammar Police State


“Irregardless isn’t a word!”

So began a diatribe at work recently. During an idle moment, when we had briefly outpaced the amount of work we had available to actually do, and therefore had to wait around somewhat impotently for something to happen, a guy opened his phone and began watching YouTube videos. As so often happens anymore, his attention drifted onto politics, and he began watching a comedian baiting protesters.

To judge by my co-worker’s rant, the comedian had targeted liberal and progressive activists; I later learned he’d found this video on Breitbart. But the specific content was immaterial to this particular response: caught in a minor logical inconsistency, the protester responded with the verbal equivalent of a shrug, saying “Irregardless.” The comedian began a lecture, which my co-worker repeated mostly verbatim, that “Irregardless isn’t a word.”

We’ve probably all heard this somewhere. “Irregardless isn’t a word,” lecture schoolteachers, newspaper editors, media pundits, and amateur scolds. I’ve always found this argument baffling.  What is “a word,” other than a unit of vocal sound which native speakers agree conveys some concept of meaning? If somebody says a thing, and another person understands the intent, where’s the lack of a word?

But I noticed something more nefarious here. The comedian, and my co-worker who passively received everything that passed through his head which ratified his existing opinions, wanted to shut protesters down because they used “incorrect” English. Unless you speak the Queen’s English as well as me, the argument goes, you have no right to express opinions publicly. Or, put another (possibly more accurate) way, you’re too dumb to do anything but shut up.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the word irregardlessdates back to the 19th century, but is regarded as incorrect in standard English.” Merriam-Webster identifies the word being used in 1795. So it’s hardly a neologism. It’s probably overkill; people who use it presumably want the extra “ir-” syllable for verbal emphasis which their point doesn’t need. So yeah, as verbal filler, it’s sloppy, demonstrating somebody is probably thinking on their feet. But is it really “wrong”?

Before anybody accuses me of liberal propaganda, this isn’t an isolated example of conservatives attacking progressives. We saw liberals belittle George W. Bush on similar grounds for “misunderestimated,” a supposed Bushism which Merriam-Webster actually tracks back to 1913. Sarah Palin’s “refudiate,” an apparent actual neologism, received broad mockery, even though audiences clearly understood her intent.

All these cases demonstrate a tendency, among both the punditocracy and ordinary people, to claim the opposition cannot have legitimate arguments until they savvy “acceptable” English. This standard of acceptability usually means “my English.” We won’t address the substance of your position, this argument goes, until you address my concerns about your vocabulary. Anybody can see the flaw here: my concerns will never be truly satisfied.

It's a joke. Except when it's not.
We can consider this a form of “whataboutism.” This idea, deflecting serious questions by tossing out “but what about X” questions, has gained currency because President Trump uses it frequently. But rhetoricians have known about this technique for decades, and consider it a logical fallacy. Political scientists consider it something far more insidious: a propaganda technique.

“Whataboutism” and grammar policing share a similar goal: to steer discussion away from the stated topic, onto something the other debater better understands. By crowing “Irregardless isn’t a word,” the comedian doesn’t have to address the protester’s serious sociopolitical concerns. By harping on “refudiate,” commentators avoided actually calling the question underlying Sarah Palin’s original tweet. Both techniques attempt to illegitimately steer the conversation.

Thus, both whataboutism and grammar policing serve to create the appearance of public debate, without moving toward a solution. They give the punditocracy the opportunity to talk about things going on, fill otherwise vacant time in the 24-hour news cycle, and maintain their high public profile, without actually doing anything. They don’t have to address one another on actual data, ensuring nobody feels attacked, because they’re not actually saying anything.

Further, it allows citizens to join the public “debate” without having to know anything about the issues. My co-worker, already cruising self-identified partisan sources, doesn’t have to become informed about issues, because he already knows that “Irregardless isn’t a word,” and therefore he’s smarter than the protesters getting demeaned. This secures his justification to continue as he’s always done, without needing to understand anything or stage an argument.

We often treat grammar police behavior as cute, quirky, or a necessary nuisance. But recent events prove it isn’t really neutral. At root, grammar policing is an attempt to silence others. When that applies to important public issues, we can see its more nefarious ends: the grammar police want to regulate the marketplace of ideas.

Monday, January 8, 2018

The End Is Nigh (Again)

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 86
Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Good Omens: the Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch

The Apocalypse is coming. Every sign points toward the End of Days, as Four Horsemen (actually motorcyclists) crisscross the countryside, leaving devastation behind. Armies of angels and demons stalk Earth, and their march appears headed toward a cataclysmic confrontation. Only a small number of True Believers follow the signs, watching as everything appears headed towards… a suburban back garden in bucolic Oxfordshire, England. Are the prophecies off-kilter, or has God simply lost His eternal mind?

British novelists Terry Pratchett (“Discworld”) and Neil Gaiman (American Gods) wrote this strange, fast-paced comedy as a labor of love. Both grew up with lightly held spiritual values, which they largely abandoned later. But religion, and the near-universal belief among religions that the current age will pass away, colored their thinking; Satan has been a recurrent image in both authors’ works. A vaudeville retelling of the Book of Revelation played into both authors’ shared interests.

Aziraphale, Heaven’s least-virtuous angel, and Crowley, Hell’s least-vice-ridden demon, have established a truce, enjoying one another’s company in Aziraphale’s used-book shop. They like humans, and human company; they’re probably the last true humanists. So when they realize the Last Battle has begun, neither wants everything to end. They track the last known address of the Antichrist, whom they believe is the American ambassador’s bratty, self-satisfied son. But apparently, somebody has misplaced the son of Satan.

Behind this supernatural farce lies a book. In the 17th Century, soothsayer Agnes Nutter published a book of Nostradamus-like prophecies covering three centuries. (Because the word “nutter” doesn’t exist in American English, imagine she’s named Agatha Wingnut.) Nutter’s predictions are completely and wholly accurate. Unfortunately, they’re so specific that they’re not particularly useful, and they describe only her own descendants. Agnes’ last heir, Anathema Device, races to save humanity using Agnes’ strange, bleakly inscrutable aphorisms.

Terry Pratchett (left) and Neil Gaiman
This novel works in its own right, as a slapstick “idiot plot” device where Heaven could avoid Armageddon if somebody just spoke up. The frenetic comedy reflects more Terry Pratchett’s classic style, infused with hints of Gaiman’s drier, more erudite wit. (This was Gaiman’s first novel; he hadn’t perfected his prose voice yet, working primarily in comics and graphic novels.) Readers can let the authors’ comedy wash over them in waves of broad, cutting laughter.

But the satire draws on apocalyptic mentalities more broadly, too. Apocalypse, from the Greek, “revealing the concealed,” demands believers accept the hidden truth behind apparent reality. This novel reeks of concealed realities: the Antichrist reshapes reality to reflect what he reads in conspiracy theory magazines. The Witchfinder Army continues a “deep state” crusade officially abandoned centuries earlier. An order of Satanic nuns has cultivated the Dark One’s coming… but gotten bored and secularized from waiting.

Fashionable apocalypse cults want, ultimately, to understand hidden narratives behind apparently inexplicable events. They drag everything together to create a narrative through-line, as though a cosmic scriptwriter controlled everything. These authors satirize that mentality, while also tacking a second-order speculation onto that desire: what if the cosmic scriptwriter, too, doesn’t understand everything that’s going on? What if the cosmic order is so complex, that even God no longer understands everything He has set in motion?

Years before David Foster Wallace, Pratchett and Gaiman pioneered the technique of packing their prose with smug, self-satisfied footnotes to display their (putative) erudition. This novel’s narrative voice desperately wants you to know it knows how smart it is. Yet as plot points accumulate faster than backslaps in Three Stooges stories, even that voice becomes increasingly harried. Theology, prophecy, and reason all become increasingly useless. The smart voice becomes detectably harried; caution, nervous breakdown ahead.

In ancient times, humans ascribed human-like intent to thunder and lightning, wind and soil. Modern humans describe these same forces in rational terms and scientific equations. Both efforts serve the same purpose: to make reality comprehensible to human intellect. But Pratchett and Gaiman suggest a different thesis. What if things simply happen, dragging humans and our high-minded intellectual explanations along helplessly? Behind the comedy, there lingers an unstated horror that reality is indifferent to humanity.

Like the best comedy, this novel succeeds because it isn’t just silly. It addresses real fears people have. Believers and unbelievers alike know the anxiety of lying awake at night, wondering, what if I’m wrong? Pratchett and Gaiman dare push the question one step further: what if I’m wrong for the wrong reasons? This trajectory can only end in comedy, because taking it seriously would create a tragedy so pervasive, we couldn’t possibly endure it.

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Decline and Fall of the Space-Faring Nerd

"Captain" Daly (seated) and the bridge crew of the USS Callister

Two different social outcasts saunter into fake worlds of their own creation. In spring 1980, Lieutenant Reginald Barclay enters the holodeck of the USS Enterprise-D on Star Trek: TNG’s episode “Hollow Pursuits.” In the closing hours of 2017, Captain Robert Daly enters the bridge of the titular ship on Netflix’s Black Mirror episode “USS Callister.” The twist is, both characters enter fake worlds of their own creation. But they reflect two very different visions.

By now, dedicated fans already know about “USS Callister,” so I’ll be frank. Spoiler warnings ahead. Where Lieutenant Barclay has created a world of swashbuckling women and gentle women in diaphanous Roman robes, “Captain” Daly has created a retreat into Great Society-era science fiction, with high-minded declarations about human potential, but massive subsumed racism and sexism. Both retreat into the past. And both populate that past with people they know.

Barclay has created duplicates of the Enterprise bridge crew. He’s made Commander Riker a short, comical character, and turned Doctor Crusher into some strange nymph of fantasy. The bridge crew is justifiably horrified to discover how they’ve been shanghaied into a lesser crew member’s fantasy life. But as the story unfolds, Barclay proves himself a highly competent, but risk-averse, scientist, who’s created a fake world to shed his inhibitions. He’s essentially harmless.

“Captain” Daly, by contrast, is malevolent, power-hungry, and arrogant. Like Barclay, he’s an underappreciated genius in real life; he created the base code for America’s most popular online role-playing game. But others get fat off his creation. So he creates a parallel world to exact the revenge he cannot have “outside.” His genius masks an underlying rage. Daly wants recognition for his accomplishments, so he creates a pocket universe where he can demand, and receive, it.

Side-by-side comparisons of these episodes could yield interesting studies. Toxic masculinity versus social emasculation, for instance, or evolving attitudes about escape into space. (The “Callister” ends with gamers engaging in dick-swinging displays despite standing little to lose.) I care more about both episodes’ retreat from the present.

The Callister’s obvious debt to Star Trek doesn’t bear comment. But which franchise Daly pilfers does. Rather than TNG, which fans consider the gold standard for Trek, Daly recreates the bobbed bouffants and scenery-chewing acting of the original series, from the 1960s. Despite being a technological genius, with a finger on America’s game-playing pulse, he voluntarily retreats from the present. His game happens on a non-networked computer, away from humans and, y’know, reality.

Lieutenant Barclay asleep on Doctor Crusher's lap, on Star Trek

When Star Trek aired “Hollow Pursuits” in 1990, fan culture wasn’t boosted by the popularity of the Internet. Fans were mostly in-groups sharing mimeographed magazines with hand-drawn illustrations among their own members. Mass culture could easily pass over nerds, and nerd culture, as essentially harmless, because it was inward-turning and private. Mainstreamers mostly disliked nerds because they kept their own company, which makes natural joiners uncomfortable.

But the Internet’s linking ability emphasizes nerds’ ability to organize. No longer fringe elements yoked by geography, nerds have global reach. By its simple ubiquity, nerd culture has become mainstream, which has revealed a seam of malice as destructive as the “squares” who formerly tortured nerds. From Gamergate to the Great Szechuan Sauce Meltdown of 2017, the malice lingering under at least some of my beloved nerd culture has become visible.

It’s tough to avoid comparisons to people who claim amendments to their favorite franchises “ruined their childhood.” If women can be Ghostbusters, or James Bond could be Black, then the world we comprehend—because it’s oriented toward people who look like me, and reminds us we’re normal—isn’t static. Despite its language of the future, toxic nerd culture has a past orientation. Let’s retreat to when things used to be good.

Around the same time “USS Callister” distributed online, BBC aired the Doctor Who 2017 Christmas special. The 12th Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi, had a face-to-face encounter with the First Doctor subbed in by David Bradley (original actor William Hartnell died over forty years prior). Confronted with his past, which included bluntly misogynistic attitudes and white arrogance, the Doctor had self-awareness enough to feel embarrassed about his prior principles.

That’s why Robert Daly is so scary. Not that he dominates others; hell, we’ve all seen that. Nor that he spouts bromides about humanity’s best impulses to justify his domination. Rather, like dictators and petroleum despots, he clings to power most furiously, and punishes opponents most brutally, when he realizes he’s most critically vulnerable. People like him matter less and less.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Gunslingin' Queen of the Dystopian Frontier

Lyndsay Ely, Gunslinger Girl: A Novel

Serendipity “Pity” Jones has nothing to live for on the Commune. Days are filled with work and patriotism, then she comes home at night to an all-male family that despises her. Rather than face encroaching adulthood on those terms, she and her best friend pull a runner into the technological wasteland of the new American West. But she quickly discovers that, on the outside, a woman’s value matters only by her product in the moment.

Debut author Lindsay Ely combines Pat Frank’s apocalyptic classic Alas, Babylon with Owen Wister’s The Virginian for a product readers will find familiar, if they’ve ever watched Firefly. This is both good and bad. Over the last two decades, frontier sci-fi has become so commonplace, readers can slip into this book like a favorite pair of jammies. It requires little effort to immerse oneself in Ely’s world. But like those jammies, the comfort may be sleep-inducing.

The Second Civil War left the American East controlled by the Confederation of North America. CONA believes in hard work, stability, and order, so it built the Communes. But wartime bioterror left a paucity of fertile women, and Pity’s father sees dollar signs in her uterus. Pity wants more from life. Her late mother, a former Patriot (think “Browncoat”), taught her marksmanship, so she steals Mommy’s guns and heads for the frontier seeking her fortune.

Out there, she quickly loses everything: scroungers loot her goods, murder her friend, and torch her truck. Left with only her guns, Pity falls in with mysterious strangers from Cessation, the last free outpost in America. With nowhere left to go, she follows their lead. Her impeccable aim and recognized beauty make her a desirable commodity in Cessation, where she becomes a star of the Theatre, half Annie Oakley, half circus freak.

Lyndsay Ely
Ely’s futuristic setting has high-tech gewgaws, but they aren’t much expounded upon. Audiences will recognize her world from Tatooine, the Eavesdown Docks, or Deep Space Nine: it’s Dodge City with shinier chrome. Cessation’s street violence (which is mostly just mentioned; Pity doesn’t much go outdoors) contrasts with the glamorous but morally odious order enforced by Casimir, the casino/whorehouse/sideshow that rules town. Some science fiction happens, but at heart, this story is a western.

Frontier myth looms large in American science fiction. Han Solo can get goods into the home territories without Imperial entanglements; Commander Adama plots a course “beyond the red line.” Americans see space as territory ripe for conquest, and even NASA press releases are often redolent of Manifest Destiny. Even YA dystopias from major publishing conglomerates pit suffocating civilization against the pioneering spirit. We’ll all become free, if we leave home, and become willing to kill.

This trend has problems, certainly. HBO’s Westworld used Indians as set dressing; not one Native American character had lines. We see something similar here: the boundary between CONA and Cessation is populated by Dissidents and Scroungers, landless and chased pillar to post by CONA military and paid mercenaries. But like Indians, other characters mostly speak for these oppressed groups; they seldom speak for themselves. Even when it’s their own story they need to tell.

Readers could make a drinking game of recognizing the prior stories which influence Ely’s narrative. Though I’ve mentioned mass-media science fiction franchises, the two stories I see harvested most liberally are Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage and Louis L’Amour’s The Quick and the Dead. Both novels, considered classics, feature Easterners needing to quickly unlearn civilized ways to survive beyond the frontier line. That theme, of counter-conformity and bare-knuckle survival, resonates strongly in Ely’s novel.

Ely presents us, essentially, a story of subjugation. Pity could accept her father’s iron-fisted dominion, but she requires autonomy CONA’s patriarchal structure won’t allow. So she flees, only to find the frontier has its own requirements. Cessation offers decadent luxuries (in both the popular and Marxist senses), but Pity quickly learns that, to embrace these luxuries, she must—well, spoilers. Let’s say, whether it’s the comforts of civilization, frontier lawlessness, or whatever, she must conform.

Rereading what I’ve just written, I realize it could sound like I hated this book. Not so. I devoured it in one frenetic weekend, and I can offer the best compliment available from a blue-collar worker: it kept me up past my bedtime. It’s a good story, well-written, with engaging characters and humane plot. Just don’t expect it to change your life, or upend your genre expectations. Take it for a fun story, and it won’t disappoint.