Friday, February 23, 2018

Guns and Power in America Today

The now-infamous photo of concert-goers fleeing the shooter
at the country music festival in Las Vegas, 2017

My father, a 21-year Coast Guard veteran and lifelong Republican, said something recently which really surprised me. Shortly after the Sutherland Springs Baptist Church shooting, we were talking about the ongoing debate whether to loosen or tighten American gun laws. “I have experience with guns,” he said. “I’ve handled them, trained with them, shot off live weapons. And I enjoyed it, too. Shooting a gun makes me feel powerful.

“And let me tell you, I don't trust myself with that kind of power.”

When Dad says he knows weapons, I believe him. Before the Coast Guard, he did seven years in the Army Reserve, meaning he’s attended boot camp twice. He served as arresting officer on the first-ever joint Navy/Coast Guard high seas drug bust. He has served in maritime law enforcement, and he has been the American representative when vessels built in international shipyards were registered and flagged American. He’s now a ranking Coast Guard auxiliary member on one of America's largest inland bodies of water.

So when Dad describes the feelings of power he receives from handling and firing a weapon, I know he speaks from the heart. And when he says these feelings could corrupt a trained, experienced shooter like himself, I take his concerns very seriously.

Following the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, in Broward County, Florida, the familiar script has reasserted itself. Guns are to blame! No, it’s mental health care! The Constitution is too sacred to change! We should arm teachers/mall cops/civilians! But what about the children? Though the unusually outspoken response from teenagers perhaps breaks the mold, everything else feels tediously repetitive, building towards an inevitable end: nothing will change, feelings will recede, and another shooting will happen.

But what if we're having the wrong fight? I suggest this debate isn't about guns, civil rights, or the Constitution. We face a fight about power, and how people handle it.

We’ve witnessed the misuse of firearms for self-aggrandizing purposes in recent years. The shooter at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston thought he could ignite a race war. The Von Maur shooter in Omaha specifically sought to be famous. (I’ve resolved to avoid contributing to these shooters’ grab for notoriety by not using their names.) And their opposite numbers, most visibly NRA board member Wayne LaPierre, have advocated citizens seizing power by arming themselves to perpetrate vigilante justice.

One way or another, these people all want to feel powerful.

The Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, 2017

Many civilians don’t realize—I didn’t until recently—that military professionals face some of America’s most stringent gun controls. They aren’t allowed to carry weapons, not even personal weapons purchased and registered legally, when traveling under orders. You’ll sometimes hear critics noting that the Fort Hood shooter opened fire surrounded by hundreds of people trained with weapons. These people don’t realize that soldiers on base aren’t allowed to carry weapons.

That’s because packing heat makes people reckless. Flushed with the vigor that comes from pulling the trigger, soldiers, especially young, inexperienced soldiers, could jeopardize themselves. Conflicts tend to escalate quickly when combatants are carrying weapons; shouting matches that would’ve burned themselves out turn into armed standoffs. When feelings run high, armed people feeling powerful become dangerous.

Plato, in his Republic, notes that people who desire power most, generally deserve it least. This includes guns. We know, because we’ve been around the block, that we can know a person’s heart by how they handle power. If, like my father, they respond with increased sense of humility, responsibility, and restraint, they probably have whatever it takes to handle power. If they respond by believing themselves to have superhuman reflexes, unerring aim, and a bulletproof aura, we probably shouldn’t trust them with something as powerful as a gun.

Outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,
site of the most recent school shooting, 2018

Anyone could cite statistics. Though many people muster anecdotes or out-of-context internet memes of individuals packing guns preventing a holdup or something, that isn’t the standard. In the aggregate, you’re more likely to shoot your own cock off. Yet people advocating more widespread carrying and use of guns aren’t interested in facts. Packing iron makes people feel powerful, even when they’re not. And that makes them risky.

We could, and probably should, investigate why people feel so powerless these days. Has the economy narrowed the number of available jobs? Has anonymity left citizens feeling like cogs in the machine? Are people dislocated because rapid social changes have undermined their lifelong assumptiong? But whatever the reason, we should recognize they’re trying to reclaim power in their lives. And power is a mighty drug.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Monty Python Guide to the British Economy

Tim Orchard, Stickle Island

Residents of poor, agrarian Stickle Island, off England’s Kentish coast, want to continue their way of life. But with Margaret Thatcher’s draconian spending cuts, the local council cannot keep subsidizing the ferry service that connects them to mainland England. Faced with being price-chopped from modernity, villagers see little future… until a freak storm pushes six bales of prime Colombian marijuana ashore. Is the settlement saved?

London tradesman Tim Orchard’s first novel wants to be a comic romp through the lengths ordinary Brits will undertake to survive austerity. By picking on Thatcher’s cuts, so severe they initiated a decade of unprecedented postwar poverty, Orchard probably means to obliquely criticize more recent austerity under Cameron and May. I like the idea. Unfortunately, the product requires more workshopping, because this feels like a half-completed early draft.

DC, a back-to-the-land hippie, and his daughter Petal see the marijuana as an opportunity to make Stickle Island self-sufficient. They need only organize a co-op to turn this flotsam into money. But this requires enlisting Stickle’s two farmers, Henry Stick and John Newman, longstanding rivals, and their children, who hate each other and their fathers alike. This weed could save the island… if the islanders stop bickering for five minutes.

Meanwhile, London gangster Carter, a shakedown man with delusions of grandeur, can’t find the shipment of Colombian weed he’s expecting. With several thousand pounds invested, and his personal future tied to a cartel, he can’t afford to waste anything. Realizing his haul probably washed out to sea, he follows the tide to Stickle Island, so tiny nobody’s ever heard of it. Soon London muscle starts descending on the unsuspecting village.

Tim Orchard
It’s difficult to discuss this novel without referencing British movies and TV. The island population resembles “quirky villager” vehicles like The Vicar of Dibley or Calendar Girls. They face the common Thatcher-era conundrum of keeping the community alive against faceless, technocratic modernity. But they’re challenged by bungling gangsters pirated directly from a Guy Ritchie heist caper. If you’re into British pop culture, it all feels very familiar.

Nothing wrong with that. These story tropes survive because audiences respond positively to them; they reflect the Britain which consumes their content. But Orchard’s prose needs a firm editorial hand, because right now, his jokes are too far apart. He has strong humor which Britcom fans will enjoy (it’ll be dicier for audiences unaccustomed to British humor). But his set-ups are too long and wordy, withholding punchlines until we lose interest.

Not only his jokes, though. One wonders whether Orchard received any editorial guidance, because his very talky exposition unspools so long, subsequent lines of dialog are separated by as much as a page of prose. They aren’t always separated, though, by paragraph breaks. This means we not only lose the thread of conversation, we cannot even confidently know who’s speaking. The result is disorienting and loses momentum.

Which is sad, because when Orchard gets out if his own way, he’s a lively writer, whose historical setting, presumably reflecting his own “London Calling” youth, holds a grimly comedic mirror to contemporary issues. Audiences could read his novel as commentary on a nation repeating mistakes because they refuse to learn from history. Or they could read it as blistering slapstick with a grimly violent edge. Either viewpoint works.

The building conflict between the village, isolated by geography, and brutal unregulated capitalism, has both dramatic tension and comedic byplay. DC, John Newman, and Henry Stick come from backgrounds where everybody leaves everybody else alone, but must unify to preserve their community from malevolent neglect. Carter, the gangster, operates outside the law, but is a massive control freak seeking order. The explosion is downright inevitable.

You could read Orchard’s novel, under 190 pages, in one energetic Saturday. But you probably won’t. Not because he hasn’t written a good book, but because it needs edited, and tends to sprawl where it should sprint. Orchard pinches so much, in style and content, from British sitcoms, I’d recommend he buy a sitcom writer’s guide, just to better grasp what professionals do to compress exposition into timing and dialog.

I enjoyed much about this novel… in germinal form. Tim Orchard has the makings of an engaging novel here. Unfortunately, he needs Maxwell Perkins-style guidance to nurture his story to maturity. A firm editor could turn this into a concise, electrifying novella. What we have, sadly, reads like an outline he plans to finish later. Oh, so much potential here. I hope to see Orchard complete it someday.

Monday, February 19, 2018

From Doomsday Cult to Donnish Doyenne

Tara Westover, Educated: a Memoir

Dr. Tara Westover grew up on an Idaho mountainside, youngest of seven children. Her parents considered her sufficiently schooled if she could read; they cared more about the imminent Apocalypse, which her father, deeply devout and plagued with visions, expected any day. After Ruby Ridge, she wondered whether Armageddon or the government crackdown would come first. Because her parents never registered her birth, to this day, Westover doesn’t know her own birthdate.

Yet somewhere in her teens, she had enough. She taught herself enough math to pass standardized tests and, at age seventeen, enrolled at BYU. College, which many well-heeled white people consider a layover between childhood and career, was for Westover a harsh collision between her isolated upbringing and the larger world. On the cusp of adulthood, she must learn rules everyone else savvied as toddlers. She must remain ever-vigilant, taking nothing for granted.

This has proven one of the more difficult reviews I’ve written, because I see myself so clearly in this memoir. No, my father wasn’t a messianic survivalist who used personal charm and physical force to control me or my family, nor did that messianism manifest in domestic violence between siblings. But like Dr. Westover, my father equated intellectual disagreement with personal disloyalty, and encouraged distrust of credentials, state, and self. Unlike Dr. Westover, I haven’t broken the spell yet.

The Westover family lived adjacent to her father’s junkyard, where she and all her siblings worked from very early ages. She emerged from a world free from government oversight, schools, and state-based tedium, but also basic OSHA safety precautions. She describes injuries that should’ve amputated her limbs or, considering her family’s aversion to immunization, given her terminal tetanus. And she got off lightly; traumatic head injuries were the norm, not the exception, among her brothers.

Tara Westover
From an early age, Westover found small ways of resisting her father’s micromanaging. Singing in church and community theatre gave her recognition that permitted an early identity. She got her first job, not for pocket money, but to justify time away from home. Yet she remains remarkably loyal throughout. I only recall her using his first name once, near the end; she mostly calls him “my father” or “Dad,” a remarkable persistence of intimacy.

Yet as she established an increasing identity outside the home, some other siblings doubled down. Her brother Shawn looms large, as successively powerful head injuries eliminate his ability to filter his actions. (Maimings are apparently a rite of passage for Westovers.) Like Dad, Shawn becomes increasingly capricious: lovingly tender one moment, lashing out with Freudian cruelty the next. But where Dad relies on shame and religion, Shawn uses physical violence as his tool of domination.

So Westover enrolls at BYU at seventeen to escape. Before her first Freshman lecture, she’d never attended one day of classroom instruction in her life. She initially majors in music, planning to lead church choirs and ensembles, and her entire education has a similar utilitarian texture. She maintains a 4.0 GPA, not because she’s especially gifted, but because losing her GPA means losing her scholarship. That would mean moving back home, or worse, accepting government aid.

But somewhere during that workaday education, Westover becomes… curious. The more of reality she learns her father’s religiosity concealed from her, the more she yearns to discover. Music becomes a sidelight; without realizing it, she becomes a skilled historian. Still battered by her father’s judgment from afar, she never fully trusts herself, until a summer opportunity at Cambridge University introduces her to paternal figures who actually encourage her. The British see something her father couldn’t.

Were Westover a novelist, we’d see a defining break where she stops being beholden to her past, and becomes her own woman, an academic and a fully realized human being together. But real life is sloppier than that. The transition requires, not one moment of dawning realization, but several little moments that, piece by piece, break her father’s conditioning. It makes me wonder: how many other people never have the sequence of opportunities to escape the past?

Sometimes I feel burdened by the chiché “this book isn’t for everyone.” Well, this book really is for everyone. I recommend it for students, to understand what education really offers beyond job skills; parents, to recognize how their choices reflect across generations; instructors, to see how flippant moments can change lives; religious leaders, to spark discussions about the difference between faith and oppression. I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t benefit from reading this book.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Unbalanced Nutrition for Unbalanced Times

When Rosa Foods introduced its meal replacement shake, Soylent, my fellow science fiction nerds couldn’t resist the obvious jokes. This product apparently originated in a world free of hammy Charlton Heston impersonations, where nobody would brandish their canister of pre-made powder and shout “Soylent Green is people! It's people!” I was surprised later to discover that the inventor intended this connection deliberately. Irony lives, I guess.

Soylent isn’t the first meal replacement shake I’ve encountered. However, it’s the first I recall that wasn’t designed as part of a health-conscious dietary regimen, such as a high-protein diet combined with workouts and timed fasts. Instead, Soylent is marketed to well-off professionals who can’t spare fifteen minutes per afternoon to make themselves a sandwich. Whip this stuff together, marketing says, and keep going without the tedium of lunch break.

Anybody attempting a meal replacement will probably have two questions: is it nutritious? And, will it satisfy me? Sadly, the answers are no, and no. Though rich in “micronutrients,” it doesn’t provide enough to fuel typical human activity throughout the day, and those nutrients are more than offset by the sugar content. And while the shake is temporarily filling, it isn’t really satiating. I compare it to plugging your hunger with a Snickers bar.

Consulting the nutrition label, one listed serving of this product contains twenty percent of your Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of several important nutrients, including Vitamin D, Vitamin C, various B-complex vitamins, and iron. It also includes twenty percent of various other substances we don’t normally consider nutrients, including copper, choline, biotin, and molybdenum. Twenty percent of all of them. Always, consistently, twenty percent.

But when we get off the “nutrients” train, the numbers get wonkier. One serving contains twenty-six percent of your RDA of fats, including thirteen percent of your saturated fats, and thirty percent of your RDA of added sugar. Replace one meal daily with this stuff, and you’ll have to skip dessert. It also provides about twenty-one percent of your daily fiber, two-thirds in the form of soluble fiber, which mostly just expands in your gut, making you feel full.

Charlton Heston (left) and Edward G. Robinson in Soylent Green

It’s that thirty percent daily added sugar that disturbs me. Current scientific thinking contends that obesity is caused, not by eating fatty foods, but by consuming more sugar than our livers can process; our bodies respond by storing the added sugar, and added liver enzymes, in fatty tissue to process later. Except that later never comes. If you ate a diet balanced like Soylent, by the time you consumed your full RDA of other nutrients, you’d have eaten 150% of your daily sugars.

Leaving aside the specious nature of RDA computations, the fact is, your RDA of sugar and sodium is a dietary maximum, while your RDA of magnesium, niacin, and other nutrients, is a minimum. Humans evolved in environments where certain substances (salt, sugar) were scarce, but others were abundant; we retain some, and piss away whatever we don’t need of others daily. Modern processed foods reverse this balance. The effect shows on our waistlines.

Even Rosa Foods wouldn’t recommend living on Soylent for every meal. But if you ate this balance at every meal, you’d get 150% of your daily sugar, and seventy percent of your sodium, before you reached your daily necessity of other nutrients. If you just had Soylent for lunch, you’d still need to eat a nutritionally rich dinner, with no dessert, and skip your afternoon Pepsi, to balance your diet. That maketh me not happy.

All that, for a “meal replacement” that basically only takes the edge off your hunger. I’ve used this to replace my breakfast, and felt myself getting hungry again only ninety minutes later; by lunchtime, I could murder a cheeseburger, and I confess, that impairs my judgement, making me crave carbs and fat. I compared this to eating a Snickers above. Yes, both make you feel not hungry. But they’re filling without being satiating. You pay for that later.

I’d be remiss in ignoring Soylent’s convenience. We’ve all had days when even preparing and eating breakfast cereal would be an imposition. But like fast food, wise eaters should indulge this convenience as infrequently as possible. Each individual use might be okay; only when it becomes a pattern does it become a problem. Users who monitor consumption, as through a Weight Watchers journal, can probably add this to their diet, if they remain mindful. Just don't make it a daily thing.

And no, Soylent isn't people. It isn't people.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Daniel Kleve and the Problem With the Heartland

The photo that made Daniel Kleve infamous. Click to enlarge.

The University of Nebraska at Lincoln has had significant free-speech issues recently. First it scrambled to reverse itself after trying to confine an undergraduate to a “free-speech zone” because she attempted to recruit for conservative group Talking Points USA. Then it demoted a graduate assistant for staging a rude and vulgar, but nonviolent, counter-protest of that undergraduate. But neither had the far-reaching consequences of the university ignoring Daniel Kleve.

For those playing the home game, Daniel Kleve, a UNL junior from Norfolk, Nebraska, was caught on camera at the 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia, “Unite the Right” rally, violently beating a counter-protester with a flashlight. Surrounded by other self-proclaimed white nationalists who remain unidentified, Kleve has the counter-protester doubled over, slamming the flashlight into his back, while other deliver kicks to his abdomen. Kleve has no discernable expression on his face.

Recently, video emerged online of Kleve boasting of his racist credentials, ginning up support among other white nationalists, and promising future violence against, well, somebody. Kleve claims the video has been deceptively edited. Nevertheless, enough video bites, screen grabs, and accusations from fellow students exist to indicate that Kleve actively opposes Blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, homosexuals, women, and the kitchen sink. This guy is, by any definition, a Nazi.

The real pearl-clutching has arisen, not over Kleve’s statements, but the university’s decision to do nothing. Citing free speech, the university has elected to take no disciplinary action for deliberately inflammatory statements Kleve has made in the past, and threats he has made regarding the future. Massive protests have precipitated around Daniel Kleve and his statements, which have partly disabled portions of UNL. Yet both sides are fundamentally misguided.

I suggest the Daniel Kleve problem isn’t that he holds these opinions, nor that he voices them in deliberately confrontational ways. Rather, Daniel Kleve has successfully drawn attention to a portion of America that we’ve attempted to stifle. This portion is physically, economically, and socially isolated from the parts we lovingly display to the world. And it forces us to acknowledge that America’s deeply divided past didn’t go anywhere.

When I moved to Nebraska in 1992, it was an overwhelmingly white state. The town I moved into had one Black family, two Hispanic families, and one Japanese family, in a town of over five thousand. In land and layout, the town wasn’t particularly different from many California suburbs I’d previously lived in. But it differed in degree of isolation: not only was the population racially homogenous, but the town was an hour away from the nearest commercial airport.

A flyer about Daniel Kleve, distributed
around UNL. Click to enlarge.
This distance from up-to-date amenities had snowball effects. We had some limited amounts of light industry creating jobs, but nothing enough to connect us to the larger, globalizing economy. Three hours from Denver by interstate, five hours from Omaha, we were too distant from large cities to get involved in their economic or cultural spheres. Corporations wouldn’t invest in our town because we were too physically distant from markets.

In such an environment, there was nothing drawing new people into town. Nobody who didn’t already have roots in the community had no reason to move in. Thus the community became ingrown, attitudes became immobile, and I was astounded, moving into town, to discover that people openly dropped N-bombs in casual conversation. Even in the 1990s, racism wasn’t concealed. Nobody used dog-whistle language. Fuck you, this town said, we’re bigots.

Since then, I’ve noticed a distinct cultural divide in Nebraska. Physically and economically isolated towns don’t disguise their racism. Neither do people who perceive themselves as disconnected from the economy: since I slipped backward on society’s economic ladder, I’ve worked in a factory and I’ve worked construction. In both fields, I’ve observed people willing to use racial language and express their bigotry undisguisedly, even right beside people of other races.

Lincoln likes to believe itself a cosmopolitan center. Omaha is Nebraska’s financial and industrial center, home to Warren Buffett and Union Pacific Railroad, but with the University and its surrounding arts community, Lincoln is Nebraska’s cultural capital. It tries to market itself as aggressively diverse. Permitting somebody like Daniel Kleve into town undermines Lincoln’s ideas, not only about itself, but about Nebraska’s place in a changing and diverse world.

Yet Kleve isn’t an outlier. He represents much of Nebraska outside the Lincoln-to-Omaha corridor, a state comprised of geographically isolated towns, disconnected from the national and global economy. This state only makes national news when snows block Interstate 80. People in Manhattan and California call this “Flyover Country.” When you hear about the “White Working Class” that supported Donald Trump, here it is.

Daniel Kleve represents a Nebraska that Lincoln and Omaha are happy to ignore. He represents a Middle America that coastal residents openly despise. By entering the centers of power in Nebraska, he forces a confrontation the self-anointed want to believe is already resolved. Unfortunately, he isn’t a mistake or a throwback. This is the heartland which our centers of power have tried to silence and ignore. If we don’t confront this soon, it will occur elsewhere, too.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

How One Girl Conquered African Chess

Tim Crothers, The Queen of Katwe: One Girl's Triumphant Path to Becoming a Chess Champion

Katwe is one of the poorest slums in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, one of the poorest nations in Africa, Earth’s poorest continent. Children born in Katwe have little hope of improving their lives. That includes Phiona Mutesi, whose mother says she was “probably” born in 1996; that’s as specific as she can be. Phiona would’ve spent her life hawking food from roadside stalls, except an accidental encounter helped her discover her hidden talent: chess.

Sportswriter Tim Crothers has crafted an epic of how one teenager, with everything against her, became a national champion and an international competitor, in a game dominated by children of the well-off. Crothers’ book serves as a biography of Mutesi, of the Christian missionary who unlocked her surprising capability, and of the urban squalor pit that brought them together. Crothers’ writing sometimes struggles to incorporate his many themes, but it’s difficult not to feel moved.

In 2002, Robert Katende, a former child soccer phenom, graduated engineering college without direction for his adult life. A Uganda native who grew up poor, he’d found religion during an extended hospital stay, so he accepted a commission from an American missionary program to teach soccer to boys in Katwe. His principal attraction to Katwe’s youth was that he brought actual regulation soccer balls into slums where kids played with balls made from banana leaves.

Despite immediate popularity, some boys couldn’t participate in Katende’s soccer program: they were so poor, even insignificant injuries could bankrupt their families, so soccer, a contact sport, was impossible. So Katende brought an inexpensive chess set into Katwe. The game was so exotic that the local language, Luganda, had no word for “chess,” yet five boyds proved eager students of the primarily intellectual game. One boy’s sister tagged along to practice one day, without warning.

Phiona Mutesi
Phiona Mutesi had almost no formal education, because her mother put her to work, aged about three, to protect the family from destitution. It was an intermittently successful effort. She was probably nine years old when she barged into Katende’s all-boys’ chess lessons. Yet Phiona proved so adept at thinking several moves ahead that she quickly outpaced Katende’s ability to coach her. Within two years, she beat every Ugandan chess champion in her age bracket.

Within six years, Phiona was Uganda’s national champion, and traveled to international tournaments, playing European and American competitors from wealthy backgrounds. Phiona sat opposite children of the white middle and upper classes before, Crothers admits, she knew how to read. Soon her story wasn’t just about chess. She became the only African her competitors’ sponsors ever encountered, possibly their only direct encounter with truly abject poverty. How many Phionas, Crothers wonders, has the world overlooked?

Crothers’ writing requires some effort. He works to maintain focus on his main characters, but real life, as journalists know, is often sloppy, lacking a narrative through-line. Thus, apart from a brief prologue, it takes seventy pages to bring Phiona into her own story. As Crothers’ mixed biography of Phiona, Katende, and Katwe generally moves among several themes, there are visible seams; chapter breaks sometimes feel like fault lines. Crothers clearly isn’t experienced in long-form.

Notwithstanding these form problems, Crothers crafts a complex, multi-pronged narrative that will attract multiple audiences. Readers of nonfiction and biography will enjoy Katende’s and Phiona’s struggles to emerge from poverty and become their own individuals. Fans of history and iinternational policy will find these protagonists’ stories informative to understand a nation that’s still terra incognita to most American and European audiences. And Christian readers will love how the heroes’ faith guided them through trying times.

Originally released in 2012, when Phiona was probably about sixteen, this book has enjoyed a recent push from Sports Outreach, the mission network that sponsored Robert Katende’s original mission. It also received a 2016 Disney film adaptation. Much of this re-release push has come from Christian sponsors, but this book isn’t exclusively Christian; non-religious readers will find plenty to enjoy, too. Crothers’ mix of history, biography, and sports will engage a complex and diverse audience.

This isn’t the kind of book that general readers often seek out. Its two main themes, chess and African poverty, aren’t exactly big audience grabbers. Yet despite Crothers’ occasional difficulty welding his many themes together, he convincingly sells his story. He’s storyteller enough that his journalism feels like a campfire tale. Perhaps this working-class reviewer can offer no better praise than to say, this book made me stay up past my bedtime to keep reading.

Monday, February 5, 2018

The One Group Bigots Are Still Allowed to Hate

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 88
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Imagine living in a community where, on average, almost one-third of your male population has been to prison. Where, in some regions, the number approaches four-fifths. Where, because your men have a criminal record, they’re forever barred from public housing, food assistance, and student loans, meaning they can’t get the three things they need to escape a life of poverty: a stable address, square meals, and job skills. For the rest of their natural lives.

You don’t need to imagine. Michelle Alexander, professor at Ohio State University, lays out copious evidence that this describes the African American community today. Outright bigotry is condemned today, and laws prohibit racial discrimination in housing, employment, and other avenues. But it remains perfectly legal to discriminate against ex-convicts. And if black Americans have criminal records at rates disproportionate to their actual tendency to commit crime, um, it’s nobody’s fault, really. So we tell ourselves.

Sometime around 1980, American fears of drugs and drug criminals permitted us to excuse remarkable leaps of justice to keep criminals at heel. Though Richard Nixon declared the War on Drugs in 1971, his war was essentially rhetorical. Under Ronald Reagan, a perfect confluence of moral outrage, conservative voting, and economic instability made Americans willing to accept paternalistic appeals to keep us safe from scary criminals. Those criminals happened, in public imagination, to be black.

So the federal government shifted focus and money away from enforcing white-collar crime and onto drugs. Anti-drug rhetoric has often focused on “kingpins” like Pablo Escobar and El Chapo; but enforcement has focused on street-corner dealers and people using at home. Aggressive police stops and searches, called “pretext stops,” encouraged slews of lawsuits. The Supreme Court so willingly acknowledged Drug War rhetoric that it’s accepted major waivers in the Fourth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments.

Michelle Alexander
Evidence indicates African Americans and white Americans use drugs at roughly the same rate, while whites are one-third more likely to deal, and three times as likely to get admitted to emergency rooms. Yet three-quarters of America’s drug prisoners and ex-convicts are black; in some jurisdictions, that number reaches 90%. Current case law, though, excuses systematic racism unless complainants can prove racial intent in specific cases. A little race-neutral dressing, and runaway racism becomes legal.

Nor do racial slants stop at the jailhouse door. It’s perfectly legal to discriminate against ex-convicts in housing, employment, civil rights, and more, so once convicted, individuals remain social outcasts forever. Ex-criminals wind up in impoverished neighborhoods, surrounded mostly by other ex-cons. This includes both public and private spheres. Even states that restore convicts’ voting rights after prison, often require such high standards of paperwork and restitution, that law-abiding citizens remain permanently outside functioning democracy.

America has the largest prison population in world history. Alexander estimates that when she wrote, in 2010, over two million Americans were in prison or on probation or parole. The American criminal justice system doesn’t just warehouse people convicted of crimes, some embarassingly penny-ante; it’s also become a major jobs program, especially in rural areas. Fixing this system would require destabilizing the American economy, at least temporarily. But economic and criminal injustice is manifest, now.

Unlike slavery or Jim Crow, control mechanisms that explicitly made distinctions between people according to race, today’s mass incarceration system is nominally race-neutral. There’s no single point we can indicate and say, “Racism lives here.” We aren’t really repressing black or Hispanic Americans by enforcing laws. Except unconscious biases running through most American minds, including law enforcement professionals, coach us to perceive stereotypical criminals as dark-hued and ghettoized. So selected communities get disproportionate police scrutiny.

Alexander admits her analogy between racialized justice and Jim Crow is imperfect. Police sweeps sometimes net white people (mostly expendable poor white trash), while African Americans sometimes become media darlings, even getting elected President. But exceptions don’t undermine the trends. America’s prisoners are disproportionately black, and African American men are disproportionately likely to have lifelong criminal records. This results in a form of legalized discrimination that, while superficially race-neutral, breaks down along distinct color lines.

To her credit, Alexander avoids prescriptive attempts to resolve this problem. She even acknowledges that repairs could create new problems. With this volume, she primarily emphasizes that a problem exists, that Americans have accepted a massive gap between the post-racial ideals we espouse with our mouths, and the racialized justice system we’ve created through our actions. She merely makes us aware. Now it’s on us citizens to decide what we’ll do with her chilling information.

Friday, February 2, 2018

As You Wish: the Book

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 87
William Goldman, The Princess Bride


You know the story: Farmboy Wesley falls madly in love with Buttercup, mistress of the mansion. So he ventures to sea, seeking his fortune, promising to return, and is lost. Bereft, she promises to marry a haughty, self-absorbed prince, who has ulterior motives. The classic movie, directed by Rob Reiner, with a script by Goldman himself, captures the plot point-for-point.

But unless you’ve read the original 1973 novel, you don’t know the story that comes between the plot points. Goldman, who started as a novelist, found eventual fame and a lucrative career as one of Hollywood’s top adaptations men, writing scripts for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Stepford Wives, and All the President’s Men. He also found profound frustration turning other people’s prose into workable screenplays.

Goldman’s novel has two running stories. The main one is a classic fairy tale of love, swashbuckling, and loyalty versus betrayal. But in italicized passages salted throughout that fairy tale, an angry voice, putatively Goldman’s own, describes his deep frustration trying to extract this story from a tedious, slow-moving, talky “classic” by a bohunk European author, S. Morgenstern.

According to this frame story, Goldman’s grandfather used to read The Princess Bride to young Goldman whenever the boy got sick. As an adult, he wanted to share that experience with his son, whom he describes in scornful, derisive terms. But when he finally manages to acquire a vintage copy of Morgenstern’s long out-of-print classic, he finds it a brick-like mass of incomprehensible prose desperately trying to be “art” for the literati.

William Goldman
Both S. Morgenstern and the personal life Goldman describes are entirely fictional; yet so detailed and specific is Goldman’s writing that, to this day, I occasionally encounter people who believe Morgenstern’s original novel exists somewhere. The version we know is supposedly abridged, keeping Morgenstern’s best scenes, driven by action and dialog, and excising his tendency to lecture the audience.

Goldman plays off the frustration readers often have, when wanting to go back and read the original novels Goldman adapted for the screen, to discover that books are slower, talkier, and less energetic than movies. In making his adaptations, Goldman has to aggressively chop exposition and thoughts, keeping the focus on the external. In novels, authors and readers think, but in movies, screenwriters and actors have to move.

Therein, though, lies the irony. Goldman started out as a novelist, and fell into screenwriting only accidentally; his earliest novels were critically lauded but not much read. He, like most writers, knows intimately the difference between writing for the page and screen. His frame narrator is passionately disgusted at how novelists love to lecture the audience. He hates this so much, in fact, that he lectures the audience about it.

Like many of the best novel characters, like Huck Finn or Elizabeth Bennett, Goldman’s frame narrator reveals much about himself that he doesn’t realize he’s sharing. He wants to share an experience of childlike wonder with a son whom he openly hates. (Goldman has two daughters but no sons; this novel began with bedtime stories he once improvised for his girls.) He expresses his love of Morgenstern by savaging his text. He loathes talky narrators so much that he narrates talkatively about them.

While the fairy tale has been cleansed of anything resembling introspection or symbolism, Goldman’s frame narrator unspools his autobiography and describes the adaptation process in exactly the wordy, self-involved manner he decries in others. This voice is so deaf to his own chastisements that he becomes hilarious. Like Goldman’s comic characters (Vizzini comes to mind), he’s funny because he doesn’t understand himself.

As noted, Goldman wrote the screen adaptation himself. Fittingly, his talkative frame narration made poor screen content, and vanished entirely, replaced with the scenes featuring Fred Savage and Peter Falk. This alternate frame story has a gentler tone, as Fred Savage becomes mature enough to accept the kissing scenes he originally hated. Goldman’s original frame story is much more bitter. Goldman’s frame narrator never learns from himself, or his story.

Movie fans discovering Goldman’s novel for the first time might be surprised by how bitter and unsentimental this book is. Yet decades later, it remains the most lucrative and beloved novel in Goldman’s bibliography, and has never gone out of print. Reiner’s 1987 movie, produced after a decade of development hell, makes a good companion piece, and audiences should enjoy them in parallel. But Goldman’s novel is fascinating and hilarious on its own, and a treat for smart, dedicated readers.