Saturday, August 26, 2017

Science ("Caesar's Last Breath" by Sam Kean)

I was not a particularly enthusiastic student, at least where science was concerned. Every class I took on the subject, from middle school through college, left me completely uninterested, and I soon mastered the art of daydreaming while maintaining eye contact with my teachers, always with a notebook and pen seemingly at the ready. (In college, a required class on soil science, held at 9 a.m., was almost too much to bear. To keep myself awake, I sat beside the same student every Tuesday and Thursday, a soccer player with an active night life, and nudged him every time his head drooped to one side or the other. This self-appointed task kept me alert enough that I never fell victim to the same fate.)

Needless to say, upon the completion of my last required science class as an undergrad--and, as I was well aware, the last science class I would ever have to take--I felt a sense of overwhelming joy. I had endured years of droning lectures, filled notebooks with equations and diagrams that I would never fully understand, and devoted hours of study to textbooks that described science as though it were a piece of furniture in need of assembly. Even dissection, something I did only once, revealed itself to be lacking any real interest for me, as we spent most of our time looking over the photocopied carcass of a splayed piglet in preparation for yet another quiz. (In retrospect, I should have claimed moral objections and skipped the entire ordeal, as another one of my classmates did; my grade would have been the same regardless, I'm sure.)

And yet...buried deep in a box somewhere in my parents' basement are science books. Dozens and dozens of them. Many of them are picture books--on dinosaurs, weather patterns, birds, volcanoes, and so on. As a child, I adored anything related to science, especially if it taught me something about the strange, wild, and fascinating world I had been born into. I watched episodes of Bill Nye the Science Guy with such hunger that even today, twenty years later, I can recite certain moments verbatim. The house in which I grew up was surrounded on all sides by lush forest, and I whiled away hours collecting a leaves, studying anthills, and investigating dens dug by small animals. (That I escaped childhood without once being attacked by a badger is a miracle.) Like many young boys, the effects of fire left me spellbound:  aluminum soda cans would weaken if left in a fire long enough, I noticed, but metal soup cans would not, and from these simple experiments I could make endless deductions. And at some point, around the age of ten or eleven, I became obsessed with Alfred Wegener, the man who first proposed continental drift. The thought of a fifth-grade boy becoming enamored with a long-dead German geophysicists while his classmates filled their lunchtime conversations with thoughts on their favorite football players is a little tough to imagine; for me, I couldn't imagine anything else at that age, especially the allure of football when compared to the puzzle-piece continents of our world.

My interest may have been narrow and eccentric, maybe even parochial, but they were not unusual. My hunch is that many boys and girls experience a similar baptism:  a parent or teacher introduces them to an enchanting aspect of the world, and they are hooked. As time passes, however, those interests disappear. Blame is easy to assign--we abandon many of our childhood interests over time, and adolescence makes us self-conscious about ourselves, especially if we enjoy something considered "geeky" or "weird"--but I have no hesitancy in doing so. At some point, science became less about the world around me and more about the world as it was depicted on paper. The science lessons I remember fondly from my pre-teen years--raising butterflies, making alum crystals, dissecting owl pellets, creating an electrical grid from desk to desk--slowly gave way to tedious chapters in decades-old textbooks. Hands-on experiments became fewer and fewer, replaced by thick packets and endless tests.

Even today, I shudder at what has become standard in science curricula across the country. Once, while tutoring a student after school, he handed me the packet he was required to complete for his science class, which reduced a compelling topic--volcanoes--to a series of multiple-choice questions and short-answer problems, all derived from long, droning paragraphs in his textbook. The boy I was tutoring was eleven years old. In more capable hands, he would be learning about volcanoes by building his own out of paper mache, or by studying pictures of Pompeii, or by tracing every step of an eruption with props and sound effects and destructible scenery. Instead, his study of volcanoes required him to sit at a table and search for bold vocabulary words.

Which is, of course, a travesty. Our world is endlessly fascinating, and it's only been in the last five years or so--since graduating from college and becoming a teacher myself, albeit of English--that my interest in science has been rekindled, thanks almost exclusively to writers like Bill Bryson, Mary Roach, and Sam Kean.* The first wrote what is perhaps my favorite science book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, which explores the planet Earth from its earliest moments. What makes the book such a treasure is that Bryson, who has no formal training in science, devotes an equal amount of ink to both scientists and their discoveries. He tells their stories as though writing a novel--sometimes comedic, sometimes tragic, often inspiring but just as easily dispiriting--and employs creative analogies and contemporary examples in order to simplify complicated (but important) milestones reached centuries ago.

The same can be said of Mary Roach, who writes about serious topics--the utility of dead bodies, the science of human sexuality, the preparation needed to undertake a mission to Mars--with biting honesty and a dark sense of humor, both of which help lay readers connect with subjects that might otherwise be seen as too obtuse or irrelevant. And Sam Kean takes broad scientific concepts--elements, genetics, the brain--and weaves together dozens of fascinating stories in order to convey how rich and complicated each subject truly is. In other words, he takes topics that have become stodgy textbook chapters and rewrites them to reveal the human faces behind each.

Kean's most recent book, Caesar's Last Breath, explains the air around us:  what it is comprised of, how long we've known this, and who made these discoveries. Along the way, we are introduced to the first men to successfully fly a hot-air balloon; a crotchety old widower in Washington who defies a volcano and loses; a pig that miraculously survives a nuclear blast; an aristocrat whose house is set on fire by those who see his scientific experiments as proof of his decadence; the world's worst poet, writing an ode to one of the world's worst bridges; a man who hopes to defeat hurricanes with chemicals; and so on. Each of these stories offers us a glimpse into our attempts at understanding, utilizing, and even changing our atmosphere. Most importantly, Kean knows that every respiration is a story in itself--a remixing of the same air breathed by men and women who lived centuries ago, as well as the same air that will be still be breathed centuries from now. In other words, every inhale is a communication with the past, and every exhale is a communication with the future.

This is one aspect of science that is almost always lost in textbooks:  why the past matters to those of us living in the present. It's very easy to ignore the life of Einstein when all we're asked to do is understand his theories. But learning about where our famous scientists came from, as well as how they came to be scientists, is just as important as memorizing their formulas, identifying their discoveries on the Periodic Table, or using modern versions of the instruments they designed and built. We see the situations that propelled them into asking questions, making observations, and filling pages with calculations, until they arrived at a conclusion. This gives our modern world a depth that it so deeply needs, and a nuance that might serve as a warning to others. As Kean points out, not all great scientists were heroic beyond their achievements; some, like Alfred Nobel and Fritz Haber, left legacies of carnage and death that may very well overshadow their scientific accomplishments in the near future. Those who hope to one day work in the sciences must understand that not every breakthrough is universally beneficial; sometimes, the cure for one problem is the cause of another, and anyone who walks into a laboratory without that in mind is taking a great risk.

Studying the past is also a reminder to young people that those who do great things often come from humble beginnings, that they need to work hard over many years, that they often--and inevitably--struggle. Students often approach science class with a pass/fail mindset--they need to get the experiment right the first time because they will not have a second, and anything that does not achieve the prescribed outcome is meaningless. This is not how science is supposed to work. Science is built upon repetition and failure: every floundering experiment or disproven hypothesis adds to our scientific knowledge because it tells us to try again, change our approach, or move in a different direction. One of the great benefits to doing experiments with children is that it forces them to act, evaluate, and recalculate based on little more than what they've observed, all of which are vital skills. Learning that scientists of the past found success only after years, even decades, of failure gives kids permission to do the same--have an idea, conduct an experiment, and fail. As long as they see that failure as the beginning of a new path rather than the end of their only option, they will benefit much more than if they simply read about these experiments in a stuffy textbook.

There are writers with much more direct scientific knowledge and expertise than Sam Kean--Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, and Michio Kaku are only a few. And they are fine writers, not to mention excellent spokespeople for the importance of a strong science education. But it's Sam Kean and his compatriots who I enjoy the most, and whose work offers us guidance about how we can reclaim the joys of science for future generations. They remind us that science can be both terrifying and exciting; it can be time-consuming but also fun and invigorating; it can be frustratingly mysterious, almost petulant in its unwillingness to give up the solution as easily as you would like, but within those mysteries is something redemptive. To solve a mystery of this world, even a relatively small one, is to locate a missing puzzle piece, one that reveals even more of our existence once set in place. And the people who solve those mysteries, regardless of their own personal foibles and reputations, are just as worthy of our study as their most important works.

*A healthy diet of MythBusters reruns has also helped.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Hermit ("The Stranger in the Woods" by Michael Finkel)

When he was twenty years old, Christopher Knight parked his car along a rural road in central Maine, left the keys on the dashboard, and walked into the surrounding forest. He had few supplies, no food, and no plan. For the next twenty-seven years, Knight would remain there, living in a makeshift tent in a small clearing with no contact between himself and another person save for a solitary hiker, with whom he exchanged monosyllabic greetings before moving on. He survived by stealing food and other necessities from nearby homes and cabins, many of which were only occupied during the summer months, and keeping his activities limited to nighttime and non-winter excursions.

It was, he would later profess, his own personal idea of paradise.

When he finally reappeared in society, escorted there by local police after more than a thousand break-ins, he found himself even more of a loner than before he first set foot in the woods. He had never been a social person; throughout his early years, including those spent in public school, he left little impression on anyone or anything. Raised to be honest, self-sufficient, and intellectually curious, Knight had always longed for the solitude that only nature could provide. And so he followed his desires, relying on frozen meat and junk food left behind by seasonal tourists, as well as the books, soap, shampoo, and propane tanks of local residents, to keep him thriving both physically and mentally. His arrest, which brought an end to both the world's most successful--albeit monotonous--crime spree and a generation of local urban legends, also marked another milestone: at age 47, Knight had dedicated more than half his life to living alone in the woods.

In the closing pages of The Stranger in the Woods, a nonfiction account of Christopher Knight's life during and after his time in the forest, journalist Michael Finkel attempts to explain just what his subject was hoping to accomplish:
He wasn't going to leave behind a single recorded thought, not a photo, not an idea. No person would know of his experience. Nothing would ever be written about him. He would simply vanish, and no one on this teeming planet would notice. His end wouldn't create so much as a ripple on North Pond. It would have been an existence, a life, of utter perfection.
A conclusion such as this might seem strange out of context--a man willing to be forgotten, and to think of such a life as perfection--but when read at the end of such a complicated story, this seems like a fitting and appropriate summation.

What makes Finkel's conclusion problematic is not how strongly it runs counter to the narratives our society embraces--that we must be concerned with our legacy, our footprints, our need to accomplish much and accomplish often--but how Finkel's entire book undermines its own thesis. If, as Finkel believes, Knight wanted to die in his encampment and be absorbed into nature, decomposed by the very same wilderness that offered him refuge, then Finkel has made such an end impossible and rendered the perfect as unachievable. Even if Knight were to return to the forest to die, as he intimates doing at one point, his death would not erase him from the world; instead, Christopher Knight, the so-called "last hermit," would be forever preserved because of Finkel's own book, which is now a bestseller.

Rarely do we encounter those who willingly remove themselves from society and are better for it; more often than not, those who live in this world, whether they do so in large cities or rural towns, belong to a community, and their absence from this community, whether it be for days or weeks or years, causes irreparable damage. Those who do separate themselves often descend into a strange form of madness; they may not suffer from a recognized or diagnosable illness, but something about them changes, something slightly perceptible at first, then unavoidable, until they become an entirely different person. They become a stranger, as though the isolation has jolted unseen fault lines into dangerous movements, which cannot be traced back or undone. Knight, as depicted by Finkel, seems to waver between becoming one of these people--his inability to make eye contact or engage in social niceties are startling aspects to his personality, ones that don't seem to have been a part of him before his exile into the forest--and preserving that small, pulsing nucleus of his individuality, which thrived as he devoured books, honed his survival instincts, and developed an appreciation for classical music, all in the wilderness of Maine.

Finkel wants us to believe that more of us should follow Knight's lead--abandon society, even briefly, to rediscover the benefits of silence, of boredom, of self-sufficiency, of nature, of solitude--even as the very subject of his book, the soul of this thesis, refuses to play along. Given every opportunity, Knight refuses to speak the words of Thoreauvian wisdom Finkel so desperately wants and expects, even as he simultaneously acknowledges that such wisdom--if it were to be delivered--would benefit almost no one. When asked what he's learned after so much time in the wild, Knight takes a long pause and recommends we get enough sleep; he then turns and is taken back to his prison cell, his wisdom seemingly spent.

Finkel's attitude towards Knight is never consistent, despite having had more contact with him than anyone else outside of his immediate family. At first, he initiates a conversation through letters, which rarely focus on Knight's time in the woods. Eventually, he takes a further step and visits Knight in prison, where the hermit's strange mannerisms become clear. Eventually, once Knight is paroled, Finkel begins stalking the man; he schedules flights to Maine from Montana and arrives unannounced at Knight's home, despite the fact that all of Knight's family members have refused to comment on the matter. He drives around Knight's small town speaking to those in his community about him, temporarily sets up camp in Knight's old clearing, attends Knight's sentencing, hounds his brothers, teases Knight about a potential girlfriend, and continues writing letters to him, all of which make the reading experience increasingly uncomfortable. Only when Knight insists that Finkel stop and threatens him with a call to the police does the author finally--and mercifully--relent, and for the first time since his arrest chapters earlier, the "character" of Christopher Knight is given the peace he has so desperately wanted.

Perhaps Finkel believes all of this is well-intentioned:  an attempt to connect with a man who struggles to do so. Perhaps he believes he is doing a service for his readers, who--he imagines--would want to know more about someone who seems so unwilling to share anything even remotely personal. Instead, Finkel becomes the very thing Knight had spent so many years eluding:  the ever-present set of eyes that is constantly judging, constantly questioning, constantly demanding. Among other people, Knight was forced to wear a mask of society's making, one that offered up meaningless small talk with ease, exhibited the appropriate facial expressions, watched mindless television, avoided anything intellectually engaging, and scorned those who didn't do the same. Among the trees, Knight could chip away at the mask, piece by piece, until he was finally himself. Even prison offered him enough structure and solitude to keep the full mask at bay.

But a journalist who arrives unannounced and uninvited, pries into his personal life, asks unwanted questions, and initiates contact with family members is little more than those prying eyes come back with a new mask in hand. And in publishing a book devoted exclusively to Knight, whose only real desire is to be left alone and forgotten, Finkel has committed the most heinous crime of all:  he has forced Knight to remain a public figure long after he's passed away. Rather than being the subject of some long-forgotten online articles--the very kind that require refined Internet searches and hours of scrolling--Knight will be preserved as caricature and exhibit, his mask made of paper and ink and bytes, and his name synonymous with freak. Michael Finke could have used this book to explore the ways in which our society has disconnected us from one another and the world around us, and the benefits of getting those connections back; instead, he has reminded us that, no matter how we work to fix ourselves and pursue our redemptions, there will always be those who stand at the forest's edge, mask in hand, waiting for us to emerge.

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Kid Becomes Laureate: Bob Dylan in 2016

On an otherwise quiet October morning in 2016, the Swedish Academy announced that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, catching much of the world by surprise. Though Dylan appeared frequently on shortlists for the award, his chances were never anything more than slim--the dream of the contrarian--and the annual disappointment over his lack of recognition always seemed to be delivered with a wistful grin by his supporters. Those who professed a deeper knowledge of the Academy's unspoken criteria pointed to other American writers--Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates--as more likely and more deserving recipients; after all, those authors were integral to understanding the modern American experience, were taught in college classes, received major awards, and wrote "serious" literature, while Dylan was little more than a folk singer--an important one, to be sure--who had aged into a strange, incoherent caricature of himself. That such a revered prize should be bestowed upon a man whose only published works were an incomprehensible and out-of-print novel, a single volume of memoir, collections of his artwork, and children's books based on his life and music, seemed downright preposterous.

On that October morning, however, the preposterous became reality.* For the first time in the 115-year history of the Nobel Prize for Literature, the award was given to someone known primarily as a songwriter rather than as a novelist, poet, dramatist, or writer of short stories. (Last year's recipient, Svetlana Alexievich of Belarus, is known for her lengthy works of oral history, another first for the Swedish Academy) What's more, Dylan became the first American in more than two decades to receive the Nobel--a gap of time that many attribute to the Swedish Academy's thinly disguised disinterest in American literature. In 2008, Horace Engdahl, then the Academy's secretary, dismissed contemporary American literature and suggested that no living author from the United States was worthy of recognition. Speaking to the Associated Press, Engdahl stated, "There is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the centre of the literary world...not the United States. The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature....That ignorance is restraining."

The response from American critics, academics, publishers, and writers to Engdahl's assertion was instantaneous. They offered to send Engdahl a list of authors whose works, they said, disproved his belief in an ignorant and self-centered trend in literature from the States. They cited the number of American books published every year, the number of translations available to American readers, and writers who already possessed wide international audiences, all to no avail. In the years that followed, it seemed as though an entire generation of American writers would never see another one of their own honored.

Those who extolled the virtues of American literature, especially in the wake of Engdahl's public comments, advocated for a small but important selection of writers as worthy laureates--DeLillo, Roth, Oates among them--and justified such a list by noting how the work of each embodied not only the virtues of American literature--a focus on internal struggles suddenly borne outward, the pitfalls of dreams against a disinterested reality, the shades of emptiness and regret lurking behind every painted front door--but also honest, excellent, and stylistic writing. However, if you reexamine these same writers when placed beside those who won the Nobel over the previous two decades--that is to say, since Toni Morrison received the prize in 1993--you begin to see the differences. For all the variances in style and subject, the previous 23 laureates fit a certain mold. Their work focuses on the lives of the downtrodden, the dispossessed, the forgotten. They emphasize the experiences of those who are not part of the mainstream, who are not privileged, who walk through the world as innocents rather than troubled patriarchs. They confront issues of the present--genocide, censorship, inequality, totalitarianism--directly while forcing readers to suffer under the weight of the past, often whitewashed and frequently forgotten, as though the book were stitched together from the memories of the dead. The reason why Toni Morrison won a Nobel had little to do with the beauty of her prose or the complexity of her characters, though both were--and remain--stunning. Instead, she wrote books that refused to suffer from a willed amnesia, that refused to compromise content for the sake of commerce, that placed a mirror up not only to her readers but the country in which they lived and asked everyone to take a long, deep look at the reflection. Morrison understood--and understands--that placing the past behind us gives us permission to ignore it, even as it stands waiting for us on the coming horizon.

To be more blunt, most authors will make us confront the past, but do so incrementally and always delicately, as though the truth may be too much, or their readers possess fragile minds. A great author, on the other hand, pushes us towards the mass graves, the rusted slave-shackles, the improvised monuments to those who were disappeared by their governments. Most American writers focus their stories on small moments between people--the slow dissolution of a family, the questioning of faith, the infirmities of age against the ignorances of the young--without taking those lessons and connecting each to the greater world. This is what the Swedish Academy wants: a writer whose words resonate beyond their own mind and skin. Morrison's body of work works under the belief--one of many--that we as a nation cannot claim the mantle of freedom while standing atop a mound of chains...that we as a nation are forever engaged in a struggle for our own soul, even as we convince ourselves of our own moral superiority.

This is the reason why Bob Dylan--the eccentric, incoherent American troubadour--is a much more appropriate laureate than any of the aforementioned authors. Throughout his career, Dylan's lyrics have told stories of men and women who labor under inequities that consume them; of communities devastated by the greed and avarice of those in positions of power; of systems and institutions built to preserve liberty for the few and wealthy, rather than the many and the needy; of struggles by the downtrodden to gain the rights they need and deserve; of peace in the face of war and acceptance in the face of prejudice. Reading his lyrics today, often four or five decades after they were first written, is to see stories and images that transcend the era in which they were first put to paper. The struggles that inspired Dylan to write his songs remain to this day, and while they may differ in form, they remain the same in their devastating effects.

Take, for example, "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," a song from his 1964 album The Times They Are a-Changin', in which Dylan recounts the story of a black woman--a mother of ten--who is killed by William Zanzinger, a white man half her age, whose wealthy parents, family connections, and status in a segregated society guarantee he will see no punishment. And, as the song reveals, he receives a six-month sentence--far from the kind of resolution promised by a court of law, though one befitting a world in which Hattie Carroll was considered unworthy of justice simply because of the color of her skin. Though we may tell ourselves that we've banished such occurrences from our world, finding evidence to the contrary is not difficult: we see judges handing down harsher verdicts and punishments in cases involving people of color, while white defendants charged with heinous crimes against those same communities are found not guilty or given lenient sentences; we see prosecutors removing men and women from juries based on their ethnicities; and we see courts allowing politicians to disenfranchise non-white voters, making it increasingly difficult for them to gain the political influence they need to advocate for their rights. Dylan's song may be old, but the injustices of which he sings are ever-present in our lives.

Or take "North Country Blues," in which he sings of a poor rural community from the point of view of a young woman who lives there. Though the mines in her small town are successful--"the red iron pits ran plenty"--the narrator loses both her father and brother in a mining accident, and she decides to leave school to marry a miner. Eventually, the mine is closed completely, and when a representative from the company comes to town to explain why, the narrator records his words:  "
They say that your ore ain't worth digging / That it's much cheaper down / In the South American town / Where the miners work for almost nothing."

In the years to come, the town empties of people, including the narrator's husband, who disappears while she sleeps; and suddenly the narrator is alone with three children to raise in a town where there is little hope. Soon, the homes bear "cardboard filled windows," the shops close up one after another, and the narrator commiserates over the knowledge that her children will one day leave, saying, "Well, there ain't nothing here now to hold them."

Though this song is more than a half-century old, the scenes it depicts--of small towns dying away, of families struggling with poverty and job loss, of once prosperous industries leaving for distant countries and cheaper labor--are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago. Millions of Americans continue to struggle with such issues, especially in regions where mining once kept entire communities alive. Urban and suburban areas continue to grow while towns and villages see their populations become smaller and grayer as young people graduate and move away. Financial strains take their toll on families, often dragging households into poverty. And when those tasked with fixing such problems come to town, they make sure to walk in parades, promise to bring jobs back in exchange for a couple of votes, then disappear for two years, four years, six years...returning only to reassure those same people that, yes, those jobs will come back, you just need to wait a little longer, and make sure you vote for the right candidate in November.

Even Dylan's later work, written long after the tumultuous 1960s had faded from memory, couldn't avoid touching on the problems faced by the average American. The song "Clean Cut Kid," released on his 1985 album Empire Burlesque, tells the story of a boy whose life is affected by the world around him until he throws himself off the Golden Gate Bridge in despair. He is raised with a deep sense of community and selflessness; he joins a sports team, sings in a choir, and even becomes a Boy Scout. Along the way, however, he's taught lies--"They said what's up is down, they said what isn't is / They put ideas in his head he thought were his"--in a manner that resembles indoctrination. Soon, he is drafted by the army and sent to Vietnam--"They sent him to a napalm health spa to shape up"--where alcohol, drugs, and guns become a common part of his life. When the war ends, he returns home a changed person, and without the skills he needs to leave the war behind:  "
They gave him dope to smoke, drinks and pills / A jeep to drove, blood to spill / They said 'Congratulations, you got what it takes' / They sent him back into the rat race without any breaks .... He bought the American dream but it put him in debt / The only game he could play was Russian roulette."

The song's refrain--"He was a clean-cut kid / But they made a killer out of him / That's what they did"--is an overt condemnation of a country that would send an entire generation off to war, oversee their return with indifference and disdain, and turn a cold shoulder to the problems they faced in the years to come. Long before PTSD was understood to the degree that it is today, American families saw the effects of a long, protracted war without rules, one that was fought by kids barely of out high school, and one that most people back home never wanted to talk about, even though it lingered behind them like a cannibalistic shadow. Among the many songs of love and heartbreak on Empire Burlesque, "Clean Cut Kid" was a clear yet overlooked reminder that Dylan had not tempered his desire for social justice, even in the age of Reagan's "Morning in America." Now, as our country faces yet another wave of soldiers who have returned from war without the skills or treatment they need to fight PTSD--and a country that seems unable or unwilling to help them, even in the face of high suicide rates among soldiers--Dylan's song is just as powerful as it was thirty years ago.

Dylan, who has devoted much of his career to moving between styles and genres with little concern for the opinions of critics and fans, has often puzzled those who look at the entirety of his output and cannot find a consistent message...or who see a once great folk singer mellowing with age, his passion and outrage diluted by commercial success and a world that has moved on from the protests of the Vietnam era. But this reading of Dylan's work ignores the fact that all good artists--writers, painters, musicians--change. If Dylan wrote and sang the same way he did fifty years ago, he'd be considered a relic of sorts, a sad novelty stuck in the past. Instead, he has used the last half-century as an opportunity to follow his own interests, even if that means facing the wrath of his devoted listeners.

In confounding others, Dylan reaffirmed his status as someone who had little interest in the wants of those in power or the patterns of a successful commercial artist. He does not need to prove himself to anyone, and his decision to skip the Nobel ceremony--because of scheduling conflicts, he said--was the clearest reminder yet that Dylan does not want or need the approval of anyone other than himself. This is precisely why he won the Nobel Prize in the first place. In bestowing him with such an honor, the Swedish Academy is saying, in essence, that those looking to advocate for American literature should look beyond the "conventional" authors who are so consistently touted as worthy of a Nobel Prize. Becoming a laureate is not the mainstreaming of a folk hero; instead, it is the world acknowledging what Americans academics have so long forgotten: American literature is at its best when it's challenging the laws and habits of its forefathers, uncovering the deeper truths about American history with clear eyes, and pushing the nation's conscience toward salvation.

But perhaps this is wrong. The larger lesson may have nothing to do with the Swedish Academy's rationale. Instead, the reaction to Dylan's win may be a chance to reassess how Americans see their relationship with literature. If any of the conventional authors had won, the announcement would have been met with words of celebration--an American, finally!--and a small uptick in sales for that authors' work, but little else. Some would have raised their voices to complain about the selection's predictability, its safeness, even its outdatedness; others would have posted long explanations for the lay-reader as to why the award was deserved after all; but the large majority of Americans who read books would have simply shrugged and forgotten.

Even Cormac McCarthy, by far the most deserving of the conventional choices, would have caused people little pause. Yes, millions have read No Country for Old Men and The Road--the latter being another of Oprah's choices, and a Pulitzer Prize-winner to boot--and millions more had seen the film adaptations of both. But go deeper into the past, beyond the instant bestsellers, and read his earlier novels--Suttree, perhaps, or The Orchard Keeper, or even the masterful and biblical Blood Meridian--and they would have discovered an author whose oeuvre is much more challenging and unorthodox than expected, and they would have set him aside as they would all the others.

Dylan is the antithesis of all this. Americans know him, can recite his words from memory, can sing his songs at the simple announcement of a title. They have lived with him for decades. His music defined not only eras in people's lives but also their struggles. It's Dylan who we need to look to, not as a sort of late-in-life savior in need of a second or third act, but as someone who understands what it means to struggle, to fight for one's own survival. Dylan knows who the enemies are, even as they hide behind desks or flee from the fight, and he understands that the crumbling neighborhoods around us are not a reflection of who we are, but of those who claim to represent our interests while caring only for themselves. Dylan sings of a changing world and how beautiful it can be. But he also wants us to know that change only happens when the downtrodden and oppressed come together; and when they do, those who stand in the way of progress--those who refuse to yield to the rivers of progress--will find themselves sinking like stones.

*Perhaps my favorite example of the degree to which so-called experts failed at predicting a Dylan win comes in an article by Alex Shephard of the New Republic. Posted just days before the Swedish Academy's announcement, Shephard goes out of his way to remind his readers that "Bob Dylan 100 percent is not going to win. Stop saying Bob Dylan should win the Nobel Prize." One week later, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize.

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Books I Read in 2016
  1. A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash (Sylvia Nasar; audiobook, abridged, narrated by Edward Hermann)
  2. Candy Bomber (Michael O. Tunnell)
  3. So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood (Patrick Modiano; Euan Cameron, translator)
  4. When the Cheering Stopped: The Last Years of Woodrow Wilson (Gene Smith)
  5. The Three-Body Problem (Cixin Liu; Ken Liu, translator)
  6. Where the Sidewalk Ends: The Poems and Drawings of Shel Silverstein (Shel Silverstein)
  7. So, Anyway... (John Cleese)
  8. Salome (Oscar Wilde)
  9. Okay For Now (Gary D. Schmidt)
  10. The Protectors (Val Karlsson)
  11. Uprising (Margaret Peterson Haddix) 
  12. Mr. Adams's Last Crusade: The Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life of John Quincy Adams (Joseph Wheelan)
  13. Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (Douglas Adams)
  14. The Curse of Madame "C" (Gary Larson)
  15. Dead End in Norvelt (Jack Gantos)
  16. The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain (Bill Bryson)
  17. Mr. Lemoncello's Library Olympics (Chris Grabenstein)
  18. Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case (Chris Crowe)
  19. The Wave (Todd Strasser)
  20. *One Summer: America, 1927 (Bill Bryson; audiobook, unabridged, narrated by Bill Bryson)
  21. The Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane)
  22. Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library (Scott Sherman)
  23. The Bookshop (Penelope Fitzgerald)
  24. The Shrunken Head (Lauren Oliver, ebook)
  25. The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code (Margalit Fox)
  26. *At Home: A Short History of Private Life (Bill Bryson; audiobook, unabridged, narrated by Bill Bryson)
  27. Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures (Kate DiCamillo)
  28. If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (Italo Calvino; William Weaver, translator)
  29. Guantanamo Boy (Anna Perera)
  30. The Far Side Observer (Gary Larson)
  31. Begging for Change (Sharon Flake)
  32. Something Under the Bed is Drooling (Bill Watterson)
  33. Here Lies the Librarian (Richard Peck)
  34. Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War (Tony Horwitz)
  35. The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman)
  36. A Year in the Life of a Complete and Total Genius (Stacey Matson)
  37. One Child: The Story of China's Most Radical Experiment (Mei Fong)
  38. One Man's Folly: The Exceptional Houses of Furlow Gatewood (Julia Reed; Paul Costello, photographer; Rodney Collins, photographer)
  39. Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians (Brandon Sanderson)
  40. The Logogryph: A Bibliography of Imaginary Books (Thomas Wharton)
  41. The Sculptor (Scott McCloud)
  42. The Run of His Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson (Jeffrey Toobin)
  43. Lake Wobegon Family Reunion (Garrison Keillor; audio, unabridged, narrated by Garrison Keillor, recorded live)
  44. A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World (Tony Horwitz)
  45. Champlain's Dream: the European Founding of North America (David Hackett Fischer)
  46. Bad Unicorn (Platte F. Clark)
  47. News From Lake Wobegon (Garrison Keillor; audio, unabridged, narrated by Garrison Keillor, recorded live)
  48. Veronica's Room: A Melodrama (Ira Levin)
  49. My Reading Life (Pat Conroy; audio, unabridged, narrated by Pat Conroy)
  50. Gifts (Ursula K. Le Guin)
  51. Last Chapter and Worse (Gary Larson)
  52. Phantoms on the Bookshelves (Jacques Bonnet; translated by Sian Reynolds)
  53. A Sense of the World:  How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveller (Jason Roberts)
  54. The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, Volume 1: Acadia, 1610-1613 (Rueben Gold Thwaites, editor)
  55. Borderlands: Unconquered (John Shirley)
  56. Coraline (Neil Gaiman)
  57. Unfamiliar Fishes (Sarah Vowell)
  58. Wolf by Wolf (Ryan Graudin)
  59. 84, Charing Cross Road (Helene Hanff)
  60. Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker (Renata Adler)
  61. Confederates in the Attic:  Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (Tony Horwitz, ebook)
  62. The House of Paper (Carlos Maria Dominguez; Peter Sis, illustrator; Nick Caistor, trans.)
  63. Echo (Pam Munoz Ryan)
  64. Three at Wolfe's Door (Rex Stout)
  65. The Works of Samuel de Champlain, Volume 2 (Samuel de Champlain; H.P. Biggar, editor; John Squair, translator; digital copy)
  66. Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster (Jon Krakauer; audio, unabridged, narrated by Jon Krakauer)
  67. Agnes Quill: An Anthology of Mystery (Dave Roman; Jason Ho, Jen Wang, Taina Telgemeier, and Jeff Zornow, illustrators)
  68. Breakthrough! How Three People Saved "Blue Babies" and Changed Medicine Forever (Jim Murphy)
  69. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Roald Dahl; audiobook, unabridged, narrated by Eric Idle)
  70. In a Sunburned Country (Bill Bryson; audiobook, unabridged, narrated by Bill Bryson)
  71. Hoot (Carl Hiassen)
  72. Toxic Planet (David Ratte)
  73. Don't You Turn Back: Poems by Langston Hughes (Langston Hughes; Lee Bennett Hopkins, editor; Ann Grifalconi, illustrator)
  74. Yukon Ho! (Bill Watterson)
  75. Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud (Shaun Considine)
  76. Everything, Everything (Nicola Yoon)
  77. The Works of Samuel de Champlain, Volume 3 (Samuel de Champlain; H.P. Biggar, editor; H.H. Langton, translator/editor; W.F. Ganong, translator/editor; digital copy)
  78. *In a Sunburned Country (Bill Bryson)
  79. The Hudson's Bay Company (George Woodcock)
  80. *A Walk in the Woods (Bill Bryson; audiobook, abridged, narrated by Bill Bryson)
  81. The Comedians:  Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy (Kliph Nesteroff)
  82. Kill 'Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul (James McBride; ebook)
  83. The Rape of Nanking (Iris Change)
  84. *A Short History of Nearly Everything (Bill Bryson; audiobook, abridged, narrated by Bill Bryson)
  85. Joe Gould's Teeth (Jill Lepore)
  86. The Codex Canadensis and the Writings of Louis Nicolas:  the Natural History of the New World, Histoire Naturelle Des Indes Occidentales (Louis Nicholas; Francois-Marc Gagnon, editor and introduction; Nancy Senior, translator; Real Ouellet, modernization)
  87. *Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life From an Addiction to Film (Patton Oswalt; audiobook, unabridged, narrated by Patton Oswalt)
  88. The Nazi Hunters (Andrew Nagorski)
  89. *Mornings on Horseback: the Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt (David McCullough; audiobook, abridged, narrated by Edward Herrmann) 
  90. Luke Skywalker Can't Read: And Other Geeky Truths (Ryan Britt)
  91. Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman (Lindy West)
  92. Missionary Labors of Fathers Marquette, Menard and Allouez, in the Lake Superior Region (Chrysostom Verwyst; PDF)
  93. But What If We're Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past (Chuck Klosterman)
  94. Hudson's Bay Company, 1670-1870: Volume 1, 1670-1763 (E.E. Rich)
  95. *Zealot:  The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Reza Aslan; audiobook, unabridged, narrated by Reza Aslan)
  96. Citizen: An American Lyric (Claudia Rankine, ebook)
  97. A Very Remarkable Sickness: Epidemics in the Petit Nord, 1670-1846 (Paul Hackett)
  98. This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Ann Patchett; audiobook, unabridged, narrated by Ann Patchett)
  99. On Trails: An Exploration (Robert Moor)
  100. There's Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say (Paula Poundstone; audiobook, abridged, narrated by Paula Poundstone)
  101. The Voyageur's Highway: Minnesota's Border Lake Land (Grace Lee Nute)
  102. History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan (Andrew J. Blackbird, digital)
  103. JR (William Gaddis)
  104. American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst (Jeffrey Toobin)
  105. 1776 (David McCullough)
  106. Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish (David Rakoff, ebook)
  107. Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish (David Rakoff; audiobook, unabridged, narrated by David Rakoff)
  108. The Indian Tribes of the Upper Mississippi Valley and Regions of the Great Lakes, Volume 1 (Nicolas Perrot, Bacqueville de la Potherie, Morrell Marston, and Thomas Forsyth; Emma Helen Blair, translator/editor/annotator; digital copy)
  109. The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk (Jennifer Niven)
  110. All the President's Men (Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein)
  111. A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 (Simon Winchester)
  112. The Library at Mount Char (Scott Hawkins)
  113. First Man: Reimagining Matthew Henson (Simon Schwartz)
  114. Love and Ruin: Tales of Obsession, Danger, and Heartbreak from The Atavist Magazine (Evan Ratliff, editor)
  115. The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party (Daniel James Brown, ebook)
  116. The Silence of the Lambs (Thomas Harris)
  117. The Last Tycoon: An Unfinished Novel (F. Scott Fitzgerald; Edmund Wilson, editor)
  118. Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room (Geoff Dyer)
  119. Challenger Deep (Neal Shusterman; Brendan Shusterman, illustrator)
  120. The Right Stuff (Tom Wolfe)
  121. The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club (Phillip Hoose)
  122. The Boys in the Boat: The True Story of an American Team's Epic Journey to Win Gold at the 1936 Olympics, Young Reader's Edition (Daniel James Brown; Gregory Mone, adaptor)
  123. Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush (Jon Meacham)
  124. The Finest Hours: The True Story of a Heroic Sea Rescue, Young Reader's Edition (Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman)
  125. Tracker (Gary Paulsen)
  126. Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science (Atul Gawande)
  127. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (David Grann)
  128. You Are Here: Around the World In 92 Minutes: Photographs from the International Space Station (Chris Hadfield)
  129. Rise of the Wolf (Curtis Jobling)
  130. Three Black Swans (Caroline B. Cooney)
  131. In the Shadows of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives (Kenneth C. Davis)
  132. I Heart You, You Haunt Me (Lisa Schroeder)
  133. The Zodiac Legacy: Convergence (Stan Lee and Stuart Moore; Andie Tong, illustrator)
  134. Ike's Bluff:  President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World (Evan Thomas)
  135. Let the People Decide (William M. Kraus)
  136. Unbought and Unbossed (Shirley Chisholm)
  137. Caesars of the Wilderness: Medard Chouart, Sieur Des Groseilliers and Pierre Esprit Radisson, 1618-1710 (Grace Lee Nute)
  138. Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders (Joshua Foer, Ella Morton, and Dylan Thuras)
  139. Assassin's Creed: Last Descendants (Matthew J. Kirby)
  140. Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War (Steve Sheinkin)
  141. "He Chews to Run": Will Rogers' Life Magazine Articles, 1928 (Will Rogers; Steven K. Graget, editor)
  142. The Teapot Dome Scandal: How Big Oil Bought the Harding White House and Tried to Steal the Country (Laton McCartney)
  143. Robert M. LaFollette and the Insurgent Spirit (David P. Thelen)
  144. Irena's Children: A True Story of Courage, Young Readers Edition (Tilar J. Mazzeo; adapted by Mary Cronk Farrell)
  145. Grendel (John Gardner)
  146. *A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens)
  147. The War Within These Walls (Aline Sax)
  148. The Thief of Always (Clive Barker)
  149. How to Build a Museum: Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture (Tonya Bolden)
  150. Ghost (Jason Reynolds)
  151. The Peace of Montreal of 1701:  French-Native Diplomacy in the Seventeenth Century (Gilles Havard; Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott, translators)
  152. The Lyrics: 1961-2012 (Bob Dylan)

*Denotes a reread.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

A State Of a Different Color: Thoughts on the 2016 Presidential Election

On Election Day, the state in which I've lived for my entire life gave its ten electoral votes to the Republican candidate for president, Donald Trump. In doing so, it broke a nearly three-decade trend of voting for the other party: ever since the election of 1988, when George H.W. Bush faced off against Michael Dukakis, Wisconsin has cast its lot in with the Democratic candidate.

What makes this fact worthy of note is that the voters of Wisconsin have long embraced their state's progressive history with pride. After all, this was the home of Robert LaFollette, the anti-war Progressive who championed civil rights, economic parity, and an end to party control, all in an era when such positions were not always celebrated; and Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day, who served the state as both governor and senator. For decades, Wisconsin was the epitome of a blue-collar state, where agriculture and industry mixed well together, its universities ranked among the best in the country, and its citizens chose their politicians based less on party identification and more on a shared set of ideals. After all, this is the same state that elected a Tea Party Republican, Ron Johnson, to the Senate in 2010, then elected an openly gay liberal, Tammy Baldwin, to the same body two years later.

Wisconsin has a history of blurring the lines between Democrat and Republican, between liberal and conservative, and embracing the idea that a good politician should be approachable, reasonable, and a defender of democratic principles, rather than a partisan who only scores points for his or her side. William Proxmire, a Democratic senator for more than three decades, devoted much of his career to fighting government waste, to the point of making enemies among many liberal institutions. Similarly, Lee Dreyfus, a Republican governor in the early 1980s, signed a law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation--the first state in the nation to do so--and explained his decision by stating, "It is a fundamental tenet of the Republican Party that government ought not intrude in the private lives of individuals where no state purpose is served, and there is nothing more private or intimate than who you live with and who you love." Wisconsin elected a socialist to Congress in 1910, watched as he was removed from office for speaking out against World War I in 1919, and returned him to the same Congressional seat in a special election five weeks later. And when Joseph McCarthy, the state's junior senator, forced his witch-hunt on the American population, more than 300,000 Wisconsinites signed recall petitions against him. (The "Joe Must Go" movement did not succeed in its goals, but McCarthy's career was over nonetheless; he was censured by his colleagues in the Senate and died in 1957, before his term ended. Proxmire was elected to replace him and served until 1989.)

But these political juxtapositions do not explain why a reliably blue state, even one with a Republican governor and Republican-controlled legislature, went for the Republican candidate this year. Some have pointed to the final results--Clinton lost to Trump by around 27,000 votes, a minuscule number in a state that cast more than three million ballots--and placed the blame on third-party candidates, who received more than 150,000 votes, enough to have put Clinton over the threshold of victory if even a fraction of those votes had gone to her. Others note that Bernie Sanders, whose policies were much more liberal than Clinton's, won the state's primary 56.6% to 43.1%, a suggestion that perhaps Clinton's message did not resonate with enough of Wisconsin's historically progressive electorate. Others still noted how Clinton had not campaigned in Wisconsin since April of this year, perhaps believing her lead in Wisconsin to be more secure than it was. And while these are legitimate theories, they do not take into account other possibilities that I find much more believable, based on all of the years I've spent living in rural areas of Wisconsin.

To understand the election of 2016 as it relates to Wisconsin (and other blue-collar, Midwestern states), we must return to 2009, to the days and weeks after President Obama took office for the first time. Across the country, millions of Americans were suffering under the most devastating economic downturn in 75 years. More than half a million jobs had disappeared in December alone, a month before Obama took the oath of office, and unemployment in 2008 had exceeded 11 million people, almost twice the number of Americans who were considered unemployed before the recession began. (Eventually, the unemployment rate would reach 10%.) The number of foreclosures throughout the country was also continuing to rise and would eventually surpass 1.2 million by 2010, forcing many families into a state of uncertainty, if not outright homelessness. Food insecurity skyrocketed; state and municipal budgets were slashed, affecting everything from pensions and infrastructure to education and basic public services; and economic growth came to a standstill. To say that the country was suffering would have been viewed as the ultimate understatement.

This was the dominant problem facing Obama and the new Congress. It was far from an insurmountable problem, but solutions would not be quick or easy. Difficult votes would need to be taken, especially considering the amount of money required to assuage the damage that had been done. Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, had managed to pass legislation in the closing months of his second term, which was designed to lessen much of the recession's economic damage. The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, or "bailout," was introduced in the final days of September and promised to infuse more than $700 billion into the economy while helping rescue faltering banks and financial institution. When it was brought up for a vote, however, the bill failed due to concerns over the legislation's benefits to "big banks," its disregard for individual Americans who were suffering, and the possibility that it might hurt taxpayers even more. Eventually the act did pass, but most agreed that the next president--whether it be Obama or McCain--would need to do more. This gave rise to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, known informally as "the stimulus," an almost $800 billion infusion of money into the economy in order to incite job growth and shore up faltering public institutions.

To most economists, these two legislative acts were necessary: you could not shore up the American economy without first stabilizing its major institutions, especially in a country in which so much of the economy was based around banking. But to the millions of Americans who were suffering, this seemed like a betrayal. Instead of moving to secure the financial lives of its citizens, the American government appeared to be handing over an unconscionable amount of money to the very same people whose greed and carelessness had undermined the economy and brought about the recession in the first place.

In their eyes, this was comparable to the local fire station handing over control of the firetrucks to a group of arsonists.

This was the perception, and it so angered the American population that it gave rise to the Tea Party, a supposedly grassroots movement among conservative voters who were angered over the government's assistance to Wall Street. (The Tea Party was actually funded and encouraged by vested interests in the Republican Party and conservative circles, including those in the conservative news media.) In the end, however, the bailout and stimulus both prevailed, and in the years since the latter proved to be one of the great successes of Obama's first term--the economy rebounded, the stock markets stabilized, and unemployment fell below 5% by the end of Obama's second term. Supporters of the stimulus, as well as members of the president's party, hailed the bill as a major success, and more often than not their adulation took the form of the same laudable claim: he had prevented a second Great Depression.

The problem is that, at least in American politics, you rarely get credit for preventing something from happening, no matter how successful you may have been at it. Those who had looked to the government for support were not helped by the bailout or the stimulus, at least not in a way that they could sense in their everyday lives. But still they waited, perhaps expecting Obama and Congress to turn their attention to the recession's many victims once the banks had recovered. Unfortunately, their elected officials moved on to other pressing issues without addressing many of the economic problems that remained; they did not raise the minimum wage, institute a living wage, strengthen Social Security, prevent jobs from moving overseas, or enact a myriad of legislation that could have lessened the growing wage gaps and class disparities. To those Americans who worked long hours, perhaps even multiple jobs, while taking home paychecks that barely sufficed, no explanation could have been good enough: a politician talking about policy will never mitigate what blue-collar workers see and feel on a daily basis.

These same voters became buried under credit card debt, often because the companies charged exorbitant interest rates; could barely afford life-changing medical visits, even as millions of previously uninsured men and women gained access to the marketplace; had difficulty paying their mortgages, despite the sudden profitability of their banks; watched their children suffer under crushing student debt, to the point that many moved back home; and saw their jobs disappear while Wall Street executives saw record-breaking profit margins, gave themselves large pay raises, and claimed incredible retirement packages.

And while they waited for help, they watched as the very same politicians who had been elected to help instead them took millions from lobbyists, cut the number of days they would be in session to less than 150 and, in some cases, took up permanent residence in Washington, D.C. rather than back in their state or district. Even more, House districts were redrawn to make them politically safer, to the point that most congressional districts were no longer competitive; as long as an incumbent won his or her primary, which is easy to do with large donations and support from super-PACs, the general election was no longer a viable threat, and the need to moderate views and compromise on legislation became not only unnecessary but a potential liability. As a result, these elected officials, who were supposed to be acting as public servants, were instead treating their seats in Congress as well-paying, highly influential, top-tier jobs...and they were willing to say and do what they needed in order to keep them.

This enmity towards Washington D.C. became the first ingredient in the vile concoction that would elevate Donald Trump to the presidency. But anger alone cannot drive a presidential campaign, especially when the outgoing commander-in-chief has a high approval rating, unemployment is under 5%, and the party's chosen candidate has an unprecedented amount of baggage. And anger at Washington D.C. is not the same as anger at those of other religions, nationalities, ethnicities, or sexual preferences. Even Hillary Clinton understood this. In her now infamous "deplorables" speech, in which she characterized half of Trump's supporters as "racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic--you name it," Clinton said he had lifted the fringes of his party into the mainstream and made their beliefs a cornerstone of his campaign. However, she added, there was another basket, one that needed to be separated from the first:

...[I]n that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures. And they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.
The point, Hillary said, albeit inelegantly, was to try and appeal to that second basket of people--to show them that Trump would not be their savior in Washington, that he would not fix the status quo, that he would not rescue them from their despair. The point was to give them a better option, one that did not force them to endorse Trump's bigotry and hate out of desperation and fear. It was an argument that made sense and should have guided the final months of Hillary's campaign, but instead it became a source of controversy for her, to the point that she had to apologize publicly. In that realm, Trump won, and in doing so, he could paint Clinton once again as the embodiment of the D.C. establishment he hoped to remove.

Now, at this point, some clarification is needed. For much of this year's election cycle, Republican pundits and party spokespeople claimed that Trump's surprising amount of support was due to this inaction on economic issues--that people suffering from "economic anxiety" were frustrated enough with Washington D.C. that they could no longer tolerate career politicians like Jeb Bush, John Kasich, or Hillary Clinton. These were candidates, it was said, who had become so ingrained in the system that they could not be trusted to look out for the interests of anyone but themselves and their friends on Wall Street. Only someone like Donald Trump--a man so rich he could not be bought, so outspoken he could not be silenced, so confident in his ideals that he could not be swayed--could possibly restore the federal government to working condition.

This, to be perfectly honest, is bullshit.

Characterizing the economy as the sole reason for Trump's victory is beyond misguided. Yes, there is actual economic anxiety throughout the country, but that does not excuse those Trump supporters who cast a vote for him with full knowledge of his bigoted positions. During the campaign, Trump called for the exclusion of an entire religion from a country whose very Constitution ensures religious liberty; who characterized Mexicans as rapists and criminals; who derided the status of all POWs, including one who was the Republican Party's nominee in 2008, as less than heroic; who refused to denounce the support he received from hate groups, including neo-Nazis and the KKK; who refuses to release his tax returns, thereby hiding any conflicts of interest he might have; whose campaign was in regular contact with members of the Russian government; who announced that he would jail his political opponent, despite the fact that she had been cleared by various Republican officials and committees; who supported the bombing of innocent women and children in war zones, the textbook definition of a war crime; who endorsed the use of torture; who defended the sexual assault of women; and so on. Each one caused endless controversy for Trump, and yet he remained relatively unscathed. In fact, it could even be argued that this brazen, unapologetic attitude actually enhanced his reputation as the only candidate who could not be bossed or shamed--as someone who was genuine rather than shaped by focus groups, even if that genuineness was disgusting and disqualifying.

After all, a person's bigoted views don't matter so much when you're one missed paycheck away from total poverty. If Trump claims he can fix the system that has kept you in financial shackles for more than a decade, a system that also threatens to keep your children and grandchildren in those same shackles, then what he says doesn't matter so much as what he can do.

There is another reason for Trump's victory, one that extends beyond economics and is supported by much of the exit polling, not to mention the hundreds of localized events that happened during the campaign, and have continued well into the wake of Trump's victory: that the American population, and specifically the white voting block, holds many of the same bigoted views as Trump. There has always been an undercurrent of prejudice in the Republican platform. After all, this is the same party that has pushed voter ID laws designed to disenfranchise those in low income, African American, and Hispanic neighborhoods, as well as areas in which college students live in large numbers; has worked to undermine the health care options of women; has prevented meaningful immigration reform, which would help millions of people "come out of the shadows"; has demonized Muslims as part of a nation-wide conspiracy of terrorism; has characterized those on welfare programs like Medicare and Medicaid as lazy; and has refused to extend civil rights to the LGBT community, among other issues. Many of these views were codified into actual legislation over the previous decades, and others were promoted endlessly by talk radio and 24-hour cable news, which advanced ugly stereotypes about specific minority groups while also encouraging viewers to see their country as one that was changing for the worse due to those same groups. When Donald Trump spoke of "making America great again," he was continuing this narrative, which imagined a return to a time when gay people could be persecuted without repercussion, women worked in the home without demanding equal treatment, and people of color "knew their place."

In the years that followed the stimulus, Obama and his administration championing the rights of minority groups--celebrating same-sex marriage, pushing for acceptance of transgender individuals, advocating for immigration reform, accepting Syrian refugees, and so on. This was in keeping with Obama's belief that a country can only be strong when every one of its citizens is strong, that a country can only be free when every person living within its borders is free, that a country leads in the world when it does so by example and not by chastisement or hypocrisy. For millions of Americans--older, white, working class Americans--these actions reeked of betrayal. "Obama is helping everyone," they told themselves, "everyone but me and the people like me." Instead of increasing the minimum wage, they saw him pushing states to make bathrooms accessible to transgender individuals; instead of reigning in the power of Wall Street, they saw him commenting on the shooting of black men and women by police; instead of working to refinance their mortgages or reinstate Glass-Steagall, they saw him bathing the White House in colors of the rainbow to celebrate same-sex marriage. In their eyes, Obama was purposely ignoring them to the benefit of other minority groups, and they construed this as a threat to their own livelihoods. As Heather C. McGhee, a policy analyst, said of this perception, "When you're so used to privilege, equality feels like oppression." 

In other words, Obama's efforts to raise others up to the level of fairness and equality so long enjoyed by white voters was seen by those same voters as evidence of Obama's disregard for their needs and disinterest in their rights. 

But what they saw paled in comparison to what they did not see, what they chose to not see, or what was kept from them. That many of Obama's attempts at rectifying these economic problems were obstructed by the Republican majorities in Congress was a fact often ignored by these voters. They had been told long before inauguration day--by pundits, by talk radio, by Fox News, by Republicans themselves--that Obama was not looking out for their interests, that he would ignore the plight of the working class (who happened to be resoundingly white), that he was just another big-government liberal who was plotting to undermine the American economy, take away their guns, and persecute them for their religious beliefs. None of which was remotely true, but it didn't matter: by January 2008, the narrative had already been written, and the Republicans in Congress made sure that Obama didn't achieve anything that deviated from such a narrative.

Obama worked to open up the health care markets to millions of Americans who were uninsured or were paying too much through their workplace, a program that would have benefited many of the same individuals who were suffering economically; instead, the Republican Party and Fox News characterized the program as socialist, used scare tactics (such as "death panels") to distract people from its potential benefits, and fought for its defeat. Obama worked to close the wage gap between men and women by signing the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which would have protected women--many of them future Trump supporters--from being given inadequate wages by unscrupulous employers; Republicans in the House and Senate voted against it, forcing Democrats to reintroduce it in the following session. Obama advocated for raising the minimum wage in his 2015 State of the Union Address, but Republicans in Congress refused to budge, and many began giving voice to the lie that a raise in the minimum wage would devastate small businesses and ruin the economy; in response, all the president could do was sign an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contractors, leaving most Americans to continue working long hours for insufficient wages.

At every step, when Obama attempted to help those who were suffering economically, he was kept from doing so...not because the Republicans had basic ideological differences with his ideas, or because they viewed the language of the bills as inadequate, but because giving Obama a single legislative victory would have hurt their narrative. Had Obama been successful in raising the minimum wage, the Democratic Party would have been able to claim, with unassailable proof, that they were the ones looking out for the interests of the working class, not the GOP. It was obstruction of the vilest form, as it forced millions to suffer day after day for the sake of political points, and it was an unmitigated success for the Republican Party. When the 2016 campaign began, Republican candidates could claim that Obama had done nothing for the sake of "everyday Americans," all while hiding behind their own misconduct.

All of which hurt Hillary Clinton's chances. She was already facing a historically difficult campaign, as it's rare for candidates from the outgoing president's party to win a presidential election--the last to do so was George Bush in 1988, and before him, Herbert Hoover in 1929--but Obama's approval ratings were unusually high, the demographics of the country favored the Democratic candidate, and Clinton's campaign was much more organized from the outset. That Bernie Sanders, the 74-year-old democratic socialist senator from Vermont, was able to wage such a successful campaign against Clinton in the primary was a surprise to many, and should have been a clue to Clinton's own campaign about the lack of enthusiasm towards her otherwise historic run. But the threat Sanders posed was never a strong one in terms of winning the nomination, and the Democratic Party platform eventually moved further to the left because of him--apparently the closest Clinton came to embracing a truly progressive campaign.

There have been many who, in the hours and days following Election Day, looked back on the Democratic primary and wondered what might have been. They unearthed polls that showed Sanders defeating Trump heavily and used them to bolster claims that Clinton herself should carry the burden of responsibility: she was a weak candidate, they say, and she wasn't progressive enough, was too corrupt. That these Sanders supporters make this claim after this election, in which the vast majority of polls and pundits were not only wrong but demonstrably so, reveals how little we know about what might have been, and we should leave it that way. Blaming Clinton is not only counter-productive, it's based on a fallacy. When all votes have been counted, Clinton will be shown to have won the popular vote by a staggering amount, and she will most likely have received more votes than any other candidate for president in American history save Obama himself. The blame here does not belong to one person, it belongs to many.

In the days following Trump's victory--which he achieved, it should be said again, without the popular vote--many on the left declared it a result of the bigotry of his voters, nothing more. They dismissed the idea that his support came a disaffection with economic condition, or with the disappearance of the middle class and a rise in those who are holding down more than one job, or with an unprecedented distrust of the government itself, at least where their own well-being is concerned. And while those who supported Trump in spite of his bigotry rather than because of it should never be allowed to forget how their vote was an endorsement of such bigotry, simply characterizing all Trump voters with the same label does a disservice to those of us who wish to be informed and be able to inform others.

By attributing Trump's electoral success solely to bigotry, Democrats are giving themselves a pass. "It wasn't us," they can say, "it was the racists and the sexists who are at fault." Or they point to the top of their ticket and say, "It was Hillary's fault. We should have nominated Bernie." This may allow Democrats to feel better about their own situation, not to mention their own party, but it does not address the real problems they have with messaging, candidates, and leadership. The Democratic Party cannot continue ignoring the needs of the vanishing middle class and the expanding lower class. They cannot continue supporting candidates who are flawed, institutional, or lacking in a progressive zeal. They cannot continue ignoring the farms and factories in favor of country clubs, closed-door dinners, and fundraisers where a plate of food costs more than the average American makes in two or three weeks. They cannot continue being led by career politicians who are more interesting in preserving their jobs than steering the party in the right direction. They cannot keep letting the biases of cable news and the pundit class control their own messaging. They cannot stand by while others mischaracterize and demean their ideals, simply because they want to "rise above the fray" or preserve their own sense of political decency.

And, most importantly, they cannot keep giving in to the belief that voters appreciate compromise over advocacy, logic over passion, moderation over progressivism. The voters of the country, and especially those on the left, want candidates who deliver power policy ideas, even if those same ideas might seem extreme to the opposition; as the candidacies of Trump and Sanders proved, powerful ideas can take a candidate further than those in the establishment might imagine. And while it's true that Clinton received more votes than both--more than Sanders in the primaries, more than Trump in the general--she was far from the inspiring candidate Democrats (and our democracy) needed. She did not reach the same number of voters as Obama did, she did not "perform" as well as he did in battleground states, and in turn those voters did not feel inspired enough to cast their votes for her. As Obama proved in 2008, the American people are still willing to be inspired.

No, not willing. Desperate. We as a nation are desperate to be inspired, and we are desperate for those inspiring words to have some fight behind them. But sometimes the wrong person comes along with the wrong message for the wrong fight. In 2018--and 2020, and 2022, and every election in the foreseeable future--Democrats need the right message in the hands of the right messengers. The future looks bright for them, and their list of potential candidates--Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown, Amy Klobuchar, Tom Perez, the Castro Brothers, Kamala Harris--are all exceptional. The Democratic Party may even have the edge when it comes to future voters--young people, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans all vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic ticket, and their share of the electorate will continue to grow over time--but every day without a Democrat in the White House and a Democratic majority in Congress is a day in which the achievements of not only Obama but every Democratic administration of the last century are under threat. The Democrats can rise again, but first they need to change, to embrace their rebellious side, to stick up for what they believe in, and to show the American voters that they're worthy of the White House.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Legacy ("Destiny and Power" by Jon Meacham)

There is an oft-spoken understanding that the legacy of an American president cannot be adequately assessed until they have been dead for some time. David McCullough's epic Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Harry Truman was published in 1992, two decades after the man himself passed away, and even that otherwise lengthy span of time that was relatively quick, considering how long it took for us to be given comprehensive biographies of his predecessors. Abraham Lincoln, for example, lay buried beneath 140 years of fable and partisan vitriol before Doris Kearns Goodwin's massive Team of Rivals unearthed him; until then, he was little more than a skinny Kentucky-born lawyer and political novice whose decisiveness and cool diplomacy singlehandedly reunited a broken country, neither of which was entirely true. Similarly, the first volume of Edmund Morris' trilogy on Teddy Roosevelt was published 60 years after the subject's death, despite the fact that Roosevelt ascended to the presidency in the era of muckraking journalism, which offered him an endless platform to express and refine his ideas. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight Eisenhower--all were men whose presidencies changed both the direction of the country and the role of its government, and who were not given definitive biographies until decades, if not centuries, after their passing.

Rarely--perhaps never--has an American president's life and career been assessed objectively while they are alive. Those who undertake such a foolhardy mission often find themselves stymied by sectarian sentiments, the biases of interview subjects, the inaccessibility of necessary documents, and the residue of frivolous tabloid scandals. What's more, any historian who attempts to place a living head of state into the historical record faces an insurmountable inability to know whether that president's accomplishments will last the test of time, or if they're simply popular and successful in the moment. For example, anyone who writes about the presidency of Barack Obama in the coming decades will find it difficult to ascertain with certainty the effects of his more substantial accomplishments, such as Obamacare, ending the war in Iraq, and his appointments to the Supreme Court. Only the passage of time and a clear-eyed examination of the facts can answer these questions, and even then a historian has to be vigilant against ideologues.

That Jon Meacham, a respected Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, should undertake such a mission--and to focus that mission on a one-term president overshadowed in popular culture by both the man who succeeded him and the man he succeeded--seems almost foolhardy from a distance. Nevertheless, his biography of George H.W. Bush, entitled Destiny and Power, is a noble attempt to convey the story of a man whose life was a rich array of experiences. He was a senator's son who served in World War II, a successful Texas oilman, congressman, head of the Republican National Committee, ambassador to the United Nations, envoy to China, head of the CIA, vice-president under Ronald Reagan, and eventually the president. He lived long enough to see himself become a great-grandfather, to watch two of his sons become governors--and one ascend to the presidency himself--and see his legacy reevaluated to his benefit. He became friends with the man who defeated him in 1992, and together they raised millions of dollars to benefit the victims of natural disasters. Most men, even those who become president, never achieve the kinds of successes experienced by George H.W. Bush, and those who do almost never approach such successes with Bush's level of humility and indebtedness.

When Meacham began his research into George H.W. Bush, he could not have known how timely such a project would prove to be, nor could he have guessed at the fortuitousness of the book's eventual year of publication:  2016, a presidential election year, in which the most qualified candidate in American history faces off against the most unqualified. There are those who see the publication of this biography as a rebuke to contemporary politics and politicians, including--and especially--the candidacy of Donald Trump, currently the nominee of Bush's cherished Republican Party. But the writing of this book was not undertaken in the last sixteen months alone, and as Meacham himself admits in the closing pages, he spent almost a decade interviewing the man himself--meaning that this project began not during the current presidential campaign but the presidencies of George W. Bush and, more importantly, Barack Obama, with whom Bush Sr. shares many similarities. Both speak with intelligence rather than hollow passion, rely on logic over emotions, and see the nation as a place in which everyone should be able to live successfully and in harmony, regardless of ideology or background. What's more, both presidents emphasizes compromise over an everything-or-nothing mindset, to the point that their legislative agendas suffered. When Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Bush in 2011, he spoke admiringly of his predecessor, and in doing so joined millions of other Americans who had reevaluated Bush and liked a lot of what they saw.

Nevertheless, Meacham's book does provide an interesting insight into modern-day politics, from the 1988 campaign--which is infamous for race-based attack ads, over which Bush had no control--to the rise of cable news, including the network that would one day be overseen by a Bush campaign advisor, Roger Ailes. In one chapter, Meacham quotes a memo written to Bush's campaign officials by Ailes, in which the latter discusses a general theme for the election, including a belief that voters "must also know that George Bush will not raise their taxes. He has the experience to keep negotiations going with the Soviets. And he is very tough on law and order. If we penetrate with those three messages, it is my belief that we will win the election. A major amount of our time, effort, speeches, commercials and interviews should be spent repeating and repeating and repeating those messages. We must force this election into a very narrow framework to win." (335) To read these words almost three decades after the fact, and during an election in which Ailes is advising a Republican nominee whose messaging includes lowering taxes and returning "law and order" to the nation (while also dismissing a controversial relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin), makes one feel as though this book were intentional, despite the knowledge that it is not, and raises a fear that perhaps our politics have not advanced as far as we might have hoped.

Regardless of how it reflects on the current political climate, no lifetime can be summarized in a single volume, especially that of an American president. This simple fact becomes glaringly obvious as Meacham's biography reaches its halfway point: Reagan's presidency occupies only 50 pages or so (out of 600), giving the impression that both terms were largely inconsequential for Bush, which is far from accurate. In truth, those eight years could fill a volume of their own, as could almost every era in Bush's life, from his service in the Pacific Theatre and education at Yale to his role as ambassador and envoy, and even his post-presidency. The brevity of Meacham's book, even at 600 pages (with another 200 for notes and sources), means it can never become what it aspires to be: the first truly comprehensive biography of America's 41st president. Instead, Meacham has created a roadmap--a fascinating and even-handed but surprisingly brief and quick outline--that will serve future biographers well. Those who will one day write such comprehensive biographies will be indebted to Meacham, as will Bush himself and every student of history. After all, any man who accomplished as much as George H.W. Bush is worth knowing, and he is worth knowing well.