Thursday, December 26, 2013

Courage ("The Bully Pulpit" by Doris Kearns Goodwin)

It's tempting to see Doris Kearns Goodwin's The Bully Pulpit, a study of the close relationship between politics and the press in the early years of the 20th century, as an attempt to proselytize about current events through historical narrative. At over 900 pages, with a full quarter of them being the sources and index alone, Goodwin focuses on two decades--1901 to 1919--in which the United States was in a state of social and political upheaval. The Republican Party was enduring its own internal war, with half of its members looking to keep the party unchanged and the other half looking to transform it into something more radical, often by challenging  incumbents. The environment was threatened by pollution and industrialization, companies were so large that they could easily destabilize  the American economy,  the gap between rich and poor was as wide as it had ever been, and money was so permissive in politics that corruption was the rule rather than the exception. And the media, specifically journals located on the East Coast, saw their roles as shapers of opinion and ideology rather than protectors of fact and conveyors of truth. The similarities between these long-ago events and those of today are, from a distance, staggering.

However, these similarities are also coincidental; as Goodwin herself notes in the opening to her book, she labored over this story for seven years, long before the age of Obama, the recession, bank bailouts, Citizens United, and "too big to fail"; it even began as a study of an entirely narrower topic, expanding only when Goodwin realized the scope of Roosevelt's relationship with the press. Nevertheless, a coincidence doesn't necessarily make these similarities unimportant. On the contrary, the fact that we are enduring these same issues so many decades later shows not only the cyclical nature of history--that we are doomed to repeat what we choose to ignore--but the necessity of the changes men like Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft once fought for. Together, they did more than any other single president since, with the exception of Franklin Roosevelt, to change the anatomy of our country:  most of the national parks and natural landmarks we have today exist because of protections they established, often in complete disregard for the law; every business and industry in operation today does so under regulations and guidelines passed during their respective administrations; the food we eat is kept safe by laws they supported; and our relationships with other nations were affected by both men, often in person rather than through legislation. Even after both men had left elected office, the issues on which they took public stands and, in Roosevelt's case, hoped to return to the White House--women's suffrage, an 8-hour workday, the direct election of senators, presidential primaries--were revolutionary for their time but have since become ingrained in our modern society. (In fact, Constitutional amendments guaranteeing women the right to vote and the direct election of senators would both be realized by 1920.)

Despite the undeniable roles both Roosevelt and Taft had in bringing about lasting and important change, they do not deserve full and complete credit; rather, much attention is given to the half-dozen or so journalists who saw a crusade within the truths they were assigned to tell. Goodwin focuses especially on the staff of McClure's, a monthly East Coast magazine that, almost instantly, became a voice for the large swathes of America that were downtrodden, abused, or ignored. These included coal miners who were beaten and harassed by their fellow miners; soldiers who were unwilling cogs in the drummed-up jingoism of an unnecessary war; consumers who paid inflated prices for daily necessities because they were produced and distributed by an unregulated monopoly; and everyday citizens whose voices went unheard because their elected officials were guided by money rather than elections and conscience. These journalists--Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, and William Allen White foremost among them--also investigated the forces that poisoned American society and politics, including corrupt party bosses, industry executives, and union heads. Such was their reach and significance that billion-dollar monopolies were rendered illegal and disassembled, corrupt politicos were thrown from their thrones, and progressive ideals once considered outlandish were now the foundation of party platforms. Part of this was because of the journalists' ability to find the most convincing details and render them in a way that was relatable to the average reader, and part of this was because, as Goodwin details, they were exceptionally close to both Taft and Roosevelt...closer, in fact, than one would ever expect, with their research often serving as the cornerstone of a speech or piece of legislation.

Goodwin's tome is a fascinating, exhaustive, and often exhausting look at how politics and journalism worked together in order to bring about changes that were necessary but also next to impossible:  had either piece of the puzzle been missing--had Roosevelt or Taft never been president, had McClure's never chosen to become a moral compass for its readers and the nation itself--the affects on American history and its people would be unimaginable. And this is the one area where there is a sad, telling contrast between the early 20th century and these early years of the 21st century. We have politicians with almost impossibly high--but desperately needed--ideals, and we have a media that is continuous, pervasive, and influential--that is, they are in the best possibly position to affect real change. The problem is that, unlike the 1910s, these two pieces no longer have the same relationship they once did:  a politician cannot gain any traction without selling out to the biggest bank account, and a news channel cannot gain an audience without devoting its energy and staff to the biggest money-makers, which have increasingly become stories of scandal and entertainment. And it's this lack of courage--a politician and a news organization both willing to break from money for the greater good--that will keep us from experiencing the same progressive changes that so reshaped our country for the better 100 years ago. For all its similarities and coincidences, and for all the cycles through which it passes, sometimes history does not repeat itself.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Strangers ("Humans of New York" by Brandon Stanton)

A few years ago, I was talking with a student of mine between classes when she made an offhand comment that startled me somewhat. "I bet you wish we would just be normal," she said offhandedly, in the same way someone might read the lunch specials at a restaurant or remark on the weather. The "we" she was referring to was her group of friends, all of whom were high-achieving Honors students known for their artistry--singing, photography, creative writing, painting, acting, fashion, and so on. They were also known for being what high-schoolers might call "weird" and adults call "eccentric." However, I'd known them long enough to know that they weren't weird or eccentric--they were simply being themselves in an environment that demands conformity, silence, or both--and I responded to my student's claim by telling her quite simply that "Normal is boring."

What's strange is that, besides being designed to make her feel better about herself or her place in the grade scheme of high-school politics, those three words are actually a good way of approaching the world around us. We like to think--and society likes to tell us--that to be a part of the majority is to be a buttoned-up mass of trends, routines, and near invisible differences. Those who defy these prescriptions--those who dress against the current, break with expectations, and emphasize their uniqueness beyond the point of avoidability--are the outliers of society, the "other," the weird and eccentric and impure. They are strange and therefore deserve to remain strangers. Something has gone wrong, we're taught to think, and this is imprinted so thoroughly in us that is causes our entire bodies to reshape themselves into hunches, scowls, and dodging eyes. We're taught to walk past and ignore, to chuckle, to dismiss...all the while, unbeknownst to us, these actions instead make us the outliers. What we don't understand in these moments--but what people like Brandon Stanton realize and embrace--is that "normal" is the outlier and "different" is the norm.

"My mom died when I was eighteen. I acted like it didn't bother me cause I was
a punk rock kid. But I think it came back to me later in weird ways."

As Stanton himself notes in his introduction to Humans of New York, a book of his photography, he has taken thousands of pictures throughout New York City, from its city streets to the alleyways of its boroughs and every crevice in between, always focusing on people. And what he finds are not outliers or cast-offs but people more human than any of us could possibly imagine...simply because we don't try to imagine. We are content to live within our preconceptions, judging those who are not like us as unworthy, strange, or dangerous...and it's by that criteria that we allow those millions of other human beings to remain at a distance. And in doing so, we lose beautiful connections that could have transformed our lives. It's like living your entire life surrounded by the ocean and never once wandering down to the shore to dip a toe in the waters.

"When my husband was dying, I said: 'Moe, how am I supposed to live without you?'
He told me: 'Take the love you have for me and spread it around.'"
Every single person we meet in Stanton's book has a story all their own, some of them spoken and some unspoken. There are tales of of being a good father or a bad son. Of being a drug user...or the friend of one...or a recovering addict trying to navigate a strange and dangerous world. Every one is an immigrant in their own way--some literal, most metaphorical--and they are all strangers to us, though Stanton collection argues they shouldn't be. Even with the distance that separate us--between where we live, between reader and subject, between generation and ethnicity and status--we can know one another, simply by looking past our own snap judgments and searching out the humanity in one another.

"I'm going to let you take my photo because you seem like a genuine person.
But--just so you know--I don't normally let people steal my swag."

We only have a short time on this planet, and there's much to learn--too much, it turns out, for one lifetime, and so we need to be discerning and curious and patient. There are seven billion of us, which means there are seven billion stories out there in need of hearing, regardless of how hesitant or unsure the storyteller may feel, and the ingredients in that mixture are constantly changing:  stories we have today may be gone tomorrow, struck from the page by illness or death or the haphazardness of human memory. Brandon Stanton's book is a fantastic read, yes, but it's also a guide on how to be a good human being...because being alive isn't just about living for ourselves. It is about living to know and love others and, in doing so, understanding ourselves better so we're no longer a diverse world of strangers.

"I see how much I love him, and I imagine that my dad loved me like that one day,
and it makes me wish I'd been a better son."

*All screen captures and captions were taken from

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Food ("Anything That Moves" by Dana Goodyear)

Deep down, I'll always be that chubby 12-year-old grabbing at candy in the supermarket check-out lane. And for the first twenty years of my life, my diet was dominated by everything a blubbery pre-teen might consider ambrosia delivered directly from the gods themselves:  Doritos, Cheetos, Pizza Hut, Snickers, McDonalds, Kit Kat, Sara Lee, Little Debbie, Blue Bunny, Little Caesars, and so on. Even now, years after dropping 100 pounds, cutting most fast and processed foods from my diet, and starting my own (relatively small) backyard garden, I can't deny the fact that 90% of the food sold at my local supermarket is both disgustingly inedible and completely delicious.

And that's the point. All of those foods have been tested and manufactured--rather than, say, planted and harvested--to be not only delicious and convenient but addictive. When I think back to how insatiable I was with a bag of anything--potato chips, crackers, candy--I shudder to think what those not-quite-foods were doing to my insides. Yes, there was the fat and sodium and cholesterol, but there were also the chemicals pumped into each bite--tasteless little additions with thick, multi-syllabic names, each transforming a simple list of ingredients into an encyclopedia entry. We've taken food--the thing meant to keep us energized, healthy, and strong, the thing that is supposed to come from nature alone, the thing we need to survive--and turned it into our greatest enemy, a source of obesity and illness and death. And not only that, we've taken this dangerous food--so omniscient, so affordable, so mouth-wateringly tasty--and made it inherently addictive, so the very things that hurt us the most are also the ones we cannot stop eating.

The irony is that I only came to appreciate food--its purpose, its sources, its benefits--at the exact same moment when I could no longer eat as much of it as I wanted. Suddenly my horizon was filled with shelf after shelf of local foods that were actually good for me...and I found myself having to walk away, my hunger tempered by an equally strong obsession with watching calories and not falling off the proverbial food wagon. Thankfully, though, my new eating habits are moderate compared to others around the globe--not the "foodies" we hear so much about on television and in print so much as fringe cooks and fearless eaters, both living along the boundary of what is considered eccentric eating and what is downright dangerous.

Dana Goodyear documents this shaky little tightrope walk with utter seriousness; never once does she find herself questioning the entire premise of her book, which is more than I can say for myself. Not that her subjects aren't fascinating in their own right, or that Goodyear's writing isn't spot-on wonderful--because they are, and because it is--but the idea that thousands, even millions of otherwise sensible Americans would take the most basic cornerstone of life and transform it into something more seems at times utterly incomprehensible, if not downright silly. There are Californians who risk imprisonment and death from unpasteurized milk and shit-covered eggs because they want their food as natural as possible, which means untouched by government regulations; at times their crusade feels more like a revolt being staged against genocidal totalitarians than government's bureaucrats. There are the Japanese whalers who exploit a loophole in international law to hunt sharks for their fins, which are illegal in the United States but find their way into not-so-underground restaurants anyway, and the activists who go undercover to expose this assignment that, ironically, requires the consuming of said shark fins. And there are the chefs who see marijuana as the next frontier in culinary arts and arrange small, private gatherings at which the much maligned plant is the central feature of each dish.

But perhaps the strangest and most ironic chapter concerns a series of chefs who stand aghast as foie gras--goose liver fattened through forced feeding via a tube--is outlawed. There is something perverse about professional chefs pushing back against the prohibition of intentionally overfed animals because it means they cannot over-feed their own customers, and it is a disconnect in reasoning that is both ticklishly funny and deeply disturbing:  these chefs have put so much passion into this one supposedly vital piece of meat that being without it is somehow devastating, even as the world around them suffers from poverty and malnutrition by the billions.*

Which is the greatest disconnect among Goodyear's subjects. For all the ethical nuances and moral debates inherent in the food and its eaters--whether any animal should be up for grabs or only certain ones, the role of government oversight in what we eat, the level of animal cruelty that is acceptable in the preparation of our daily meals--not once do any of Goodyear's subjects realize just how precious these debates are. When a chef prepares a massive, multi-course meal, whether it be in a five-start restaurant or their very own living room, they are doing so simply because they can:  there is no food shortage, widespread pestilence, or fascistic government embargo stopping them from pushing a menu to the next level. They are allowed to serve full, gluttonous meals while soapbox-preaching on the unfairness of animal-cruelty laws or the stranglehold of the FDA because food is a luxury to them rather than a necessity, just as it was to that chubby 12-year-old so many years ago.**  When someone adopts an approach to food that shuns fast or processed foods, he or she is doing so because they see the detriment to not only their own health but the health of the world around them. They see food for what it is--rich, sustaining, necessary--rather than what it has been, which is a dangerous luxury.

To say, as Goodyear does in her subtitle, that this movement towards "fearless" eating is the beginning of "a new American food culture" is pretty prescient, though not for the reasons Goodyear intends or her readers might assume. Only in America, a country where 40 million of its citizens live with food insecurity while simultaneously one-third of the population is obese, can the glamourization of food be seen as ordinary or interesting rather than brazen and heartless. When Goodyear's subjects elevate food beyond its original purpose--its only purpose--they do so for the benefit of themselves and the similar-minded around them only, and that is a great shame indeed. For them, food is a commodity, a lifestyle, a weapon; to millions of others--the population that does not appear in Goodyear's book or, for that matter, the world of her subjects--it is a necessity, and a scarce one at that.

*In deference to these chefs, I will concede that what happens to geese is nothing compared to what happens to cows, pigs, and chickens by the millions across the United States, and to be offended by one while condoning the others is simply hypocritical. At this point, I should note that I'm a vegetarian, so I'm an observer on this front and have no horse in the game, so to speak. I should also note that much of the "beef" Americans eat is, in fact, horse.

**In deference to Goodyear's subjects, the FDA is pretty idiotic in most instances...just not in this instance.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Focus ("The Aviators" by Winston Groom)

For whatever reason, 2013 saw renewed interest in Charles Lindbergh, to the point where reading about him--sometimes on his own, sometimes as part of a larger historical narrative--became downright nauseating. (As a simple man almost entirely focused on aviation, Lindbergh and his accomplishment become tiresome almost immediately.) Lynne's Olsen's Those Angry Days attempted to depict Lindbergh and Franlin Delano Roosevelt as lead opponents in the run-up to World War II, with Lindbergh the isolationist and Roosevelt the interventionist; needless to say, Olson's attempt at making both men into bitter adversaries fell a little flat--the two men only met once, and both had greater antagonists beyond each other. Lindbergh's crossing of the Atlantic Ocean featured prominently in Bill Bryson's One Summer:  America 1927, though Bryson's focus on that year's many key players--Coolidge, Capone, Ruth, Byrd, Ford, Dempsey, Sacco and Vanetti--allowed him to weave a grand quilt without over-indulging in too much of one figure or the other. And Richard Moe's Roosevelt's Second Act, concerning Roosevelt's unprecedented push for a third presidential term, coupled with the growing war in Europe, assigned Lindbergh to supporting-actor status, if that, though he was still treated as though he and Roosevelt were opponents in a public-opinion boxing match.

Winston Groom's The Aviators does right not only by Lindbergh but by history itself. His three subjects--Eddie Rickenbacker, Charles Lindbergh, and Jimmy Doolittle--were all pioneering aviators alive at roughly the same time who each had a direct and profound impact on World War II...and other than a slight mention of their similarities in the book's opening pages, which includes the role played by an absent or deceased father during their formative years, Groom leaves them alone to follow their own historical paths without forcing each of their narrative paths to cross. Groom could easily have turned his book into a thesis on aviation supported by the connections between each man--in fact, his lengthy subtitle seems to suggest this is the focus of his just-as-lengthy work--but he keeps them separated, not just by their roles in the same world events, but in chapters all their own. Rarely if ever throughout the 450-plus pages of Groom's book do the men meet, even in rhetorical flourishes, and everyone--Groom, his subjects, and his readers--are better for it.