Yes, I know you probably thought I was talking about something else, but let's face it, unless it pertains to whistleblowers, I don't follow political news at all anymore. I don't want to get into a whole big thing about it, but I might just caution against thinking rural voters are a completely different species than anyone else. For a truly eye-opening look at the cultures, economics, and politics of living in rural America, I would highly suggest reading Paula vW. Dáil's excellent Hard Living in America's Heartland: Rural Poverty in the 21st Century Midwest.
But: that is all neither here nor there.
This week I'd like to tell you about this SUPER book I've been reading all summer long: Robert Jackall's Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers. It was first published in 1988, and I'm reading the twentieth anniversary edition from 2008, but I'm telling you, it reads like it was written this morning. Anyone who is feeling grossed out by our world of corporations and groupthink and organizational behavior (three things which all gross me out A LOT), is going to find a lot to read about in this book.
Ostensibly the book is about the "occupational ethics of corporate managers," and can also be considered a "sociology of the peculiar form of bureaucracy dominant in American business."
Now that makes it sound dry as hell, and I'm not going to lie to you, this is an academic book. It requires slow reading and attention, which is why I can only get through about 1.5 pages every day, in between yelling at the CRjrs to stop hitting each other so hard (I've given up on telling them to stop hitting each other full-stop). But if you put in the work, I think you'll be rewarded, because here is a quote from an actual manager that REALLY tells you what the book is about:
"As a former vice-president of a large firm says: 'What is right in the corporation is not what is right in a man's home or in his church. What is right in the corporation is what the guy above you wants from you. That's what morality is in the corporation.'" (p. 4.)
And if that doesn't explain a lot of what is going wrong in the world today, I don't know what does.
I used to enjoy living in Wisconsin. But it's not been the most peaceful of places just now.
I don't have any answers or any ideas and I'm actually kind of tired of listening to people who think they do. So, it's back to avoidance of life through reading, and friends, I EXCEL at that sport.
So what I have been reading?
First up: the Agatha Raisin cozy mystery series by M.C. Beaton. I was never really into Beaton before now, but then I watched the fantastic series Agatha Raisin, starring the always-underappreciated Ashley Jensen.
The mysteries are terrible, beyond simplistic, but I LOVE Ashley Jensen as Agatha Raisin, and it turns out in the books that I just love Agatha Raisin for all her middle-aged prickliness (which hides a soft gooey center of kindness and insecurity). I'm in the early part of the series still, before Beaton started to phone them in (I've read a few later entries and yes, they get a little more slapdash), so that's good stuff.
I also polished off a few illustrated biographies/histories by an author named Ted Rall, who I really enjoy. Previously I have read his biography of Edward Snowden*, titled simply Snowden, but this month I tackled Francis: The People's Pope and Political Suicide: The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party, which was a fantastic American history book no matter what your politics.** I would highly recommend Ted Rall, and, as a special treat for these troubled, disjointed times, they are very quick reads.
Last but not least, for most of the summer I dipped into and out of Paula vW. Dáil's superlative Hard Living in America's Heartland: Rural Poverty in the 21st Century Midwest, which, no kidding, is a meaty buy for your library or for you at $29.95. If you are at all confused about what it's like living in rural America today, this book will lay it out for you with research, personal interviews, and economic numbers that will make a lot of things very, very clear. I'm from the rural Midwest, and I loved this book for the many ways it was right on, and for the many ways it pointed out how rural people who know things are continually screwed in our country, and also the pros and cons of their rural communities (and how they live within them). It's not easy to find a scholarly book that isn't condescending, but this one isn't, and I was endlessly grateful for that. I won't lie--it can get dry--but wow, I sure kept reading it. I would highly recommend it.
So. What have YOU been reading?
*The only piece of news I've seen for months that really made me happy was this one: Edward Snowden has been given permanent residency in Russia. I'm sad because this means I'll probably never be able to vote for him for president, but I can also stop worrying every three years (that was how often they had been renewing his visa or whatever he had for staying there) that he'll be returned to this country and executed just for being a decent, thinking human being.
**Okay, Republicans probably won't like it, but I'm a Nothing (politically, socially, professionally) and I enjoyed it.
The minute I saw the word "prison" in this book's subtitle, I should have known to return it, unread, to the library. I have a wide variety of fears, and a fear of prison or anyone I know going to prison is one of them.* Although I am a voracious True Crimereader and have watched a lot of British detective and crime programs, I cannot read or watch anything that involves a prison storyline. I only checked out this book because John Kiriakou is a famous whistleblower, and I am fascinated by whistleblowers.
Kiriakou is a former CIA intelligence officer who, in 2007, became the first (former) CIA employee to confirm in a news interview that the United States was using torture on terrorism suspects like Abu Zubaydah, who was waterboarded. This really pissed off a lot of people, and in a truly breathtaking display of pricktastic and vengeful behavior, the FBI and the Justice Department investigated Kiriakou until they felt, in 2012, that they could punish him by charging him with "a.) three counts under the Espionage Act of 1917, an obscure World War I-era law aimed at prosecuting spies, b.) one count of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (IIPA), a 1982 law aimed at thwarting radical publications that intentionally tried to out covert agents, under which only one person had been convicted since the law’s passage, and c.) one count of making false statements."
Keep in mind, please, that John Kiriakou did not torture prisoners (and yes, torture is supposedly still illegal under the Geneva Conventions), and in fact, when he was an active officer, he turned down an offer to be trained in "enhanced interrogation techniques"--national security-speak for torture. And yet, for telling the truth about prisoners who were being tortured, HE was the one sent to jail for 30 months.
That paragraph, to me, is everything that's wrong with America right now.
But I digress. Although Kiriakou gives a quick rundown of his case in the first chapter of this book, it is mostly about his experience being incarcerated for thirty months. And the Feds didn't fool around; although he thought he would be serving his time in a minimum-security work camp, the second chapter is about how he instead got assigned to the Federal Correctional Institution in Loretto, Pennsylvania. (More payback, evidently.)
What follows is an entirely unsettling account of how Kiriakou used tenets he learned in the CIA (like "admit nothing" and "blend in with your environment" and "if stability is not to your benefit, chaos is your friend") to survive his prison experiment.** Jesus. Even a "low-security" prison sounds HORRIFYING. I commend Kiriakou for making it through, but his descriptions of deciding which table to sit at (segregation is the order of the day), the crimes and mental problems of his fellow inmates, and the machinations of both prisoners and prison guards to survive and even profit where they can was almost more than I can read (and it's certainly more than I can stomach rehashing to tell you about here).
In short: Why anyone in this world still chooses to become a whistleblower is absolutely beyond me.
If you'd like a flavor of the book before trying it, it is actually based in part on a series of letters Kiriakou sent to the media while in prison: Letters from Loretto. You could preview those.
It's a good book. I certainly didn't get any dumber reading it. But can I recommend that you read it? Not really. Too scary by half.
*Me--or you--or anyone--going to prison is not as far-fetched an idea as you might think. Kiriakou tells you why: "Harvard Law School professor Harvey Silverglate argues in his book Three Felonies a Day that the US is so overlegislated and daily life is so over-criminalized that the average American going about his normal business on the average day commits three felonies." (p. 206.) I try not to think about this too much or I'll never sleep again.
**Please note: as he expounds upon these rules and how he survived, Kiriakou actually sounds like a bit of a prick sometimes. But the man refused to learn "enhanced interrogation techniques," and he went to jail because he wanted to tell the truth, so overall I still find him interesting.
Evidently July 30 is National Whistleblower Day; it commemorates the day in 1778 when the Continental Congress passed a resolution that "honored ten sailors and marines who spoke out against their commander’s abuses of his office."
I have recently gone down the rabbit hole, reading about whistleblowers, and it is FASCINATING. Fascinating sad, but still fascinating. Here are a few things I have learned about whistleblowers:
First off, what is a whistleblower? Definitions vary, but seem to agree on the points that a whistleblower is someone who witnesses and can document illegal or dangerous behaviors or policies, and who then reports that wrongdoing through the proper channels set up to do so. In some cases, when they receive no response from the proper channels, they take their information to the press or to special government officials called Inspectors General.
We all hear the word "whistleblower" a lot, but I do not think we are aware of the many services whistleblowers perform for us. Consider many of the automotive industry insiders who first got word to Ralph Nader that many cars were manufactured in the 60s and 70s (and before that, of course), with absolutely no safety innovations. Do you think seat belts help save lives? You have whistleblowers to thank for those, and too many other laws and safeguards to count.
Most of us know a few famous whistleblowers: Edward Snowden, the guy Russell Crowe played in the movie The Insider, whoever turned Trump in for his Ukrainian phone call, Serpico. But we hardly ever know any of the details or nuances of their cases. If Edward Snowden, for example, ever returns to the U.S., he will be charged under the Espionage Act, and his penalty could be death. So, fine, say the hard-liners. Let him return and defend himself. But here's the sneaky little bit about the Espionage Act: Snowden is not allowed to testify, at his own trial, about why he released the information he did (or about how he tried to bring his concerns about the government and its contractors violating the Constitutional rights of every American citizen to his superiors). The only thing he will be tried on is whether or not he released information, and he is not contesting that. See? That's the barest bones of the tiniest bit of the Snowden story, and it's complicated.
There are a lot of whistleblowers. A lot a lot. I recently set up a Google Alert for the word "whistleblower" and I get a lot of results every day, about a wide variety of whistleblowers in all sorts of industries and in government. Seriously. It's both amazing and appalling how many whistleblower stories there are on a daily basis. Amazing because, thank you, whistleblowers, for speaking up. Appalling because wow, there is a lot of wrong shit going on everywhere, every day.
Whistleblowers often tend to have very complex personalities, in the best possible way. They are fascinating people. But here's what I find unbelievable, in the the very best way: They tend to be successful people who are good at their jobs. And yet they often lose their jobs, their health insurance, their pensions, their community connections, their marriages, everything, because the main hallmark of being a whistleblower is that whoever they blew the whistle NEVER says, hey, thanks for the info, let's fix it. What they do instead is they DESTROY the whistleblower.
And that's the crux of the matter. THAT is why I find whistleblowers fascinating. As previously noted, one of the big fears of my life is that my family and I will lose our health insurance. I can't even imagine being a person who just wants to tell the truth about something going wrong, only to find that you are the person who is going to lose your job and your insurance and your employability. Don't think that can happen? Ask Thomas Drake, a senior NSA official who was disgusted that the agency was spending billions of dollars on Operation Stellar Wind, an operation that both mined the personal data of Americans and also didn't work to increase national security*, how the government crushes people it wants to silence (he lost his job, his pension, and had to go to work in an Apple store to support his family).
*See? Complicated. Every whistleblower story is like that. You have to understand how something should be working, how it's not working, how the whistleblower tried to prove isn't what working, and on how many levels the whistleblower's life is being destroyed, it's a lot to try and follow.
"What bothered me was the way the prototypical young feminist had adopted the sort of swaggering, wise-ass persona you see most often in people who deep down might not be all that swaggering or wise.* This young feminist frequently referred to herself as a badass." (p. xiii.)
I enjoyed that because I particularly hate women calling each other and their daughters "warriors," like being a wager of war is a good thing.
But then she got distracted because Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election: "But the way things turned out, there was no subtlety to be found. There was no room left for left-on-left critique of any variety." (p. xiii.)
Well, if that doesn't just sum it up, I don't know what does.
Daum is also balm to my Gen X soul, because we're roughly contemporaries in age (although our lives diverge wildly in the fact that she is successful and skilled). This entire essay spoke to the way I feel lately, like I'm old even though I'm not that old. It also becomes increasingly clear to me that I am not very good at interacting with millennials (and god help us if I'm trying to communicate with anyone even younger, including my own small children) and, here's the rub, I'm not particularly interested in interacting with millennials.** Or, as Daum puts it, much more elegantly:
"Meanwhile, the pace at which the digital revolution was moving had me feeling old before my time, even physically dizzy*** on a near-daily basis. At my computer, the tweets and memes and hot takes scrolled down my screen so fast I could scarcely comprehend a fraction of them...This book still has a lot to do with the conflicted and tortured state of liberalism generally and feminism in particular. But it's now also a personal story of feeling existentially unmoored against the backdrop of a country falling apart. It's a story about aging and feeling obsolete as the world spins madly--and maddeningly--on. It's also, by dint of my age, about the particular experience of Generation Xers, the last cohort to have experienced both the analog and the digital world as adults."
I didn't love the whole book, but I read it and appreciated (as always) Daum's skill with words. It made me feel a little less alone and lonely, missing not only the pre-Covid world of routines**** but also the 1990s world of the movie Crossing Delancey, with a less-angry New York City and the idea that a smart beautiful woman could make it in Manhattan while working in a bookstore. I'm just so sad, y'all.
But I am thinking of you. Have a good weekend.
*In other words: men.
**This seems to me to be the beginnings of the cranky old person mentality of someone who can't be charmed by younger people, and I really don't want to be that cranky old person.
***Well, actually, if she's at all like me in her forties, maybe this is perimenopause. Still annoying.
****Although I'll be the first to tell you that I feel the routines of our pre-Covid world were largely bullshit and led directly to our Covid world, and we should strive to do better in the future.
Here's my stance on Election 2020: I will only vote for President if Edward Snowden is on the ballot.
That's awkward, considering that Snowden is living in exile in Russia and if he ever sets foot in America he'll be prosecuted to the full extent of the law for treason, but hey, I figure, everyone who can is already working from home. Snowden could work from home in his Moscow apartment and be President of the U.S., surely, it's not like he doesn't know how to work tech.
As a fan of privacy, I am of course of the opinion that Edward Snowden is a whistleblower who tried to highlight illegal activities of the government and the NSA as they spied on American citizens and collected all of the data from their phones and devices (as opposed to a leaker who committed treason). Nothing I read or see about Snowden indicates to me that he is anything other than an intelligent, thinking person, who is perhaps less motivated by money than he is by other motivations. I say that because I don't actually know what motivates Edward Snowden, even after reading several books about (and now one by) him.
You know what motivates me, and I'm guessing, about 95% of most Americans, or whatever percentage of Americans who still have jobs that they are clinging to? HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE. This is a constant drumbeat in my head. This is the drumbeat that would make it impossible for me to work as a freelancer if I didn't have a spouse who had HEALTH INSURANCE. This is the drumbeat that was in my head when I was a young kid, fresh off the farm, knowing I would have to go to college and get some sort of career that would provide HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE.
You see how the all caps is distracting? It is. It's a never-ending fear-inducing back-of-mind-awareness anxiety that is always with me. Last fall, when Mr. CR had a fairly serious health crisis? Yeah, I shit bricks. Mainly because he's my buddy and I would miss him and I don't want to even think about what the CRjrs would do without him, but also because, there it was again, without Mr. CR and his job how in fuck would I get HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE?
You know who I think gets that? And what a problem it is? Edward Snowden, that's who. I just saw the interview (below) with him, and this is what he says, a whole 3 minutes into it:
"And the thing that I find grotesque about this situation is that now, the people who are being asked to sacrifice the most, are the people who are in the most precarious positions, who have the least to give."
He also says this: "Where are our resources? When our hospitals say they need ventilators, where is all this great technology that is being used to surveil everybody down to the tiniest toenail, when we need it to create things that actually save lives?"
Those two statements, friends, are two of the most sensible questions I've heard asked about the pandemic, or America, so far.
This post has a book point, I promise.
Recently I read Snowden's memoir, Permanent Record.* It was entirely strange, because I think Snowden is an entirely strange person. It's not a feel good, "get to know Snowden better personally", type memoir. It's a pretty straightforward recounting of his youth, his different school experiences, his work for the government, his procedure for whistleblowing, and what happened to him in Hong Kong (as well as to his girlfriend Lindsay Mills, in this country).
It was a fascinating read, in its own weird way, and I would highly recommend it. If nothing else, it felt like I was spending time in the company of Edward Snowden, and I enjoyed that. I think a lot about Snowden, and about whistleblowers in general, because I can't believe anyone actually blows the whistle on anything. Which brings us right back to HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE. Personally, I can't believe anyone endangers their own access to health insurance and care, no matter what they're blowing the whistle on. And that is wrong. We already tell creative types and freelancers and everyone in the overrated ridiculous "Gig Economy" (just another way of letting our Corporate Overlords keep more of their own cash, after all) that their work is invalid because it is not linked to a corporation or an institution, and that they don't deserve to live because they have little access to affordable HEALTH INSURANCE. Now we also tell whistleblowers, basically (or our government does, when it prosecutes whistleblowers for various infractions) that yes, they should tell us what bad and illegal things are going on, but they should be prepared to lose their jobs.
Which also means, of course, that they lose their HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE.
So why on earth would anyone tell the truth about all the stupid crap going on everywhere, at all times? Yeah, I don't know either.
I am not a Republican or a Democrat, but one of my pet peeves is when people lament to me what an American hero Barack Obama was and how much better off we were when he was the president. In the future, when they do that, I am going to read them this paragraph from Mueller's book:
"After years of endless war and institutionalized financial fraud had destabilized America, Barack Obama took office promising change, yet proceeded, through both acquiescence and action, to normalize the abuses Bush had introduced as wartime exigencies, and add a few of his own. He confirmed the de facto role of Wall Street as the rule of the US economy, and war as America's default condition. He staunchly defended Bush's torturers, kidnappers and other war criminals from prosecution, or even from opprobrium. He endorsed extralegal drone assassinations as an appropriate policy of a nation of laws, and mass surveillance of innocent US citizens as the right and the duty of the US government. And throughout, he attacked, relentlessly and vindictively, the few national security insiders (and several journalists) who questioned his betrayals of the Constitution and the people." (p. 838, large print edition.)
Boom. That's what I'm going to say when I have to offer proof for why I believe Obama was a terrible person, and Bush was a terrible person, and Clinton was a terrible person, and the first Bush was a terrible person, and so on and so forth, back to, I don't know, maybe Abraham Lincoln.
Awesome book, if you want to read a book and cry every time you're done reading a chapter.*
*Or, as Mr. CR says, "Reading more depressing nonfiction, are we? Of course you are."
Now, I love Edward Snowden, as I love all whistleblowers, and I'm neutral on Glenn Greenwald, although I like journalists who work with whistleblowers as well. But I just did not find that book this interesting. Although he does eventually get around to explaining some of the information Snowden revealed, and why it was so shocking, that seemed to be buried in the middle of the book. A lot of the first hundred pages dealt mainly with how Snowden found Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras and identified them as the individuals he wanted to publish the documents he could provide. It's interesting in its own way, but mainly it's just too much Greenwald. Although I did enjoy how honest Greenwald was about how lazy he was when first contacted by the source who would turn out to be Snowden; basically, Greenwald couldn't be bothered to set up encrypted email, even though the source tried to teach him how to do it. Now, I couldn't do it either, but I am also not a world-class investigative journalist. Seemed a little weak.
Let's be honest here. I don't have much of a belief system anymore. I was much more black and white in my beliefs well into my thirties, than I am now. And you know what? That was comforting. I kind of miss that. Lately, though, I find I am just so tired of all sides of problems that I have much less energy to judge who is in the right or wrong. Like this: yes, criminals need to be punished and go to jail. But have you heard about jails lately? That's not going to solve anything. Yes, Trump sucks. Clinton sucked too.
So pretty much one of the few things left that I really believe in is that you can't kill people. As such, I am still against abortion. (I'm against capital punishment and war, too.) So what was I doing reading this memoir by a doctor who has committed his life to performing abortions, particularly in areas where access to abortions is becoming ever harder to find?
I don't know, really. I kind of just thought I should read it. (And it's only about 200 pages long. I love authors who can make their point in 200 pages or less, and will almost always give them a try.)
And here's what I think: it was a good book. Parker knows his way around a narrative and he is clearly impassioned about his choices and his work. He describes his childhood, spent growing up in poverty in Alabama; his epiphany of being "born again" as a teenager and his life spent proselytizing about religion; his journey through medical school and his decision, eventually, to learn how to perform abortions and to dedicate himself to performing them regardless of the challenges and dangers to himself. He is clearly a thoughtful person and he lays out his entire trajectory of thought and action for the reader here.
"Sometimes women, having absorbed the lessons of Christian churches like the one in which I was raised, call the clinic to wonder aloud to anyone who answers the phone: 'Will God forgive me?' And if I happen to be on the other end, what I say, in substance, is this: I see no reason why a woman should feel herself deserving of a separation from God because of a decision she has to make. The Jesus I love has a nonconformist understanding of his faith. He realizes that the petty rules and laws laid down by the fathers and authorities are meaningless, and that to believe in a loving God is to refuse to stand in judgment of any fellow mortal...Performing abortions, and speaking out on behalf of the women who want abortions, is my calling. It is my life's work, and I dedicate this book to them." (p. 16.)
Probably the most interesting parts of this book for me were reading about Parker's impoverished upbringing and the hard work, good luck, and kindnesses of connections that accompanied his education and medical career. Frankly? This was kind of the book, on that subject, that I wanted Hillbilly Elegy to be. It may seem strange, but I also appreciated Parker's dispassionate descriptions of the abortion procedure itself. Or, I should say, it didn't make me happy to read those descriptions, but I have not had an abortion and have not ever had anyone describe one to me, so I felt that was knowledge I could use.
And here's what else I think: it was a good book for me to read. I thought about it a lot while reading it and I thought about it a lot in the days after I read it, and I really think it helped solidify a few things for me on how I feel about abortion, and that surprised me, since I thought I was already pretty solid in my opinions on the subject. Here's one thing it made me realize: I used to read about the actions of anti-abortion activists, taking steps simply to chip away at access to abortion, rather than trying to get Roe v. Wade overturned completely. And I had to admit that those were probably effective tactics if you simply wanted to try and lessen the numbers of abortions being performed. But those "victories" never really made me very happy. And now I know why: because it's kind of a prick move*. It disproportionately punishes poor and rural women who have fewer options. To me it's a prick move, just like gerrymandering is a prick move to chip away at voting rights. It may be stupid (and simplistic) of me, but I feel it is more honest to either allow abortion to be legal and allow access to it, or call it murder and outlaw it. Either way it should be the same for everyone.
There are a host of other reasons why I personally believe abortion is wrong, and we're not going to get into all that. And I totally understand Parker's narrative, and why he has made the choices he has. Really. I do. I am poor enough and (formerly) rural enough that I know how hard it is to scrape together $500 when you really need it, and how hard it is to get somewhere when your time (and perhaps a mode of transportation) is not your own. I have children and I know what pregnancies and birth do to your body. I GET IT. But on so many levels it keeps coming back to this for me: people are not disposable. Once I give up that thought I truly will have nothing left.
Oh, and then there's this: I cannot get behind abortion because I think it is purely a gift to men, specifically the worst kind of men, the ones who don't think about their actions and never ever have to deal with them. And that's just not right either. I don't have the answer for how to force men to take more responsibility for childbearing in general, I really don't, and that is frustrating. But allowing them abortion as yet another easy out where the woman has to go and do everything (and pay for it herself) makes me want to throw up. I can't help it. That's just the way I feel.
Go read this book. Really. However you think or feel on this subject. I would love to discuss it with someone. I would LOVE to know how this would go down in a library book group situation.
*"Prick move": A tactic or action which may be successful but is nevertheless underhanded; in other words, something a total prick would be really pleased with himself for thinking up. (A personal definition.)
I get the distinct feeling that, on many points, I am Jessa Crispin's polar opposite. She is a successful, intellectual author who ran an internationally renowned literary blog, she travels widely, she worked for Planned Parenthood and is vocally pro-choice. I am not successful, not intellectual, I largely stay put, I am living in what most people would term the most traditional and regressive of personal situations (married with children in the suburbs), and I am anti-abortion.
But, I gotta tell you this, and I mean it: I love Jessa Crispin from the bottom of my soul. I just read her new book Why I Am Not a Feminist. It's a great read. Crispin is so smart and such a tidy nonfiction writer that she can showcase her well-read understanding of her subject matter without making you feel like an idiot. That's not easy to do. Rather than name-dropping to scare you with what she knows, or to spin ever more detailed theses, she presents just enough of others' thoughts and works to make YOU want to go read them. (And then she gives you a handy one-page bibliography at the end, no titles, no pub data, just names of authors you should read.) This is also not easy. Her crisp prose, on the other hand, is so easy to read that her chapters are over before you know it. And yet it is filled with such heat that it makes you not want to stop reading chapters until you're all done with the book.
Here's the opening salvo:
"Somewhere along the way toward female liberation, it was decided that the most effective method was for feminism to become universal. But instead of shaping a world and a philosophy that would become attractive to the masses, a world based on fairness and community and exchange, it was feminism itself that would have to be rebranded and remarketed for contemporary men and women.
They forgot that for something to be universally accepted, it must become as banal, as non-threatening and ineffective as possible. Hence the pose. People don't like change, and so feminism must be as close to the status quo--with minor modifications--in order to recruit large numbers.
In other words, it has to become entirely pointless." (p. x-xi.)
Reviews of this book have been mixed. I'm going to tell you to read it. If nothing else, because I know that Crispin is out there living the life she advocates in her nonfiction. I love her the way I love Stacy Horn: both of these women take their work seriously. It is not making them rich.* It is not making their books Oprah books. They are both just extremely talented and hard-working writers. Horn puts a lot of effort into her fact-checking (and sometimes seems to be the last nonfiction author out there who does) and Crispin doesn't say anything that you want to hear just to make you like her.
So, no: we do not always share the same opinions. But I love her because she seems willing to say some things that no one wants to hear: she particularly makes the point that it does not make a woman a feminist just to become rich and successful in our current system. She makes the further point that a lot of times people who are successful at getting ahead in someone else's system are then very good at turning around and oppressing other people. Which is not really the point. Or shouldn't be. Or, as she says, much more eloquently:
"And trust me: people will hate you if you choose freedom over money, if you decide to live a life by your values of compassion, honesty, and integrity. Because you will remind them of their own deficiencies in these areas.
It's lonely outside the system. But we need you out here." (p. 64.)
I'm always a fan of someone saying something that will not make them rich. Read this book.** Or, if you don't have time, check out this interview. Also? Go buy and read some Stacy Horn books, please. Let's start by making some authors arguably not inside the James-Pattersonesque juggernaut system of publishing a little bit more well-off.
*I am particularly touched that Crispin once noted that one of the few ways to make blogging pay was to be an Amazon associate, and she didn't care much for that.
**Back when I wasn't blogging for a while I also read Crispin's travelogue The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries. I'm sorry I never wrote about it here. There was a lot to think about in that book too, and at least one line/thought that will stay with me for a long time.
On the one hand, it's straightforward, an easy read, and it was tough to put down. What is it about trainwrecks, either culturally or personally, that we can't look away from them? Because Vance describes a childhood that was surrounded by trainwrecks: a mother with substance abuse problems and a willingness to bring any sort of boyfriend or new husband into her house with her children; "hillbilly" grandparents who could be downright scary in their willingness to exact their own brutal vengeance on people they viewed as enemies; a school and culture and economic surroundings that largely did not encourage anyone to try or succeed (why bother, if no jobs were waiting for them at the end of their educations?). So this is a stark, personal, succinct (257 pages) read. Here's how Vance starts, in the introduction:
"I was one of those kids with a grim future. I almost failed out of high school. I nearly gave in to the deep anger and resentment harbored by everyone around me. Today people look at me, at my job and my Ivy League credentials, and assume that I'm some sort of genius, that only a truly extraordinary person could have made it to where I am today. With all due respect to those people, I think that theory is a load of bullshit. Whatever talents I have, I almost squandered until a handful of loving people rescued me." (p. 2)
It is emphatically a memoir; Vance admits early on that it is not an academic or sociological study. And that's fine. As a memoir I think the book worked. So why am I not more enthusiastic?
I don't know why, really. Vance's story is an inspiring one (man from impoverished childhood eventually graduates from Ivy League law school and marries one of his fellow students), but perhaps that's the problem. I'm really not much of a reader for inspiration. And there's something about his tone that just bugs me. You can tell by reading this book that he is no real fan of government programs or social justice laws.* He says a lot of things like this about his hometown of Jackson:
"The truth is hard, and the hardest truths for hill people are the ones they must tell about themselves. Jackson is undoubtedly full of the nicest people in the world; it is also full of drug addicts and at least one man who can find the time to make eight children but can't find the time to support them. It is unquestionably beautiful, but its beauty is obscured by the environmental waste and loose trash that scatters the countryside. Its people are hardworking, except of course for the many food stamp recipients who show little interest in honest work. Jackson, like the Blanton men, is full of contradictions." (p. 21.)
Okay. I know that government programs are not the whole answer. I know that lots of people don't want to work long hours or at physically demanding jobs. But Vance's tone sounds a little too much like "okay, people, pull yourself up by your bootstraps" for me. Just once in this country I'd like to see this argument NOT phrased as either/or: how about we expect people to try a little harder, but still try and implement common-sense government or social or charitable programs that would provide the most help where it is the most needed? Particularly since Vance making this argument seems a bit distasteful, as it does seem that he relied on his grandmother and some other family members for his work ethic and some help. Does he just want to write off everyone who had a troublesome mother, like his own, but who maybe wasn't lucky enough to have a kind and hard-working grandmother? That begins to smack of George W. Bush disease: Born on Third Base, Think You Hit a Triple.**
Anyone else read this one? What did you think? Can't decide if you want to read it? Here's a couple more reviews if you're interested.
*At one point he rails against legislation to try and cut down on payday lenders and their over-the-top interest rates, arguing that for people in poverty sometimes just a little bit of cash can get you through or past big problems. I understand that. I have an appreciation for how a couple of hundred bucks can sometimes make all the difference. But I think what he's missing is that maybe the payday lenders don't have to make a gazillion dollars off someone else's short-term financial need. Again: what about some moderation?
**Although of course George W. Bush was born into a family with a gazillion more dollars than Vance's family had. Still, you get my point.
When I saw reviews of Matthew Desmond's recent title Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, I thought, there's a title that I have to get. But then I remembered that Mr. CR has been very strenuously suggesting to me that I should start bringing home some lighter nonfiction, you know, "nonfiction that doesn't make you want to kill yourself."
But then I was in the library with the CRjrs, and I saw Evicted sitting out in the library's "Serendipity" collection, which is a collection of readily available, shorter-term-than-usual, titles for which there is usually a waiting list. Nicely played, library. So I gave in and brought it home.
And, depressingness notwithstanding, it was a really good read. In the course of doing graduate work in sociology, Desmond attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, but lived and did his field work in Milwaukee. The experiences he had living there and research he has done on the subject of poverty and housing form the backbone of his book. He provides a window into the worlds of the truly horrifically poor, whether they are black and white, working or not, drug-addicted or elderly (and many times some combinations of those and more attributes). They are worlds of trailer parks with substandard trailers, and inner-city rental properties and homes with substandard everything. And for the honor of living in homes with backed-up toilets, insect infestations, no appliances, and many other problems, Desmond found that many residents paid 70-80% of whatever income they could accumulate, whether it was work salaries, government assistance, or a combination of both, to rent alone.
Now I don't care, really, what kind of "lifestyle choices" these people are making. But I can see and do that math and know that if you are paying 80% of your income to rent, that leaves you very little to buy food and other necessities (completely forget about health care). Desmond himself points that out, and backs up his numbers in lengthy endnotes. His style is good investigative writing; descriptive, but not overwrought, and clean but not really clinical prose:
"Lenny knew the druggies lived mostly on the north side of the trailer park, and the people working double shifts at restaurants or nursing homes lived mostly on the south side. The metal scrappers and can collectors lived near the entrance, and the people with the best jobs--sandblasters, mechanics--congregated on the park's snobby side, behind the office, in mobile homes with freshly swept porches and flowerpots. Those on SSI were sprinkled throughout, as were the older folks who 'went to bed with the chickens and woke up with the chickens,' as some park residents liked to say. Lenny tried to house the sex offenders near the druggies, but it didn't always work out. He had had to place one near the double shifters. Thankfully, the man never left his trailer or even opened the blinds." (p. 32-33.)
Yeah, Mr. CR has a point. But it was a interesting book.* And I think Desmond did a good job with it. He not only details the problems of the renters; he shadowed a landlord and showed the many challenges of that lifestyle (although it comes with a bit more money) as well. He also provides a simple epilogue in which he suggests there would be plenty of money in this country to start to address this very basic problem (and ways it has been addressed thus far, neither effectively nor cost-effectively), but we just have to decide that this is what we WANT to spend our money on. I for one think it would be a good idea. Because the thought of people raising babies in apartments with stopped-up toilets AND sinks is just too ridiculous for words.
*Although this reviewer didn't think it was depressing. Trust me: it's depressing.
Have you seen this interview with Edward Snowden, by John Oliver? I embedded the video for the entire episode of "Last Week Tonight"; the interview proper starts around the 16-minute mark. Really. Watch it and come back and talk with me about privacy.
Also: can anyone recommend a good book on whistleblowers in general? Specific whistleblowers?
One of them was Robert Putnam's Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. I checked this book out because of its author: Putnam is best known for his 2000 title Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. That book, although I read it so long ago that I can barely remember it, spawned a particularly nerdy reading habit of mine, when reading any kind of investigative, historical, economic, or sociological work of nonfiction. I almost always play "Find Putnam"--or, more specifically, look through a book's text, notes, references, and index for references to Bowling Alone. And you'd be surprised how often you find it; it surely has to be one of the most quoted books of the late twentieth century (which is why I started noticing it and playing the game).
So when I saw he had a new book out, I thought I'd try it, although with a title like that you know it certainly isn't going to be a happy read. Putnam explores what he calls the growing "opportunity gap," by which kids from different economic classes face a lifetime of different opportunities in their families, education, community, and personal economic lives. To do this, he relies not only on a ton of research (the notes section in this book is 83 pages long), but primarily on qualitative research and the personal stories (garnered through many personal interviews) that he uses to tell his story. Such as:
"David was a scrawny 18-year-old in jeans and a baseball cap when we first encountered him in a Port Clinton park in 2012. His father had dropped out of high school and tried in vain to make a living as a truck driver, like his own father, but as an adult has been employed only episodically, in odd jobs like landscaping. David apologizes for not being able to tell us more about his father. 'He's in prison,' he explains, 'and I can't ask him.' David's parents separated when David was very little, and his mother moved out, so he can't tell us much about her, either, except to say that she lives in the Port Clinton area. 'All her boyfriends have been nuts,' he says. 'I never really got to see my mom that much. She was never there.'" (p. 27.)
I can't really say that anything I read in this book was a surprise. There's an overwhelming amount of evidence showing that there is increasingly a class-based (perhaps even more than race-based) divergence in not only current living conditions between poor kids and rich kids, but a divergence in future social, educational, and economic mobility. This is particularly disheartening in a country largely built on the principle that if you simply work hard, you can succeed.
The two most disturbing parts of the book (to me) were the paragraph that said "high[test]-scoring poor kids are now slightly less likely (29 percent) to get a college degree than low-scoring rich kids (30 percent)." (p. 190.) That's gross. And this paragraph, in the last section explaining the authors' research methods: "Just the simple act of scheduling an interview with working-class respondents--who lacked reliable transportation, money for gas, stable work hours, and child care--showed us how hard it is to plan for the future amid constant insecurity and uncertainty." (p. 270.)
It was a thought-provoking book (although I don't think it will have the reach that Bowling Alone did), and I was glad that the author concluded with a "What Is to Be Done?" chapter in which he tried to make a few suggestions. But it was sad, and I worry that of course it will only be read by people who already agree with its premise. But there you have it.
First, when I started reading it, I was really digging it. It made total sense to me. It's a book about how things stand for "labor" (organized and not) in this country right now, and the author strikes a tone that seems, to me, totally reasonable:
"Of course it's for the young I feel sorry: after all, it was on our watch that a labor movement disappeared. Am I wrong or do they seem intimidated? So far as I can tell, at least on the El [in Chicago], they seem to shrink from one another. They stare pitifully down at their iPhones, which stare up pitilessly at them. Their own gadgetry sits in judgment of them.
But why pick on them? Everyone seems demoralized...More and more I have clients who have signed away their rights to be considered 'employees' at all--which means there's no minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, no Social Security, nothing. Years ago they should have said something when the HR people said: 'You're no longer employees here--but cheer up, you'll go on working for us as independent contractors.'...Sometimes I think: one day, every American worker will be a John Smith, Incorporated, every cleaning lady, every janitor, every one of us--it will be a nation of CEOs in chains. 'How did I let this happen?'
At some point, maybe 2034, it won't even occur to us to wonder. We'll just be too beat." (pp. 4-5.)
Now, the only thing I can argue with in the above is that I don't think it will take until 2034, or anywhere near it. So I enjoyed this book for the author's matter-of-fact tone. In fact, it didn't faze me in the least, until I left it in the bathroom, and Mr. CR said, "Holy cow, that is one depressing book you've got in the bathroom."
The second thing about this book is that I am not smart enough to read it right now. I really want to; I think the author has a lot of interesting things to say about where we've been with labor in this country and where we might want to think about going (rather than mindlessly following the path we're on), but this is a book that requires some concentration and some knowledge. There's a whole middle part, for instance, where the author discusses the economic ideas of John Maynard Keynes, and he seems to assume a level of knowledge that I don't have.* So for now, I'm going to put this book down...but only due to my failings, not the author's.
In the meantime, here's a more thorough review, from the New York Times.
*As the years pass I become more furious about how my time was wasted in public schools for 12 years, and about how I wasted my own time in college for nearly six more. Really? Nearly 18 years of school and nobody could give me a quick rundown on Keynes and basic economic theories?
I have a little soft spot for British comedian Russell Brand, even though I fully realize it's probably easiest to love Russell Brand from afar, which, luckily, is what I will always be from Russell Brand.
Third: He can write a serviceable memoir. I really enjoyed his first memoir, My Booky Wook, although I have just become aware he wrote another one, titled (not very imaginatively, Russell) My Booky Wook 2, and I will not in fact be reading that book. Only so much time, and all that. But when I saw he had a new book out called rEVOLution, I thought, all right, we'll give it a try.
It's awful. Really. It's unreadable. I am not alone in this opinion; most book critics seem pretty unitedin their opinions that it is not a well-written or even funny book. So it hurts me to write that you should not read this book, which is a mish-mash of memoir, political and ideological beliefs, befuddled writing about yoga, and (a very few) interviews with anarchist, nonprofit organizer, Occupy protestor types, including some of their ideas for bettering the world.
But? Every 100 pages or so he still managed to charm me. For example, when remembering a fraught conversation he had as a child with his grandmother (the "nan" he was not very fond of, to be exact), he decides that what he has to do as an adult is try and see his grandmother's point of view:
"I now look at my nan in another way. As a human being just like me, trying to cope with her own flaws and challenges. Fearful of what would become of her sick daughter, confused by the grandchild born of a match that she was averse to. Alone and approaching the end of her life, with regret and lacking a functioning system of guidance and comfort. Trying her best. Taking on the responsibility of an unusual little boy with glib, atheistic tendencies, she still behaved dutifully. Perhaps this very conversation sparked in me the spirit of metaphysical inquiry that has led to the faith in God I now have." (p. 60.)
So yeah, I can't recommend the book. But you've got to love a guy taking the time to re-evaluate his grandmother. Don't you? I do.
*He is also no fan of the British royal family, which is where we diverge in our opinions.
I first read about this one ages ago on Savvy Working Gal's blog, and I was immediately attracted by its cover. I wondered a bit about its subject matter; I'll admit I was skeptical that an entire book was necessary to explore the "dark side of the personal finance industry."* That's right. An entire book critiquing not the broader business atmosphere of the U.S., not the entire stock market, not capitalism, but literally critiquing ONLY those finance gurus who are well-known enough to have their own publishing, radio and TV programs, and seminar businesses. Olen began the book with a bang, giving the history of one of the earliest pundits, S. F. (Sylvia) Porter, who wrote financial advice columns and books from the 1930s through the 1970s. But I really started to enjoy myself in Olen's second chapter, on popular money guru Suze Orman:
"If there are any other personal finance gurus who are capable of arousing this much passion, I have not discovered them. Everybody knows Suze, the woman whose personal appearance is in itself nearly a caricature, with the neon-bright jackets, deep tan, big, bright white teeth, and ultrablond, ultrasculpted hair. She winks broadly at her audience, seemingly flirting with them, calling them 'boyfriend' or 'girlfriend' in her over-the-top flat Midwestern accent. Orman has more than half a dozen bestselling books to her credit and a CNBC show, which despite being placed in the Saturday night graveyard hour still gets better ratings than anything in the cable giant's weekday lineup." (p. 28.)
I really enjoyed that, even though, personally, I like watching Suze Orman when I see her programs on PBS pledge drives. It's not so much that I like her financial advice, but I'm interested in public speaking techniques and Suze is nothing if not a MASTER of public speaking.
I'm not doing a great job of describing this book; do click on the link above to Savvy Working Gal's blog, where she gives a much better synopsis of Olen's main points. I will say it took me a while to read this book--it's quite detailed--but in a good way. A great read, particularly if you are oh so tired of hearing TV financial pundits blather on about how we can all save a million dollars by brewing our own coffee at home.
*Not because there isn't enough dark side there, but I thought it might get dull to read about. It did not.
And I was not disappointed. I liked it even better than her book on education. Ripley set out to discover how people really DO behave during disasters (not how they THINK they'll behave), and to explore the psychology behind our survival tactics and fear responses. Her book is organized in the same order as we tend to respond to disasters: Denial; Deliberation; and the Decisive Moment.
Sadly, oh so sadly, I only read this book a few weeks ago and I've pretty much forgotten everything I thought I learned. Oh wait, I do remember something. In case of an emergency, try not to mill around aimlessly (as many people who survived the 9/11 attacks remember doing, and watching other people do). Do NOT go back for your personal belongings or load up on them, just get out. And don't be hurt if airline personnel scream at you to get you to exit the plane after an emergency landing or crash. They're doing that because they've been trained that people do actually need to be yelled at to get moving.
It's a fascinating book, if a bit sobering. And let's face it, these days it's probably not a bad idea to try and imagine how you'd react in a disaster (and consider even more efficient or helpful ways of responding). I'm two for two with Ripley; can't wait to see her next book.
*Although when bad things happen, I often find myself surprised. It's like I do all of that worrying for nothing!
...are not being produced by the U.S. education system.
When journalist Amanda Ripley points this out (based on PISA--Program for International Student Assessment--tests, on which students in such countries as Finland, Korea, Japan, Canada, and France all score better than U.S. students) points this out in her new book The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, she makes it clear that she is not blaming the students. She is, in fact, blaming the American education system.
Ripley opens her book with a discussion of the PISA test, and its development, not by an educational theorist, but by a physicist named Andreas Schleicher, who wanted a more accurate and unbiased measurement for how students compare to one another on an international scale. The test is noted for its ability to measure students' ability to think critically (rather than just offering multiple choice questions), and that is the aspect in which many American students really struggle. Based on what she learned about that test, the author decided to follow American exchange students as they studied in Finland, Poland, and Korea, in order to get a more immediate feel for the differences in educational systems.
It was an interesting read. One thing I particularly liked about it was Ripley's debunking of the myth that American students struggle because the American child poverty rate is so high (20%--yet another measurement that Americans should not be proud of). She refers to this as the narrative that external factors (like poverty, negligent parents, etc.) are the problem with schools, and this is what she says about that:
"The only problem with this narrative was that it was habit forming. Once you start locating the source of your problems outside your own jurisdiction, it is hard to stop, even when the narrative is wrong." (p. 36.)
A few of the other differences between education systems that Ripley explores are other countries' more rigorous methods of selecting for and training teachers; the fact that in much of Europe athletics are completely divorced from school (the kids play sports, but sports are not really connected with school, and for the most part teachers elsewhere were horrified that teachers here often combine teaching duties with coaching ones); there is much less technology in international classrooms than in American ones; and students take school and studying much more seriously elsewhere (although, in the "pressure cooker" system in South Korea, this might not actually be a good thing).
And then there was this nugget, which warmed my heart, as I used to tell this to people at the library until I was blue in the face (and very few people seemed to listen):
"And at least one high-impact form of parental involvement did not actually involve kids or schools at all: If parents simply read for pleasure at home on their own, their children were more likely to enjoy reading, too...kids could see what parents valued, and it mattered more than what parents said." (p. 111--emphasis mine.)
The book is not perfect; at times Ripley seems to make somewhat contradictory statements (for instance: should control of education be more localized, or less? I thought her conclusions unclear on this point) and she doesn't seem to pay as much attention to the student she followed in Poland as to the other two. But those are small quibbles with an otherwise fascinating read. If you have school-age children, I'd look at it: there's some good ideas for how you can most effectively spend your time helping your children improve upon the embarrassingly low-ranked education available here.
Really. I don't even like to apply the term "homemaking" to what I do. I'm an average cook, I hate cleaning, I refuse to "decorate" in any way (my current TV table is the same $15 plain wood table I bought from an outgoing student for my dorm room, oh my god, over twenty years ago now), I'm not really very good at playing with the children, and when I hear the word "crafts," I reach for my revolver.*
"The motivations behind New Domesticity are varied: an interest in self-sustainability; concern for the environment; the need for flexible, child-friendly work; the desire to remain connected to older generations. But the common thread seems to be this: my generation--those of us in our twenties and thirties--is longing for a more authentic, meaninful life in an economically and environmentally uncertain world." (p. 5.)
So yeah, I'm in my thirties (just barely, but I'm enjoying it while I still can), and yes, I stay at home as a pretty stereotypical housewife, with some freelance work on the side. I do many of the things Matchar talks about her interview subjects doing--raising the kids, trying to earn a little "pin money" on the side, and making the food. But I can safely say, after reading this book, that I do not approach domesticity with the zeal that Matchar's subjects do; many of them are actively "homesteading" and doing things like trying to raise their own meat animals and live off the grid.
Matchar's book is interesting (if a bit repetitive), and she actually does a nice job of keeping her tone pretty even-keeled. She seems generous to her subjects, willing to believe the best about their desires to DIY and remove themselves as much as possible from the factory food system, but also questions how realistic those desires are, and how they developed from and represent the last fifty or so years of feminism. She covers a wide array of topics, from domestic bloggers and Etsy crafters to DIY food culture, parenting to the politics of the New Domestics. And every now and then she comes across with a pretty nice flash of insight:
"Today parents are expected to be the total authorities in their children's lives. Parent are taught to question everything they hear and make sure it 'feels right' for their particular family. This can be empowering but also exhausting--every vaccine and preschool and baby-food brand must be rigorously vetted by Mom or Dad (usually Mom)." (p. 126.)
One thing I do feel the book was missing (as I feel most books of this type miss) was any realistic disussion of how on earth anyone can "homestead" or go without a job (or a spouse with a job) with health insurance. Unless you're the Pioneer Woman, no one is making enough on blogs or crafts to quit their day jobs, much less pay for any kind of health insurance on their own.
It wasn't the fastest or most fascinating read of the year so far, but I'll say this: it held my interest even after several 2 a.m. feedings (sometimes I have a snack and a chapter of something after nursing CR3). And that's usually the mark of a pretty well-written book.
*Not really. But I will always remember that phrase from the promo copy on Jim Knipfel's fantastic book Ruining It for Everybody: "and when I hear the word 'spiritual,' I reach for my revolver."