Wake Up Sheeple!

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Title: Brave New World

Rating: 4 Stars

Re-reading this book in the age of Trump is kind of a revelation.

At its core, it’s a screed against the engineered society. In Huxley’s future, after a particularly heinous war, the world governments turn away from the anarchic freedom and messiness of allowing each person to individually find his/her own way in the world.

Instead, the world leaders seek to remove passion, individualism, and unhappiness.

Babies are no longer born. They are incubated artificially. There are five specific castes (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon). As the various embryos move through their gestation, steps are taken to ensure that they have the right physical characteristics at birth for their caste. After they are born, the children are raised communally in a nursery. At night, they are given sleep hypnotherapy to reinforce conventional social beliefs.

Each caste is thus not only resigned to their roles, but would be actively unhappy if removed from it. The illiterate Epsilons are content doing their simple menial labor. The highest class Alphas are content with their responsibilities of running the world. The castes have no desire to interact or to rise above their caste. Everyone is placidly content with their situation.

To remove passion, sexuality is encouraged from the youngest age. There is no longer any concept of monogamy, thus no opportunities for jealousy. Most women are purposely born sterile.

For enjoyment, they have various forms of entertainment and easy access to soma, basically a mood leveling narcotic.

Into this world comes John Savage, a member of their society that was actually born (gasp!) and raised among a primitive tribe of people trapped inside their reservation. John is ‘rescued’ from the reservation and begins to live in the modern world. At first John is bewitched by it, but over time becomes disenchanted with the sterile, predictable, amoral nature of it.

In case you haven’t read this nearly ninety year old novel, spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well for him.

So how did Huxley do? The jury’s still out since the novel is actually taking place in the year 2540, but…

We’re not worshiping Henry Ford yet, so I guess that’s good (who wants an anti-Semitic God?), but we could be on way to creating a Bezos deity.

We are slowly but surely losing our religion. This is especially true in Europe, but even in America, despite the attempts of such upright Christians such as Judge Roy Moore, as a country we are becoming less Christian and more generally, less religious.

We might not have soma, but we certainly have Prozac, which seems to fill much the same function. Instead of suffering from the human pangs of the full range of emotion, if you find the right doctor, you can live that monotone life that we all love.

Sports is certainly the 21st century replacement for religion. If you don’t think so, just go to any big time Division I college football game.

So, why am I not more worried about this particular potential sterile dystopian future?

Well…for this scenario to play out, there has to be some governmental level of respect for … science.

Even if, in this Brave New World, leaders have taken the science of social engineering to extreme ends, the basic point is that science is actually being done.

In the current time of Trump, there’s not much concern about science taking over our lives. The head of the EPA is a climate change denier. Another key scientific position was almost filled by someone whose primary qualification for the position was being an early Trump supporter. Scientific results are being actively censored. Scientists are quitting and resigning in droves. A tax bill is on the verge of passing despite the near unanimous consent of economists that it will precisely not do what the administration says that it will.

As long as Donald Trump is in power, we probably do not have to worry about being ruled over by an elite group of highly trained scientists.

So…yay?

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Policemen Committing Crimes Against Humanity


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Title: Ordinary Men

Rating: 4 Stars

When you read about WWII, it’s easy to become inured to the numbers. Six millions Jews killed during the holocaust. Nearly three million ethnic Poles were killed during the occupation. 3.5 million Soviet POWs were killed by the Nazis.

The numbers become so large that they lose meaning. The Nazi regime becomes some abstract notion of evil.

What is sometimes forgotten (or maybe laid aside?) is that all of these millions didn’t kill themselves. There wasn’t some large machine grinding out murder. There were men that executed these murders. Especially in the early days, before the gas chambers, these murders were extremely personal.

This book moves away from the notion of abstract evil and concentrates upon one group of men. By and large, they were not Nazi careerists. They were mostly older men, so they had not grown up under Nazi ideology. They were businessmen and tradesmen. They were, in fact, ordinary men, mostly from Hamburg.

They joined a police battalion. Some of them did it to serve the war effort (they were too old, at the time, to serve in the army). Some were interested in becoming policemen as a career.

They were sent to Poland. There, ultimately, the vast majority of them ended up committing atrocities, including shooting Jewish women and children, shooting Poles,  forcing Jews onto trains whose destination were extermination camps, and hunting out escapees in forests, calling these exercises ‘Jew Hunts’.

Make no mistake. This was personal murder. Especially at the first site, each policeman was paired up with a Jew. They then would walk in tandem to a specific site. The policeman would then take his gun, point his bayonet at a certain point of the Jew’s neck (helpfully previously pointed out by the unit’s physician, if you can believe that), and pull the trigger. If you pointed too high (which happened), the victim’s skull and brains would splatter all of the policeman. The policeman would then go back to the truck and wait to be paired up with the next victim. This went on until nightfall.

Why? That really is the unanswerable question. Why did they do it? Was it something specifically German or to that time? Or is there some larger, more universal reason common to humanity?

There are the usual reasons.

One is that they were just following orders. However, the commander of the police, when announcing the initial order to kill, wept while doing so and explicitly excused any man that wasn’t willing. Several men did step up and opted out with no apparent punishment. Later, as the horror of what the men were doing started seeping in, more and more men began to stop. They would just hang out by the trucks or wander off to the woods. Other policemen would intentionally fire and miss or would intentionally jam their guns.  Again, there were no ramifications to the policeman that stopped participating. In fact, from a scholarly point of view, there’s no evidence in Nazi Germany of anyone actually being punished for refusing to commit atrocities.

Another possible reason is that the Germans just had a long term base hatred of Jews. However, there were times when Germans showed compassion towards Jews. Some of the Jews were actually recognized by the policemen (some of whom were from Hamburg). They were treated in a much more humane manner.

There is the camaraderie of the police. The Jews were going to get murdered, so if one policeman didn’t do his job, that meant that some other policeman was going to have to do it instead. The policemen were a unit, so there was loyalty to the unit. However, again think about what they were being asked to do. They were pointing a gun at a helpless woman or child and pulling the trigger. You would do that so you wouldn’t look weak in front of your unit?

Browning ties it back to the Zimbardo prison experiment and to the Milgram experiments. These are both famous experiments about how casually callous people can become to other people. With Zimbardo, men were randomly separated into guards and prisoners. Within days, the guards were effectively torturing and subjugating the prisoners until Zimbardo called the experiment off early. With Milgram, subjects would knowingly give what they thought were fatal shocks to test subjects, despite the test subjects (actors all) screaming in pain, continuing even when the actors lapsed into silence.

I honestly don’t buy into the argument that this was something unique to the German people or to the Nazi time. Think about the Khmer Rouge killing off one to three million people (out of a population of eight million). Think of the 800,000 people killed in Rwanda. On a much lesser scale but much closer to home, think about My Lai or even Abu Ghraib.

This is something that can happen anytime and anywhere. If the times comes for me, how will I respond? Everyone likes to think of themselves as principled and moral, but history would seem to say otherwise.

I can only hope that I will never be placed in such a position, but if I do, I can only hope that I will see the moral truth of the situation, make the right decision, and be willing to bear the consequences regardless.

However, reading a book like this and seeing all of these ordinary men commit overt crimes against humanity, it does leave me with a unsettling, gnawing doubt.

The Hitman, Not The Morphine Addict

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Title: The Winter of Frankie Machine

Rating: 4 Stars

What are the odds that I’d read two completely different books starring a protagonist named Frankie Machine almost exactly a year apart?

Well, this is a completely different Frankie Machine than the morphine addict in The Man With The Golden Arm.

This Frankie Machine is a gentlemen of fairly advanced age that is constantly working. He has about three different jobs that he juggles as he balances the needs of his ex-wife, his girlfriend, and his daughter that was just accepted into medical school.

Everything seems fine until someone tries to kill him. It turns out that he is actually a kind of retired mafia hit man. As he delves into his past trying to figure out who wants him dead, he is also on the run trying to stay alive. That is the twin plots at work here.

There’s nothing tremendously complex here. This is the same author that wrote The Power Of The Dog. This was basically another crime novel, this time centered around the Mexican drug cartel. The Power Of The Dog tells an expansive story encompassing multiple decades and over a dozen main characters. It was heavily researched and at times, almost read like a documentary of the Mexican drug trade and their battles with the DEA.

The Winter of Frankie Machine is a much more straightforward mafia crime genre novel.

You have the requisite characters. You have the mafia underbosses chaffing under the orders of their superiors. You have the youngblood up and comers who feel that their time has come. You have dissolute world weary bookies and strippers.

Since this is the twenty-first century, they are all self-aware caricatures that reference lines from Goodfellas, The Godfather, and The Sopranos. They are all under constant surveillance and their power is a mere figment of what it once was. They’re trying to live a lie that was never the truth.

Into this mix of seedy mafia characters enters Frankie Machine. He’s over sixty, still in good shape, and appreciates the finer things in life. He also is apparently John McClane, because absolutely nothing can kill him. He might as well be a Marvel superhero. From a purely dramatic perspective, really nothing unpredictable happens here.

So, why the four stars? Well, for what it is, it’s very well executed. I found it engaging and amusing. The two plots of his past and his present weave together in a well crafted manner. It was executed well and was entertaining to read.

Destroying the World for Why Exactly?

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Title: Oryx and Crake

Rating: 3 Stars

This is set in some not too distant future. A man named Snowman might be the last person alive on Earth. The world is slowly turning back to wildness. There are dangerous genetically engineered animals running about. There is a primitive human-like tribe that looks upon Snowman as a teacher.

Snowman is running low on supplies and decides to make a potentially perilous trip back to the compound that he was previously living at (before the apocalypse) to retrieve supplies. Simultaneously, the story is told of how the world has gotten to this point.

The situation was that the world was dominated by competing corporations specializing in genetics. These corporations were trying to invent new ways, through genetics, to improve the human condition. This includes finding cures for diseases and genetically breeding animals for special purposes (eg pigoons, which were pigs growing organs that could be transplanted to humans).

The competition was so cutthroat that the corporations started building vaccines for diseases that they themselves invented.  They would then introduce the viruses into the human population and then make a huge profit selling the vaccines.

The employees at these corporations lived in luxurious, gated, guarded compounds. Those not lucky enough to work for one of them were fated to live in dangerous, wild, squalid areas known as the pleeblands.

Into this world is introduced two young boys, Jimmy and Glenn. They grow up together  in one of the gated communities. Glenn is a scientific genius while Jimmy has less socially valuable word skills.

They grow up and ultimately Glenn (now known as Crake) is heading up a large genetics program with dual purposes. One is to develop a pleasure inducing pill while the other is to create a new generation of humans that are optimally designed to avoid the major problems that Crake sees when he looks at the human race.

From there we learn how a virus was globally disseminated, resulting in the death of all humanity (except for Jimmy, who is the aforementioned Snowman, who had been vaccinated). Snowman takes charge of the remaining new humans (now called Crakens) and leads them to a peaceful park, from which the story started from.

To avoid spoilers, I won’t share too much more. The novel was well executed but it just didn’t really move me or inspire me.

Even in 2003 (when it was written), I don’t think that it was saying anything particularly new. Clearly humans playing God is a well trod trope. The pleeblands scenes were probably the most interesting to me, and we barely even saw a glimpse of that (seemed very Bladerunner-y). The corporate compounds seemed uninteresting and sterile (and again derivative). There’s also global warming kind of things going on in the background. There is also a social unrest theme running through it (as Jimmy’s mom and Glenn’s dad both appear to be rebelling against the corporations). It just kind of seemed to be a mish mash of possible end-of-the-world themes.

I’m not sure if this is Atwood’s point or not, but for all of the possible ways that the world could have ended, it all revolves around the love life of basically three people. Is she making the point that within all of these larger social ills that the spark that will light the conflagration will actually be the willful act of one person?

The Crakens are really not interesting at all. I’m guessing that that is the point. They are bred to be compliant and passionless. It is interesting that, by the end of the novel, they are showing early signs of developing a possible proto-religion. Since this was supposedly specifically bred out of them, is Atwood making the point that such beliefs are simply a fundamental aspect of living a human life?

Hence three stars. It was well written and interesting. It just was too scattershot to really engage me and, by the end, I wasn’t sure what the overarching message of the novel was.

Justice Is A Dish Not Best Served Cold

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Title: Blood in the Water

Rating: 5 Stars

It’s interesting to read a history covering events that have occurred in my lifetime. I come into the history with some preconception based upon probably faulty memories or impressions that I have picked up. As I read, I realize how completely I misunderstood the event of which I have a vague memory.

The Attica prison uprising is such an event. It happened in 1971, when I was eight. Obviously, I don’t have any distinct memory of it, other than just extreme vagueness. However, the myth that was in my head was that a bunch of hardened imprisoned criminals rose up against some injustice with a planned uprising, things got out of hand, and the government had to step in to take back the prison.

As I was soon to discover, that narrative has only the barest semblance to reality. It’s hard to even know where to start.

Let’s start with the prisoners. Sure, there were some violent criminals incarcerated and there were some political radicals. However, many of the prisoners were there for trivial offenses. In one case, the prisoner was incarcerated for violating his parole by driving his vehicle without a driver’s license. Yes, you could get sent to Attica for that. Not only that, there were even paroled prisoners still incarcerated. Once you received parole, you could not actually leave the prison until you found a job. Keep in mind that a lot of the prisoners were from New York City, which is over 300 miles from Attica. If you didn’t have family working to get you a job, you were given an obsolete phone book and told to find a job. I am not making that up.

The prisoners had very few clothes, weekly showers, and basically no career counseling. It was basically a warehouse for poor minorities.

There was no master plan for the riot. There was confusion regarding prisoners who were supposed to be locked in their cells but instead got out and ate breakfast with their block. The correctional officers (CO) discovered this and while the prisoners were walking back after breakfast, they were locked into a walkway by the COs. The prisoners, trapped, not understanding what was going on, began to fight back against the COs and break down the locked gate. In the ensuing confusion, several guards were injured, including one seriously enough that he ultimately died. By the end, the prisoners had taken over one of the prison yards and had taken several COs as hostages.

This started four days of negotiations. In hindsight, it was pretty clear that the prisoners really weren’t going to accomplish anything. The officials were just biding time. In the meantime, more and more COs, deputies, and state police were gathering outside Attica, desperate to come in and free the hostages.

At the end of the negotiations, the law enforcement officers were given the go ahead to retake the prison. The state police were told to remove all insignia to prevent identification. Random law enforcement were assigned weapons and ammo with no attempt to log who was assigned what.

Tear gas was dropped and law enforcement rushed in, guns blazing. Amazingly, some of the prisoners stood in front of some of the hostages to protect them. In the ensuing chaos, nearly all hostages were wounded by gunfire and some eight or so died. Hundreds of prisoners were shot, some forty or so fatally. There were reports of prisoners desperately hiding in crawl spaces and law enforcement pointing their guns blindly into the space and firing. There were injured prisoners on the ground that were then shot. There were injured prisoners on the ground that were beaten. Prisoners were stabbed with screwdrivers. In the aftermath of the riot, to get back to their cells, prisoners were stripped naked and were forced to crawl through glass while running a gauntlet of COs beating them with clubs and sticks. For days, badly injured prisoners were refused medical treatment and for days, the torture of prisoners continued.

Thus does the forces of civilization save the world from the barbarous anarchy of a prison riot.

In the immediate aftermath of the riot, political, prison, and law enforcement officials all toe the official line that hostages were murdered by the prisoners, including a ghastly tale of a hostage that was castrated and had his genitals shoved into his mouth. Except for I think two prisoners, all deaths that happened during the riot were proven to be gun shot victims. It was known that no prisoners had guns. State police unsuccessfully tried to intimidate coroners conducting autopsies into concluding that the victims died from a cause other than gunfire.

Nearly all subsequent prosecutorial attempts were to convict the prisoners of crimes. No effective attempt was made to try any of the law enforcement officers who blindly ran into the prison wantonly firing, let alone the many acts of torture that took place in its aftermath.

The prisoners never gave up. They found some lawyers and fought for over thirty years to get the state to admit their wrongdoing. Ultimately, they did prevail and the surviving members did get some sum of money. It was not at all commiserate with the brutality that they experienced, but it was at least some acknowledgment of their suffering.

The hostages and their families, if anything, were treated even worse by the state. They were essentially tricked into cashing checks that effectively gave them no recourse to sue the state. Make no mistake about it. The state went about this scheme with aforethought to prevent them from taking action. Some of the widows refused to back down and continued to fight for their justice. In their case, it took closer to forty years, but eventually they reached a settlement with the state as well. As with the prisoners, not commiserate with their suffering, but at least it was something.

Over forty years later, there are still documents that the state of New York refuses to release. In fact, some documents that the author had access to earlier have been pulled back.

This obviously was not happy reading. It’s a grim litany of government callous misdeeds and its craven attempts to cover it up.

Horror for Creepers

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Title: It

Rating: 2 Stars

And to be honest, it’s a generous two stars. I give out relatively few 1 stars (probably less than 5 over the last couple of years). It has to be boringly bad at an almost infuriating level for me to give it a 1.

So, it’s not that bad. Or should I say It’s not that bad? Which leads me to comment number one. Who the fuck calls a monster It? Do you not know how the English language works? Every time, you have to check the capitalization of the word ‘it’ to determine if King’s referring to the monster or is just using the innocent pronoun. If ‘it’ happens to be the first word in the sentence, you’re kind of fucked.

I watched the film about a month ago or so. I found the film problematic, primarily because you have to fit in seven character’s plot arcs in a two hour movie. There is just no way that that can be done successfully in such a short period of time, so there were times when I got confused about which character is actually involved (the asthmatic one? the mouthy one? the fat one?).

I figured that the novel has to be way better. The canvas is so much more broader and King, who as we all know isn’t big on succinctness, will have the time and space to tell all of his characters’ stories. It (arrggghhh!!) is over 1000 pages, so this shouldn’t be a problem, right?

Still a problem. The main characters are still, at the end of the day, pretty generic kids. The kids’ names are (let’s see if I can do this from memory): Bill, Ed, Mike, Ben, Bev, Stan, and Richie. They are, respectively, the stutterer, the hypochondriac, the black kid, the fat kid, the girl, the Jewish kid and the mouthy kid. And that’s kind of how they’re known. They have one character trait that differentiates them. Even Bev, the girl, is basically just one of the boys. Bill has the most character development, being the main protagonist, but still, pretty generic. Even after reading many hundreds of pages, when one of the characters was called out, I’d have to take a second and think, OK, this is Ben, he’s the fat one, OK, got it.

Each character had several episodes that you had to wade through, both as children and as adults. It’s still too many characters to care about and I stopped caring midway through the book.

So, what’s the thing about clowns? It’s never explained. It (dammit!) can manifest itself (…sigh…) into any shape (aiming for those shapes that terrify, It seemingly feeds on fear).  For some reason, across history, It inevitably manifests itself as a clown (there are old pictures / stories about a strange clown hanging around the periphery during times of violence and horror). Clowns haven’t been scary throughout all time have they? Why does It keep coming back to it?

And in battles when they first wound …sigh…It and then later, as adults, when they kill …It, it (the pronoun, not the monster) becomes some weird end of 2001 Space Odyssey trip to infinity and back. Apparently there’s some superior force of creation that’s an impossibly ancient yet somehow wise tortoise that exists in opposition to It and the two have some kind of ying-yang relationship but then when the kids come back as adults the tortoise might be dead but there might be an even larger creative force beyond even the tortoise serving as perhaps the least impressive god-like force ever. The book was published in 1987. Those of us who were alive and conscious during that time remember Joseph Campbell and all of his philosophizing on myths. It appears that King took Campbell’s ideas, word scrambled them, and served them up fresh.

And finally, these seven kids are all around eleven years old. Beverly, the girl, is 11 years old.  Eleven years old. Not even a teenager. King, in several places, writes about her body in what can only be described as in an uncomfortably sexual manner. I’m not talking about the feelings that she’s developing or anything like. No, he writes about her fresh skin, luxurious hair, long legs, and budding breasts. It’s frankly uncomfortable. And then there’s the subplot where her father, although not overtly sexually abusing her (at least until he gets possessed by…yes…It), is clearly having impure thoughts about his daughter. Not to mention the fact that, key to the plot (and I apologize if this is a spoiler, but it’s a thirty year old novel), she pulls a fucking train with all of the eleven year old boys. Seriously, WTF? They gather their collective power to fight It by grasping hands in a circle. OK, fine, but then they get lost in the tunnels and she decides that the only way to really bring all of the power is to have an orgy with her fellow eleven year old friends? My life was certainly improved by the description of an eleven year old girl’s orgasm.

For some reason, the movie version somehow decided to bypass this little scene.

I’m not a Stephen King hater. I’ve read many of his novels and have enjoyed them (I remember being particularly creeped out by Pet Semetary). Clearly he has writing chops and can tell a story. But lordy, It (fuck!) was a book that was both boring and creepy.

Beware The Quiet Ones

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Title: Eileen

Rating: 4 Stars

This is a grim tale indeed. It’s the story of Eileen Dunlop, a severely depressed and repressed young woman that works at a boy’s prison in New England in 1964.

Her mother has passed away. Her father, an ex-cop, is a hopeless alcoholic completely reliant upon Eileen but also torments her. She has a vivacious older sister named Joanie that her father clearly prefers (with just a hint of maybe caring for her a little too much when she was younger), but wisely chooses to seldom visit the depressing, messy home.

Barely wanting to acknowledge her femininity, she dresses in her deceased mother’s dowdy clothes and tries to act as sexless as possible. Also vaguely horrified by bodily functions, she barely eats and periodically takes massive doses of laxatives to purge her body all at once.

Her job at the boy’s prison, Moorehead, isn’t much better. The other two ladies at the office treat her with disdain. She pretends indifference by always arranging her facial features in what she refers to as a ‘death mask’.

Her sole enjoyment is vaguely romantic fantasies of a prison guard named Randy. This extends to even outside work hours when she drives over and parks her car in front of his house to watch him.

She dreams of escape but at some level she understands that she never will.

One day, into this dull dreary life sweeps in a prison counselor named Rebecca. She is glamorous and dazzling and amazingly enough, takes a liking to Eileen. Eileen, stunned, really having no idea of how to make / keep a friend, let alone someone like Rebecca, just flails and desperately tries to make herself liked.

They form a bond and Eileen’s life begins to start looking up. Ultimately, Rebecca ends up putting Eileen in a situation that she could never imagine. Eileen will have to make choices that will forever change her life.

A couple of things. Even though it’s not a conventional one, it seemed to have a very noir essence to it. In this case, instead of the hapless man, it’s Eileen that allows herself to get caught into a spiderweb of a woman’s devising. As I was reading it, it reminded me of something that James M. Cain would have written.

It takes guts for an author to use Eileen as her protagonist. It’s even told in Eileen’s first person perspective. Eileen is one of the most unattractive protagonists that I’ve met. She’s unhappy, repressed, depressed, and a source of unhappiness in others. There is really not even a trace of human kindness in her. To put a character like that front and center in your novel and pretty much just daring your reader to like and/or empathize with her was a pretty bold move.

It paid off for me. I enjoyed it.

Slouching Towards Sparta

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Title: How Everything Became The War And The Military Became Everything

Rating: 2 Stars

In my life, the United States military has changed tremendously. I came of age in the 1970s, during the worse of Vietnam and in its aftermath. I know that there are stories about people spitting on returning soldiers, calling them baby killers, etc. I was pretty young and it was a long time ago, so I don’t know how much truth there was to this and/or how common of a practice it really was.

Be that as it may, the image of the army by the end of the Vietnam War was an army of poor conscripts (the wealthy can always figure out how to get out of military service, from paying $300 to get out of the Civil War to getting medical deferments during the Vietnam War (how’s that heel spur, President Trump?)) composed of drug addicts that occasionally tried to frag their officers.

Of course, nowadays, it’s an all volunteer force (still comprised mostly of people of limited economic means, some things never change). Especially in the time of Reagan, in opposition to those flag burning liberals, Americans began to lionize military personnel. We now thank soldiers for their service and they are given great respect. Even the most flaming anti-war zealot will always make a point to say that they support the soldiers.

Lord help the politician who in any way seems to be weak on defense. In the year 2017, our defense budget is about $700 billion dollars, even though we have no real state enemies of any consequence, we have no border threats, and we are under absolutely no existential threat (I’m sorry, but the United States will not be handing over a ceremonial sword in surrender to ISIS anytime soon). Meanwhile, the State Department budget (you know, the guys that actually manage our affairs of state) is about $55 billion dollars.

How did we get here? That is the subject of the book.

First of all, we’ve been at war essentially non-stop for over fifteen years. That’s the problem with declaring a war on a noun (ie War on Terror). When does it end? Are we expecting Terror to surrender? If we quit fighting while acts of terror still occur (and let’s face it, they’re always going to be occurring, there is no other way to fight the world’s only superpower than asymmetrically), does that mean that we have given up and/or surrendered? What politician has the cojones to say that?

War itself has changed. In the olden times, two masses of men (yes, men) lined up and charged each other. Now, war can be economic. War can be cyber. War can be personalized (think of a predator drone hovering above a terrorist suspect, gathering enough information to provide a convincing case that he is indeed a terrorist, and then sending a missile to destroy only his house). Now, instead of making sure that we have the best ships, tanks, and planes, billions of dollars are invested in these traditionally non military activities.

We also now have the concept of Counter Insurgency (COIN). This is basically a newer version of winning the hearts and minds. If we can figure out how to improve the standard of living of people that could nominally becomes our enemies, than maybe they will be less likely to become our enemies. Maybe they can even become a bulwark against those that truly are our enemies. So, in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, more billions of dollars are spent building schools, hospitals, wells and the like, all done by the, you guessed it, military.

The final nail in the coffin is that budgets really are, to a certain extent, a zero sum game. It’s not completely true, but generally it’s true that every dollar that goes to defense means that someone else is losing a dollar.

The implication to this is that even if a function falls outside of the military normal duties, it devolves to the military because the normal department doesn’t have the money to do it any longer. The military has the budget and the manpower, so it, reluctantly, takes it on. For example, in some countries, it’s the military that runs a local radio station. From a COIN point of view, it’s a good tactic to have a medium to communicate locally. Historically, it’s the State Department that would perform this, but it has become so financially emasculated that the defense has picked up the function. Neither State nor Defense particularly like this, but it needs to be done and only the Defense Department has the capability to perform it.

What’s wrong with all of this, anyway? Well, the military is basically a hammer and to it, every problem looks like a nail. I’m not in any way knocking the troops (I support the troops! Thank you for your service!), but there are problems in the world that aren’t necessarily best solved by a strictly hierarchical, rigidly disciplined, gun toting group of men (OK, eighty-five percent men).

By constant war, scope creep, pouring funds to it while depriving others, the military has become the dominant government power in the United States. The impact that this has on a traditional Western democracy is something that should be and needs to be looked on with deep suspicion.

So, after all of this blather, why two stars? Well, there are five parts to this book. What I just described takes place in the first two. The author is a lawyer, and in the latter parts of the book, this shows. She goes on, at length, on the subject of the history of war and attempts made to wrap around it a legal framework. It was kind of interesting, but to me, not really all that germane to the urgent topic at hand. I felt that entire sections of the book were filler. It could have made a more powerful, cogent argument in half the length. Also, there was a bit of a travelogue element to it (Look, I went to Iraq! Look, I went to Afghanistan! Look, I went to Guantanamo!) that, again, detracted from the main argument.

The Only Thing Wrong With Black People Is…

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Title: Stamped From The Beginning

Rating: 5 Stars

When men oppress their fellowmen, the oppressor ever finds, in the character of the oppressed, a full justification for his oppression.

That line is from Frederick Douglass. That one sentence manages to sum up the history of racism.

Before I go any further, I should say that this book hit me like a sledgehammer. I read a lot of history and since I lean in a progressive direction, I do read a lot of history that exposes other sides to history to that which is conventionally mainstream. However, the point of view that Kendi took shook all of my foundations. The closest that I can come to how I felt reading it was when I first read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States over twenty years ago. Clearly, I’d never read a history written from the standpoint of such an ardent anti-racist. It has changed (hopefully permanently) the way that I think and feel about our world.

Stamped From The Beginning is an encyclopedic treatment of  racism in America. In fact, it goes even further back and talks about the slave trade of Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal during the 15th century (the first slaves from Africa were brought to Europe in 1444).

The primary emphasis is on the United States. The primary thesis of this work is that the history of racism can be broken up into three camps: racist, assimilationist, and anti-racist.

The racist line is probably pretty obvious. At a basic level, racists believe that blacks are fundamentally unequal to whites and our culture reflects that, as it should.

The assimilationists believe that whites and blacks are equal, but that the blacks are lagging behind. This could because of the legacy of slavery, the legacy of Jim Crow, some fundamental problem with the black family, and/or other similar ‘cultural’ reasons. If the black people just worked a little harder or behaved just a little better, than some wonderful day in the future, all inequalities will fade away.

The anti-racists reject all of this. There is no difference, at a human level, between whites and blacks. If black people suffer from a higher rate of poverty, a higher rate of incarceration, or similar such ills, then it must be that there is something systemic in place that is actively defeating them. Equality at a social level can never be achieved without knocking down all of the barriers that hold people back.

Kendi breaks the history up into five sections, with each section centered around a significant figure of that period. The five figures that he chose were:

Cotton Mather: A key religious figure of the Puritans, he grappled with the notion of slavery and humanity. Ultimately, he decided / taught that slaves do have souls, but they are degraded and it is the white man’s responsibility to raise them up and teach them Christianity.

Thomas Jefferson: A key figure of the Enlightenment, he understood the basic immorality of slavery but could never divorce himself from the economics of it, and like men of that age, he bemoaned the curse of miscegenation but also partook of it.  The only slaves that he freed in his lifetime were the ones that he fathered with Sally Hemings. At his death, some 130 slaves from Monticello were sold to pay off his debts.

William Lloyd Garrison: The man that essentially started the white abolitionist movement. He labored at it for over 30 years. He lived to see the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves. Thinking that his mission was accomplished, he shut down his organization. In hindsight, perhaps a tad premature…

W.E.B. Du Bois: One of the great intellectuals of his time. In his very long life (he lived and was still active into his mid 90s), you can chart the progression of his views. In the early 1900s, you can see him start off as an assimilationist, advocating for the gradual advancement of blacks and bemoaning the segments of the black community that makes the Talented Tenth look bad. By the end of his life, he has become a full anti-racist.

Angela Davis: She was an anti-racist from the start and has been unequivocal in her fight to recognize the equal rights of blacks. During her era, the rights of the LGBTQ community has blended in to create truly a civil rights philosophy for all.

The book closes with a epilogue that is a stirring call to action. It is time for all of us to throw off all of the excuses of the racists and the assimilationists. The answer is not for black people to work harder. The answer is not to educate white people on why racism is bad. The answer is not for black people to act white.

The answer is to take action to explicitly put into place anti-racist policies at every level.

To quote from the final paragraph in the epilogue:

There will come a time when Americans will realize that the only thing wrong with Black people is that they think something is wrong with Black people.

 

A Failed Exercise Book

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Title: The Trespasser

Rating: 5 Stars

In case you haven’t noticed, you can group the books that I read into a couple of categories. I read ‘serious’ literature, whatever that means. I read classic fiction. I read non-fiction / history. And I read genre action/mystery/thriller.

Which one is not like the others?

There actually is a reason for this. I exercise most days of the week. I usually try to play racquetball twice a week. I do weights twice a week. I try to do some other form of aerobic activity twice a week.

The non-racquetball aerobic activity that I used to do was primarily running on a treadmill. However, over the last year or so, I’ve been fighting off plantar fasciitis in both feet, which makes running for any sustained period of time painful. Therefore, I’m now riding a recumbent bike.

I personally find riding a recumbent bike mind-numbingly boring. To mitigate that, I read while riding. I tried reading other types of books, but since I ride pretty hard and I only ride once, at most twice, a week, I found that I was getting lost and distracted pretty easily and losing the thread of the work.

Genre fiction is actually nice for this. They usually follow a pretty linear plot. The characters are usually well defined and manageable in number. For most action/mystery/thriller, I can read for 35 to 40 minutes once or twice a week without losing track of where I am.

Note that I’m not knocking genre fiction. I think it’s great and a perfectly respectable form of literature. It’s just that its form lends itself to my exercise.

Every now and then, an author fails me. I’ll start reading a novel while riding the bike for a couple of sessions, but ultimately the work just draws me in and I can’t help myself. I can’t wait until my next ride to read. I have to sit down and finish it.

Tana French always does this to me. Usually before I’m even halfway through it, I am staying up late at night or burning a couple of hours on the weekend to finish it.

She failed me yet again with The Trespasser. I don’t think I even got halfway through it before I gave up and sat down to finish it.

Her plots are interesting but I really think it’s the characters that draw me in. All of her novels are set in the Murder Squad in Dublin. Her novels (she’s on number six now) are at best loosely connected but can be read independently. Each novel is a first person narrative told from a different person’s perspective.

This time its Antoinette Conway’s turn. She’s a relatively young but hard and brittle detective. She thinks the squad is against her and she is absolutely determined not to let them get the upper hand. Her partner, Steve Moran, is a people pleaser that wants to get along with everyone, but Antoinette feels that her bad karma will also inevitably bring him down as well.

They’re assigned what appears to be a simple domestic murder, but as they investigate it, it seems to be escalating into something much larger. The big question is, are the detectives themselves making it larger because they are sick of getting assigned the boring, easy murder cases, or is there something else at work? And, if so, what is it? Who can they trust? Can they trust each other?

The whole troubled lead brilliant detective is obviously a trope. French’s characters are so deeply drawn that she rises above it. Yes, Conway clearly has some emotional problems, but these problems are somehow integrated into her larger character so that you’re not just rolling your eyes at the poor tortured-soul detective.

The interplay between the detectives and the suspects are richly drawn. She spends time on each character so that, even though at some times they are used just to advance the plot, you find yourself interested and caring for them.

The ending is spot on. I personally find the ending of most novels to be problematic, regardless of genre. The ending of many mysteries have a tendency to peter out because once the case is solved, usually there is some wrap-up / closure that takes place that kills the excitement of the solve. Here she ends it perfectly. I’ve found myself re-reading the last several pages several times just for the sheer enjoyment of a well executed novel.

In short, I think that all of Tana French’s novels, but especially The Trespasser, are absolutely brilliant examples of mystery fiction. She could very well be the best mystery writer active today.