Thank God for the Reflexive Contrarians

“I thank G-d for the annoying obstructionists, for the nitpickers, for the devil’s advocates, for the people who hear something that’s obviously true and strain to come up with an absurd thought experiment where it might not be, for the reflexive contrarians, for the people who always vote third party, for the people who urge you to sign petitions on whitehouse.gov because “then the President has to respond”, for the people who have two hundred guns in their basement “just in case”, for the people who say “well, actually…” all the time, for the mayors of sanctuary cities and the clerks who refuse to perform gay weddings, for the people who think being banned on Twitter is a violation of their human rights, and for the people who swear eternal hostility to other people on the same side who agree with them on 99% of everything. On the spectrum from “totally ungovernable” to “vulnerable to Nazism”, I think that we’ve erred in the right direction.”

—Scott Alexander, “Book Review: Eichmann In Jerusalem” on Slate Star Codex

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The Lesser Bohemians: A Steamy, Intense Read

The Lesser BohemiansThe Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Combine A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Trainspotting, and The Clan of the Cave Bear, and you have The Lesser Bohemians. The sex is so steamy I felt totally weird reading it on the bus. The narrator’s voice and mind is transcribed in a lyrically compelling stream-of-consciousness. This is like a teenage girl’s gothic wet dream, written for intelligent adults. There’s intensity and brilliance here, though at times all the hot and heavy got a bit much for this staid reader. Regardless, McBride’s sentences are refreshing to read in their innovative and passionate broguish breathiness, surprisingly fluid, and a welcome respite from formulaic trends.

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The Real Evil in the New Star Wars

Just saw the new Star Wars film, an entirely enjoyable nostalgic pastiche, but which—just as its original predecessors—relies heavily on convenient plot devices and breezily drawn characters.

Finn could have been a genuinely interesting character, if there had been even just the smallest hint at the psychological tensions that might be involved in turning against everything that you’ve been raised to become. But alas, no, J.J. Abrams elected to stick with the sure seller of the plot and settings that made the original Star Wars franchise enduring, and Finn ends up a simple pawn in the headlong drive of the plot.

Yet despite the shallowness of the characters (again, an utterly enjoyable shallowness, worth savoring in 3D IMAX), I thought there was an element of “realness” imbued to the young villain, Kylo Ren, that touches on an interesting, if disturbing, zeitgeist not present in past Star Wars.

The actor they chose to play Kylo, Adam Driver, is well-casted. When he removes his helmet, there is a feeling of revelation. He is pale, his locks flowing, his face slightly askew. He is alienated from his father, and instead worships and seeks to emulate Darth Vader. When things don’t go his way, he explodes into fits of rage, destroying everything around him.

Something about Kylo evokes the image of the American teenage male mass shooter. And in this sense, his character is the most striking of the movie—all of the other characters are completely unattached to any real basis in our modern, mundane world.

Not sure if this was an intentional association that Abrams wanted to make, but it made Kylo much more frightening than any of the “dark force” maneuvers he wielded.

My Review of Hunger Games

I wrote this review on The Hunger Games on Goodreads back in April, 2012, and just happened to be scanning through my reviews recently—thought it was worth sharing.

When my wife first read The Hunger Games a while back, I read the first paragraph over her shoulder and couldn’t resist making fun of it. That term, “the reaping,” smacked of cheap sci-fi melodrama. Later, after The Hunger Games blew up and everyone was hysterical over the movie, I tried reading the book again, but again couldn’t get past a few pages. The sentences were too short, lifeless, devoid of meaning.

When I discussed this with my wife, she advocated for the “truncated” sentences as having more power due to the circumstances of the character in the story. This idea of the power of truncated sentences made me think immediately of Hemingway. And that’s when I found out that she had never read Hemingway!

So I made her a deal. I would read this pop culture phenomenon of a book if she would read A Farewell to Arms*.

I finished reading the first book of The Hunger Games this morning, and I admit to enjoying it much more than I thought I would, given my initial reaction. Sticking militantly to her short sentences, the author creates a fantasy world of warfare, romance, and survival that reads like an updated, media-driven cross between “The Most Dangerous Game” and The Lord of the Flies. The fact that Collins’ sentences are short and slick ends up contributing to the overall theme of all actions and words being tuned to the everpresent eye of the camera and an audience hungry for cheap action and thrills. The story is thus imbued with some sense of self-awareness and deeper critique of human society, though I do wonder whether the book thus ends up falling under it’s own subversive critique.

In other words, it may be just a little too action driven and slick for its own good. I understand that it is a book marketed, ostensibly, for teen girls, and I also get that the entire realm of deeper thought and critique of society is left up to the reader to develop. And I do appreciate that the main character is a girl who is strong and who resonates with values of the working class and the poor. But I wonder about the shallow world, lacking any sense of real history, that Collins has created, and about the true powerlessness that her characters have if that world is taken as one of reality. There is no hope in such a world, no matter the outcome. Such worlds can indeed be effective settings for deeper explorations of humanity, such as Cormac McCarthy weaves in The Road and Blood Meridian.

I question whether the depth of feeling we are ultimately made to feel for Katniss, Peeta, and Rue is fully earned, and furthermore, the critique that then comes as a result of that questioning must be confined to pointless comparisons of our own society. I say pointless, because beyond some obvious parallels to the patrician society of Rome, there’s nothing enough to add up as a substantial critique, beyond our own infatuation with sensationalist media and our own ease in being led towards projecting emotion for characters that stand unmoored from any history or depth of context and relationships.

It either speaks to the power of the author that this is indeed her very point, or it speaks to our credulousness as consumers. I guess I’ll just have to let you be the ultimate judge on that point.

At the end of the day, the most we can say, perhaps, is that we enjoyed the experience.

*My wife, by the way, never has yet been able to finish a Hemingway book. I also tried to get her to read A Sun Also Rises, but to no avail. You win some, you lose some . . .

The Federalist Papers: A Review and an Introduction

In December, I began reading The Federalist Papers. I read them because in the course of researching and designing a unit of curriculum for my 7th-8th grade students, on what I ended up calling “The Art of Persuasion,” I had traced the history of formal rhetoric and debate and its relation to governance, coming up from Athens, the Sophists, Aristotle’s ethos, pathos, and logos; to the pamphleteers debating religious, moral, and political issues during the 1500s to 1800s, such as Voltaire, Swift, and Martin Luther; finally arriving at revolutionary America, with Thomas Paine’s influential Common Sense, and the debates leading to the ratification of the US constitution, with The Federalist Papers cited as seminal to that process. Understanding this arc of rhetoric and persuasion and how it relates to democracy enabled me to better appreciate our current forms of pamphleteering: blogs. It also made me want to read more of these seminal documents firsthand. The Federalist Papers seemed like a good place to start, given their place in our nation’s history.

I picked away at them from December through March, reading them on the bus to and from work on my ereader. I found Jay’s and Madison’s commentary to be the most insightful, perhaps due to the clarity of their thought and language. Hamilton, on the other hand, I often found unnecessarily wordy and tedious. This is unfortunate, because he is the one who wrote the majority of the papers! This isn’t to say that he doesn’t provide insight, but his dense language and tendency to be a bit scrappier than the others makes it difficult.

Their language in general is interesting–I noticed in particular the recurrent overuse of the word “impracticable,” for instance. There were many other words they use that we don’t use much today. (I recommend using Vocabulary.com to practice such words, by the way; many of the words on that site came up in these papers!) It’s interesting to consider just how dense and formal their language was, and that this was the sort of language commonly employed in public discourse. Sure makes literate Americans of today seem rather uneducated in comparison.

Overall, I found them amazingly relevant to the debates that we continue to have today in the US, and the political science behind their arguments enlightening. I think every American should read these papers in order to better understand the reasoning behind the constitution that operates our system of governance.

It was also refreshing to consider and witness that something that we take so much for granted had been something so incredibly divisive at the time. It made me better appreciate the benefits of our system and the foresight of the founding fathers, as well as to be positioned to make more informed critiques of their decisions and the Constitution, as I can better understand why they made some of those choices and the context they were made within. For many Americans today, the US Constitution is something either inviolate or taken for granted. This is why I feel like every American should read them–it allows us to understand the Constitution as part of a living history that we can continue to partake in through our dialogue and debates of today.

In light of this, I marked a number of passages that I found particularly interesting that I’d like to begin exploring in a series of short blog posts here. I won’t guarantee that I will work through all of them, as I have some other projects ongoing this summer, but I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, so I hope I can. Thanks for reading.

Book Review: Sometimes We Walk Alone

Sometimes We Walk AloneSometimes We Walk Alone by Ankur Shah

A delightful travelogue that carries the reader on a journey through the self, in search of the heart of love. Ankur Shah’s notes on his journey through Gujarat, following in the footsteps of Gandhi, are spiritual, simultaneously brooding and ecstatic. He peppers his narrative of events with introspection on modern existence and its travails, but never loses his focus on the very real and tangible beauty of the everyday, the glory of the hospitality of strangers, the wonder and joy of food bestowed by friends never before known until that moment, and the everpresent internal struggle between ego and non-violence. This is a tale that can thrill pilgrims of any stripe. And most importantly–introduce the uninitiated to the teachings of Gandhi.

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Thoughts on ‘The Shame of the Nation’

The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in AmericaThe Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America by Jonathan Kozol

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While I don’t agree necessarily with some of Kozol’s perspectives on education, such as his obvious horror of standardized testing and other accountability measures, I do think that his ultimate unveiling of the United States educational system as one based on apartheid as devastatingly accurate. Any educational reform, whether a Race For The Top or a No Child Left Behind—anything, essentially, short of equitable integration—will continually fail to bridge the “achievement gap.” There will be only those children already poised to succeed academically by the nature of their parent or community resources, and those children largely destined to fail academically by the nature of their family or community poverty. And it must be clarified explicitly that those children destined (statistically speaking) for academic failure are predominately black or Latino. There is a prevalent perspective based on fundamental racism in our country—all the more insidious because it is rarely voiced outright—that black or brown or just simply poor people will never really amount to anything because they just aren’t smart enough. And should thus be kept out of schools with gifted white children destined for true achievement. This racist perspective is not only insidious due to its covert nature, but furthermore because it is an often subconscious distillation of policies, lifestyles, and the nature of our current economy. The form in which it is considered does not appear immediately racist when it does come into public discussion. In this form, it arrives as something unfortunate, something so deeply ingrained that it cannot even be challenged. As an example, think of the middle class white parent who wants to get their child into a “good” school. They may move in order to be within the zone that will most likely get their child placed there. They may buy their child special instruction in order to meet the testing and interview requirements for the school. They may borrow money or dip into savings in order to pay the large tuition. And the school we may be discussing might only be pre-school. This competitiveness, in which parents positioned with resources may most easily navigate and triumph, seems at first sight to be based somewhat fairly on our democratic and capitalistic notion of merit. There does not seem to be any overt racism there. Who would deny a caring and savvy parent their right in garnering the best possible opportunities for their children? But upon further examination, it becomes evident that the only children who get into these “good” schools come from families or communities with resources. Meaning, in effect, the white children of the middle or upper class. As Kozol painstakingly reveals, the reality of this results in an educational system more deeply segregated than in the years immediately following the Brown vs. Board of Ed supreme court decision. And all of the reforms that have been enacted since that time address only achievement, not equity nor integration. The failure of such educational reforms can be examined, as Kozol does somewhat here, historically, or simply by looking at some recent news. New York has come under criticism due to the revelation that its standardized test scores have been inflated over the last few years. Scores from this last year were then accordingly scaled down, revealing that barely half of NY city students are considered even “proficient” in math (already a pretty low standard to achieve), and well less than half are capable of reading at grade level. This sobering news may for a moment make some would-be reformers want to throw up their hands. It also reinforces the quiet racism that lurks at the back of people’s minds, such that they think “Why should we even bother trying to raise the achievement of these children? Why waste the money?” But the problem is not the reform movement per se. There are achievements that have been made in instructional delivery and research-based assessment that I don’t think should be played down. The effort to improve achievement in the face of entrenched poverty and ingrained racism and ghettoized city policy has been noble. But nothing–as Kozol so despairingly portrays in his book–will vastly improve until children of all races and classes are given equal opportunities to learn in the same schools.

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