Sunday, November 19, 2017

A Mile of Make-Believe: A History of the Eaton's Santa Claus Parade



I was hoping that A Mile of Make-Believe: A History of the Eaton's Santa Claus Parade by Steve Penfold would interest me more than it did. Its premise--a book about Christmas with local content--could hardly fail. When I got back from Tristan da Cunha and looked through my library to decide what to read next, I couldn't resist this book, since the Toronto Santa Claus Parade was coming up in three weeks. I'd read it in time for the parade. Yet this history either sped along (I surprised myself how many pages I could get through in such a brief time) or it was a dull plod. The text was swamped with endless endnotes that I soon learned to read at the end of each chapter instead of flipping to the back after encountering each superscript. Rarely did any endnote provide me with further insight or detail. In spite of the speedy page-turning interludes I was never inspired to read this book other than during meal breaks at work or while riding public transit. 

That said, I will rave about what I did like about this book. Black-and-white photos chronicling Eaton's parade history filled its pages, and I when I saw the black square of a photo bleeding through the page I was currently reading, I couldn't wait to finish the page to turn it over and see the snapshot from parade history. And the history was what drove the book. Even a prelude analyzing parade culture in general kept my attention. I could not, however, grasp the cutesy terminology of "the corporate fantastic" and "the civic fantastic" which overexplained each dynamic which kept the various Eaton's Santa Claus Parades alive. The business side to the parades frequently went off-topic and I found the overuse of the terms' "fantastic" in the text to be annoying. Perhaps Penfold was trying to conjure up a sense of whimsy and fun by transferring "the fantastic" to the corporate and civic sides of the parade, but it seemed affected.

I did enjoy Penfold's vast research which involved combing through Toronto archives, Eaton's archives and years and years of newspapers. Every year Eaton's fielded complaints from parade viewers disappointed by the lack of religious imagery. Shouldn't a Christmas parade have at least one religious float? What people didn't realize is that Eaton's didn't start off with a religious parade and gradually drop religious imagery over the years; the parade never had it in the first place. The function of the parade since its beginning in 1905 was to draw public attention to Santa and his trip from the North Pole to Eaton's toy department. It was a commercial endeavour since day one. Nevertheless, Eaton's was prepared for those seeking a more spiritual function: 

"Eaton's planners appear to have dealt with these tensions by avoiding them. In every city and across the decades, the parades were consistently non-religious, apparently by design. In Toronto, [parade producer] Jack Brockie remained steadfastly opposed to addressing the religious basis of the holiday in the parade, despite intermittent public pressure and the company's well-known reverence for its founder's Victorian Methodism. In a typical letter, Mrs William Kingley wrote that the spectacle was wonderful but might recognize 'the true meaning of Christmas' by featuring a float of 'the babe in the manger, the shepherds, and the star.' Eaton's officials always answered such letters politely, but normally pointed correspondents to the company's Nativity Window on Yonge Street. On rare occasions, biblical symbols appeared in the parades, but they were normally recast to highlight colour, character, and even comedy. In 1920, a monkey sat on Noah's Ark 'contentedly smoking a pipe,' while four decades later a float of the same biblical story presented 'a fully stocked menagerie' with Noah in a blue sailor suit being towed by 'two frisky blue whales.' Neither was likely to please a devout Christian."

Decades of the parade changed the way the public reacted to the onset of Christmas. For some, it gave them permission to start planning and decorating. No one could accuse them of starting too early if the parade had already come and gone:

"Finally, Santa in public requires an understanding of the contested and complicated definitions of the Christmas season itself. Almost everyone agreed that 25 December was Christmas Day, but no one seemed sure when the more nebulous Christmas season should begin. The absence of any clear calendrical or official definition, in the end, allowed the Santa Claus parade to define the beginning of the season. By appearing in public space, then, the Eaton's Santa helped to shape public time."

Eaton's took its parade on the road and for decades Winnipeg, Montreal, Calgary and Edmonton hosted their own version of the Eaton's parade. Some, like Montreal, even used the Toronto floats. With the advent of television broadcasting in 1952, the parade took on a new focus of corporate branding. With cameras beaming the parade from coast to coast, it was a chance for Eaton's to run an hour-long commercial at the same time. The television era brought the company name to the fore, with floats branded by the Eaton's logo and parade theme names changed:

"Overall themes eventually included the company's name, so that typical 1950s 'Parade of Merry Times' (1957) or 'Santa's Carousel of Color' (1960) gave way to 'At Eaton's Christmas Comes to Life' and 'Let Eaton's Share a Special Moment with You' (1973 and 1974)."

Although professional hosts and news anchors hosted the parade for television, nonetheless, scripts were prepared in advance. It would have been unappealing to the audience--mainly children--for the hosts to reel off a series of statistics about the length of each float or the number of sequins used in princesses' gowns. Thus the writers created the parade scripts with a sense of wide-eyed whimsy so that they could be read straight off the page for their intended childhood audience. The hosts therefore did not have to reinterpret boring statistics into a wondrous story on live television. In addition to these descriptions the writers sprinkled the scripts liberally with Eaton's references. I am glad that Penfold had access to parade producer Jack Brockie's post-mortem parade reviews of the broadcast wherein he "...often complained that commentators didn't follow the script, and (perhaps most disturbingly) forgot to mention Eaton's." 

I attended the final Eaton's Santa Claus Parade, the 77th, on November 1, 1981. I recall that no one I spoke to liked the early parade date, the earliest in the parade's history. I even remember seeing children whose faces still had traces of make-up whiskers and dark noses from their previous night's Halloween costumes. The following year was the first Metro Santa Claus Parade, after Eaton's shocked the nation that August by announcing it was cancelling the 1982 parade as a cost-saving measure. Penfold shared the reasons for the Eaton's parade pullout and the efforts by corporate and civic officials to keep the parade alive. He also had the perspective of economic history to analyze the decline of department store culture in general and how the mismanagement of Eaton's led to its bankruptcy in 1999. I attended this first ever Metro Santa Claus Parade on November 14 at its start on Christie Street. Thankfully the parade has continued every year since Eaton's pulled out, and the successive numbering has reverted to its start in 1905. Thus the parade this year on Sunday, November 19 will be the official 113th annual. 

For a superior visual history of the parade, I recommend the Global Television Production from 2004 "100 Years of the Santa Claus Parade". I watch it every year. Penfold provided a valuable history of the parade if you can withstand the lengthy sociological and economic tangents which detract from the story. The author proved his point about Eaton's in that:

"Eaton's did not invent the Santa Claus parade--there were a few scattered versions in other North American cities before 1905--but it was an important player in their redefinition into a sophisticated form of commercial art and popular culture."

Find this book in the Mississauga Library System's on-line catalogue

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women


Readers of a certain age might remember clocks and watches with glowing green dials. The dials were painted with radium, the radioactive element discovered by Marie Curie. We had clocks like this when I was growing up. I have a distinct memory of my mother saying, "The women who worked in the factories where these were made got very sick. They had to put the paintbrushes in their mouths, in order to paint the tiny numbers and dots, and they all got sick, and some died."

I never forgot that -- yet I never heard it mentioned anywhere else. Who were those women? Why were they putting a radioactive substance in their mouths? When I saw a review of The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women, I knew that someone finally had answered those questions. The story of those women was finally told.

And what a story it is.

The young, working-class women in Orange, New Jersey, and Ottawa, Illinois, who painted radium dials thought they had it made. Not only was the pay better than most of work available to women, but they got to work with radium, the exciting glow-in-the-dark substance that everyone was talking about. When one "girl" got sick and died, a doctor ruled the cause of death was syphilis (despite zero evidence and the impossibility of that claim). Another death was ruled pneumonia (also wrong). But as more and more of the workers became sick -- with horrific and inexplicable symptoms -- the pattern became obvious.

When the watch-painting first began, in the late 1920s, the danger of radioactive substances was still largely unknown. Faced with suspicions as multiple workers became sick, the company commissioned a study... then suppressed the findings.

As the women lost their teeth, suffered broken bones, lost their hair, lost pregnancies, became weak, and died, their employers worked overtime at suppressing the truth, denying responsibility, refusing to pay for medical care, and blaming the workers themselves.

If this story was fiction, the companies' actions would be barely credible; readers would say the author laid it on too thick, making the company out to be monsters. Some of the dirty dealings left me gasping. At one point, the women were all seeing the same doctor. They didn't know that the doctor worked for the company. Then it turned out he wasn't even a doctor! Officially, the women died of radium poisoning. But this book leaves no doubt: these workers were murdered.

Labour laws at the time were in their infancy: if a disease wasn't on a short list of specific conditions, workers had no legal recourse. What's more, even those few conditions were subject to a strict statute of limitations -- for which radium poisoning, by definition, would never qualify.

The media and publicity were much different, too. The two factories in two different states, with workers suffering through the same ordeals, were unknown to each other. When the New Jersey cases finally garnered national and international attention, the workers in the Illinois factory realized they were in the same situation. And when the Illinois women took the company to court, the town turned against them. With the country in the grip of the Great Depression, anyone who could supply jobs was welcome. (This itself is a sad and telling commentary about working class life.)

Sick, disabled, and dying, the women were truly on their own. But they fought back, and they didn't give up. Their fight changed the world. Labour laws changed, scientific and medical knowledge were advanced, and precedence was set for greater corporate accountability.

Fans of Hidden Figures and the less famous but equally amazing Glass Universe will want to read this book. If you enjoy hidden histories, stories of struggle and perseverance, and real-life heroes a la Erin Brockovich and Karen Silkwood, this book is for you.

My only criticism of The Radium Girls is the writing itself. It could have used another round of editing to tighten up excessive detail and delete some unprofessional colloquialisms. Whether anyone who is not a writer or editor will notice, I don't know. Any qualms I have about the language are far outweighed by the riveting story. [This review originally appeared on wmtc.]

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads


Everywhere we look, every available space is filled with advertising. The Toronto skyline is a sea corporate logos. The due-date receipt from my library book features an ad on the back. I once tracked all the ads shown during a major league baseball game -- during play, not between innings -- and the results were startling, even to me. And, of course, our entire experience on the internet -- especially on our personal mobile devices -- is tracked and used by corporations with only our dimmest awareness and nominal consent.

It wasn't always like this. How did we arrive at this current state? The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu answers this question. The answer is fascinating and entertaining, and -- if you dislike the constant and ever-increasing commodification of our lives, as I do -- more than a little frustrating.

In the first part of the book, Wu presents a capsule history of the "attention capture industry" -- what this review in The New York Times adeptly calls "the slow, steady annexation and exploitation of our consciousness". This begins with the first ads to appear in a daily newspaper, moves through snake-oil salesmen, to the first people to recognize the power of radio to sell products, through sponsored television shows, to ads during shows -- which was shocking and provoked outcry in its day! This section is truly fascinating. Wu is a master at finding sparkling details that make the story come alive. For example, I learned that snake oil, now a generic term for worthless products touted as cures for all ills, takes its name from a product that actually involved snakes. The Attention Merchants is packed with these kinds of tasty nuggets of information.

In the history of attention capture, Wu also includes government propaganda. He looks at how, during the first World War, the British government, joined later by its American counterpart, used mass-media lies to entice young men to all but certain death in the trenches. This segment also analyzes the first modern total information campaign, and the first to harness electronic media for large-scale propaganda, that of one Adolph Hitler. We've all seen footage of the giant Nazi rallies with huge fascist insignias, but I didn't fully realize that Hitler, along with Third Reich propaganda master Joseph Goebbels, was the first to study and analyze attention capture, and to use it on a grand scale.

Another interesting segment is devoted to what Wu calls "The Celebrity-Industrial Complex". For someone like me who doesn't share the mainstream obsession with celebrity -- I don't understand it, even a little -- this was both fascinating and affirming. Wu offers an interesting analysis of Oprah Winfrey's attention methods, which he sees as groundbreaking in a not altogether positive way.

The part of The Attention Merchants that has been the focus of most reviews and interviews is about the price we pay for supposedly free services on the internet. Most of us have heard the phrase, "when a service is free, we're not customers, we're the product" or variations thereof. (Various people have made this public statement at various times, dating back to Richard Serra in 1973.) Wu dissects exactly what that means -- for the tremendous potential of the internet, now tremendously debased and squandered, and for ourselves, with our fractured attention spans, short and ever shorter.

In the book's later chapters, the tone and tenor changes from dispassionate historical analysis to passionate and savaging. The rise of "free" social media, where billions of people willingly submit to having their personal habits mined, tracked, and resold for other people's profits, on a scale never before seen in human history, is not a mixed blessing in Wu's worldview. It's a flat-out evil.

By the time I finished the book, I had challenged myself to take a holiday from social media and reclaim my own attention span. Because of certain health issues, I struggle with low concentration, so perhaps the effects are exaggerated for me -- or perhaps not. I want to spend less time with little bits of information scrolling in front of my eyes. When it comes to information, I want quality over quantity.

Wu also points out a massive public pushback, as evidenced by the millions of people willing to pay a monthly fee to enjoy advertising-free viewing through Netflix, HBO, Showtime, and similar services. The cultural phenomenon known as binge-watching is evidence that we can focus our attention for lengthy periods of time, when what we're watching is good enough to warrant it.

Wu writes:
Ultimately, the problem was as old as the original proposition of seizing our attention and putting it to uses not our own. It is a scheme that has been revised and renewed with every new technology, which always gains admittance into our lives under the expectation it will improve them -- and improve them it does, until it acquires motivations of its own, which can only grow and grow. As Oxford ethicist James Williams puts it, "Your goals are things like 'spend more time with the kids,' 'learn to play the zither,' 'lose twenty pounds by summer,' 'finish my degree,' etc. Your time is scarce, and you know it. Your technologies, on the other hand, are trying to maximize goals like 'Time on Site,' 'Number of Video Views,' 'Number of Pageviews,' and so on. Hence clickbait, hence auto-playing videos, hence avalanches of notifications. Your time is scarce, and your technologies know it."
Wu references William James,
"who, having lived and died before the flowering of the attention industry, held that our life experience would ultimately amount to whatever we had paid attention to. At stake, then, is something akin to how one's life is lived. That, if nothing else, ought to compel a greater scrutiny of the countless bargains to which we routinely submit, and even more important, lead us to consider the necessity, at times, of not dealing at all.
I've added Wu's first book, The Master Switch, to my to-read list. [A version of this review appeared on wmtc.]

Find this book in the Mississauga Library System's online catalogue.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men's Prison


I have an abiding interest in prison librarianship, and try to learn about it wherever I can. At any library conference, if there is a session on prison libraries, I attend. I'm always pleased to see how popular and well attended these sessions are.

Perhaps that should not surprise. In a sense, prison libraries epitomize librarian values -- the inherent value of reading, the power of self-education, the importance of finding the right reading material, the solace and companionship that reading can offer, the democratizing and liberating power of the library. And perhaps above all, the desire to bring resources to people who are marginalized and under-served.

Whether I'll ever work as a prison librarian or volunteer in a prison library remains to be seen. Prison libraries have been decimated by austerity budgets, and few people advocate for them.

In recent years a few narrative nonfiction books about prison libraries have been published. I hope to read and review them all.

Mikita Brottman's Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men's Prison -- unlike most of the titles in her club's syllabus -- reads lightly and quickly. The reader also learns a bit about literature.

Those are the only positive things I can say about this book.

I don't usually write unfavourable reviews, in acknowledgement of how difficult it is to write a book, and in deference to varying tastes. Every book is not for every reader, and my opinion shouldn't stand in anyone else's way.

Occasionally, though, something must be said.

Brottman ran a book club in a prison in the US state of Maryland. She is not a librarian; she is a scholar and professor of literature. Perhaps this explains my frequent confusion, dismay, incredulity, and sometimes disgust at some of her choices. Librarians are all about matching readers with books. When we run book clubs, the members choose the books -- likely from a list of possible choices, but always with members' full and active participation. Brottman came into the prison with a list of titles.

And what a list it was! First Brottman tells the story of the first time she read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, as a student at Oxford University. She found it indecipherable. Completely unreadable. Only after one of her distinguished professors helped her -- and even then, after several readings -- did she understand and appreciate the book. And yet she chose Heart of Darkness for a group of men with limited reading skills, little reading experience, and no formal education -- and for their first meeting together!

Brottman never explains why she did this. I'm not sure if the reader is meant to laugh with her at her missteps and foibles? I just cringed.

After that disastrous first session, Brottman next assigns Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener. This absolutely boggles my mind. Nineteenth-century writing is difficult for many contemporary readers, including avid readers with solid literacy. Why?

The men's reactions to their reading continually confounds and frustrates Brottman. She wants to teach literature as she is accustomed, with a deep analysis of language and themes. But the men view the stories and characters in terms of their own experiences. Like many readers, they expect books to be, in a sense, about themselves -- to offer insight or reflection or lessons. To be, as I frequently hear from teen readers, "relatable". But Brottman wants to teach "the text," as literary scholars are so fond of calling it. She fights a losing battle to try to make the men talk about the book in her own purist terms, repeatedly trying to get them to stop talking about their own lives. Only slowly and partially does she adjust her teaching methods to their needs.

Brottman comes off as spectacularly tone-deaf. When the men react to her book choices with either boredom or confusion, she lectures them. She dismisses their points of view, she makes jokes that mock and offend. She makes the men read Lolita and defends the book's central relationship as a love story! The men recognize Humbert Humbert for what he is -- and she tries to talk them out of it! Did this woman come into a men's prison with so little preparation that she doesn't know the prison status of child sexual abusers? Perhaps, because she also breaks a cardinal rule of all prison volunteering: after the book club ends, she continues her relationship with some of the men on the outside.

Before I read this book, I wondered if it would include some exaggerated claims of how the book club transformed lives. Reading can be a transformative experience, but participation in a book club is not going to repair the conditions or reverse the behaviour that gave rise to the men's incarceration.

I needn't have worried. The Maximum Security Book Club is not about prison life, and it's not about incarcerated men. It's not about the relationships that form through a book club, nor the effects of reading. It's about the author -- her thoughts, her reactions, her knowledge. Although Brottman holds up her working-class upbringing like a trophy for the reader to admire, she still comes off as a privileged white saviour looking for a novel experience at someone else's expense. She's slumming.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that their book club experience turned these men off from reading for the rest of their lives. [This review was originally published on wmtc.]

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Make Trouble



Make Trouble is John Waters's commencement address to the graduating class of the Rhode Island School of Design of 2015. This is a slight book--only 71 pages--with minimal text and decorated with illustrations by Eric Hanson. I am a fan of Waters and have read and posted reviews of his books Role Models and Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America however I was not too thrilled with Make Trouble. Maybe it was because I expected more out of a graduation address. Its basic premise was that in order to become successful, you have to make trouble, or as only Waters could say it, "Go out in the world and fuck it up beautifully." Waters is never afraid to tell it like it is, and I can hear his ebullience and see his pencil-thin moustache curl into a parenthesis as he tells impressionable twenty-year-olds "And, young adults, maybe today is the day you stop blaming your parents for every problem you've ever had. Whining is never appealing in a college graduate. Yes, it's a drag you were kept locked in a cardboard box under their bed and whipped daily with a car aerial, but it's time to move on. We've all been dealt a hand. Deal with it!"
Waters recounts--briefly, of course--his past subversive successes by having made trouble. About his original film "Hairspray":

"You need to prepare sneak attacks on society. Hairspray is the only really devious movie I ever made. The musical based on it is now being performed in practically every high school in America--and nobody seems to notice it's a show with two men singing a love song to each other that also encourages white teen girls to date black guys. Pink Flamingos was preaching to the converted. But Hairspray is a Trojan horse: it snuck into Middle America and never got caught. You can do the same thing."

I have read all of Waters's books but would not recommend Make Trouble. It is far too short even for a commencement address. You can sit comfortably with it and read it--unrushed--in fifteen minutes.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Literary Wonderlands: A Journey Through The Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created


An interesting collection of make-believe worlds crafted by the minds of some of the globe's greatest writers. It is the kind of book that is filled with surprises. I read the work cover to cover but I can foresee others picking sections willy-nilly and enjoying the work that way.

Literary Wonderlands is organised into five major sections each based on a historical time period beginning with ancient myths and legends and ending with the computer age. Within each section are a range of chapters highlighting an author and one of their works (often mentioning other works by the same author that are related). The works chosen to fill this volume are ones where the author has created an imaginary world. There are famous ones like Tolkien’s Middle Earth and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe. There are also lesser known works for example Bernardo Atxaga’s Obabakoak and Vladimir Bartol’s Alamut. The chapters are short usually only a couple of pages to four pages long. Many of the chapters are illustrated and show either an image of the author or a scene from the work. It is all nicely packaged.

The value of this sort of work is in its readers advisory potential. There are many works and imagined places I had never heard of (Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright comes to mind). I also enjoyed the chapters about the works that I have read like Peake’s Gormenghast books—It is always interesting to read another person’s perspective on a book I like. In summation, I recommend picking this up because you will find something of interest in it, a path that will lead you to another great read.


Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads


The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads by Ammon Shea was written in 2010 but even at seven years old I take issue with the statement that everyone uses it. Shea should know upfront that I am a rotary-dial-loving non-cellphone-owning telephonophile, yet when I need to look up a number even I look for it on-line. I admit it would be handy to have an up-to-date phone book as I keep all of my directories downstairs in the cupboard above my fridge, yet my computer is upstairs so I always have to go up a flight to make a call when I don't already know the number. However even if I did have a current phone book, it would be murder on my eyes as the size of font has shrunk to minuscule proportions in the last few years. Phone books in my youth also had fewer columns per page and were thus much easier to read.

What I do share with Shea is a love of phone books. As a child I was genuinely excited when the new Toronto and Mississauga-area phone books arrived. I turned over the pages of the massive Toronto directory looking for unusual last names. I still remember a heckuva lot of them, like Ggoome, someone listed with the surname and initial Ee E, and the stalwart listing Q'Part Mrs, whom I actually phoned in order to enquire specifically about her last name. I cannot recall a word of that conversation from forty years ago, yet I addressed her as if her last name was French, hence que - PAR. All the Pizza Pizza franchises used to be listed alphabetically by the street they were on, and every single one of them had the same number, 967-1111. I also remember the Royal Ontario Museum controversy, or should I say, The Royal Ontario Museum controversy, as Canada's preeminent museum was listed in the white pages under T.

Why am I so interested in phone books? I love words, names, lists of words and names, and ordered lists of words and names to be particular. The phone book is a book with my name both figuratively on it as well as literally in it. I started reading The Phone Book on a train ride from Helsinki to Joensuu and finished it two days later on the flight home to Toronto. Shea covered many topics--often, too many--starting with the debate over the true inventor of the telephone. An introduction such as this could be deemed necessary as a lead-in to the main topic at hand, telephone books. But Shea often drifted off-topic, taking up pages discussing the effect of scents on his senses and how synaesthesia draws him to buy books. There was no reason to go on and on about the fetish he has for the smell of books (he denies that it's a fetish, but I am calling a spade a spade here). I got the feeling pretty soon that these tangential topics were merely page fillers for what would have been an otherwise shorter book (202 pages). 

The first phone book was not even a book. It was a list of fifty names published in 1878. In the earliest days of telephones, one didn't need to know any phone numbers, as an operator used to connect callers on a switchboard. In the early twentieth century tests were conducted on phone book layouts to ease as well as accelerate number lookups. Column width, indentation, print size and many other factors were analyzed to produce the most effective print layout. Even as early as the fourth decade of the last century did people look to the phone book for exploitative commercial reasons. Shea wrote of one midwest business that looked to use the Manhattan directory to create its own mailing list:

"Templin [directory supervisor of the New York Telephone Company in the 1930's], not a man to take kindly to such deliberate misuse of his book, flat out refused to assist, saying that he had 'no intention of aiding them in their nefarious schemes.'"

If only we had Russell Templin around today to deal with telemarketers.

The phone book can be blamed for one of the greatest election miscalls in American history. The November 3, 1948 headline in the Chicago Daily Tribune, "Dewey Defeats Truman", can blame its own telephone exit polls on the phone book for this inaccurate result:

"In 1948 the telephone was not yet as ubiquitous a household fixture as it is today; it was more an implement owned by the upper class, the members of which greatly favored Dewey. The pollsters took what they thought to be the pulse of the electorate by calling random numbers taken from telephone books across the country. Except that they weren't truly random--as soon as they chose the telephone book, they unwittingly skewed their results in favor of the people who owned telephones and who happened to be more inclined to vote for Dewey."

In addition to the white-paged residential listings of phone books, Shea provided a history of the yellow pages and explained why its pages were traditionally yellow. He compared the Manhattan pages of 1979 to those at the time of writing, thirty years later, and had many interesting observations about the state of technology and how it affects advertising. The yellow pages of Manhattan, keep in mind, so we're not talking about a small rural town, had no listings whatsoever for funeral preplanning in 1979, yet 23 listings in 2009. The yellow pages of 1979 had more than a dozen pages of ads and listings for typewriters, yet in 2009 there was "but a single store that has chosen to run an ad in the small corner of the current telephone directory that deals with typewriters. It reads, 'YES! We still repair IBM Selectric and Wheelwriter Typewriters'--with an enthusiasm that feels born of desperation."

Shea is charming when he takes the reader on a trip down memory lane as he relives his childhood through a copy of a phone book. After having found a directory that was around when he was a boy, Shea lets his fingers go walking through the list of names and he discovers people--and memories--that had been dormant for decades. He can take a different path each time he opens the book, so each trip down memory lane is a "Choose Your Own Adventure" story. He invites the reader to do the same:

"Find an old phone book from some point in your life and take a trip through its pages and your past. Skim the pages or examine them closely. You needn't read it as one reads a book--the plotline is your own, and you can experience it however you prefer."

There are organized groups that wish to ban the phone book on account of its colossal waste of paper and resources. Shea writes about these groups yet offers in defence how profitable it is for the yellow pages to remain in print. As long as it makes money for the publisher and advertisers, we will still have print yellow pages. Offering the public a choice, such as opting in if you wish to receive a phone book, or alternatively opting out if you don't, do not seem to be very effective. Shea provided statistics on municipalities that offered these choices with only minimal percentages taking the opt-out preference.

Shea is a bibliophile at heart who would be a poor second-hand bookseller, as I am afraid he would buy everything everyone brings in to try to sell him. Yet after stating how tragic it is to throw away books, he does admit to a need (however prejudiced) to dispose of books: 

"I am not entirely in favor of abstaining from throwing books away. Indeed, there are many books that I feel deserve nothing more than a quick trip to the trash heap and should very likely have never been published in the first place. Astonishing numbers of new titles are published every year--the figure is estimated at over 250,000 in the United States alone. Surely some of these titles should never have seen the light of day. And yet it still tugs at my heartstrings to see so many telephone books thrown away, often still encased in their cheap plastic wrap, obviously not just unwanted but not even judged worthy of perusal."

What Shea finds so sad is the tendency to throw away old phone books. Even the phone companies encourage this, in order to ensure that their latest editions are available. No one keeps old phone books because they are obsolete within a year, as well as being of exceptional girth. Sadly, Shea found that some libraries even disposed of their old phone book collections because of lack of use. In the end, Shea calls for the continuation of the printed phone book for a reason beyond mere childish sentimentality:

"Whenever there is a discussion, or a debate, about why it is that telephone companies continue to print the white pages, there is invariably mention of the fact that some small portion of the population does not have access to the Internet or that some people who have used the telephone book all their lives just don't understand how to make the transition from newsprint to hyperlink.
"But there will always be some portion of the population that does not keep up with the current technology, whether it is because they are Luddites by choice or because technology has simply passed them by. This in itself is not enough of a reason to insist on continuing to use the white pages.
"It should be enough that some people just prefer to have the feel of paper on their hands when they are reading something. I know I do."

I would gladly take in the latest copy of the local phone directory if the phone company knew that there were still customers who used them.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Pit Bull: the Battle Over an American Icon


If you have an opinion about pitbulls, chances are good that it's based on myth, misinformation, and even disinformation. I know a good deal about dogs, and I thought I knew a lot about pitbulls, yet I was constantly amazed and enlightened by Bronwen Dickey's Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon.

Here are some of the things you will learn if you read this book.

There is no agreement on what a pit bull is.

No one can correctly identify a dog's breed-mix based on the dog's appearance, including experts.

Many or most media stories about pitbulls are based on uncorroborated heresay and myths, and many are actually fiction.

Many dog-bite incidents reported as involving pitbulls actually involved Golden Retrievers, Dalmatians, Poodles, and other breeds.

Accurate statistics about dog bites, especially those that account for severity, do not exist.

There is nothing special about a pitbull's jaws or the strength of its bite. In fact, no test exists to measure the strength of a dog's bite, thus "facts" about a pitbull's bite being x pounds of pressure compared to other dogs' bites, are pure fiction.

Reading this book, you will consider connections between the media's portrayal of pitbulls and racism, between fear of pitbulls and fear of urban youth, the dynamics of a social phenomenon known as "moral panic", and how the moral panic over pitbulls mirrors the one about crack cocaine. And did you know that in pre-Civil War America, dogs of slaves were confiscated and put to death, as were dogs in Jewish homes in Nazi Germany?

All this might be merely interesting, or perhaps fascinating, if ignorance and moral panic didn't inform law-making. Sadly and infuriatingly, this is not the case. Thousands of dogs labeled as pitbulls that never harmed anyone or showed any signs of aggression have been killed. Thousands of people were forced to choose between their beloved dogs and homelessness, when any dog deemed a pitbull was banned from most public housing and much private housing. This is not about a dangerous dog being euthanized. This is the wholesale round-up and (attempted) eradication of dogs based on appearance only.

In one of the many insightful looks into media coverage of dog-bite stories, Dickey uncovers the total lack of credentials, expertise, and experience of the owner of a professional-looking website called dogsbite.org. She notes that on one side of the so-called debate are the Center for Disease Control, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, the National Animal Care and Control Association, the Animal Behavior Society, the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. and all but one animal welfare organization. On the other side, the owner of an attractive website with unsourced claims. But the media, in the name of "balance", will give these two sides equal weight, without questioning where dogsbite.org gets its information. The answer is: they make it up.

Dickey introduces the reader to two important, remarkable organizations: the Coalition to Unchain Dogs, now called Beyond Fences, and a Humane Society program called Pets for Life. In the past, the only thing animal control organizations could do for neglected dogs was remove them from homes -- a chilling echo of how children were removed from certain homes under the guise of protection. These two groups help people keep their animals, by offering free veterinary care, free quality dog food, and free dog-care education. Because -- go figure -- it turns out low-income families love their animals just as much as affluent families. The descriptions of dogs and people whose lives have been transformed by the dedicated people of these organizations are the most beautiful and hopeful parts of this book.

Dickey introduces the reader to many amazing people -- dedicated rescuers and trainers, as well as people who are amazing for all the wrong reasons -- amazingly ignorant, willfully ill-informed, and close-minded, determined to rid the world of one supposed breed based on a refusal to acknowledge facts.

Dickey's book is a tour de force of research and synthesis. It's not so much a book about dogs, as a book of history, sociology, science, and information studies where dogs are the organizing principle. I wish that everyone who has an opinion about pitbulls was required to read this book. (This review was originally published on wmtc.)



Saturday, June 10, 2017

Words on the Move: Why English Won't - and Can't - Sit Still (Like, Literally)


John McWhorter is changing my mind about language. And that is no easy thing to do.

I'm a grammarphile. Word nerd, language junkie, spelling nut, stickler -- whatever you want to call it. I appreciate proper spelling and good grammar, and I cringe at all the bad grammar all around us. Apostrophe abuse drives me insane. Same for unnecessary quotation marks. Misspelled words on websites, signs, flyers, and official documents... don't get me started.

Yet I also part ways with some of my fellow grammar-lovers. I believe grammar is important for writing, but not necessarily for speech -- and certainly not for casual speech. I hate seeing knowledge of grammar used to shame or exclude, or worse, as an excuse to not listen.

Even further, I believe it's perfectly all right to relax certain writing rules for casual writing. It's not necessary, in my view, to use awkward phrasing in order to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition in a casual email. It's all right to use sentence fragments, or to start a sentence with but. I don't think the English language is being killed off by texting; in fact, I know it's not. And most importantly, I don't think I'm better or smarter than anyone else because I use apostrophes correctly and they don't. But those unnecessary apostrophes still drive me insane!

So perhaps I was pre-disposed to enjoy John Whorter's enlightening and entertaining book, Words on the Move: Why English Won't -- and Can't -- Sit Still (Like Literally). But I do think that anyone who enjoys thinking about language would like this book.

McWhorter's most important message is in the title: language is never still. The meanings of words always change. Meanings have always changed, they are changing now, and they will continue to change in the future.
It isn't that a certain curiosity cabinet of a few dozen words happened to have different meanings hundreds of years ago. Just about all words in any language have different meanings now than they did in the past. Some words' meanings hold on longer than others. Some few even hold on to the same meaning for thousands of years. However, it is they...that are the oddities.
The book presents some illustrations of every day objects such as bread, fruit, meat, and fuel, and the words that have been used to convey those meanings over centuries. Then, the author writes,
Picture this process happening across tens of thousands of words all the time. That is the essence of what words are, and why the dictionary can qualify only as a snapshot of how the film was situated on the grid at one particular point in time.
McWhorter, a professor of English and comparative literature, says this throughout the book, in many different, entertaining ways. One of his strengths is creating lovely little analogies to illustrate his meaning. He's also very adept at shooting holes in the corrections most beloved by correcters, by showing us how inconsistent we all are.

If there's an expression that drives you crazy because it's usually used "wrong," chances are, it meant your particular version of "correct" only for a period of time in between its other meanings and uses. Most likely, the meaning has changed and you need to update your personal lexicon. Whatever your favourite bugaboo -- decimate, irregardless, sink down, used to, literally -- McWhorter has a slew of examples to prove that your objections are inconsistent at best, and might even be ridiculous. Those of us who hate the overuse of literally to mean its opposite may be surprised at how many words now mean their opposite that we never bother to complain about -- because those words changed in a different time and bothered different people. And it's not just English. It's all languages, all the time. Change, change, change.

Some of McWhorter's ideas are controversial. He explains speech tics such as "like" and "you know," and why we shouldn't care about them. He maintains that slang, including shorthands we use online and in text messages, are as old as language itself, and don't hurt the language. He counsels us to embrace "the euphemism treadmill" -- from Colored to Negro to Black to African American -- and explains why cultures make these shifts.

Perhaps most controversially, McWhorter argues that Shakespeare should be cautiously and judiciously translated, to make the plays more accessible to contemporary audiences.

If you love Shakespeare as I do, let me elaborate before your blood pressure elevates. About 10 percent of the words Shakespeare used now mean something completely different than they did when he wrote them. If we read Shakespeare, we can use footnotes, but when we watch a play or film adaptation -- and the words were meant to be performed, after all -- we can often follow the action through context and prior knowledge, and we might get the gist of the language, but we miss a good deal of the meaning. We miss more than we think, something the author illustrates very well. McWhorter believes that Shakespearean scholars should tweak the language for greater understanding.
Yes, I have been one of those people, and have experienced resistance (and even dribbles of vitriol) in response. However, most of this resistance has been based on the idea that the difference between our language and Shakespeare's is only one of poetry, density, or elevation.

The reason Shakespeare's prose sounds so "poetic" is partly because it is. But it is also partly for the more mundane reasons that his language is not, to a larger extent than we might prefer to know, inaccessible to us without careful study on the page.

Many assume that the translation I refer to would have to be into slang. I suspect this is because it can be hard to perceive that the very meanings of even the most mundane of words have often changed so much -- if one thinks the difficulty of the language is merely a matter of "poetry," then it's easy to think that no translation in neutral current English could be at issue, and hence the notion of "Yo, whaddup, Calpurnia?" as a serious literary suggestion.
He gives a few elegant examples, which are "hardly a desecration" -- the language is still "challenging and even beautiful, especially since most of it is the original." I must agree. He explains that he's not suggesting the original plays be withdrawn and never read.
However a world where the usual experience of a Shakespeare play outside universities was in today's English would be one where, quite simply, more people were capable of truly understanding and enjoying the Bard's work rather than genuflecting to it. Seeing Shakespeare shouldn't be like eating your vegetables -- even tasty vegetables. Nor is it much more inspiring for us to treat Shakespeare as a kind of verbal wallpaper or scent that we sit back and allow to "wash over" us. . . . Shakespeare translated into today's English wouldn't be exactly Shakespeare, no. But given a choice between Shakespeare as an elite taste and Shakespeare engaged the way Russians engage Chekhov and Americans engage Scorsese films and "Arrested Development", some may judge Shakespeare that isn't always exactly what Shakespeare wrote as less than a tragedy.
Like the novel, theatre, and baseball, language is something people often claim is dying or already dead. But if no one ever writes or reads another novel, and the great game of baseball is never played again, we will still have language -- because we are human. And language will still be changing, because that's what it does. (This was originally published on wmtc.)


The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and the Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom


The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and the Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom is another lengthy title by Blaine Harden. He in fact tells two stories, which are only remotely connected. Over 240 pages Harden gives a brief history of the establishment of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and its founding father, the Great Leader and Hero of the Revolution, the Father of the Korean People, Marshall Kim Il Sung. The second story is that of MiG pilot No Kum Sok and his defection to the South. Harden tries to link the two starting with a wholly unbelievable encounter No is alleged to have had with the Great Leader. In a reminiscence that reads more like a rose-coloured coulda-shoulda than a piece of credible history, No claims to have have the chance to murder Kim Il Sung at point-blank range, and has regretted not doing so ever since. I had a problem with Harden's earlier book, Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West because it lacked credibility. In that book as in this one, Harden comes off as exceptionally gullible, accepting whatever his North Korean subjects tell him. No's testimony has been tainted by sixty years of delusional revisionism, wherein he imagines himself as an uncrowned hero of a united Korean peninsula if only he had finished Kim off when he had the chance.

While Harden's story of No's escape by flying his MiG across the DMZ was sullied by its lack of credibility and delusions of convenience, I found his account of Kim Il Sung's role in the establishment of the DPRK, as well as his ways of holding a tight rein on power by liquidating all opposition, to be a gripping read. I have read many books on North Korean history, and Harden seems to know when to ice the story with sensationalism and when to lay off. I found it most interesting how Kim played both Stalin and Mao and used each leader to his advantage.

The detailed map at the beginning of the book misplaces Mount Paektu, where the Great Leader established his secret camp during the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War. Harden assigned it about 100 km northeast of its actual location on the DPRK-PR China frontier. This is a significant error, as much of the story about the founding of the DPRK takes place at the secret camp.
 

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


When I first heard the incarceration of African Americans in the United States referred to as a "new Jim Crow," I thought it must be hyperbole. So did Michelle Alexander, a fact she discloses in the introduction to her book. As Alexander researched the concept, the more she learned, the more she changed her mind. She changed my mind, too.

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Alexander builds an unassailable case that mass incarceration through the (so-called) War on Drugs is the third large-scale caste system that holds Black Americans in a second-class status. This is true even in a society that includes Oprah Winfrey, Clarence Thomas, and, of course, Barack Obama.

The first caste system was slavery. The second was the laws and customs of segregation, discrimination, and terror known as Jim Crow. The third and current system is mass incarceration. This includes rules governing local policing, key court rulings, the court system itself, the parole and probation system, and laws that discriminate against former inmates.

* * * *

The numbers are staggering. More African Americans are under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850. A greater percentage of African Americans are under correctional control now than black South Africans were during apartheid.

The US is 5% of the world population and has 25% of world's prisoners. Black and Latino Americans comprise one-quarter of the US population, but almost 60% of the prison population. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of white Americans.

In terms of the War on Drugs, one might think these disparities could be explained by differences in rates of illegal activity. One would be wrong. The data shows that people of all colours use and sell illegal drugs at very similar rates. When there is a difference by skin colour, the numbers skew towards whites.
Thus, the very same year Human Rights Watch was reporting that African Americans were being arrested and imprisoned at unprecedented rates, government data revealed that blacks were no more likely to be guilty of drug crimes than whites and that white youth were actually the most likely of any racial or ethnic group to be guilty of illegal drug possession and sales.
The fact of incarceration alone is only one piece of the picture. Before incarceration, there is a series of court rulings that have gutted constitutional protections (especially the Fourth Amendment, the right to be free of unwarranted search and seizure), and make it impossible for citizens to argue racial bias in any criminal proceeding. There are draconian mandatory sentencing laws, which lead to the normalization of plea bargaining, in which people who have committed no crime plead guilty to some crime, in order to avoid a life sentence. There are huge financial incentives to municipalities to militarize their police forces, and to states for building -- and filling -- prisons.

After incarceration, the system prevents almost everyone who has been incarcerated from re-entering mainstream life. It is virtually impossible for anyone convicted of a felony to access housing, education loans, or jobs. In most states, formerly incarcerated people are stripped of voting rights and from jury rolls -- forever.

Former inmates, as Alexander writes, "will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits.” Right now, about 30% of African American men are automatically banned from jury duty -- for life.

There is a terrible circular logic to the system. As a former US attorney general explained:
Law enforcement officials often point to the racial composition of our prisons and jails as a justification for targeting racial minorities, but the empirical evidence actually suggested the opposite conclusion was warranted. The disproportionate imprisonment of people of color was, in part, a product of racial profiling -- not a justification for it.

In the years following the release of the New Jersey and Maryland data, dozens of other studies of racial profiling have been conducted. A brief sampling:

• In Volusia County, Florida, a reporter obtained 148 hours of video footage documenting more than 1,000 highway stops conducted by state troopers. Only 5 percent of the drivers on the road were African American or Latino, but more than 80 percent of the people stopped and searched were minorities.

• In Illinois, the state police initiated a drug interdiction program known as Operation Valkyrie that targeted Latino motorists. While Latinos comprised less than 8 percent of the Illinois population and took fewer than 3 percent of the personal vehicle trips in Illinois, they comprised approximately 30 percent of the motorists stopped by drug interdiction officers for discretionary offenses, such as failure to signal a lane change. [These discretionary offenses are often an excuse to search vehicles or to arrest people for "resisting".] Latinos, however, were significantly less likely than whites to have illegal contraband in their vehicles.

• A racial profiling study in Oakland, California, in 2001 showed that African Americans were approximately twice as likely as whites to be stopped, and three times as likely to be searched.

Pedestrian stops, too, have been the subject of study and controversy. The New York Police Department released statistics in February 2007 showing that during the prior year its officers stopped an astounding 508,540 people -- an average of 1,393 per day -- who were walking down the street, perhaps on their way to the subway, grocery store, or bus stop. Often the stops included searches for illegal drugs or guns -- searches that frequently required people to lie face down on the pavement or stand spreadeagled against a wall while police officers aggressively groped all over their bodies while bystanders watched or walked by. The vast majority of those stopped and searched were racial minorities, and more than half were African American. . . . . 
Although the NYPD attempted to justify the stops on the grounds that they were designed to get guns off the street, stops by the Street Crime Unit -- the group of officers who supposedly are specially trained to identify gun-toting thugs -- yielded a weapon in only 2.5 percent of all stops. . . .

Rather than reducing reliance on stop-and-frisk tactics following the Diallo shooting* and the release of this disturbing data, the NYPD dramatically increased its number of pedestrian stops and continued to stop and frisk African Americans at grossly disproportionate rates. The NYPD stopped five times more people in 2005 than in 2002 -- the overwhelming majority of whom were African American or Latino.
Perhaps the most surprising portion of The New Jim Crow is Alexander's history of the War on Drugs. The "tough on crime" stance that began under President Nixon and intensified under Presidents Reagan and Clinton was born when rates of drug use and crime were low.

Today nearly one-third of African American men are likely to spend time in prison. Once released, they live in a state of permanent second-class citizenship. Alexander builds a case that the War on Drugs was not a response to higher crime rates, but a deliberate plan to dismantle the gains of the civil rights movement. If this sounds unlikely, I highly recommend reading this book.

Alexander has clearly done exhaustive research, but she doesn't exhaust the reader with statistics. Although the numbers are extremely convincing, they are woven into a compelling, readable narrative. It's a disturbing book, as it should be, and an excellent one. [This review originally appeared here on wtmc.]


-----
* Amadou Diallo was an African immigrant living in New York City. In 1999, when stopped by the police and asked for identification, he reached for his wallet. Police later said they thought the wallet was a gun. The police shot 41 times. Diallo was 22 years old, and unarmed.





Thursday, March 23, 2017

Homo Deus: A Brief History Of Tomorrow


This is what humanity will aim to accomplish in the not too distant future: immortality, bliss and divinity. The claim was so bold I had to read the book and discover if author Yuval Noah Harari could support it. In his last book Homo Sapiens (a book I reviewed earlier) Harari achieved international bestseller status. That book covered the history of the universe from the Big Bang to the rise of the near god-like technological prowess of human beings. In this latest study, Homo Deus, which the author admits is more an exercise in that most precarious of all academic endeavours predicting the future, Harari looks at global and technological trends and surmises what they suggest about the direction our world is heading in.

The book is full of really interesting ideas (much like the previous Homo Sapiens book). I’ll take a moment to list some that I liked. He plots the advent of our species as supreme over all other sentient life on earth. We are thoroughly now the bosses of this corner of the universe. No controversy there. Harari goes on to make bolder claims about humanism as the great creed of the world; an argument I find convincing with some qualifications. Harari makes interesting use of the idea of algorithms. I have read and reread what he has to say on this topic and it is still not clear to me. My confusion stems from an ambiguity in his argument. Is he making a claim that all things in the universe (from rocks to humans) operate like algorithms or is he making the much stronger claim that the universe is a series of algorithms (what I would call an ontological or metaphysical claim)? What about consciousness? This is something that, notoriously, does not fit well into the algorithm analogy. Once again, Harari makes some audacious assertions. Biology is an elaborate algorithm and consciousness may just be really complicated biology. When we develop super computers perhaps we can reduce history to biology and so history will be an algorithm also (114—151). If after reading these lines you have images of Neo navigating the Matrix (red pill or blue pill?) then you’re not alone. This, to my mind, is the most startling claim of the book: if everything is algorithms, and we as algorithms ourselves come to know this, then we can remake the universe to suit our desires. Wow.

Science had knocked humans off the pedestal of specialness after having first knocked God off of His—much bigger—pedestal. They (the scientists) had told us our planet was just one of billions in an unimportant part of a galaxy that is itself just one of billions of galaxies. Well, that was then. Harari is suggesting humans are about to make a colossal return to specialness status as Homo Deus. Sounds great but there may be a very dark side to this new status—power and corruption and nihilism.

Predictions. These are just predictions. The paradox of knowledge may alter these predictions. What is the paradox of knowledge? It is this: knowledge that does not change behaviour is useless; knowledge that changes behaviour quickly becomes irrelevant (57).  The more we know about the course history is taking (the more data we accumulate) the faster we alter the situation, thus rendering our information and data collection quaint. Karl Marx wrote about an impending revolution in the world order, the great class struggle as he called it—but it never came to pass. Why? Because capitalists also read books. Governments around the world read Das Kapital and his other writings and came up with (socialist) fixes to many capitalist problems and voila, no revolution! The paradox of knowledge.

I like books in the Homo Deus vein. They give me this weird, almost guilty pleasure of seeing the future and knowing something others don’t about where the world is heading. But the prediction game is fraught with difficulties. Most future forecasts never come to pass. Predicting is hard because life has a funny way of grooving along to its own non-algorithm-rhythm. Some of what Harari says may come to pass, technology is sure to impact our lives in ways we can barely conceive. But I think he has the human bit wrong. We are more than biological beings; if pressed (as I’m sure Harari would insist on pressing) to explain the “more” I could offer nothing that would count as scientific—yet we are more. We (every single one of us) is a unique combination of utter contradictions. Predicting what we will do next, even with all the computing power in the universe, is hard (is it impossible?).  Homo Deus is very much worth the read if you enjoy thinking about these ideas.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy



On April 20, 1999, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, two teenagers from Littleton, Colorado, marched into Columbine High School with explosives and automatic weapons. Their plan to blow up the entire school failed -- only because their homemade bombs did not explode -- so they walked around the school shooting people. They killed 12 students and one teacher, wounded 24 others, and unleashed untold mental suffering on their entire community, before killing themselves.

I very clearly remember hearing about this, and just as clearly remember thinking that the Klebold and Harris families had suffered the worst tragedy of all. What could be worse than your child dying in a school shooting? To me, the answer is all too obvious: knowing your child took the lives of other children. I remember, too, feeling so sad and discouraged when some Columbine parents refused to allow Klebold and Harris to be memorialized along with the other victims, insisting the memorials acknowledge 13 dead, not 15.

When I saw a book review and noticed the author's last name, I knew instantly who she was, and immediately put the book on hold at our library. This is a rare opportunity to look behind the scenes at the bizarre phenomenon of mass shootings, from a perspective of kindness and mercy.

In the first half of the book, Sue Klebold details the day of the shooting, and the days and weeks that followed, from her own perspective. In the second half, she writes about her journey to try to understand her son's actions, and her long-term survival, as she finds community -- in this case, survivors of suicide loss -- and becomes a suicide-prevention activist. Her writing is vivid and intensely emotional. Some parts of this book are so raw and laden with such pain that they are barely readable. Reading this book sometimes feels like peering too deeply into someone's most private heart.

Throughout, Klebold is meticulously careful to explain that seeking to understand what her son did does not mean she is excusing it. Again and again, she writes that Dylan was responsible for his own actions and that probing his mental illness does not negate that. She writes this so often, as though she wants anyone who opens the book to any random page to read this. I found it very sad that she felt she needed to do that -- but her story makes it obvious why she did.

It did not surprise me to learn that almost everything written or said in the media about the Klebold family was completely wrong. This book is clearly, in part, an attempt to set the record straight, or at least get another perspective in the public view. And again, when one reads what was said versus what actually existed, the writer's desire to do this is very understandable.

The book is suffused in regret. Sue Klebold remembers every instance, every tiny moment, where she chided or nagged when she could have hugged, when she said, "Get yourself together!" instead of "How can I help you?" Yet these instances, as she recounts them, are so ordinary, so commonplace. She was a loving mother and if at times she was irritated with or tough on her teenage son, it was all within the bounds of normalcy.

One might say that Dylan Klebold exhibited no signs of depression or other mental illness before the shooting. Sue Klebold emphatically rejects this idea, and insists there were signs, but she and Dylan's father didn't know how to read them.

I cannot agree. I didn't think any of the instances she recounts were a red flag for such violence, nor did there seem to be a pattern. All the behaviour seemed like that of a normal, if somewhat troubled, teenager -- and "troubled teenager" can be a redundancy. After reading this book, I believe the only way Sue and Tom Klebold could have known that their son was at risk for violence is if they had constantly searched his room -- something they had no cause to do and an act that might have driven him further out of reach.

When Sue Klebold read her son's journals (found by police) and saw the videos the two boys made, she felt as though she was looking at a total stranger. Dylan Klebold led two lives. As some supportive letter-writers told Sue Klebold, if someone really wants to hide something, they will. (Eric Harris is a different story. There were many clear signs.)

I knew that many Columbine families blamed the parents for the boys' actions, which strikes me as strange, cruel, and grossly unfair. Because of that, I was very heartened to know that the Klebolds received thousands of letters of sympathy and support -- from people whose children had committed atrocities, from survivors of suicide loss, from victims of bullying who thought it lucky incidents like this don't happen more often. Many people understood the family's pain and wanted them to know they were not alone. I took great relief from this.

The latter portion of the book is largely about suicide prevention, and recognizing the signs of clinical depression in children and teens, which are different than in adults. Klebold calls for nothing less than an entirely new approach to mental health.

This is a very sad book, but in the end, it's a book about survival. Sue Klebold lived through a tragedy of immense proportions. She chose to survive and, eventually, found a way to create meaning from her loss. Her book is sure to help many other people do that, too. [This review was originally published on wmtc.]

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Richest Man Who Ever Lived



Jacob Fugger of Augsburg (1459 – 1525) must be considered one of the wealthiest people, if not the wealthiest, to ever live. You can likely mention a few other individuals that surely, you would argue, were (or are) richer. But I don’t think so. Why? Because he arrived at a time when the rules of business were not clearly understood. Entrepreneurial savvy was not common. He was like a wolf among sheep. There were few restrictions to rampant wealth accumulation and he had business acumen to spare. His money touched everything—politics, religion, art, the military, natural resources, kings and queens, banks, transportation, legal systems, entire national states—everything!

You haven’t heard of Jacob Fugger “The Rich”? Neither had I until I read a book about the Medici (a wealthy and influential renaissance family—see my review of The Medici: Power, Money and Ambition in the Italian Renaissance). The Medici were wealthy, most definitely, but Fugger was richer. Like the Medici, Jacob Fugger entered the banking trade (he had started life in the family’s textile trade). He proved in the long run to have had better business sense than Giovanni, Cosimo or Lorenzo de' Medici. Jacob had an uncanny ability to smell a good deal.  He bought mines, funded merchant ships, acquired jewels and much more—and it all turned a profit. He collected castles. Collected them! Five hundred years on and his descendants are still reaping the benefits of his property owning activities.His money begat more money, which begat more money. And on and on. Martin Luther hated his guts.

In The Richest Man Who Ever Lived author Greg Steinmetz describes how Jacob Fugger amassed his wealth at a time when individuals were only slowly realizing that wealth could be pursued as an end in itself and that having a lot of it could win you the king’s ear. Jacob was low key. He made his money quietly all the while staying in the shadows and influencing politics. He pulled the (coin) strings to ensure legislation matched (that is, didn’t impede) business enterprise. He made emperors. Charles V would not have made it to the imperial heights he did without Fugger money.

Jacob’s life was full of incident and he seemed to get caught up in the middle of world altering events. One example will suffice to show you what I mean. There was a revolt in the German states; historians call it the German Peasants War. “The peasants” had the wonderful idea that wealth should be shared equally by all. We call that communism today. The conceptual apparatus of communism didn’t exist in Fugger’s time but the animating idea was the same. Fugger, capitalist that he was, thought that the imposition of forced sharing would inhibit business creativity; it would quash the incentive to find new products and new efficiencies in manufacturing goods, it would hurt investment. Simply put, it would be bad for business. So Fugger money funded the army that went on to crush the revolt.

Jacob Fugger wasn’t the nicest guy. He didn’t have many friends. When he lay in bed dying his wife was off with her lover. He breathed his last surrounded by paid assistants. Money, ultimately, didn’t make him happy (at least it seems that way to this reader). The sense I have of the man after having read this book is that wealth accumulation was a kind of addictive game for Jacob. He was good at it. He was aggressive and sharp eyed and ambitious. He liked what money could do. Nowadays there are plenty of people who chase after wealth for its own sake. Jacob Fugger was the first and perhaps the supreme model of this personality type.