Thursday, March 29, 2018

Black Edge by Sheelah Kolhatkar

Hardcover, 295 pgs, Pub Feb 7th 2017 by Random House, ISBN13: 9780812995800, Lit Awards: Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Nominee for Longlist (2017), Andrew Carnegie Medal Nominee for Nonfiction (2018)

Steven Cohen is back running hedges (or do we call them dodges?) on Wall Street after being banned for two years from investing other people’s money. He is sixty-one years old, and has houses filled with beautiful things. His lifetime focus is trying to edge others in the market using whatever means necessary. He is said to have a reptilian cool when it comes to trading on the margins, making him one of the best traders ever. Cold-blooded is one thing. Cheating with inside information is another.

He can deny it all he wants. Nobody believes him because “everybody does it.” Proprietary, nonpublic information, the ‘black edge’ of the title, “is like doing in elite-level cycling or steroids in professional baseball. Once the top cyclists and home-run hitters started doing it, you either went along with them or you lost.” But it is also that kind of wrong: it corrupts the process so completely that winning no longer means anything.

Kolhatkar wrote for Bloomberg Businessweek for most of the time she spent gathering material for this book, but now she works as a staff writer at The New Yorker. She has the skill to make a boring story about old white men on Wall Street buying stuff interesting. We learn what didn’t work the last time government lawyers went after Cohen. If we are going to stop the kind of self-aggrandizement that leads to corruption of our most important governing principles, we need people who are brave enough to take on the cheaters.

That wouldn't be current and former employees of Cohen’s staff who were so internally corrupt already, like lifelong liar and cheat Matt Martoma, serving nine years for his part in the Elan trade that made Cohen dump and short stock he held in a company with a new Alzheimer drug, netting Cohen an estimated $275 million. Martoma had to change his name from Ajai Thomas because he was expelled from Harvard Law School for illegally modifying his transcript to get a clerkship.

Kolhatkar gives Martoma the slightest bit of cover by suggesting Martoma was traumatized in his childhood by a demanding father, but I’m afraid what we see is a character weakness so severe that Martoma felt entitled to criminal behaviors despite being a young, handsome, privileged man. His father says at his trial that he "maxed out" his gifts. Steve Cohen is the same kind of man. He has one gift that we can see. He is also more willing to be criminal than we are, perhaps as compensation for a kind of social and spiritual impoverishment. He will be remembered for…what? For buying things? Illegally. Wow. Big man.

If I understood the investigations into Steve Cohen, it was conducted separately by three different branches of government: the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s office, and the Securities & Exchange Commission. These players got together occasionally to share information, but were all the time afraid they could not make a case with the information they had gleaned unless someone in the Cohen organization flipped. Kolhatkar has an especially interesting discussion on why the ethically-challenged Martoma did not flip. To date we do not know why.

Several cases were being investigated and litigated by this same group at the same time, i.e., cases for other insider trading by the same miscreants, individual cases against Cohen’s current and former employees, cases against Cohen’s company, etc. Cohen did end up paying more than a billion dollars in fines, but he was never jailed. He was just prevented from playing with other people’s money for two years. One of Cohen’s former traders, David Ganek, actually countersued government entities, the FBI and Preet Bharara’s office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, for abridgment of his constitutional rights during that investigation. Ganek lost that challenge in October 2017.

Shortly after the decisions on Cohen's company SAC and Mathew Martoma, two cases decided earlier setting precedent on insider trading (Todd Newman and Anthony Chiasson from Diamondback and Level Global, two firms with ties to SAC) were reversed, in effect reprimanding Bharara's office of zealotry. A year later, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Newman overturn was too lenient. The fight for right is ongoing.

Kolhatkar draws the contrast between those working for the government with fewer resources and those sleek white men working for Cohen. In the years after the investigation, some attorneys moved from one side to the other: the New York Times reports
“A day after Lorin L. Reisner announced that he was stepping down as head of the criminal division of the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan, the law firm Paul Weiss on Thursday named him as a partner in its litigation department.”
Paul Weiss supplied Cohen’s legal team. Antonia Apps, the attorney who tried the Steinberg case, went to Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy. A high-level FBI investigator, Patrick Carroll, went to Goldman Sachs' compliance department. Amelia Cottrell of the SEC went to the firm where Cohen’s longtime defense counsel, Marty Klotz, worked. Sure, why not? Maybe one day, one of those who know both sides of the street will do the right thing for the right reasons.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Educated by Tara Westover

Hardcover, 352 pgs, Pub Feb 20th 2018 by Random House, ISBN13: 9780399590504

It is of endless relief to me that this woman managed an escape from her family, though of course I know how the pain of leaving has scarred her. We all have scars at the end, I want to tell her. It is the ones gotten from life-threatening, abusive behaviors we do not have to accept as normal.

As a memoir, this is simply a brilliant one. Whether or not it is true in all its details is beside the point. Tara herself says there are many different remembrances of conversations and events. She kept a journal that faithfully recorded how she heard things that happened during stressful times in her life. Her version has an internal consistency that is hard to ignore, and since she is the one “coming clean,” as it were, we are inclined to believe her version of events above others. It is also possible to see how a religious mindset could blind one to what actually happened.

Tara Westover lived in a family of anti-government survivalists in northern Idaho. What happened to the children in her family was truly terrible, and exemplifies the definition of delusional in today’s secular society. At a time when our nation has grown to encompass many different religions, races, and ethnicities, Westover’s family, from their perch on a piece of land in northern Idaho, believed in self-reliance and in a single truth, even if it meant sacrifice of the clan. Delusional people sometimes forget that creating a life presents a challenge to one’s set of beliefs, in that each individual comes with free will and a right to life.

Tara recounts instances when her father’s investments in his scrapyard turned out badly, and incomes were strained to the point of breaking but for the ingenuity and generosity of family members determined to help out. But I will have to admit Tara’s descriptions of what her brother and father subjected her to while they were working in the scrapyard nearly blew out my blood pressure. With each sentence she stoked my indignation. At an early age I knew stupidity and exploitation when I saw it, but this could have been because of my own physical and mental weaknesses. Tara lasted longer in that environment because she was so able and strong.

We get very little background on the family before Tara is born. That seems fair: Tara must understand her parents’ story is theirs to tell. Suffice it to say the father may have been an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic and bipolar. It appears he didn’t believe in public governance, or people coming together with good intent to solve societal wrongs. He believed in his own modified Mormon version of god and gospel and self-reliance. By itself this could almost be ignored except when he subjected his children to his mad imaginings, many of which were dangerous to their health and wellbeing.

Tara never went to school as a youngster, and she was not home-schooled. Like two of her brothers before her, she read enough to pass the state ACT, after which she attended Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Her professors there were very impressed with her ability to think, and did what they could to advance her education by recommending her to attend Cambridge University in England. It must also be said that a bishop in the church there seemed to understand the obstacles Tara’s family presented by being so resistant to the larger world, and tried to help.

Tara’s professors at Cambridge were likewise impressed with her ability to reason and recommended her for a scholarship to Harvard. There she worked toward her Cambridge degree, looking at the constraints and obligations family ties present when considered in the context of the larger society in which we live, but she could only look at nineteenth-century philosophers. The advancements in thinking in twentieth and twenty-first centuries were too diverse and modern for someone of her religious upbringing to consider.

Nowhere do we get a sense of her understanding of race in our country and around the world. Her father may have been isolated out there in Idaho, but in his isolation he developed attitudes dangerously close to fascism. How has Tara developed her attitudes towards people of color after her upbringing would be interesting. But we don't get to that. She has plenty of other things to share, being something like a stranger in a stranger land, and now able to speak the language.

She is an interesting case study. Perhaps her professors thought so, too. Without a doubt she has a fascinating story and is able to tell it well. I listened to the Random House audio of this book, very beautifully read by Julia Whelan. It was involving, but infuriating that any child would have to withstand that kind of thoughtlessness and carelessness on their own behalf. It undoubtedly gave her some kind of strengths, but angst and self-doubt also. I wish her good luck. It is quite a story.

Below please find an interview of Tara Westover with her colleagues at Cambridge where she earned her doctorate.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Hardcover, 622 pgs, Pub Sept 7th 2010 by Random House, ISBN13: 9780679444329, Lit Awards: Mark Lynton History Prize (2011), Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Non-Fiction (2011), PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction Nominee (2011), Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Nonfiction (2011), Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Nonfiction (Runner-up) (2011) National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction (2010), Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Nonfiction (2011), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for History and Biography (2010)

In the future, people will probably mistake the the origin of the phrase ‘the warmth of other suns’ to be this big book on America’s Great Migration, when it fact Wilkerson credits the phrase to a poem of Richard Wright’s that she uses as an epigraph:
"I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown. I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns, and, perhaps, to bloom."
The beautiful, elegiac poem expresses regret one had to leave some of one’s roots behind in order to ‘transplant’ elsewhere. Wilkerson interviewed about 1,200 people and did subsidiary research to collect & corroborate enough impressions and remembrances that she felt comfortable in this period and could supply details others forgot.

I'd be willing to bet she used techniques similar to those used by the author of one of my favorite histories, the award-winning Russian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, who wrote Secondhand Time: An Oral History of the Fall of the Soviet Union. Alexievich’s journalistic technique uses the general experience to elucidate the personal, though Wilkerson also did extensive interviews with the three main subjects of her narrative.

The Great Migration covered the period 1915-1970; Wilkerson’s own attention span covers a period of about one hundred years, from 1910-2010. The three different sets of migrants whose lives she uses as examples did not know one another, and all three were alive when she began her research; all three had died before she’d finished. George Starling moving up the eastern seaboard from Florida to Harlem in New York City; Ida May Gladney moved from Mississippi to Chicago, part of the midwest migration; and Robert Foster moved from Louisiana to California, an experience about which I knew the least.

The book is huge with detail. It can’t be rushed, and those who read or listen to it regularly, recognizing it may take weeks to get to it all, may enjoy it best. There is a rhythm to the telling; it is long-form story-telling, and it adheres to an oral tradition. One can certainly make the case that, since Wilkerson conducted interviews for the bulk of her narrative, this is in a long line of family histories passed down orally from generation to generation. The experiences she recounts fills in holes some discover in our own family histories. We can now imagine what the migrants must have encountered.

In charts showing the movement of African Americans from the South to different parts of the country in the last century, Los Angeles and cities in California got only a third or smaller proportion of what Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Philadelphia settled. Boston and New York were in between those two.

One incident Wilkerson recounted that shook me badly was the story of the attempted integration in the summer of 1951 in Cicero, an all-white town on the southwest border of Chicago. The mob mentality that took over the reason of the so-called white people—and it should be noted this was a broad swath of first- and second-generation European immigrants—when they learned a black couple had rented an apartment is horrifying, terrifying to recount. The couple’s belongings and the apartment were destroyed…on day one. The next three days brought a full-scale riot that needed the National Guard to subdue.

Boston is not specifically mentioned in this history, but the New York experience plays a large part. Wilkerson makes reference to the Northern Paradox, a term coined by the sociologist Gunnar Myrdal:
“In the North, Myrdal wrote, ‘almost everybody is against discrimination in general, but, at the same time, almost everybody practices discrimination in his own personal affairs’—that is, by not allowing blacks into unions or clubhouses, certain jobs, and white neighborhoods, indeed, avoiding social interaction overall.”
Considering African Americans apparently occupied approximately 25% of the population in these two cities, I’d have to agree that the discrimination, in Boston at least, is subtle, hidden, denied since most neighborhoods until recently were clearly segregated.

Ida Mae Gladney left Mississippi for Chicago October 14, 1929, and eventually ended up voting for Barak Obama as senator of Illinois. In describing cooking and eating corn bread the way it was made when she was coming up, she says
“Now you put you some butter and some buttermilk on it,” she says, “and it make you want to hurt yourself.”
I’ve never heard that phrase before, but it sure covers a number of addictive activities.

In describing Dr. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster’s life in California, we get an indelible picture of the man by the way he remembered the clothing he and his wife wore at eventful moments in their lives.
“He remembered one night in particular. He was wearing a black mohair suit he ordered specifically for the occasion from the tailor who dressed Sammy Davis, Jr., and Frank Sinatra. He wore a black tie with a burgundy stripe, a white tab-collar shirt, gold cuff links, black shoes, black silk socks, and a white handkerchief with his initials, RPF, embroidered in silver.”
He doesn't mention it here, but elsewhere he mentions this black mohair jacket has a scarlet silk lining. How can one begrudge a man who is so enthusiastic in his compositions? There is such joy there.

The last individual detailed in this book, George Swanson Starling, was memorable for what he did not accomplish. His family held him back from finishing college, so George married an unsuitable woman and left home for the North.
"It was spite," George would say of the decisions he made at that moment in his life…"That’s why I preach today, Do not do spite," he said. "Spite does not pay. It goes around and misses the object that you aim [at] and goes back and zaps you. And you’re the one who pays for it."
A truer lesson was never told.

I used Whispersync to listen/read. Robin Miles narrates and her reading is perfect in pace and clarity. Ken Burns gave an intro to the audio edition which was not reproduced in the kindle version. He says, basically, "This is must-read nonfiction, essential to our understanding of race. I loved this book" and more. We haven’t had this kind of history told in this way before. Allowing this history to inform the construct that is your life will change that life a little bit.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Creekfinding: A True Story by by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, Illustrated by Claudia McGehee

Hardcover, 36 pgs, Pub Mar 7th 2017 by Univ Of Minnesota Press, ISBN13: 9780816698028

This inspirational child's storybook for ages 5-9 features the beauty of the natural world plus animals and big earth-moving equipment! Even parents are guaranteed to enjoy this one. The story is true, of a scientist who had heard the land upon which he lived once had a creek but had been bulldozed flat to make larger corn fields. The mind boggles at the necessity for this travesty.

He found photographs of the land in the time before and when an old man told him he'd fished the stream for brook trout, the scientist decided to try to find the creek. If it had been there since time immemorial, perhaps it was just waiting to be found.

The gorgeous full-color woodcuts by Claudia McGehee add immeasurably to the exciting story of discovery created by Caldecott winner Jacqueline Briggs Martin. The scientist dug the field, found the creek, built a bed, planted the sides, repopulated the waters that flowed from the head of the spring.

The actual events in this story take place in northeast Iowa. Thanks to the University of Minnesota Press for putting so much effort into making this the most beautiful and inspirational storybook published in 2017, surely. Brilliant job, everyone!

Women & Power by Mary Beard

Hardcover, 128 pgs, Pub Dec 12th 2017 by Liveright (first pub November 2nd 2017), ISBN13: 9781631494758

This book is two lectures modified and dispensing the understanding of a classicist with regard to “The Public Role of Women,” the very title of the first lecture. My markers are all in the second lecture, delivered in March 2017 and titled “Women in Power.” Mary Beard applies her knowledge of ancient languages and civilizations to uncover for us the origins of our notions of sexuality and power. It is not all she knows. It is merely her opinion of what she knows.

As though in a long, amusing conversation with a friend, Beard argues and then changes her mind as she makes her argument, rethinking her earlier teaching of Aristophanes’ comedic play Lysistrata as not just about girl power—“though maybe that’s exactly how we should now play it.”

I have recently found myself modifying my thinking on #MeToo: I opposed much younger women deciding, precipitously I thought, which behaviors went too far when some we clearly agreed did meet criterion for harassment. Those younger women will probably succeed in modifying men’s behaviors when earlier generations did not. They are the ones who will have to live with the success or failure of their guidelines.

The conclusions Beard shares with us at the end of the second lecture are especially trenchant: that power should be recognized as within each of us—within our reach—if we would only seize that power and exercise it. Power exercised does not have to be attached to celebrity, and perhaps is best if it is not so glorified and so removed from each of us. Beard gives an example of this non-celebrity notion of power by pointing to the three women (whose names many of us still do not know) now credited with beginning the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

If power is attached to celebrity, it is interpreted narrowly, circumscribing and controlling that power. The current structure of public prestige is male-dominated and will forever resist the fundamentally different understanding of power as collaborative and diffuse—not a possession but an attribute or a verb. I am excited by Beard’s acknowledgement of power as something quite different than what we have come to accept, for power is individual, and within each of us.

The dignity we gain in light of that realization is very affirming. It entirely works when thinking of oneself in a democracy, for instance, but also as an employee, family member, a member of any group, sect, or religion. Individuals hold the actual power in a society, and it is only our transfer of attention and currency to celebrities that gives them power. When we notice and state publicly “the emperor has no clothes,” well then…it’s over for the emperor.

Beard wishes she'd had the foresight to defend women's right to be wrong without collapse of women's privileges and rights as leaders, spokespeople. This notion parallels the notion of acceptance of people of color as described by Ibram X. Kendi in his groundbreaking work, Stamped From The Beginning:
"Kendi himself has concluded the only way black people would not be discriminated against in some way is if everyone recognize that blacks are at least as talented or flawed as whites and should be treated accordingly, that is to say, with the same amount of attention and acceptance of their potential talent, as for their potential for error. Anything less is racist."
There is more in Beard's manifesto, for instance “if women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is the power we need to redefine rather than the women.” We are reminded that the structures of power may need modification if not dismantling. Beard reminds us there will be winners & losers in this scenario, but these concepts have been a long time coming. I won’t be sorry to see the old ways go.

I loved the little joke Beard included in her discussion of current female leaders being heralded early in 2017 in a headline, “Women Prepare for a Power Grab in Church, Police and BBC.” Beard reminds us that only Cressida Dick, the commissioner of the Met, actually succeeded, surely a comment on who is perceived to have the equipment to lead.

Beard begins her first lecture with a reminder of the earliest example of a man exerting control over the right of women to plead her case or to speak in public: a teenaged Telemachus silencing his mother Penelope in the beginning of The Odyssey. The view of women in the western world has followed on from those earliest myths.

Subtle differences in interpretation of the language of those myths is now giving us new ways to look at sexuality, at women and power. That ancient text has been recently translated by a woman, Emily Wilson, for the first time, and the resultant work has differences from earlier versions. It is wonderfully accessible and thrilling to read, so make sure you give it another go round with this new version.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú

Hardcover, 256 pgs, Pub Feb 6th 2018 by Riverhead Books

This book seems too small for all it accomplishes. The quiet watchfulness and introspection of the Prologue tamps down opinion before it develops. We are here to listen, to understand. It is such a quiet read, immediately alert to the tension inherent in a grandson of immigrants policing the border.

This is a beautiful book, a beautiful physical object. Riverhead Books formatted the inside to be a kind of art, using gray pages to separate the sections and lines to guide our eye, delineate our thoughts. We recognize we are privileged to see what an American thinks of the border, an American with reason to care about the migrants, who shares our history and theirs.

The real terror that migrants bring or flee is not hidden; it is one of the first things the border guards encounter. A drug capture is a feather in one’s cap. The people ferrying the drugs are not as important; they are allowed to struggle back to where they came from, or continue onward if they dare. Not much thought is expended in their direction by the border patrol.

Before long, Cantú becomes aware of his own muted, muffled response to the hideousness of the choices facing his human captures. The job itself appears to be a reason why he cannot envision himself in their place. Then we discover Cantú’s stress is coming out by a grinding of his teeth when at rest. He dreams of captures—his response and theirs—and how it could be different.

He moves to a different job, a different state. He watches, in a computer lab, movements in the border area. He researches reasons for population movement, the drug dealing, gang murders, a capture’s history. This knowledge does not abate his nighttime fears. He starts to try to imagine the humanity behind the statistics, quoting the historian Timothy Snyder, “Each record of death suggests, but cannot supply, a unique life….it is for humanists to turn these [deaths] back into people.”

He goes back to El Paso and the Rio Grande and finds himself more confused than ever. “…studying…and reading…international affairs…I had the idea that…the patrol…would somehow unlock the border for me…but…I have more questions than ever before.” Exposure to the violence of the border region gave him a kind of moral injury: “Moral injury is a learned behavior, learning to accept the things you know are wrong.”

In contemplating the migration of individuals from Mexico and Central America to North America, Cantú must examine the horror facing those migrants in their own countries. He gives us a taste of it, leading us to question our own understanding of government, laws, fairness, money, profit, coercion, protection. We realize we do not know the answers to the questions these migrants raise: How are we to live? What do we have to lose?

Cantú leaves the border patrol to think, write, read, study. In trying to make sense of his own history, his recent past, and his future, he takes a job in which he meets a man who becomes his friend. That man, it turns out, is what Americans call an illegal, though he has lived and worked more than thirty years in the United States. All the understanding Cantú learned at the border is put into practice now as he couples his sensitivity and sensibility with experience.

This gorgeous, thoughtful read is replete with references to poets and novelists, as well as to those who write history, philosophy, international affairs. Cantú took time and had the resources to assimilate his feelings about illegal border crossing—the indignity, the futility of it—and he is eloquent in his expression of it.

What I came away with, putting financially-motivated drug traffic aside, was that the movement of individuals is migration, something that is not going to stop because we disapprove. When things get bad enough, people move. Cantú’s title alludes to the water-like quality of the stream, and the possibilities for growth.

Flood. We, and the people of other great nations, should think about restructuring our attitudes to accept the reality of a world in crisis and how that affects us whether we want it to or not. We must look at ourselves and the world, ourselves in the world, to see what we need to do to keep ourselves from moral injury.

Following is an interview of Cantú conducted by author Elliot Ackerman at the Washington, D.C. bookstore, Politics & Prose. The 53-minute interview gave me a different impression of the man: Cantú paradoxically seems younger in person than he does in the book.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein

Hardcover, 368 pgs, Pub Apr 18th 2017 by Simon & Schuster, ISBN13: 9781501102233, Lit Awards: Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year (2017)

This must have been a difficult book to write. Goldstein almost succeeds in giving us a 360 view of the deindustrialization of one Wisconsin city—Janesville, Paul Ryan’s home town—but the effect is oddly muted. In trying to describe the city’s fortunes in a strictly nonpartisan way, she unfortunately emasculates the place. Her view, while it lives and breathes through the portraits of workers she introduces, does not explain.

The only reason I know that Goldstein’s street-level stories do not explain anything is that I have been curious about, and following, District #1 in Wisconsin for some years now myself, and I came away with a different view of why the queerly upbeat Paul Ryan feels “the stress of DC literally just rolls off me as I…come into town.” If he has his eyes open, he’s lying. Janesville is the most economically depressed small city I have seen in years.

Ryan’s townspeople can’t stand him and have been trying to vote him out of office since 2010. But they can’t manage it because of something Goldstein did not mention: the severe GOP-inspired gerrymander that has turned a blue state red. There is also lots of outside money pouring in to support GOP candidates, which Goldstein did point to when Governor Scott Walker faced recall in 2012 but managed to stay in office.

Goldstein gives valuable background information for the period 2008-2013, but by itself, her work is insufficient to explain Wisconsin’s and the mid-west deindustrialization in general. The reasons for that, I’m afraid, are much more macro and has quite a lot to do with global trends, trade policies, Wall Street, and the “haves” who are anxious to preserve their financial advantages rather than help the generalized “worker class” prepare for a different world.

The GM assembly plant based in Janesville opened in 1919 and had some 7,000 workers at its peak in the 1970s. When it closed its doors in 2008, it was down to some 1,200 regular workers. Auto manufacturers had unionized labor. Unionized wages were higher than non-unionized wages. The book made several points learned only after a couple of years of study:

✦ People working in the plant had middle-class lives they did not want to give up, naturally, when the plant closed. Several buyouts were offered. Those that took the earliest buyouts had better financial outcomes than those who waited hoping the plant would gear back up.

✦ Newly unemployed people who attended Blackhawk Technical School retraining sessions and who graduated with an associates’ degree made less money, on average, than those who did not retrain and found work elsewhere. (Those who retrained made 1/3 less than before; not-retrained made 8% less than before.)

✦ Families came under severe stress, and many broke up, in some cases abandoning school-age children who then became homeless, sleeping on friend's couches. This disregarded population of floaters is not only extremely vulnerable now, but will likely experience trouble adjusting in the future as well.

✦ An online virtual academy for high school students in Janesville, called Arise Virtual Academy, exempted its students from Wisconsin limits on how many hours teenagers are allowed to work, providing an youthful source of--virtually--slave labor for local business behemoths. Teenagers could therefore help their families survive, while straining their own chances to thrive.

✦ Some former GM workers became ‘gypsies,’ working at GM plants in nearby states while their families stayed in Janesville, many because their homes were difficult to sell since the market had dropped.

It is unlikely that a city or town doing well economically would have had so prescient a leader who could have helped the community prepare one’s mindset from receiving a weekly wage to something quite different. After all, why rock the boat? Very few small cities have corporations providing almost the entire income base, but if they did, congressional representatives probably counted their lucky stars rather than worry about the future.

Goldstein does talk a little about Governor Scott Walker's assault on teachers and the teachers' union in 2011, the very people who would be able to help a population come to grips with a changing world. It is difficult to come to any conclusion but that the conservatives in state government think sticks are more effective than carrots when it comes to modifying behaviors. Bad daddy politics.

Goldstein introduces two women who used capital to which they already had access to build up the small sister-city to Janesville, outside of Paul Ryan's District #1 lines, called Beloit. Beloit is now a kind of fiefdom of one billionaire, Diane Hendricks, helped along by Janesville businesswoman and banker Mary Willmer.

This kind of fiefdom investment has taken place in at least two other places also on the border of Paul Ryan’s district, Waukesha and Verona. Ryan sometimes holds meetings in these locations rather than in his own district, where he has declared he will no longer hold public meetings. There are too many protestors.

In Nov 2017, Goldstein was invited to speak at the Wisconsin Book Festival in Madison. She was able to explain her reasons for choosing Janesville to study, her methodology, what she intended to accomplish. The public policy implications of her book will be clear to any reader. I may have wanted a different book, a book that makes a different kind of case.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas by Jane Mayer & Jill Abramson

Hardcover, 406 pgs, Pub Sept 18th 1997 by Houghton Mifflin (first pub Nov 3rd 1994), ISBN13: 9780395633182, Lit Awards: National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee for General Nonfiction (1994), National Book Award Finalist for Nonfiction (1994)

This detailed account of the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991 was written by two experienced reporters, Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, then working for the Wall Street Journal. Their research suggests there is every indication that Clarence Thomas lied when asked if he made lewd remarks to Anita Hill, and there are plenty of people who can attest his general demeanor is in line with Anita Hill’s testimony. I read this book now because of a recent article by Jill Abramson in New York magazine making the case for a Thomas impeachment.

The authors begin with the news that George H.W. Bush promised his political supporters a conservative would be the next nominee to the Supreme Court after David Souter. It almost sounds quaint now, just twenty-five years later, that politicians at the time wished to preserve deniability when it came to appointing ideologues to traditionally sacrosanct areas of government that required evenhandedness. That is certainly over now, when Mitch McConnell last year withheld interviews for Obama’s SCOTUS nominee so that the GOP could wait for a conservative takeover of the executive and judicial branches.

The political behind-the-scenes machinations to appoint a forty-three year-old conservative neophyte to the Supreme Court in 1991 was interesting for what we know now that we did not know then about white people and racism. There was a legal requirement for government agencies and offices to diversify, and Bush had every intention of trying to find a minority or a woman for a place on the bench to replace retiring Thurgood Marshall, but finding a conservative black lawyer was, to say the least, difficult. White people were not considered for the post. But Clarence Thomas calculated and concluded that conservative Republicans were going to give him more opportunities than liberal Democrats. There was so much more competition among the Democrats.

This is all documented, by the way, by speaking with Thomas’ classmates when he was trying to figure out his future. Thomas himself would often go into the story of his upbringing, “dirt poor and neglected,” and although he had help at various stages in his life which allowed him access to the upper echelons of the white world, he forever discounted that help and claimed a kind of self-reliance that does not appear to be objectively true. The first portion of the book deals with Thomas growing up and the next section deals with Anita Hill working with Thomas before the hearings.

Then comes the machinations behind the scenes to get a minority in place for a confirmation. The judiciary committee and the White House didn’t care who it was as long as he/she was a person of color. And this is the sharpest cut of all: Thomas didn’t want to work for government, but had a hard time finding work in the private sector after law school. He definitely did not want to work for any office commonly associated with black people or headed by blacks. He did not want to be an affirmative action selection. He wanted a job unassociated with race.

Every job Thomas got in Washington after law school was racially oriented, i.e., took a job with Missouri’s Republican attorney general Jack Danforth who went to Yale to recruit a minority lawyer, took a top civil rights post at the Education Department, and then moved to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) with it’s responsibility for policing racial and other forms of discrimination in the workplace. Thomas was only considered for SCOTUS because he was African American.

The truth is that being the affirmative action hire is nothing to be embarrassed about: all candidates are eligible with good qualifications. The hire of a minority is redressing an imbalance and diversifying for the strength and welfare of the organization. It is requiring attention to racial diversity.

All of this says more about corporate America and top government than about Clarence Thomas; it should be noted that we were (are still?!) at such a rudimentary place when discussing race that many white lawmakers were unwilling to confront Thomas when he called challenges to his nomination a “high-tech lynching.” Even today there would be legislators unwilling to speak up about the inappropriate behaviors of a person of color, unwilling or unable to escape an unstated white guilt to speak credibly on racial justice issues.

Clarence Thomas may have been damaged as a result of his upbringing. He identified deeply with the Richard Wright novels, Native Son and Black Boy. Mayer and Abramson quote Thomas: "these novels of trapped and violent racial rage 'capture[d] a lot of the feelings that I had inside that you learn to repress.'" When speaking of Native Son, bell hooks in Salvation: Black People and Love tells us that
"Wright offered to the world in his protest novel Native Son an image of blackness that made it synonymous with dehumanization, with the absence of feeling. His character Bigger Thomas embodied a lovelessness so relentless it struck a chord of terror in the minds of black activists who had been struggling to counter similar images of blackness emerging from the white imagination.

In his autobiography, Black Boy, Wright dared to tell the world that he believed dehumanization had happened to many black folks, that ongoing racial genocide had left us damaged, forever wounded in the space where we would know love."
Anita Hill wrote her own book about the hearings from her point of view, called Speaking Truth To Power. This book is a good companion, for while Hill gives her motivations and how things looked to her, Mayer and Abramson cover the whole process from many perspectives in detail.

I have no idea if it would be possible now to bring a notice of intent to impeach Thomas but I would support it. I feel sure there was cause in 1991 to throw out his nomination but the need to ram it through was too great. Clarence Thomas may be damaged, and for that we can forgive him (and take some responsibility), but we do not need to further subject ourselves to him. It was wrong to put him on the bench, knowingly.

If we cannot get justice done with Clarence Thomas before he leaves the bench of his own accord, we can always take comfort in the fact that history will not be kind to him. He will continue to be reviled and his story told long past his time on earth.

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Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

Hardcover, 336 pgs, Pub March 1st 2016 by Picador, ISBN13: 9781250039576, Lit Awards: National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee for Criticism (2016), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Nonfiction (2016)

Ali Smith pointed me to Olivia Laing—I think she was planning to introduce her at a conference in Edinburgh. I knew nothing about Laing when I opened this book to the essay about Henry Darger,
“the Chicago janitor who posthumously achieved fame as one of the world’s most celebrated outsider artists, a term coined to describe people on the margins of society, who make work without the benefit of an education in art or art history.”
It is very creepy and disturbing, the whole story of the three hundred paintings and thousands of pages of writing Darger left behind at his death, about sex and children and abuse and neglect. Laing’s description of it, and her close research into his life, reminded me of the work of New Yorker writer Ariel Levy: one doesn’t really want to read it, but once begun, it is hard to tear oneself away.

This book itself is about lonely people, lonely artists, herself as a lonely person. Such a repellant topic; Laing notes the psychoanalyst Fromm-Reichmann, a contemporary of Freud, writes
“Loneliness seems to be such a painful, frightening experience that people do practically everything to avoid it….Loneliness, in its quintessential form, is of a nature that is incommunicable by the one who suffers it.”
Exactly, exactly, exactly, I want to say as I turn my attention away. It makes me uncomfortable, suffering from it or not. So why, then, does Laing want to write a book about loneliness?

The truth is, if one can suffer through the sensation of skin-being-sanded while Laing chooses Edward Hopper to discuss during her own period of estrangement, alone in New York City, irreparably separated from her fiancé, her discussion of Hopper’s paintings and his life leave an indelible impression. Hopper met his wife in art school, and they each were forty-one-year-old virgins when they married. The chapter becomes a queerly voyeuristic biography of Hopper, his art, and his journal-writing wife whose painting was so derided by Hopper that she stopped painting and became his model.

When Laing moved from Brooklyn to the Village—she can’t have been so lonely, by the way, that she didn’t just return to England unless she likes a little bit that sensation of sandpaper-on-skin—she turned her gaze on Andy Warhol. At first Laing detested his work but after seeing him struggling to speak in a biopic once, she realized his Pop Art, the repeating images in different colors, was the attempt of a lonely boy to fit in.
"Sameness, especially for the immigrant, the shy boy agonisingly aware of his failures to fit in, is a profoundly desirable state; an antidote against the pain of being singular, alone, all one, the medieval root from which the work lonely emerges. Difference opens the possibility of wounding; alikeness protects against the smarts and slights of rejection and dismissal."
Laing does not neglect Valerie Solanas, the shooter who nearly ended Warhol’s life, who was also “drawn to the excessive and neglected.” Solanas’s work on the SCUM Manifesto puts her smack dab in the middle of a resurgent feminist movement, and yet decidedly outside the mainstream headed by Betty Friedan.

Laing provides context to and critiques of the work of Warhol contemporaries, photographer/artists Nan Goldin, David Wojnarowicz, Peter Hujar, and demonstrates how their work fits in with the alienation developed through loneliness. Laing’s searing chapter on the AIDS epidemic reminds us how the scourge played out in New York, and how it enveloped Warhol and his milieu.

The discussion of “Strange Fruit (for David)”, an art installation created by Zoe Leonard for Wojnarowicz in 1998, is somehow eye-opening, and mind-changing. The creepiness of that avant garde art scene melts to reveal the humanity and real pain in the expression of this art.

So Laing’s own journey through loneliness becomes a meditation on loneliness expressed through the art of others.
"It was the rawness and vulnerability of [Wojnarowicz’s] expression that proved so healing to my own feelings of isolation: the willingness to admit to failure or grief, to let himself be touched, to acknowledge desire, anger, pain, to be emotionally alive. His self-exposure was in itself a cure for loneliness, dissolving the sense of difference that comes when one believes one’s feelings or desires to be uniquely shameful."
Laing’s skill on this difficult subject of outsider art keeps us curious and bearing our discomfort as she leads us to a deeper understanding of our human condition.
"Loneliness is personal, and it is also political. Loneliness is collective; it is a city…the pursuit of individual happiness does not trump or excuse our obligations to each other. We are in this together…What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open…"

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Thursday, March 1, 2018

Here and Now: Letters (2008-2011) by Paul Auster & J.M. Coetzee

Hardcover, 256 pgs, Pub Mar 7th 2013 by Viking (first published 2012), ISBN13: 9780670026661

There was always the chance that the letters between two literary friends wouldn’t be as interesting as their novels. That hasn’t happened, at least to me. On the contrary, I find their thoughts on the current state of Israel, the work of Philip Roth and Franz Kafka, and their own method of imagining their fiction completely absorbing. Thoughtful men on subjects about which we may disagree…

Their letters reflect their novels; that is, Auster is so concrete, sports-minded, explicitly organizing the rooms (cities, countries) in which his characters move, sending articles, being an instigator while Coetzee—sometimes we have difficulty figuring out which place on earth he is speaking of. And yet, his ideas are bigger, deeper, more honed. He appears to be at home on every continent, except perhaps Asia. But as he says, he sleeps better in Europe, in the time zone of his natal South Africa.

The two men are not equally intelligent, nor equal writers, but how would that work, to speak of it among friends? The joy I get at reading what Coetzee is thinking is entirely what this collection of letters is about. Though these ideas and scraps of writing are not curated, his succinctness allows me to see the care with which he marshals his thoughts, and what he worries about as he ages.

There is too much here, in this short book, to point to all that moved me, but within a page, in his first letter addressing the subject of male friendship, Coetzee has reminded us
"...of a remark by the character Christopher Tietjens in Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End: that one goes to bed with a woman in order to be able to talk to her. Implication: that turning a women into a mistress is only a first step; the second step, turning her into a friend, is the one that matters, but being friends with a woman you haven’t slept with is in practice impossible because there is too much unspoken in the air."
In a letter about male friendship, this tiny mention addresses a question I have pondered forever, it seems. Coetzee says further than unlike “love or politics, which are never what they seem to be, friendship is what it seems to be. Friendship is transparent.” Yes, this clarifying definition places this relationship where it belongs: in the light, unashamed, unembarrassed, unrehearsed. Further,
"...the most interesting reflections on friendship come from the ancient world…because in ancient times people did not regard the philosophical stance as an inherently skeptical one, therefore did not take it as given that friendship must be other than it seems to be, or conversely concluded that if friendship is what it seems to be, then it cannot be a fit subject for philosophy."
On this subject and in his first letter, Auster doesn’t mesh well with Coetzee’s lead. He writes at much greater length but says less—that men and women can be friends so long as no physical attraction enters the equation. His mind turned instead to “friendship is a component of marriage” and “marriage is above all a conversation, and if husband and wife do not figure out a way to become friends, the marriage has little chance of surviving.” All true, but perhaps not the direction indicated. He does accurately, I think, point out that “the best and most lasting friendships are based on admiration.”

Anyway, Auster proposes a topic—sport—which shows up in a lackadaisical way throughout the series of letters. One gets the sense that it is Coetzee now that will engage but has little real interest in the topic. We learn that Coetzee is an avid bicyclist who travels pretty frequently in Europe by this method, but he worries that he rarely has much to say about his trips afterward, that he is the worst travel writer and reporter ever. Auster points out that Coetzee is not a reporter, after all, but something far more creative.

But I think I understand that worry of Coetzee’s. It is endearing, that he worries. It is why we like him. Towards the end of this book of letters, nearly four years into the experiment of letter-writing, Coetzee came back from his first trip to India with two observations, nothing about color, heat, food, or filth. First, that animals in India, the ones he saw, like pigs, cows, dogs, monkeys, were not treated cruelly but were accepted and tolerated for their habits and characteristics, even for behaviors that intrude upon the sphere of men. He contrasted that to Africa, where animals are treated with contempt and an unthinking cruelty as for a lower form of life.

The second observation he came back with was that some people in India are perilously poor, very close to subsistence living, and yet the reservoir of practical skills, sheer industriousness, and the “intelligent hands” that in any other culture would make them respected artisans, demonstrate the vast potential of only very partially tapped human resources. He says no more about it, but one does get a sense of…is it hope? I may be making his thoughts sound banal, but in their context they are anything but and are more like opening a window to a scene you never expected to see.

Coetzee is older than Auster by seven years, and both men are happily married to long-time spouses. The four seem to get along with one another and every year they would run into one another at a conference or plan to meet up when in the same country. This correspondence covers things they think about while apart.

One final remark of Coetzee’s about the writing of Philip Roth which so closely parallels something I have written about Updike and Irving that I laugh to include it here:
"I don’t find Exit Ghost a particularly notable addition to the Roth canon. I know that Roth relishes the challenge of wringing something fresh out of stock situations, but there is only so much mileage one can get out of the aging male struggle against decay to prove his virility one last time."

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