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Not Oprah For President

January 13, 2018

8f918e72-f441-11e7-8693-80d4e18fb3a2_1280x720_105436.jpgI sometimes think about which Presidents I’d like to have to my house for dinner. Who would I welcome in to spend time with my family? Who would it to be an honor to meet and have a real conversation with. I think most of them. Reagan, Bush 41 and 43, Obama. Even some of the candidates—Romney, McCain, Sanders. They all seem like good, decent people, and despite our political disagreements I’m sure we’d find other things to talk about. Oprah Winfrey would definitely be in that category. I’m sure I’d find her as warm and thoughtful, full of energy and kindness as all of her fans do. If someone asked if I’d want to meet Oprah, of course I would.

But Oprah should not be our President.

There’s been a lot of chatter about it since her Golden Globes speech, a rousing take on feminism and the state of the world. She’s a great role model for everyone (men and women). I think Oprah is smart and thoughtful and has amazing ambition, not to mention the kind of charisma that would make her an ideal candidate.

But that is the problem. What makes people ideal candidates these days is not what makes them ideal presidents. Trump was a great candidate. He sucked all the oxygen out of the room, pulled the spotlight to him and bullied seasoned politicians in front of everyone. He said outrageous, outlandish things over and over—things that by the laws of common sense and common decency revealed him to be completely inept, immoral and a straight-up asshole. We got a very clear picture from Trump the candidate of how Trump the President would behave. Because that’s Trump, the man.

Given the opportunity, I would not want to meet him. I would not shake his hand. I would not want him near my home or near my family, President or no. And yet, millions of people voted for him, either because they were suckered by his empty pandering, because they ignored the personality in favor of policies that seemed to align to their own, or because he was the better of two evils. Let’s leave that at that.

In many ways, Oprah is the polar opposite of Trump. Her message is that everyone is good, everyone deserves compassion, the world is better with all of us. Her political beliefs probably align very well with mine. But it’s her other beliefs that are a huge problem.

Like Trump, Oprah is a magical thinker.

Yes, it’s a different brand of magical thinking. Trump’s world conforms to his own ego and his own opinions, and he will say—if not actually believe—things that are patently, demonstrably false, even at the time he says them. The debate about Trump is not whether he is a purveyor of convenient falsehoods, it’s whether or not he actually believes them (i.e. the Trump is mentally insane argument) or just a bald-faced liar.

Oprah, on the other hand, has a long history of promoting quack beliefs of her own. Homeopathic remedies, mystical energies, the rampancy of satanic cults, anti-vaccers, The Secret, the dangerous Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, Eckhart Tolle—a long, long list of quacks and quack ideas. Because until now, Oprah has not been held to a standard of objective reality. She has a legion of dedicated followers who believe whatever malarkey she peddles. Because she’s Oprah.

And that is a problem.

It’s fine if belief in some dubious mystical or spiritual energy gives you confidence and inner strength. If you want to believe you can change the world with your thoughts, or that your prayers will lead to financial success or that some magic diet will give you superpowers, you’re free to do so.

But I don’t want you making policy. I don’t want your magical thinking taught in science class, your magical supplements in my food or your magical God-is-on-America’s-side delusion guiding our foreign policy.

Oprah built her empire on ratings. She’s magnetic. She’s an entertainer and a very good one. And shows about the latest magical thinking or magical cure are apparently entertaining, very good for ratings.

But we need someone who believes in the real form of reality. Who, when it comes to science looks to, oh I don’t know, the scientists maybe. Who believes in doctors with actual medical degrees. We do not need another entertainer. We do not need another quack. We do not need another magical thinker.

 

 

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My 2017 Book List

January 1, 2018

Screen Shot 2018-01-01 at 9.05.51 PM.pngThis is my 18th year doing this list. Thanks to all my friends and family who continue to encourage this obsession, who read my reviews and offer responses (or editing suggestions) and who share their own recommendations. Greg, Tim, Mom, Jon, Sarah, Brian, others.

I put myself in a pickle this year—I hit December and had about 12 books I had finished reading but hadn’t yet written reviews for. It was a busy year, and that’s my excuse if these feel uneven.

This has been for many years my favorite annual tradition. I find in books a means of escape, a way to grow my own writing craft by appreciating those better at it than I, and a way to figure out what to think of the world. Writing the review helps me remember the book better and make it my own. These reviews are less traditional reviews and more my very personal experiences with the books.

This year, I read or listened to thirty-five books. Here’s the list by the numbers:

17 were nonfiction, 18 fiction
17 had horses
7 were by or related to Cormac McCarthy
9 were wholly or partially about war
6 were by women
5 were classics (I’m counting Blood Meridian and you can’t stop me)
4 were re-reads

Here’s a link to the full list.

I publish reviews on this blog throughout the year as I read each book.

Here’s the short version of just my favorites:

Fiction
The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
American War by Omar El Akkad
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

 Nonfiction
M Train by Patti Smith
Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen
Sacred Hoopsby Phil Jackson
Theft By Finding by David Sedaris
Vacationland by John Hodgman

What did you read in 2017? What did you love? 

 

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen

January 1, 2018

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Kurt Anderson’s timely new book is about the propensity of Americans to believe crazy stuff. I just finished this book and my head is still spinning from it, so I might revisit later for a more thought-through post later, but his point is essentially this: we are prone to flights of fancy. Belief in religions, spin-offs of religions, the supernatural, conspiracy theories and “alternative facts.” Magical thinking, magical cures, secret societies, ghosts and UFOs, secret government programs. We’re suckers for hoaxes and scams and stupid bets. We love our holy-rollers, our charlatans, our magicians, our seers and sooth-sayers. We want to be like our pro wrestlers, our tv spokespeople, our reality stars, our cover girls, our centerfolds. We eat up those fake facts supporting our hare-brained theories. And we’re not normal in the global picture—this tendency, or the degree to which we exhibit it, is a particularly American phenomenon.

It’s baked into our DNA as a country. America was founded on the promise of gold, independence, freedom. We revolted from England, started our own country, started our own religions. We believed that anything was possible. We spread the belief that anybody can be anything. We sold our own myths to ourselves—gold rushes, Hollywood, the simulacra of Vegas and Disney World. Television. The lottery. Plastic surgery. Reality TV.

In the 60s, any truth was as good as any other truth. The counter-culture believed that reality itself should be questioned. It wasn’t just the social order that was upturned, but the agreed-upon truths that make up our world. Religion, already mid-revival, got a boost along with the crystals and mysticism and New Age spiritual mumbo jumbo. It’s the vibes, man. Was it a coincidence that reports of UFO sightings shot up? In our entertainment, we saw a bend toward the fantastical—the success of Star Wars owes as much to its timing as to its quality.

We like everything to be entertainment—our religion and our news included. The more dramatic, the better. I learned in an otherwise mediocre college journalism course that the news bias one needs to be wary of is not left-right, it’s sensationalism. When we went to 24-hour news programming, there was a need to fill all that time. When the Fairness Doctrine was repealed in 1987, there was no longer a requirement to be balanced, despite what the slogans claim. It was all about the ratings, about the news stories that get the eyeballs, i.e. the controversial blood-boiling news stories. The louder, the more agro, the more inflammatory, the more stoked with moral outrage, the better. Rush Limbaugh pioneered this and everyone followed. News competed with entertainment. It became more and more sensational, more and more tribal. And here we are.

And we like our religions to be entertainment too—more dramatic. Lights, cameras, big audiences, speaking in tongues. A belief in the impending apocalypse. Churches spun off of churches spun off of churches, and the zealots are the ones drawing the crowds. The “traditional” churches that started before 1900 have been on the decline for quite some time. But those started since the 1970s are growing. The more fanatical the beliefs, the faster the growth. Speaking in tongues has made a comeback. A belief in a literal reading of the Bible is on the rise. “Creation science,” that ignorant scourge, keeps being pushed into our classrooms by crusading zealots intent on turning our children into morons. But, hey, it’s just their version of the truth, as right as real science, right?

Climate change is just an opinion. GMOs are bad for you, despite all evidence otherwise. Birtherism. Anti-vaccines. These are stupid, ill-informed positions, yet we spend so much of our oxygen arguing about them because we’re American and it’s what we do. We give the idiots an equal voice in the argument, even if it’s one idiot for every hundred people, because, who knows, they could be right.

The final thing that came into play—along with the fundamental “anything is possible” DNA of America and the moral relativism of the 60s—was technology. The Internet. Now not only could you believe something idiotic, you could find a whole community of thousands, millions who legitimized your belief. The President was born somewhere else and is a secret Muslim? Here are some people who can get on that bandwagon. Want to bring back the Nazi movement? Here’s a bunch of other bald dipshits who will meet up and light tiki torches with you. You can find a community for almost anything, and because of social media you can now build a community. You didn’t need the mass media—everyone can be their own bullhorn.

Andersen walks through most of this chronologically, but a structure that I drew up (again, based on probably not enough time thinking about this), is that we use our fantasies for three main reasons: entertainment, identity and explanation.

He talks about things like Disney and Vegas and Dungeons & Dragons and LARPing and and video games as ways we create more and more realistic fantasies. Simulacra—experiences that mimic other experiences, like our casinos looking like Paris or our malls looking like the town square or our seafood restaurants looking like the inside of a pirate ship. But I lump those into just immersive entertainment. We’re pretending we’re somewhere else for a bit of escapism.

Then we create fantasies to help create an identity. We wear makeup or certain clothes, get fake boobs or wear a Steph Curry jersey (even though we can’t dribble) because it identifies us a certain way. Social media may give us the greatest ability to do this, where we can craft whatever image, whatever reality we want to portray—photos of our awesome food and our awesome kids and our awesome vacation to show how awesome our lives are, even though just off camera most of it is shit like everyone else’s.

Finally, we create fantasies as a way of explaining our world. This is where religion comes in. How did we get here? What’s our purpose? What happens after we die? Or conspiracies—the government is conspiring to keep us down. The election was rigged. They’re putting chemicals in our water to make us dumber.

It’s when these fantasies compound that things get problematic. When we choose our sources of reality because they’re more entertaining, or more in line with who we identify. When we create fantasies to bolster our beliefs. When we pick a truth based on which side we want to win (our side). Skepticism is hard. While we should be more skeptical of anything that supports our existing point-of-view, be it a news story or a political candidate or a preacher or a tweet or some cockamamie theory by some guy at the bar, we typically accept those “facts” at face value. We don’t question what supports our existing beliefs, or supports our side of the political spectrum, or comes from the “news” anchor we know wears our color uniform. It’s much easier to just say, “Hell yeah! That’s what I been sayin’!” We like it simple. We like to be right. We like to win. We like stories where good guys fight bad guys and good guys (our guys) win. We like to know that if we do this thing, that thing happens. Take this pill, grow hair back. Just follow these seven steps, fame and fortune. Pray every day, heaven. This is America. Who’s going to tell us it can’t be? Or, to quote one of the my favorites, Andersen’s epigraph to Part V, “Yeah, well, that’s just, you know, like, your opinion, man.” –The Dude, The Big Lebowski

Is it any wonder we’re susceptible to fantasy?

Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy

January 1, 2018

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Cities of the Plain, the third in McCarthy’s border trilogy, finds John Grady Cole (protagonist from All the Pretty Horses) and Billy Parham (protagonist from The Crossing) working together as ranchers in southern New Mexico in 1952. The ranches of the area are struggling and both men live in poor circumstance. With the war overseas and the ranches in decline, the U.S. government has been claiming ranches through eminent domain for use by the military.

While at a brothel in Ciudad Juarez, John Grady falls for an epileptic whore. His quixotic quest to rescue and marry the girl and Billy’s obligation to help his friend drive the plot of the novel. This is by far the bleakest of the trilogy. And because of the investment the reader has made in the characters throughout the series, it has more bite than some of McCarthy’s standalone novels. Here the brutality of the world acts upon characters we have come to know and love.

It’s not just the final note in the narrative arc of the characters that leaves one feeling heavy, cold. It’s that we feel the west closing, the days of the cowboys and the open ranges of the earlier novels, the freedom and romance of it all, quickly closed off without concern.

There is one scene that is perhaps good to leave this trilogy on, which is a fairly non-important scene in terms of the plot, just a conversation between John Grady and a neighbor, that captures their bewilderment at the changing world around them and a certain longing for a world gone, maybe the central theme of the trilogy all told.

People will do anything.
Yes sir they will.
You live long enough you’ll see it.
Yes sir I have.
Mr. Johnson didn’t answer. He flipped the butt of his cigarette out across the yard in a slow red arc.
Ain’t nothing to burn out there. I remember when you could have grass fires in this country.
I didn’t mean that I’d seen everything John Grady said.
I know you didn’t.
I just meant I’d seen things I’d as soon not of.
I know it. There’s hard lessons in this world.
What’s the hardest?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s just that when things are gone they’re gone. They ain’t comin’ back.
Yes sir.

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy

January 1, 2018

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When they came south out of Grant County Boyd was not much more than a baby and the newly formed county they’d named Hidalgo was itself little older than the child. In the country they’d quit lay the bones of a sister and the bones of his maternal grandmother. The new country was rich and wild. You could ride clear to Mexico and not strike a crossfence.

So opens the second of McCarthy’s border trilogy, in which we find young Billy Parham and his brother Boyd two innocents come to witness the wild as it is pushed west and south. In that first year, Billy sneaks out on a winter night to watch wolves chase a herd of antelope across a snow-covered field in the moonlight.

The wild left in this country is beautiful, but it is still wild. Even the elder Parhams prove not suited to withstand it. And everywhere, even as the natural world senses the encroachment of these domestic interlopers, it looks to bite back. As we follow a she-wolf along the Animas range, starved and searching for food where the food has been slaughtered, the trees cut back, she turns to the cattle, these dumb domesticated beasts.

 The ranchers said they brutalized the cattle in a way they did not the wild game. As if the cows evoked in them some anger. As if they were offended by some violation of an old order. Old ceremonies. Old protocols.

In this part of the world, there are predators aplenty, some of the human variety, some still natural. That is the hard lesson the boys will learn. Although the wild is being pushed back, in some cases is strung out and bedraggled (such as the tired Indian the boys meet on their property, with Mexican boots worn down to nothing, who Billy dismisses as “just a drifter”) it is still full of danger.

The Crossing is a parallel story to first of the trilogy, All the Pretty Horses, with no overlap in plot, though the themes carry throughout. It establishes the story of Billy Parham, who will join John Grady Cole in the third of the trilogy, Cities of the Plain. Of the three, this is my favorite.

It tells of Billy’s three crossings from southern New Mexico into Mexico. In the first, he and his family have trapped the she-wolf and he seeks to return her to the mountains. In the second crossing, Billy and Boyd attempt to retrieve horses stolen from his family. In the third crossing, Billy searches for his brother.

The Crossing carries many of the McCarthy signatures—beautiful descriptions of the land, man enveloped within the natural surroundings, long lonely wanderings, a world defined by violence. We see his characters through their actions, their sparse bits of dialogue and are left to intuit their inner workings. And yet, despite this objective point of view, I found myself deeply connected to Billy and Boyd. They are young, vulnerable in a brutal world, fiercely independent yet with a brotherly loyalty.

By the end of Cities of the Plains we will see a west that has changed. Here, in the years leading up to and during World War II, with this west that still has wild, danger, a lack of fences, I found much wonder, much to love. It’s a bleak novel in many ways, and McCarthy has his moments where his prose can spin off into cryptic incantations, more lyrical than crystalline. But of his westerns, I found The Crossing to have the most to grab onto and the most that grabbed onto me.

The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic by Mike Duncan

December 31, 2017

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I listened to Mike Duncan’s discussion with Dan Carlin on Dan’s Hardcore History Addendum podcast. They spoke at length about the common comparisons between the modern U.S. and the Roman Republic, though weren’t that convinced that we’re on the verge of collapse. From that discussion, I thought I’d give this book a try. I have Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome on my wish list, but at 600+ pages it’s a little more of an undertaking than I’m up for, especially since I’ve never been particularly interested in this part of history.

This book is much more focused on the middle-to-end of the Republic. The empire is vast, and there is the constant pull between the rulers and the populace, between the wealthy who benefit materially from Rome’s conquests and the impoverished who live in the cities and farm the land. Additionally, there are ongoing fights over which of the new Roman subjects will be considered citizens, which ethnic groups will be given voting rights (the Italians, in particular, are jerked around with promises broken). The politicians vie to appeal to the different forces, and the generals march their armies from city to city, jockeying for position.

I would have liked a little more of the why the Republic fell, what seeds were being planted at this point in history. There is a lot of tactical descriptions of the maneuverings of Sulla, Marius, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus and the like, but overall it’s pretty dry, even with the handful of Game of Thrones moments. I don’t think it’s Duncan’s writing or approach—both the writing and the action move along at a good clip—I am just (still) not that enthralled with Roman history.

A Place on Earth by Wendell Berry

December 30, 2017

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I have read several of Wendell Berry’s books of essays. He’s an agrarian philosopher, a thoughtful elderly sage who believes we all have a duty to the land, animals and our communities. His writing is as beautiful as it is thoughtful. I’d never thought to read any of his fiction, though, until I came across his remarkable short story “Stand By Me” in a 2010 collection of Pen/O. Henry Prize stories.

All of Wendell Berry’s fiction takes place in a fictional rural town called Port William, Kentucky. For the past fifty years, Berry has developed Port William and its citizens over the course of eight novels, forty-two short stories and seventeen poems. The stories span from 1888 to 2008, and A Place on Earth takes place in the middle of that timeline, during World War II. Port William is feeling the pull of the war. As we meet the characters—the barber, a couple of share-croppers, the gravedigger, the preacher—news from overseas comes in and out. But mostly we feel it with the Feltners, whose boy Virgil is off fighting.

This is a slow, pensive story. It is oftentimes somber, sometimes funny, but has the rhythm of ordinary life. It took me several months on and off to get through it, but I returned to Port William at times when I wanted to slow down and check in on the characters. I wouldn’t say they were like old friends, because I think they’d take issue with a stranger like me just nosing into their world. But stopping in to see them tend to the fields, deal with the passage of time and the joys and tragedies of life brought a certain balance to my mind.

Berry is one of America’s treasures. He is an activist for the land. He is a luddite who eschews tractors for horse-drawn plows, writing long-hand for computers. He is 83, and still turning out writings (his The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Essays was just published in October of 2017). I feel thankful to have stumbled into this trove with so much more to explore of Port William and its people.