Sunday, November 25, 2018

Book Review: Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power

Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power by Noam Chomsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s been said that the hardest language to speak is the truth. I would add that it’s also the hardest to hear.
In Requiem for the American Dream, Noam Chomsky directs his fierce intellect onto the utopian ideology of neoliberalism, which is the absurd idea that markets should dictate all aspects of human society.
Each chapter is informed by Chomsky’s deep understanding of American history and each in turn helps to build a damning case against the entrenched forces among the nation’s economic elite as having deliberately sowed a “vicious cycle” that increases wealth at the top while shrinking opportunity for everyone else at the bottom.
The book is organized around Chomsky’s “Ten Principals of Concentration of Wealth and Power” that have created, not only the rapid growth of income inequality we see today, but a myriad of related social and economic problems, all of which include, reducing broad democratic participation in governance, shifting the nation’s economic base from manufacture to the finance games of stock market and credit, shifting the tax burden to relieve the well-off, deregulation, election engineering (crowned by Citizens United, the masterstroke in empowering corporate influence on and within government), eroding the power of organized labor, promoting the mass distraction of frivolous consumerism, and “marginalizing the population” by splitting them into impotent factions angry at each other (rather than those at the top), a tactic spectacularly evident in our current political climate.
While such efforts have been present from the time of the Founding Fathers Chomsky argues that there’s been a concentrated, well-orchestrated if largely stealth pushback in their direction since the successful social-justice movements of the 1960s greatly alarmed the keepers of the status quo.
Sociologist Loïc Wacquant argues that, “The invisible hand of the market and the iron fist of the state combine and complement each other to make the lower classes accept desocialized wage labor and the social instability it brings in its wake.” By contrast, he adds, “Neoliberal policies are extremely lenient in dealing with those in the upper echelons of society, in particular when it comes to economic crimes of the privileged classes and corporations such as fraud, embezzlement, insider trading, credit and insurance fraud, money laundering and violation of commerce and labor codes.”
Several scholars have actually linked the rise of neoliberalism to the unprecedented levels of mass incarceration of the poor, found especially in the United States. “After a long eclipse, the prison has thus returned to the frontline of institutions entrusted with maintaining our social order.”
Neoliberal policies do nothing except promote a social Darwinist ethic which elevates self-interest over social needs. Instead of citizens, what it ends up producing is consumers. Instead of communities, it produces shopping malls. The net result, as Robert W. McChesney has said, “is an atomized society full of disengaged individuals who feel not only demoralized but socially powerless.” David Harvey, geographer and anthropologist, has even described neoliberalism as a class project, which is to say it’s designed to impose class on society through the mechanism of liberalism.
John Dewey, the leading social philosopher in the late twentieth century, argued that until all institutions - production, commerce, media - are under participatory democratic control, we will not have a functioning democratic society. As he put it, “Policy will be the shadow cast by business over society.”
Chomsky does conclude the book with a bit of optimism stating that, “there is a lot that can be done if people organize, and struggle for their rights as they’ve done in the past.” However, I do get the feeling that given all the challenges he lists, that he no longer quite believes that. And to be honest, I’m not sure I do either.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Book Review: The Amityville Horror

The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

On November 13, 1974, Ronald DeFeo Jr. shot and killed six members of his family at 112 Ocean Avenue, a large Dutch Colonial house situated in a suburban neighborhood in Amityville, on the south shore of Long Island, New York.
Thirteen months later, George and Kathleen Lutz purchased the five bedroom home and moved in with their three children but ended up vacating the premises shortly thereafter, claiming that they had been terrorized by some sort of malevolent paranormal phenomena while living there between December 1975 and January 1976.
It’s impossible to talk about the alleged haunting without also talking about the murders, they’re both inextricably intertwined, but what any fan of horror quickly realizes about the Lutzes claims is that they have obviously been pieced together from a variety of haunted house tropes in order to tell the story of the ultimate haunting.
Was the house built on an ancient Native American burial ground or the site of a kind of Native American asylum or wait, was it the home of an escaped witch from Salem? No, actually, it was the site of devil worship with animal and human sacrifices, or was it? All of these hypotheses were supposedly true about the house. That’s not all though, there was also a well in the basement where evil things may be hiding and escaping from.
The family was apparently in a lot of debt during this time, which led to rumors that they were simply after a movie or book deal as a result of their story. The Lutzes even had a falling out with their attorney over financial issues; he has since said that the haunted house stories were an elaborate ruse by the Lutz family to get themselves out of debt. Ronald DeFeo, Jr.’s own lawyer, William Weber, has even said that he met with the Lutzes on several occasions and they “created this horror story over many bottles of wine.”
The house has had various owners since the Lutz family left in 1976, all of which have reported no problems while living there. James Cromarty, who bought the house in 1977 and lived there with his wife Barbara for ten years, commented: "Nothing weird ever happened, except for people coming by because of the book and the movie."
Anson’s book, based on the Lutzes claims, is a quick and easy read, mostly because it appears to have been quickly and easily written. He utilizes a true crime journalistic style of reporting which does keep you reading until the end, even if when you get there, you put the book down, roll your eyes, and walk away.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Book Review: What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When you see headlines that begin "In the heart of Trump Country" chances are, you're reading an article about Appalachia written by a journalist who isn’t from there. This often repeated Trump Country narrative, to put it reductively, is usually one of poor uneducated racists with no ambition lashing out in anger against coastal elites, but this, as Elizabeth Catte has said, is, "a bad-faith sleight of hand that displaces the reality that the average Trump voter is a college-educated white individual of some means, not a ‘hillbilly.’”
People often look at Appalachia not as a place but often as a problem needing to be solved. Or worse, a place one can feel superior to. The Appalachia that everybody knows, outside the region anyway, is really an elitist fantasy constructed to perpetuate a narrative that allows for economic and political exploitation. But those same outside interests, in their endless quest to discover how and why poor people swung an election, have only succeeded in raising a far more complex question: why so many Americans needed this Appalachian myth to be true when it wasn’t. Perhaps it’s because Appalachia has long been a place that, as historian Ron Eller described, convinces comfortable, distant white Americans of the “righteousness” of their own lives. In other words it absolves them of any personal responsibility for anything that goes on here. People in regions such as Appalachia have in general always received a type of projected angst from their more comfortable and stable American counterparts.
What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia is an impudent assessment of this more recent fascination with the people and problems of my region. It also analyzes certain trends in contemporary writing on Appalachia before finally presenting a brief history of the region with an eye toward unpacking some of those same monolithic Appalachian stereotypes that have always seemed to be with us. But what this book really is, is an ill conceived, and critically withering response, to J.D. Vance’s 2016 book Hillbilly Elegy.
Catte writes that, “For many conservatives, the beauty of Hillbilly Elegy was not just what it said about the lot of poor white Americans, but what it implied about black Americans as well. Conservatives believed that Hillbilly Elegy would make their intellectual platforming about the moral failures of the poor colorblind in a way that would retroactively vindicate them for viciously deploying the same stereotypes against nonwhite people for decades.” She adds, “In his willingness to present white Appalachians as a distinct ethnic entity, Vance has placed himself in a disturbing lineage of intellectuals who relished what they presumed to be the malleable whiteness of Appalachia for its ability to either prove or disprove cultural beliefs about race. This belief manifests in two ways. The first is the modern conservative impulse to discount the links between structural racism and inequality. Why can’t poor black people get ahead? It’s not racism or the structural inequality caused by racism, many conservatives argue, because then what would explain the realities of poor white people?”
Joshua Rothman, writing in the New Yorker shortly after publication of Vance’s book wrote, “It’s true that, by criticizing “hillbilly culture,” “Hillbilly Elegy” reverses the racial polarity in our debate about poverty; it's also true that, by arguing that the problems of the white working class are partly “cultural,” the book strikes a blow against Trumpism. And yet it would be wrong to see Vance’s book as yet another entry in our endless argument about whether this or that group’s poverty is caused by “economic” or “cultural” factors.”
I myself was born and raised deep within the Appalachian mountains and I can tell you from personal experience, even within my own family, that there are still strong cultural links to a past that does, sometimes at least, hold us back.
What Hillbilly Elegy did was to highlight certain aspects of our way of life that, as Kelli Haywood says, “allow these problems to be ongoing,” adding, “ask the unwed or wedded woman in her 30’s living in the region how many times she’s been asked when she’s going to have a baby whether or not she’s healthy or financially secure. Ask the churchgoer how much their church serves the community and how. While at it, ask them how much they hear politics preached from the pulpit. Ask anyone middle aged or under how many times that they’ve been told by their parents and other elders that if they want to do anything with their life they should leave the mountains. Ask how many feel they have to change the way they speak depending upon who it is they’re speaking to. But, the most troubling of cultural drawbacks we face is the way we deal with problems that cause us to seem weak, embarrassed, or by some standards immoral. We pretend they don’t exist, at least in public. Vance by airing our dirty laundry has triggered the response of people scrambling to show that these problems do not define us. Yet, to those in the thick of these realities, they often do.”
Returning to Joshua Rothman again, “It’s one thing to criticize a culture. It’s another to see that the culture being criticized is formed partly in response to other cultures, and that those cultures are, in turn, worth criticizing. This is why explaining human behavior is so difficult: the buck never stops. The explanations don’t come to an obvious, final resting place. Because it’s honest about this problem, “Hillbilly Elegy” is only partially polemical.”
Of course J.D. Vance doesn’t speak for all of Appalachia and no serious person believes that he does. Those that took a strong offense to his book are those who feel like Vance was telling the wrong story of Appalachia, or not an Appalachian story at all. The more sophisticated writers and activists in the region, Catte included, have attempted to feature some of the more progressive stories of life living in the mountains. But these too are disingenuous and only serves to paint yet another inaccurate portrait of the place that so many call home. No one has the authority to define any region or place and anyone who tries does so based on ideological reasons. That’s how ideologies work. They function by identifying some people as powerless and others as powerful and whoever gets to define what those terms mean gets to control the narrative.
In my view there’s room for Catte and Vance to both be correct. Outside interests have taken advantage of Appalachia and not left much behind. Some families are dysfunctional and some people do mooch off the system in ways that cause resentment in others. But it’s up to readers to compare and contrast these two books and then draw their own conclusions. However this “economics vs. culture” divide needs to be seen for what it is, a dead metaphor, akin to an insidious form of manipulation rather than explanation that’s more likely to conceal the truth than to reveal it. I think Vance’s book is an understated scream of protest against the racialized blame game that has, for decades, powered American politics and confounded our attempts to talk about poverty in any meaningful way.
At least since the Moynihan Report, in 1965, Americans have tended to answer the question “Why are people poor?” either one of two ways. They either blame economic factors or they blame cultural factors. These may seem like two social science theories of poverty but when they are put into practice, they become more like political fairy tales. These two theories may be useful for politicians to peddle during election cycles, but the truth is that the “culture vs. economics” dyad is largely a fantasy. We are neither prisoners of our economic circumstances nor lords of our cultures, able to reshape them at will. It would be more accurate to say that cultural and economic forces act, with entwined and equal power, on and through all of us and that we all have an ability, limited but real, to harness or resist them. When we pursue education, we improve ourselves both “economically” and “culturally.” There’s nothing distinctly and intrinsically “economic” or “cultural” about the problems that afflict poor communities, such as widespread drug addiction or divorce. For example, if you lose your job, get divorced, and become an addict, is your addiction “economic” or “cultural” in nature? When we debate whether such problems have a fundamentally “economic” or “cultural” cause, we aren’t saying anything meaningful about the problems. We’re just arguing, incoherently, about whether or not people who suffer from them deserve to be blamed for them.
The problems facing Appalachia are not endemic to our region alone. Economic decline, generational poverty, an inability to find steady employment, low educational attainment, and interpersonal violence, are all issues that seem to plague lower income communities all across the country and the solutions that would help our region are the same as those that would help any other. Solutions which should include raising the minimum wage for workers regardless of what industry they’re in, separating health insurance from employment, and implementing a universal basic income for people who are facing long term unemployment. But we should also keep in mind that the solutions to our problems are not going to be exclusively “economic” or “cultural” either. People are complex, history is complex, regions and politics are complex, and you really need to be on guard for any narrative that offers you all of the answers in a one size fits all, bite-sized, single serve package.