Tuesday, January 29, 2019
Book Review: What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America
What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America by Michael Eric Dyson
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
If there was ever such a thing as an egotistical pop-scholar, or the figure of a media-hungry pundit-professor, Michael Eric Dyson would be its epitome as well as it’s apex.
The focal point of this book is a 1963 meeting between Sen. Robert Kennedy and a group of notable African-Americans which included several prominent and celebrated figures, such as the writer James Baldwin, musician Harry Belafonte, singer Lena Horne, and playwright Lorraine Hansberry, as well as Jerome Smith, a well known Freedom Rider. Dyson depicts this historic meeting as “a watershed moment in American politics” that began a conversation on race which continues to this day. But Dyson, being the intellectual huckster that he is, isn’t about to allow for any kind of “real” conversation to take place. Instead he uses this event as yet another catalyst to push his unique brand of revisionist history.
What Dyson presents to us is a false narrative, one that has been carefully crafted to present white Americans as uniquely guilty of racism. However, the idea that any one demographic group “invented” race is noticeably ridiculous. Other more respectable sociologists have recognized, at least since the 1970s, that humans instinctively gravitate towards their own group identities.
Even if we were to accept Dyson’s premise that whites have invented race, there are gaps in his argument. If race is a white invention, then why did so many American minorities embrace the concept? For example, in the 1830s, Cherokee Native Americans embraced slavery, asserting that they were equal to whites and superior to African-Americans.
One could make the argument that only a minority of Native American and African-Americans owned slaves. However, the same was true in the American South, with only 25% of Southerners owning slaves. If one forgives the Cherokee and African-American slave-owners, surely one must also forgive their white peers.
These complex historical circumstances do not diminish the scope of injustice in America but it does demonstrate that history is not a race-centered morality play. In Dyson’s narrative, whites alone are responsible for racial injustice. In reality however, whites were acting on a universal group instinct in establishing in-groups and out-groups. They were not alone in accepting racist dogmas and prejudices. It appears that Dyson lives in the United States of Amnesia, and not his opponents, as he so often likes to assert.
I also can’t help but think that Dyson’s time would be better spent in the classroom, as opposed to being on television, doing actual research, instead of cultivating this cottage industry of race that he has created for himself. But hey, I get it, this is how he puts bacon on the table, it’s his schtick and he has made a small fortune from it. That’s the shell game he likes to play, keep white guilt front and center in any discussion and the grievance money will just pour in.
I also feel that he needs to stop hiding behind these big-word rants of his. He often speaks as if he’s trying to convince doubters that he really knows a lot of long and arcane words and can gabble them out fairly quickly to prove it, though, in his case, not always coherently. He strings together such a ridiculous stream of words that Stephen Fry, in a Munk Debate, pegged him most accurately when he referred to his style of communication as “huckstering snake oil pulpit talk.” The worst part about him is that he’s predictable in almost every way imaginable, as we can pretty much guess everything he’s about to say before he even says it. Why anyone in the media pays him any attention is extraordinary.
This book is intellectual masturbation at best and has no sense of history outside of the narrow ideology that Dyson likes to peddle. Dyson is simply yet another intellectual conman and race-baiter and narcissist of the most vicious sort.
If there is indeed a conversation that has been left unfinished in America, it’s between Dyson and himself.
Saturday, January 19, 2019
Bird Box by Josh Malerman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
As a kid I would often find myself awake in the middle of the night, alone in my room, in the dark, but would resist the temptation to open my eyes. I was terrified of what I might see, of what might conceivably be standing there just waiting for me to look at it.
Malorie lives in this same world, a world of darkness, and it has been nearly five years since her world has ended. At first, there were just rumors and scattered reports of people doing unimaginable harm to themselves. Soon however, the scattered reports become more frequent, and hysteria begins to spread. No one knows exactly what it is that is causing people to snap and kill themselves in such horrific ways, only that it has some correlation to something they have seen. To protect themselves, people begin putting blankets over their windows, boarding themselves indoors, and wearing thick glasses, helmets and blindfolds when they dare venture outside.
This book has a cruel and yet simple premise, Don’t Look! Which is very effective simply because it is nearly impossible to obey. It’s human instinct to look, even when you know that what you will see will destroy you. Malerman understands this instinct and delivers on this score in a big way. Really, wouldn’t humans be wiped out because we simply couldn’t look away from something?
I never particularly got much of a sense of who Malorie was as a person however. All we really seem to know about her life before the apocalypse is that she's in her twenties, lives with her sister, has no job, and at one point had a one night stand with a man whose name is mentioned only once in the book and who Malorie seems to barely think of at all despite the fact she's determined to have the child that he fathered. I also couldn’t keep from wondering how much more interesting and meaningful the story would have been if it had been narrated from the perspective of someone who had been born blind. Nevertheless, I have never felt the need to finish a book so fast before in my life. This is the kind of book that whispers softly, “come on….just a few more minutes….if you stay up until 2am we can probably just knock this out.” Despite this impulse however, nothing about the book felt rushed. Everything unfolded as it should have. The best books have a tendency to do just that, unfolding like a movie in the mind, with readers visualizing the events in living color, as they unfold in black and white on the page.
According to some interpretations, BirdBox exemplifies the fears that are associated with becoming a parent. Some have also said that it’s a scathing reflection on white privilege. While still others have claimed that it's a cautionary tale about social media. And plenty of readers have even argued that it's a faith-filled religious allegory. Malerman himself doesn’t really offer us any explanations however, especially concerning the creatures. What they are, where they came from, or even what they actually look like, is never addressed. Some reviewers have criticized this decision calling it a mistake, but really what was the alternative? It’s the ambiguity of the creatures that allows the reader the opportunity to project any meaning they want into the narrative. The most effective horror always eschews explanations for atmosphere and dread, using its tropes to expose the paranoia that thrums inside the brittle bones against which civilized society clings, leaving the reader to ponder newer, more compelling questions than the ones posed at the outset and I will always admire an author who knows when not to give answers.
My personal interpretation of the creatures is that they come to represent the dangers that nihilism poses for human existence and anyone brave enough to gaze into the abyss of nihilism will immediately be arrested with the desire for self-destruction.
Nietzsche characterizes nihilism as a philosophy that empty’s the world, and especially human existence, of meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, and essential value. It’s a philosophy that maintains an extreme skepticism towards existence. That nothing in the world has any real value. It’s the belief that life is meaningless.
In order to relieve themselves of such a nightmarish view of life, those who are affected by the creatures are driven to the point of clinging to suicide for salvation from what has just been revealed to them. In this sense Malorie is quite literally running away from the seemingly inescapable impulse to kill herself. But she was also running away in search of hope, the only bulwark we have against nihilisms seductive appeal. Which just might be the most frightening aspect of the story.
It can however, be very difficult to hold onto hope in the face of such an overwhelming abnegation. Why not just end things now, and join the peaceful ranks of the deceased? Why not open other people’s eyes to that same terrible truth? It takes courage to hope and nihilism, as the story suggests, is not something that can be overcome by arguments or analyses, but rather is something that can only be tamed through it’s negation.
It is only when Malorie finally manages to reach the sanctuary, that she is comfortable enough in naming her children, safe in the hope that she has somehow escaped this nihilistic void and has been ushered back into a world full of life and of meaning. However, according to Donald A. Crosby, "Those who claim to find meaning in their lives are either dishonest or deluded. In either case, they fail to face up to the harsh reality of the human situation.”
So what would really happen if we were suddenly confronted with the truth…the real, unvarnished truth of the universe? I suspect that most people would feel compelled to kill themselves. While, perhaps a select few, would see the beauty in such a revelation. In any case, and for the moment at least, the most merciful thing in the world right now, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all of its contents.
Saturday, January 12, 2019
Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America by Beth Macy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In some very tight-knit Appalachian communities heroin has become a social contagion. The epidemic has changed the region now to the point that the crisis has become ingrained in the culture itself and nearly everyone here has ties to someone who has struggled with addiction.
Opioid addiction is often described as an “equal opportunity” problem that can afflict people from all races and walks of life, but, while true enough, it obscures the fact that the opioid crisis has particularly affected some of the poorest regions of the country, especially in politically unimportant places, places such as Appalachia, a place that now feels mostly forgotten, where a huge number of Americans, many of them poor rural whites, have died in the last couple of decades of what one Princeton researcher has called “diseases of despair,” including alcoholism, suicide, and drug overdoses.
Appalachia itself is no stranger to exploitation by faraway captains of industry and Beth Macy has done an excellent job in exposing the corporate greed and regulatory failure that has played such a heavy hand in our current crisis and places the responsibility for the epidemic squarely on Purdue Frederick, makers of OxyContin, and its sales division, Purdue Pharma, which engaged in largely predatory marketing practices to sell a drug that has wreaked havoc on the lives of 2.6 million Americans. In the first section of the book, she addresses “big pharma” in telling detail, outlining how the overprescribing of pain medication created a market demand that was then met by illegal drug peddlers on the street. Section two follows the spiral of addiction as users of prescription pills, who are no longer able to afford their habit, turn to heroin, a cheaper and more lethal solution to feed their addiction and then in the last section, switches the focus to the addiction treatment industry itself.
People who are living in poverty are
especially at high risk for addiction and its consequences and if we want to be serious about reversing the opioid crisis and preventing future drug crises of this scope from happening in the future we will also need to address the economic disparities, housing instability, poor education quality, and lack of access to quality health care, including evidence-based treatment, that currently plague many of America’s disadvantaged individuals, families, and communities.
Marcia Angell, writing in The New York Review of Books, said, “As long as this country tolerates the chasm between the rich and the poor, and fails even to pretend to provide for the most basic needs of our citizens, such as health care, education, and child care, some people will want to use drugs to escape. This increasingly seems to me not a legal or medical problem, nor even a public health problem. It’s a political problem. We need a government dedicated to policies that will narrow the gap between the rich and the poor and ensure basic services for everyone. To end the epidemic of deaths of despair, we need to target the sources of the despair.”
It would however be too simplistic to blame a town’s opioid epidemic directly on the recession and loss of employment opportunities. But, nevertheless, it did create the social vacancy and desperation that we see in so many of these communities. People here no longer feel like they have a purpose. Many drug addicts are solely trying to escape the reality that the place they call home can no longer offer them anything and that’s a hard reality to live with. People are slowly becoming aware that the American Dream has been taken from them. That the American Dream is no longer theirs to dream.
The opioid crisis, as well as the national response to it, has also forced us to confront our conflicting cultural logic about whether addiction is a moral, social, or biological problem, or some combination of the three. But addiction is not something that people choose. It’s a disease and it’s one of the hardest diseases to fight. While many people have embraced this idea of addiction as a disease, a vocal cohort still dismisses this as a fantasy and regards addicts as community embarrassments. But if they had a heart problem or cancer it’d be talked about in school and with teachers, there would be support, other families would be offering to help with childcare, bringing casseroles over. However, since there is a shaming element embedded in small-town culture, and with this problem in particular, and because it is perceived to a be a problem of choice and morals, the addict is shamed. There’s no sense of community support and addicts end up becoming further and further isolated.
My own father was, and by every measure, still is, an addict and will likely be for the rest of his adult life. As Macy explains, “Opioid addiction is a lifelong and typically relapse-filled disease. Forty to sixty percent of addicted opioid users will achieve remission with medication-assisted treatment, according to 2017 statistics, but sustained remission can take as long as 10 or more years. Meanwhile about 4 percent of the opioid-addicted die annually of overdose.”
I relate this, because I know what it is like to live on the periphery of addiction, the potential danger of being neglected, taken advantage of, or even raged against and I know the real costs of addiction to families. Aside from dollars spent, addiction costs a great deal of time, energy, and emotion. Whether it is numerous stints in rehab, trips to court, or new and mounting responsibilities, addiction can dramatically change family dynamics. It can affect every facet of a person’s life and can lead to martial problems, divorce, loss of employment, and criminal charges. As these negative outcomes build, a person may fall deeper into the grips of substance abuse, using it as a means of comfort and escape, ultimately creating a self-fulfilling cycle. “Nothing’s more powerful than the morphine molecule,” Macy writes, “and once it has its hooks in you, nothing matters more … the only relationship that matters is between you and the drug.” As one user says, “It’s like shooting Jesus into your arm.”
Macy is certainly not the first to write about the opioid crisis, but she does bring a new level of humanity to a story that is too often carelessly splashed across headlines and just as easily dismissed and Dopesick, if it does nothing else, forces us to revise our image of what an addict actually looks like.
There are times when a book needs to be written, but there are also times when a book needs to be read, even though it hurts. Dopesick is one of those books.