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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Jonathan Lethem and an enviable gig

A couple months ago I drove up to Pomona College near Los Angeles and sat down with author Jonathan Lethem in his new office, where he's now teaching (the resulting profile is here at Pomona College Magazine).

I have to admit to a stream of jealousy. Lethem has a great gig as the tenured Roy Edward Disney Professor in Creative Writing, where he teaches a couple of courses a semester to students who are serious about writing and literature, and has time carved out to pursue his own writing. In this environment, a steady gig for ANY writer is a Godsend (note to hiring committees: I'm available).

Lethem is a smart guy, self-aware and but not overly self-promoting, striking the right balance. We talked a lot about the writing process, and he made a point that syncs with one I make to aspiring writers when they ask about the actual process of sitting down to write. “Nobody is trying to stop you from writing," Lethem said about the distractions he's had to overcome throughout his career. "You just have to structure your day so that you get to it.”

And that is the process in a nutshell. If you're waiting for the muse to strike, you'll never write. If you're waiting for a big commission to come along, you'll never write. To be a writer, obviously enough, you have to write. There is always time; it's just a matter of where writing fits in on your list of daily priorities.

Chris Offutt once wrote something about his own early adulthood that he was an actor who never acted, a painter who never painted, and a poet who never wrote poetry, though he had pretensions to being all those things. He did, eventually, become a writer - by writing.

To be it, you have to do it. So what are you doing wasting you time reading blogs? Disconnect from the electronic world, and write. Read More 
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If this is 'class war,' who started it?

Slowly, over the course of the past few decades, in the name of both corporate profits and lower consumer prices, we have bled our nation dry. We see the results in a jobless economic recovery - corporate and business profits are rising; domestic hiring remains moribund. We see it in the fiscal crises striking all levels of government - high unemployment means reduced spending and thus reduced sales and income tax revenues. We see it in the daily frustrations of tens of millions of working people pointing fingers at each other as being the problem - non-union versus union; legal citizens versus the undocumented.

The backlash in Wisconsin, which spread Saturday to state capitals elsewhere in the country (including many of my friends who went to Lansing, Michigan), is a significant moment in a long-building sense of outrage by those most affected by national economic polices that place corporate health and profits ahead of the health and sustainability of American families, and communities.

Robert Reich, labor secretary to President Clinton (who helped create some of the current troubles with his blind faith in NAFTA and other free-trade agreements), hit precisely at the key reason our economic recovery has been so weak. Even when corporations are profitable, the bulk of Americans are not sharing in it (and with loopholes that mean only one in three corporation pay income tax, this isn't helping government, either). In a consumer-based economy, the consumers have run out of money.
The truth is that while the proximate cause of America’s economic plunge was Wall Street’s excesses leading up to the crash of 2008, its underlying cause — and the reason the economy continues to be lousy for most Americans — is so much income and wealth have been going to the very top that the vast majority no longer has the purchasing power to lift the economy out of its doldrums. American’s aren’t buying cars (they bought 17 million new cars in 2005, just 12 million last year). They’re not buying homes (7.5 million in 2005, 4.6 million last year). They’re not going to the malls (high-end retailers are booming but Wal-Mart’s sales are down).
Reich blames Republicans. I don't. They certainly are at fault for this egregious attack on public employees' rights to collective bargaining, and for playing classes and ethnic groups off against each other. But the Democrats have been just as complicit in the rush to free trade, without concern for the devastating repercussions that created the current conditions.

But the blame for the underlying problems lies with us, as individual consumers and voters. As consumers,  Read More 
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Why Wisconsin matters to all of us

Mine guards during the Colorado coal strike, the subject of my first book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West
The unfolding of the absurd events in Wisconsin hasn't had the same drama as the revolutions sweeping across North Africa, but it could have a longer-lasting effect on America's (growing) working and (shrinking) middle classes. Below is an op-ed I wrote last week but couldn't find a home for. It still deserves an airing, I think:

It’s one thing for a political leader to take a principled stance against the power of public employee unions in state and local politics. It’s another thing entirely when you threaten to unleash a military force against them. And in raising the specter of calling out the National Guard in a possible showdown with public employees in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker has touched one of the most painful scars in American labor history.

No wonder union supporters have reacted with so much anger.

Why should we all care about what’s happening to state workers in snowy Wisconsin? Because Walker’s draconian move is not an isolated act. Similar, if less sweeping, proposals have aired in Ohio and Tennessee to try to undo what has become the recognized right of public workers to organize and, using the strength of their numbers, to improve the conditions and wages under which they work.

Walker’s efforts in Wisconsin are the most reactionary, and would limit about 175,000 state employees’ collective bargaining rights to wages alone, which in any case could not increase beyond the rise in the cost of living without a public referendum. That doesn’t leave much to negotiate over. And this clearly isn’t about saving the state money. It’s about power.

Political moves against workers’ rights further evidences the staggering gap between the relatively small tier of political and financial elites, and the growing ranks of the working poor. And for many, the sight of thousands of protesters  Read More 
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American idiocy, and Sharia law

When I was writing The Fear Within, wedged in the back of my mind was that as venally idiotic as some of our political figures were in the 1940s and 1950s, at least those days were behind us. Now it looks like our national fear is back. But instead of torching civil liberties over political beliefs, the modern flashpoint is religion.

Tennessee legislators are pushing a bill that would make observing Islamic Sharia law a criminal offense punishable by 15 years in prison. Its ostensible aim is those who would act to replace the U.S. government with an Islamic state. Specifically, the proposed law says "knowing adherence to sharia and to foreign sharia authorities is prima facie evidence of an act in support of the overthrow of the United States government and the government of this state through the abrogation, destruction, or violation of the United States and Tennessee Constitutions by the likely use of imminent criminal violence and terrorism with the aim of imposing sharia on the people of this state."

Note that acts are not required, just belief. The parallels to the 1940 Smith Act, which was the basis for the prosecutions I wrote about, are eerie. Chillingly so. Then, membership in the Communist Party was, according to the federal government, a de facto effort to violently overthrow the U.S. government, since theoretical communism called for the violent destruction of the capitalist state. This law would say the same thing about followers of Sharia law - whose interpretations vary widely. Belief is tantamount to action, and thus illegal.

Yes, fundamentalist Sharia law carries some draconian elements. But so does the Christian Bible - eye for an eye, anyone? Modern, mature societies and religious observers are capable of placing such outdated directives within their proper historical context. When was the last time an adulterer was stoned in Tennessee? Or a thief's hand cut off? Or, conversely, a mosque burned or an abortion provider attacked by Christian fundamentalists? (For the record, I'm an atheist).

This is religious intolerance at its most naked, an attempt to codify hatred. Burning mosques apparently isn't drastic enough in Tennessee, a place where crimes in the name of Christian extremism occur far more often than crime rooted in Sharia. The problem lies not in the faith, but in extremism, regardless of the religion at hand. And we have laws governing extremist acts in our criminal codes.

These proposals to criminalize the expression of religious faith are preposterous. We're being governed by Chicken Littles, though in truth we do keep electing these bozos, so we only have ourselves to blame. And you have to wonder whether we should redraw some of our existing legal lines. Could it be a hate crime to propose a law that would criminalize faith? Read More 
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Wisconsin, and the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire

Some of the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire.
Like many people, I've been watching the events unfolding in Wisconsin with a sense of fascinated revulsion. The rank opportunism of political figures in using the financial crisis to blow up public employees' rights to organize is as callous a move as we've seen in a long time (though I am very heartened by labor's response; general strike, anyone?). Same for the folks in Congress using the crisis to defund public broadcasting and Planned Parenthood. None of those proposals do more than throw a pail of water on a raging fiscal fire; the motives are based on shifting power, not balancing budgets.

But the fire analogy is apt. The New York Times this morning has a wonderful story about how the obsession of one researcher has led to the identification of the final six victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, which marks its 100th anniversary on March 25th.

Like the ludlow Massacre, the Triangle fire was a critical moment in the union movement, and the sheer scope of the tragedy - 146 killed as fire raged through a sweatshop in a building that is now part of New York University - led to significant reforms in fire codes, building codes, and working conditions.

It's a good lesson to learn from history in these union-busting days. Labor's response to that fire, and the pressure it put on government, revolutionized fire, safety and labor codes. For those who would have less government, it's a good juncture from which to look at "before" and "after." What working conditions were like when business owners were given a free hand, and the safeguards we as a society decided were necessary to rein in their killing excesses.

Remember, in that era, workers were considered disposable (some things don't change). In the Colorado coal mines, workers were valued less than mules. If a worker was killed, managers could always hire another one, in essence renting time and labor from another supplier. A mule, on the other hand, would have to be replaced. My guess is the owners of the Triangle sweatshop lamented the loss of their sewing machines as much if not more than the loss of life.

Unions emerged for a reason. And as the balance of power - and wealth - continues to shift toward corporations and away from workers, no matter the color of their collars, we would be well served by understanding how and why unions came to be in the first place. And those who think their relevance is in the past could not be more wrong. As long as our national policies and, for that matter, our national psyche, values profit over people, there is a need for unions. Read More 
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Borders' bankruptcy, and the tsunami effect

A friend owns a children's bookstore here in Irvine, California - A Whale of a Tale, a great shop - and Margaret and I helped her out yesterday with crowd control for a signing by "Weird Al" Yankovic. Afterward, a few of us met for dinner at a neighboring brewpub, and the conversation naturally steered to Borders' filing for bankruptcy.

One of our dining companions, an illustrator, had earlier in his career worked at Borders, and had some revealing stories about top-down management and a failure to understand what sets readers apart from general customers - familiar complaints, among many, about the once-great independent chain's plunge into insolvency, which we generally agreed began when it became part of massive corporations (K-Mart).

There wasn't much of it at our table last night, but I was thinking this morning about the general sense of popular condemnation when a company like Borders goes under, even if it is a reorganization plan. We tend to focus on the missteps and critical junctures in which wrong decisions were made, and that maybe the company go what it deserved. Which is fair enough, given that we are, at heart, a puritanical and punitive society (and that is a whole other blog post).

But perusing the list of creditors this morning is pretty sobering (the filing details are available here). Some of the biggest publishers are owed some serious money in a business in which margins are shrinking by the day. Those owed double-digit millions include Penguin ($41 million), Hachette ($37 million), Simon & Schuster ($34 million), Random House ($34 million), HarperCollins ($26 million), Macmillan ($11 million), and Wiley ($11 million).

Who knows how this will turn out. It could be Borders will reorganize and come out leaner and more competitive (it plans to close nearly one-third of its stores, so it's hard to see it re-establishing itself as the premier chain). And it could be that the creditors come out of this with a minimal loss of blood. But as my agent, Jane Dystel, pointed out in a blog post back when Borders first began halting payments to vendors, this is not a good thing for book publishing. And it is not a good thing for authors (um, me).

I can't help but think that given all the structural problems publishers are facing in these days of high unemployment, stagnant (if not reduced) wages, and a depressed retail world, that book publishing is facing a year of critical importance to its survival. And I hope, for all of us, that it survives relatively intact. Read More 
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HuffPo and FB: Two different sorts of plantations

There's an interesting column in the New York Times this morning by media writer David Carr looking at the absurd valuations for companies like Facebook and Twitter on the heels of Huffington Post's agreement to be swallowed up by AOL.

Carr is usually a pretty astute critic, but I think he missed a crucial differentiation here. He argues, correctly, that Huffington Post ratcheted itself to the value of $315 million on the unpaid work of thousands of bloggers, and perhaps to a bigger extent by doing little more than aggregating the paid-for output of professional media organizations.

If that's not outright thievery, it's pretty close. And, to me, highly unethical. HuffPo breaks very little news, and does very little reporting. It's a parasitical relationship with the mainstream media, and Arianna Huffington has been richly rewarded by it.

Facebook and other social media venues are different beasts, though Carr lumps them together with HuffPo. The difference is intent. HuffPo intends to draw readers to its aggregated links and bloggers. Facebook's intent is to give users a forum with which oi interact with each other. Both sell ads on the side, and thus generate significant cash. But Facebook isn't drawing people with content in the way HuffPo is. It's drawing users - and eyeballs for advertisers - by giving them a forum through which to interact with friends, not by publishing their content. It's the difference, I think, between publishing a newspaper with purloined or unpaid content, and operating a coffee shop, where your customers hang around in your space and socialize.

That's a much more legitimate business model. It's not objectionable on ethical grounds. Huffington Post, on the other hand, is. And all the more so because of the political outlook of the site. There's something deeply suspicious about an ostensibly politically liberal organization so devaluing the works of individuals, and of journalism as a profession.

Maybe what HuffPo needs is a strong union. Read More 
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Any Human Heart and the little screen

Matthew MacFadyen as Logan Mountstuart and Hayley Atwella as Freya Deverell. Credit: Joss Barratt, PBS
It's not often I look forward to a televised dramatization of a novel, but I'm setting the DVR for tonight's Masterpiece Theatre rendition of William Boyd's spectacular Any Human Heart. Lord, I hope they don't screw it up.

Any Human Heart is one of my favorite books of the past decade or so, a Zelig-style novel (think Forrest Gump) that traces the evolution of art and war through 20th Century Europe, with just enough United States tossed in to give it cross-Atlantic appeal. There are plenty of flaws to it, but as a broad piece of work, it stands up well. Incidentally, I missed Any Human Heart when it first came out, and turned to it after Kinky Friedman told me it was his favorite book. When a serious book draws a clown's interest, it never hurts to give it a read.

In truth, I've never had much faith in adaptations of complicated novels. Too much of the power of the novel lies in the intricacies of plot and character, and television by its nature elides the intricacies for the grand and the obvious. But enough adaptations have worked over the years -- Timothy Hutton's televised Nero Wolfe novels leap to mind -- that I'll enter this one with an open mind. And the early reviews give hope.

I'll be curious to see what you all think about it. Read More 
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On football, and our passion for violence

The always insightful Garry Wills had an interesting take on The New York Review of Books blog yesterday heading into Super Bowl Weekend, which has become our annual celebration of violence.

Wills' point of departure is the viciousness at the heart of the sport, and the irony that the very equipment meant to protect players becomes, when worn by 300-plus pound behemoths, weapons.
This “protection” is like the boxing gloves mandated by the Marquess of Queensberry Rules in 1867. Some supposed they were meant to protect a fighter’s hands. Their real function was to make it possible to strike at an opponent’s head with maximum force. Back in the days of bare-knuckle fights, the only way to do real damage to another man’s head, without crippling oneself, was to break his nose with the heel of the hand. Otherwise, the long bouts were waged with wallops to the muscle-padded torso. The gloves made it possible to score knockouts to the head—and to do that head permanent damage, registered in the high degree of dementia among fighters.

The same “gain” has been achieved for football with the heavy helmet.
The chilling result is the high number of former pro football players suffering from trauma-induced dementia. And it becomes even more tragic when you consider the number of kids who have been killed or suffered crippling injuries from the sport as they emulate the toughness lauded on television every Sunday.
Between 1982 and 2009 according to the National Center for Catastrophic Injury Research, 295 fatalities directly or indirectly resulted from high-school football. From 1977 to 2009, at all levels, 307 cervical-cord injuries were recorded. And between 1984 and 2009 there were 133 instances of brain damage—not slowly accruing damage, as in the case of C.T.E., but damage upon impact.
All of which has me mulling this national ethos that celebrates violence. Fights make the hockey game. We celebrate boxers who, by definition, earn their livings by committing felonies. The most violent and macabre movies and TV shows become cultural icons, then we react with disgust when life imitates art. John Hinckley's attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan, emulating the character Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver stands as the ultimate crossover.

In the back of my mind lurks the sections of the current book project about the 1970s and 1980s in Detroit, when the gun slinging drug-dealer became a folk hero to a generation of youths who saw - and not in the romanticized nihilistic sense - nothing but prison or death in their futures. The hit movie "Scarface, though set in Miami, captured that sense in all of its gory glory. Which, of course, was a remake of a Depression-era movie about the violent gangster world propelled by Prohibition. So this thing of ours - the glorification of violence - is nothing new. And I'm as guilty as the next. I love hockey, fights and all, and will be watching the Super Bowl on Sunday, though I hope I have the good grace to wince instead of cheer when a player gets knocked senseless.

More broadly, though, I wonder what history will have to say about us, and the choices we've made as a culture, and as a political society. I used to think we have come to treat free-market capitalism, with all of its faults, as a national religion, albeit one without a soul. But I'm beginning to think that at a deeper level we worship, first, Darwinism, from our social policies to our entertainment choices to our sports. It's a faith in which only the tough survive. And that's not a good thing if we are to have any credibility when we say we value human life.

It reminds of that old David Gray song, "Let the Truth Sting," with its lyric, "If we're searching for peace, how come we still believe in hatred as the catalyst?"9K4N5ZN8ZM7X Read More 
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