Secondhand Adventures in Book Clubbing

"I found the descriptions of the horse to be, frankly, astonishingly beautiful, and yet disturbingly arousing."
“I found the descriptions of the horse to be, frankly, astonishingly beautiful and yet disturbingly arousing.”

Mrs. Kuhl and her friends have a book club. After a rather calamitous go at Emma Donoghue’s Room and at a loss for a title that would please all tastes, I suggested they read Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The book had incidentally been selected for the One Book One Town program run by our library, which culminated in a presentation by Ronson at the local university last night. Mrs. Kuhl liked the book but one thing kept irritating her: Ronson’s claims of a uniform Twitter.

I identified both with Justine and also with the people who tore her apart. And I thought: We’re punishing Justine, gleefully punishing Justine, with this thing that we are the most terrified might happen to us.

At the presentation, Ronson repeatedly used the words “we” and “us” to describe the bullies who attacked Justine Sacco. During the Q&A portion, Mrs. Kuhl was the first to ask Ronson a question: What percentage of Twitter shamed Sacco? Ronson said he didn’t know, then continued to throw blame on everyone in the room, including himself.

Mrs. Kuhl’s question would be easy to answer if we had access to Twitter’s big data: simply set time parameters around the date (21 December 2013) and divide the number of tweeps using @JustineSacco or the #HasJustineLanded hashtag by the total number of users active that day. But as Twitter is cagey with its proprietary info, the best we can do is guess. The month before, Twitter said it had 232 million “monthly active users” (out of a total of 651 million accounts — the difference being a “dark pool” of inactive or barely active users); and there were an estimated 100,000 tweets about Sacco. If every one of those tweets had a unique author (and they probably didn’t), then only 0.0431 percent of active Twitter tweeted about her. That’s not “we” or “us.” That’s a very small, very specific group of somebody else.

Ronson also cited the fact that #HasJustineLanded was trending worldwide as proof of the monolithic nature of the shaming but Twitter’s bar for trending can be very low, sometimes as low as 500 or 600 tweets. Their algorithm for trending has more to do with time of day and the frequency over a short span rather than overall volume.

Twitter is not a homogeneous experience. A good example of this is black Twitter, something I rarely witness without trending hashtags (like when #Blackish was trending the morning of February 25th). Mrs. Kuhl, because of her love of all things Patriots, has some insight into that world via the Venn overlap of white and black Pats fans, but I never see it. I know it exists — and yet there is an entire universe of conversation happening out there that goes completely over my head.

That said, just because it’s a small clique doing the cyberbullying doesn’t mitigate the serious effects it can have, from losing a job to contributing to depression and even suicide. I’m glad for Ronson’s spotlight on the issue but his argument would be better served if he stopped using the collective “us” and started asking questions about the specific behavior or traits that lead to bullying. After all, when a bullet-ridden corpse is discovered in an alley, psychiatrists don’t throw up their hands and sermonize about how we’re all murderers.

State of Decay

Living in the Constitution State means never lacking material for a blog post, even if it’s just another list of metrics ranking how many cartoon stink lines radiate off Connecticut. Weekly, if not daily, some new measure is announced showcasing our slow-motion slide into the sea. GE moving to Boston? That’s so January news. These are from February alone:

  • The latest estimate of the state’s budget deficit is $266 million, ten times what it was estimated to be last month. Our deficit for fiscal year 2016–2017 is projected to be $900 million (Connecticut Post).
  • Likewise, the city of Hartford projects a $32 million deficit in the upcoming fiscal year (HartfordBusiness.com).
  • And while we’re talking about Hartford: After measuring 35 indices (unemployment, foreclosure rates, number of coffeeshops), Hartford is ranked the worst of the 50 state capitals to live in, worse than Trenton, New Jersey (and if you’ve never been to Trenton then good, you’re winning at life). Hartford has the lowest median household income, the highest unemployment rate, the highest percentage of residents below the poverty level, and the second least affordable housing. On the plus side, Hartford residents have the lowest debt as percentage of median income — presumably because everybody is already broke and out of work (WalletHub).
  • Only 39 percent of Connecticut residents have confidence in the state government, the third lowest in the nation (Gallup).
  • “[Connecticut] state employees earn an average of 25 to 46 percent more than their private sector counterparts.” We also have the second-most expensive retiree health-care benefits in the country (CT Viewpoints).
  • And finally this is from late January but too noteworthy to ignore: An audit of the State Comptroller and other offices found they’ve been breaking Connecticut law by not using GAAP standards. As a result, they’ve been underreporting obligations and liabilities and overreporting contributions and capital gains (Yankee Institute).

Mrs. Kuhl tells me to stop posting and tweeting bad news about the state; after all we own a house here, so if I want to move away then I have to convince a buyer that Connecticut is just aces. I respond that the first step to recovery is admitting the problem exists.

Questionable Advice to Underage Minors

Last Saturday I was invited to participate in History Day, wherein students put together historical projects — papers, documentaries, museum exhibits, websites, you name it — based on extensive research and interviews. The projects are then judged and the winners are awarded something — what, I’m not sure. Towards that goal, the Fairfield Museum and History Center collected a bunch of historians and invited kids from around southwest Connecticut to ask us, one-on-one, for advice and direction.

I’m flattered to have been asked to help out, especially because I was only one of two historians present who didn’t have a PhD after his or her name. Most of the kids were middle-school aged and I was amazed at how deeply some of them had leapt into their subjects, but after the original shock — this was my first experience with History Day — I realized I could provide something the other historians probably couldn’t, namely guidance on finding interviewees and resources like images and how to structure their narratives.

I’ve been asked before to write articles or columns on writing advice. I always decline, mainly because I feel every writer’s methods and path are too particular to be much use to anybody else, and also because I often feel too lost at sea myself to advise others how to navigate. That said, as I sat and talked with the students there were four recurring suggestions that popped up over and over, and maybe it’s helpful to repeat them here in case you, my noble reader, find yourself or your offspring working on something similar.

Make it personal. I felt afterwards that my experience as a parent played a bigger part than my work as a writer or historian. You know how it is: your kid comes home with some grandiose idea for a school project, but when it comes time to sit and do the project with him, the ellipsis between Point A and Point Z becomes abundantly clear. Many of the attendees at History Day simply needed help drilling down to what their end product would be and how they would present it. To that end I recommended identifying a specific person or point in time — or, if the project was biographical, an episode in the person’s life — that is illustrative of the overall history or arc. One young woman was doing her project on the Radium Girls and I advised her to highlight one of the girls in particular. Readers or viewers naturally empathize with individuals and by showcasing one girl’s experience, the student could communicate the broader phenomenon.

Prioritize your content. In research, you always wind up with more information than is germane to your project. All projects have limits, whether it’s a word count or a maximum running time for a documentary or skit, and limits are good because they help structure your narrative. For example, in Smedley I left out a lot of info about Smedley’s post-war merchant trade. To the internal completist it seems a shame to leave stuff out but throwing in everything will get you, and your reader, lost in the weeds. You have to prioritize what to include, and in doing so you give the project an architecture. A zillion biographies have been written about what made Hitler be Hitler. They all work from the same pool of facts but each historian places emphasis on a different aspect: one thinks Hitler was the way he was because he was a failed art student, while the next thinks Hitler was Hitler because of his experiences in World War I, and so on. Each writer arrives at her conclusions by emphasizing or prioritizing episodes or sets of facts over others. Use the scissors. The good news is that the stuff you cut often shows up in other projects. Especially blog posts.

Pick up the phone. Free lunch was included in History Day, which was certainly an inducement for me to attend. As we sat munching, the grown-ups chuckled over how reluctant the kids were *to call* someone on the phone. One young man I spoke to was researching early Fords and how they changed American culture; another pair was doing a project on the Black Sox scandal; and still another couple of students was making a doc about cannibalism at Jamestown. Yet none of them had actually contacted Ford or the White Sox or Historic Jamestowne. I told them that big longstanding companies or franchises like Ford and the White Sox will often have dedicated historians and archives, and places like Historic Jamestowne, whose whole mission is public outreach, will likewise have staff happy to answer questions (especially from kids). It’s always worthwhile to contact a company or group directly to see what they have. Go to their website and look for their media or PR office. Or, worst case, just call their direct number and ask the voice on the other end.

Use your network. The line between history and journalism thins the closer the horizon reaches the present. There are no ancient Egyptians left to interview but if you’re writing about the Beatles as one group of girls was, then you’re in luck — as I told them, not only are there fifty years of interviews they can mine, there are still people around who’ve met the Beatles (including a couple of actual Beatles). Journalists use their contacts and networks to find and write stories — stories that others can’t write because they have different networks. Mrs. Kuhl’s dad and uncles, who sell sailboats, once sold a boat to John Lennon and even accompanied him on his 1980 cruise to Bermuda, making for some of the best stories I’ve ever heard around a Thanksgiving dinner table. If you’re writing about something that happened within the recent past, ask your family and your network about it. Even if they don’t have any direct contact with the person or event in question, they may be able to direct you toward someone or someplace that does.

BioShock and Philosophy

A funny thing happened in 2015: people began reading this blog. More specifically, people began reading this blog and sending me free books in response to what I’d scribbled here. The result by year’s end was a pillar on my desk which in gratitude I feel some obligation to read and discuss. Here’s the first.

BioShock and PhilosophyBioShock and Philosophy
Luke Cuddy, ed.
Wiley Blackwell (180 pp, $17.95, June 2015)

My relationship status with Ayn Rand is It’s Complicated. On one hand, I’ve never been able to progress deeply into, let alone finish, any of her books; her heavy and mechanical prose is what a robotic arm on a Detroit assembly line would write upon gaining sentience. Her ideas, which she believed novel, were better articulated by others. For example, Rand criticized progressive taxation as punishing success and innovation, and believed it was motivated by envy of the rich rather than logic. I agree. But these weren’t new ideas: a century beforehand, Frederic Bastiat concluded that tax policy is less about paying for roads and bridges and more about the political class rewarding its friends and punishing its enemies, while Nietzsche observed that under Judeo-Christian slave morality, poverty and the hatred of wealth is virtuous (Mark 10:25, Matthew 19:24). You would never know these two existed if you listened to Rand or her followers — to them, these thoughts sprang like Athena from her head alone; I might have more respect for Rand if she had occasionally included some footnotes and a bibliography. There is also the sneaking suspicion that Rand was a manipulative so-and-so who used rhetoric to rationalize her bad behavior, and that the main draw for Objectivists today is simply to justify theirs.

On the other hand, I can’t deny Rand’s influence on 20th-century political thought. This one time, at Ithaca College? A classmate mentioned Rand and our professor — who was the chair of the philosophy department — rolled his eyes and dismissed her. It’s amazing that I was awarded a four-year degree in philosophy and yet that incident is the entirety of my formal exposure to Rand. Love her or hate her, for good or bad, Rand’s name is thrown around too often today to be rejected with a shruggie.

It may be a little surprising to learn that a book titled BioShock and Philosophy isn’t cover-to-cover Ayn Rand. Instead, editor Luke Cuddy presents 16 essays that use the BioShock games for a variety of philosophical entrances, from Oliver Laas’s exploration of the characters’ free will to Simon Ledder’s introduction to transhumanism through plasmids and vigors. In fact the closest we get to an Objectivist tour of Rapture occurs via Rand’s aesthetics on art, whereby author Jason Rose concludes that Objectivists — who generally don’t like the game — should feel redeemed by it because Andrew Ryan is a bad Objectivist (to be fair, Cuddy may have approached hardline Objectivists for contributions but was probably rebuked with insults, accusations of irrationalism, and demands to sleep with Cuddy’s wife).

For me the strongest appeal of the BioShock games was their theme of utopianism, and because of that I have to thank Rick Elmore for my introduction to Carl Schmitt’s theory of political foundation. Schmitt believed that nations or political communities are founded in opposition to some other assemblage, that group identity coalesces through hostility to another group — it’s us versus them. It’s sort of like Nixon’s quip, only writ large, that voters vote against the candidates they hate, not for those they like. Elmore uses Schmitt’s theory to explain the utopian experiments of Andrew Ryan and Zachary Comstock. Both create new societies that are antagonistic to others: for Ryan, it is parasites and socialism, while for Comstock it’s sinfulness and a disturbing lack of faith in white supremacy. This idea is relevant today and explains a great deal why nations inflate threats (America’s fear of Muslim terrorism) or constantly vilify other countries (the pathological obsession the Iranian and North Korean governments have with the US). The flames must be stoked long after the inciting spark has burned out, and defining group identity as being at war with another does exactly that. Schmitt also happened to be an unrepentant Nazi who used his theory to substantiate the Third Reich — which is again appropriate here, considering Hitler’s dream of utopia collapsed as surely and completely as Ryan’s and Comstock’s.

BioShock and Philosophy is not without some misses. A repetitive, vapid essay on Marxism and the Vox Populi revolution — written by two Ithaca College grads, natch — rehashes the game to make no-shit-Sherlock conclusions; the ink would have been better spilled on, say, analyzing Columbia through the lens of Edward Bellamy’s utopian socialism, or a Marxist/leftish critique of the Fraternal Order of the Raven and real-world Lincoln demonization (particularly by paleolibertarians). Absence of a thing is not a valid criticism of that thing, but along those lines I was surprised that neither BioShock 2 nor the Burial at Sea DLCs are mentioned much; BioShock 2 reimagines Rand’s feud with BF Skinner, while Burial at Sea apparently negates the ending of Infinite (something that would undoubtedly intrigue Scott Squires and James McBain, who didn’t care for Infinite‘s deterministic universe). Including that content would have provided richer interpretations to some of the essays.

CC BY Omarukai
CC BY Omarukai

The fact that I have invested waaaay too much time and thought into the BioShock games is a testament to how immersive they are. I never played the games in order; I was first sucked into BioShock Infinite primarily on the basis of a trailer, and immediately became absorbed by its mashup of steampunk with Colonial Revival architecture, quantum physics and all its implications, themes of American Exceptionalism and evangelical millennialism, and its leitmotif of guilt, penance, and absolution. Also, there were the parts where I could swing around on skylines and blow up zeppelins. Later I became intrigued by the setting (and not so much the game itself) of the original BioShock, and I only wish I could have submitted an essay to Cuddy on the historical utopianism of man-made islands and undersea habitats (because from Jules Verne to the Neolithic crannogs of Britain and Ireland, the idea of a better society has very often been wedded to water). No doubt contributor Laszlo Kajtar feels me. As he points out, it is not the book that matters so much as the reading of it; it is not the painting but rather our viewing of the painting that affects us. Like all art, games are necessarily subjective — it is our experience with them that provokes and seduces. And some of them, like a syringe full of EVE, get under the skin.

Dietary Dissidence

Cave Girl, issue 11, 1953.What’s this? Words of moderation from Melvin Konner, one of the founders of the paleo diet?

[H]umans are omnivores. Neither the “meat-as-a-condiment” wisdom of the heart-healthy scientists nor the “carbs-as-a-condiment” faith that now passes for “paleo” is persuasive to me. In a 2014 paper in the Journal of Human Evolution, Amanda Henry and her colleagues found that even our Neanderthal cousins ate barley broth along with their steaks. Once thought of as extreme carnivores, Neanderthals were actually diet opportunists, just like our own direct ancestors.

I first headed down the paleo road in the early aughts after reading Loren Cordain’s book. The appeal was twofold. Like him, I had difficulty accepting that animal fats cause heart disease in light of our physical traits obviously evolved for omnivorism; and I shared his enthusiasm for moving away from subsidized, vacuous, and overprocessed (and I say over because all food is processed to some extent — nobody is eating raw bison liver Revanant-style) corn- and wheat-based slop in favor of fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Yet over the years I’ve watched the paleo movement transmogrify into crazed anti-carbohydrate zealotry. Based on my wanderings around the blogosphere, I think a lot of adherents arrive at paleo’s doorstep from a weight-loss perspective and become radicalized by making mad gainz in those early months of low carb intake. Further, many of these folks don’t seem to do a lot of sustained aerobic exercise (Crossfit doesn’t count) and so don’t recognize that carbs are — and were — a necessary component for endurance. From running distances longer than a 5K to eating white rice to drinking beer (no one will take away my beer *sound of racking shotgun*), I am undoubtedly an apostate in paleos’ eyes.

In his last graf, Konner compares the paleo diet to vegetarianism or keeping kosher or halal, which is apt. All diets are less about nutrition and more about anxiety over pollution. The more strict and obsessive the diet — from the vegan to the raw-fooder to the paleo wringing his hands over a teaspoon of honey in his morning tea — the more high-strung the personality, which is arguably more malignant to well-being than any pound of butter. “All of these strategies — low-carb paleo diets, too — seem to be compatible with life and health,” Konner writes. Reasonableness? What an old-fashioned idea.

Postcards From the Post-Apocalypse

Bombay Beach on the shore of the Salton Sea, CA, April 2008.
On the shore of the Salton Sea, California. CC BY Alexander Novati

J.G. Ballard is unquestionably the godfather of post-apocalyptic fiction. Early on he wrote a number of Earth-ending novels featuring titular catastrophes — The Drowned World, The Burning World — but his short fiction also dabbled in localized doomsdays, stories in which cataclysms are contained or at least only opaquely affect the rest of the planet.

Memories of the Space Age, his eight-story collection from 1988, showcases a Western civilization that is mostly intact; it’s only the motels and cocktails bars along A1A and the psyches of his characters that have collapsed. Many of the stories are set in and around Cape Canaveral after space exploration’s sunset, its denizens scavenging canned goods from grocery stores and liquor from old Starlight Lounges, living in deserted hotels with railed balconies overlooking drained swimming pools. Even when they’re not — in “A Question of Re-Entry,” a UN official travels upriver into an Amazonian Heart of Darkness to locate an errant astronaut whose module went off-course — the landscape is no less upheaved; Major Tom’s splashdown in the godforsaken jungle is cataclysmic for everybody involved.

The collection’s opener, “The Cage of Sand,” is also its strongest, a story in which an invasive species unintentionally brought to Earth has turned Cape Canaveral into a quarantine zone whose only citizens are incomplete jigsaw puzzles questing after the final pieces of their heads. Likewise “The Dead Astronaut” depicts a Kennedy Space Center bombarded by space junk and corpse-filled capsules scavenged by relic hunters. You have to wonder how much of Ballard’s childhood in war-stricken Shanghai appears on the page; his characters live on civilization’s fringes, in abandoned offices and hotels among forgotten technology. Even when no Seventh Seal has been opened, such as in “My Dream of Flying to Wake Island,” the characters dwell in ruins slowly but surely being absorbed by beach dunes and creepers.

Three of Ballard’s stories, written in 1981–82, are tedious rewrites of the same outline. Here, escape from Earth’s gravity well has broken some fundamental law of the universe, snapping time itself — or at least mankind’s perception of it; meanwhile some madman pursues our hero’s wife. I vacillated between interpreting these stories as an evolution of humanity to adapt to the long distances of space travel or as a Luddite warning against technological progress; but in the end, though poorly done, I saw Ballard returning to a theme of earlier works like The Drowned World.

Along the Mullica River, NJ.
Somewhere along the Mullica River, New Jersey.

Ballard is sometimes credited with prescience for The Drowned World but he wrote so many potential futures that one or two were bound to strike close to the target. Solar storms have dissolved the ionosphere, raising the Earth’s temperature and melting the polar ice caps. The continents are flooded, the cities either submerged or choked with silt and runaway vegetation, and humanity has retreated to the poles. Dr. Robert Kerans works as part of a military expedition to map lost cities in the eventual hope of reclamation. Yet members of the team, including Kerans, spend their nights suffering through atavistic nightmares of a primeval past while their waking hours are consumed by a drive to wander off into the jungle. When the expedition departs, Kerans goes AWOL to stay behind; but the vacuum left by the military is immediately filled by scavenging raiders, who interrupt Kerans’s plan for a lifelong camping trip. If you’ve read Ballard, then it’s no spoiler to say that many of his stories and books end with the main character stumbling off into the wilderness alone, ready to adapt to the new environment. Kerans’s dreams and impulses are a necessary mutation.

I think that’s Ballard’s main point right there, both in his Space Age stories and in novels like The Drowned World. Much of the post-apocalyptic genre ends poorly for the hero. Life after the apocalypse is harsh and cruel, with cannibalism and terror — and that is why most post-apocalyptic fiction is ultimately conservative moralizing. The status quo was good, it tells us, and then the status quo was upset. Now life sucks.

CC BY SA Michael Rivera
Suwannee County, Florida. CC BY SA Michael Rivera

Ballard says something fundamentally different. Humans, he says, both as a species and as individuals, always evolve to meet the wasteland. It’s hard not to be reminded again of his childhood in Shanghai, or of the fact that a few years after he began writing professionally, Ballard’s wife died, leaving him a single dad with three young kids. He survived, and I imagine he would argue life after both events was not always worse than before. We define apocalypses as catastrophic, as world ending, as floods and famine and mushroom clouds, and so we fail to see the post-apocalypses we inhabit everyday. A house fire, a divorce, the death of a parent or spouse are just as world ending to those who must go on living afterwards among the blasted shacks and melted mannequins of the interior atomic bomb, of the White Sands of the soul. There’s something optimistic in Ballard’s visions of dead astronauts in orbit and underwater Londons. Bad things happen but we outlive them, adapt, and stagger on.