Summed up: I read this book in high school and recalled enjoying it. Read it again (well, almost all of it) and now consider it a meandering snorefest. Couldn't finish reading it, and that's saying a lot, because I'll read anything.(less)
I'm having a hard time deciding what to write about Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. One the one hand, it is def...moreI'm having a hard time deciding what to write about Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. One the one hand, it is definitely good to see a journalist actually applying some of the rhetoric that gets thrown around the newsroom, in that she actually tried to survive on poverty wages, rather than accepting tainted, conventional wisdom on the subject, taken from left or right. On the other hand, this book practically drips with condescension towards those in the jobs she takes on (Wal-Mart sales clerk, waitress, heinemakkefrau) and bends more toward pity than empathy. What's certain is that this is a book everybody should read, and that ought to be read especially by those on the right who want to abolish social welfare and by those on the left who believe throwing more bureaucracy at the problem of poverty in America is going to fix everything.
The condescension comes particularly when Ehrenreich goes undercover working at a Wal-Mart in suburbian Minneapolis (and starts off by showing that she has no idea what the real definition of "Minnesota Nice" means). She derides the personality "survey" she takes as part of the application process, in which she imagines the company is searching for sheep:
You might expect a bit of grumbling, some signs of unrest -- graffiti on the horatory posters in the break room, muffled guffwas during our associate meetings -- but I can detect none of that. Maybe this is what you get when you weed out all the rebels with drug tests and personality "surveys" -- a uniformly servile and denatured workforce, content to dream of the distant day when they'll be vested in the company's profit-sharing plan. They even join in the "Wal-Mart cheer" when required to do so at meetings, I'm told by the evening fitting room lady, thought I am fortunate enough never to witness this final abasement.
But if it's hard work to think "out of the box," it may be almost impossible to think out of the Big Box. Wal-Mart, when you're in it, is total -- a closed system, a world unto itself. Ehrenreich may have indeed penetrated the world of the working poor, but she demonstrates the typical journalistic and, frankly, liberal weakness in thinking that a few weeks' immersion in the society, looking through lenses more attuned to what she expects to find (sheeple, servile morons clinging to religion) she fails to understand what's really going on. She seems to think a few idle conversations with the people she works with entitles her to fill their heads with all sorts of thoughts that may or may not be their own.
Also comical is Ehrenreich's belief that, with a few rabble-rousing comments she made, which were reciprocated by a handful of her co-workers at Wal-Mart, that she could have led a revolt that would have brought one of Minneapolis' Wal-Marts to its knees. She concedes that unions in of themselves aren't a cure-all and invite a certain amount of corruption into the mix, but it is amusing to see in her what I see in myself: Delusions of grandeur when what is more appropriate are delusions of accuracy.
I'm not saying I have a perfect understanding of this world, but I'm tempted to believe I understand a few things better than she does. In 2005-06, I spent just over a year in this world, working telemarketing jobs in the afternoon and evenings and a retail job in the mornings. I didn't meet sheeple unwilling to question what was going on, but very intelligent people recognizing that, yeah, they're not in the best position of their lives at the moment, but things will get better. They're not frozen where they are. I certainly wasn't, though I felt some times that I was.
The working poor certainly exist in this nation. I was one of them, for a year. I survived and got out of it, supporting a wife and three kids all the while. So read Ehrenreich's book, but don't take it as gospel. (less)
This is a book I read every year, blah blah blah . . .
OK, now that that stuff is out of the way, here goes:
I've practically got this one memorized. S...moreThis is a book I read every year, blah blah blah . . .
OK, now that that stuff is out of the way, here goes:
I've practically got this one memorized. So why am I reading it again? I'm trying to show my oldest son -- he's soon to be 11 -- that Tolkien is a good read. I found an illustrated version of the book (pix by Michael Hague; they're okay) at the local thrift store, and I've been waving it in his face. He's deeply into Harry Potter at the moment, so I may have to wait until he's done with that series.
So in the meantime I'm re-reading it myself. I love the poetry. I love the feeling that Tolkien is giving us just a tiny glimpse into the world he spent decades creating.(less)
This is a book I've read several times, and it gets better each time I read it. And I have to confess, as a former journalist, the little barbs Pratch...moreThis is a book I've read several times, and it gets better each time I read it. And I have to confess, as a former journalist, the little barbs Pratchett has vimes point towards William de Worde in this one are classic, especially the one in which he says de Worde writes editorials as if his bum were stuffed with tweed. It's easy to fall into that writing style as a journalist, so here's to hoping I don't do that.
As far as Pratchett goes, Thud! is one of my favorites. I've always liked Vimes' conflicted character, because he appears to be about the most human individual Pratchett has created. I'm also capitvated by partchett's vivid descriptions of Koom Valley. I've been to places that could partially be analogous of Koom Valley, thanks to his decriptions of the place.(less)
John Hersey's Hiroshima made waves in the Atomic Age when it was published in The New Yorker in 1946. I read it in a gulp on the way home from work to...moreJohn Hersey's Hiroshima made waves in the Atomic Age when it was published in The New Yorker in 1946. I read it in a gulp on the way home from work tonight, and can certainly attest that it's a riveting, significant piece of journalism from the finest traditions of the trade.
It's also a harrowing account of real humans involved in an extraordinarily nasty event, and makes for an interesting juxtapositional reading as I read this bit from CNN on an "unrepentant" individual who tried and failed to assassinate Margaret Thatcher in Brighton years ago.
Patrick Magee, who tried to kill Thatcher, has this to say about the concept of repentance:
"I wish there had been another way. ... If there were other options open, I would have jumped at them," he said.
Pressed by lawmakers on whether he had repented, Magee said, "I don't understand repentance. I think it has a religious meaning. I can regret."
"I did what I did in full consciousness," he said. "I did what I felt needed to be done. Why do I need to ask forgiveness for that? But I can feel regret."
Also from the article:
To his critics Magee appears to be unrepentant, and headlines over the years, such as 'Brighton Bomber: I would do it again,' paint a picture of a man at best deluded and at worst dangerous," Marina Cantacuzino of the Forgiveness Project wrote.
"Magee has a problem with this premise," she said, quoting him: "It's perfectly possible to regret something deeply, every day of your life, and yet still stand over your actions," he says. "At the end of the day it's about legitimacy and who is allowed to use force. If everything is examined through the prism of legitimacy you can break it down to different gradations. Why should it just be the prerogative of those in power?"
These two pieces made for interesting reading especially as I monitored my reactions to them. To the story of Magee, my first reaction was, I have to admit, revulsion. Thou Shalt Not Kill doesn't seem to have a lot of wiggle room, even in you couch it in terms of gradations or legitimacy.
Then I read Hersey's powerful report of the bombing of Hiroshima and Cantacuzino's statement came immediately to mind:
At the end of the day it's about legitimacy and who is allowed to use force. If everything is examined through the prism of legitimacy you can break it down to different gradations. Why should it just be the prerogative of those in power?
Thou Shalt Not Kill ought to apply to countries, right? So I can't be revulsed at Magee's unrepentant attitude and defend America's actions in dropping the bomb on Hiroshima, can I? It's difficult to build a theory of the world, a philosopy of life, if you keep finding exceptions to how behaviors are acceptable in one instance, not in another. I begin to understand the Quaker conscientious objectors during World War II, who looked into the Bible's do-not-kill commandment and said, yeah, that applies to me, even if my country has been attacked, even if it is at war.
But can we use such thoughts to justify a killing, couch it in regret, but say, in all probability, I might do that same act again? Just because a nation takes that stance, should an individual, a moral, ethical individual, take a similar stance? Doesn't an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leave us, at the end, blind and toothless? This takes us down the slippery slope to relativism, demeaning the moral and ethical guidelines that ought to be the rule of law. "Wrong is wrong even if it helps ya," as Popeye says in that delightful movie. (less)
X had lent $36.6 million in insured deposits to a developer who had used the money to acquire ninety-nine acres of...moreSee if any of this sounds familiar:
X had lent $36.6 million in insured deposits to a developer who had used the money to acquire ninety-nine acres of land, including thirty-one acres under water. From most indications, it looked as if the only thing you could do with the land was park submarines. An appraiser said the ninety-nine acres was worth only $12 million. But X had approved the $36 million loan assuming that the land would rise in value once the developer used it for a lake and a resort that would include 170 condominiums and a hotel. The $36 million loan earned X huge fees. But it was like lending someone $300,000 on a house worth $100,000 and gambling that the thing would more than triple in value once it was remodeled.
Confused as how such a debacle could occur, and understandably irate, American taxpayers started demanding some scalps, and the politicians who had willingly taken all of that campaign money graciously offered Y’s. A vigilante atmosphere evolved in which demagoguery and demands for harsh punishment flourished. Y faced an unsettling prospect: He might become a victim of the very scandal he helped create.
Z is far more than a financial crisis; it is a political crisis of the first order. It represents what happens when a nation’s political system becomes rotten with self-interest, when raising money to stay in office becomes more important than the common trust, and when the average citizen becomes insulated from reality, be it by deposit insurance, ignorance, or indifference.
The common thread, of course, is greed. But if you think these quotes are in relation to the current economic crisis – be it the decline of GM and Chrysler or the unprecedented failures among US banks and banking interests, you’d be off by about twenty years. These quotes are from James O’Shea’s book The Daisy Chain, which outlines the savings and loan crisis of the mid 1980s, a crisis that cost the American taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars and was caused by people wanting to get a hold of that brass ring and give it a lick, just like poor Gil Gunderson.
O’Shea’s is the first book I’ve read on the S&L crisis. (The “Z” in the third paragraph; X refers to Vernon Saving and Loan, a Texas S&L at the heart of O’Shea’s book while Y refers to Don Dixon, the guy who drove that particular S&L into the ditch.) What I appreciate the most about the book is it’s balanced approach. Rather than providing scalps or scapegoats, O’Shea details how nearly everyone involved in the situation, from the S&L officers to investors to politicians to the public at large, contributed to the problem and how they ought to share the blame. It’s an excellent lesson that we all should be learning, especially in the light of our current banking crisis. We ought to be looking less for scalps and more at what we can do as citizens, politicians and organizations to get our houses in order and keep them that way.
O’Shea’s treatment of the material is amazing. While he blames Reagan-era deregulation of the S&L industry as a catalyst for the crisis, he has no sacred cows, blaming Texas and federal officials for making the crisis at Vernon worse than it could have been otherwise. He points out that this crisis, like many others we face and may face, are really crises of personality, in which strong personalities bully through the pumpkin patch and get what they want, while weaker personalities either sheepishly do what they’re told or encounter obstacle after obstacle in trying to do what’s right that they either give up, are forced out of authoritative positions or simply fade away. There’s also ample room here to indict both Republicans and Democrats, Republicans for insisting that the free market is all good and holy, and Democrats for believing that politics ought to play before rationality.
Oddly enough, reading the book makes me want to pay more attention to how things go at work. We all have the authority to question what’s going on, and to actually stop work if we believe things are proceeding in an unsafe or unethical manner. Not that I have had much occur in my little area that needs questioning, but at least reading this book is a reminder that I do have that ability.
UPDATE: Read it again. Still disgusted by politicians who are willing to kick problems like this down the road for the sake of winning elections. I'd rather have a one-term president who had the guts and smarts to do what was necessary than some idiot who farts around in the first term for fear he or she might do something to make the second term a non-starter.(less)
**spoiler alert** As a truly gullible individual, I’m fascinated with the facility with which some people lie. I, myself, am a rotten liar; one of tho...more**spoiler alert** As a truly gullible individual, I’m fascinated with the facility with which some people lie. I, myself, am a rotten liar; one of those the Irish describe as having to talk through my hat, in order to conceal the smile on my face. As a result, I do not lie often. Oh, lots of lies about little things as we all do, but nothing big or terribly secret.
This is perhaps one of the reasons I disliked journalism the longer I stayed in it – even though I was a rinky-dink reporter working at a small paper doing mostly community news, I got tired of being lied to. My experiences as a journalist can best be described via a quote from Dave Barry: “I knew corruption was out there somewhere, but I had no idea of how to go about finding it.” My gullibility in taking people at their words did not serve me in that occupation, which is why I’m glad I’m not a reporter any more.
But I love reading about lies, half-truths, shady deals and people and organizations working either on the edge of legality or in the heady world beyond what is legal. That may be what attracts me to the likes of Richard Nixon (I’ve read several biographies and have yet another waiting in the to-be-read queue.) Now I’ve just finished reading Don Hofstadter’s Goldberg’s Angel, which describes a pack of lies surrounding the theft, sale and recovery of four mosaics from an obscure Byzantine church in Cyprus. Hofstadter concludes the book with a tall tale of his own, in which he finally concedes he won’t ever “walk through the door” and find the truth behind the story, as he finds it impossible to sort through the lies, truths, half-truths, lies passed on as truths that came to him as he investigated the story.
This is, by far, the best book I’ve read on mendacity, and the intrinsically American chauvinism that leads most of us to believe either we cannot be lied to or that we are intelligent enough to see through the lies we’re told. I’ve learned enough about myself to know that as far as reading others is concerned, I’m a moron, so I don’t trust myself in situations where lies are common; this is why my wife is in charge whenever we go shopping for a new car, and one of the principal reasons I failed as a journalist.
Hofstadter deftly captures the allure of lies in this passage:
[T:]he lies guarding all this secrecy had a strange beauty, like the beauty of cypresses watching over a cemetery. There were lies that you wanted to hear because they exculpated some charming person or fit a pet theory, and such tales were always balm for a while, even if you knew at the back of your mind that they were false. This is how a lot of us, conservative and liberal, get caught in rhetorical traps, and is one of the biggest dangers of the Daily Me mentality that is fueling the rush of news to the Internet and away from traditional media. Not that traditional media is ethical and above board, by all means, but what is presented as news on the Internet goes beyond denying apparent biases and flagrantly wears its biases and lies on its sleeves, displaying falsehoods and the balm of untruth like helium balloons beckoning from some fair booth.
Hofstadter also deftly describes those who live on the fringe of lies:
In this social milieu there were some who didn’t lie, but even they, I felt certain by now, were dwelling in the anxious shadow world of the unsaid. And since they had chosen to live in this world, didn’t they have to love it somehow, didn’t they have to glory in their own compulsive withholding of information, their superiority to the ignorant and uninitiated, their metamorphosis into vessels empty of everything but a few whispering leaves inscribed with prices and phone numbers and guilty names? And since people were so often lying to them, didn’t they have to like, to enjoy, being lied to? Didn’t they aid and abet the mendacity? In other words, there can be no fence-sitting when it comes to truth or lies. One either lies, tells the truth or abets the liars by remaining silent.
Fortunately, Hofstadter offers no solutions. He admits himself to being gullible, easily swept away by one story or another and, at the end, ultimately willing only to question whether anyone he’s spoken to or written about has told the whole truth.
Hofstadter also challenges several notions that are kind of making up an unintended theme of my reading of late: The American tendency to believe that throwing money, technology/industrial might, or both at a problem will solve it; and certainly the admirable, but misguided belief that with every problem, a successful dig-through of the facts in the case will bring things to a truthful resolution. Hofstadter reminds us that one person’s fact is another person’s fantasy.
“What Peg knows – what all canny buyers in the international antiquities bazaar know – is that every one of those cracked or corroded treasures has its own voice, its own tale to tell,” Hofstadter writes. “You or I may not be able to hear it, but somewhere there is someone who can. The strange and sinister thing is that many of these tales are untruths, for certain objects can lie.”(less)