Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Best Books I Read in 2017

In a mildly particular order:

Compass, by Matias Énard
Agamemnon's Daughter, by Ismail Kadare
Escape from Freedom, by Erich Fromm
Theory of the Novel, by Guido Mazzoni
Love as Human Freedom, by Paul A. Kottman
No Name in the Street, by James Baldwin
In a Lonely Place, by Dorothy B. Hughes
Dark Ecology, by Timothy Morton
Almost No Memory, by Lydia Davis
The Blind Owl, by Sadegh Hedayat
Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward
Kingdom Cons, by Yuri Herrera
The Last Wolf, by Laszlo Krasznahorkai
Translation as Transhumance, by Mireille Gansel
Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid
The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy, by Michael McCarthy
On Tyranny, by Timothy Snyder
Perfect Wave, by Dave Hickey
Lives Other Than My Own, by Emmanuel Carrère
Like Death, by Guy de Maupassant
Satchmo: The Genius of Louis Armstrong, by Gary Giddins

Joyous applause and a special mention for two extraordinary new translations:

The Odyssey, as translated by Emily Wilson
The Golden Ass, as translated by Sarah Ruden

Saturday, January 28, 2017


But you have in [in The Deerslayer] the myth of the essential white America. All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.

— D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature

Sunday, November 27, 2016

What Kind of Country Elects Donald Trump?

A country that has transformed its primary and secondary schools into dreary exercises in standardized test-taking.

A country that has transformed its colleges and universities from schools of rhetoric, science, and the arts into job training centers that leave new trainees with no guarantee of employment and often with crushing debt.

A country whose most recognizable heroic role models come from comic books written for newly pubescent males.

A country that eats, as its primary diet, addictive fake food, and, as a consequence, has tens of millions of citizens who are chronically ill.

A country that regularly advertises and airs human cage-fighting on its major television channels, during primetime family programming.

A country that enjoys, as its definitive leisure-time entertainment, a grandiose art-form that regularly propagandizes fascist values—the glories of violence and militarism; the sexiness of centralized corporate-nationalist power; the moral goodness of physical beauty—and that regularly stylizes, to its delight, images of its own apocalypse.

A country that has re-labelled decency, civility, and kindness as "political correctness."

A country that has been erotically dulled by the newly ubiquitous presence of joyless, loveless pornography.

A country that claims as its favorite sport a brain-destroying gladiatorial battle, run by a multi-billion dollar corporation, in massive arenas, between drug-enhanced, heavily-armored, faceless members of its poverty class.

A country that no longer turns to professional journalists for news and information but relies upon a single corporation's personalized "newsfeed," which has been specifically designed to reinforce the particular beliefs of each reader.

A country that refuses to see a commonly-organized, commonly-shared defense against illness and accident as a social good.

A country that uses science to create vast wealth, extraordinary luxury, and unprecedentedly long lifespans, while openly and unapologetically dismissing the most important scientific discovery in its history: that its lifestyle is rapidly destroying the global ecosystem.

A country that represents 4.4% of the world's population yet incarcerates 22% of its prisoners—and that, as a matter of legal practice, regularly executes some of those prisoners.

A country in which its college-aged population spends, on average, eight hours a day looking at a cellphone screen.

And, lastly, ironically, a country that rejects, for the only political office beholden to the general population, the actual vote of the general population, and relies instead upon a Constitutional gimmick put in place at its founding to secure the support of those citizens at the time who practiced human slavery.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Obama's Second Term, Success or Failure?

Days after President Obama was re-elected, my dismayed cousin, a vocal conservative, posted a request—I've copied much of it here—on his Facebook Timeline.
Just an open letter to all my friends and family who voted for president O'Bama. From here on out I am asking just a little favor. I would like to know how I am suppose to measure his successes.... You create the criteria and then stick by it. YOU tell me what success is in O'Bama's presidency so that I can measure it.... How will you have me measure it? Starting ...NOW. Oh... and by the way...not opinions... source each "success" with an article that supports your statement that he has succeeded in the categories that you have previously defined.
Earlier this week, I remembered that I'd responded to his appeal. I couldn't recall what I'd written, however; so, out of curiosity, I looked up my response, to see if, in fact, the president, whom I have come to regard as an extraordinary success, had met my criteria for success as I'd set it forth on that particular day. A year remains in his presidency, of course, and history makes clear that anything can happen, just about. Nevertheless, below I've pasted what I wrote, formatted here as an organized checklist, with my evaluation of his performance. I have provided links for the sources in support of my evaluation, as my cousin requested.

Measurement 1

By the end of Obama's second term, I would like Romney's effective tax rate to be at least as high as mine. I don't think that millionaires should be paying lower effective tax rates than the middle class, as they often do now. I would like to see a simpler, more progressive tax code. Under Eisenhower, a Republican, the maximum marginal tax rate was a staggering 91% (yet Obama is called a socialist). Under Nixon it was 70%. Under Reagan it was 50%. Under Clinton it was 39%. Obama wants to return us to Clinton. That seems, at a minimum, eminently reasonable.

Outcome: Taxes are still lower than they should be for the wealthiest Americans, but they have gone up, and Romney's effective tax rate is now, in all likelihood, at least as high as mine. Therefore, Success.


Measurement 2

I would like human-driven climate change, which is a scientific fact, to be addressed with the seriousness it deserves in our national political conversation. I would like to see a carbon tax in order to fund renewable energy technologies going forward. It's nonsensical to base the future of one's civilization on a nonrenewable, rapidly deleting resource. (I'm not confident this will happen, I confess. About half the country thinks of science the way I think of Zeus.)

Outcome: The Paris Accord is an historic step forward. No carbon tax, however. Therefore, Partial Success.

Measurement 3

I would like the private sector to continue to grow, as it did under Obama, and I would like the public sector to continue to shrink, as did under Obama—both trends representing a 180 degree change from trends under Bush. Obama-specific policies, after all, have increased the federal deficit less than any president's since Eisenhower—most of the spending under Obama first four years was driven by policies (like food stamps) put in place long before he arrived, in response to an economic crisis that he didn't create.

Outcome: Private sector jobs have grown dramatically under Obama, but public sector jobs have now begun to grow as well, very slightly. Therefore, Partial Success.

Measurement 4

I would like see my brother's right to marry the person of his choosing to be recognized as constitutional right.

Measurement 5

I would like to see national incarceration rates decline.

Measurement 6

At present 1% of the population owns 83% of all stocks. I would like to see that number go down. If it does, that would suggest that the middle class's economic power is expanding, which it hasn't done since Carter.

Outcome: The wealthiest Americans still own most stocks, but stock ownership has grown among middle-class Americans, slightly. Therefore, Partial Success.


Measurement 7

I would like to see access to healthcare continue to expand. In this regard I follow Churchill, the 20th century's greatest conservative: healthcare is a national security issue and should be treated as such. The government is responsible for national security. Restricting that role to external enemies while disregarding internal enemies—which kill many more of us than external enemies—makes no sense. Your neighbor living or dying shouldn't be an opportunity for personal profit—it should be seen as a communal, moral responsibility.

Measurement 8

I would like to see a fair, humane solution to immigration.

Outcome: Obama has used executive orders to mitigate the destructive effects of our inhumane immigration policies. But executive orders are not a long-term solution. Therefore, Partial Success.

Measurement 9

I would like to see us pull back from our role as global police force and continue to expand our commitment to diplomacy. I would like to see defense spending decline. I believe that Eisenhower's warning about the military-industrial complex representing a direct threat to the health of our democracy has, sadly, gone unheeded.

Outcome: Obama has favored diplomacy over occupation and global policing, he has declined to enter into a large-scale ground war in the Middle East, and he has cut defense spending. Therefore, Success.


Measurement 10

I would like to see us continue to cut our nuclear arsenal.

Outcome: Fewer warheads, but a commitment to modernize our nuclear arsenal rather than radically cut it. Therefore, Partial Success.


Measurement 11

I would like to see Obama include conservatives in his cabinet. I expect that one of them will be John Huntsman.

Outcome: Not the person I had in mind, and ultimately something of a failure, but Obama gave me what I asked for. Therefore, Success.


Measurement 12

I would like to see Obama continue to behave with dignity and decency in the face of hysterical and baseless claims about his politics, his personal history, and his love for this country. I suspect that some of this hysteria is the product of racism, frankly.

Outcome: Success.

Source: The last seven years.

Measurement 13

Which leads me to my last wish: that the views of Obama and his supporters be treated as the reasonable consequence of intelligent people who want to see this country prosper. We are not Fox News's idea of us. I'm pretty sure that Republicans aren't MSNBC's idea of them. So I hope Romney's supporters proceed from the premise that Obama and his supporters are people of goodwill, with an idea of America that is optimistic, patriotic, and pragmatic. It's true that many of us aren't taking orders from Romney's God. But we respect your right to do that, and we appreciate your point of view, insofar as it doesn't mischaracterize who we are and what we stand for.

Outcome: Despite all of the above, Abject Failure.

Source: My cousin's Facebook Timeline.

In summary: Obama has achieved either Success or Partial Success in all twelve measurements.

In other words, I have, like tens of millions of other Americans, gotten what I voted for. Well done, Mr. President.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Patrick Willis

After Sammy's Pop Warner football team won the West Coast Championship — this would have been 2010 — the 49ers invited his team to appear on the field before one of their home games. It's hard to miss Sam's white hair:

During the pregame warm-ups, the boys lined up along the sideline to watch. Players for both teams came and went. Eventually the boys were escorted onto the field and introduced. Someone sang the National Anthem. The boys then marched in single file to the sideline, to be escorted from the field. Prior to their exit, one player — only one — came over and gave every one of them a high-five: Patrick Willis.

I don't watch football much anymore. Given what what it does to the players, it has lost much of its charm. But I used to love watching the game and always loved watching Patrick Willis. Since the day he arrived in San Francisco, he has been — was — the best player on the team. He is, as far as I'm concerned, the greatest middle linebacker of his generation.

And I've come to believe that there is a connection, however small, between his gesture that day — his thoughtfulness — and his greatness. How ironic, I thought then, that the best player on the team is the one who thought to come over and congratulate those little boys. But perhaps it's not ironic at all. Perhaps it's all of a piece. The same character, the same attention to detail, that made Patrick Willis football's best linebacker for nearly decade also made him pause to come shake my son's hand.

Monday, March 2, 2015


Among Selma's achievements: to evoke the burden — more than that: the exhaustion — that Dr. King felt doing battle with America's theretofore unassailable myth of white innocence. He spends much of the movie exhausted and—we see this in his eyes—in flight from his calling. But on occasion, invigorated by the people around him (by a grieving 84-year-old grandfather, for instance, who has never cast a vote in his life) Dr. King drinks from his Fountain of Truth, known for centuries as Christ's Love, and summons the strength to change the world.

Which struck America then and strikes me now as some kind of stupefying miracle.

We haven't lived up to that miracle, needless to say, but it is part of our inheritance. It has made possible other miracles, including the one I witnessed at the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company on November 4, 2008. That miracle was earned, like Selma, by decades of suffering, and likely occurred—like Selma—in part so that white America could restore for itself the myth of its innocence. Regardless, it occurred, and I witnessed it and will never forget it.

I was raised to ask for miracles by praying. And it was nice to think that miracles could come from prayer. But prayer, when it plays any role whatsoever, is basically the singer warming her voice. In the end, miracles are earned by hard work and good thinking. Dr. King, to our great good fortune, knew how to think. He understood that to "lift white consciousness," it was necessary to deploy white America against itself. The myth of white innocence could not tolerate the sight of white cruelty. Innocence Lost mandated Innocence Restored. Fair enough, Dr. King said: If your myth is important you, it could use some defending in Selma.

When the march finally happens, after blood has run in the streets, the film rewards us with archival footage of the real-life marchers. One is struck by the joy in their faces. It is, dare I say, divine joy. Dr. King was tired and would soon be dead. But his marchers were not tired and perhaps—Hands Up, Don't Shoot!—still aren't.