American Tabloid by James Ellroy

I nearly put this book down after the first few pages. The writing was snappy, stylish, quick. It also pulls no punches and the first chapters reveal a cast of protagonists engaged in brutal violence, seemingly amoral, openly racist, antisemitic, misogynist, you name it.

Ellroy is eager and emphatic to prove his opening sentence, his great thrust:

America was never innocent.

Our heroes, shake down men and corrupt cops and FBI agents on the fast track to losing their conscience, are either terrible people or on their way to becoming so. Murder, torture, corruption. Five hundred pages of it. It’s alleviated somewhat by the fact that these guys aren’t even the worst the country has to offer — the mob and the US government, often-hand-in-loving-hand, are worse. Never innocent.

This book is like six hundred pages. You can’t really do six hundred pages of complete revulsion. Well. I can’t anyway. So what happens? You reach a point, this sort of nadir of disgust, and then you float past it. Embrace it, maybe. America was built on corpses, worshiped corrupt heroes like the coward-womanizer John Kennedy, was in bed with organized crime while endlessly persecuting innocents, so who gives a shit? Stop hating Pete and instead cheer on his massacres. Microwave into the bathtub, alright, great. Burn it to the fucking ground.

It’s hard to say if this is some kind of catharsis or an absolution of responsibility w/r/t the American present. I don’t know.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

betweentheworldandmeA few days before the racial violence of the past week — the senseless murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille and the retaliatory madness in Dallas — my wife and I decided to choose an audiobook to listen to on our Oregon road trip. We chose Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehsisi Coates open letter slash memoir about racial violence & white supremecy in America. It turned out to be a grim precursor indeed: Killer evidence that Coates’ morose belief that nothing will change, that plunder is an addiction, contains truth.  

The genesis of this book: Ta-Nehsisi Coates finds his teenage son crying in his room over the absence of punishment for Freddie Gray’s murder. This leads him (Coates) to relate the story of his black life, from the violent streets of Baltimore through reaching his own personal mecca of Howard University and his own disillusioning, rending collision with police-racism-brutality when one of his friends is
set up and murdered by cops. The danger of being black in a wealthy neighborhood.

Along the way we’re treated to Coates cogent reflections on the systems of race and oppression in America. The history of America is a history of a oppression of the black body. They are one and the same. Nor does it survive purely as history but a damning present and almost certain future. The infliction of fear and control continues. Coates is criticized at-large, and surely across many goodreads reviews about not being hopeful enough. Too pessimistic, too solution averse. I try to fit myself amid this history. Surely even the systemic racism of today pales in comparison to the generations born into shackles across the tenure of American slavery, or the crashing fall of Reconstruction and institution of Jim Crowe thereafter? But a weak form of progress, with a majorly long way to go, assuming the destination is actually reachable. I can’t fault Coates stance. Clearly American racism is unlikely to quote end (or anything close) in his lifetime, and there’s not a whole lot of reason to feel sure it will conclude in his son’s lifetime either. Coates’ has a good writeup in response to this ‘hope criticism’ here.

Between the World and Me is a less a story of specific injustices (unlike Tim Wise’s White Like Me, which we also started on the drive), but a general investigation of human systems and constructs. For instance, his notion that “white” is not a race but a totally fabricated classification that allows tribal unity in the ruling class is not so much stated outright but unfolded over time and through various means. Or one of my favorite points comes after Coates’ delves into his teenage African nationalism spent idolizing African cultures, and subsequent falling out from that mindset. After initially embracing the search for the answer to Saul Bellow’s question:

Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?

Coates then comes to a sort of awakening with his response that:

Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus.

It’s a powerful response that sticks with me, and speaks to a possible and neglected human unity that all the “all lives matter” reactionary racist bullshit can’t even approach.

I used to listen to audiobooks all the time when I had to actually drive to work. Now I only listen to them during vacations or holidays or other rare times spending a whole lot of time in a car. As such, I can be more discerning and I only listen to books narrated by the author. Even if they don’t have a great voice, they understand better than anyone the rhythm and cadence of their prose and it makes for a much better listen. Coates spent some time reading (bad) poetry aloud or working spoken word nights in his youth, so his narration has a particular speakerish quality to it. His repetition of words and phrases “My body”, “the black body”, “plunder”, “the people who think they are white” etc added to the fact that’s a memoirish essay made for a more compelling experience than I figure the text would. 

The Utopia of Rules by David Graeber

utopia of rulesBureaucracy! You hate it! You love it! Quite possibly your workday is clenched between its squeaky-clean cogs.

Inflexible and stupid rules. Little else can make me as furious. Someone simply saying “but those are the rules!” regardless of how stupid they are is incomprehensible to me. Non-negotiability is madness. Especially when wielded by those with real power over me.

Graeber’s essays go beyond the mere stupidity of bureaucracy into deeper, sinister territory.

Here’s a cheat sheet:

  • Bureaucracy is tightly coupled with the threat of violence. The rules only truly work because if you don’t follow them, men in uniform, be they police or security guards or whatever, will throw you in a cage or charge you exorbitant fees.
  • Bureaucracy used to be more a government technique, but Graeber coined the term ‘total bureaucratization’ to encompass our modern era where government bureaucracy is inextricably linked with corporate bureaucracy. See banks throwing up their hands and saying there’s nothing we can do while pointing at inflexible regulations that they themselves encouraged. Or consider work within corporations themselves, which now includes all sorts of metrics and rubrics and paperwork to measure performance. 
  • Bureaucracy, at least the current American version, stunts technology. By forcefully pointing tech and science in directions of further bureaucratization / social control, it keeps it from inventing alternate technologies that change the world and possibly obsolete capitalism or bureaucracy itself. For instance, the ‘mechanized worker’ people of the early 19th century were sure would be invented never materialized.
  • Bureaucracy totally morphs the concept of value in baffling ways. Value becomes a ubiquitous concept to be arrived at, rather than the obvious result of labor. See:

The whole idea that one can make a strict division between means and ends, between facts and values, is a product of the bureaucratic mind-set, because bureaucracy is the first and only social institution that treats the means of doing things as entirely separate from what it is that’s being done

Worst of all, as a result of all these things (and more), modern Americans now think that the hard-line, impersonal rulecraft of bureaucracy is the only correct way civilization works. Yet for the vast majority of human history, it wasn’t required at all. Somehow people got by without being able to instantly call men in uniform to threaten (&inflict) violence in the name of Rules.

The Unwinding by George Packer

unwindingGeorge Packer weaves a tapestry of American stories, from rich to poor, their rises and downfalls and lost opportunities, to paint a picture of an American social institution come adrift and unbound. The old social contract has dissolved and the series of laws and buffers that cemented the country throughout the twentieth century have been repealed and overridden. The worst part of the 2008 recession was not the recession itself but the missing high-profile arrests, new laws, and checks that failed to materialize afterwards. And not for lack of evidence or persuasiveness.

The Unwinding follows many people, but three “average” and unknown Americans get several chapters devoted to their stories. One is Tammy Thomas, an assembly line worker coming of age during the collapse of the steel industry in Youngstown, Ohio. Tammy watches as her community implodes, jobs disappear, gentrification and white flight run rampant only for her to lose her job herself. In the past, a combination of industry barons and the unions had protected their own; they were no saints and the jobs were often unsafe, unhealthy and did not include stellar pay, but they were stable. They paid enough to feed your family, had safeguards for injury, and took care of retirement. Packer is careful not to turn the early-mid century into a halcyon golden age — the terrible racism is reinforced. In fact, the industrial collapse was even worse for the rising black middle class since their time was so short and they were hit the hardest in many of the industry towns as they were coming in as the whites were coming out (at least for the most physically demanding and dangerous jobs).

Next comes Dean Price, an entrepreneur and green economy evangelist whose story spans the Piedmont Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. Shocked by the notion of peak oil and hyped up on self-help books, Dean starts a southern crusade to employ various combinations of crops or waste products to replace diesel fuel (a major dependency of the sprawling, decentralized, crop-run south). The plan is to make farming useful again and get the locals back to work. Shrink business and put the means of production back in the hands of the community. His businesses fail. Due to a combination of ignorance, petty infighting, political games, shifting economics (once gas prices stabilized, green fuel became too expensive), and poor financial sense (on Dean’s part). But he keeps on trying. A friendly politician tells him to stop using words like “sustainability” and “green energy” as they tend to scare the populace. Dean himself, despite his strict adherence to peak oil, rejects speaking of climate change as “too partisan”. The book paints a picture of an economically devastated south, entire industries wiped out with whole towns employed and shopping at Walmart. Plus a disdain leveled upon them by the richer cities (of which I reside!). But still, it’s hard to sympathize when massive global crisis is present but ignored or decried as partisan and when you hear what the most common word that Dean’s fellows have to describe Obama is (hint: it begins with an n).

Lastly is Jeff Conaughton, a “Biden-guy”* with joint careers in Washington and Wall Street. Jeff’s story is largely an affirmation that the former is still in the latter’s pocket. His eventual departure from both involves him being unable to get an important audience with a politician as a Washington insider while his friends in a financial firm command eighty minute meetings. Meanwhile, the Republican party is now run on spite**. The democrats are largely ineffectual or just as bad. There’s a chapter profiling Elizabeth Warren that points out she espouses the same sort of views as Barrack Obama but seems determined to actually fulfill them without some kind of buddy-buddy ho ho let’s make a deal, guys schtick (Packer: “She actually seemed to hate the banks”). As a result, she was despised by members of both parties while in Washington. While probably the compelling personal story, Jeff Conaughton’s is the one with the most obvious and dire consequences. The highest levels of this country are a mess.

Interspersed between these three paths are exposés on famous people and three tumultuous locales — Wall Street during Occupy, Silicon Valley and its elite, and the housing crisis as it builds and smashes Tampa Bay. The character portraits are fascinating, Packer adopts a voice and language that fits the person he is writing about. Military based Colin Powell’s chapter uses high falutin language (glory, comrade, etc) with short sentences and an epic bent. Oprah’s uses more spiritual and floaty language. With the conspicuous exception of Elizabeth Warren, they generally have something negative to say. Oprah’s magical thinking ties wealth to goodness. Alice Waters inability to compromise has greatly assisted in what Americans eat being defined along class lines. Jay-Z is selling a cheap and false notion of rebellion. Raymond Carver was a pathetic, drunk asshole (not sure how that one ties into the greater narrative to be honest).

The Wall Street and Silicon Valley segments were interesting, but the implosion of Tampa and its environs was perhaps the best told and most harrowing section of the book. The real estate doomtrain and its inevitable derailment. The scrabbling at the ruins and the honest attempts to keep a house. The foreclosure machine in action — obfuscation of what is actually owed and to whom; three minute court hearings without the bank present. The fear and anger that led the Tea Party to emerge***. The Republican National Conference literally blockading the citizens of Tampa out of their own city. It feels like the setup to a dystopian fiction.

Packer’s America is one that has lost faith in itself, its people afraid of the future. Each chapter is preceded by a year and series of quotes, song lyrics, movies lines evoking that year. The last one, 2012, quotes the premise of The Hunger Games. The children of the starving and oppressed poor forced to fight to the death for the novelty of the extreme wealth. If Sci-fi represents how we view the future and fantasy how we dream, then we have become incredible cynics. Our Sci-fi/fantasy worlds are ones of decay, lands ruined by social upheaval and environmental disaster. It’s no surprise that Game of Thrones is so successful, in novel and television form. It’s the story of a corrupt elite repeatedly abusing the trust of their representative peoples, while they ignore a supernatural threat that comes literally from the glacial poles and negatively affects the weather.

*Jeff got into politics following a rousing speech that Joe Biden gave to his high school; it made an immediate impact on young Jeff and moved him to pursue politics. Later, he comes to learn that Biden is actually kind of a prick.

**a sad-but-funny chapter details the Republican National Convention. Romney is purposely not named — he’s merely the Nominee — and whenever major conservative figures are asked “Why him?”, they inevitably say something negative about Obama as a response.

***Again, the fear and anger is sad and understandable. The paradoxical self destructive behavior might even be. But the singular aim with which they smashed legitimate attempts to heal the economy is not. Just because the people got utterly hosed does not give them license to hurt others.