Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Roots of Obama's Rage, by Dinesh D'Souza

I've read and enjoyed Dinesh D'Souza's books in the past, but this latest book seems to be much different in character than, for instance, his compelling The Virtue of Prosperity.  D'Souza claims to have found the key to all of Obama's domestic and foreign policy: anti-colonialism.  In The Roots of Obama's Rage, D'Souza analyzes Obama's books, primarily Dreams from My Father, looking for what those dreams are.  Barack Obama, Sr., who deserted Barack, Jr., and his mother when Barack was a toddler, returned to his native Kenya with dreams of Kenyan independence and a socialist Kenyan utopia.

Even though Barack, Sr., the man, had very little presence in young Barack's life, Barack, Sr., the myth and legend created by young Barack's mother, loomed large.  You can't fault a single mom for talking up her son's dad, but she left Barack, Jr., with a fantasy.  Rather than remembering his father as a "polygamist who abandoned his wives, drank himself into stupors," lost both legs from a car accident in which he was driving drunk and ultimately died in another drunk driving incident, Obama remembers him as a heroic crusader against British colonialism in Kenya, fighting for Kenyan independence.

Using Obama's own words and arguments, primarily from his books, but also from his speeches, D'Souza demonstrates Obama's anti-colonialist leanings.  It's an interesting case, but I fear D'Souza has taken a myopic approach.  Convinced that Obama embraces his father's anti-colonialism, D'Souza runs everything Obama says and does through that filter.  Not content simply to report on the effective anti-colonialism of Obama's policies, D'Souza frequently attributes a deep anti-colonial motivation to Obama.  I'm not saying he's wrong, I'm just saying he may be overreaching by delving into the realm of "Here's what Obama's really thinking. . . ."

So what is D'Souza's concern?  Simple.  In the Obama, Sr., anti-colonial view, America is that last, greatest colonial power.  To the extent that President Obama shares that view, his anti-colonial mission has a devastating impact on the United States.  Given his anti-colonialism, it's no wonder that Obama's policies serve to weaken the power of the U.S. overseas, while increasing the power of the state in domestic affairs.  As an explanation for Obama's actions and policies, D'Souza's anti-colonialism thesis is quite strong.  The weakness is D'Souza's claim on Obama's motivation.  I agree, Obama is doing all he can to wreck the U.S. economy and weaken our military.  He is a scourge on our nation, and I wish he and his ilk would be removed from office immediately.  But I think his bad policies are a product of bad, but sincere, ideas.  I give him the benefit of the doubt; I assume he thinks he's doing what's best for America.  D'Souza thinks Obama wakes up every morning thinking, "What can I do to bring down the American Empire today?"  As a result, despite the compelling anaysis in D'Souza's insigtful book, he won't likely be heard by any but the most hard-core conservatives and Obama haters.

Down with colonialism!  Down with the Western oppressors!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Three by Cory Doctorow

In my Movie Glutton blog, I have started doing reviews of similar movies together, since I tend to watch movies faster than I write about them.  Same thing with reading.  I have a bit of a backlog, so I will occasionally review books together.  In this case, I have recently read 3 books by Cory Doctorow, a contemporary science-fiction writer: Makers (2009), Little Brother (2008), and Eastern Standard Tribe (2004).

Doctorow's novels tap into the cyber culture, projecting just a few steps into the future, looking at cultural trends, especially in the realm of personal technology and communications, and fleshing out the next movement.  In this sense, Doctorow's novels, at least these 3, don't have the feel of traditional sci-fi.  There are no space ships, aliens, or ray guns.  I know, that's stereotypical.  He writes in the sci-fi sub-genre of cyber-punk or cypher-punk, in which I've read a little, and liked little, but Doctorow stands above others in the genre.  In any case, I heard someone say that to be considered science fiction, there have to be at least 3 patentable ideas.   Doctorow definitely meets that standard.

Eastern Standard Tribe, Little Brother, and Makers have interrelated themes but have distinctly different story lines.  The first novel itself was a little disappointing, but the concepts and the framing of the story were terrific.  The title of Eastern Standard Tribe hints at a cultural trend which I haven't seen, but surely is out there.  People have always been drawn to affinity groups, based on common interests.  The internet and social networks have enabled our social groups to become more and more specialized.  So what if your specific interest group is centered in Hong Kong?  Or Southern California?  And you live in Texas?  You can adjust your sleep schedule so that your waking hours line up with your group.  The problem is the resulting sleep deprivation may effect your mental health; your circadian rhythms may never catch up.  Such is the plight of Art.  When his partner and girlfriend betray him and have him involuntarily committed to a mental hospital, he has a hard time proving he's not insane, since his sleep patterns have, in a way, driven him insane.

This theme of involuntary institutionalization struck a chord with me.  It reminded me of the work of Thomas Szasz , who wrote The Myth of Mental Illnessand many other works, and Jeffrey Schaler, author of Addiction is a Choice.  These two psychologists have written prolifically and profoundly against involuntary institutionalization.  Art experiences the dilemma of involuntary institutionalization: there is no practical way to prove that one is not insane.  While in the mental hospital, Art is kept drugged up and can't properly prove his sanity.  Doctorow doesn't explicitly address this issue, per se, but the novel raises the question in an interesting way.  The story starts with Art in the hospital, being driven crazy trying to prove that he's not crazy, then moves backwards to piece together how he got there.

Art provides the sci-fi requisite 3 patentable ideas himself.  He is a user experience (UE) engineer, a phrase I was not previously familiar with.  I thought it might originate with Doctorow.  A Google search brings lots of hits, though.  Apparently the concept, more commonly abbreviated UX or UXD (for user experience design), originated with Dr. Donald Norman, who expounded on UX in books such as User Centered System Design and Living with ComplexityDoctorow never explicitly references Norman, as best I can remember, but he fleshes out Norman's ideas through Art's work.

Little Brother, billed as young adult fiction, features high-school-aged main characters and deals with youth culture, but can be enjoyed by adult readers as well.  He takes on some broader themes here, as San Francisco is hit with a large-scale terrorist attack.  Marcus and his friends are swept up as suspected terrorists after the attack, and upon release become sworn enemies of the Department of Homeland Security, who has become an occupying force in their city.  Using his electronic genius, fueled by his passion for justice, Marcus puts together an underground of rebels, linked together by Xboxes.  Together they thwart many of DHS's surveillance and control efforts, making themselves targets in the meantime.

Set in the all-to-near future, Little Brother presents a viable picture of government security gone too far.  In a sense, I objected, of course our government wouldn't behave in such a way!  But Docotorow forces the reader to think about the incremental way the federal government has chiseled away at our freedoms since 9-11, and the vigor with which agencies from the FBI and DHS down to local law enforcement have embraced their expanded authority.  I'm not sure how well I relate to the late-teen, early twenties gamer set who dominate Doctorow's story, but I sure hope I end up on their side when this future happens.

Finally, the most recent novel.  Makers is the most ambitious of the three in every sense.  In this very near future, the U.S. has suffered another economic downturn.  Lester and Perry have found their niche, making custom products from scavenged material.  These creative geniuses have taken advantage of the abundant technology, cheap computerization, and plenty of discarded electronics to create brilliant new inventions.  With a bit of notoriety and advancements in 3-D printers, they begin mass marketing their inventions and create a whole new type of market.  Imitators around the world mimick their methods, setting up shop in their basements and garages, many making lots of money in what comes to be known as the New Work.

The curve reflects the tech boom of the 1990s, with a few big successes, lots of little guys, plenty of failures, and an eventual bust.  Doctorow celebrates the successes of enterpreneurship and the impact entrepreneurs can have.  One character argues for the virtue of creative work,referring to the success of one of their creations: "That’s a half-million lives—a half-million households—that we changed just by thinking up something cool and making it real."

Doctorow does prefer the start-up over the corporation, and downplays the profit motive as lower than the creative drive.  The acquisition of the business by Kodacell (merger of Kodak and Duracell) leads to its demise.  In a conversation about business without structure, Lester tries to convince Tjan to leave Kodacell and come to work for him.  Tjan defends the structured approach: "Businesses are great structures for managing big projects. It’s like trying to develop the ability to walk without developing a skeleton. Once in a blue moon, you get an octopus, but for the most part, you get skeletons. Skeletons are good sh--.”  "Tjan, I want you to come on board to help me create an octopus,” Perry said.  “I can try,” Tjan said, “but it won’t be easy. When you do cool stuff, you end up making money.” 

Makers has a bit of a mixed message about business qua business, but his celebration of creativity and entrepreneurship is inspiring.  On great ideas: “It’s so obvious now that I see it,” he said.  “Yeah, all the really great ideas are like that,” Lester said.  With this theme, Makers started out to be a favorite book.  But in the post-New Work era, Lester and Perry end up creating a ride which takes riders on a nostalgic trip through the New Work, then it develops a cult following and is replicated around the world.  The story just gets a little jumbled and I stopped caring about 1/2 way through. 

Overall, I enjoyed the book, but finished it on the wave of the first half.  Not that it got bad, it just didn't live up to the start.  One complaint I have is the extremely explicit sex scene.  It's only a short part of a long book, but it seemed way out of character with the rest of the book.  It would have fit more appropriately in a porn mag than in a sci-fi book.  I've read sex scenes in books before, but never anything as extended and explicit as this.  Cory, save it for another forum; your novels are not a place for these fantasies!!  Little Brother, by the way, was not so explicit, but the teen sex scenes in there were certainly more explicit that I would want my soon-to-be teen to be reading.

I thoroughly enjoyed each of these books.  Of the three, Little Brother is my favorite for its great theme and start to finish completeness.  Makers petered out due to length or lack of inspiration, but I still liked it, mostly because of the ideas.  Eastern Standard Tribe was OK, it just didn't click with me as much as the other two.  I know these comments sound sort of tepid, but with the three books, Doctorow has definitely become a new favorite author.  My endorsement of his books as stories ranges from half-hearted to positive, but his weaving of brilliant ideas into stories saves the day.

One thing I should add: Doctorow makes all his books available for free on his website,  Seriously, even new releases.  You can download them in various formats.  Check it out.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Race Rebels, by Robin D. G. Kelley

Have you ever, when reading something, seen a reference to another book that makes you want to read it?  Then when you get around to reading it, you realize that, with the first reference, you learned everything you wanted to know about the book?  That was my experience with this book.  I don't even remember where I read a reference to Robin D.G. Kelley's Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class, but I know my life would not be less rich had I not read it. 

This is not to say it's a bad book.  It's a book that serves a function, fills a niche.  Kelley writes as an academic (professor of history and Africana studies at NYU at the time of publication, now professor of American studies and ethnicity and history at USC), so the book is heavy on documentation and light on readability.  (For 227 pages of text, there are 65 pages of end notes, a 37 page bibliography, and a 15 page index.  But who's counting.)  With that tone and purpose in mind, the reader can still glean an interesting take on civil rights and black history in the U.S.

In a relatively small space, Kelley covers a lot of ground.  I enjoyed his recounting of, in a sense, the underbelly of the civil rights movement.  We all know about Martin Luther King, the march on Washington, and the high-profile civil rights leaders.  Kelley reveals the under-the-radar civil rights movement.  Many workers, whether domestics, dock workers, field workers, etc., performed their own small acts of workplace rebellion, including industrial sabotage, workplace theft, and simple loafing.  By doing so, they claimed ownership of their own time and persons, rejecting the role of slave.

I particularly liked the description of domestic workers taking, with the implied consent of their employers, food ("pan-toting"), clothing and utensils for their own use.  One worker said, "We don't steal; we just 'take' things--they are part of the oral contract, exprest [sic] or implied.  We understand it, and most of the white folks understand it."  I was reminded of the biblical practice of gleaning, which required farmers to leave the corners of the field unharvested, or leave some grapes or olives ungathered, so that the poor can gather some for their own use.

Another favorite part was the description of the ongoing, decentralized bus protests, specifically in Birmingham.  Give Rosa Parks her due, of course, but she was by no means the first, and certainly not the only one to thwart the bus segregation policy.  Many did, on a daily basis.  Particularly troubling was the treatment of black servicemen, who fought against racist policies overseas, only to come home and be told to move to the back of the bus.

Later on, as the civil rights movement became tied to the Communist Party, I began to lose a sense of solidarity.  I can appreciate the point, that many African Americans do not share a commitment to American values, given the way they have been treated historically and in the present day, but it seems like African Americans should look at the alternatives: Communism, which oppresses all people as a matter of course, or American democracy, which has unfairly oppressed a minority but has taken great strides towards true equality.  I have little patience for those who side with Communism, black or white.

I also did not enjoy Kelley's laudatory analysis of "gansta rap."  I understand, as best a white man can, that blacks suffer from unfair treatment, and that there are discriminatory practices in law enforcement (see my review of Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow), and that places like South Central L.A. have become occupied territories under police rule.  But gangsta rap, when it celebrates cop killers, lauds illegal activity, and then demeans women, should be condemned, not praised, even if it is a heart-felt expression of the experiences of poor, inner-city blacks.

As a country, we are a long way from being free of contentious race discussions in our public discourse.  Race Rebels reminds us that, even though church leaders and middle class and wealthy blacks may dominate discussions of race, the working class and poor blacks in our nation are the ones who really move the culture toward racial equality.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper

A few weeks ago, Kelly wasn't feeling well so I took off work to fill in for her at the kids' Valentine's Day parties at school.  First I went to Chloe's second grade class.  Chloe is non-verbal and has some physical limitations and development delays due to an unidentified genetic disorder.  Prior to this year, she has been in special ed classes, with part of her day spent in regular ed classes.  Now she is in a regular ed class all day with a full-time assistant and is the only child in her class with special needs. 

As I sat and watched her interact with the other kids at her table, the other kids' interactions with her impressed me.  Without fail, they were sweet, helpful, friendly, and even conversational.  Chloe will nod in response, but does not speak, and does not make a lot of eye contact.  Yet these kids spoke and interacted with her as if nothing was different about her.  One of the little girls asked me if I was Chloe's daddy.  I told her I was.  She said, "Chloe and I are best friends!"  I'm telling you I almost lost it there; I had to exercise lots of self-restraint not to cry in front of her.  I loved seeing Chloe, who is content to play alone in her room for hours on end, in this setting, with such great support from her peers.

Then I went to help set up for Elliot's 6th grade party and was intercepted by one of his teachers.  Almost breathlessly, she said, "I read a book you have to read.  It's called Out of My Mind, and I thought of Chloe the whole time I was reading it!"  She had told Elliot the same thing, so he read it and told Kelly about it so she read it, and since they liked it so much, I picked it up yesterday.  I hardly put it down and finished it in a day.

Not only did I think of Chloe as I read, but I thought of Kelly, me, and Chloe's teachers and assistants.  In Out of My Mind, Melody, the 11-year-old protagonist, has cerebral palsy.  Though confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak, her mind is active, brilliant, and and capable of remembering anything she reads, sees, or hears.  Much of her school years have been spent in boring, humiliating special ed classes.  When she can read thousands of words, of course she gets upset when the teacher is teaching the alphabet.  Finally, through her own initiative and the persistence of her assistant and her family, she gets an assistive communication device, giving her a voice for the first time in her life.  Finally she can communicate verbally and participate more in school, even helping the school's quiz team qualify for the national finals.

Throughout the story, my heart broke for this precious girl, bringing me to tears on several occasions.  How frustrating not to be able to makes oneself understood.  How isolating not to be able to interact with people around you.  I, of course, kept thinking of Chloe, my smart little girl who has such a hard time communicating.  I don't know that she has a photographic memory like Melody, but I know she's always been smarter than we know.  What's going on in her mind that we can't see or hear?  How many inane, boring lessons has she sat through, thinking "I know all this!  Stop with the baby lessons!"  And when Chloe watches the other kids run and talk and laugh and play, does she long, like Melody, to be a part?  Does Chloe get embarrassed by her difficulty in feeding herself, that she wears diapers at age 9, that she rides the handicapped bus?

I thought of Kelly as much as I thought of Chloe.  Melody is a lucky girl in that her mom never gives up believing in her.  She has to come to bat for Melody time and again, sometimes in a militant way.  In the same way, Kelly has been Chloe's biggest advocate, her momma bear instincts pushing and pushing to make sure Chloe gets services she needs and is in the best placement for her growth.  And the link between Melody and her mom could just as well describe Chloe and Kelly.  Kelly knows what Chloe's every little gesture means, and usually knows what Chloe's thinking.  She can tell by looks if Chloe feels bad, and can smell when she's thirsty.  Weird.  Melody's dad plays a smaller role, like me; he's not as clued in to his daughter as the mom, but does all he can do to help.

Draper is a long-time teacher--honored as National Teacher of the Year in 1997--and the parent of a child with "developmental difficulties" (her description) so it's no surprise that her classroom scenes and dispatches from the special ed classroom seem so real.  And her appreciation for the special ed assistants should be noted; I agree with Draper--those folks do wonderful work for way too little money.  I for one am so thankful for the faithful ladies who have fed Chloe, changed her diapers, and invested in her learning and development during her school years.

Out of My Mind gives the reader a believable window into the mind of a disabled individual.  But Draper's real target audience is the rest of us.  As Draper says on, Out of My Mind is "written for people who look away, who pretend they don't see, or who don't know what to say when they encounter someone who faces life with obvious differences. Just smile and say hello!"  I may be too honest in this admission, but this book has reminded me to take more time with Chloe, to remember that even when she acts like she's in her own world she is hearing and seeing and taking it all in, and that it's up to me, Kelly, and all of Chloe's support team, to work together to help Chloe take part in her world and to overcome the challenges in her life.