28 June 2012

An Essay on Health Care

Like the rest of my country, I am waiting on the ruling by the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare." You can read a summary of the issues and case here at SCOTUSblog.  Even the experts at SCOTUSblog - and they are the most expert group among those who watch these sorts of things - can only offer fairly weak predictions of the outcome: Tom Goldstein declares that his "level of confidence isn't overwhelming" but that he thinks "the mandate will not be invalidated."  But in another way, my suspense is limited: whatever happens in ten hours, it cannot  be the end of the story.

As Jeff Madrick has recently noted in the NYRB, the number of uninsured in America has been rising since the 1970s.  The number of uninsured, whose ranks are dominated by the poor, totals nearly 50 million, or 16% of the population.  Obamacare was brought into being almost purely in order to compensate for a system that is inherently flawed by its very nature, because it is a bizarre mix of two different styles of health care that each work to accelerate the flaws of the other.

Whether or not Obamacare is upheld, we need to face the fact that it is not the best solution.  Whether or not it is upheld, the resulting situation will only be a mid-point towards an eventual evolution.

I

There was a time when you got sick, and either lived or died.  There was relatively little treatment available beyond initial intercession and a modicum of palliative care, unless you were wealthy.  Most other options were crowded hospitals, funded by charity.

With the rise of modern medicine, the possibility of cures and convalescence became increasingly more likely.  At the same time, the development of new ideals of equality, intrinsic human worth, and institutionalized compassion made people aware of the uncomfortable fact that poor people also deserved care.  Like all cutting-edge science, the most advanced medical techniques remained expensive, which seemed to leave only one possibility: people could build equity up in advance, contracting with an insurance company for their lives the same way they contracted for their possessions.  It seems normal now, but it's actually rather absurd:  I will give you money every month, in exchange for nothing.  But if I get sick, you have to pay for it.  There are some immediate oddities with this approach, including the fact that it encourages you to be a hypochondriac: the only way to get any value for your money is to be sure you check out every little possibility.

This strange arrangement has naturally and intricately evolved.  Insurers charge more if you seem likely to get sick, because you represent a bad gamble for them, and they specify different types and degrees of sickness that they will cover, in an increasingly more complicated set of contracts.  Subscribers demand and receive a minimum level of services, such as regular check-ups - and because such services are paid for by big insurers that can negotiate deals, they have been priced far out of proportion with their true cost for everyone else.  The biggest problem with the arrangement, of course, is that it still represents a certain level of investment.  If you can't afford insurance, you definitely can't afford treatment.

Enter the unions.  Unions seem to have been responsible for enforcing a norm in America that required employers to provide medical insurance to their employees as a benefit.  On the positive side, this meant that all those who were employed at a decent job would have health insurance, allowing millions to receive care they'd otherwise not receive.  On the negative side, this norm meant that options for those who weren't in a decent union job were more limited.  Even without a union, their employer might abide by the norm.  But there was little certainty, and employers had become intrinsically wrapped up with the insurance process - a situation that makes even less sense.  I will work for you.  Part of my compensation will be that if I get sick, you have to pay for it.  Even more perverse incentives are obvious (you seem likely to get pregnant - no thanks), all of which have plagued the American worker and which have required legislative solutions.  These solutions were backed by unions.

At the same time, another possibility began to present itself to those unhappy with the serious problems with the private insurance situation: public healthcare.  This makes sense in a different kind of way: health care is seen as something that everyone should receive, because it is a "right" (to use the imprecise phrasing of advocates).  There are another set of negatives, of course.  Just as with private healthcare, you are likely to try to take full advantage of the system and get the most possible care.  But more prominently, the fact that a public agency will be in charge of providing care means that there are the inevitable problems of any bureaucracy: inefficiencies on the one hand, and "rationing" on the other (to use the imprecise phrasing of a different sort of advocates).  Any government distribution of a finite amount of resources - in this case, the allocated dollars paid out to health care providers - will have those problems.  Regardless of the drawbacks, it must be recognized that the military, at least, had actually always operated on this system, and it would work well in some contexts.

For a period of about thirty years, the American system was a complicated melange.  The unions had established a widespread system of employer-based private health care, while specific systems of public care had been established for a few special groups: the very poor, the elderly, and the military.  American healthcare was a patchwork quilt shared by all citizens, and while political groups fought to tug it a little more snugly over their favored constituencies, by and large everyone kept warm.

Unfortunately, and perhaps inevitably, this bizarre system no longer works.  This appears to be the simple truth of the matter, and it does not appear possible to simply stitch on another threadbare bit of cloth.  At its root, the essential flaw in the system lies in the fact that we are using private and public care in a way that emphasizes the worst qualities of both.

When it comes to private care, the unions that fought and maintained the norms have dwindled, and are much less of a force than they once were.  The recession also encouraged employers to slash benefits.  As a result, the essential inequality of the system has come to the fore: fewer and fewer people can get insurance from their employers.  Nor can they afford private insurance from a system that was built to accommodate employer-based insurance.  This isn't much of a problem for the wealthy, who need not worry about either circumstance (the rich are well-equipped to get jobs with good benefits, and to pay for their care if they cannot).

In the public sphere, a different sort of inequality has evolved: you are either one of the covered, or you are not - yet you pay for their care, regardless.  Naturally, they have become coherent forces to exacerbate this inequality in their own favor: don't cut my benefits!  This is particularly true in the case of the elderly, whose ranks continue to swell and who already represent perhaps the second most powerful political interest group in America, exceeded in potency only by the wealthy.  Everyone else in the country is indirectly subsidizing these groups, sending them money for their care, while paying for their own.  It is possible to do this in the short term, of course, but eventually the burden on those in the private system, who pay for everyone, becomes too great.

So the present situation is an impossible one.  One group has been hardest hit: those in the middle, in what is called the "donut hole."  This group is too wealthy to get public care, too poor to get private care.  But because they are the ones who bear much of the burden for sustaining both systems, they justly resent such an odious state of affairs.  And things continue to get worse for them.

II

The Affordable Care Act was an attempt to balance these flaws against each other and mitigate them by creating a system of public health care administered by private health care.  If everyone is required to get private health care, then they're all working within the same system, so inequality will decline (hopefully).  But because they still have individual choice between private insurers, the mechanism of competition inherent in capitalist enterprise will keep costs and inefficiencies somewhat restrained (hopefully).

Now, the way the ACA forced everyone to get private health care was by imposing a fine if they failed to do so.  Political opponents - and some Supreme Court justices - were outraged by this.  I'm not going to go into the legal arguments, which seem sadly beside the point when put beside the larger picture.   There were all sorts of major entrenched interests fighting it out over this debate, and they all had different ideas.  Alongside the larger competition of Democrats and Republicans, there were the large blocs already enrolled in public health care, the wealthy interested in preserving privileged access to the system, and several enormous industries that all relied on the status quo.

So the simple fact is this: Obamacare was an extremely complicated way of trying to ameliorate an extremely complicated set of problems that are inherent to our extremely complicated system, and it had to be designed and implemented in a way that catered to an extremely complicated set of all the most powerful interest groups in the country.  It is not surprising that the result didn't make everyone happy, or that it probably isn't the ideal set of solutions.  The surprising thing is that anything happened at all.  It is a testament both to the dire nature of the situation and the leadership of President Obama that Obamacare was developed and passed at all, and he deserves every credit for it.

But, as has been demonstrated, the Affordable Care Act's survival is uncertain.  It might be struck down in part, with the mandate eliminated, in which case another mechanism will have to be found to make it work (although it seems unlikely that Obama, should he be re-elected, could produce a second miracle and ensure the passage of this other mechanism).  Obamacare might be struck down in whole, in which case some timid secondary measures will be put in place, and things will continue to get worse.  Or Obamacare might survive, and become an astonishingly difficult challenge to maintain and implement as it navigates its way through the labyrinth of our blended system.

As you can probably tell at this point, I'm not a lawyer and I'm not an expert on health care.  But it seems to me that none of these solutions are very good, even if the most preferable by far would be if SCOTUS upholds the ACA.  Instead, the best system will probably remain universal public health care.  Everyone is in the system, everyone pays, everyone receives care.  Just like in every country and in the limited extant public systems, predictable flaws will exist: efficiency and "rationing."  Infinite care will not be available for that select group of the upper-middle class and wealthy that currently enjoy it, and the overall deployment of health care dollars will see a marginal increase in waste.  But many, many more people will get much better care than they'd otherwise receive.  The trade-off is worth it.

I am in huge suspense, waiting for the ruling on health care.  But if the ACA is destroyed, it's only a matter of time before the system finishes pulling itself apart, and people accept that it is unsustainable.  And if the ACA is upheld, it will only remain a stopgap solution, a stepping stone on the way to true universal public health care.  I believe that if it survives, its greatest role will be in reducing the balkanization of interest groups that encourages them to obstruct that future, uniting Americans towards a smaller set of incentives that will propel the nation towards that goal.

27 June 2012

David Bromwich on Obama in the LRB: "A Bad President"

David Bromwich writes on Obama in the current London Review of Books, and it is as good an expression of general liberal disappointment as I have ever seen. Thankfully, neither does it succumb to bitterness.
And yet there is no alternative to Obama. Supporters who realise that he is not what he seemed in 2008 are reduced to saying (as two of them, a historian and a lawyer, said to me separately in the last few days): ‘He’s not a good president, and doesn’t deserve to be re-elected, but he must be re-elected.’ The short name for the reason is Mitt Romney, the longer and truer name is what the Republican Party has become. It is the party of wars, prisons and the ever expanding riches of the very rich. Romney’s foreign policy advisers are graduates of the workshop of Dick Cheney and the various American outworks of the Likud or the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute. These people – including Cofer Black, Michael Chertoff, Robert Kagan and Dan Senor – have their eyes on a goal beyond victory in Syria and Iran: they look forward to a militarised approach to Russia and China. As for Romney’s economic ideas, every backward step towards the finance economy of 1920 which Obama has worked halfheartedly to impede, Romney will push to achieve with the greatest vigour. Even if he were otherwise disposed, the ideology of his party commits him to policies of a regressive order that will surpass Reagan.

The Obama presidency has gone far to complete the destruction of New Deal politics which began when Bill Clinton brought Wall Street into the White House. The right won the political wars of the last two generations, the left won the culture wars, and we are now in a position to measure the gain and loss. On the one hand, greater tolerance of mixed marriages, the enforced habit of not showing race prejudice in public, gay rights. On the other hand, most Americans today with modest means and a modest chance in life are swayed by the gambling ethic: they speak in the commercial patois – which many of their grandparents would have scorned – of the ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ and the ‘American dream’. Obama did nothing to change this. He tried to wield the language of the dream more effectively than his opponents: a gambit that can now be seen to have failed.
The whole thing is worth reading. It doesn't indulge in wailing or anger. Rather, it is a sober and intelligent assessment of where we have been, and where we can go. Check the whole thing out.

20 June 2012

"The Turner Diaries," "The Aquariums of Pyongyang," "Cryptonomicon," "Reginald," "Reginald in Russia," "The Chronicles of Clovis," and "Fabliaux Fair and Foul."

The Turner Diaries, William Luther Pierce
The Aquariums of Pyongyang, Kang Chol Hwan
Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson
Reginald, Reginald in Russia, and The Chronicles of Clovis, Saki
Fabliaux Fair and Foul, trans. John DuVal


The Turner Diaries, William Luther Pierce

The Turner Diaries is the vicious screed of white supremacist William Luther Pierce.  From the first word to the last, it is a remorseless torrent of racism, drowning any flicker of reasoning or compassion in the vile stew of a poison mind.  There is nothing to redeem this book, except as an exhibit of the depths to which a person can sink.  It is not ironic or unintentionally funny, and it is very badly written.
Indeed, we are already slaves. We have allowed a diabolically clever, alien minority to put chains on our souls and our minds. These spiritual chains are a truer mark of slavery than the iron chains which are yet to come.
Why didn't we rebel 35 years ago, when they took our schools away from us and began converting them into racially mixed jungles? Why didn't we throw them all out of the country 50 years ago, instead of letting them use us as cannon fodder in their war to subjugate Europe?
More to the point, why didn't we rise up three years ago, when they started taking our guns away? Why didn't we rise up in righteous fury and drag these arrogant aliens into the streets and cut their throats then? Why didn't we roast them over bonfires at every street-corner in America? Why didn't we make a final end to this obnoxious and eternally pushy clan, this pestilence from the sewers of the East, instead of meekly allowing ourselves to be disarmed?
The book is set in the near future (or what was the near future at time of publication), and follows Earl Turner, a veteran and electrician, as he works with a shadowy group called the Organization, which comprises several hundred thousand white supremacists.  In Pierce's lunatic vision, the manipulations of the Jewish forces that control the world, their African-American thugs, and the simpering of foolish liberals - all known collectively to Earl as the "System" -  have all set America on a steep downward decline.  Earl and the Organization launches a brutal series of terrorist attacks and murder sprees to destabilize the government, culminating in the secession of most of California from the United States.  This is embraced by the vast majority of white people, because everyone really secretly agrees with horrific racism.
Katherine had been apolitical. If anyone had asked her, during the time she was working for the government or, before that, when she was a college student, she would have probably said she was a "liberal. " But she was liberal only in the mindless, automatic way that most people are. Without really thinking about it or trying to analyze it, she superficially accepted the unnatural ideology peddled by the mass media and the government. She had none of the bigotry, none of the guilt and self-hatred that it takes to make a really committed, full-time liberal.
Once they have control of that area, the "good guys" use captured nukes to stave off any attacks from America, while they engage in a bloody pogrom within their territory.  Everyone who is not white is exiled from the country, on pain of death.  All "race-traitors" - i.e. anyone who has married a non-white, or who is an academic - are hung.

The book concludes as the Organization nukes the Soviet Union, provoking a massive response that lays waste to most of the globe.  Only a few areas, including the California Republic of Hating Black Folk (not the name given in the book) are spared.  The protagonist becomes a suicide bomber, flying a plane into the Pentagon.  A postscript and various intertextual notes inform us that the world is now a white supremacist paradise, thanks to the nuclear sterilization of Asia and Africa.

The Turner Diaries is appalling in its casual advocacy of some of the most abhorrent rhetoric imaginable.  Ordinarily, I might pause to mock or refute some of the astonishing things in this book.  But Pierce's text is so far beyond the bounds of reasonable thought that it refutes itself.
And is that not a key to the whole problem? The corruption of our people by the Jewish-liberal-democratic-equalitarian plague which afflicts us is more clearly manifested in our soft-mindedness, our unwillingness to recognize the harder realities of life, than in anything else.
Liberalism is an essentially feminine, submissive world view. Perhaps a better adjective than feminine is infantile. It is the world view of men who do not have the moral toughness, the spiritual strength to stand up and do single combat with life, who cannot adjust to the reality that the world is not a huge, pink-and-blue, padded nursery in which the lions lie down with the lambs and everyone lives happily ever after.
Nor should spiritually healthy men of our race even want the world to be like that, if it could be so. That is an alien, essentially Oriental approach to life, the world view of slaves rather than of free men of the West.
But it has permeated our whole society. Even those who do not consciously accept the liberal doctrines have been corrupted by them. Decade after decade the race problem in America has become worse. But the majority of those who wanted a solution, who wanted to preserve a White America, were never able to screw up the courage to look the obvious solutions in the face.
All the liberals and the Jews had to do was begin screeching about "inhumanity" or "injustice" or "genocide," and most of our people who had been beating around the edges of a solution took to their heels like frightened rabbits. Because there was never a way to solve the race problem which would be "fair for everybody or which everyone concerned could be politely persuaded into accepting without any fuss or unpleasantness, they kept trying to evade it, hoping that it would go away by itself. And the same has been true of the Jewish problem and the immigration problem and the overpopulation problem and the eugenics problem and a thousand related problems.
The writing is abysmal, self-indulgent almost to incoherence: The Turner Diaries is one long hateful stretch of an idiot applauding himself on his gruff manliness.
I undressed, got a towel, and opened the door to the shower. And there was Katherine, wet, naked, and lovely, standing under the bare light bulb and drying herself. She looked at me without surprise and said nothing.
I stood there for a moment and then, instead of apologizing and closing the door again, I impulsively held out my arms to Katherine. Hesitantly, she stepped toward me. Nature took her course.
There is no reason to read this book, unless you are doing research on the grimmest sort of racism.  This book is highly influential among white supremacists, and if you are curious to know about their vision of the world, this is a good place to start.  I just hope you have a strong stomach.


The Aquariums of Pyongyang, Kang Chol Hwan

The adults went on trading news and whispering in each other’s ears, holding back the tears as best they could. What a sight these people made with their threadbare rags, their overgrown hair, their filth. How out of keeping their appearance seemed with the civility of their manner and their politeness toward the new arrivals. The welcome would probably have gone on for some time had not the guards intervened. They reestablished order in a wink, commanding all the prisoners back to their barracks and work details. That put an end to my somewhat abstract fascination, bringing me back to reality and my all-important fish. Alas, half of them were already dead. At a loss for what else to do, I started counting the victims. The few prisoners who had managed to tarry stepped closer and stared silently at the extraordinary spectacle standing among them: a child in the middle of the camp, crying softly over an aquarium in which floated, stomach up, the most fantastical assortment of exotic fish.
The release of The Aquariums of Pyongyang was a sensation.  Kang Chol-Hwan survived and escaped from one of the mildest of North Korea's concentration camps, which is rather like escaping from one of the milder circles of Hell.  When he was a young child, he and the rest of his family were arrested because of their grandfather's alleged "crimes" and taken to a work camp, where he would spend ten years.  Even after they were released and Chol-Hwan learned to live in "freedom," his life was still a horror, staying ahead of the authorities with bribes and scrabbling for deals.

Perhaps because the book is an English translation of a French adaptation of a Korean oral history, it is not very well-written.  There are frequent mistakes with homonyms, poor grammar, and occasional word omissions.  They do not interfere with the story, however, and the grey grimace of life in North Korea is firmly communicated.
Soft-skinned city boy that I was, I was lucky to get out of there alive. Yet the harsh living conditions and never-ending work were precisely what saved me, because they left me no time to dwell on my condition. My every minute was accounted for. There were lessons to follow under threats from brutalizing instructors, trees to chop down, sacks of gold-laden earth to haul, rabbits to watch, fields of corn to harvest. My life was absorbed entirely in my efforts to get by and obey orders. I was, fortunately, able to accept my condition as fated. A clear-eyed view of the hell I had landed in certainly would have thrown me deeper into despair. There is nothing like thought to deepen one’s gloom.
The book is interesting as a spectacle - terrible things happen - but also because it's actually informative.  Living in South Korea, I often spoke of North Korea with friends and relatives back home, and I heard frequent disbelief that the peasantry of the country endured their privations.  Not that there was doubt about their condition, but many people simply can't fathom what people in that situation are thinking.  Did they really believe Kim Jong Il (now supplanted by his son, Kim Jong Un) is a sort of demi-god wunderkind?  Do they really think America hates them?  The Aquariums of Pyongyang presents a level account of the evolving beliefs of a person who went through almost every conceivable stage of life in that North Korea: immigrant, believer, prisoner, rebel, and exile.

I don't recommend the book on its own merit as a story - it's more journalism than anything else - but anyone even slightly interested in the very real dystopia of North Korea should check it out.


Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson

I am not sure how I feel about Neal Stephenson at this point.  I liked The Diamond Age, since it was clever and well-written.  I didn't like Snow Crash - I don't care how much this damages my geek cred - since its interesting and innovative ideas were swamped in the terrible writing.  I loved The Baroque Trilogy, since it was a rowdy picaresque that served up fascinating historical subtexts.  When I started Cryptonomicon, the book that has probably surpassed 1992's venerable Snow Crash as the basis for Stephenson's reputation, I was ready for anything.  But I just don't know.

Cryptonomicon follows two groups of people and several very different subplots, all only tangentially connected.  Much of the action is set during the Second World War, and the legacy of that war is the focus of the plot.  As you might guess, the science of cryptography (making and breaking codes) is the most prominent legacy.  Some of the major historical cryptographers are characters, such as Alan Turing.  And in this area, Stephenson shines.  His nerdy delight in the intricacies and magic of numbers becomes infectious.  Even if you aren't interested, such material appears to have been carefully and deliberately compartmentalized: you can skip the micro-treatises without loss.

The writing, though, is uneven.  While usually fairly decent, every few chapters Stephenson gets an idea stuck in his head, and doesn't stop until he's obliterated it.  He beats the horse until it's dead, then goes on beating it for several weeks.
The room contains a few dozen living human bodies, each one a big sack of guts and fluids so highly compressed that it will squirt for a few yards when pierced. Each one is built around an armature of 206 bones connected to each other by notoriously fault-prone joints that are given to obnoxious creaking, grinding, and popping noises when they are in other than pristine condition. This structure is draped with throbbing steak, inflated with clenching air sacks, and pierced by a Gordian sewer filled with burbling acid and compressed gas and asquirt with vile enzymes and solvents produced by the many dark, gamy nuggets of genetically programmed meat strung along its length. Slugs of dissolving food are forced down this sloppy labyrinth by serialized convulsions, decaying into gas, liquid, and solid matter which must all be regularly vented to the outside world lest the owner go toxic and drop dead. Spherical, gel-packed cameras swivel in mucus-greased ball joints. Infinite phalanxes of cilia beat back invading particles, encapsulate them in goo for later disposal. In each body a centrally located muscle flails away at an eternal, circulating torrent of pressurized gravy. And yet, despite all of this, not one of these bodies makes a single sound at any time during the sultan’s speech. It is a marvel that can only be explained by the power of brain over body, and, in turn, by the power of cultural conditioning over the brain.
Another flaw of Stephenson's writing, and this is one that follows him from book to book, is that he seems to have trouble reliably voicing a viewpoint other than that of a white male.  While I think he has increasingly managed to overcome this flaw (The Diamond Age was almost free of it), it can be pretty glaring in Cryptonomicon.  His attempt at a Japanese general's train of thought, for example, seems like nothing more than ham-handed maskery:
The Americans have invented a totally new bombing tactic in the middle of a war and implemented it flawlessly. His mind staggers like a drunk in the aisle of a careening train. They saw that they were wrong, they admitted their mistake, they came up with a new idea. The new idea was accepted and embraced all the way up the chain of command. Now they are using it to kill their enemies. No warrior with any concept of honor would have been so craven. So flexible. What a loss of face it must have been for the officers who had trained their men to bomb from high altitudes. What has become of those men? They must have all killed themselves, or perhaps been thrown into prison.
These missteps are not fatal, and don't detract from the otherwise excellent characterization.  People in his world seem to be divided into Thinkers and Doers, with no overlap.  This is touched on obliquely in the book ("There are people who talk about things, and people who do things").  It functions as a sort of dramatic division; the contrast between the different sections works very well to manage a reader's level of tension.  It ends up looking something like this:
  1. Long discussion of the Caesar cypher.
  2. Exciting prison escape.
  3. Board-room meeting, regarding Caesar cypher.
  4. Explosions, and also more explosions.
  5. Discussion of investor reactions, and subsequent paperwork.
  6. A man eats his own head.
It has to be said that Stephenson is the geekiest of geeky writers.  This has many good aspects.  He has absorbed a great deal of intricate history and bursts with detail, and he has the clever geek's gift for metaphor.  And he's certainly very good at writing geeks, for obvious reasons.  Unfortunately, Randy the hacker, from whose viewpoint we see all of the plot set in the modern day, lurches into some disagreeableness at times.  It's very clear that in his discursive moments he is a voice for the author, and so we must hold Stephenson to account for the reasonable-seeming but very silly attempts at amateur evolutionary psychology - that tired sort of "men had to focus on impressing women, so they evolved to be good at focusing" sort of stuff.

On balance, this is an interesting book, but I would not recommend it to most people.  I would wager that the geekier you are, the more you'll like it - and vice-versa.  If you want to read something of Stephenson's, I think your best bet remains The Diamond Age.


Reginald, Reginald in Russia, and The Chronicles of Clovis, Saki

In Arguably, Christopher Hitchens praises British author Hector Munro (better known by his pen name of "Saki"):
I agree with [Noel] Coward that H. H. Munro—or “Saki,” the author of the book in question—is among those few writers, inspirational when read at an early age, who definitely retain their magic when revisited decades later. I have the impression that Saki is not very much appreciated in the United States. Good. That means I can put into my debt many of you who are reading these words. Go and get an edition of this Edwardian master of the short story. Begin with, say, “Sredni Vashtar” or “The Lumber-Room” or “The Open Window.” Then see whether you can put the book down.
I had never read Saki.  This was a terrible omission, because Hitchens wasn't the only one to consider him a master of the craft - I've seen him mentioned in the same breath as Henry James, more than once.  Further, Saki's role in normalizing a certain style of public homosexuality has been the subject of discussion in recent studies of queer theory, which is always interesting.

So, I picked up a Complete Works of Saki and read his first three short story collections.  Sadly, after the twentieth story, I began to feel that I really didn't want a Complete Works, but rather a judiciously Selected Works - there is a lot of mediocrity mixed in with the truly excellent efforts.

The titular characters of Reginald and Clovis appear in about half of all the stories in these three books.  They might as well be the same character, in fact, as they are both extremely intelligent but helplessly rude young men.  The only difference seems to be that Reginald is very concerned with his clothing, while Clovis' obsession is luxurious food.  Their true function is simply as a vehicle for Saki's own wittiness, delivering outrageous retorts and engaging in spectacular verbal gymnastics.

The other stories have widely variable topics, although there are common themes.  The light-hearted stories all have a similar sort of wry humor, while the sad stories host an air of alienation and a plainly-stated, quiet horror.

As Hitchens said, "Sredni Vashtar" (the tale of a boy and his cruel aunt) is indeed very good.  I just wish it wasn't accompanied by so much that is mediocre.  You would be well-advised to seek out recommendations on just a few of the stories (perhaps off Project Gutenberg), rather than reading them all.  I recommend "Reginald at the Carlton," "The Reticence of Lady Anne," "The Sex That Doesn't Shop," "The Strategist," "The Peace Offerring," "Sredni Vashtar," and "The Unrest Cure."


Fabliaux Fair and Foul, translated by John DuVal


A "fabliau" is a humorous medieval French story, told in verse.  They are raunchy and rude, and frequently quite funny even today.  They reached the peak of their popularity in the twelfth century, and seem to have been read by both the aristocracy and the new-rising merchant class.  I was already familiar with the form thanks to one of my favorite instructors from undergrad, Dr. Mary Schenck - a scholar who is frequently cited, as it happens, in this 1992 collection of twenty fabliaux.

People are often surprised to discover that literature has been obsessed with smut since its earliest days. This is part of the reason why these old stories are still so funny - we remain intimately familiar (no pun intended) with their context.  In fact, the oldest bit of humor on record is a sex-and-farts joke from ancient Sumeria, written in cuneiform circa 1900 B.C.E.: "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap."

Okay, that one's lost a bit of its punch.  But not these fabliaux!

Here is an abbreviated example, from a short tale called "The Priest Who Peeked."  The cast of characters is the most common one: a lusty priest, a hapless man, and a beautiful wife.  In this story, the priest has observed the latter two having dinner.  He peers through the keyhole with great jealousy.  Luckily, he's a clever man.
The priest indignantly observed
The way the peasant led his life,
Taking no pleasure of his wife.
And when he'd had enough of spying,
He pounded at the doorway, crying,
"Hey there, good people!  You inside!
What are you doing?"  The man replied,
"Faith, sir, we're eating.  Why not come
In here to join us and have some?"
-"Eating?  What a lie!  I'm looking
Straight through this hole at you.  You're fucking."
...
The peasant leapt from where he sat,
Unlocked the door and hurried out,
The priest came in, turned about,
Shut the door and set the latch.
(This wasn't fun for the churl to watch.)
Straight to the wife the parson sped,
Spun her round and caught her head,
Tripped her up and laid her down.
Up to her chest he pulled her gown
And did of all good deeds the one
That women everywhere want done.
He bumped and battered with such force
The peasant's wife had no recourse
But to let him get what he was seeking.
And there the other man was, peeking
At the little hole, through which he spied
His lovely wife's exposed backside
And the priest, riding on top of her.
"May God Almighty help you, sir,"
The peasant called, "is this a joke?"
The parson turned his head and spoke,
"No, I'm not joking.  What's the matter?
Don't you see: here I have your platter.
I'm eating supper at your table."
-"Lord, this is like a dream or fable.
If I weren;t hearing it from you,
I'd never believe it wasn't true
That you aren't fucking my good wife."
-"I'm not, sir!  Hush!  As God's my life,
That's what I thought I saw you do."

The peasant said, "I guess that's true."
 Poor peasant!  Poor peasant's wife!  Wicked priest!

A lot of things have changed since these tales were first sung in taverns.  Severe sexual assaults, for example, are no longer winked-at.  But such things are the exceptional, rather than the rule, and the stories are frequently very enjoyable.

Unfortunately, some of the fabliaux have lost a great deal in translation.  The foreword mentions some of the complicated French puns that occur in the stories, and the description-heavy stories such as "William and the Falcon" are dragged down by translator John DuVaul's efforts to maintain a lovely rhyme.  But I suspect that these raunchy and humorous stories would be much damaged by a Nabokovian slavishness to the original text's meaning.  As it is, they're positively jaunty.

I recommend this book for any reader, because poop and sex jokes are truly universal.

17 June 2012

John Carter the Totally Not Misogynist or Racist of Mars

Last night, I finally and sadly watched John Carter, the adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs' book A Princess of Mars.  It was renamed because the title wasn't masculine enough, and then renamed a little further so people wouldn't pigeonhole it as sci-fi, according to an L.A. Times story.

The film seems like it was adapted from the book by the Adaptamatic 5000, a semi-sentient bank of vacuum tubes.  Anything that might have offended modern sensibilities was erased.  This isn't necessarily bad, but the rewriting process was done in the least-imaginative way possible.  It's hard to believe Michael Chabon let his name get anywhere near this.

INPUT ACCEPTED:
Dejah Thoris, love interest of John Carter, has no skills or traits beyond beauty.
ERROR:
Offensive!
OUTPUT:
Dejah Thoris is the best scientist on the planet and a better warrior than John Carter.
SEXISM ELIMINATED


I obviously understand the reasoning behind turning Dejah Thoris from a stereotypical damsel-in-distress into a brilliant academic-cum-warrior.  But when done in this manner, it raises an even worse problem: John Carter is made redundant.  He's just the Guy Who Can Jump.  Considering how much of the book's power is derived from its straightforward sword-and-planet adventuring, it was not a wise decision to trade a boring love interest for a boring hero.

INPUT ACCEPTED:
Indigenous groups of Mars all hint at popular racial stereotypes.
ERROR:
Offensive!
OUTPUT:
Indigenous groups are not particularly differentiated.
RACISM ELIMINATED


There's some nods made to the brutal characteristics of the Tharks and the different city cultures of the "red men," but so much of this stuff has been cleaned from the movie that we're left without any real world-building.  The Therns, the mysterious priest-lords of the world, are given far more definition than any of the other groups we're actually supposed to care about.  Again, my complaint is not that the racism is gone, but just that it has been replaced by a watery bowl of mushy nonsense.


INPUT ACCEPTED:
Straightforward adventure story.
ERROR:
Not enough like Inception!
OUTPUT:
All the plots of the first three books are combined, sort of.
ACADEMY AWARD ASSURED


They turned an adventure story that showcases its big rollicking fights and special effects into a  sort-of-mystery story that also has a twist and just happens to contain some big rollicking fights and special effects.  The original story is still there, giving backbone to the film, but they've hung all kinds of extra limbs and heads on there, so it ends up staggering around like a horrible monster, pleading to be put out of its misery.  Why not preserve the original magical mystery of Carter's travel to Barsoom, rather than ginning up the idiocy with the amulet?  Why try to have a twist at the end?  The book is one of the most obvious candidates for film adaptations I can imagine, since the plot is interesting but clear, needs no exposition, and is basically a vehicle for planet-spanning action.  Why mess with that?

There are all kinds of other things that should have caused a warning light in the rusty Adaptamatic 5000.

IMPORT:
Learning sequence from Spiderman.
No errors found.
IMPORT:
Travel sequence drama from Prince of Persia.
No errors found.
IMPORT:
Menacing villain and actor from Sherlock Holmes.
No errors found.
IMPORT:
CGI concepts from Aliens v. Predator, Avatar, and Monsters, Inc.
No errors found.


Not good.  I am not happy.  Do not see it.

03 June 2012

"Father Brown Stories," "Arguably," "Nigger," "Fifty Shades of Grey," "Around the World in Eighty Days," "Farmer Boy," and "This Is Herman Cain!"

Father Brown Stories, G. K. Chesterton
Arguably, Christopher Hitchens
Nigger, Randall Kennedy
Fifty Shades of Grey, E.L. James
Around the World in Eighty Days, Jules Verne
Farmer Boy, Laura Ingalls Wilder
This Is Herman Cain!, Herman Cain


Father Brown Stories, G. K. Chesterton


It's tempting to pity Father Brown, Chesterton's forgotten little detective.  While Sherlock is ever in style, the little priest is more overlooked by the moment.  Somehow, though, I think he would have preferred it that way, because it is Father Brown's unobtrusiveness that makes these stories interesting.  These are the two styles of detectivry, then: the flashy brashness of Holmes and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, or the quiet effectiveness of Father Brown, Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, and classic Law and Order.

These stories are also almost all what I tend to think of as "fair" stories.  Their resolution depends on information to which the reader is privy: if you are clever and creative enough, you can think of the approximate solution.  This is the proper way to do a detective story, as opposed to the lazy writer's sudden revelation that the hero happened to pick up an additional piece of evidence, only revealed in the Accusing Parlor.  Such annoying stories are not mysteries at all, really: they are suspense stories.

The Father Brown Stories are fun and interesting, and would be particularly good for some light reading interspersed among some errands.  Take a look.


Arguably, Christopher Hitchens


This collection of essays by the late Christopher Hitchens can be described in one word: uneven.  Essays of surpassing intelligence or terrible beauty are mingled with tediousness and nonsense.  If these essays had been selected with more discrimination, both readers and Hitchens' image would be the better.

When Hitchens is good, he's very good.  His wit is sharp enough to shave an atom, and he lays out with it both judiciously and mercilessly.  In one example, he wryly speaks of his view of animal rights (not too great a fan), but also eviscerates their detractors:
Conversely, one of the most idiotic jeers against animal lovers is the one about their preferring critters to people. As a matter of observation, it will be found that people who “care”—about rain forests or animals, miscarriages of justice or dictatorships—are, though frequently irritating, very often the same people. Whereas those who love hamburgers and riskless hunting and mink coats are not in the front ranks of Amnesty International. Like the quality of mercy, the prompting of compassion is not finite, and can be self-replenishing.
Several authors fascinate Hitchens: Vladimir Nabokov, Edward Said, Omar Kaiyyam, W.H. Auden.  He quotes them, analyzes them, and in the case of Said, memorably attacks them.  His discussions range from a jolly ribaldry to the heights of abstraction, but he particularly shines in these literary contemplations.

One of the later essays, in particular, deserves special singling-out for praise.  "The Vietnam Syndrome," available here, is a discussion of the legacy of Agent Orange.  The outrage, simple and eloquent and burning, is almost enough to feel.

Unfortunately, there are many essays that fall short of this standard.  Some are simply mediocre, but others stumble badly in a few glaring gaps of understanding, as when Hichens is relating some of the saga of American slavery:
Until 1850, perhaps, the “peculiar institution” of slavery might have had a chance of perpetuating itself indefinitely by compromise. But the exorbitance and arrogance of “the slave power” forbade this accommodation. Not content with preserving their own domain in its southeastern redoubt, the future Confederates insisted on extending their chattel system into new territories, and on implicating the entire Union in their system.
I don't intend to defend the slaveholders, but Hitchens simply misses the purpose of their efforts to extend slavery: there was a delicate political detente on the matter, but the addition of numerous free states would lead to the passage of anti-slavery laws.  The slaveholding states were not eager to spread slavery, per se, but rather they thought it was necessary to keep a balance of slave and free.  They were still monstrously wrong, of course, but ascribing some sort of evangelical malice to the extension of slavery misunderstands their motives.

These sorts of mistakes are subtle, but at times they undermined my confidence in the author.  If you read this, keep a skeptical eye in your head, and watch for sloppy thinking.


Far worse than this, though, is an essay that is simply embarrassing, "Why Women Aren't Funny" (available here).  The only thing more grotesque than its overreach is the way in which this essay hamfistedly tries to club its point into submission with crude approximations of evolutionary psychology, a discipline that is perhaps most dangerous for the layman.

I recommend this book, but with reservations.  Pick and choose.




Nigger: the Short History of a Troublesome Word, Randall Kennedy


As far as I can see, there are two pressing questions when it comes to this word: how did a simple word for color turn into something derogatory, and is there any merit to the idea that it has been successfully reclaimed as an African-American cultural shibboleth?  Unfortunately, while author Randall Kennedy does address these questions at some length in this thorough exploration of all things "n-word," his answers are mixed and oddly incurious.  In the end, Kennedy is a careful chronicler of what is known, but goes no further than that.

Nigger's discussion of the history of the word is perfunctory, but illustrates the whole:
Nigger is derived from the Latin word for the color black, niger. According to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, it did not originate as a slur but took on a derogatory connotation over time. Nigger and other words related to it have been spelled in a variety of ways, including niggah, nigguh, niggur, and niggar. When John Rolfe recorded in his journal the first shipment of Africans to Virginia in 1619, he listed them as “negars.” A 1689 inventory of an estate in Brooklyn, New York, made mention of an enslaved “niggor” boy. The seminal lexicographer Noah Webster referred to Negroes as “negers.” (Currently some people insist upon distinguishing nigger—which they see as exclusively an insult—from nigga, which they view as a term capable of signaling friendly salutation.) In the 1700s niger appeared in what the dictionary describes as “dignified argumentation” such as Samuel Sewall's denunciation of slavery, The Selling of Joseph. No one knows precisely when or how niger turned derisively into nigger and attained a pejorative meaning. We do know, however, that by the end of the first third of the nineteenth century, nigger had already become a familiar and influential insult.
The other question of importance, the acceptability of the word in certain contexts, is explored with somewhat greater insight.  For almost a full chapter, the author touches on the different sides of the question, from the firm disapproval of Bill Cosby for the word to its fluid omnipresence in Chris Rock's comedy.
Today a similar charge is leveled. Some entertainers who openly use nigger reject Cosby's politics of respectability, which counsels African Americans to mind their manners and mouths in the presence of whites. This group of performers doubts the efficacy of seeking to burnish the image of African Americans in the eyes of white folk. Some think that the racial perceptions of most whites are beyond changing; others believe that whatever marginal benefits a politics of respectability may yield are not worth the psychic cost of giving up or diluting cultural rituals that blacks enjoy. This latter attitude is effectively expressed by the remark “I don't give a fuck.” These entertainers don't care whether whites find nigger upsetting. They don't care whether whites are confused by blacks’ use of the term. And they don't care whether whites who hear blacks using the N-word think that African Americans lack self-respect. The black comedians and rappers who use and enjoy nigger care principally, perhaps exclusively, about what they themselves think, desire, and enjoy—which is part of their allure. Many people (including me) are drawn to these performers despite their many faults because, among other things, they exhibit a bracing independence. They eschew boring conventions, including the one that maintains, despite massive evidence to the contrary, that nigger can mean only one thing.
There are also some truly astonishing tidbits from history, such as this:
To discredit Abraham Lincoln, his racist Democratic party opponents wrote a “Black Republican Prayer” that ended with the “benediction”:
May the blessings of Emancipation extend throughout our unhappy land, and the illustrious, sweet-scented Sambo nestle in the bosom of every Abolition woman… and the distinction of color be forever consigned to oblivion [so] that we may live in bands of fraternal love, union and equality with the Almighty Nigger, henceforth, now and forever. Amen.
Such interesting discussions and anecdotes, however, occupy only a tenth of the volume.  The rest of it is devoted to endless, exhaustive, exhausting, pointless lists of misdeeds.  They are presented in what becomes a familiar format: Kennedy blandly describes some possible use of the word, then reels off between five and ten examples in scrupulous and legalistic detail.  When one example would suffice, he gives eight.  When two sentences could summarize the case, he uses twelve.  Compiled in such length and recited with such dispassion, Kennedy far overshoots any burden of proof - assuming we need any proof for the proposition that a judge who spouts slurs is probably a racist.  Instead, the reader is numbed.

That which is good and useful in Nigger would be better cut down to an intensely interested essay, rather than this novocaine text.  Skip it.


Fifty Shades of Grey, E.L. James

I have nothing to say about this book.  I couldn't finish it.  It fell into the very narrow but deathly dark pit of disinterest: far below mediocre but not hilariously awful.  It was dull.

It was as dull as used dishwater, two bubbles and a scrap of bread floating in it.  It was as dull as a long strip of last year's newspaper, loosely stuck to the side of the bin.  It was as dull as the slight stickiness left on a plastic soda bottle, long after the label is peeled off.

I advise you not to read it.



Around the World in Eighty Days, Jules Verne


Phileas Fogg, the protagonist of Jules Verne's 1873 description of a race around the globe, is a very boring fellow.  His sole occupation - for he has no job or family - is reading the papers and playing whist.  He speaks very little, although what he says is very intelligent and worldly.  He dines alone, all three meals, in the same place every day.  In an unintentionally tragic scene, we first see Fogg sitting alone at home, staring at the clock, waiting for it to be time to leave his house and go to breakfast.  He is a man singularly fixated on time and schedule, who spends all day reading the news of the world.

In other words, he is a man singularly well-suited for his trip around the world, which requires broad knowledge and an obsession with being in the correct place at the correct time.

It put me in mind of Sherlock Holmes, the star of dozens of stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  1887's A Study in Scarlet introduces the good detective, and gives his nature, culminating in Watson's famous list:
1. Knowledge of Literature.—Nil.
2. Philosophy.—Nil.
3. Astronomy.—Nil.
4. Politics.—Feeble.
5. Botany.—Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium, and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening. 6. Geology.—Practical, but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he had received them.
7. Chemistry.—Profound.
8. Anatomy.—Accurate, but unsystematic.
9. Sensational Literature.—Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.
10. Plays the violin well.
11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.
12. Has a good practical knowledge of British law.
Aside from  his pleasure in the violin and his recreational drug abuse, Holmes is also a very boring man.  He is strikingly unpleasant, vain, and fond of humiliating others.  But he is singularly well-suited for his own task: the detection of crime.

So what was it about this period in Europe that spawned the development of these sorts of characters who are so singularly - they might say "scientifically" - focused on isolated pursuits?  Phileas Fogg is not admirable in any other context that his single adventure, and indeed I found myself intensely disliking him by the end of the story.  Verne clearly intended for his level of reservation to be the character's flaw, extending it even to a puzzling coldness to the woman he grows to love, only to finally surmount the trait in the book's final act.  But it was far worse for me to see the hidden talents that Fogg had been laying fallow and squandering in his life of nothingness.  He is an expert horseman, sailor, marksman, traveler, and doubtless other pursuits.  He is just as skilled, if not more so, than his clever butler-cum-acrobat, Passepartout (French for "skeleton key").  But whereas Passepartout feels the glory of adventure and enchantment of travel, Fogg will not even bother to ascend to the deck of his steamer as it passes the wonders of the world, preferring to remain below, playing whist or staring at the wall (quite literally).

Don't mistake me: this is a rollicking good adventure story, and very amusing.  The racism and stereotypes are antique enough to be adorable, and the final twist has that perfect flavor of the nineteenth century: moderately clever and breathlessly declared.  You should definitely read it.  But I think that you, like me, will end up pitying Fogg's wife.




Farmer Boy, Laura Ingalls Wilder


I never read any of the Little House on the Prairie series when I was younger, nor did I ever see the television show of the seventies.  This book, the only volume of the stories that stands alone, tells about the childhood of Wilder's husband, Almanzo Wilder, in his ninth and tenth years as the son of a prosperous but hard-working farmer.  Overall, Farmer Boy was mildly funny and completely quaint - combined with its strong moral values and glimpses into history, it's a perfect book for children.  I completely understand why these books are beloved.

What I can't understand is why no one's ever mentioned the food to me.  By a wide margin, the most prominent feature of this book is the vivid richness of the gustatory descriptions.
Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth. He ate mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy. He ate the ham. He bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust. He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin. Then he sighed, and tucked his napkin deeper into the neckband of his red waist. And he ate plum preserves and strawberry jam, and grape jelly, and spiced watermelon-rind pickles. He felt very comfortable inside. Slowly he ate a large piece of pumpkin pie.
That is beautiful.  And the book is full of this!
Under the snow on the south slopes the bright red berries were ripe among their thick green leaves. Almanzo took off his mittens and pawed away the snow with his bare hands. He found the red clusters and filled his mouth full. The cold berries crunched between his teeth, gushing out their aromatic juice.
Farmer Boy didn't make me hungry.  It did one better: it made me want the good hollow belly hunger, only brought on by a day's work and tired muscles.

I recommend you take an hour and read this.   It's very short and it's for children, of course, but I think it's worth visiting as an adult.  Any book is worth reading when you can almost taste the pie.




This Is Herman Cain!, Herman Cain

There are two ways to provide a concise summary of This Is Herman Cain!, the autobiographical campaign book written by the Republican politician during his brief period of ascendancy this past year.  The first summary is rather kinder, so I'll do it first.

1.  This Is Herman Cain! is the charming account of an older man, thrilled with his unexpected moment in the spotlight and echoing with the powerful cadences of a black Baptist and the whimsical wisdom of a self-made businessman.  While misguided in its policy and strange in its emphases, it has an odd sort of delight about it.  The whole of the book is found in this paragraph of triumphal self-assurance, specious criticism of an opponent, and absolute naivete:
Twenty-five minutes later, having articulated my “Cain Doctrine” to the cheering, banner-waving crowd, without printed speech or teleprompter, because I don’t do teleprompters—I like to say I’m a leader, not a reader—I recalled the words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and declared that when all the votes are counted on Tuesday, November 6, 2012, “We will be free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty! This nation will be free at last—again!”
The second summary is harsher, but far more accurate.

2.  This Is Herman Cain! is a hilarious, terrifying, and sad journey into the half-lucid ramblings of a man wildly out of his depth.  It is hilarious because of Cain's bizarre anecdotes, terrifying because the man was actually considered a serious candidate, and sad because people close to him were willing to let him humiliate himself.  The whole of the book is found in this paragraph of chilling banality:
The next morning I did a few interviews and relaxed. In the afternoon I took a nap and then had a bowl of soup before going over to the Peace Center.
This is a book that starts off badly and keeps getting worse, spiraling lower and lower at breakneck speed, like a suicidal hang-glider.  In a curious turn of events, the simple errors of fact are in the minority.  Usually political autobiographies are heavy on such errors, studded with only a few absurdities.  But in This Is Herman Cain!, whenever I saw a claim that was merely demonstrably false ("President Obama wrongheadedly betrayed America’s most steadfast ally in that region with his arrogant demand for the sovereign nation’s return to its pre-1967 Six Day War borders"), I sighed with relief.  That's only completely wrong, I would think.  It's not batshit crazy.  This paragraph is safe.

But few paragraphs were so spared.  And I have questions.

Herman Cain, why would you put a story in your autobiography about how your kindly old father once threatened someone?!
So Woodruff started giving my dad stock, and he was generous with that, too. One day he told my dad, “Joe Jones doesn’t think I ought to be giving you any stock, but I told him I was going to give it to you anyway.” To Joe Jones, Woodruff’s money was his money.
One day Dad said to Jones, “Mr. Jones, I’d like to see you outside for a minute.” They walked out to the driveway and Dad said, “Do you see this gun I’m carrying?”—Dad had a permit to carry one because he was with Woodruff—“Do you know how good I can shoot this gun?”
“No,” Joe Jones replied.
“I can throw a silver dollar up in the air and hit it four times before it hits the ground. That’s how good a shot I am,” my dad said. “If you ever tell Mr. Woodruff not to do something for me again, you’re going to find out how good I am with this gun!” He was joking, but my dad was unafraid: Nobody was going to mess with Luther Cain.
That's not funny!  That's not funny at all!  That's just a story about how your daddy once threatened to shoot someone!  Herman Cain, what is wrong with you?!

Or this:
Back in Atlanta, notwithstanding the usual sibling disagreements, Thurman and I got along well, enjoying all manner of adventures. Thurman loved to laugh and to make other people laugh. But sometimes his idea of a good laugh got us both in trouble. One Christmas, when I was ten and he was nine, our parents bought us BB guns as presents. We took the guns over to an aunt’s house and were playing outdoors when Thurman pointed his gun at our older cousin, Elizabeth. He told her not to move but she did move after daring him to shoot, so he shot her in the butt. Elizabeth was not really hurt but that BB did sting. Needless to say, Mom took the guns away from us and we never saw them again.
Why would you tell us that bizarre, pointless story?!  It has no bearing on anything!  What wildly irresponsible person read this book and allowed you to put it into print?!

At one point, Herman Cain talks about how terrible Obamacare will be (it was still in the future at this point), and how great American healthcare is.  And I can understand that policy position, if you're a Republican - it's mandatory.  But why would you include an anecdote about how you used the pull of your rich friends to get into treatment?!
She had already researched Sloan Kettering, in New York, and MD Anderson, in Houston, for me. She said, “Those are the top two in the country. Do you know someone that can help you get into MD Anderson?”
I said, “Yes I do. Boone Pickens, the oil magnate.” I called Boone Pickens, a good friend to this day.
He used to be on the board of MD Anderson and was a contributor, and he called the head of the hospital and said, “Herman Cain is not just another person trying to get into MD Anderson; he’s also a friend of mine.”
It's as if this rambling, incoherent mess is actually the result of Herman Cain's own brain fighting against him, trying to defeat him.  "Don't elect me," his brain is saying.  "I don't know what I'm doing!  Don't let me get near anything important!"

I just don't understand it.  Read this paragraph:
And that’s not what we the people want. I can tell you that everywhere I go as I campaign for my party’s presidential nomination, people are still in shock over President Obama’s demand for Israel to revert to its 1967 borders. Why? Because, like me, they are unabashedly pro-Israel. For instance, on Friday, May 20, 2011, the day after President Obama’s ultimatum to Israel, I was in Council Bluffs, Iowa, speaking at the Pottawattamie County Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Reagan Day Dinner, and every time I mentioned my support for Israel, the attendees stood up and cheered and applauded.
So why doesn’t President Obama get it?
Now I demand this: go out and search the world.  Speak to every person, from one end to the other.  Ring the town bells and call out even the old and sick, for we must interview them all.  Sit them down, and look them in the eye, and find me just one person who is unable to understand why the attendees at official Republican Party dinners might not agree with Democratic President Barack Obama.

This book is not a good book for business.  Herman Cain makes his decisions about his career based on purposeless, arbitrary goals such as "be a vice-president of something," later elevated to "be a president of something."  DIRECT QUOTES.  THOSE ARE DIRECT QUOTES.
So as CEO of Self, after several successful years as vice president of Pillsbury’s corporate systems and services, I knew that I had to dream higher: I had to dream of being president of something, for somebody, somewhere. And I decided to put that dream into action. Achieving that dream meant that I had to change careers.
This book is not a good book for politics.  Herman Cain makes his decisions about matters of policy by calling people with direct financial stakes in the result, and believes them without qualification or confirmation.
The president had insisted that under his scheme, the cost to restaurants would be only about two-and-one-half percent of their cost of doing business. I told Loretta that his observation was ludicrous. I knew that because I had consulted with the staff of the [National Restaurant Association], and they had found Mr. Clinton’s calculation to be mathematically incorrect.
And inexplicably there is an entire chapter devoted to the number 45, which Herman Cain believes is mystically significant to his life.
That isn’t all: Next year will be the forty-fifth anniversary of my college graduation. And in 2013, my first year in the White House, Gloria and I will be celebrating our forty-fifth wedding anniversary. I’m not a devout numerologist, but my mathematical training does cause me to recognize when numbers appear more than coincidentally. Isn’t it amazing how often 45 keeps popping up in my life?
Herman Cain, why did you write this?!  Why did they let you publish it!?  Are you trying to signal us that you're actually another, tinier man, trapped inside of a thick shell of Herman Cain that refuses to release you?!  Is this a cry for help?!  What happened to you, Herman Cain?!
The next morning I did a few interviews and relaxed. In the afternoon I took a nap and then had a bowl of soup before going over to the Peace Center.

"September 1, 1939," by W.H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
'I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,'
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.