The Most Influential Books I’ve Read in 2018

As another year comes to a close, I’ve decided to do a retrospective on some of the books I’ve read this year that have been most important to me. Although I am a loyal Goodreads user, I purposely never set a goal for myself in their reading challenge. I always know I will read, but I also know that there are times when things get busy and I don’t have as much time to read for fun, or I have trouble finding the right book to read, or I’m focusing more on reading articles. But no matter how many books I end up reading in a given year, there will always be a few that stick out and stick with me. This year that was especially true, so I wanted to share those.

Something unique about the books that have stuck with me this year is that they all revolve in some way around the theme of going against the mainstream narrative, or exposing those who have traditionally been in power for their misdeeds. Reading these books has been a great opportunity to learn on my own what I was generally not taught in schools or read elsewhere: the other side of the dominant narrative. Each book provided me with some lesson or helped me change my thinking on an issue in some way.

Note: I may earn a small commission on purchases made through Amazon product links on this page.

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, by Eric Schlosser

Fast_food_nation

I was very late to this party, about seventeen years late. I think I was scared off by how gross this book would be, but I’m glad I got to it eventually. Although the book is from 2001 and some of the information may be outdated, it’s probably safe to assume that things haven’t improved much (and have likely gotten even worse) since the writing of the book.

At the risk of sounding dramatic or even corny, it was reading this book that made me appreciate (or re-appreciate) the power of reading and books to help people learn the truth about our society, our country, and our world. Schlosser’s well-researched, well-written exposé shows us how the fast food industry got its start and, most importantly, the influence it has on American life and economics.

What especially got to me about Schlosser’s reporting was just how terribly workers all across the industry are treated, from the cashiers at McDonald’s to the slaughterhouses and factories. Of course the low wages are a well-known issue, as anyone who knows about the Fight for $15 can attest. And while certain aspects of fast food culture have improved, such as the forcing of restaurants to provide (slightly) healthier options and conspicuous posting of nutrition information, the human rights issues remain and continue to get worse.

Reading this book energized me to make sure I keep paying attention and learn as much as I can about issues that the mainstream media barely covers, ie progressive issues: raising the minimum wage, quality of jobs, and the monopoly of corporations, among others. I’ve realized that I tend not to get through many fiction books for some reason; maybe I’m just not finding the right ones, or the right ones for me. But I also think that I can’t seem to get enough of learning about these issues, probably because they were lacking in my schooling days.

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, by Elizabeth Catte

51b3474wIRL._SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_

The next book in my journey is likely the least known and advertised, which shouldn’t be. I don’t actually remember where I first heard about this book, but I do remember that I couldn’t even find it from the New York Public Library! So I was happy to purchase it online. This book, written by a historian originally from Tennessee, is a response to the wildly popular Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. Vance’s book, which came out before the 2016 election and received more attention after the shock of Donald Trump’s victory, is an attempt to explain to “the rest of us” why this part of the country has been such a failure for so long.

As Catte explains, Vance’s description of his fellow Appalachians was insulting and condescending to say the least, as he portrays them as passive, irresponsible people who constantly make terrible decisions, like being unemployed and getting addicted to drugs. On top of that, Vance portrays himself as if he’s the only successful person to come out of the place, as he joined the Marines, went to Yale Law School, and became a venture capitalist. He’s the hero figure. Catte smashes this narrative to pieces by giving us the history of activism in the region. The people there are not helpless, as Vance would have us think, to make himself look better; they have always been fighters but have been left in the lurch by politicians and the government for decades, or longer, creating the environment for things like addiction and unemployment.

I loved this book because it gives a perspective that is hardly ever heard, but is sorely need. I will also admit that I’ve fallen victim to these standard narratives promoted by the media and by Vance, and reading this book helped me challenge those views and help start my re-education on these issues. While Vance wrote his book for his own personal gain, it is clear that Catte wrote this book out of a pure love for her fellow Appalachians. In her book she’s done the important work of giving the traditionally voiceless more of a voice. It’s a shame this book hasn’t received more of the attention it deserves, but I hope I can do my small part to help change that.    

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander

download-1

Another one I was almost a decade late for, but still an important read. This is a painstakingly researched book with more stats than you’ll ever need, but they all tell the same story: with most of us not consciously realizing it, particularly those of us who are not of color, our government has created a racial caste system derived from the eras of slavery and Jim Crow, in the form of mass incarceration. This system has been kept in place by white elites pitting blacks and poor white against each other, which is still happening in 2018. By the end I was definitely wondering how I had never known all this before.

I found the last chapter, “The Fire This Time,” the most informative and thought-provoking. In this chapter, Alexander takes an honest look at the civil rights and criminal justice reform movements to date and shows how reforms like affirmative action and success stories like that of Barack Obama have not really fought against the system, but rather help keep it in place. She then urges an action that we don’t hear every day–that in order to really dismantle the system of racism in America, it needs to be a movement of blacks AND whites, particularly poor whites. This goes back to the point she makes at the beginning of the book about how blacks and poor whites have been historically pitted against each other. If no effort is made in the way she describes, she warns, mass incarceration will eventually be replaced by something else we cannot foresee. But the charged and tangled history of race and racism in this country will make such a movement extremely difficult if not impossible to achieve.

Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist by Eli Saslow

71RBeIEnmFL-1

This book tells the fascinating story of the transformation of Derek Black, the son of the founder of white supremacist website Stormfront, and godson of former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. When he enters college, Black makes friends with a diverse group of fellow students, who slowly convince him how wrong his beliefs are. He has now fully renounced his racist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, etc views, sacrificing his relationships with his family and entire support network. What struck me about this story more than the transformation was having a firsthand account of how these views operated in the minds of white supremacists. Nothing could ever normalize them, but hearing them straight from the horse’s mouth from someone who has crossed to the other side was an invaluable, albeit scary, experience.

Additionally, this book is not officially on my list, but I would also like to include Saslow’s series of articles in The Washington Post about the hunger crisis in America called American Hunger. This collection won the Pulitzer a few years ago, and I stumbled upon it while checking something on the Pulitzer website. Possibly nothing else this year has reminded me of the bubble I and many others are fortunate enough to live in as much as reading these pieces about people who can’t afford the most basic necessity of food. Another book that forced me to challenge my own thinking and experience.

One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy, by Carol Anderson

41zCfnI7n9L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

Most of us likely know about the history of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, and the struggle for civil and voting rights for African Americans (among others). But this well-researched book teaches us more than most of us probably ever learned in school about the still very relevant topic of voter suppression.

Anderson gives a detailed history of disenfranchisement and three main ways states have conspired to limit the vote, particularly that of minorities: voter ID laws, purging voter rolls, and gerrymandering. She then ends with how voter rights groups are fighting back, including the incredible example of how a Democrat was elected to the Senate in Alabama last year. She concludes with a warning of how divided we have become–states who are limiting the vote versus states who are trying to expand it. All the while our voting system produces a government that is less and less representative of the people. That, and democracy, cannot stand for long if we keep on the same path. It’s unfortunate that voting, which is seen as sacred or even mandatory in some countries, is still not a de facto right for many people in this country, and that so much effort has to be put into what is supposed to be a democratic system. I’m glad there are so many out there fighting this oppression, and hope to help the efforts however I can.

Listen, Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?, by Thomas Frank

download-2

This book wraps up my year’s reading nicely. I’m currently still reading it, but already I’m glad that I am. I learned about this book from YouTuber Jimmy Dore, a die-hard progressive who had Frank on his show to talk more about his thesis: that Democrats in the last 40 years have done nothing to help improve this country’s ever-widening inequality gap–in fact, they have actively helped to make it worse. By making the decision to turn their backs on workers and the New Deal policies that guided this country out of the Great Depression in favor of the new “professional” class, Democrats signaled to their base and the rest of the country that, at least economically, they were not much different than the Republicans. This culminated in the election of Bill Clinton in 1992.

Remarkably, Frank wrote this book before the election of Donald Trump, an event which shocked many of us (including me), and which forced many of us to take a hard look at some of our assumptions about this country. Reading the book in the era of Trump just makes Frank’s argument even more urgent. The battle being waged within the Democratic party is an important test of what the party’s trajectory will be in 2020 and post-Trump. The Democratic leadership would be wise to learn from their recent failure, but based on how they’ve acted the last two years, I don’t hold out much hope.

This book got me thinking about how the internet, particularly YouTube, has helped expose these lies and temper the dominant narrative with the nuances and untold stories. Before then, all we had were the few main newspapers and TV networks, which the older generation still depends on; this is a major factor in the generation gap between these groups. I’m grateful for this book for opening my eyes to facts I simply did not have before. It is arming me with the ability to view events through a different, but significant, lens.

Overall, it’s been another great year in books! I already have a bunch I’m looking forward to reading in 2019, where I hope to keep learning and examining my views from different angles even more. Here’s to another great year of books!

Advertisements

“Egypt Station”–An Unexpected Delight from The Greatest

I don’t usually write blog posts about music, probably because I spent so much of my childhood and early adulthood writing about music, but I felt particularly inspired this past week by none other than My Actual Favorite Musician of All Time–Paul McCartney. If I ever were fortunate enough to get the chance to meet this icon, I would not only regale him with the millionth story he’s heard about how he’s influenced my life, but I would mainly have likely hundreds of musical questions to ask one of the greatest musical minds of our time, or any time.

Albums like his newest one, Egypt Station, released on September 7, remind me that his reputation as one of the greatest musicians of our time, and ever, is fully earned, and not at all exaggerated. As Rolling Stone put it in their review of the album: “Make a list of all the songwriters who were composing great tunes in 1958. Now make an overlapping list of the ones who are still writing brilliant songs in 2018. Your list reads: Paul McCartney.” I hope I can properly convey here why I agree, and what his music means to me.

But first, I will admit that when I was scrolling through social media on Friday and saw that Paul had a new album out, I was skeptical. Really? Another one? You can’t give it a rest, old man? (He’s 76, and still looks fantastic.) I was further tempted to ignore it after the hullabaloo he created at Grand Central Station that night by putting on a concert to promote the album [see Note 1 below], as well as all the BS he’s been telling GQ about how he and John Lennon masturbated together or whatever. I don’t care about their shenanigans from 50 years ago.

Anyone who knows me even a little bit knows that I’m a lifelong Beatles fan, but even I had kind of had enough. When he went on tour in 2009, when it seemed like it would be his last, my fellow Beatle maniac and I got tickets to see him in Boston after I failed to get tickets for his New York show and was devastated about it. But since then he’s done about ten more tours and released more albums, so the novelty started to wear off.

But then I listened to this album and I was reminded that he’s an icon for a reason. And really, should I have been surprised? I’ve listened to it a few times since then, and I’m growing to love it more each time I hear it. Even though I didn’t love all the tracks on it, as would be expected with any album, the work overall clearly shows that he’s still both a great songwriter and musician. The level of production is also top-notch, as would be expected. The man can still sing (within a reasonable range) even though his voice has clearly aged; again, he’s 76. He has always had an incredible ear and now writes songs for himself that fit his lower range [see Note 2 below].

The songs, poetically, reflect every part of his life, which perhaps is the reason behind the theme of a train station, taking us through his musical journey. As Paul himself explains in the album announcement on his website, his intention was to create a concept album like the Beatles did with Sgt. Pepper back in the day [see Note 3 below]. “I Don’t Know” (which came out in June, somehow I missed that), “Happy With You”, and “Hand in Hand” are beautiful, plaintive, reflective, wistful solo Paul ballads. “I Don’t Know” is one of the best Paul, or any, songs, I’ve heard, period. It shows a deepness and vulnerability that we rarely see, a man who has had an unimaginable trajectory reflecting on the simplest things in life.

Of course, no solo Paul album would be complete without some anthems and medleys. And he doesn’t let the issues of today go unmentioned either. “Who Cares”, a song that is reportedly about bullying and inspired by the relationship Taylor Swift has with her fans (according to NME), is a very “Jet”-like, energetic, inspiring song. “People Want Peace” is a very Paul-like “Hey Jude” type anthem. “Dominoes” is an interlude right out of Revolver, with an opening and closing line that brings a tear to the eye: “In time we’ll know, it’s all a show, It’s been a blast.”  “Despite Repeated Warnings”, a medley about the climate change crisis and Trump’s awful handling of it (also from NME report), is another Wings-like song with great background vocals. The ending line, “It’s the will of the people”, with an E-major chord similar to the ending of “A Day in the Life” (though it could never be as jarring), is chilling. Throughout most of these we hear either Paul’s gorgeous piano skills or his trademark bass lines on that iconic violin bass of his.

Though they were my least favorite songs on the album (I tend to gravitate towards the songs that are more personal and intimate), “Come On To Me” and “Fuh You” are in the tradition of tongue-in-cheek, not-always-subtle “I want to get with you” songs which can be found sprinkled throughout his repertoire.

Who knows if this will be his last album? The way he’s going it doesn’t look like it, not even close. But either way, this is a great companion piece to Ram from a musician who has aged but hasn’t aged out. Egypt Station feels and sounds like a more serious, deeper, more mature version of the light-hearted, youthful Ram. Who would have ever guessed 40 or 50 years ago that Paul would not only still be around making music, but doing it at such a high quality, with all the ways music genres and technologies have changed? He is just a master songwriter and all-around musician. This is not one of those albums where the once-great musician sounds old and sad and desperate [see Note 4 below]. At some moments he sounds sad, but in a wistful, reflective way.

I can only imagine what it must be like to be a session musician working with him. I have such envy for them. Just being in a room with him, even if you’re in the very back with the background singers, must be an inimitable experience. I only hope they know how incredibly lucky they are. This album was an unexpected delight, and I’m glad Paul once again shared his bountiful gifts with us. Overall this YouTube comment on “I Don’t Know” accurately reflects how I feel both about this album and him:

unnamed

Note: I am an Amazon Affiliate, so I may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page. 

Notes

Note 1: I watched the concert on YouTube and, as much as I love him, the show was pretty painful to listen to. In addition to playing songs off the new album, he played some oldies, yet managed to pick all of the songs that were written for his once high-register voice, which he clearly could not keep up with anymore. What was he thinking!? He has a better ear than that. Is his ego that big that he doesn’t hear himself?

Note 2: Which makes me further wonder what he was thinking regarding his song choices for the recent concert.

Note 3: I wondered where the title came from; turns out it’s from one of his paintings, which is the cover art. Not enough that he’s the world’s greatest musician, he has to be a painter too?!

Note 4: As he did in the aforementioned disaster concert. Sorry, I’m having trouble getting over this.

Sources

https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-album-reviews/review-paul-mccartneys-awesomely-eccentric-egypt-station-719365/

https://www.nme.com/news/music/paul-mccartney-reveals-how-taylor-swift-and-donald-trump-inspired-new-album-2378618

https://www.paulmccartney.com/Egypt_Station_7thSept

Attempting to Humanize the Dehumanizers

Over the past few days, Steve Bannon was announced and then uninvited as the headliner at the annual New Yorker Festival. David Remnick, the magazine’s editor and would-be interviewer of Bannon at the festival, was essentially forced into this decision after other speakers (including Judd Apatow and Jim Carrey) backed out, and after his own staff rebelled on Twitter. While I and many others are glad that Bannon will no longer be at the event, Remnick still says that he plans to interview him in “a more journalistic setting.” More importantly, rescinding his invitation makes this situation into more of a circus than it already was to begin with.

All of this could have been avoided if The New Yorker simply had not invited Bannon in the first place.

I am still trying to figure out what Remnick’s motive was in doing this. Was it to create a scene? If so, he succeeded, but perhaps at the peril of his magazine and its writers who seemed to have no say in the initial decision. Was it to make money from ticket sales (and let’s not forget, Bannon would be paid for his appearance)? Perhaps. Or was it, as he claims, to have an open dialogue with an “opponent”?

In the end, I suppose it doesn’t really matter what the reasoning was, because any of them can easily be refuted, particularly the idea of having a dialogue: just as the case of another professional provocateur, Dinesh D’Souza, who often challenges Princeton professor of history Kevin Kruse to a “debate” via Twitter, the challenge is not made in good faith. People in the vein of D’Souza and Bannon make clear that they are not interested in having a true debate, like the debates of Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, for instance. Those two were bitter rivals on complete opposite ends of the political spectrum, but both showed up to debates with clean hands, and nothing up their sleeves, ready to listen to and consider the other.

The Bannons of the world are not of this tradition. They are of a tradition that has become increasingly and disturbingly mainstream: that of purposely lying and manipulating for a living, with no intention of debating or talking through issues, only creating a scene. Even more alarming, they are amazingly adept at manipulating a room or an interviewer. Even Donald Trump, who is no genius, is able to manipulate most interviewers he comes into contact with, is a master at talking over the interviewer, and, most of all, at deflecting. Instead of talking about his own possible obstruction of justice in various situations, deflect to Hillary Clinton and why she should be in prison. Worse, some of these folks will try to downplay their racism and convince you that it’s not really there. Whether the interviewers are poorly skilled in dealing with this is certainly an issue. So that is why I readily dismiss Remnick’s claims (and those of his defenders) that he would ask him “difficult questions” and somehow hold his feet to the fire. Not possible.

To those who would defend this choice and lament the missed opportunity to “engage in dialogue” (as I heard on the frustrating Morning Joe recently), I would ask you to consider a tweet by writer/journalist Sulome Anderson on this issue: “You want to see detachment from reality in the ‘elite media,’ look no further than @NewYorker headlining a festival with Bannon. The people who made that decision are likely personally unaffected by his continued legacy of hate. He’s just an interesting controversy to them.”

This statement encapsulates my point: those who say “we should hear and challenge people like Steve Bannon” do not recognize that they have a unique level of privilege that allows them to say that. They would never make such a statement unless they knew with absolute certainty that such an issue would never affect them directly. This is where a line in the sand must be drawn between the free exchange of ideas and those that directly threaten certain people’s very existence, their right to live. There is no obligation to engage with or provide a platform to such ideas, and these ideas are not protected by the First Amendment.

Though this is said so often that it almost no longer has meaning, we are at a crossroads at this moment in American history. After the disastrous mistake this country made in 2016 which is manifesting itself every second of every day it is allowed to continue, we are on a very dangerous path that risks being irreversible.

In other words, these are not ordinary times. These are not times where we can afford to listen to “both sides” of an issue when one side rejects the humanity of certain people in this country who are every bit American as they are, whether they like it or not. To give even the smallest bit of oxygen to dangerous views like this only risks them growing like the flames of a wildfire. To speak of sitting in a room with these folks as if they are operating on the same plane as we are is lethal, because it normalizes them and their “beliefs”; it humanizes those who would dehumanize others if given the opportunity. Once they are normalized, there is almost certainly no turning back (see the many writings of Hannah Arendt on this very issue from the last time we dealt with Nazis).    

Often in politics, and especially in our current era of particularly poisonous division, we hear that we need to engage the other side, have a productive dialogue. In almost any other era, that would have been true. Even during the Bush years, which were no picnic either, there were still enough people in each party level-headed enough to be willing to reach across the aisle to come up with solutions to problems (as in the case of the late Senator John McCain). Even those with whom we vehemently disagreed could at least engage in a good faith, policy-centered discussion, not personal or race-based attacks.

But in our current era, we are dealing with something completely different. Instead of debating particular points of policy, we are debating people’s humanity. Whether immigrants and their children who cross the border seeking asylum deserve to be treated like any other person, whether in this country legally or illegally. Whether black men who are simply trying to move about their lives deserve to be shot by police for absolutely no legitimate reason. If people’s basic humanity has become a matter of debate instead of a basic fact, then something is horribly wrong, and we must do everything we can to prevent it from spreading like the disease that it is, and more than it already has.

Steve Bannon is a prime proponent of this change in thought. So for The New Yorker to not only have offered him a platform to share these views (no matter how “combative” David Remnick promised it would be), but to have rewarded him with the title of headliner was not only illogical and bizarre, but a slap in the face to those he has directly harmed with his words and actions, and to many of the magazine’s loyal readers.

But beyond the impact this decision has on other people, how does it make sense to the magazine itself? Since before Trump was elected, the magazine has been decidedly anti-Trump, as one might expect an “elite liberal” New York publication to be. So it is astonishing that Remnick and whoever else was in the room to make this decision went in this direction. It is astonishing that they didn’t think there would be massive backlash and outrage to it, or if they did, that they could handle it and get away with it by saying that Remnick would ask him “difficult questions.”

Additionally, did they consider what kind of reception Bannon would get at the event, if it had gone forward? One might predict the type of audience that would have attended would not have been sympathetic to Bannon’s “views.” If the reaction got out of hand, how would that have made Bannon look? It would have made him like a sympathetic character, much like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos attempted to be at Berkeley last year. And now that Remnick was forced to rescind the invitation, Bannon’s goal has been accomplished with absolutely no effort on his part. I’m not sure if Remnick and his supporters understand this either. This is the last thing we need in this already difficult time, so the decision to engage him at all was nothing short of self-defeating.

I know that every time one of these situations comes up, where someone dubbed “controversial” is invited to speak at a highly publicized event and there is subsequent backlash, some devil’s advocate raises the “slippery slope” argument. “If we don’t allow this person to speak, then who’s next? Then we are limiting everyone’s freedom of speech.” The problem with this argument is that it is equating two different planes of argument, as I mentioned before: one that argues based on logic and facts, and one that argues based on complete irrationality. Sure, we all have emotional reactions to things and even individual people we don’t like. But the idea that certain groups are inferior and deserve to be eliminated is not based on logic and facts (despite what the pseudoscience of Charles Murray may suggest).

It’s disheartening and mentally exhausting that this discussion even needs to be had. At this point in our nation’s history, in the 21st century when we have unprecedented access to information and to each other, we should not still be stuck on whether or not certain “ideas” should be debated or heard. In fact, we decided that 70 years ago when the Allies defeated Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Why is it being allowed to happen again? Only because media platforms who have extraordinary power are allowing it to, to increase ratings or ticket sales. But the rest of us, who are already or may one day be directly affected by these “ideas”, cannot afford to allow this “exchange” to go on without intervening. Because at this point they are no longer just ideas. If we do not remain vigilant and push back against those who would attempt to give people who promote such ideas more airtime, we risk going down a road whose destructive outcomes we’ve already seen. Because when it comes to beliefs that involve the elimination of entire groups of people, there is no other side.

 

Racism in America: The Latest Chapter

I know, handful of readers I have, it’s been a while. I started a new job recently, which has been great, so I’ve been taking a break from writing. But now that I have some time over the holiday weekend, I thought I’d come back with some thoughts that have been marinating in my mind for a while.

As some of you may have seen on Facebook, I posted rather passionately about a speech recently given by Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans. This speech was given to mark the occasion of the removal of several Confederate monuments in the city. On one hand, one might think that the removal of such (offensive) monuments might be seen as a progressive step; on the other, this is America, and nothing, especially anything involving race, is easy or straightforward.

[sub rant: although this particular story is about the South, whose racist history is more blatant, I’ve learned to admit, partially with the help of James Baldwin, that the North is hardly innocent either. But that’s for another time. In the meantime, go see the movie Get Out if you don’t believe me, and be prepared for a wakeup call.]

The removal of the monuments was greeted with hostile protestors, including some who thought it would be a great idea to bring back the KKK, white hoods, torches and all. Again, on one hand this is shocking, but on the other, it really really isn’t.

As I did in my Facebook post, I implore you to read or watch the speech that I’ve linked above. I’ve read it and watched it, but I plan to refer back to it constantly, because we will need it. Heartfelt acknowledgements like this are the first step forward if we hope to make any kind of meaningful progress with race and racism in this country.

As most of you who know me and/or read my posts (hopefully) know, I care very deeply about the history of racism in this country. Not necessarily because I have “firsthand” experience with it or whatnot, but because I think it affects all of us in some way, even if indirectly. My interest in this issue is the reason I spend a lot of my time reading articles about race, as well as books about the history of racism in this country.

Racism in America: An Ongoing Saga

As I’ve begun to see more and more as I get older, they did not always teach us the full story of racism in this country in school. Sure, they taught us that slavery was bad, that the Civil War was fought over the issue, and that the Civil Rights Movement helped give black citizens the equality and voting rights they should have had all along.

But it took me until rather recently to realize that all of this is tied together in one story: racism is a constant thread in this country’s history. Parts of it may eventually end (i.e. slavery, segregated schools/public facilities), but they are just replaced by something more insidious (voting ID laws, gerrymandering, etc). The tactics may be outlawed, but the thoughts behind it remain the same. That’s why Martin Luther King, Jr. was so prescient when he said:

“…you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion.”

And that’s also why it was almost laughable when people all over this country naively declared, “We live in a post-racial society!” after Barack Obama was elected on November 4, 2008. I was excited right along with them (I even cried, as I knew I was witnessing a truly historic moment), but I also wasn’t fooled. No doubt Obama’s election was a tremendous moment in the history of this country. Even if it didn’t mean racism was magically erased, it did mean that many people in this country were at least open to the possibility of a black man holding the highest office (even though many were vehemently against it and still are to this day). Obama’s outreach to white working-class people also helped with this, but it still was a momentous occasion.

But once Trump and the birther movement came along and exploited the still existing hostilities, it was clear that not much progress had been made. Those who were angry just got angrier. This was a major contributor to Trump being elected in 2016, and why we are where we are today.

As much as I love Obama, and as much as it pains me to say it, sometimes I think his election was a fluke (mainly due to the economic circumstances of the time), but more importantly, I wonder if we’d be better off if it hadn’t happened. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad he was President, both for the symbolism of it and for all he actually accomplished, but this country is very fickle. Nothing involving race happens without huge backlash. And I’m afraid that the backlash against his being President has thrown us backwards with little hope of moving forward. As much as I hate to say it, and as much as it makes me angry, we really maybe were not ready. And I believe there is very little chance that it will happen again, at least not for a very, very long time.

No one understood this reality better than Barack Obama himself. I’ve started reading a collection of his speeches, and a theme throughout many of them, particularly in the early days of his political career and the first campaign, is that of “a more perfect union.” This phrase from the Preamble of the Constitution was also the title of one of his more famous speeches that he gave when distancing himself from his controversial pastor, Jeremiah Wright. It became a defining moment in his political career as well as another watershed moment in the discussion of race in this country.

Obama views the idea of “perfect” as both a noun and a verb. The idea of the American experiment (well, based on who you ask) is to keep progressing, and to improve on things when they are less than perfect. The issue of race is a perfect example of this. So whenever there was some type of conflict involving race, Obama, in his professorial way, would use it as a teaching moment to show that this was part of a collective process of getting better. At times I thought he was almost too conciliatory (such as his early promise to reach across the aisle), but that is part of what made him the great politician that he is.

Moving Forward with Our History in Mind

This post is rant-ier than usual, but that’s probably because this is a topic I feel I could talk about forever, and I’m trying to make it fit into a reasonably-sized post. What I’ve written throws out a lot of ideas that I believe are important to this discussion, but there are of course many more. This is only just a small start, and I’m happy to discuss it further anytime, because I somehow never get tired of it and how nuanced it is.

In this country, as it is anywhere (such as post-Nazi Germany, where they make sure each successive generation understands the Holocaust so that it is never repeated), it is important to understand our history. The removal of the Confederate monuments is not an attempt to erase what happened–that would be pretty hard. The issue is that the statues are not in the appropriate spaces. There was a time when it was seen as appropriate to honor these people publicly, but we have hopefully arrived at the point where we no longer agree with that (spoiler alert: many of us don’t). As many have argued, these monuments belong in museums, which would help place them in the proper context.

What is perhaps most infuriating is hearing reactions from people who live in the cities where the monuments are being removed. Predictably, the black people who are interviewed are pleased with the removal, especially since many of them have since learned that their ancestors were owned by some of these Confederate “heroes,” including Jefferson Davis himself. I can only imagine the emotional distress seeing these monuments for years, decades, almost centuries has inflicted on people who have been part of this systemic assault on their being.

Old white people (mainly men), on the other hand, actually don’t get it. They see this as an affront to their rich culture and history (of being terrible?) and refuse to see the other side. Common statements: “these were good men, they were just complex.” “If we condemn Jefferson Davis, what’s to stop us from doing the same for George Washington and Thomas Jefferson?” Even 150+ plus years later, they are still fighting the same fight. The election of Trump is an ugly result of this fight.

Final Thoughts

I get that the issue is more complex than I sometimes make it (especially with how I framed the “old white people” part, but it is REALLY hard not to punch a wall when I read some of these reactions). I believe we will never be a post-racial society. Certainly not until people from all sides start to acknowledge their flaws and have a willingness to talk about them without being defensive.

As promised, a Positive: the complex history of racism in this country sucks, but it’s heartening to see how so many people, especially in the younger generations, are in support of this and recognize it as an important step forward. As MLK said, and Obama liked to quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” These fights are long and arduous, and much of the time I’m cynical about anything ever getting accomplished. But I also remember that there are some steps toward progress, however small. And as entrenched as certain old attitudes are, many hearts have been changed over time, which I hope would make King proud.

Bye, O’Reilly!

Hi! So sorry for the long break, but I’m finally back! I was occupied by some Life Stuff (but good stuff!), but now I am back and am feeling inspired to go on a brand new rant, this time about one of my all-time favorite subjects: Bill O’Reilly.

Almost anyone who knows me even a little bit knows that Fox News and anyone associated with it is one of the banes of my existence, none so much as Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. These two men are so offensive to the mind and soul in every possible way that it’s hard to quantify in words. Hannity hasn’t been fired yet, but maybe someday (at which point I will do a whole separate rant about him). But O’Reilly finally has (hallelujah!), ostensibly for his various accusations of sexual harassment. But like most stories, it’s a little more complicated.

It would not be incorrect to say that the sexual harassment allegations by multiple women contributed to O’Reilly’s downfall, if that’s what you want to call it (he’s still doing fine, between his book deals and $25 million payout). I won’t go into the specifics of the allegations, because they make me sick and you can do that research on your own. But the truth is that these accusations have been common knowledge for quite a long time. 21st Century Fox has been spending millions of dollars of the years settling these cases to keep these women quiet. For a while, this system seemed to work; the cases were settled out of court, and O’Reilly kept being on TV. That is, until it stopped working, as this article from Cracked (shared with me by a friend) explains.

Once the number of accusations got too high (i.e. the company had to pay off too many women), plus the important fact that advertisers began pulling their money from the show in response to the accusations, the pressure eventually mounted. Fox tried to gradually take O’Reilly off the air, though it was pretty obvious what was going on. First, his show ended 15 minutes early one night with no apparent explanation. Then he was sent “on vacation” (he went to Rome and met the Pope!). Finally, last week it was announced that Fox would be parting ways with O’Reilly.

As exciting as it was to hear that O’Reilly had been fired, the excitement was deflated a bit by the numbers. At first glance, it would be understandable to think, wow, Fox News finally had to look at themselves in the mirror and discipline one of their own! But unfortunately it’s not that simple. As great as it would be to see that Fox News had finally come to its senses and gained a moral compass, they only dismissed O’Reilly because their bottom line was suffering. Sure, I wouldn’t expect anything less from them, but it doesn’t mean I can’t be bummed and outraged about it.

But Wait, There’s More! 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that O’Reilly is out (at least from this particular role) for any reason at all. I’m particularly happy about it because of the pervasive culture of misogyny that exists at this so-called news organization. This culture can be see in how the women are forced to dress (skirts only, no pants, constantly showing bare legs on television), but there’s much more that goes on internally that we are only beginning to learn about. Recently Roger Ailes, the chairman of Fox until recently, was forced out for similar allegations of harassment. Since then, it appears as if the dominoes are falling, however slowly, which is a great development.

As happy as I am about O’Reilly being fired for his disgusting behavior, let’s not forget that O’Reilly is also incredibly racist. Like, really really racist. Like, there are compilation videos of all the racist things he has said over the two decades he’s been on the air. You can do your own treasure hunt to find them, but here is just a sampling of some of my favorites:

  • telling a black professor with a PhD who was appearing on his show that he looked like “a cocaine dealer”
  • telling a story of how he went to dinner with the Rev. Al Sharpton (who he has historically said terribly racist things about) at the famous Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem, expressing surprise at how “civilized” the black patrons were, how they didn’t say “m-fer, get me more iced tea!” I can’t even comment because it makes me shake with rage every time I read it, even all these years later. What a disgusting human being.
  • saying that slaves were “taken care of and well fed.” NOPE.
  • watching Congresswoman Maxine Waters (who I basically want to be my grandma) speak, and instead of saying something intelligent and mature, he said “I can’t even listen to her because I’m too distracted by that James Brown wig.” No, I am not making that up
  • If you’re interested in (and can stomach) learning more, I would encourage you to watch this recent compilation put together by the Daily Show.

This is a man who denies the blatant systemic racism that exists in this country, the same way he denies that women are people, not objects to be ogled or fondled. I just will never be able to understand the level of hatred and dehumanization of other people that one must sustain to be like this. There must be a level of self-hatred that is involved. Even if O’Reilly’s removal is more complicated than just moral obligations, either way I’m glad there’s one less person like him around.

Double Standard?

As great (overall) as this story is, there is something delighfully ironic (as Shaun King and others have pointed out) about the fact that conservative icons such as O’Reilly and Roger Ailes are falling during the era that we are currently in. One would think (then be terrified) that with the rise of hatemongers like Trump, Fox News would be more powerful and energized than ever. But maybe, perhaps similar to the struggles of the Republican Party in Congress, these haters don’t know how to function unless they are uniting against a common enemy, i.e. Barack Obama. Now that their man is in charge, their purpose is lost.

The thing that is both fascinating and infuriating about this story is that O’Reilly was fired for a fraction of what Trump has both done and been accused of doing (need not be repeated again). As people such as Andy Borowitz have joked (though there is more truth to it than humor, because none of this is funny), when people like O’Reilly and Milo Yiannopoulous have gotten in trouble for one thing or another, it seems like the only place they will fit in is the screwed up White House. How is that these people, as awful as they are, get in trouble for a tenth of what Trump did? Why is there a double standard? That is really the scary part, and shows how messed up things really are.

As for the Positive this week? Well, Bill O’Reilly getting fired is definitely a positive, caveats notwithstanding. So I’ll just go with that.

Bernie Sanders Goes to West Virginia

I’m back from my birthday celebration, extended by the snow day that many of us had. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to post about this week, but after watching an interesting town hall on MSNBC the other night, I thought I would share my thoughts on it.

Some of you may be familiar with the televised town halls that Senator Bernie Sanders has been doing with Chris Hayes of MSNBC. A month or so after the election, they did one in Kenosha, Wisconsin. This latest one was in McDowell County, West Virginia. The idea of these town halls is to begin a dialogue with Trump voters in various regions of the country, who voted for him mainly for economic reasons, thinking that he would bring back the jobs he promised, and also improve health care.

This town hall in West Virginia was particularly interesting to me, since I watched a video posted by The Guardian around the time of the election which went into this county and talked to people about what they were thinking. A video like this in any county would be interesting enough, but McDowell County is the poorest county in West Virginia, which is among the poorest states in America (the poorest, depending on which index you read). Since I already had this background in mind, I figured I would learn some more by watching this town hall a few months into Trump’s dictatorship presidency. (If you have not seen the Guardian video I linked, please take the time to watch it if you can, it’s about 10 minutes. Really fascinating/depressing stuff.)

(In the interest of full disclosure, most of you who know me know that I strongly supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 election. Though I pretty much knew what was happening and that we would be forced to vote for Hillary Clinton since she was the more “electable” candidate, won’t rant about that now, I still connected very strongly with Bernie and wanted him to do well. That is why I enjoy watching these town halls he does, because he is still devoted to the people.)

With that, I’d like to share what I liked as well as what made me angry about watching this town hall.

Issues and Concerns of a Desperate Place

The hour-long program (possibly edited for time, I’m not sure) opened with a montage of moments Donald Trump had on the campaign trail in West Virginia. He was massively popular in this state, and it showed: almost 70% of the entire state voted for him, while 75% of McDowell County did. People in this county gave him their vote based on his promises such as “We’re gonna put the miners back to work” (said in ridiculous chanting form). I could go on a whole rant about how sure, maybe their reasons weren’t racist or xenophobic in nature, but by voting for him they enabled and normalized that behavior. But I digress.

At the same time, however, many of these same people also connected with Bernie Sanders, who won the Democratic primary in the state by a pretty wide margin over Hillary Clinton. This is likely because he connected with blue-collar workers in a way she could not, which by now we are very familiar with. So having this town hall, even though Trump won, was not an entirely out there idea. The great thing about Bernie too is that he connects with people as just people; he doesn’t just see them as votes. He is one of the only politicians you can say that about, Republican or Democrat (or Independent).

The main themes of the evening were mostly predictable, such as concerns about jobs (particularly in coal) and health care (and possibly losing it). There was also a lot said about the opioid crisis, which I knew less about but was vaguely familiar with as being a tragic issue throughout the country today. Many of these problems are unique to this county or region (i.e. coal), but many of them are not all that much different from other places in the US, including, as Bernie suggested, his home state of Vermont. His ability to relate to people in that way was crucial.

The only thing that I was 100% happy about in what I heard was that the audience in general seemed to agree with Bernie that climate change is a real and serious problem. The lone exception seemed to be one red-blooded coal miner guy, who clearly had a one-issue agenda and was not open to hearing anything else. He went on some rant about how coal isn’t the only problem, and then something about how cigarette smoke causes global warming. But anyway. I was happy that people seemed to accept this reality, because there wasn’t much other than that that made me happy.

The issue of the declining coal industry was at the forefront of people’s minds, which on one hand I can understand. But for various reasons, not necessarily the fault of the people themselves, it has been difficult to transition to other types of jobs, such as laying fiber cable. The state and federal governments have a responsibility to retrain people to do more relevant work, which they have not done. As Bernie explained, “Reinvesting in communities that have been devastated by changes in energy and make sure folks have decent-paying jobs. And we can do that. We are not a poor country.”

Voting Against their Own Interests

The main thing that got my blood boiling in watching this thing was the discussion of health care. Over and over people practically yelled and screamed at the prospect of losing their health care if the ACA/Obamacare is repealed by Trump and the Republicans. Since about 75% of them are on Medicaid due to the expansion under the ACA, they are literally dependent on it to live. Yet these were the same folks who yelled and screamed when the ACA was supposedly forced upon them, since it was going to take away their freedom or something. So they didn’t want it then, but now they don’t want to lose it?!

Along those same lines, it made me angry that they clapped for things that Bernie suggested that they had JUST voted against in voting for Trump: tax breaks for the rich, repealing health care, disappearing jobs, the list could go on. Do they not realize that they just did that? I really can’t say.

One comment that was particularly interesting came from a retired miner who thanked Bernie for co-sponsoring legislation that will hopefully save the pensions/benefits/health care of retired miners. In what quite possibly was the line of the night, he said, “I think it’s kind of ironic that a senator from the Northeast takes care of my benefits better than someone like Mitch McConnell.” He said “Northeast” with a bit of condescension (similar to how someone like me might say The South), but I was too giddy about him shitting on McConnell to care at the time.

Bernie’s Main Points

Bernie summed up with a few points that were crucial to his philosophy. They included:

  • Healthcare being a right, not a privilege (big applause)
  • The need to improve infrastructure (including high-speed internet access, which is sparse in this county)
  • The need to invest in education, including tuition-free college (biggest applause)
  • Warning that Republicans (whom these people likely voted for) want to go in the opposite direction of what he’s proposing by cutting everything–so we need to stand up to that, resist giving tax cuts to billionaires and come together as a country for what is right

My Conclusions

At the end of watching this, I found myself mostly throwing up my hands. To be honest, I am not sure how to feel about these people. When I saw the Guardian video a few months ago, my reaction then was that I could not fault them for voting for Trump as I could for other people because they literally could not be properly informed (little to no Internet, desperation, etc). But now, a few months into the Trump era, it is hard to feel empathy or sympathy for them because they don’t seem to understand what it is they want or need, and that Obama was trying to provide it to them and that Trump is going to give them NOTHING (or take away what little they have left). So one of my reactions is what I say all the time, that this election was a result of extreme hatred for Barack Obama and anything he may have stood for.

Perhaps I’m being harsh or condescending, but perhaps they should have thought of all those things (health care, opioid crisis, jobs) when they were singing and shouting and feeling such PRIDE at a Trump rally. Hopefully by now they see that they have been CONNED. I care because I care about people, but at the end of the day it’s going to affect them more than it’s going to affect me. And I am ENRAGED that they don’t get that they voted to seal their own fate.

At the same time, this mess is all their fault–they’ve been failed for generations at the federal, state, and local levels, when it comes to education, healthcare, and transitioning fully into the 21st century. Especially without having reliable Internet, it’s almost as if we’re functioning in two separate times. The most unfortunate thing is that Trump was able to capitalize on these vulnerabilities and take advantage of them for his own selfish gain.

I also understand that I’m never going to fully understand the perspective of these folks. I don’t live there, I was not brought up there, so I will never understand, just the way they would not understand how it is to live in New York. I will also never understand the level of poverty they experience, a poverty that is more severe than almost any other in this country. Perhaps they felt so desperate that they were willing to try anything to get something new, even if it meant voting for someone who those more well-off could see was a con man. Though we are supposedly the United States, we are also very fractured. It is hard to see other’s points of view, which is why seeing this town hall was somewhat helpful, even though it made me angry at times.

My goal here wasn’t to provide a play-by-play of the entire meeting, but to extract the important themes of what was on people’s minds, both in this county and throughout the country. While this helped me understand these people on a more personal level, it also left me with more questions than answers, as you can probably see by my rants here. If you are interested in seeing the town hall for yourself, there are clips of it on YouTube, and I believe you can watch it on MSNBC if you have a cable provider login.

Trump and The Media: Partners in Crime

I guess now is as good a time as any to finally do that post I’ve been meaning to do: the role of the media in the mess we call the Trump presidency (or dictatorship). Two events this week (one unfolding currently) have provided the catalyst I need to finally write this post that has been brewing in my mind for a long time. Fair warning (or a treat, depending on how you like me when I’m mad): this is going to be an especially angry post (more than usual) because I am fed up and pissed off with what is allowed to go on. So get ready.

How Trump Uses the Media

By now we probably understand that the media (with the exception of a few independent sources like The Young Turks) at least played a part in getting Trump elected. We all remember it from the campaign, from the time he announced his candidacy in June 2015. Most networks, newspapers, etc (especially late night comedy shows) treated it as the joke it should have been.

Except when it was no longer a joke.

When he destroyed Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio in the South Carolina primary in February 2016. When no matter what he said, whether it was calling John McCain a loser for being captured in Vietnam, or mocking a disabled person in front of a large crowd, or claiming “thousands” cheered the fall of the Twin Towers from across the river in New Jersey (the list could take up the rest of this page so I’ll stop), the media not only covered it ad nauseum, they didn’t take it seriously. They never really treated him like the serious candidate he was until it was way too late. I treated the whole thing as a joke for about a week before I realized that this wasn’t going away. Did I expect him to win? No, that was a total shock to my psyche and shook me to my core. But the fact that the media did not treat him as a real threat (to our national security, our well-being, etc) only helped his cause further and helped get him elected. Never mind that he was provided hours and BILLIONS of dollars of free advertising, just for the batshit stuff he says.

Trump may not be a book smart man, but he knows how to work the system and the media. That’s how he’s made his career for the past 40-plus years. As I’ve heard people well-versed in the wrestling business explain, he basically treats this like a wrestling promo. He knows exactly how to play the media to pay attention to him. As soon as he opened his mouth, the press would be there. Even before! They would wait for his plane to arrive at an event, just to catch a glimpse of something crazy he MIGHT say. Instead of covering actual important events happening.

This is how Trump still functions now. His whole operation revolves around sensationalism. Even worse, he knows the media will run to anything he says like flies to honey, which allows him to divert attention away from more sinister things he and Bannon and whoever else might be up to. The media (and some of us) fall for it EVERY TIME.

And this shit HAS TO STOP.

The events of this past week are a prime example of this cycle of abuse. If people and media organizations do not pick up on it now, we will all be very sorry down the road.

Trump’s Roller Coaster Week

Before I get into the events of this week, I must say to be fair that the media has improved in their handling of Trump. They eventually figured out (though way too late) that every statement he makes needs to be thoroughly fact checked, preferably as it’s happening. Any claim he makes must be picked apart and countered with all evidence available.

But the reaction to Tuesday night’s reading from a teleprompter (also known as a “speech”) showed that they really have not learned anything.

It’s funny to me how for the eight years Obama was president (good luck making it through one, buddy), his critics were constantly railing against him for being a “Teleprompter president,” when he was simply reading speeches that he probably had a fair part in writing. Now when Trump does it, he is the most presidential person God ever created. Guess I haven’t been drinking the Kool Aid. It’s amazing how blind people can be.

As far as I could tell, and I admittedly could not get through the entire speech without feeling the need to throw up, the speech could be summed up as an exploitation of, but not limited to: various black people who are supposedly his friends, a severely disabled person, and, most importantly, the widow of a Navy SEAL recently killed in Yemen.

This Navy SEAL’s own father criticized Trump for how he handled this mission, supposedly ordered over dinner with his almost-as-evil son-in-law Jared Kushner. This was a mission that Obama was reluctant to do, but Trump decided he would be a MAN and order it. Then when it predictably failed, he went and blamed the generals in charge. Real class act.

During the speech, he had the widow of the fallen SEAL stand up in the gallery so she could be given a 3-minute long ovation. My reaction to this was “Wow, how transparent, everyone will see through this one right?”

NOPE.

Here’s the reaction to this moment that made me most want to punch a wall. Van Jones was someone I respected, particularly in the post-election trauma. But after this display of foolishness, I will no longer be listening to anything he has to say. We can’t afford to grant second chances in this era because it is already hard enough to know who is with us and who is against us. He later claimed that he didn’t quite mean it the way it was being interpreted, but that’s TOO BAD. You need to mean what you say and say what you mean, or risk backlash, which is exactly what’s happened. (Plus I don’t believe that bullshit anyway.)

The sampling I took of the mainstream networks basically seemed to confirm that they felt Trump was back on track, maybe things aren’t so scary anymore. How they got this feeling from reading a screen for an hour I have no earthly idea. Maybe they just want it to be so so they can stop shitting themselves on a daily basis. I don’t care.

The next day, it was reported that Jeff Sessions (no time for a rant on him now) had had secret meetings with the Russian ambassador which he did not report in his hearing to become Attorney General. He has now recused himself from any investigation on Russian interference into the election. He should resign. This is very troubling as it further indicates there are connections between Trump and Russia, which has been a suspicion for quite a while.

Then, this morning happened.

Trump is back to his 6am Saturday tweetstorms: “Obama wiretapped the phones in Trump Tower during the election! I have no proof but I know it happened! McCarthyism, Watergate, other terms that I don’t know the meaning of but am ironically reviving as we speak!”

Now what, media?

Are the media and people who refuse to take a stance on this (cough cough REPUBLICANS) ever going to figure it out? When are they going to realize that they are dealing with an overgrown child who possibly has serious mental issues? That no matter what kind of speech is handed to him, that is still who he is? That he is playing them, all of us?

How much longer will we accept this cycle of abuse before those in power decide to do something about it?

As the more enlightened of us have come to learn, Trump goes on these rants when he is feeling the pressure. It seems the crazier his tweets, the more pressure he is under and the more he is trying to hide (about Russia and who knows what else). All he knows how to do is make himself the center of attention while more pressing things are happening, which puts all of us in a terrible position.

Is this what the people wanted? I figured out a long time ago that I’m not a “real” American because Sarah Palin said so, but do the people who fervently support him really think this shit is okay? What will the line be for them?

Needless to say, I am pissed off. I am terrified enough as it is, without the realization that people prove to be dumber and more gullible than I thought.

What Gives Me Hope

As angry as I am, I will still provide a slight glimmer of hope. I came across this article this week which explains how the New York Public Library can’t keep George Orwell’s 1984 on the shelves. If anything, this shows that people see what is happening and are both scared and want to learn more. This gives me hope not just because people are going to the library and reading books, but because despite all of the crap swirling around, people are still seeking the truth. That is the very least we can do right now.