Thursday, June 30, 2016

O Pioneers!

O Pioneers!
© 1913 Willa Cather
230 pages

The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.

Hannover, Nebraska, is a frontier town on the brink of failing, a temporary camp upon a wild landscape that refuses to give up its bounty. A growing stream of families are selling their land at a loss and retreating back to civilization, there to eke out meager if predictable incomes as employees of someone else.  Alexandra Bergson has been urged to follow them: here she is, managing a homestead and a number of younger siblings on her own, virtually an orphan. For ten years her father labored here, and all he achieved was to pay off debt. But Alexandra loves the land she buried her father in,  senses that the winds will turn, and above all -- believes in her father's dream.  And so, she committs herself to it -- managing her resentful brothers, eagerly seeking out new information and carefully experimenting,  Virtually everyone leaves her. In the decades to come she is the core of her family, the creator of its success, whose growing staff of immigrants dote on her.  Her aim in life  is to see to it that at least one of her younger siblings transcend the farm, to gain entry into the professional class by the fruits of her labor.   Young Emil does, and for a time all seems right with the world -- but domestic bliss is denied to virtually everyone here. The ending, in which Alexandra seems to realize her vocation at the farm is fulfilled and is reunited with a cherished childhood friend, leaves one feeling slightly...unfulfilled.  It has an air of resignation, almost, but at least the writing and characters make the story worthwhile.

Frontispiece:  Grant Wood's Fall Planting. Wood is best known for his American Gothic, though my favorite is Spring in Town.

Hannah Coulter, Wendell Berry

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

White Fang

White Fang
© 1906 Jack London
pp. 1- 101, Tales of the North.

"An' right here I want to remark,' Bill went on, 'that that animal's familiarity with camp-fires is suspicious an' immoral.'
'It knows for certain more'n a self-respectin' wolf ought to know,' Henry agreed

White Fang revisits  the theme of the Wild versus civilization from The Call of the Wild and reverses it.  Whereas in Call a soft California dog was thrown into the Alaskan wilderness and forced to call upon his instincts to survive, finding joy running with wolves after his master is killed,  in White Fang a dog/wolf hybrid is lured from the wild into the camps of man.  First published in Outing Magazine,  the story begins with two men being tracked by an eerie creature, a she-wolf who understands man. It is she who will give birth to a cub, and rear him in a wilderness of even-more dangerous predators like the Canadian lynx,  and it is her own youth spent in an Indian camp that will first introduce the cub to man.  Three-quarters wolf, there is virtually nothing of the dog in him, only a respect for Man's strength and a willingness to submit to it in exchange for shelter and food.  Yet there is more to man's relationship with wolves and dogs than sheer animal dominance.

 Here again London touches on Nietzsche's superman myth, and again rejects it; just as  he did in The Sea Wolf and Martin Eden.   White Fang is shaped by fear, hunger, and rejection to be a creature mighty in strength, desperately cunning, and comfortable only in solitude. He knows one law: kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, intimidate or cower. Every memory of tenderness, either from his cub days or his early adoption by an Yukon native, is erased after he falls into the captivity of dog-fighters.  Yet he is not lost; just as Wolf Larsen was defeated by a man who combined wild strength with moral courage, so too is White Fang's savagery tamed by persistent and intelligently guided affection,  care that teaches him other laws -- care that reignite the what little of the dog exists within him.  Considering that The Call of the Wild was my first novel, and that every single thing I've read by Jack London has proven unforgettable, it's hard to believe White Fang has taken me this long to read. It combines adventure with a narrative that speculates on how a dog might, in coming of age, grow to understand the world. The writing is winsome as usual, dramatic and - occasionally, unexpectedly - with flashes of laughter. (London has given me a most excellent insult -- "If you don't mind me saying, you're seventeen kinds of damn fool, all of them different, and then some!")

The Sea-Wolf, Jack London.

Desolation Laughing

Dark spruce forest frowned on either side the frozen waterway. The trees had been stripped by a recent wind of their white covering of frost, and they seemed to lean toward each other, black and ominous, in the fading light. A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. 
 There was a hint  in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness -- a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of Infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild.
But there was life, abroad in the land and defiant.

White Fang, Jack London.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Great Debate

The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the  Birth of Right and Left
© 2013 Yuval Levin
296 pages

The Great Debate uses the war of letters between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine  to explain the philosophical differences between conservatism and progressivism. Both men were political actors, albiet in different spheres, and both achieved renown during the period of the American and French revolutions. While both the respectable MP Burke and the revolutionary Paine supported the American cause, they broke furiously over the French.  Drawing on each party's respective works, some written as direct rebuttals to the other, Yuval Levin explores their opposing philosophies in different sections: the meaning of 'nature', the role of choice,  reason versus tradition, and so on.

As a pair, they remind me faintly of  John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, with Adams as the cynic and Jefferson the romantic. Burke emerges here as a man constantly aware of human frailties, and desiring to mitigate them as much as possible -- chiefly by preserving the structure of government passed down from generation to generation, which he assumes as custom-tailored for its people through the ages -- and making marginal, cautious changes as circumstances dictate.  Paine is marked more by idealism, mindful only of the good which we are capable of.  For Paine,  tradition and custom are the mere baggage of time. For him, there are certain principles which, if followed, guarantee freedom and progress. The trick is that these principles have to be built into the foundation, so  virtually everything has to be torn down to make room for them. It is in that vein that he argues that the American states should adopt a tack that would later be embraced by the French: erasing the historical boundaries of distinct places, and instead creating new little subdivisions of the State, purely for administrative purposes. Burke did not see the American revolution as a revolution; he saw Parliament's recent presumption of absolute powers over the colonies as all-too-new preogative, at odds with the facts of distance and precedent. (For Paine, the Amercan revolution was the start of a global revival, the dawn of an Age of Reason applied politically.)  Paine can see no reason to create internal checks and balances: so long as the beginning principles are sound, there will be no need of conflict.

 For me,  I think back to Adams and Jefferson, and wonder whose vision I trust more -- the skeptic of human nature Adams,  who mistrusted too much democracy but refused to own or  hire slaves...or the idealistc Jefferson,  who could sing 'liberty' to the heavens but who maintained his own stock of enslaved persons. Give me Adams -- his actions have more weight than the prettiest words.  The same goes for Burke and Paine. While I can disagree with Burke time and again, ultimately erring on the side of caution strikes me as as better than ripping apart society and allowing for creatures like Napoleon.  While Levin doesn't reduce Paine to caricature, the amount of time he gives to Burke -- required given Burke's sheer complexity --  gives the book a Burkean balance.   Paine's idealism survived as long as it did, I think, because he never held an office of political responsibility. He thus enjoyed the luxury of never having to put his ideas into practice personally, rather like a few other political philosophers of the 19th and 20th century.   I found The Great Debate fascinating  dialogue between two equally sympathetic men, of idealism mixing with cognizance of our limitations.  The title is total oversell, though,  since Paine's connection with progressivism only appears in the conclusion.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Harvest of Empire

Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America
©  2000 Juan Gonzalez
416 pages

Harvest of Empire is a tale of two civilizations, Anglo and Spanish. In general terms, it recounts the history or rather the plight of Latin America, of people and cultures dominated first by European powers, and then by the colonial rebels turned colonial master, the United States.  The author ends by arguing that the United States owes as much its Hispanic tradition as its Anglo, and that it should embrace Hispanic culture  and make amends to foreign policy which has wreaked havoc throughout the eastern hemisphere.  Divided into three parts, Harvest first dwells on the roots of Anglo-American conflict by recounting the age of discovery and rise of American imperialism, moves to the "branches", in which populations disrupted by war and famine (often linked to American foreign policy) migrate to the United States to seek their fortunes, and then ends with a "harvest" that looks towards a stronger role played by Latino culture in the United States.

 Considering that two of the leading recent  Republican candidates for El Presidente were Cruz and Rubio, 'los hermanos cubanos',  there's no denying the book's relevance, despite its sixteen years of age. Even though neither are in the running now,  immigration  -- the causes and consequences of which are explored here -- remains a big-ticket item.  While some of the author's recommendations (that the United Staces embrace its Hispanic heritage and start promoting and protecting Spanish) are likely to fall flat,  at the very least this review of the United States' catastrophic record of international meddling in central America might give American leadership pause about supporting future debacles.  More convincing is the authors' case for settling the matter of Puerto Rico, which for a century has been a bastard, neither  sovereign, nor a territory or a state.  Harvest has a lot to recommend it, first as a general history of Latin America, secondly by focusing on the widely varying experiences of different Latino groups as they moved to the US.  What name recognition does Puerto Rico have with most Americans, other than the film West Side Story? ("Puerto Rico is en America now!")   The author is right when he points out that the United States is scarcely over two hundred years old, a mere blip in the historical perspective, and the past century of exploitation and dominance by D.C. over Latin America are not likely to last. Latinos will play a larger role in the United States as they continue to migrate here, and will shape D.C's policy as they achieve political influence -- and as the descendants of those who have experienced the consequences of foreign-policy imperialism, they are unlikely to support more of it.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Hurricane Katrina through the Eyes of Storm Chasers

Hurricane Katrina through the Eyes of Storm Chasers
© 2005
96 pages, virtually all photographs

I recently discovered a collection of Hurricane Katrina photography that I thought worth mentioning.  The book collects photos taken by Jim Reed and Mike Theiss, principally in the Gulfport area but also including a handful of shots in Orlando and New Orleans.  Eleven years later, the plight of New Orleans monopolizes any mention of Katrina, but these photographs were amazing.  The storm hit only a year after Hurricane Ivan walloped Alabama, so I watched it approach the coast with dread. Reed and Theiss are lunatics, judging by how close they were to the storm surge and the winds here -- though at least once they set up a highly stable and encased camera near the path, then recovered it later. If the only Katrina footage you have seen is of New Orleans, this book is worth looking through.  Gulfport wasn't merely flooded: the winds, 26-foot storm surge, and ships thrown inland wiped out massive swaths of development. Hotels had their first floors gutted, with only the load-bearing walls intact,  The shots of wind blown trees have a beauty about them, despite the sheer danger they make those of us living anywhere near the Gulf remember.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Romulan Stratagem

The Romulan Stratagem
© 1995 Robert Greenberger
297 pages

A planet on the border of the Federation, Klingon, and Romulan empires has invited the Enterprise to sell its government on Federation membership. When the Big E arrives, however, they find a Romulan warbird waiting for them. The Romulans have also been invited to make a pitch for membership, and their negotiator is no less than Admiral Sela. Sela, who claims to be the daughter of an alternate-universe Tasha Yar, fell from grace after Picard dismantled her last set of nefarious plans, and for her snatching this planet  from under his nose will be sweet revenge. During the week of meetings, however, several deadly explosions implicate the crews of both the Enterprise and Sela's warship, threatening both powers' desires. Incredibly, Data finds himself working with Sela to work out what third party is sabotaging the conferences. While this plot thread has considerable interest,  given Data's intimate history with Yar,  that angle is never pursued. The ending is a departure from the unexpected, but on the whole there's nothing really remarkable about the book. Ro Laren lends  interest in her comic-relief thread, being assigned to babysit a civilian family after bodily throwing one too many civilians out of her way attracts the Wrath of Riker.  A teenage boy in said family develops a raging crush on Ro, one which she is far too slow to pick up on.  All told, this is enjoyable enough, but I only read it for the characters featured on the cover.

Read it for Ro. Patrick Stewart wants you to.

On Free Will

Suppose for a moment, that we define a virtuous act as bowing in the direction of Mecca every day at sunset. We attempt to persuade everyone to perform this act. But suppose that instead of relying on voluntary conviction we employ a vast number of police to break into everyone's home and see to it that every day they are pushed down to the floor in the direction of Mecca. No doubt by taking such measures we will increase the number of people bowing toward Mecca. But by forcing them to do so, we are taking them out of the realm of action and into mere motion, and we are depriving all these coerced persons of the very possibility of acting morally. By attempting to compel virtue, we eliminate its possibility. To be moral, an act must be free.

Murray N. Rothbard, "Frank S. Meyer: The Fusionist as Libertarian Manquè". Quoted in Freedom and Virtue.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Wrath of the Prophets

ST DS9: Wrath of the Prophets
© 1997 Michael Jan Friedman, Peter David, Robert Greenberger
300 pages

On the cover: Nana Visitor as Kira Nerys, Michelle Forbes as Ro Laren

An epidemic is sweeping Bajor, a pestilence born of faulty replicators smuggled in by a young woman desperate to feed her village.  Placed under quarantine, the planet's peril is so intense that even  renegade Ro Laren emerges from hiding to help transport food there. On Deep Space Nine, Julian Bashir works to find a cure, but every breakthrough is immediately reversed. This is a virus with a deep bench of tricks. In the hopes of expediting matters, two teams are sent into shady markets  to find the source of the replicators and demand some answers.  While Sisko, Odo, and Quark  examine a smugglers' hub in space,  Major Kira grudgingly accepts the company of Ro Laren on Bajor.

Putting Ro and Kira together is a recipe for fun. Orginally, DS9 was written to include Ro Laren, but Michelle Forbes didn't want to commit. Another feisty Bajoran was invented to take her place, Kira. But despite being cut from very similar cloth, Ro and Kira are not bosom buddies. As hot-headed and willful officers, they butt heads repeatedly. Ro's appearance is not welcome by anyone: she deserted Bajor during the occupation to join Starfleet, then went AWOL after Starfleet began pushing around settlers to fulfill the Federation's foreign policy commitments.  Of course, Ro Laren eventually  does make it to Deep Space Nine, in the relaunch -- as the station security chief. The authors are aware of Kira and Ro's linked origin, even having Ro muse that had things been different, they might have switched places. Despite their similarities -- their combativeness, their independence -- the two women are different in substantial ways here. Ro is a cynic,  disheartened by Starfleet's bullying of innocents in regards to the Maquis. Kira isn't naive, but she's idealistic: she believes in her fellow Bajorans, and when she realizes how corrupt Bajor's provisional government is, how even her wartime allies prove to be positively venal, she suffers a crisis of faith made worse by Ro's attitude. Eventually, through much argument and mortal peril, Ro and Kira become the other's comrade-in-arms, and by the book's end they're standing back to back making fiery speeches at Bajor's congress. Attagirl, Ro, you did learn something from Picard.

There are other plot points -- the chief is worried about his family on Bajor whom he never sees, Dax is mysteriously incompetent, being distracted by a previous host's experience with a similar plague -- and the multitude of angles the story is being chased down probably owes to the fact that there are three authors, all of whom needed something to do. But really, twenty years after this book's publication the only reason to read it is for the combination of Ro and Kira.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Three for One: Robbing Banks and Being Robbed by the Banks

I stumbled upon The Great Taos Bank Robbery at some point last year. What road led me to it I can't say, but it is a most interesting little book -- a combination of folk history, humorous stories, and archaeology.  The subject is New Mexico in general, the quirky characters touted off as exemplars of New Mexico's eccentrity. Some of the stories are so entertaining and weird that I presumed them fiction, like the title piece about two men who patiently stood in line to rob a bank, only to discover it was a bank holiday. Absurdity ensues, especially as one of the culprits is wearing a dress and a small mound of pancake batter on his face.   There are several serious pieces of archaeology and anthropology in here, though even these have a few lines delivered with the literary equivalent of a straight face. ("The only problem with the report was that it was absolutely wrong.")

Over the weekend I read Don't Hurt People and Don't Take Their Stuff, which proved entertaining if disappointing. It is less a fulsome introduction to the nonaggression principle and classical liberalism, and more a kick in the teeth of a corrupt and ineffective bureaucracy.  It was written in 2013, with the campaign promises of 2012 already unfulfilled and stale; the author anticipated another round of calming lies in 2016 and wanted to wake readers up to the possibility of a third option.  He champions freedom and creativity, loathes the administrative state (full of "gray suited soviets"), and mixes the political feistiness with affectionate rambling on the Grateful Dead and Rush. (The band, not the blowhard.)  Kibbe has a libertarian since high school, so while he's passionate he doesn't have the experience made from traveling in other camps that would allow him to connect other views with his arguments.  Still, in political season marked by sneers and street brawls, being reminded of a political philosophy based on peace instead of ambition to control  is refreshing.   The libertarian candidate this year is Gary Johnson, retired governor of New Mexico.

Relatedly, a few weeks ago I read Ron Paul's Liberty, Defined, which works out what liberty entails in the 21st century. For the author, it is nothing less than the golden rule applied to politics, and he uses fifty issues floating around in the sewage tank of American political debate as examples. These range from abortion to Zionism, with less controversial fare in between. The subjects are alphabetical, without any other structure, which makes it less a definitive argument for liberty and more a collection of policy papers. There are no surprises for someone who is familiar with Ron Paul's reputation as a staunch libertarian:  naturally, he is against an over-mighty executive, against constantly deploying the military to police other nations, and against  burdensome taxes and irresponsible legislation. Because of the arrangement, it's hard to imagine a man off the street  picking up the book and reading it through -- what's the hook? I went for it because I knew the author, but because I was familiar with the author, nothing in here was really new.

Monday, June 20, 2016

TBR Bodycheck

Another week, more solid progress on the TBR. There are a couple of reviews pending. I plan one more big push this week, then a switch to American lit, then another drive to finish this one off!

Taken down!

Coming Attractions

  •  The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday.
  •  Trucking Country: The Road to America's Wal-Mart Economy, Shane Hamilton.
  • 10% Human, Alanna Collen.
  • The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of Right and Left, Yural Levin.
  • .Domesticated: Evolution in a Man-Made World,  Richard Francis.

And (a little) more!

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Green, Blue, and Grey

Green, Blue, and Grey: the Irish in the American Civil War
©  2009 Cal McCarthy
325 pages

Three cheers for the red, white, and blue!
For the green flag of Erin so true..

The music of the Civil War reflects the sheer variety of men fought in it; they were not all Americans, but many were recent immigrants from across Europe, who retained their national identities. Germans, for instance, sang the Battle Hymn of the Republic in their own tongue -- and the songs of the combative Irish are a genre unto themselves. It was through their music that I first heard references to the Irish revolution of 1798, a bid for independence that would, like the South's, fail. These references came from Irishmen fighting on both sides of the Civil War, however, and it was to learn more about how Irish immigrants viewed the conflict that I first picked up The Green, the Blue, and the Grey.  It is, however, purely a military history of the various regiments and brigades who were constituted wholly of Irish-Americans. (Two of the most notable are the 69th New York and the 10th Tennessee.) Some were directly recruited from Ireland, occasionally under false pretenses. (Irish laborers were recruited to the US to work for companies which proved fictitious, then shanghaied into the Union army. Welcome to the land of the free, boys.)

The history covers virtually all of the major battles of the conflict -- Bull Run, Fredericksburg,  Antietam, Gettysburg, the usual suspects -- along with minor ones that I've never heard of, like the skirmish of 'Desert House'.  While the author's focus is on battles in which Irish forces played a major role, especially when they fought against one another, the filled-in narration is such that this easily serves as a general military review of the Civil War. He covers both theaters and even includes some naval goings-on.   Learning how the Irish interpreted the sectional conflict in the light of Ireland's own relationship with Britain, however, will wait for another book. The Irish in this book fought for whichever region they  happened to be living in, and at Gettysburg, Catholic and Orange Order immigrants fought side by side.

Some Music of the Irish
"The Irish Volunteer", David Kincaid. Union.
"Song of the Irish Brigade", David Kincaid. My personal favorite. Southern.
"Kelly's Irish Brigade", David Kincaid.  Southern.
"We'll Fight for Uncle Sam", Union, and set to 'Whiskey in the Jar'.
"Pat Murphy of the Irish Brigade", Union.  Performed by Bobby Horton.
"The Green, the Red, the White, and Blue", Derek Warfield.  Southern.  This is an interesting one; it's a heavily modified version of "Dixie, Land of King Cotton".
"The Southern Wagon (Irish)". Derek Warfield.  Southern.

These are all high-energy except for "Pat Murphy", which is mournful. These songs have some of the best lyrics of any in the ACW canon.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Orthodox Church

The Orthodox Church
© 1963, 1993 Kallistos (Timothy) Ware
368 pages

Who are the Orthodox? To the extent Americans have heard of them, it is through eastern European immigrant communities. Those who paid marginal attention in western civ might remember something called the Great Schism, in which the western and eastern halves of Christendom declared one another excommunicate. While the Catholic west and Orthodox east have continued to drift their separate ways throughout the centuries, they share the same core tradition. In The Orthodox Church, Kalistos Ware delivers a history of the eastern Orthodox, followed by an introduction to its liturgy and devotional practices. He ends by musing on the possibilities and obstacles to communion between the Orthodox and their closest brethren, the Catholics and Anglicans. Although the history is very much dated now, the book having been written shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed and the suppressed church started to reemerge, Ware’s account of the centuries prior is handled attractively and efficiently.

Although Rome initially persecuted the Christian church, by the third century had attracted the attention of the emperor Constantine, who declared it legal.Constantine courted the church himself, though (famously) he would not submit to baptism until he lay on his deathbed. Christianity soon became the state religion of the Roman empire, circling the Med, but as Rome aged and withered, division ensued. Barbarian activity in the Balkans and the eruption of Islam made communication increasingly difficult, and soon a purely administrative division between the empire’s western and eastern halves became a cultural one. The western empire and its church became more enmeshed with the fate of the Franks, crowning their king as Emperor,  Frankish influence would extend to theology, as an addition to the Nicene Creed intended as a rebuttal to a local heresy found favor in the west, eventually being adopted by the pope.

That proved to be a problem, as did the pope's authority in general, for his claimed jurisdiction over not merely the Roman see, but the whole of Christendom.  The Nicene Creed was adopted by an ecumenical council at Nicea, representing the entire church; it was pounded out in collaborative labor.  One bishop by himself couldn't alter it simply at will. Ware is remarkably fair-minded about the popes, attributing their beliefs not to villainy or ambition, but to the mere fact that Rome had no western peer.  The pope was the closest thing the west had to a unitive authority, as Charlemagne left behind a mess of warring states.  Secondly, the See of Rome was the only western church with Apostolic credentials, the only one believed to be founded by one of the original followers of Christ. In the east, there were three -- Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem – and none were able to claim precedence over the other. The great schism  was thus made possible by the actual divide between the western and eastern parts of the Empire, begun in earnest by the  arguments over how far papal authority extended, and completed when the western Franks sacked Constantinople on the way to yet another crusade.  No forgiveness for this fratricide would follow.

Subsequent chapters cover the conquest of Eastern Rome by the Arabs and later the Turks. The Orthodox church muddled through, largely – it wasn’t until the rise of ISIS that Christians were wholly driven out of places like Iraq and Syria. The most grievous persecutions had a nationalist rather than religious focus – the Armenian genocide, for instance, followed Turkey’s defeat in the Great War.  Following the withering and defeat of Constantinople, Orthodoxy developed new life in eastern Europe, especially in Russia, which wanted to claim itself as the Third Rome. The Russian church would endure its own repression during the Communist years, aside from a brief detente during World War 2.   Turkish  and Russian brutality both drove Orthodox emigrants out of Europe and into the United States, where today it flourishes.

The second half of the book covers Orthodox theology and praxis, both of which more difficult to summarize than politics.   It bears comment on, though, and the Nicene creed is again an example. While the Orthodox objected to the pope single-handedly changing a creed that was created by a congress of the church,  Ware argues that the change itself  also subtly shifted and confused theology.  The change in question was to declare that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son,  which dilutes the role of the Father and makes things more vague. In the essential approach to worship (communal prayer, reading of scriptures, and the Eucharist) the Orthodox and Catholics are very similar,  but there are notable differences. The Orthodox, for instance, worship standing, and most do not employ musical instruments. Icons play a much larger role, being seen as literal windows into heaven ,and used to focus the mind. Mysticism has played a larger role in Orthodox development, as well, though Ware doesn't comment on the tension between it and western scholasticism.

Covering as it does two thousand years  of history and most of Eurasia, The Orthodox Church is impressively ambitious, yet fairly concise. The church's fate under Turkish and Soviet domination are dispatched in single chapters, as is the church's role in the developing civilization of Russia.  It is most helpful in the area of general religious literacy, with a lot of content wrapped up in these 300-odd pages.

Thursday, June 16, 2016


Sons of Anarchy: Bratva
© 2014 Christopher Golden
256 pages

For Jax Teller, the Sons of Anarchy motorcycle club has always been his family, its members his brothers. His father started the Sons, with a philosophy directly inspired by Emma Goldman. But over the years they became little more than another gun-and-drug-running biking gang,  and now they're not the only family in Jax's life. Not only does he have two boys to protect, but in the process of rescuing one from kidnappers, he discovered a half-sister in Ireland. Now that sister, Trinity, has gotten herself in bed with the Russian mob, who are falling apart in civil war.   In Bratva, Jax and two of his brothers ditch their colors to find out where one Russian kingpin is holed up, while not being killed by another.  It's the first unexpected foray into licensed fiction for the Sons series, not counting graphic  novels by the same artist.  Most of the characters are new (Russians and a slew of north Vegas residents destined for cemetery plots), but the three Sons in play (Jax, Chibbs, and Opie) sound in character. Gemma Teller-Morrow certainly does. The plot is fairly reminiscent of one of the episodes, with criminal politics, corrupt or complicit authorities, and a bloodbath at the end. The only thing that's missing is the show's soundtrack, which alternates between furious and melancholy rock.  It's fun enough if you're in the mood for lots of plotting, biking, and shooting,  and has enough background info that you don't need to be a viewer of Sons to roll with the plot.


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Reads to Reels: Roswell

In 1998, Melinda Metz introduced a new series of young-adult science fiction: the story of three teenagers whose earliest memories were of climbing out of incubation pods in the desert outside of Roswell, New Mexico.  When they emerged, they appeared to be human children, and -- wandering around in the desert -- were scooped up by the local authorities and adopted by various families, oblivious to their origin. Max, Isabel, and Michael likewise had no clue where they came from...but they knew it wasn't New Mexico.   In The Outsider,  the trio's lifetime of mutual secret-keeping is derailed when a stray bullet nearly claimed the life of the girl Max loved. A sheriff is soon sniffing around, but he's not any sheriff -- he's an agent of a secretive government agency whose task is to conceal and contain the threat of the Roswell Incident.  There are other aliens out there...and what follows for the three and their friends (Liz, Alex, and Maria) is nothing but trouble. 

I adored this series in middle school. My best friend and I discovered it together, feeding our mutual addiction.  I was confused and appalled when, midway through the series, the cover art abruptly changed to feature some random-looking teenagers who were nothing like the characters I'd grown so fond of.  Roswell High had been made into a television show!    I wouldn't be able to watch that show for another six years, when it appeared on DVD, and when I did I realized it wasn't so much an adaption of the books as a completely different story. The television show and book series are so completely different, in fact, that they only share the setting of Roswell, and the names of most of the main characters. (I say most, because Liz Ortecho becomes Liz Parker;  Isabel is the only character whose character is recognizable in both, but she's something of a trope,being a blonde ice queen.) The origin stories are utterly different: in the  books, the kids are the children of alien scientists whose ship was sabotaged, who are concealed by the lone surviving crewman.    In the television show, the kids are...cloned reincarnations of alien rulers killed in a civil war, whose personalities have been made manifest in human bodies.

 The television's drama was a story that could never decide where it wanted to go, and as science fiction it was far inferior.  The original books had an overarching and integrated plot;  for instance, the second villain is leading a revolution against the third villain, the teens'  home planet's social order, and while he's psychotic the history books will pretty him up if he wins.   The television show was almost random in the baddies.  (The less said about "The Skins", the better. ) But as much as I regard the plot of the books and the development of most of the characters inferior, I am still a fan of the show -- I've watched all three seasons through perhaps four times in the last ten years. Why?  

It's all about William Sadler, who plays Sheriff Jim Valenti. (You may recognize him as Agent Sloan from Deep Space Nine, or Chesty Puller from The Pacific)  In the books, the sheriff is nothing but evil incarnate. He is misery wearing black shades, a grey man who silently stalks and kills. His son Kyle has slightly more personality, being an obnoxious jock with a penchant for evil, but both creatures are beyond redemption.  In Roswell, Valenti is the best character in the series. He begins as the aliens' antagonist, trying to figure out what happened in that restaurant when Max saved Liz,but by the second season he is their ally -- and he pays for it. His son Kyle likewise starts an obnoxious jock, and  while he's never as gloriously redeemed as his father, he is utterly sympathetic...and, hilariously, Buddhist. (There is a "I Love Kyle Valenti" tumbler.)  Valenti's character is written far more humanely here, but Sadler's acting is what really sells him.   I've never liked clean-shaven and professional heroes; Sadler is more weathered -- craggy, even.  He wouldn't be out of place in a western.  Sadler is given some of the same threads as the teenagers in Roswell -- relationships, trying to find his place in the scheme of things -- but his acting outclasses the stars, giving the drama an earnestness.   Sadler gives a show of teen drama a level of adult seriousness; it is he who loses his job and nearly his son trying to protect the aliens, and it is he who breaks the news to them when one of the show's main characters is abruptly killed off. 

While Sadler's acting and Valenti's storyline are the main reason I found the show  appealing, it has other aspects going for it.   The supporting characters are a good lot;  Agent Delco from CSI Miami appears here as Jesse Ramirez, another solid addition. There are a few novelty episodes, like Isabella fantasizing that she is in a wacky 1960s sitcom called I Married an Alien, or using the characters in a retelling of the Roswell incident.   Personally, I enjoy the first season the most, skipping around on the second and third. The show was cancelled and ends abruptly, but it has its moments.  As far as book-to-box adaptions go,  Roswell remains the furtherest from the source...if enjoyable in its own ways. 

(And if nothing else, there's Katherine Heigl,  in character as Isabel, whose fears are hidden by aloof superiority...)

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Celebrating America: Independence Day Reading

Every year since this blog's inception I have committed part of June and July to Independence-Day reading. The number and variety of the books has grown every year, and usually includes material on the colonial period, the revolution, and the early Republic. This is an election year, however, a season full of rancor and ambition. Politics is so pervasive that I want to get away from it, so this year I am tacking a course away from that bitter port. Instead of war and debate,  the last week of June and early July will instead be a period of American literature -- of revisiting or learning anew American stories.   I had also planned to seek refuge in books on small-town America, reading Bill Bryson's tour of backroads and visiting Wendell Berry's Port William again, but that will wait until the TBR hits five or less.  Expect Willa Cather, Mark Twain, and Jack London.

Monday, June 13, 2016


Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet
© 2012 Andrew Blum
303 pages

It turns out Ted Stevens was right: the Internet really is a series of tubes, connecting large boxes, and usually in nondescript warehouses that look like self-storage units.  Inspired by a squirrel depriving him of Internet by nibbling on his wires, Andrew Blum decided to investigate the physical infrastructure of the Internet.  The journey took him across the United States and into Germany and Britain, where he discovered that the internet is corporeal. Across the world are businesses devoted solely to housing space where regional networks can directly tie into one another.  Tubes gives a slight sense for how the internet developed, visiting the university where the first connections were made, and then the first commercial network center.  However ethereal the internet may seem to regular users -- a mysterious force that binds and penetrates our computer?  -- it is given life by not just the creative energy poured into it, but the physical substructure -- routers, wires, warehouses, tubes, and cables.  It's awe-inspiring to think that there are companies whose physical property literally wraps around the world, providing redundant connections in case of an earthquake, although after reading it I'm still a foggy how on all this is done. How do routers know where to send information?   At some level, even the people running the networks aren't fully aware of their mechanics because there's so much information to channel. When it comes to data storage, for instance, different bits of a given video could be posted in multiple data centers. It's rather like the hydro engineers in On the Grid not being able to tell exactly how water got to a specific neighborhood; there are too many possible paths   Blum's goal of visiting 'monuments' of the internet, some of the most pivotal spots --  Google's data centers, treated with Area 51-type secrecy, the point where the first cable connected New York  and London, the aforementioned networking warehouses --- provides general milestones, but they're disjointed.  If you're really into the internet and its history, it makes for mildly entertaining reading, but the pieces remain disconnected.

TBR Progress Report

A few weeks into the new TBR Takedown Challenge (Bigger! Better!), I'm making excellent progress:

Taken down!

Liberty, Defined, Ron Paul
Big Box Swindle, Stacy Mitchell
Saving Congress from Itself, James Buckley
Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security, Richard Clarke
When Asia Was the World, Stewart  Gordon
Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet,  Andrew Blum

"Six! Wowzers! You're  halfway home!"   Well, not quite. The 'full' count will be seventeen, but we're a third of the way in and going strong. There are a couple of reviews pending.

Still to come:

 The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday.
 Trucking Country: The Road to America's Wal-Mart Economy, Shane Hamilton.
10% Human, Alanna Collen.
The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of Right and Left, Yural Levin.
Don't Hurt People and Don't Take Their Stuff, Matt Kibbe.
Domesticated: Evolution in a Man-Made World,  Richard Francis.
The Orthodox Church, Kalistos (Timothy) Ware. A history of the Eastern Orthodox.

And more!

Also, I'm all but finished with the planned series into early Islamic history that's been ongoing since the beginning of the year. So far, we've had Destiny, Disrupted;  After the Prophet; and In God's Path, with unplanned works sprinkled in. It's become more of a series on the middle east in general, and has been especially heavy on Iran, and only one remains in the 'planned' reading -- a work on Islam and Central Asia.  There will be more ME stuff than that, however, as I intend on doing one book each for Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.

Annnnnnnnnnnd I'm almost done with my Cybersecurity sweep! This year we've had Data and Goliath, Future Crimes, and more recently, Cyber War plus a couple of extras. No Place to Hide will follow later in the year, after the TBR challenge.  So,  halfway into the year, things are looking good.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Lights Out

Lights Out: A Cyberattack, a Nation Unprepared
© 2015 Ted Koppell
288 pages

In Lights Out,  investigatory journalist Ted Koppel comments on the vulnerability of the United States' power grid to a cyber attack,  and reviews the way government agencies, private citizens, and other organizations are attempting to prepare for a grid-down scenario.

The story begins with the integration of the internet and the electrical grid, which allows for an efficient market but at the cost of vulnerability of outside attack. The threat doesn't come from nation-states like China and Russia, however;  although they almost certainly have hooks deep inside energy's cyber infrastructure, they have too much to lose from reprisals. Entities like North Korea and Isis have no such qualms.  The most dire attack would be one similar to that which the United States and Israel employed in Iran: a viral program introduces commands into their centrifuges which slowly undermined their functionality.  If the large power transformers which are the backbone of the electrical network are destroyed or seriously damaged,  widespread and prolonged outages would follow. Not only are these massive machines custom-built for each location, they require special rail cars for transport; replacing one would take anywhere from six months to two years.

After establishing the problem, Koppel moves to attempts a solution. Although various government agencies, including the White House, have expressed concern over the vulnerability, plans at redressing the situation are slow in coming. Washington's stance toward cyber attacks against civilian infrastructure seems motivated by a conviction that the United States can and will strike first, as though cyber shocks can be predicted.   There is a growing awareness of the problem, but response has been marginal at best. Not only  is the American government not ready to defend against a pointed cyber attack on its electrical grid, it is not ready to deal with the chaos that would ensue from widespread power outages. Without electricity,  the constant production and shuttling of goods and services would shut down completely; major cities would exhaust commercial supplies in less than days, and after that -- what social hell would follow?   FEMA's plans seem to involve evacuating major cities like New York, but to what end?  Keeping supplies for that many people is problematic, considering that if there's no emergency, the supplies simply go to waste. The agency is far more prepared for regional disasters than it was after 2005's Katrina, but that's a fairly low bar.

 In the last third of the book, Koppel examines communities like the Mormons and the prepping community which steel themselves for emergencies. The Mormons are motivated by a series of nasty altercations -- small-scale wars, even -- between themselves and state militias in the 19th century, but their entire church structure seems engineered for resilience.  Likewise impressive are rural communities in Wyoming, who acknowledge that in the event of a grid-down scenario, they would be left to their own devices while D.C. prioritizes places like New York City. People in sparsely-settled states like Wyoming are more kin to their pioneer forebears  than they are the naked urbanite, who is at the mercy of complex systems working as planned.

Lights Out is a most interesting book, with at least three subject areas: energy, cyberwar, and emergency preparation.  Given Koppel's name recognition, I could see this book as one introducing a lot of citizens to the general idea of cyber attacks, or even the importance of electric infrastructure -- subjects that few people would be willing to pick up a book about.   It's not exactly complete --  Koppel doesn't mention, for instance, that there are three grids in North America, so damage wouldn't necessarily be continent-wide. (The three grids are the eastern seaboard, the western seaboard, and Texas. The publisher's cover actually hints at the segmentation, though) It succeeds at isolating the key points about abstract systems and distilling them into a warning, however.

Cyber War, Richard Clarke. Clarke is quoted extensively.

Friday, June 10, 2016

When Asia was the World

When Asia Was the World: Traveling Merchants, Scholars, Warriors, and Monks Who Created the 'Riches of the East
© 2009 Stewart Gordon
256 pages

When Asia was the World revisits, through the lives of traveling monks, traders, and warriors,  the extraordinary vistas and cultures of greater Asia from 500 to 1500 A.D.   It is not a conventional history of Asia before the ascendancy of Europe,  but allows the reader to play the part of historical tourist, tagging along with various men traveling circuitous routes from Iran to China. Some are traders, bringing to life a robust economy that nearly covered a hemisphere,  Others are pilgrims -- Buddhist monks, traveling from China to India and back, visiting every monastery they can and soaking in wisdom -- Muslims, too, made treks to learn from courts afar. These men circulated not only spiritual insight, but secular knowledge, connecting courts across the continent.  Others are Mongolian raiders,who don't bask in civilization so much as incinerate it.  This is ideal reading for someone who has a vague interest in Asia, or in global history in general, but who doesn't want to deal with an actual history book. Here, the history is absorbed through men of zeal and ambition, willing to transverse epic mountains, forbidding deserts, lush forests, and pirate-filled sea planes to see what's beyond the horizon.

The Spice Route, John Keay
A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World, David Bernstein

Cyber War

Cyber War: The Next Threat to Our National Security and What to Do About It
© 2010 Richard Clarke, Robert Knake
320 pages

Soon, the ultimate tool will become...the ultimate enemy! So said the 1982 trailer for Tron, a heavily dated computer film that comes to mind with every mention of "Cyber Warrior" here.  The word sounds like a teenager flailing around in a 1990s mall wearing a bulky VR helmet.  Whatever the awkwardness in adapting military terminology to the brave new digital world, however, the threat posed by war in cyberspace is real -- both because of multitude of potential attack vectors, and because the United States has been such a boundlessly optimistic first-adopter that no nation on Earth is as exposed to digital attack.  In Cyber War: The Next Threat to Our National Security,  long-time security official Richard Clarke  reviews how hacking can be used to utterly cripple the United States' elaborately interconnected electrical and telecommunications infrastructure and  briefs readers on how the military and government are attempting to get a handle on what to do next -- and, given his status as an adviser to four presidents, he has suggestions of his own.   Cyber War is filled with horror stories and dire predictions, but at root is a useful introduction to how increasingly fragile our digital world is becoming.

Although the United States has led the way in the adoption of the internet for military purposes -- the internet was created for military purposes --the enthusiastic embrace of net integration by civilian infrastructure has made the United States one of the most vulnerable targets for cyber attack.  Especially problematic is the fusion of the power grid and the internet;  while it allows for convenient remote management ,  the connectedness of the grid itself means it is possible to disable one  subsystem and force cascade failures on either the west or east coast.  The absence of power doesn’t mean a few hours of going without the television, either, because a carefully-planned attack could cause physical damage to the generators themselves….and they are monstrous machines that would have to be laboriously rebuilt. Another vulnerable target is the financial system; not only could a disruptive attack aimed at that quarter destabilize the economy, if the public lost trust in digital dollars, outright paralysis might ensue.

Cyber attacks aren’t theoretical, either. Although China receives the most attention as a digital threat, Clarke contends that the Russians are (circa 2010) ahead of the pack, and points to havoc wreaked in Estonia and other Warsaw escapees when they  courted Moscow’s wrath.   Because the United States offers so many soft targets, both military and civilian, cyber warfare has an asymmetrical nature:  America has a lot more to lose from cyberattacks and reprisals than either North Korea or China –-  the former,  because it has little in the way of functional systems to begin with, and the latter because they have a firebreak that can separate China’s internal internet from the global web.  In a democratic system like the United States, that’s not an option.

Clarke proposes a cyber triad:  secure the ‘trunks’, the main ISP lines through which everyone connects, using a filter to automatically scan for and deep-six malicious code; harden the power grid by distancing it from the main internet;  and shore up the vulnerabilities of the military and government networks.   The ISP security would be a private-public venture, with administration of the filter left to the ISPs themselves to head off the aspect of censorious abuse. Cyber War is only six years old,  but the future is arriving more quickly these days. There is very little said about the danger of data collection, for instance, and cybersecurity firms are far more skeptical about the conventional viral-definitions approach Clarke endorses here.   Cyber security is definitely a red-queen arms race..

The datedness aside,  for those who have never considered the subject his review of how the internet basically works, highlighting its weak spots,  will be most useful. There is the added attraction of watching successive governments become aware of and attempt to respond to the problem of  IT security; Clarke had an inside view, serving in several administrations crossing party lines.He also proposes diplomatic action, a cyber version of SALT. The core of Clarke’s argument – that our systems, particularly our electrical grid, are vulnerable – remains intact, if not the particular defense he proposes -- holds good, and the authors' largely-jargon free if doom-laced style makes it an easy if alarming read.  One thing that isn't dated is the danger: a recent study indicated that the US government is still far behind in the realm of cybersecurity when ranked against IT firms, and to make matters worse it is in the same tier as the energy and telecommunicatons companies.

Future Crimes, Marc Goodman
The Grid, Phillip Schewe
@ War, Shane

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Volcanoes in Human History

As with Earthquakes in Human History, this is exactly as it describes itself. A mix of science and history, the authors begin with an explanation of volcanic activity before moving on to cover a few key eruptions. Volcanoes illustrate that the world is constantly remaking itself, forming and destroying islands as the years go by. Like "Earthquakes", "Volcanoes" is most commendable as a collection of the immediate impact of various eruptions, supplemented by scientific explanations. The most 'far-reaching' effect of a volcanic explosion documented here are the disruption of weather patterns across the northern hemisphere; twice in the 19th century, 'summer' practically never came, with famines ensuing.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Saving Congress from Itself

Saving Congress from Itself: Emancipating the States and Empowering their People
© 2014 James F. Buckley
120 pages

According to the latest Gallup poll, only 11% of Americans approve of Congress’ job performance, but virtually every senator or representative who runs for reelection will receive it.  Americans want Congress to do more, even as the institution proves itself incapable of doing much of anything.  The problem lies not merely in entrenched partisanship, but in misplaced priorities.  James Buckley argues that Congress is overworked --   not with its own responsibilities but of those of governors, state legislatures, mayors, and city councils.

The core problem is the existence of “grants in aid” programs, which transfer money to the states as assistance, and which carry with them stipulations for their use.  This allows Congress to  directly influence the policies of the states by offering money, and then explaining it can only be given out if the States follow Congress’ wishes.  The creation  and administration of these grants has become a major devourer of Congressional time.   Because the number of programs granting aid has multiplied several times over since the 1960s, there are more committee reports to listen to than there are hours in the day. Buckley, who prior to serving as a federal judge was a member of the Senate, offers a sample  daily agenda as illustration. Of the fifteen items spanning 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m, only three had a national-interest scope, being items like reports from the US Army Corps of Engineers and a briefing on Iran. The rest were grant aid reports and requests, and so numerous were they that nine of the fifteen scheduled events had schedule conflicts with one another.  Congressional members either skip meetings altogether, or dash from one to the other to put in an appearance, relying on aides to fill them in on the substance.  Where is the time to read legislation, let alone pore over and discuss thousand-page bills?   (A bill forcing Congress to read the bills it passes has yet to make it out of committee consideration.)

Congressmen use their time in this fashion because it pays, at least for them.   While a national body should not be spending its time arguing and administrating local affairs,  this is the sort of thing local citizens actually expect their Congressmen to do.  When Mr. Smith goes to Washington and returns to townhalls with his constituents, they complain about bus routes and schoolrooms – and he, if he is able to finagle some funds for the locals, has an easy in come election day.   That’s not chump change, because when they’re not missing meetings or voting for bills without reading them, congressmen are constantly working to get themselves reelected, spending hours on the phone to beg for money.

This is a situation that must be altered.  Not only has Congress become patently dysfunctional, ceding every Constitutional prerogative to the executive branch,  but the weight of ever-multiplying grants is fiscally unsustainable. The United States government doesn’t generate money; it either takes it from citizens, issues bonds that future generations will have to pay for, or prints more and weakens the value of the currency.   Not only has the national government ceased to be effective, but the stipulations attached to these grants often compromises the aid as the funds are leached away on both ends in administration and in hiring lawyers who can interpret the Talmudic policy requirements.  The number of agencies is such that many have redundant -- and sometimes even conflicting -- goals, with fuzzily-defined metrics for success.  Aid can be done better, and so can government.  A constant theme in Saving Congress from Itself is that of subsidiarity, that in matters of politics, responsibility should remain at the level most capable of dealing with it. A city should take care of its own infrastructure; outside grants only prop up poor planning, like low-density sprawl,  and the ease of spending other people’s money means the funds won’t be put to their most productive use. (There’s no ‘skin in the game’, to borrow Nassim Taleb’s way of putting it.) The national Congress, with an entire world of challenges in front of it, certainly should not be deliberating on local issues.

 Buckley ends the argument with several propositions that would serve to end this legislative torpor.    To curb the amount of time officials spend working on their reelection campaigns, he suggests we (1) restrict Congressionals to two terms, and (2) limit the president to one six-year term.  More drastically,  he proposes that federally-issued grants end altogether, being phased out. Initially, money would simply be issued with no stipulations, and after a pre-fixed number of years to allow state governments to adjust their budgets,  the grants would be no more.  Buckley cites the example of Rhode Island, which was given an opportunity: if it agreed to receiving less money, there would be no rules whatsoever attached to the use.  With no outside pressure, Rhode Island was allowed to tailor its own plan to its own particular need, with effective service increasing and costs declining.  If Congress does not admit or pass the necessary legislation, a convention called by the States could also propose and pass amendments.

Saving Congress is a short little book, and Buckley doesn’t waste a word.  I was aware of political corruption in regards to military contracts, but had  little idea for how Congress conducted its business.  Truth be told, I generally imagine Congress-folk to spend their time golfing, eating, and conspiring against the public.  Buckley's argument is valuable in form as in substance. He approaches this from a nonpartisan observation that Congress is simply not performing. He doesn't deny that people still need help, but the current approach isn't doing it -- and it''s costing local cities who keep looking to Congress, and distracting Congress from its actual constitutional responsibilities.  If nothing else,  Saving Congress illustrates why the American public continues to elect their senators despite loathing Congress altogether: it's only pork on the other guy's plate.: One senator's wasteful spending is another's putting 'tax dollars back to work for you'. How about we dispense with the middle man and put our dollars to work for ourselves?

Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, Chuck Marohn.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Big Box Swindle

Big Box Swindle:  The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America's Independent Businesses
© 2006 Stacy Mitchell
336 pages

What happened? Where did America go? ..everything's Wal-Mart all the time, no more mom & pop five and dime..

(Merle Haggard, "Where did America Go?)

Growing up in Selma, I was aware of two different 'cities':  one was a coherent downtown core that consisted of attractive if decaying and inactive buildings; the other was a twelve-mile stretch of parking lots, boxes, and neon signs running north of the city proper. We went downtown for the library and courthouse; we went down Highland Avenue for everything else.  Millions of towns across the United States, but especially in the Southeast, have a similar brokenness. They were broken by shining lights, promises of jobs and prosperity, and the lie that this kind of 'progress' is inevitable. Big-Box Swindle exposes the seeming triumph of corporate colonialism not as an inevitable result of market economics, but a  product of tax and  zoning policies pitted against widespread public apathy.  In Swindle, Stacy Mitchell argues that accepting and promoting big-box development is economically self-defeating, and shares the stories of citizens who have taken action to push back.   While unashamedly hostile toward the chain stores, it invites political interest from across the spectrum -- whether from progressives, who fear depressed wages, libertarians who object to the public's money being handed over to private corporations, and conservatives who see  the big-box bulldozers as a threat to community life.

Although the first chain stores appeared in the late 19th century, it wasn't until the federal government began taking a heavy interest in playing with development and transportation that they really took off. From the very beginning, big boxes were supported by big government -- and not just in expected ways. To be sure, when Uncle Sam built interstates out into the country and fixed mortgage practices so that loans inside cities were depressed, and loans outside the city proper encouraged, they benefited -- but that's been covered by all kinds of books, especially Suburban Nation.  Another practice that Mitchell shares is that of the government allowing developers to  write off forty years of building depreciation in only seven to ten years. This urged developers to throw up sites, and abandon them once the tax write-off was no longer available. (This is presumably one reason why Wal-Mart stores have a planned life cycle of sixteen years.) Developers enjoyed (and enjoy) a banquet of political favor: cities buy land for them and sell it to them on the cheap, or better yet seize it under eminent domain and turn it over to development;  most states allow large companies to play tax games with subsidiaries and holding companies, the kind that mean annual tax bills under $300.  And for all that help, these boxes are still propped up by public tax subsidies and  infrastructure  --  roads, power, and water  -- that stress city budgets to the point of bankruptcy, especially when the chains move on and leave a vast parking lot whose wastewater still has to be corralled and treated.

Why did cities do this to themselves? Mitchell argues that most of the reasons offered rarely stand up to scrutiny. The chains' prices aren't particularly lower than their competition, at least not after they've established themselves. At the outset prices are low, mostly to build a customer base.  What is lower are wages, because these stores experience high employee turnover and have zero interest in investing in them.  Because independent stores operate on a margin, even losing 10% of their business is enough to send them reeling into bankruptcy. What's worse, because the chains are part of a national network, they don't bother integrating themselves into the local economy. They're not buying products from local factories,  using local ad agencies,  law firms, and banks. Home Office handles that.  They don't even provide jobs, so much as claim existing ones -- just as they claim the existing demand for their wares.    People's communities become nothing more than dots on a map to be conquered by a national strategy: Wal-Mart, for instance, likes to saturate an area with stores and then close redundant ones once it has become the apex.

Mitchell's concern isn't merely with the local economy and the private use of public money; she has a passionate interest in the communal welfare of people, of the ties that bind us to our neighbors and enrich our lives. Independently owned businesses and their employees are invested in the local community; their taxes support the services, and if their parking lot poisons the water, their owner's kids are drinking it.  At times, she borders on the romantic, bringing to mind You've Got Mail: the small business owners love their customers and carefully choose what they might offer, and have long heartfelt conversations with everyone. The box stores leave you to read labels by yourself, and if you're not buying then get out already.   Mitchell's overt hostility toward the chains means they can do nothing right: at one point, she scolds Wal-Mart for being discriminatory about its stock, choosing not to carry gangsta rap cds;  several pages later she gripes against Blockbuster for not discriminating, and carrying dozens of copies of the latest Hollywood production regardless of its quality, while offering only a few copies of an independent film. Well, dear author, should they be picky about what they stock, or shouldn't they?

Big Box Swindle offers a lot of room for thought, and I approached it with caution. I knew I would be predisposed to agree with the author on some points, being a locally-oriented person, but that same small-is-beautiful stance also made me wary what she might declare as the solution:  federal legislation.  They're the ones who helped create the problem, so my suspicion is that corporations will happily co-opt whatever legislation comes down the pike.  D.C. is their city, not the people's. Happily, however, she doesn't. Oh, she mentions D.C. as a redoubt against the worst of corporate abuses, but the 'solutions' third of her book is almost wholly citizen-politics. There she recounts people organizing to protect their communities against outside colonization, either by changing zoning and tax laws to discourage big-box development, or by banding together in business cooperatives to compete with the boxes' economy of scale.  The closest she comes to urging for national legislation is calling for the states to work together to close off certain tax loopholes.  The focus on local activism means a true empowerment of local communities -- of people becoming the primary actors within their own lives, and not just content to let some bull-in-a-china-shop federal agency try to do it for them.


Now the stores are lined up in a concrete strip
You can buy the whole world in just one trip
Save a penny cause it's jumbo size
They don't even realize
They're killin' the little man
Oh, the little man...
(Alan Jackson, "The Little Man")