Goliath, by Matt Stoller

We don’t really talk about the dangers of monopoly in the United States anymore.

We praise it, if we’re VCs investing in start-ups.

We acknowledge a history of it, safely confined to a long-gone Gilded Age.

But we don’t discuss how much it dominates our current economy, or how much damage it does.

Which is strange, because fighting monopoly should be one thing the Right and the Left can agree on.

The Right should fight monopoly because it leads to giant corporations that centralize control of the economy. And centralized control — whether in the form of an unelected Politburo, or an unelected Board of Directors — should be one of the Right’s worst fears.

The Left should fight monopoly because it concentrates power in the hands of owners and financial gamblers at the expense of workers. When the company you’re trying to unionize against doesn’t have any competitors, and controls billions of dollars of assets, it can afford to wait out any strike, or hire enough scabs to stay in business. And it’s harder to organize across not just multiple states, but multiple countries, to ensure a strike even gets off the ground.

Notice I didn’t say anything about consumers. It turns out our obsession with consumer rights (and low prices) has crippled our ability to talk about the rights of producers, of the workers and small-businesspeople that should rightfully be the backbone of our economy. It’s left us defenseless against the new monopolies in our midst, that charge less not because of some “economy of scale” but because they have access to enough capital to underbid everyone else.

Think of Amazon, and how it spent decades without turning any kind of profit, all while its stock rose and rose. Would any normal business have been allowed to do that? Any sane business? No. Amazon was allowed to pursue its monopoly, and won it.

But I didn’t see any of this until after reading Matt Stoller’s book.

I felt some of it, sure. In the way Silicon Valley companies chased advertising dollars instead of solving real problems. In how Uber and Amazon set their prices artificially low, specifically to drive their competitors out of the market, and got praised for it.

And in the way I’ve come to look at running my own business as some kind of crazy dream, instead of the normal out-growth of a career spent in engineering.

Stoller’s given me a framework, and a history, to understand all of this. How we used to enforce anti-trust laws that would have stopped Facebook from buying out all of its competition, or Amazon from driving local bookstores out of business. How the financial markets used to exist to enable small businesses to get off the ground, not pour money into multinational behemoths that crushed them.

And how it all funnels money and power up the food chain, leading to today’s rampant inequality and distorted economy.

If you have any interest in economic justice, whether as a devoted capitalist or a socialist or just a plain liberal, I’d recommend reading Goliath. Stoller’s book restores the lost history of American anti-trust, placing us back in a historical context of the long fight between centralized control and distributed power.

It’s the one book I’ve read about recent events that’s given me hope.

Because we cut down the Goliaths once. We can do so again.

Learning to Listen About Race

I was raised by racists.

Not cross-burners and Klan members, but racists all the same.

My mother sat my sister and I down when we were in middle-school, telling us not to date anyone outside our race. She posed it as a problem of us being “accepted as a couple,” but the message was clear.

My older cousins would crack one-liners about the noise a chainsaw makes when you start it up being “Run n—–, n—–, run.” They thought it was hilarious.

The joke books my parents bought me when I showed an interest in comedy never mentioned Latinos, only “Mexicans,” and only when they were the butt of the joke, sometimes being thrown from airplanes by virtuous (read “white”) Texans.

When I grew older, I rejected this casual racism, just as I rejected my family’s religion and their politics. I thought I was free of prejudice. I thought my generation would grow up and replace the older racists in charge. That it was only a matter of time before racism was over.

Then Barack Obama was elected President. My wife and I watched the returns come in together, excited to see it happen. A Democrat back in office. And a black man. We’d done it!

Only we hadn’t. My family’s racism went from casual to angry. Their party turned, too, going from dog-whistling Dixie to embracing white nationalists.

Taking a knee at a ball game became an act of utmost disrespect, because a black man did it. A Republican Governor’s plan for decreasing health care costs became “death panels,” because a black man embraced it.

It blindsided me, this vitriol. I wasn’t prepared for it, didn’t know how to handle it.

Of course, minorities had always known it was there. They’d been living it, their whole lives.

So I’ve been trying to listen more. Both in person, and by seeking out books that will teach me.

Here’s three I’ve read recently that have shaken me out of my complacency, and showed me some of the structure of American racism. A structure I hadn’t been able to see before, because it was never meant to hold me in.

Just millions of my fellow citizens.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The book that first opened my eyes to the constraints and the artificiality of “white” and “black.” Powerfully, movingly written, it showed me how the American conception of race has been used to divide and oppress.

It also pushed me to question my own whiteness, and to look back to a time when I would not have been considered “white.” My family’s Irish and Blackfoot; for most of American history I would have been excluded from “white” society.

That doesn’t mean I have any special insight into what African-Americans have been through and continue to experience. Rather, it taught me that whiteness or blackness has nothing to do with skin color, and everything to do with power and hierarchy. It is, fundamentally, about perpetuating injustice.

The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander

I’ve written about this one before, and the effect it had on me.

Before reading it, I had no idea just how lucky I was to have gone through life without ending up in jail. That I didn’t, even though I was raised poor, is not a testament to my behavior, but an indicator of my acceptance as “white” by American society.

White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo

A hard book to read, but a necessary one. Breaks down the reasons why even well-meaning “white” people like me get defensive and lash out if their racism is called out.

It’s hard to write that sentence, to own the fact that though I consider all people to be equal, and don’t consiously hold any prejudice, there are things I will do and say that will hurt and offend people. And that while I cannot prevent the fact that I will make mistakes, I must be open to having those mistakes called out, and be willing to be better.

It’s the hardest lesson for me to learn. Because it’s one thing to have your eyes opened to the bad behavior of others. Another to realize that you’re part of the problem, and if you don’t become more aware, and less defensive, it’s not going to get better.

Political Tribes, by Amy Chua

A frustrating and ultimately disappointing book, with some flashes of insight.

Let’s start with the good things.

Chua’s argument that US foreign policy often operates blind to ethnic tensions in other countries, which leads to horrible mistakes, is spot-on. The chapters looking back at past conflicts through that lens are informative; I never realized there was a racial element in the Vietnam war, for example (most of the wealth of the country was controlled by an ethnic-Chinese minority, before the war). And I didn’t realize how much the Taliban are an ethnic group (majority come from one tribe) rather than purely a religious movement.

She also has some good points to make about how tribalism operates in the US, with each group feeling attacked on a daily basis.

But her prescription for fixing things boils down to “talk to each other,” because she’s also missed some fundamental things in her analysis.

Over and over again, she talks about the “historically homogeneous” countries of Europe and East Asia, contrasting them with the “unique” experience of the United States as “the world’s only supergroup.”

Never mind that no country is, or has ever been, ethnically homogeneous. Never mind that ethnicity itself is, like race, an invented concept, something we pulled out of a hat and pretended was real.

And never mind that the US is not unique in being a society made up of immigrants plus an oppressed aboriginal population.

So she can’t say more than “we should talk to each other,” because she has no sense of how every “ethnic state” was created by violence and death. That Germany (!) was not ripe for post-war democracy through some accident of ethnic purity, but was purged of other groups deliberately by the country’s government and people. That even the concept of being “German” or “French” or “Chinese” is an invented thing, something hammered into people by a government that wanted them to stop being Provençal or Bavarians or Hmong.

And that the United States has never been a peaceful supergroup, but a vehicle for a group of people that call themselves “white” to ethnically cleanse and oppress all others. The “good old days” of “group blindness” she pines for in the final chapters never existed.

So she can’t see ethnicity itself as the problem, because she takes it as a given, a fixed construct. A solution where we break down the concepts of “white” and “black” into their components, or ditch them altogether to adopt identities built around our cities and states, can’t even be conceived in her framework.

Which is too bad, because her book is otherwise well-argued. We need her type of analysis, to be sure, but we also need more awareness of history, of how the divisions we take to be absolute today were invented, and can be remade.

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott

Is there anything better than opening a book to find the author is speaking directly to you? It’s like discovering an old friend you’ve never met before. Someone you just click with, who warms every cockle of your old heart.

That’s what I felt, reading Bird by Bird.

Lamott’s willing to be vulnerable, to show not only her worries and her fears, but also her jealousies and her anger, her depression and her rage. It makes the book feel more human, to me, than other writing advice books. More humble.

And more realistic. Lamott insists over and over again that writing is wonderful, that when the words come together it’s one of the greatest joys she’s ever known, but that doing the work needs to be enough on its own, because publishing — whether getting rejected repeatedly, or getting accepted and dealing with the disappointment that comes when your work doesn’t get the attention you crave — is not the path to happiness for a writer.

So for her, it’s the triumph of getting in the day’s word count that matters. Or the knowledge that the book you wrote for your dying father was done before they passed, so they got to read it. Or the thought that writing about your own struggles, your own pain, can help someone else who’s going through the same thing.

For me, her book has been like a stay in a remote cabin with a good friend. Relaxing, conversational, but also deep and moving. I’ve already incorporated a lot of the techniques she advocates, from focusing on getting one single thing down to staying in the chair until the words come.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander

It’s difficult to think of myself as privileged.

Growing up, our family car was one donated to us by the local church, because we couldn’t afford one.

The only house we could afford was one at the very end of a dirt road so badly cut out of the weeds that the school bus wouldn’t go down it, so I had to walk a mile or so to where the dirt track met a farm road.

I always started the school year with sore feet, because we couldn’t buy new clothes for me, and last year’s sneakers, once so roomy, were now so tight that I couldn’t run in them, lest my arches feel like they were breaking.

But I was privileged, even though I didn’t know it at the time.

When I was 16, and walking home from work after midnight, the cops didn’t stop and frisk me. They didn’t arrest me for breaking curfew. They didn’t demand proof of the job that kept me out, proof I could not have provided right then, in the dark, on the street.

Instead, they drove me home.

When I was in college, smoking weed in a parked car, the police didn’t come up on me in the night, rip me from the vehicle, and put me away for possession and intention to distribute.

And as an adult now, if I change lanes without signaling, or do a California Roll through a stop sign, I don’t have to worry about the police doing anything more than giving me a ticket, if they even decide to pull me over.

If any of these things had happened to me, my life would have been derailed. My job working for the federal government could not have happened. I would not have been able to finish college. I would have been branded a criminal, and locked out of the upward mobility I’ve experienced.

I have been privileged, then, because I have been allowed to succeed.

But millions of Americans with a skin color different from mine are not allowed. And it’s something that was invisible to me, until very recently.

I didn’t know that the police have the power to stop and frisk anyone they even suspect of being engaged in illegal drug activity. That they can give the most implausible of reasons to search someone, or their car, or their luggage, without a warrant. And that given this immense power, they choose to use it not on the majority of criminals who are of European descent, but on African- and Hispanic-Americans.

It frightens me, to think of how lucky I was not to be caught up in the Drug War. And it worries me, to see the same excuses that have been used for thirty years to lock up millions of African-Americans now turned onto those trying to enter this country in search of a better life for their families: They’re branded criminals, stripped of rights because they supposedly came in “the wrong way,” told they’re “jumping the line” and have only themselves to blame for the hardships they face once they’re here.

It’s lies, all of it, and it breaks my heart that my own family, who in a different century would have been the subject of the same lies, swallows them whole.

If this conception of privilege surprises you, if you know that most criminals are dark-skinned but think poverty is to blame, or if you think justice in the United States is in any way color-blind, then I urge you to read this book.

The New Jim Crow is not a polemic. It is not a screed. It is a well-research, well-written account of how we’ve given the police enormous powers in the name of winning the Drug War, and they’ve turned them on the most vulnerable and most oppressed segment of our society. It’s essential reading, especially as we enter a new election cycle and debate what sort of government we want.

News & Reviews: August 6, 2019

News

HUGE NEWS this week: I sold my first short story!

And to a professional, SFWA-qualifying market, no less!

More details as they shake out, but I’m over-the-moon pumped. The story’s one I’ve been working on for three years (!), revising, polishing, and submitting.

Many thanks to my friends that suffered through reading all those drafts, and offered me the feedback I needed to make the story shine!

Reviews

Finished off two books this week: Persian Fire and Paper Girls, Vol 1.

Persian Fire, by Tom Holland

One of the best examples of narrative history I’ve ever read. Holland is simply a great writer, so that despite some repetition and over-reliance on certain turns of phrase, I sped through its 350+ pages.

And it illuminated aspects of ancient Persia and Greece that I didn’t appreciate before. Like how Sparta trumpeted equality for everyone except for those living in the cities they conquered (who were turned into slaves, one and all). Or how democratic Athens regularly held an ostracism, so they could kick out a citizen who was getting too powerful (or causing too much resentment among other citizens). Or that the King of Persia considered all his subjects his slaves, and yet left them to worship their own gods, and mostly govern themselves, so long as they paid tribute.

I wish it’d gone more into a subject it teases in the Preface: How would Greece have fared if Xerxes had conquered it? Given that the Persian Kings were considering letting the Ionians (subjects of the empire) govern themselves democratically, how much of Western history would have been different?

Holland does go into detail about the Persian empire (origins, revolutions, etc), which is a great corrective to the usual Greek-sided way of telling this story. But he leaves one of his most tantalizing questions unexplored, which is a tragedy.

Paper Girls, Vol 1, by Brian K Vaughn, Cliff Chiang, Matt Wilson, and Jared K Fletcher

Picked this one up partially because of Vaughn’s work on Saga, and partially because of the clean, comprehensible art style.

And now I have yet another Image Comic (like Monstress, and Saga, and Wicked + Divine, and…) that I’ll pick up every chance I get.

Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that it’s set in 1988, it follows four pre-teens on their paper route one early morning, and that things rapidly get…weird. Like, time-travel and possible aliens and dinosaurs weird.

It’s fantastically well-done. Its creative team is firing on all cylinders: the story is strong, the drawing clear and easy-to-follow, the colors manage to invoke both the 80s (to me, anyway) and the various locations (early morning outside, dark basement, etc) and the lettering conveys everything from a radio’s static to a drunken warble.

Which reminds me, I need to go pick up Vol 2 🙂

Breakout Breakdown: Empire Falls, by Richard Russo

So I’ve given myself homework.

I decided to take the list of books the Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook uses for examples of good writing, whittle them down to the ones whose excerpts intrigued me, and read them all.

I figure I’ll discover some new authors, learn some new techniques, and get exposed to genres I wouldn’t normally read in.

First up: Empire Falls

Motivation

I liked that it wasn’t Russo’s first book, but his fifth, that broke out. It makes me feel like writing is a craft that you can get better at over time, and so long as I keep practicing and working on my technique, I can write a truly good book.

I was also intrigued because it broke out in a big way: it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002. So not only did it make it seem possible to eventually write a good book, it means it’s possible to work hard at it, and write a great one.

Breaking it Down

Point of View

Third-person tight, with flashes of omniscience, plus jumps.

In other words, it’s all told in third-person, and mostly sticks close to one character’s thoughts and perspective during a chapter, but will occasionally jump over to someone else for a paragraph, then come back. Oh, and also the author’s voice sometimes comes in, to render a judgement on someone’s personality.

It works, though it breaks all kinds of rules.

Writing Style

Conversational, bordering on rambling. I can’t think of a single page that doesn’t have at least one flashback, possibly two. It’s all relevant material, and it fleshes out the world completely, but it definitely slows things down.

Overall effect is like an AMC show from around 2006: deliberately slow and relaxed pacing. As if there’s no final destination in mind, so there’s no reason to rush off there.

Breakout Techniques

Even though nothing happens for the first 3/4 of the book, the stakes for the characters involved are clear. Nothing happening is exactly the problem, and the reason so many of them are miserable.

And the plot threads are tightly woven. All that backstory has knock-on effects decades later, and Russo manages to pull otherwise random events together and make it all match up.

That said, “tension on every page” is something the book doesn’t have. If anything, there’s a complete lack of tension. It made reading it rather relaxing, oddly enough; hanging out with the sad sacks of Empire Falls after a stressful day at work felt like unwinding.

Re-readability

None.

I appreciate the mastery of technique here; no dispute about the Pulitzer. But the technique is in service of a story that I don’t want to read again.

It makes me think: if I could write that well about something with more action, more movement, how much fun would that be?

Midlife, by Kieran Setiya

Picked this one up during my last trip through Boston. I’m inching closer and closer to forty, so it seems like a good time to take stock of what I’ve accomplished so far in my life (not much, really) and where I might want to go from here.

I’d hoped this book would help with that, or at least with countering any fears or anxieties I experience as I enter middle age.

Unfortunately, it’s a mostly disappointing book.

An Audience of One

Part of that is due to a flaw he admits right up front: it’s a book he wrote for himself. Someone who’s entered middle age as one of the professional classes, with a stable job, a stable home life, and good health. And not just any job, but the job he set out to get in his twenties. So he comes at middle age from the perspective of someone who’s already achieved the things they wanted out of life.

The book suffers for it. For how many of us set out to do one thing in our youth, only to end up somewhere entirely different? Or enter middle age with our bodies broken, or our minds? Do we have nothing to learn from philosophy?

Abandoning Reason

The second flaw follows directly from the first: he discusses arguments for dealing with certain aspects of middle age, such as the fear of death, but dismisses anything that doesn’t feel right for him. Abandoning reason, he moves from philosophy to pop psychology, deciding that what gives him the most comfort must be the best.

Never mind that what might comfort him would be appalling to someone else. Or that comfort might have little to do with the truth.

Paths Not Taken

And so he glosses over the insights embedded in the not-self dogma of Buddhism. Skips right over the most reasonable argument for not fearing death. And misses a gaping hole in the middle of his whole argument.

For embedded in the heart of his book is an assumption: that philosophy is meant to help us be happy.

But what if that isn’t the case? If we take philosophy as being the study of how to live a good life, does it necessarily follow that the good life is a happy one?

I don’t think so. At the very least, I don’t think it’s something we can assume. For while it is a modern trend to conflate happiness with virtue (or perhaps merely a particularly American one), there are plenty of examples from ancient philosophy where that isn’t the case. Consider Stoicism, where virtue can only be shown in the face of adversity.

Final Words

So while Midlife claims to be a mix of philosophy and self-help, it is neither. Not philosophy, because it leaves reason behind in the pursuit of comfortable aphorisms. And not self-help, because it was written to help only one person, the author.

Frustrating at its worst, disappointing at its best, I wouldn’t recommend this book.

Cicero, by Anthony Everitt

Masterful. Not only did I get a better sense of who Cicero was as a person, and why he was important, I also got a good feel for the politics of the late Roman Republic. More specifically, Everitt lays out the flaws inherent in the Roman system that — coupled with the stubborn refusal to change of most Senators — led to its downfall and the birth of the Empire.

I found this book easier going than Everitt’s biography of Augustus. They’re both good, don’t get me wrong, but I never felt lost in dates and events in Cicero, because Everitt constantly tied things back to the larger movements of the period. It gave me a better perspective, and also let me see how important Cicero really was.

For example, after watching the HBO series Rome (which is fantastic, highly recommend checking it out), I thought of Cicero as little more than a pompous windbag, unable to make up his mind or stand for anything.

On the contrary, while he could be long-winded, and tended to talk up his deeds too much, he was a capable administrator (he was only sent to govern provinces twice, but both times was very popular with the locals for being competent and incorruptible) and a rare thing in the late Republic: a Senator that sided with the wealthy (optimates) but wanted to change things just the same. Not to mention his original claim to fame as a great orator, which he won by ably defending clients in the courts.

He even, apparently, had some skill as an investigator. While on his second tour as a provincial governor, he uncovered a banking scandal that was being run by Marcus Brutus (the Brutus that later was one of Caesar’s assassins!).

In short: Highly recommended if you’re interested in Roman history, or even (like me) just curious to know more about the personalities glimpsed through series like Rome.

On The Origins of Totalitarianism

Recently finished reading Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism.

It’s hard for me to talk about, because the book is filled with such piercing, clear-eyed insight, that if I tried to summarize it properly, I’d end up reproducing it.

I could say that I think the book should be required reading for any citizen of any country, in any age, because I do. And not because of any simplistic need to show that “Nazis are bad,” which (while true) doesn’t need an entire book to demonstrate. The testimony of even one concentration camp survivor should be enough for that.

I think everyone should read The Origins of Totalitarianism because it shows how the logic of totalitarian governments grows out of capitalism itself. Not that capitalism must always lead to totalitarianism, but that it always can. Just as racism and nationalism don’t always lead to a Final Solution, but without racism and nationalism, without some ideology claiming to override our humanity, a Final Solution is not even conceivable.

And yes, I think there are passages of the book, describing the methods of the Nazis and the communists (for Stalin’s government was also a totalitarian one) that are too close to our current administration for my comfort. I can’t read about the Nazis contempt for reality, or the way people in totalitarian movements will both believe the lies told by their leaders and praise them for their cleverness when the lies are revealed, without thinking of how right-wing nationalists in my own country treat the current President. But even if these things were not happening in the United States, it would be a book worth reading.

It is, in short, rightly called a classic. A long one, and a hard one, if we take its insights to heart as readers (passages calling out the middle classes for abandoning their civic duties for isolated home life strike close to home for me; I feel I’ve worked hard for what I have, and want to cling to it, but how many others am I leaving behind, by doing so?).

And yet it is that wondrous thing: a book hailed as a classic work, that is worth all the time and study we can give it. If you haven’t read it, please do.

We’re counting on you.