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Review 192: The Audacity of Hope

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

I know, I was supposed to have read this, oh, back in 2007 or ’08 when everyone else was reading it. And I thought about it, really I did. But the cynic in me thought, “Come on – what do you think it’ll be? It’ll be a 400 page sales pitch about why he should be President.” I lost faith in our elected officials a long time ago, and if I wanted to learn about Obama, I would rather have done so from a third party, rather than reading a self-aggrandizing autobiography about how awesome he is.

In a way, my Cynical Self was right – this is a sales pitch for Barack Obama. I don’t know if he was giving the Presidency serious thought when he was writing it, but he could have re-titled the book “Why You Should Vote for Barack Obama” and it would have been perfectly appropriate. Given that he wrote the book after his exceptional keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, however, it is very likely that he wrote it with higher office in mind.

What an unpleasant little man he is…

The table of contents reads like a campaign platform, with chapters titled simply, “Values” or “Faith” or “Family,” and each chapter deals not only with Obama’s views on the topic, but his personal experiences dealing with it. In “Republicans and Democrats,” for example, he talks about how the Gingrich Rules bled out from Washington to infect his own state of Illinois, and how hard it was to get anything done when Republicans and Democrats viewed each other as enemies, rather than as different actors in the same play. In “Opportunity,” he talks about meeting the guys over at Google who can’t find enough American software engineers and the auto workers who can’t see their jobs surviving in the new economy. In “Family,” he talks about the challenges he faces as a political husband and father, and the more serious challenges facing other families around the country.

Make no mistake – this book is, first and foremost, an answer to the question “Who Is Barack Obama?” And it’s a very comprehensive answer. We get not only his positions on the issues of the day, but also his personal history (and how it informs his opinions) and a good sense of how the man looks at the world. For an angry, post-Bush Liberal, however, it is immensely, frustratingly even-handed.

You should see me – I’m grinning like an idiot already.

I’ll admit – if I’m feeling a little low, I think about my favorite things: a good book, a thunderstorm on a summer afternoon, sunlight filtered through autumn leaves, and Dick Cheney in an orange jumpsuit and manacles, preferably tarred and feathered. With bells on.

It’s a natural human impulse, I think, the drive to give as good as you get, and after the last eight years of being on the side slandered every time it questioned authority; of being a supporter of elected officials who have been the target of right-wing vitriol since I was in college; of having to defend the idea that government can be a force for good against thirty years of the incessant, endless, Reaganite drumbeat of Government Is Bad, what I really, really want is to see some heads roll. I want shame and ignominy visited upon those who put their own twisted and medieval ideologies ahead of governing the country. I want to see talking heads and pundits begging on the streets for spare change while the rest of us soar into a utopia of rational understanding.

And Barack Obama won’t let me have that. Dammit.

There are a lot of people annoyed with President Obama right now, and not only from the opposition party. There are Democrats who are frustrated with his pace and what they perceive as his lack of action. All of those people really should have read this book before they got behind him. I’m sure they still would have thrown their support to him, but they would have known better what to expect – a centrist, deliberative politician who plays the long game in lieu of scoring empty political points by, just to pick an example out of thin air, sending Karl Rove to Gitmo.

Not a bad role model, if you ask me.

Throughout the book, he emphasizes that while he has indeed picked a side in our political system, he can also see the value in opposing opinions. He knows that there is merit to some GOP ideas, and that they have simply lost their way at this time. Rather than dismiss ideas that don’t match his own, he looks for where his ideas and those intersect, and tries to find some kind of common ground to work from, in the hopes that a synthesis can lead to good governance. He is constantly questioning his own assumptions and trying to examine his own biases, seeing the world in the manner of Atticus Finch. He admits that no real problem has a simple solution, no matter how much we wish it were otherwise. And above all, he knows that hope alone won’t make the world better. Only deliberate, consistent action will lead us to a better country. Hope merely points the way.

Reading this book is a glimpse not only into the mind of Barack Obama but, in some sense, into the mind of everyone who wants to occupy higher office. A great deal of the book focuses not only on his positions and how he has come by them, but what it’s like becoming and then being a lawmaker. He says near the beginning that it takes a certain kind of personality to make it this high in public office. “Few people end up being United States Senators by accident,” he writes. “At a minimum, it requires a certain megalomania, a belief that of all the gifted people in your state, you are somehow uniquely qualified to speak on their behalf….” Along with a burning ambition, he also admits to the other lodestone of campaigners: fear. “Not just fear of losing – although that is bad enough – but fear of total, complete humiliation.”

Describing not only the physical trials that are involved with becoming a Senator but also the emotional and interpersonal ones that come with it, my first thought was, “What sane person would choose this kind of life?”

Oh, the notes I’ve taken…

It’s an illuminating book in many ways. My Inner Cynic has asked me to remind you that this is a book about Barack Obama, written by Barack Obama, and is not necessarily trustworthy in that sense. But the things Obama said in here are very consistent with the things he’s saying now, as long as we control for new information gained between 2006 and now. If I learned anything from this book, it’s that I now have confidence that he’s dealing honestly with the American people (given a certain political value of “honest” of course).

While I still don’t know if he’s going to be able to pull the country up into greatness the way his advance press claimed he would, I am at least confident that he has the nation’s best interests at heart. I like a lot of his ideas, and I think he’s got a good vision for the kind of America that I would enjoy living in someday. He may not get us there, but he can at least get us started.

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“I am convinced that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose.”
– Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope
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Review 158: Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents AND Hail to the Chiefs

Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents by Cormac O’Brien

Yes, a double-header today, mainly because it’s what makes the most sense with these books.

As we come up to another Presidential election, we’re being asked to make a very important choice. We’re electing someone to join a very powerful and elite group of men who have shaped the history of the world in the last 200-odd years. It’s an important decision, to be sure, and not one to be taken lightly. Will our next President be a political powerhouse, a man who is able to take the reins of the country and lead it into a better and more just future? Will he be inept or corrupt, allowing his cronies and his pals to use the nation for their own personal gain? Or perhaps he’ll simply be a cipher, one of those Presidents who is forgotten by everyone except for over-achieving elementary school kids who think that everyone will be impressed that they know who Zachary Taylor was.

We don’t know, and we can’t know, and that’s one of the most interesting lessons of this book. Every President, from Washington to Obama, was elected by the people in the hopes that he was the right man to lead the country. Every President was praised and damned. Every President was, before the election, sold as the one man who could save the nation from ruin and despair. If not all of those Presidents lived up to their hype, well, therein lies the lesson….

This is the kind of history I like... (image by SharpWriter on DeviantArt)

For people who like their history to be amusing and bite-sized, this is the book for you. It’s a “gateway book” for Presidential history – you read this and then go on to read more serious treatments of the Presidents, hopefully becoming more appreciative of the vast spectrum of personalities that have guided our nation. And what an interesting group it’s been.

There are, of course, the heavy-hitters that everyone knows. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Johnson (Lyndon, not Andrew), all men who made their marks on America. Washington, of course, set the entire tone of the Presidency. He demanded formality, and the acknowledgment that the office of President was one that should be treated with respect. At the same time, he didn’t want to be revered, or treated like American royalty. His decision to serve only two terms of office became unbreakable tradition, at least until FDR, and then law with the adoption of the 22nd Amendment. While the stories that are attributed to him are mostly apocryphal – chopping down the cherry tree, throwing a dollar across the Rappahannock, wooden teeth – the real stories are even better. He spent vast sums of money on alcohol, had a terrible temper, and probably wouldn’t even have been the President if he hadn’t married Martha Custis. In short, Washington was human, just like the other forty-two who followed him.

Then there are the infamous – the Presidents who are excoriated for their misdeeds and who are the ones we all wish never actually happened. Nixon, Hoover, Buchannan, Harding, Pierce…. These are the ones you tell your children about when they turn 18 and they’re wondering who to vote for. Warren G. Harding, for example, was only President for two years before his death, but manages to make the bottom of the “Best Presidents” list nearly every time. For one thing, he never wanted to be the President – it was all his wife’s idea. But Warren didn’t like to say no, didn’t like to stand up to people, so he let her railroad him into running for and winning the office. Once he was in the White House, he was perfectly happy to let Congress govern while he had sex with his mistresses and lost vast sums of money – and the occasional priceless White House tea set – to his poker buddies. It’s said that his father told him he was lucky not to have been born a girl, “because you’d be in the family way all the time. You can’t say no.” While he amused himself, his cabinet and his friends did their best to rob the government blind. He was lucky that his ineptitude wasn’t discovered until after his death in 1923.

There are, of course, the ciphers. These are the Presidents that no one really remembers much about. The middle-of-the-pack Presidents, neither good enough nor bad enough to be really memorable. James Polk, for example. Ever dress up as him for a history class skit? No, I didn’t think so. This is because he was a boring, humorless workaholic who had about as much personality as a table lamp. Still, he did get us into a war with Mexico, which resulted in the annexation of what we now know as the American Southwest, so there is that. How about Chester Arthur? He became President when Garfield was shot, and was most renowned for the fact that he was a very snappy dresser. He restricted Chinese immigration, so there’s a point against, but supported the Pendleton Act, which made it harder to appoint unqualified drinking buddies to important civil service posts. Other than that, he had parties, drank a lot and was kicked out after finishing his term.

Forty-three different men, forty-three different stories. It’s very easy to forget that these were Real People, complex human beings with incredible merits and flaws. Franklin Pierce was so despised that his own party came up with the slogan, “Anybody But Pierce.” John Tyler was so hated that he was burned in effigy and was the first President to receive a full-time bodyguard. On the other hand, Lincoln had a soft spot for pardoning soldiers who were to be shot for unmeritorious conduct, and Theodore Roosevelt once opened a speech with: “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot.” Now THAT is hard-core….

It’s also hard to remember that, for all the mistakes made by Presidents in our lifetimes, they’re hardly new ones. Clinton was not the first guy to be unfaithful to his wife while President – in fact, compared to what some others got up to, a little hummer under the desk is practically innocent. And Bush is not the first dim bulb with delusions of grandeur either.

Bush has said, many times, that history will be the final judge of his administration, and I think he’s right about that. Very few people in President Monroe’s time would have known the horrors that would eventually emerge from the Missouri Compromise, and there were countless people who thought that FDR’s New Deal would spell the end of American capitalism. It’s hard to objectively judge the Presidents we still remember so vividly, but we can compare them to the ones who have gone before them.

I'm sure this really happened. It must have. (art by SharpWriter on DeviantArt)

If you’re new to Presidential history, or if you want an easily accessible refresher, this is an excellent text to have. Mind you, it’s slightly incomplete – it was published prior to Bush’s second term, so there’s a little bit missing at the end, but I think we can all remember four years back. And maybe, just maybe, our next President will be so special that Mr. O’Brien will be moved to update and re-publish in, say, four to eight years.

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“As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it.”
– Martin Van Buren
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Hail to the Chiefs by Barbara Holland

What was true for Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents is just as true for this one: we’ve had 43 incredibly interesting and varied men in the White House in our 221 years as a nation. We’ve had men of passion and energy, men who were weak-willed and lazy, men who preferred golf to governance and men who worked themselves to death. Good men, bad men, tall men, short men – this book reminds us of something we need to recall from time to time:

The President is a human being, with all that goes with being one.

Being the President inevitably means becoming a larger-than-life figure. People despised Bush, people adore Obama, venerate Reagan, abhor Clinton, all for what they see as virtues or flaws that only they possess. As if being the President not only means you have to be better than everyone else, but that your failings must be that much deeper.

The point of this book, and of any book on the Presidents, is that they were human beings just like the rest of us. Being President doesn’t make you immune to the fundamental flaws of being human – greed, apathy, short-sightedness – nor does it bless you with any trans-human virtues. Learning about and humanizing these 43 men is a grounding and humbling experience, and can keep you from both setting your expectations too high and allowing your disappointments to overwhelm you when your President doesn’t live up to your expectations.

Having said all that – if you want to read a book on the Presidents, this is a very funny one to read. The style is more narrative than O’Brien’s, and exceptionally snarky. Holland wields her pen like a dagger, stabbing and poking as she goes. She’s not really mean, but she has no problem making fun of these men when it can get a good laugh. And I certainly laughed a lot while reading this, much to the dismay of my co-workers. They come in short shots: “[Clinton] was a big affable fellow who hugged total strangers and felt their pain, like some ancient Norse bear-god, probably named Potus, good-natured but with a weakness for milkmaids.” And they come in longer passages, i.e. the Spanish-American War and the rather clever means by which we got the Panama Canal.

"The Great Communicator" indeed...

It’s a hilarious, irreverent read… until she gets to Reagan, which is where either she’s being so sarcastic that it’s impossible to be sure what’s serious and what isn’t, or she’s absolutely gushing over the Great Communicator. She imbues him with the same invulnerability that he seemed to have while he was President – showing the complaints of his critics, but then deftly removing the sting. George W. Bush gets much the same treatment, which disturbs me a bit, although since the book was published in 2004, I might be willing to chalk that up to post 9/11 fervor. But it does seem that, from 1981 to the present, she’s not being quite as fair and balanced as she was to the other Commanders in Chief. Perhaps it’s harder to be objective when you actually had to decide whether to vote for the guy in office….

Anyway, the final four Presidents aside, it’s a fun book to read and another way to bone up on your Presidential history. They really all were interesting people, in their own ways. Even William Henry Harrison, who may have been too sick to be in interesting President, but still made for a fascinating person.

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“Many people consider James Buchanan the very worst President ever. I suppose they think they would have done better. I suppose they wouldn’t have let Dred Scott happen, or John Brown, or secession, and there wouldn’t have been any Civil War and everyone would have lived happily ever after. Too many Monday-morning quarterbacks, that’s what we’ve got.”
– Barbara Holland, Hail to the Chiefs
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Filed under american history, Barbara Holland, biography, Cormac O'Brien, history, nonfiction, politics, presidential history

Review 82 – Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway


Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway by Dave Barry

When an election year comes around, I try really hard to stay above the fray. I know that there will be rumors and speeches and policies that get everyone really riled up, and I like to think that I can remain emotionally detached and not allow things to get under my skin.

I usually last until about the Conventions, at which point the slumbering poli-sci major in my brain wakes up and grabs the controls. At that point, I start to take things WAY too seriously. I write long, link-filled diatribes about why certain candidates (who shall remain nameless, in case I ever want to recycle this review during another election year) are completely wrong, utterly bereft of any kind of legitimacy or moral standing and how the American people obviously have the intellectual capacity of zucchini if they vote for them.

It’s easy to get caught up, because that’s what they want. Logical, well-reasoned approaches don’t go over well with the public, so they rely on the emotional heartstrings, and sometimes they get me. I turn really serious and absolutely devoted to the idea that I Am Right.

The only antidote to this is humor. It’s why I love watching The Daily Show – the more seriously you take things, the more self-assured you become in the absolute rightness of your position, the more you need to be taken down a peg. You need to take a breath, take a step back and allow yourself to laugh at the process. If you don’t, you end up risking becoming one of those humorless, fanatic talking heads that just drive everyone crazy.

So, if you need some laughs, and we all know we do, you could do worse than to pick up this book.

This is an original book, rather than a collection of Barry’s columns, and he promises right from the outset that he would do absolutely no research whatsoever. “To do an even halfway decent book on a subject as complex as the United States government,” he says, “you have to spend a lot of time in Washington, D.C. So the first thing I decided, when I was getting ready to write this book, was that it would not be even halfway decent.”

He is, of course, wrong. The book is at least three-quarters decent.

The government is a great source of humor, probably going back to the very first government when a particularly strong hunter-gatherer decided that he was the one best suited to tell the tribe what to do. Barry looks at the evolution of government, back from those early caveman days up to the early days of the twenty-first century. These days, instead of a large, heftable rock to beat possible opponents over the head with, they use commercials. Otherwise, the methods haven’t changed.

Barry’s sense of humor relies on him being The Common Man, someone who’s not really interested in the intricacies of how the government works, but is perfectly happy just sitting back and making fun of it. He has a great time re-writing the Constitution (“Article IV, section 1: There shall be a bunch of States.”) and illustrating the continual growth of the U.S. Government with the use of handy free clip-art pictures.

One of the best things he does is point out the fact that no politician ever, ever actually reduces the size of government, no matter what they promise. Government gets bigger, departments get more and more complex all the time, and there’s really nothing that we can do about it but try and get a laugh. So whether it’s the futility of trying to call prunes “dried plums” or trying to get Congress not to buy things that the military neither wants nor needs, the people in Washington that we trust to run the country are, obviously, insane. Why we keep sending them back is beyond me.

There is, of course, a section on the 2000 election – this book was written in 2001, so there was no escaping that – and a look at it from the unique perspective of those people who screwed it up for everyone. South Florida. The book gets kind of tangential at this point, going from making fun of the US government to making fun of Miami, but he does give us some warning. And in his defense, it is both funny and, in its own way, relevant. It has been argued that Florida is the reason why we had eight years of George W. Bush, so perhaps if we understand it better we may avoid such… unpleasantness in the future.

But I doubt it.

So, if you’re looking for a good laugh and something to remind you that you can’t take all this too seriously, pick up the book. It won’t solve your problems, and it won’t stop you from wanting to strangle everyone on the internet who disagrees with you, but at least a moment’s respite is worth it.

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“What the Founding Fathers were saying, basically, was: ‘Why should we let people over in England saddle us with an unresponsive government and stupid laws? We can create our own!'”
-Dave Barry, Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway
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Dave Barry on Wikipedia
Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway on Amazon.com
Dave Barry’s homepage

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Filed under american history, Dave Barry, humor, politics

Review 80: Common Sense


Common Sense by Thomas Paine

This being an election year, there are a lot of people telling us what we should think about our country and its purpose in the world. Newspapers, magazines and books are churned out at a dizzying pace, each one designed to bend our wills to the writers’ opinions. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by them, honestly, especially the hardback tomes that – more often than not – turn out to be 300 pages of poorly disguised propaganda and party talking points.

From out vantage point, with a myriad of news sources at our fingertips – print, internet, and, of course, the insatiable maw that is 24-hour TV news – it’s difficult to truly appreciate the impact that Common Sense had when it was released as an anonymously penned pamphlet back in 1776.

No matter what your history teachers told you, the American colonists back then were not unanimously crying out for independence and liberation. Tensions were high between the Colonies and Britain, what with the various tax schemes and the conflicts in Boston, Lexington and Concord, but for everyone calling for independence, there were just as many who were looking for reconciliation between the Colonies and the Crown. They were British subjects, after all, and the thought of breaking from their God-given sovereign caused them great distress.

“We are his subjects,” the argument ran. “Who are we to disagree with his decisions? This may not be so great right now, but surely if we acquiesce, if we bow our heads, then we’ll receive all the benefits due his loyal subjects.”

Thomas Paine thought that this line of thinking was, in modern terms, bullshit, and he set out to explain precisely why.

Common Sense was written as a call for independence, aimed at convincing those hoping for reconciliation that their hopes were in vain. He believed that there could be no benefit to reconciling with the Crown, and that the only hope for Americans to have a decent future lay in the severing of bonds with Britain.

Without resorting to personal attacks, without naming names or pointing fingers, Paine systematically lays out a logical and clear rationale for independence. He begins by arguing against the legitimacy of Kings in general, and the King of England specifically, and puts forth the benefits that could only arise from representative government. He puts forth the practical economic and political reasons for independence in a calm and clear manner, and he does so in a way that makes it all sound like, well, common sense. It’s easy to imagine him standing there, saying, “Come on people! It’s friggin’ obvious!”

Political writers in the 21st century don’t really appreciate the things that they can get away with these days. If Ann Coulter wants to write a book about how Barack Obama is the vanguard of a Liberal Muslim Homosexual Revolution, she can. If Michael Moore wants to do a movie claiming that George W. Bush is the demon love child of Margaret Thatcher and Adolph Hitler, he can. The worst that’ll happen to them is a libel suit and a humbling public apology.

The worst that could have happened to Thomas Paine was a public hanging – if he was lucky.

Common Sense is such a pivotal document in American history – its influence cannot be overstated. It was so widely read, so acclaimed, that it is reasonable to say that the United States as we know it might not have come into being without it. It’s writing that I wish we could see these days. Not a call for independence per se, but rather clear, level-headed writing that treats its readers with respect. I’ve read a lot of political books in the last few years, and none of them were as straightforward and to the point as this book was.

What’s more, reading it is a reminder of the hopes and dreams that the founders of this country had for it. When they finally risked their lives and signed the Declaration of Independence in July of 1776, when they fought and suffered and died in the years following, when they argued and compromised to create a Constitution, they did so in the hopes that the country they were forging would be a good one. They did so in the knowledge that they would never see the era of the United States’ true greatness, but in the hopes that it would one day come.

It is the responsibility of all Americans to live up to those hopes.

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“I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense . . .”
-Thomas Paine, Common Sense
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Thomas Paine on Wikipedia
Common Sense on Wikipedia
Common Sense on Wikisource
Common Sense on Amazon.com
Cracked.com – 8 Historic Symbols That Mean The Opposite of What You Think

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Filed under american history, politics, Thomas Paine

Review 74: Starship Troopers


Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

This book is controversial. Says so right there on the cover – “The Controversial Classic of Military Adventure!” A quick look at its Wikipedia page seems to support this, claiming that the book has been criticized for its literary merit, its support of the military, up to and including fascism, racism, utopianism, and gods know what else. What is certainly true is that it’s a book that is guaranteed to make someone, somewhere very angry.

In the unspecified future, humanity has taken to the stars. In our efforts to colonize planets that are hospitable to us, we have spread as far and as wide as possible. Unfortunately, this has brought us into direct contact with alien races who are not entirely keen on sharing land with us, and, as we have always done, we are willing to fight, bleed and die for every inch of it.

Our main enemy is the Bugs, whose proper name we never actually learn, and they are a vicious enemy indeed. They possess a hive mind, made up of Soldiers, Workers and Brains. The Soldiers are, of course, the most dangerous, not least because they have no individual sense of self-preservation. Unlike the human soldiers, who value their comrades and brothers-in-arms highly, the Bugs will never go back for a fallen comrade and never consider the safety of their own when prosecuting a campaign against the humans. In other words, the Bugs truly are alien to us, and therefore need to be eliminated.

The story follows a young man, Juan Rico, in his journey from enlisted grunt in the Mobile Infantry to Officer in the Terran Federation. Through his eyes, we learn about the technological lengths that we have gone to in order to be able to fight the Bugs. First among these is the powered armor that the Mobile Infantry wears – an all-purpose exoskeletal suit that vastly increases its wearer’s speed and strength, in addition to providing him with instant contact with his squadmates and vital information that he needs to fight the enemy. Humanity in the future has made great strides in terms of warfare, all out of need to defeat the Bugs.

You might be forgiven, then, for thinking that this was a grand military adventure. That we would feel the thrill and terror of a young military recruit as he experiences a universe larger and wilder than he ever could have imagined. You would be wrong.

Not entirely wrong, of course. If you read it right, you can infer the newness and strangeness of the circumstances that Juan Rico finds himself in. But this book isn’t about Juan Rico, even though he is the narrator. In fact, we don’t even learn his proper name until nearly two-thirds of the book is finished. Before then he’s just “Johnnie,” which is one of the most generic soldier names out there. Juan Rico is so irrelevant to the story that we don’t even find out that English isn’t his native tongue until three pages before the end of the book. Juan Rico is nothing more than a cipher in this tale, about as important to the content of Starship Troopers as Glaucon is to The Republic.

In the classic tale of Socrates, the philosopher talks about justice and politics and society, with his wisdom inspired by a question-and-answer session with his students. Somehow, the students always manage to ask just the right questions to allow Socrates to expound on his theories, and they’re usually wrong in just the right ways to make Socrates look smart. So it is with Starship Troopers.

Juan Rico is the means by which Robert Heinlein is able to put forth his opinions on war and society, politics, citizenship, crime, child-rearing and, of course, military service. Instead of writing a series of straightforward essays, unfortunately, he decided to make his readers slog through Starship Troopers.

This book is a love letter to the military and all it stands for. Not just war and death and destruction, of course, but also loyalty, sacrifice and devotion to duty. It is an examination into why people become soldiers, why some succeed and others fail, and about the historical importance of the soldier class in human history. It’s about war as a tool of diplomacy, both in its startling effectiveness and its unfortunate inevitability, as well as the importance of the chain of command and proper military discipline. It’s about the comradeship of veterans and the lessons they learn during the service. There’s a good reason why this book is on the reading lists for both the Navy and the Marines.

What it is not about is any of the characters that are actually involved in the story. The only reason Juan Rico is who he is is because he is not someone else. He could have been Buddy St. Germaine or Phil Waxman or Marvin Crumplebottom and the story would have read exactly the same: son of a rich businessman who enlists in the armed forces just to tweak his father, learns a whole host of Valuable Lessons ™ and eventually discovers his calling. There is absolutely nothing about Juan Rico than makes him any more interesting than any other character except that he happens to be the narrator of the story.

If that were all, I might be able to let this book slide as just thinly-veiled military fetishism. But honestly, there’s no veil there at all. The story stops in several places while Heinlein uses his characters as mouthpieces to tell us how he thinks society should be run. Ancillary characters – students, subordinate soldiers – ask just the right questions or are wrong in just the right ways so that Heinlein, much like Plato speaking through Socrates, can make the points he wants to make.

Juan’s professor, retired Lt. Colonel Dubois, and the other lecturers repeatedly point to the 20th century as a model of how not to govern, happily cherry-picking some of the worst results of our system of government and holding them up as the inevitable result of a society that is not run by veterans. For that is how he sees the best of all possible states – one in which only veterans are full citizens and in which only veterans can run the country. The logic being that only someone who has voluntarily enlisted and served in the military is able to truly put the needs of society before his own, and is therefore the best person to run a country. Heinlein, through his fictional avatars, then goes on to show how much more superior the Terran Federation is to its more democratic predecessors and how stupid we were not to see the obvious truth.

The message, then, is that the reader is stupid if he or she does not agree with Heinlein. The ancillary characters who challenge Heinlein’s thesis are written as obvious idiots and are roundly insulted and abused by their superiors, which effectively becomes Heinlein abusing his readers.

In addition, Heinlein sets up so many straw men to knock down that it gets tiresome. Juan’s father, for example, is almost stereotypical as a foil to Dubois. Mr. Rico is rich and aloof and sees the military as nothing more than a bunch of violent thugs who have outlived their usefulness. The first time we see him, he is a snob and a jerk, and Juan’s decision to piss him off by joining is almost inevitable. The next time we see Mr. Rico, of course, he has joined the Mobile Infantry himself, and has seen the error of his ways.

Other members of the cast are overtly written to embody certain themes in Heinlein’s opinion of military rule, both positive and negative. Private Hendrick, for example, is a constant complainer, one who stands up for himself during boot camp and just barely escapes a hanging. He is not disciplined enough to be a soldier, and by extension a citizen, and therefore serves as a warning to others. Sergeant Zim [1], on the other hand, is the consummate soldier – hard on his charges in boot camp, yet as concerned about them as a father would be to his sons. Zim, along with an array of Lieutenants, Captains and other officers, serve as blatant father-substitutes for Juan Rico, with all of the qualities that one would want in a father and absolutely none of the drawbacks. If anything, their only flaws are that they are too concerned about their soldiers.

While reading, I wondered if maybe Heinlein was being sarcastic. If perhaps he was trying to demonstrate the true folly of military fetishism by taking it to its ultimate extreme. I have to admit, I didn’t disagree with all of his ideas. His thoughts on juvenile delinquency, for example, really struck a chord in me – he maintains that treating young offenders as rational adults who can learn from their crimes is foolishness since, like puppies, young people are not inherently rational and have not yet learned the difference between right and wrong. The term “juvenile delinquent,” he maintains, is an oxymoron, since a juvenile has not yet been able to learn of his duty to others, and therefore cannot be delinquent. To treat him as if he were is to fatally misunderstand human nature.

And I think there is a grain of truth to the idea that someone who willingly puts her or his life and body on the line for his or her fellow citizens might indeed have the perspective necessary to govern a country. I would point out, however, that this argument rests on a flawed assumption – that service automatically confers selflessness. There may be correlation, but causation is not yet proven.

But I don’t think he’s being sarcastic. The themes and ideas in this book resonate with those that permeate his other books. What’s more, Dubois sounds like Jubal Harshaw, Lazarus Long and Professor De la Paz – other characters from other books who all served as mouthpieces for the author’s political and social philosophies. And this is what makes Heinlein’s books so special – he is not afraid to stand up for his ideas and put them right there on the page for the reader to see.

It is not so much Heinlein’s ideas that I object to in this book, even if I do disagree with many of them. It is his presentation of those ideas that bothers me. Flawed logical methods presented as irrefutable discourse, transparent characters with no life beyond their purpose as object lessons, and a dissertation on military supremacy that is just barely disguised as a science fiction novel. It is written from the presumption that the writer is right and the reader is, from the first page, completely and utterly wrong.

I think the ideas that Heinlein presents in this book are important, and they are worthy of discussion. I just wish he had held his readers in a little higher esteem when he decided to discuss them.

—————————————————-
“My mother says that violence never settles anything.”
“So? I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that.”
– Student to Mr. Dubois
—————————————————-

[1] As a side note, the entire boot camp sequence is much, much more entertaining if you read Sgt. Zim with the voice of Invader Zim. It exponentially improves the book.

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Review 38: Transmetropolitan


Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson

There are times I look around me and think, “I love living in the future.” I mean think about all that we have – even the simplest phones can call anywhere in the world, and the higher end ones are basically backup brains. Surgery that used to require horrible invasion can now be done with a fraction of the time and the pain. We can cure diseases that a century ago would have been thought of as afflictions by God. Our transportation networks have grown to a point where there is practically nowhere on Earth that cannot be reached in twenty-four hours, and advances in communication have provided us with more information than our ancestors could have hoped to see in their (briefer) lifetimes.

We live in an age of wonders, when you really think about it.

Leave it to Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson, then, to show us what living in the future really means.

Transmetropolitan is set in the far, far future – so far ahead that even they don’t know what year it is. It’s set a in future that can do anything – cure any disease, bring people back from the dead, synthesize consumer goods from blocks of inert matter…. You can turn yourself into a dolphin for a day or into a sentient dust cloud for the rest of eternity. It’s a future that defies imagination.

And yet, it is very similar to now. The same problems, the same mistakes and the same short-sightedness that plague us will be around in the future, no matter how good the technology is. Despite being able to have anything you want, there is still greed. Despite being able to reassemble matter on an atomic level, there is still hunger and homelessness. Despite the human form becoming malleable in a thousand different ways, there is still discrimination. This perfect future has a flaw, and like so many perfect things, its flaw is its people.

Our guide to this future is Spider Jerusalem, a celebrated journalist whose love of the truth eclipses his hate of the world he lives in, and he’s determined to set the City straight, even if it kills him. He’s an analogue of Hunter S. Thompson, with a little H.L. Mencken thrown in for balance, and he’s the most awesome character to grace comics in a long time.

Spider is angry because he has to come back to The City, the nameless hypertropolis that both sustains him and drives him mad. He looks around and sees the ugliness under the shiny plastic shell of society and is instantly furious that no one has done anything about it yet. What’s more, it’s time to vote for President again, and this time it looks like it’s a race between an incumbent so horrible that he was nicknamed The Beast and an utterly amoral snake called The Smiler, who wants to be President just because that’s what he wants. Spider Jerusalem, whether he wants it or not, holds the keys to power for both of these men, and even his high moral sense isn’t able to tell him which of the two villains should get it.

Keen observers of 20th century history will see a lot reflected in this series, deliberately and clearly, and Spider is Ellis’ avatar His word is beyond dispute and his decisions are beyond question, which is why Warren Ellis is a kind of internet cult figure these days. He created a character that was a brash loudmouth who could scream the things that we’re all thinking, but someone with whom we feel an almost immediate and unshakable sympathy. He’s enough to make me want to be a journalist.

The future of Transmetropolitan is a place where Ellis was able to tell us everything that had been bugging him, from the hyper-escalation of technology to corrupt government to social apathy. The first few issues, before the real meat of the story kicks in, are “soapbox” issues, where Ellis rails against everything that’s going wrong in our time by making it so much worse in the future. My favorite of these, of course, is the religion issue (#6, God Riding Shotgun) where Spider crashes – and trashes – a convention for new religions. Alien Love Gardeners, the Church of Cobain, and the Church of Release, where trepanation can be practiced as an act of evangelism are excellent examples.

Eventually the story settles down with the arrival of the Presidential Election and Spider’s determination to bring down The Smiler no matter what it costs him.

The writing in this story is fantastic, of course, as we would expect nothing less from Warren Ellis. Spider is utterly, completely foul-mouthed, so don’t let your children read it unless you want them to shock sailors. But there are touching moments and angry tirades and passionate speeches that dig right into your heart, and whether you love Spider or hate him, you know he’s speaking from the core of his soul.

The art, too, is outstanding. It takes great skill to make such ugliness look beautiful, but Darick Robertson certainly has it. The City is a living, breathing place, and it has all of the beauty and horror of a living organism, if you look closely enough. Robertson can render gleaming cityscapes alongside the hollow eyes of child prostitutes with equal care and detail. While you read, be sure to look, because every panel is worth looking at.

Transmetropolitan is a story about truth, really. Or if we want to be specific, The Truth. Spider believes in The Truth, no matter who it hurts, and his mission as a journalist is to discover and promulgate the truth. Whether it’s the truth about the alien-human hybrid prostitutes delivered to the presidential suite or the truth about a level of poverty in the City that would shame a third-world nation, Spider’s aim is to show people what their world looks like and force them to take action. Unfortunately, he’s fighting an uphill battle.

You see, much like in our world, people don’t actually like truth. It’s uncomfortable and unpleasant, especially because there’s a very good chance that the truth could implicate us in some pretty horrible situations. What’s worse, there are countless situations where you can have contradictory situations and explanations, and yet both can be considered “true.” That’s the unfortunate difference between fiction and real life.

Still, I would appreciate Spider Jerusalem today. In this world of instant news, where something that’s an hour old is “old news” and where opinion is put side-by-side with fact as if there were some kind of controversy, we need someone to stand for the truth. Someone who doesn’t care about what people think of him or the consequences of her quest for herself. Someone fearless enough to push as far as he can and then push farther. Someone to stand up and say, “This is what is true.”

We may not listen to this person. In fact, given the way things are going right now, we may even come to hate the one who tells us how we are responsible for the world in which we live. But we need him nonetheless, and if Spider Jerusalem can inspire even a few of us to look at our societies and ourselves with a critical, unblinking, bloodshot eye, then perhaps his spirit lives, even if he doesn’t.

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These are the new streets of this city. Where the New Scum try to live. You and me. And here in these streets are the things that we want: sex and birth, votes and traits, money and guilt. Television and teddy bears. But all we’ve actually got is each other. You decide what that means.
– Spider Jerusalem, Transmetropolitan
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Transmetropolitan on Wikipedia
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Review 36: Little Brother


Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Probably the biggest hurdle to overcome when reading young adult fiction is the fact that I’m not a young adult. As most adults know, things look very different from this part of the timeline, and it’s often very difficult to remember not only how you thought when you were younger, but why you thought the way you did. And it’s not a matter of just denying the feelings and emotions of youth – it’s that we literally cannot reset our minds to that state. We know too much, we’ve experienced too much. The best we can do is an approximation of how we think we remember how things were when we were still young enough not to know better.

It was with this in mind that I started to read Little Brother, and while I thought the book was a lot of fun to read, it probably wasn’t nearly as cool as it would have been if I were fourteen years old.

Young Marcus Yallow, AKA w1n5t0n, AKA m1k3y, is a senior at Cesar Chavez high school in San Francisco, and he’s what we used to call a “computer whiz” back when I was a kid. Marcus has an excellent grasp of how systems work, and finds great pleasure and thrill in either strengthening or outwitting those systems. Thus, he is able to fool the various security measures in place in his school building so that he can do the things his teachers don’t want him to do – send IMs in class, sneak out whenever he wants, steal library books, that kind of thing. He’s a hacker supreme, a trickster, and a very big fish in his little pond. He’s so confident and cocky, in fact, that within twenty pages I wanted nothing more than to see him get his comeuppance.

Which is pretty much what happens. A series of bombs go off, destroying the Bay Bridge and killing thousands of people in an attack that dwarfs 9/11. In the chaos that ensues, Marcus and his friends get picked up by Homeland Security, taken to an undisclosed location (which turns out to be Treasure Island) and interrogated within an inch of their lives. They quickly break Marcus’ smug self-confidence and assure him that there is no way he can win against them if they decide he’s a threat to national security. When he is sufficiently cowed, Marcus is released back into the city, which has become a zone of hyper-security.

In this post-attack San Francisco, the police and Homeland Security have unprecedented powers to search and seize, access to every trace of electronic records of citizens’ movements and transactions. In other words, everyone is a suspect until proven otherwise, and DHS is confident that the security they provide is worth the loss of liberty.

Malcolm, of course, disagrees. His natural tendency to buck authority meets his desire to get back at DHS for what they did to him and his friends, and comes together in a plan to not only subvert the Department of Homeland Security, but to actively drive them out of his city. To that end, he creates a youth movement, powered by a secret internet known as the XNet and kept safe by means of complex cryptography. The youth of the city come together to cause chaos, to show Homeland Security that they are not all-powerful and that if anyone is terrifying American citizens, it’s not al-Qaeda.

In the end, of course, the good guys win, though not without some losses and some disappointment. Freedom triumphs over security, but how long that triumph will last is unknown. All we do know is that the right of the citizens to tell their government what to do – as enumerated in the Declaration of Independence – is maintained. So in that sense, all is well.

It’s a fun book to read, and I’ll admit, there were times where I could feel anger building and my heart racing as the story moved along. Perhaps that’s because, like Marcus, I have a solid distrust of authority. I don’t automatically assume that governments act in their citizens’ best interests, so in that sense, this book is targeted at people just like me. Or, if it’s a younger reader, at creating more people like me. The narration is well done, a believable 17-year-old voice, and it’s a pleasure to read. Moreover, it all holds together very well.

In some ways, this book reminded me a lot of Neal Stephenson. Doctorow has clearly done a lot of research on security, both electronic and otherwise, cryptography, politics and history, and found a lot of cool stuff that he’s incorporated into the novel. Unlike Stephenson, however, Doctorow makes sure the story is more important than the trivia. All the cool stuff serves to support the plot, rather than having a plot built up around all the cool stuff the author’s found, which is what Stephenson seems to do a lot. So there are some asides where Malcolm takes a few pages to explain, say, how to fool gait-recognition software or how public and private keys work in electronic cryptography, but he does it in an interesting way and you can be sure that what he’s telling you will feed into the story sooner or later.

With a couple of caveats, and a pretty major plot hole, I’d be glad to hand this off to a nearby teenager and say, “Read this.” But the caveats are kind of big. So let’s get to them.

First, the plot hole, which bugged me from the moment I saw it. And as with all plot holes, I may have missed something, so let me know if I did.

After the bombing of the Bay Bridge, Malcolm and his friends are picked up by DHS and given the Full Guantanamo Treatment. While it looks like they were picked up randomly, the Homeland Security agent who puts them through the wringer implies that they were specifically looking for Malcolm and his buddies, seeing them as a very real and imminent threat to national security. My question is: Why? It’s never explained why DHS picks them up, nor why they treat them as severely as they do. If DHS knew something about Malcolm’s activities as a hacker, why weren’t we told what they knew? It looked like DHS was just picking up random citizens and trying to scare the piss out of them. Which, given the characterization problem that I will discuss later, is entirely possible.

Before that, though – this is a book of its time, and is ultimately less about Malcolm than it is about the time in which Malcolm lives, i.e. about ten minutes in our future. It was published in 2008, which means it was being written during a period in American history where the debate over privacy versus security hit its peak. After September 11th, after the creation of Homeland Security and the Iraq War, Americans had to answer a lot of questions about how safe they wanted to be. It was possible, they said, to be very safe, but only if we sacrificed some of our freedoms. Thus the no-fly list, warrantless wiretaps, and waterboarding. It’s a dilemma that mankind has faced since we started organizing into societies, and it seemed, in the opening years of the 21st century, that America was willing to give up a good deal of its personal liberty in exchange for not having thousands of citizens die.

Doctorow believes this is a very bad exchange to make, and has been publicly vocal in saying so. On Boing Boing, a webzine that is decidedly in favor of intellectual and informational freedom, Doctorow has repeatedly railed against ever-intrusive technology measures by both governments and corporations. He, and the other editors of Boing Boing, champion the personal liberty of people, both as citizens and consumers, and I tend to agree with them.

But that makes Little Brother less a book about the issues that affect young people than a book about what it’s like to live in a hyper-security culture. And that’s not a bad thing, mind you – like I said, it makes for a very exciting book. I just don’t know how long it will last once we stop having the liberty/security argument as vocally as we are now.

Which brings me to my other caveat, and one that bothers me more than the book being period fiction – bad characterization. Malcolm is great, as are his close friends and his eventual girlfriend, Ange. They’re real, they’re complex and they’re interesting. In fact, most of the “good guys” in this book are well-drawn. Depending on your definition of “good,” of course – after all, Malcolm is technically a terrorist, so long as you define “terrorist” as “someone who actively operates to subvert, disturb or otherwise challenge the government by illegal means.”

If Malcolm and his subversive friends are the good guys, then that makes the Government the bad guys, and this is where Doctorow falls flat on his face. The characters who operate in support of security culture, whether they’re agents of Homeland Security or just in favor of the new security measures (Malcolm’s father being a prime example), are cardboard cut-outs that just have “Insert Bad Guy Here” written on them in crayon. There is no depth to their conviction, no complexity to their decisions. Doctorow makes it clear that anyone who collaborates with DHS is either a willful idiot or outright malevolent, without considering any other options. He gives a little in the case of Malcolm’s father, but not enough to make me do more than roll my eyes when he came out with the hackneyed, “Innocent people have nothing to fear” line.

Any character who acts against Malcolm in this book (and, it is implied, disagrees with Doctorow) is a straw man, a villain or a collaborator straight from central casting with all the depth of a sheet of tinfoil. They are all easy to hate and make Malcolm look all the better, even though he’s acting as, let’s face it, an agent of chaos.

While this may make the story easier to tell (and, from my readings of Boing Boing, turning those who disagree with you into objects of ridicule is a popular method of dealing with criticism – see disemvowleing), it cheapens it. As much as I – and Doctorow – may hate the idea of security infringing on liberty, as much as we hate the reversals in personal freedoms that we’ve seen over the last eight years, and as much as we may want Malcolm to come out on top, it has to be acknowledged that sometimes people who want to restrain liberty aren’t doing it out of malice.

There are those whose desire to see a safe, orderly nation is so strong and so honest that they’re able to make the decision to curtail those liberties that make order harder to attain. And they’re not doing it because they hate young people, or because they’re some cinema villain out for power or just to see people suffer. They’re doing it because they truly, honestly believe it is the right thing to do. To write them off as “Bad Guys,” as this book does, is to ignore the reality of the situation and boil it down to an “Us vs Them” scenario, which is not how the world works.

Now it could be argued that this was a reasonable artistic decision – after all, Malcolm is the narrator of this tale, therefore we’re seeing things through his eyes and his perceptions. But that doesn’t wash. Malcolm is obviously an intelligent person who understands complexity, and if Doctorow had given him the opportunity to see shades of gray, he could have been able to handle it. More importantly, though, that argument is a cheat. A book like this is meant to open eyes and minds, and that can’t be done by reducing the issue to us versus them. Doctorow does his readers a disservice by not allowing them the opportunity to question their own attitudes towards the issue.

I really think the book would have been better, and had a deeper meaning, if Doctorow had made an honest attempt to show the other side in a more honest light. I still would have rooted for Malcolm, and hated the DHS, but his ultimate victory would have been more meaningful if it had been a fairer fight.

Of course, I say this as an adult, who understands things in a different light than a teenager. Perhaps if I had had this book when I was thirteen it would have changed my life. And despite my misgivings about the characters and the universality of the story, I still think it’s a great book and well worth reading – probably one of those books that will be a model of early 21st century fiction. Indeed, the core lesson of Little Brother – that citizens have the responsibility to police their government – is a lesson whose time has come. The G20 protests in London this year are a great example – many incidents of police abuse were clearly and unambiguously recorded by citizens armed with cell phones. The ability for information to be quickly and reliably distributed is the modern countermeasure against government abuse, though I doubt it’ll end as cleanly as it did in this book. Reading this book in the context of the last ten years or so gave me some hope for the power of the populace.

But it also served to remind me that I’m not that young anymore. The rallying cry of the youth in this book is “Don’t trust anyone over 25,” and I’m well past that stage in my temporal existence. The rebels of the day are young. They’re tech-savvy and unafraid, with nothing to lose but their lives. In this age of rapidly evolving technology, in a time where youth is everything, is there a place in the revolution for people who have advanced in age to their *shudder* mid-thirties?

Other people pull muscles trying to play sports like they did in high school, I have existential dilemmas reading young adult fiction. I never claimed to be normal.

————————————————————
“They’d taken everything from me. First my privacy, then my dignity. I’d been ready to sign anything. I would have signed a confession that said I’d assassinated Abraham Lincoln.”
– Malcolm, Little Brother
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