The Solvent of Patronizing Writing

DavidBrooksIt’s been brought to my attention that David Brooks done stepped in it again. You know, usually that man goes a few months without humiliating himself, but I guess it’s just my lucky year.

Short version for those of you who don’t know: Brooks wrote a paternalistic and rather nonsensical “review” of a new book by Ta-Nehisi Coates. There’s been a lot said about it even in just the past few hours, and…well, here’s a brief list of the responses, go and explore on your own and come back when you’re finished.

…Done? All right, so most people naturally focused on Brooks’ finger-wagging and racial idiocy (of the “I know I’m not allowed to say this” variety). I don’t think there’s much I can or should add to this, so I’d to focus on something that is comparatively small, but perhaps still instructive. Take a look at this sentence, helpfully highlighted by Charlie Pierce:

By dissolving the dream under the acid of an excessive realism, you trap generations in the past and destroy the guiding star that points to a better future.

This is such an amazing metaphorical bundle that I simply had to capture it visually using the most advanced graphics rendering software at my disposal:

IdiomNightmare

Most of Brooks’ piece is similarly overwritten and terrible – other than the long passages that he straight cribbed from Coates, that it. Really, it’s only a review in the loosest sense of the term. He praises it as something “[e]very conscientious American should read” but then devotes all of the non-quoted portions of the column to the above sentiment. There’s no attempt to seriously examine or critique the book, just a weird, extended idiom. And what an idiom it is: The American dream is a “secular faith” that “abandons old wrongs and transcends old sins” and unleashes “ennobling energies” which seem to have the unfortunate side effect of inclining one towards overblown rhetoric.

Set aside for a moment the lecturing tone or the presumption that the past doesn’t inform the future at all. Those are important points but I really can’t speak to them. All I can say is this: David Brooks is considered a good writer. He pulled down an easy four figures to write that. That’s on top of the multiple best-selling books he has written. According to the New York Times, this is the kind of high-quality writing that commands a premium that is increasingly rare in this day and age.

Look at that sentence and consider all of the professional journalists who are being asked to write for “exposure.” Look at that sentence and ponder all of the important, influential people who have praised this man’s talent. Then consider how many of those people who have railed about the amateurish nature of we digital barbarians writing on our filthy little blogs.

I’m not sure anyone even knows what good writing looks like anymore. It isn’t skill that enables one to break in, it’s connections – same as everything else. And once a person has followed his connections to success, people just assume that he succeeded on the merits. You know, it seems like some of this could have some relevance to what Coates is trying to say about the historical differences between blacks and whites and how that affects how each group experiences modern America. But then there I go, splashing around that dream-destroying acid again.

Now go buy my book.

Lies, Bullshit and Punditry

DavidBrooksIt doesn’t matter that David Brooks is full of shit.

I wish that it did. I wish that the information at the above link would torpedo his career and put an end to his grotesquely disproportionate influence. But alas, we’ve been through this before – just shy of two years ago, in fact. At the time, some people speculated that Brooks being called out on his shit might hurt him. I said that it wouldn’t. I was right.

And here we are yet again, with Brooks getting caught in his own zipper for what must be the tenth or twelfth time by now. Now, it is worse this time, no question. Brooks made a far larger error than he usually does, and the fact that he changed things around as he presented this particular line of shit suggests that it is far more likely a willful misrepresentation than an honest mistake. But ultimately none of this means anything, because it doesn’t matter if he’s full of shit. He is not now nor has he ever been paid to inform. His job is to affirm what his audience already believes.

That’s sort of hard to comprehend. When you picture the political bullshitter (to use the academic term), you envision a demagogue preaching easy answers to a crowd of frustrated, ignorant yokels. By contrast, Brooks’ fans are comprised of beltway insiders and economic elites – highly educated, well-traveled, with far-reaching connections the likes of which I can only imagine. And yet they fell for this (several times, technically) because Brooks is not fundamentally different than, say, Sean Hannity.

Plus, Brooks’ audience includes people who were willing to pay thousands of dollars in tickets, transportation and lodging to go to an “ideas festival” and watch a complete layman bluff his way through a lecture on neuroscience and behaviorism, so perhaps I’m attributing too much intelligence to them. But I digress.

If you want proof of the fundamental similarity between Brooks and his less well-respected brethren, then you may wish to read that entire Salon article. It’s written by a man who – much like the guy who unearthed Brooks’ first crock of shit over a decade ago – seemed to actually admire Brooks at the outset. Far from trying to debunk Brooks’ argument, he thought it was so great that he wanted a proper citation so he could use it himself. And then he watched Brooks lie and lie, and watched his people spin and spin, and it seems to have taken some of the shine off ol’ Bobo.

My favorite part comes deep in the article, and I think explains exactly why this won’t hurt Brooks at all:

As his publicist suggested, he may be right about the general trend. So why did he feel the need to gild the lily? Why couldn’t he have referenced the paper using the correct statistics? Perhaps it is a sign of his skill as a communicator, and his weakness, to know how to make a passage particularly seductive. On “Morning Joe,” as one of the hosts recited the erroneous passage, another host waved a cellphone, signaling, “See? This is the problem with today’s youth!” Saying 1989 for the latter date wouldn’t quite work for that bit.

Brooks’ lie was in service to a particular trope, one beloved not only by his audience but by the media in general – that Young People These Days are little assholes, unlike us, the Best Generation. That faulty statistic is a hook that allows media nitwits to join a grand tradition that goes back to the first generation of hominids to wear clothes. The accuracy of the figure doesn’t matter as long as it gives us an opportunity to talk about something that We All Know Is True.

But as easy as it would be to pick on Brooks (not to mention enjoyable), it’s sort of missing the forest for the trees. Fact is, most pundits are full of shit, and I only say “most” because I can’t conclusively prove that all pundits are full of shit. Pundits are entertainers, not educators. Their job is to give their audiences a feeling of intellectual and/or moral superiority. To that end, they’re all a bunch of bullshitters. Truths and falsehoods are equally valuable to them as long as they serve the end of making the audience feel better than everyone.

That is not going to change, no matter how many people get caught. The only thing that will end the Age of the Pundit is a fundamental change in our media environment. Specifically, it will require two things: a change in the economics of the media to make punditry less profitable, and a shift in the general populace towards legitimate news over noise and nonsense. I wouldn’t take the long odds, is all I’m sayin’.

Until then, it won’t matter if David Brooks is full of shit. His audience has developed a taste for it.

Now go buy my book.

The Fabulist Complete: Master Post

Fabulist1250This is a central collection of all Fabulist chapters posted to date. Remember, you can obtain the full book at any time by clicking here or on the image at right – it costs whatever you want to pay, including nothing. That’s right, it’s free – why are you wasting time reading it on this site?

The Fabulist Complete (Chapter 6)

While everyone waits for the next step in our little real-life drama, here’s more of The Fabulist. A friendly reminder: you can get this (or one of several other titles) in its entirety for whatever you care to pay by clicking here, or on the “Great Novel Fundraiser” tab at the top, or on one of the images at right. You’d be doing me a favor. Thanks.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

~CHAPTER 6: 2017~

The Scarborough residence was a nondescript ranch house on a nondescript street in a nondescript neighborhood – a quiet kind of place with no threat of potentially terrifying excitement. Day or night, weekday or weekend – they were all equally sedate and predictable. Even the march of progress had not changed this. It was the kind of place where people would nod to each other on the sidewalk, but otherwise kept to themselves and enjoyed the quiet that came with neighbors that did the same.

William Scarborough had never fit in here. His very presence made the street a more colorful place than the neighbors would have liked. He drifted away every now and then, off on some new adventure, and everyone on the block would breathe a sigh of relief. It would never last. It was only a matter of time until he returned – perhaps, as on that afternoon, carrying anonymous paper bags packed with who-knows-what.

“Anyone home?” shouted Will as he nudged open the door. “Hello?” The faint echo told him that the house was empty. Will dropped the bags on the old overstuffed couch in the living room and threw himself down after, snatching the remote control in one deft motion. He flicked on the television and was greeted with replay footage of an old trivia competition. This was an idiosyncrasy of Jameson Communications-owned stations – they broadcast and recorded a variety of seemingly minor local events, all drawn from an impressive library of videos available on-demand for people from coast to coast. They were of little interest to most people, but such local loyalty was the privilege of wealth and influence.

Will was half-lost in the broadcast when the front door banged open and a boy sprang into the room. He was fourteen years old, though his light build and soft features gave him the look of a younger boy. His drab clothing and unkempt hair indicated a young man with little concern over his appearance.

“I’m home!” He glanced over at the couch. “You’re home early, Will.”

Will leaned over the arm of the couch. “Is that any way to greet your brother, Sam? I’ll have you know I finished my errands early just so I could be here.”

“Is that right?” Sam dropped his backpack into an empty chair. “Got a project. I’ll be out for dinner.”

“Hold on,” said Will. “Don’t just cut out on me. How was it?”

“Just a normal day.”

“Nothing weird happened?”

“No. Nothing.”

“Come on. You had to do something.”

Sam put up his hands. “We talked about current events.”

Will nodded. “Current events…now that’s good. We should have done that when I was in high school. We had plenty to talk about then.”

“It was just about the lab. Nothing that interesting.”

“Hey, you kids should pay attention to that.” Will waved his finger at Sam. “That’s the kind of thing that will change your life. Believe me, I’d know.”

“Yeah, I suppose.” Sam peered at the television. “You’re watching trivia?”

“Sure am,” said Will, settling back into the couch. “Hey, this stuff is a big deal around here. In fact, I found out something interesting today. Remember that year Patmos made the state finals and we went to cheer them on? Well, one of those kids from that other school – ”

The picture abruptly vanished, replaced by a simple title card reading AN IMPORTANT MESSAGE FROM JAMESON COMMUNICATIONS.

Will glanced at the remote. “What the hell?”

“Oh yeah, someone at school said something about this.” Sam leaned forward over the couch. “They’ve been doing this since Monday.”

A moment later, the card disappeared, replaced by an image of a magnificent personal study decorated in traditional style – mahogany paneling, oversized ornate globes, custom bookshelves stuffed with hefty old tomes on history and science, hand-tooled leather club chairs. In the center, behind an oversized executive’s desk and framed by a reproduction of Adoration of the Magi behind him, sat a stately silver-haired man in a light gray suit, hands folded in front of him. Almost immediately he began to speak, intoning each word in a gentle yet authoritative timbre: Read the rest of this entry

Where the Responsibilities Lie

CactusAt times like this, when there’s so much at stake, it seems crass to bring up practical matters. But it has to be addressed and, given the circumstances, addressed in a timely matter. You see, the plan was to secure short-term work that would pay for this trip. It’s the kind of work that you can’t set up in advance because the companies and agencies expect one to start right away. So I took a risk and came here without setting anything up, intending to speak with the agency on Monday and get an immediate start.

And that I did. Unfortunately, it turns out “immediate start” was not the next day. Or the next day. Or the day after. It’s now obvious that I can’t know when a job will materialize, if it ever will. Now, I’m left with a conundrum. It’s going to take a week to set up the trip back to Kansas. That means that if I don’t have a job set up by tomorrow, I’ll either have to leave early or take a gamble that the agency won’t screw me.

I hate decisions like that. I hate the situation more.

This was not the future I was promised. When I was a kid during the phenomenal Clinton economy, our big problem was overcapacity – too many jobs. As long as I can remember, I was promised that if I studied hard, stayed out of trouble, didn’t mess around with alcohol or drugs, got into a good college and then did all that again, everything would go smoothly. If anyone had told me that “smoothly” would mean sitting around day after day, waiting for someone to inform me that a temporary data entry job would open up, I probably would have slacked off more.

But never mind that – the complete inability of Baby Boomers to properly manage the amazing world they were handed is secondary. The question is a simple one – what now? I don’t much like it here, but I’m definitely not ready to leave. I’m still needed here. I don’t relish losing the money I’ve already spent, but if I stay I could lose even more and end up in some trouble.

So what do I do? Where do my responsibilities lie?

A Matter of Fairness

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Today, I have an especially unpleasant task. I have to explain to a frightened woman the logic of a system that considers a documented batterer to be worthy of parental rights.

I grew up in a community that had its fair share of social problems, but until now I only dealt with those problems in the abstract, never up close. I never had any classmates come in with unexplained bruises or injuries. I never caught a friend sneaking off to drink or use meth. I never had to ask a woman if it was a bad night last night.

Oh, I knew about these things. I could rattle off the warning signs for abuse or addiction, the risk factors for suicide, the impact of violence and family breakdown. But any firsthand experience I had with those things was limited to nonexistent. Some people would say that this made me “objective.” I say that’s nonsense.

So what do you say to an outsider to our system? How do you explain that it’s “fair” for the man who used and mistreated her to get his way in the end? Do you lie? Do you give a bloodless, “objective” explanation of how those laws exist for everyone’s protection? Or do you say what you’re really thinking – that we have a bullshit system that favors those who know how to manipulate it?

If there’s one thing she doesn’t need to understand, it’s fairness and the lack thereof. She comes from a place where women are devalued and treated like a burden. From an early age, she would have seen beggars who ended up on the streets because they were crippled in industrial accidents and their families couldn’t support them. At some point, she would have learned not to trust anyone – that everyone from her government to the people who ran the shops and restaurants in the neighborhood were lying to her.

It should be different here, shouldn’t it? And yet, ours is a society where there are people who look at her as a parasite or worse just because she’s a recent arrival to our fair shores. Ours is a society in which women who are beaten by their husbands are disbelieved because they didn’t get beaten badly enough. In fact, ours is a society in which, all too often, women are simply assumed to be liars – and in which, all too often, the system assumes the same thing.

How do you explain how this is “fair”? I don’t even understand it myself.

The Fabulist Complete (Chapter 5)

~CHAPTER 5: 2032~

Fabulist1250Travel through the wastelands of Illinois was no easy task, even for an experienced traveler with well-honed survival skills. While potable water was relatively abundant, food was always a scarcity, and criminal violence and turbulent weather were risks even on short trips. Consequently, it was always wise to have one’s path set well in advance. Those wanderers who departed with no destination tended to have very short, painful lives.

Storyteller pondered this as he sat at the crossroads leading into the central wastes. One road led to the southeast, the site of what was once his home. This was his whole reason for returning to the region, the goal of his own quest. But every voice of reason urged him to travel north, along a safe and well-trod path. While he grappled with the decision, he took a seat on a large, flat stone sitting to the side of the path and withdrew his notebook from his satchel. There were precious few clean pages remaining, calling out for an ending –an ending that stubbornly refused to make itself clear.

He was so focused on the notebook that he failed to notice the new arrival drawing near. The snap of a dry twig pulled him back to reality.

“Oh!” Storyteller bolted upright and spun in the direction of the sound. A short, scraggly-looking man stood a few feet away, carrying an overstuffed duffel bag and brandishing a stout oak branch. “Pardon me, sir. I didn’t see you there.”

The man eyeballed Storyteller for several long, silent seconds. “S’all right,” he muttered.

“Thank you,” said Storyteller, returning to his seat on the stone. “You’re the first soul I’ve seen come up this path, you know.”

“Huh.”

“Perhaps you can help me make a decision,” said Storyteller. “I’d like to head south, but every soul I meet points me north. Tell me, where were you before now?”

The man shrugged. “Dunno. Just followed the trail.”

“I see. Well, thanks anyway.” Storyteller returned to the pages of his notebook.

The man sat down across from Storyteller, clutching his belongings tightly against his body. “What you got there?”

“Oh, just a personal project of mine. Something I’ve been working on for many years. Whenever I have nothing to do, I like to review what I’ve already done.”

“Personal…project?”

“Yes, something I work on when I have a moment alone,” said Storyteller. “Oh, I know that some people might think it foolish, but it gives me a sense of purpose.” Storyteller closed the notebook. “Well, I suppose it’s time to make a decision. I hope you well on your journey.”

As he returned the notebook to his satchel, Storyteller felt something grab hold of his arm. It was the scraggly man, straining to wrench the notebook free from Storyteller’s hand. “What are you doing? Stop!” Storyteller seized the notebook with both hands, fighting off the would-be thief with both hands. The man swung at Storyteller with the oak branch, narrowly missing his head. Storyteller fell back onto the rock and his attacker ran off into the scrub.

“Wait! Stop!” A moment later, Storyteller was on his feet, satchel slung over one arm, chasing after the thief. The man was fast, far quicker than his diminutive stature would suggest. Nevertheless, Storyteller kept pace, shrugging off the brambles that caught his clothing and skin. The thief sprinted up a hill, taking one glance back at Storyteller before charging down the other side. Storyteller’s lungs burned from the exertion, but he ran through the pain and scrambled up the side of the hill. As he reached the crest, his foot caught on an unseen rock and he fell hard, tumbling down through a mess of anemic bushes and stones before coming to an abrupt halt on the flat side of a large stone. The air rushed from his lungs in a single agonizing burst, sending dark spots dancing across the sky. Read the rest of this entry

The Trenches

Yesterday, I took Audrey to Legal Aid.

I’m not sure how many of you have any knowledge or experience with the Legal Aid Society. They work with some of the hardest cases you’ll ever encounter. In exchange for this, they get disrespected by a nation that’s been programmed to associate success with the pursuit and acquisition of wealth.

And what of the cases they handle? I looked up the Q&A on the Legal Aid website and found some truly remarkable questions from people with truly remarkable stories. My personal favorite was the man who, after six years of marriage, found out his wife had fled Mexico under a false name just ahead of an attempted murder charge. I wonder how one comes to grips with a discovery like that.

So Audrey’s story isn’t new. It certainly has its uniquely despicable aspects (and I’ve held back the more awful and more personal elements), but individual tragedy is hardly going to be novel at an office like that.

I could tell that it was a long day for Audrey. All of this was a terrible weight for someone who never wanted anything more than to have a family and a quiet life. I did what I could, helping her find the office and navigate the ridiculous Tucson sprawl. In the end, she thanked me. That made the effort worth it.

Finding2

The First Trial

I’m sitting in a hotel room in Tucson, Arizona, waiting as patiently as I can for something I didn’t think would ever happen. If everything goes according to plan, I’ll only have to wait another five hours. That didn’t seem so long at the beginning of this little quest, when it was more like fifty-seven, but it’s funny how perceptions of time can shift.

Am I rambling? Sorry about that.

I have a lot to do today. I have to arrange for a temporary job that will replace the money I spent to get here. I kinda have something arranged, but if that doesn’t work out…well, best not to think about that, I suppose. I also need to find a grocery store near here, something that will save money and replace the fast food which has been the only thing available thus far.

Really, it has been the practical things that have troubled me to this point – the risk of losing the meager sum of money I’ve managed to accumulate over the years. But now that I’m here, it’s what’s going to happen in five hours that’s really scary.

There’s a lot of tension from Audrey’s end, which means that this was probably the best time for me to arrive. Honestly, though, who would want me to carry their burden? I can barely keep my own head together. My life is down to begging people to read my books that are apparently so plainly bad that no one wants them for free. What do I have to offer?

I wish I could sign off on a positive note, but at this point the future is a coin flip. Perhaps in a few hours – provided that whatever diabolic force is keeping this wretched Internet connection alive continues to work with me – I’ll have something more positive to say.

Finding2

The Fabulist Complete (Chapter 4)

~CHAPTER 4: 2017~

Fabulist1250“…All this ‘existential fear’ crap is just because our lives are so easy and we have no concept…Sara, you still with me?”

“Yeah, I’m listening.”

Will and Sara stood outside of Harper’s, enjoying the weather and watching the people go about their daily business. Sara had already absorbed close to an hour of Will’s philosophy of life, but he was just getting started. Everything Sara said led to another tangent, everything they saw recalled another point in his grand concept of being.

“So we have no concept of real fear, so we make things up to scare us. It’s like we need to be scared, like we’re still so bound to the jungle that we wouldn’t know what to do if we were too safe.”

“Yeah, I see that.” Sara doodled listlessly in her memo pad.

“And then we try to make ourselves safe, but that only scares us more. I mean, look at all these cameras!” Will waved his hands at the camera pods, mounted to the building facades at regular intervals. “They’re supposed to make you feel safe, but when you see them everywhere it just reminds you of what a scary world it is.”

“Yep. Scary world.”

“That’s right.” Will inhaled deeply. “Gotta love that fresh air, right? Those Jameson workers just can’t appreciate the little things. That’s why they’re always in their cushy hidey-holes in their own part of town.” He pointed at a young woman on the other side of the street, sporting the emerald jacket of Jameson Labs. “Hey, there’s one. Think she’s lost?”

Sara looked up from her scribblings. “Holy shit…Hey, Zoe!” She waved at the woman, who tamely raised a hand in response. “I’ve been wanting to talk to her, but she never has time. Well, no time like the present.”

“You want me to come with?” said Will. “I got a little time.”

“That’s really not necessary.”

“But I’m good at getting people to open up. I can help!”

Sara shook her head. “Whatever you want, okay? I gotta hurry here.”

Sara took a cursory glance up and down the street before sprinting across to the other side. A moment later, Will jogged across himself, narrowly dodging a truck which he hadn’t seen coming. He shrugged off the honking and profanities and approached Sara and her friend.

“Wow, that was close. I really need to pay better attention.” He extended his hand to the woman. “Will Scarborough, pleased to meet you.”

“Uh…” Zoe stared at his hand as though she had no clue as to how to react. She was a short, mousy woman – unkempt shoulder-length brown hair and dowdy spectacles that scarcely befit a woman of her youth. There was an odd, twitchy nature to her movements, an unexplained tension. By the looks of her, she was one jolt away from running into the distance.

Sara stepped between the two of them. “Never mind him, Zoe, he’s just some guy I was talking to earlier. Now, can I get your remarks? It’ll only take a few minutes and I won’t ask about anything sensitive.”

“Yes, nothing sensitive…” Zoe stood rigidly, moving little apart from her eyes which darted about the street. “…Um, I’m actually in a hurry. I have to buy…” She pointed blindly to the building behind her – The Heavy Shelf, a used book store. “…a book. Then I have to get back. I’m sorry.” She turned and shuffled into the store, not even waiting for a response.

“Is she a friend of yours?” said Will. “And people think my behavior is weird.”

“Would you shut up? She’s skittish enough without you getting in her face.” Sara spun to the Heavy Shelf. “We’re done, okay? You can leave now.”

“Wait! What about the fliers?”

“Send me an email. And don’t make me regret giving you that address, by the way.”

Will watched as the doors swung shut behind Sara. Curiosity gripped him – whatever was going on with this Zoe woman clearly concerned the lab, and he had to know what Sara knew. It took every ounce of willpower not to crash through the doors of the Heavy Shelf the moment Sara was out of sight. Instead, he waited twelve agonizing seconds before slipping inside with as much grace and subtlety as he could muster. Read the rest of this entry

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