Wednesday, December 28, 2011

#101: Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right by Lisa McGirr

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001. 395 pages

Lisa McGirr takes on the central role of Orange County in the development of the "New Right" in the 1950s and 1960s. Want to now where most of the Right Wing (or now Mainstream) of the Republican party came from? I give you the California Republican Assembly talking points in 1964:
1. Economic Freedom: As Reagan said in 1963, if a man did not want to rent his place to Negroes, it was his right not to do so.
2. States Rights: the ol' familiar bull shit.
3.Communism Bad!: Now it is Secular Humanism Bad!
4. Divine Intent Ruled Society: God Made Me Rich and Made You Poor. So Suck It. God Made Me An American and You a Nigerian. You Can Suck That Also. BTW, thanks for the oil. And mind the gunboats, you Communist.
5. Freedom From Filth: Unless of course it is a Mormon Church Approved Dating Site or perhaps Christian Singles. Or the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.  This is the biggest complaint I have about what Saint Carlin called "These Fucking Church People". We can't have any fun, but they can spank it to the Victoria's Secret fashion show when not spanking their kids.
6. Vigorous Law Enforcement: See Wall Street, Occupy. (130)

In the development of the New Right, McGirr points to several causes, the most important one in my opinion being "Mode of development". Sprawl and the materialistic emptiness it entails flavored the development of the movement. McGirr's cogent analysis of the development of Mega Churches in Orange County is spot on. Bob Schuller's "Tower of Power" told his wealthy congregants that "Jesus did not praise poverty" and it was quite right to be rich.

Well, Fuck You Reverend Bob. I give you Matthew 19:23-4: “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

This book is right on if you want to see the current Republican party in action. McGirr writes that "they railed against Federal interference in the west...even while eagerly contending for federal funds." (37) The goals of the John Birch Society (impeachment of Earl Warren, getting the US out of the UN) sound astonishingly familiar to the blithering idiocies of the Bachmans and Santorums of the world. Why? They love Ronald Reagan, but are too stupid to tone down the rhetoric. In other words, Reagan may have believed some of these things, but was smart enough to not look like Goldwater. Parents in the OC in the 1960s "feared losing control over their children due to liberal schooling." (180) Hell, they still do, except they are widespread throughout this damnable state.

Perhaps the most important item that McGirr writes is in one of her end notes. In writing about the conception of the family, she states "calls for strengthening the family meant shoring up parental (and particularly patriarchal) authority within the smaller family unit." (313) She finds this as a change from a more traditional idea of the American family, and I agree. This leads to the development of a pseudo-tradition of family on most of the Right which nicely dovetails with the majority of the Republican parties view of gay rights, the resistance to the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and 1980s and their view of abortion. All in all, a great book with a fantastic bibliography. Highly Recommended.

Friday, December 23, 2011

#100: The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Proseprity by Matt Miller

Times Books: New York. 258 pages

Well, this is it, 100 books in one year. Would it be that this book was in the top 10 of the year, or the top 50. The first half of the text, which deals with Mr. Miller's Dead Ideas, is excellent, reasoned and well argued. I found myself nodding in agreement with most of his points, especially those about taxes (should be higher) and schools (should be nationalized). Most of Miller's points are diametrically opposed to the talking points of both parties.

Take taxes, for instance. He quotes Wagner's Law, which posits that as people get more affluent, they demand more of the services (police, schools, strong military) that only government can provide. (90) He also points out the idea that taxes have little or no effect on income levels; the argument of "putting more money in consumer's pockets" is misleading. (102) The real problem is one of low wages, which torpedoes his arguments on globalization.

If Wagner's law is true, then as wages drop or remain stagnant (as they have in real dollars for the vast majority of people since the 1980s) then we should be asking for less government services, not more. Defense spending is still through the roof, and the money bomb that is Medicare and Social Security is not far off. Miller does allow that we need less protectionism and more protection for those who get hurt. I agree, but we will not get that in an age where

1. The average hedge fund CEO makes 12,000 times as much in a year as the average American family. Why would they give that up without a Progressive movement making them do so? Meaning a Progressive Movement with actual balls, not limos. (141) To his credit, Miller quotes historian Michael McGerr, who wrote that people will revolt only when the plutocrats attempt to set themselves up as a new aristocracy. I agree, but that has to come from the bottom. The political elites and the plutocrats are the same people. Why else would Mitt Romney not want to release his tax returns? Why else are 54% of the US Senate millionaires as of 2010?

2. With businesses paying multiple millions in lobbying costs to get billions of federal dollars, who do you think will be protected? The owners of these businesses. The rest of us will get low paying service jobs with little or no bennies. I do agree that business needs to get out of the health insurance business, which may allow higher wages. But I doubt it. Call me cynical, but since corporations are people (shareholders, that is) they have been proven over and over again to be more important than the workforce.

In any event, the Dead Ideas that Miller points out are right on, but his remedies are vague and uninspiring. For example, this on making education better: "institutionalize skeptical thinking, challenges to orthodoxy and questioning of fundamental premises." (232) That sounds great! Have you ever actually tried it? I have multiple times, and am tired of reaping the "benefits": charges that I indoctrinate students, am a liberal bull shit artist, a fraud, cruel and a jerk. And that is just from the parents in the last 4 years. God knows what my bosses think, but I have a pretty good idea. America loves individualism but abhors the individual. Unless they are rich or a celebrity. Then we are supposed to forgo our individuality and act like them. I suppose this is what Miller is railing about.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

#99: Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker

New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008.  576 pages.

This is not your normal book. It is about the beginning of World War II from the view of a pacifist. It has no chapters. It is arranged chronologically, beginning in 1892 with a statement by Alfred Nobel about the power of explosives. It ends on December 31, 1941, a date "which most of the people who died in World War II were still alive." (473)

If the goal of a book is to make you think and question your assumptions, this book succeeds on every level. No book I have read this year (or possibly in the last 10) made me think and question as much. The knee jerk reaction to this book may be to want to smack the author, yell Hitler was a monster and Churchill was a good guy. This misses the point. Some readers will no doubt be aghast that FDR and Hitler are compared. All readers (including me) will be/were pissed that FDR does not come out looking too good. This is also not the point.

If I could change one thing about this book, it would be the afterward. It was not needed and seemed anti-climactic. This book is about pacifism and the state of Jews during the time before the war, and I do not need to be told that. Most reviewers of this book miss the point. Baker never says that negotiation was thrown out, or that the Holocaust was a direct result of the failure of Britain, the United States and every other fucking country on Earth to accept Jews as refugees from Europe. If a reader wants to draw those conclusions, go ahead. I don't, as I believe the Holocaust would have happened anyway. What escapes most of the critics of the book is the conflation of Jews and Communists in the 1910s and 1920s. Take a look at the Red Scare propaganda in the United States. Or, better yet, try these quotes on for size:

1. He was a Jew, he was still a Jew. Nothing could get over that." -- Winston Churchill in 1937, from a article entitled "Leon Trotsky, Alias Bronstein". (71)

2. "No doubt Jews aren't a lovable people...I don't care about them myself; but that is not sufficient to explain the Pogrom." --Neville Chamberlain (128)

3. "Horrible as it is, some starvation in Europe now, under the British blockade, may be necessary to break the Hitler stranglehold on free men." Milo Perkins, December 1940 (259) This as he argued against any food shipments to occupied Europe, even after the Red Cross and the Friends Assistance Committee agreed to employ mediators to make sure the Nazis took no food. Of course, Milo Perkins was the supervisor of the US Food Stamp program.

The central theme of this book is not about assigning blame for the war, nor is it about equating the deeds of FDR and Hitler. It is the bald truth that no one wanted the Jews from Europe, no one cared about what happened to them. FDR said that "to send Germans back would be against civilized thought" in 1940, but then why was it civilized to deny the entry of Jews from Germany at the same time? When German nationals were rounded up in England in 1939 and 1940, over 75% of them were actually Jews who had escaped Germany. The overwhelming theme of indifference to the suffering of others is a theme here, as is blaming whole peoples for the actions of a few. 

One of the many unspoken arguments in this text is how this blaming leads to the attitude of mass bombing and murder of civilians of any stripe. It is in this sense that the book pisses readers off, especially American and British readers. It holds the cruelties of the past up for inspection. Regardless of the justness of World War II (it is the only conflict in our history, besides perhaps the Civil War, that even begins to remotely rise to the level of just) the baseline of war is death and destruction. This is unquestionable, regardless of who is to blame for the conflict. Who is to blame is often used for justification for further violence and the creation of martyrs (See: The Iraq War, The KKK, the bombing of Dresden, the Blitz, et al.) with no addressing of that baseline fact. That is the real issue this book raises, and why it matters.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

#98: Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides by Christian G. Appy

New York: Penguin, 2004. 608 pages
This is perhaps the best book that I have ever read concerning Vietnam, the only other one that comes close is Tom Wells's The War Within. That text focuses on the anti-war movements and domestic politicians, while Appy's text is an oral history covering every conceivable group that took part in the war. The interviews are organized into several sections: Introductions, Beginnings (1945-64), Escalations (1964-67), The Turning Point (1968-70) Endings (1970-75) and Legacies (1975- ).

This is the first book about the war that I have read that includes many Vietnamese veterans, which is the best reason by itself to go out and find this book. Appy makes the statement in his introduction that American writing about the war has tended to focus on American soldiers and decision makers while paying little attention or downplaying the contributions or hardships of the South Vietnamese, or the hardships of the North Vietnamese. Reading multiple accounts from not only North Vietnamese civilians but also military veterans was eye opening. Appy's reason for the title is as follows: I was repeatedly struck by how forcefully patriotism shaped the lives and people on all sides of this war...and many of the people in this book have wrestled with patriotism's hardest questions." (xxvii)

The themes of country, faithfulness to its values, patriotism as a moral good or evil and faithfulness to individual values are as timely now as they were in the 1960s. One of the most moving interviews was with flight attendant Helen Tennant Hegelheimer. The Army, since there was no full unit rotation in and out of Vietnam, used commercial jets to ferry troops to the country. Whether or not this was to hide the escalation from the public, who knows. Hegelheimer said that the troops did not really cheer when they left Vietnam, there was just a group exhaling. She also said this: "These weren't guys who were going back to their '55 Chevys and their girlfriends...their youth was gone. You could see that." (107) Another woman interviewed, nurse Sylvia Holland, said that "I heard about sexual harassment in Vietnam, but never saw was like being Queen for a Day everyday." (170). Compared with statements of treatment from Vietnamese women (and some American officials) this was interesting to say the least. Nancy Smoyer, a "Donut Dollie", who described the troops she met as "Cute little boys who were surprised to see girls and did not know how to act." (188) There is a great deal of innocence here and throughout the book, maybe the last gasp of it in American culture.

The American soldiers interviewed actually were matter of fact, not like the REMFs (Rear Echelon MFers) of the State Department and civilian apparatus. Those guys came off as a bunch of sleazebags. If anything, I wound up having less respect for LBJ, McNamara, Nixon and the rest after reading this. I used to think that the inability to push ones thinking beyond the next election was a product of the 24 hour news cycle, but that's bull shit. LBJ could (his Civil Rights Bill of 1965 proved that) but in matters of foreign policy he could not. Principles matter, but only if they jibe with what they think the country wants. This is democracy at work, but exactly who are the people to whom  they are listening? In this case, it was people protecting their status. We all do this; in situations governing war and destruction, that itself can be the most destructive thing one can do.

Chalmers Johnson, Chairman of the Center Chinese Studies at Berkeley from 1967-72 does point out that his problem with the protesters in the US was in some way class based, which is another theme of the book; Johnson was "a lot more sympathetic to black protests, and worked with black students in my classes." (423). One protester spent the night after a march in Washington at a house with only three beds and 22 people. "All of them wanted the floor. I thought 'Why?' They said a bed was to bourgeois...or I'd be in jail with a bunch of people and say "I have to get out and go home" and they would be happy to stay there...they could afford to stay there." (413) Class haunts this book, and usually those who grew up poor or Vietnamese really understand that. It goes back to the idea of protecting your status while not giving up what you have.

Friday, December 16, 2011

#97: Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World by Eduardo Galeano

Henry Holt, New York: 1998 (Translation 2000 by Mark Fried). 358 pages

Where was this fantastic text before I went of to graduate school? Where was this poetic smashing of consumerism? Why was it not on my bookshelf? Perhaps then I was not ready for it. I have long thought that books show up when you are ready to read them. The two biggest examples of that for me have been The Hobbit and A People's History of the United States. The first remains my favorite book, the second reinforced what I was already thinking and pushed me to go back to school.

What did this book do? It pissed me off for questioning my left-leaning beliefs in favor of going along to get along. In the first ten pages, there were quotes that adequately described the community in which I work:

1. Education of the wealthy "trains us to view our neighbors as a threat rather than as a promise." (8) Galeano leaves the promise unsaid, but for a Latin American author there is the remnant of FDR's "Good Neighbor" policy that withdrew Marines from several countries in the 1930s. This ended with the Cold War, when the United States started to see Communists behind every bush trying to nationalize banana plantations and mines. Individually we are taught to fear our neighbors in this world where we are connected to everyone but literally do not know who our next door neighbors are. On a national scale, look at the Bachmanns and Romneys of the world.

2. Galeano writes that the rich of Latin American countries "grow up rootless, stripped of cultural identity, aware of society only as a threat." (12) Same can be said of many wealthy students in this country, who care only for the next vacation, go to San Francisco only to visit Union Square and shop and gawk at the Gay Folks. They cannot find New Haven on a map but can tell you in 2 pages why they should go to Yale when they grow up.

The text is a series of musings, the type of book like Walden that is best picked up when you feel removed from the spiritual. When you feel removed from the decency of your fellow man, angry at the world and want to scream "Go take a Flying Fuck at a Donut" when you hear someone blathering about what they did on Black Friday, this book should magically appear on your bedside table. What fired me up, pithy comments such as these:

--"Now, poverty is the reward for inefficiency; it may cause pity, but it no longer causes indignation." (32) Did it ever? Think about this quote, most know from the Civilization IV computer game: "When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a Communist." -- Dom Heldar Camara. Will Rogers in the early '30s was about as blunt, pointing out there are 40 people in the United States who could buy the world but 40 million who didn't have enough to eat.

--"The State should not give orders to banks." --Michael Camdessus, President of the IMF in 1997. (151) Well, well well. Honesty in a "public" servant. If the American People knew anything about history, they would realize this was tried.....during the fucking McKinley administration. It did not work then, either.

--Democracy is afraid of remembering and language is afraid of speaking (59). How did a person writing in 1998 coin a very concise description of what passes for political speech among the ruling classes and their servants? He was paying attention.

The most important quote in this book? "Impunity is the child of bad memory." (211) Exemption from punishment leads to the repetition of awful things. Tell me that Goldman Sachs did not know this in 2008, or that cops busting the Occupy Protests don't understand this. Read this book and get angry.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

#96: 31 Days: Gerald Ford, the Nixon Pardon and a Government in Crisis by Barry Werth

Anchor Press, 2007. 416 pages

Most people my age and younger don't know anything about Gerald Ford. We know that he was clumsy, had a stuffed dog named Liberty and invited Homer over for salsa and football. I never really considered his presidency that important; this is quite foolish, coming as it did directly after The Great Evil of Politics (Nixon) and during the Great Evil (Disco). Throw in the tail end of Vietnam, inflation and Henry Kissinger, and this caretaker between Nixon and Nixon's Reaction (Carter) becomes downright important.

Ford steps from these pages as what seems like a genuinely decent and kind-hearted fellow. He and Betty were a little scared of the White House at first. None of the staff would talk to them. When Betty asked the head steward about this, he told her that the Nixons viewed the staff as better seen and not heard. Ford was in an impossible situation. He was painfully aware that he had not been elected either VP or President, many looked at him as illegitimate, Nixon thought he was an oaf and Ronald Reagan told him "I'm going to remain an independent" when he was approached as a possibility as Ford's VP.

The book is in many ways a discussion of the rightward move of the Republicans. Looking at Ford (and Nixon's) policies in comparison to the current batch of Potato Heads, they look When Ford chose Nelson Rockefeller as his VP, it pissed off the right wing of the party, who focused on Ronald Reagan as a candidate to beat Ford in 1976. One of the people also looked at for the VP position was George H.W. Bush, who was "devastated" when he did not get the call. Notable among Ford's staff are Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, but they are sideshows for most of the text.

While the title focuses on the pardon of Nixon and the decision making that went into it, the real meat of the book is the transition between two very different styles of management and governance. In the middle of this is Al "I'm in Charge Here" Haig, who was basically the de facto president during Nixon's last weeks and months in office. He made Ford nervous, and rightfully so. Nixon was an autocrat while Ford was more of a consensus builder. Werth does an excellent job of fleshing out what the difference in Ford and Nixon meant for the cabinet members, White House staff and the press corps. It was literally a whole new system for everyone involved. It also shows the benefits and perils of having a lifelong Representative in the Oval Office. While the book kind of drags, it is a good up-close look at how the government worked in a very strange time.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

#95: The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, The Cowboys, The '70s, and the Fight For America's Soul by Chad Millman and Shawn Coyne

New York: Gotham Books, 2010. 324 pages

The Dallas Cowboys symbolize rich, snobbish entitlement. Need evidence? I give you the nickname "America's Team". No one I know voted on that. They were everything that was wrong in the 1970s and everything that is wrong with the NFL and the society in general now. Tom Landry, who blamed Duane Thomas for a Super Bowl loss after he got them there, was a prime example of the bull-shit, no emotion, corporate football that epitomized these assholes year after year. Tex Schramm, who regularly gets his ass kissed by everyone involved with the NFL, was even worse. "The whole system is based on insecurity" according to Renfield Wright. (113) One needs only look at the Republican Presidential hopefuls and President Obama to know who actually came out on top in this fight.

As I grew up, I idolized the Steelers because of their working class vibe, their anger and their absolute visceral hatred of losing. I idolize them for the same qualities now. In the 1970s, the Steel Curtain was dominant because of athletic talent to be sure. But, they were also dominant because they were highly talented men doing the best job they could do. Millman and Coyne paint a picture of a city in the 1970s on the decline, with small whiffs of the perpetual bull shit money machine that would typify the US in the 1980s and 1990s. The Burgh lived for the Steelers. One nice counterpoint in this book is the Steelers moving into Three Rivers Stadium and the creation of Franco's Italian Army. The Cowboys move to Irving, Texas (find that fucking place on a map) and then jack ticket prices up so the fans who had supported them from the beginning cannot afford a seat.

At least Clint Murchison, owner of the team, was honest. "If we discriminated against them (people making 12-20,000), we discriminated against them, but no more than all America discriminates against people who don't have enough money to buy everything they want." (98). Want some standing room only tickets at the new stadium that Texas taxpayers put $350 million towards building, not including tax hikes of .5% to their sales taxes? Cheap ones are $38. Of course, you can't see 1/3 of the field. But, you'll be in the same building as your roided up heroes! Good for you! I have been to one pro football game in my life, and that was enough.

In other words, the Cowboys are for the rich assholes and the Steelers play the role of working class hero in this text. And I say, right on! The book is a painstaking look at the value of a sports team to a city in counterpoint to the value of a city to a sports team. Many people hate the Steelers and their fans, partly because we have been so good for so long, but partly because they don't like the blue collar violence. I can't stand 49er fans because they tend to be chardonnay drinking pussies. Yes, Raider fans may knife you in an alley, but they command respect. Even the 49er fans are better than those miserable bastards who root for who wins. Ask a Patriot fan sporting a Tom Brady jersey outside of the North East who Steve Grogan or Mosi Tatupu was and you get blank stares. Ask a Raider fan who Jon Matuszek was and you may get the saying "The Tuz is Big News". That is the difference in real fans and jack offs. Real fans know history and revel in it.

This book starts off with Joe Namath snubbing Pete Rozelle after the Jets won Super Bowl III. I found that interesting because the NFL does not give a fuck about its fans unless they buy the latest jersey or the "Official NFL Draft Hat". During the 1970s, the trope of one blue collar team against a bunch of wealthy fucknuts would work. Now, it's all wealthy fucknuts. The NFL is a corporate hive of scum and villainy, but it was not always that way.

Monday, December 5, 2011

#94: The Teapot Dome Scandal: How Big Oil Bought the Harding White House and Tried to Steal the Country by Laton McCartney

New York: Random House, 2008. 368 pages.

Warren G. Harding is my favorite President. Not simply because he was the worst president of all time (I don't think anyone else is in his league) but because he was known as "The Bloviator" and was one of the few presidents between 1876 and 1960 that advocated education and voting rights for African Americans in the south. He also released Eugene Debs from prison, signed the first child labor law and appointed William Howard Taft as chief justice of the Supreme Court.

At the same time, he managed to actually get blackmailed by two different women during the 1920 presidential campaign. He openly lived cavorted with his mistress in....The Oval Office! On the desk! He told noted Prohibitionists that drinking in the White House was his own damned business. Oh, and his Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall leased oil fields belonging to the Navy Reserve (including the Teapot Dome in Wyoming) to oil companies at low cost with no competitive bidding. He is like Dick Cheney, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton all rolled into one person. Laton McCartney's text is laden with research, sometimes making for tedious reading, but is overall an outstanding work. I learned much about something I thought I knew well.

Only in this country could you get a group called The Ohio Gang: a group of hangers on that land cushy jobs in Harding's cabinet. Then, these groups secretly meet at what came to be known as "The Little Green House on K Street" to plot nefarious deeds. While Harding is boozing away in the White House or playing poker with some cronies, the Ohio Gang is selling off oil reserves, delaying paying of veterans and acting like general ne'er do wells. McCartney provides a lot of background to these men and the women behind them, which makes the book more like a series of character studies than history. Fall, for his part, was not Harding's first choice as Sec of Interior. Harding's first choice was gunned down by his mistress in a hotel in Oklahoma. She shot him in the chest while he was lying on a bed, unarmed, in his underpants. She was then acquitted on accounts of self defense.

When every misstatement by whatever flavor-of-the-month is trumped up as a scandal, it is refreshing to read about some honest to god crooks, cheats and liars. A good book to read as the election season gets under way in earnest.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

#92: Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole and Oliver Reed by Robert Sellers

New York: St. Martin's Press, 2008. 286 pages

Only one of these men is left alive, which is a pity. One may be able to tell a lot about how these men lived by how they died.

Richard Harris was living in the Savoy Hotel when he died of Hodgkins disease. As he was being wheeled out on a stretcher to an ambulance, he propped himself up on emaciated elbows and shouted "It's the food! Don't touch the food!" (270)

On May 2, 1999 while filming Gladiator in Malta, Oliver Reed was leaving a pub when he spotted a group of Royal Navy sailors. Reed "bellowed "let's have a drink" and downed 12 double measures of rum before he retreated to his more accustomed double whiskies. He also challenged the sailors to a number of arm wrestling contests and won several matches." He was 61 years old (264)

Richard Burton was plagued by a bad back in his later years; when undergoing surgery for the problem, it was found his spine was encased in crystallised alcohol. The night before he died of a cerebral hemorrhage, we wrote the following line from The Tempest on a napkin next to his bed: "Our revels are now ended." (230)

Much of what occupies this book is drink stories that one only sees in shitty movies. These guys did all of these things and more. This is by turns a funny and incredibly sad book. Ultimately what saves it is that these fuckers are so likable. The least likable is Oliver Reed, who was a violent chauvinist pig when drunk but a most generous man when sober. The most likable is, of course, Harris. Imagine what the kids would think if Albus Dumbledore, Severus Snape and Gilderoy Lockhart engaged in a "pub invasion" and still being at it at 4 AM.  By the 1990s, people were in awe of O'Toole and Harris, less so of Reed because he was unemployed and damn near broke.

Of course, what draws people to stories like this are two items. One, most of us could never hope to consume 2-3 bottles of vodka a day for six months (Harris, Burton) or drink 126 pints of beer in a 24 hour period (Reed). Two, these men are an antidote for our plasticine, bull shit celebrities of today. Harris openly mocked Hugh Grant, and once told Bruce Willis politely to "fuck off, I am talking to my ex-wife". The only one of today's movie stars that holds a candle to them is Russell Crowe. Harris made this comment about Crowe: "He irritates the shit out of those Hollywood bigwigs, but he's much to good for them to ignore." (267)

Crowe gets in fights, acts like an ass sometimes, but seems a decent enough fellow. In other words, he acts stunningly like a guy you would meet in a pub. The "Hellraisers" are genuine people, not about to be handled by publicists and studio douchebags. Burton went that route with Liz Taylor, and she comes out of this book looking like a booze-soaked old hag. Hollywood does not like real people, they like fake ones. Never was that so much in plain view as it was in this text. At his height in the 1950s, Burton could consume a fifth of brandy and still play Hamlet with little or no ill effects. Burton became a movie star and made some great films and some incredibly awful stinkbombs, but he had presence, as did the rest. What makes them awesome is not the amount of liquor they can drink or the women they can bed, but that they can function not only like human beings but like talented actors. That's why Harris bagged on Hugh Grant; Hugh Grant has played the same damned nitwit character in every movie since 1989. Harris played himself to the hilt, and it was the only role he never varied.

Friday, December 2, 2011

#91: The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters by Rose George

New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008. 277 Pages

This book is about shit. Rose George quotes a study wherein 7 categories of euphemism are used for that word, and points out that sanitation is a taboo subject in no small part because it concerns shit. (11) I don't know anything about sanitation. I push the lever and away the shit goes. I don't know where it goes, nor do I care how it gets there. So what if the readers of the British Journal of Medicine  voted sanitation as the most important single development in public health over the last 200 years?

Of the many statistics, stories and people who dropped my jaw while I was reading this book, this is the biggest: "diarrhea kills more children under 5 than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria...and 4 in 10 people on earth defecate in fields or on roadsides." (67) 2.6 billion people do not have a toilet. George's description of the public toilets in Mumbai slums or Chinese villages or some South African schools have to be read to be believed. The next time some student asks me to go to the bathroom, I will unhesitatingly say "Yes". UNICEF points out that many students in Sub-Saharan Africa and India drop out of school in no small part because the school has incredibly filthy bathrooms. (83-84)

George goes from the International Toilet Expo to Tanzania, China, India, South Africa, London's sewers (most of which are not mapped) and finds that shit is everywhere, consumes incredible amounts of water and that Americans have shitty toilets. Meaning not that the Thrones are covered in the brown stuff, but by and large they do not function as well as European toilets. Nor do they cook breakfast and sing Tom Jones songs like Japanese made toilets.

I looked up the TOTO made "Neorest" model, and for $3400-$3800 bucks, you can have a remote controlled toilet with a heated seat and "Front and rear warm water washing". It is this thing, the "warm water washing" that frustrates Westerners. You can also buy a washlet that has a self cleaning extending wand that will provide "the ultimate in personal cleansing" according to the TOTO USA website. George writes "in modern Japan, washlets are as taken for granted as band aids" (39) I do know that toilet paper is nasty and I dislike the stuff. After her escapades in shitdom, George has adapted her own toilet habits. Nothing says nasty like FOG (fat, oil and grease) that congeals in a sewer and actually closes it off. Nothing says eat some fries like a man in a hazmat suit hammering at solidified fat in a sewer. Good Lord. I felt filthy reading this book, but it was worth it.