Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Book Review - Political Tribes

Each new President brings with him an undertow of books analyzing “the moment” we are living in. In Reagan’s America, businessmen were deified, the biggest book of the 80s was Lee Iacocca’s autobiography, and yes, Trump’s Art of the Deal, sold in the millions. As the hangover from the Reagan years lingered, writers mused on the death of American competitiveness in the face of Japanese economic supremacy. A cottage industry of conspiracy theorists made their bones (not to mention their riches) attacking the Clintons and George W. Bush’s years were defined by our response to the 9/11 attack and Iraq War. Much was written about a post-racial America under Obama, but now, authors are flocking to cement the new narrative brought on by Donald Trump’s election - the magic word? Tribalism. To this growing list of books is Amy Chua’s Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. It is a thin effort that rarely rises above a freshman-level survey course before falling apart all together in a predictable lament about “our divided nation.” 

Chua’s thesis is simple - America is exceptional, a “super group” as she calls us, largely because of our heterogenous roots, a melting pot of ethnicities and cultures that have blended into one. It distinguishes us from almost every other nation on the planet but also creates a massive blind spot in believing others want our way of life. Chua spends most of the first half of her book examining how our myopia played out in failed foreign adventures in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Venezuela (the last appears to have been shoe horned in for no other reason than Chua had written on the topic years ago - nothing like shameless self-promotion). And here, her thesis is fleshed out to the extent an idea can be when generous margins are used and analysis does not go much deeper than a few inches below the surface. 

We backed all the wrong people in Afghanistan, failed to appreciate the Shia/Sunni enmity in Iraq, and books of far greater substance mused on our misadventure in Vietnam. It is not exactly atom-splitting writing, but to the uninformed, I suppose it is a useful primer; however, when the topic shifts from foreign to domestic, the “both sides are to blame” trope rears its head with the attendant anecdotal evidence and couched assertions with amorphous qualifiers like “many” and “some” to make limp points defensible. 

Consider the oft-fetishized demand (which Chua echoes) for seeking common ground among our national leaders. These laments are written as if attempts have not been made when in fact they have been - often - at least by one party, with null results. To take one example, after winning a landslide victory in 2008 and faced with an economy in free fall, President Obama could have pushed through a bill using only Democratic votes, but instead, he tried to get Republicans to work with him on a stimulus bill. On the one hand, he larded it up with tax cuts to entice Republicans, but on the other, kept the total under an artificial amount ($1 trillion) so as not to spook supposed conservatives. In the midst of a massive economic crisis, this effort was met with near total opposition from the GOP - no Republican House members and only three Republican Senators voted for it. To take another, when Obama tried to reform the health care system, he did not attempt to convert our system into a single payer system, no, instead, he took an idea hatched in the halls of the arch-conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation. He tried to get Republicans to parlay, and in fact, more than 100 Republican amendments made it into the Affordable Care Act, but no votes were given. Indeed, Republicans have spent the eight years since the bill’s passage attempting to repeal it, undermine it, and delegitimate it in the eyes of the public. 

Of course, if you point this out, you simply prove Chua’s point about political division; however, the real sin, to me at least, is the failure of those with the platform to write about these issues to honestly engage in examining root causes and yes, pointing the finger of blame. When the economy collapsed under George W. Bush in 2008, it was Democrats who stood up and provided the needed votes to pass a massive bank bailout. Bush also got Democratic votes to authorize military action in Iraq, hell, he even got Democratic votes (at least more than a few) for his massive tax cut in 2001. Senate Republicans would not even let Obama fill the job of Public Printer of the United States (yes, that’s a thing) for months. Reason? Because they could. And of course, do not even get me started on Merrick Garland.

History continues to repeat itself. Donald Trump received three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, and yet he rammed through a massive tax cut without the pretense of bipartisanship. Media reaction? Shoulder shrug. Which is why I blanche at the idea that a Van Jones asking a white working class voter to help him “understand” (an example Chua cites for the kind of outreach we need) makes any difference. It does not. As astute commentators have observed, the Republican party has drifted rightward, moving the center to what was once considered “the right” a generation ago, while members of the media demand that Democrats continue chasing compromise. It is a fallacy that writers like Chua refuse to acknowledge.

Another “tribe” Chua fails to discuss is the largest one in America - that group of people who don’t even bother voting. Presidential elections tend to be high water marks for voting in our country, yet barely half of all eligible voters bother to do so. To be sure, some states do better than others, but turnout in mid-term elections is usually below 40 percent and many state and local elections struggle to attract even a quarter of the electorate. Examining this phenomenon and why it persists would have been a far more valuable use of Chua’s time, but instead, there is pollyannish coda to her book citing the musical Hamilton and the fact it starred a multi-cultural cast of actors as a sign of our country’s future. 

Regardless, the flaws extend further - on a myriad of topics, from raising taxes on the rich to enacting sensible gun reform, large majorities of the nation are in agreement, it is the politicians who are the stumbling blocks. In other words, the tribes are not nearly as at odds as books like this suggest, rather, it is elected officials - and largely Republican officials (and their donors) - who are a tribe apart. As the multibillionaire Warren Buffett has observed, the war that has been waged in America over the past 40 years, the tribe, if you will, that has routed the enemy is the wealthiest Americans, who have hoovered up more of our collective wealth than at any time in our nation’s history while simultaneously pitting everyone else against each other for the crumbs they have left behind. Had THAT book been written, and not some paint-by-numbers ramble about how red states and blue states talk past one another, it might have been worth reading.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Book Review - On Power

There is no shortage of self-help books on the market. Millions have discovered who moved their cheese and the color of their parachute. But while gurus try to extol the benefits of the four-hour work week or the liberating power of not giving a fuck, none of these authors has made a career (not to mention a large fortune) from spewing fake blood while clad in BDSM gear, six-inch platform shoes and a full face of kabuki make-up. Yes, Gene Simmons (from KISS) has joined the movement with his book, On Power.

For a guy who has adopted the nickname “Dr. Love,” Simmons (or maybe it’s his ghostwriter?) is a surprisingly fluid writer. Born Haim Witz in Haifa, Israel, Simmons emigrated to the U.S. with his mom as a young boy. Simmons’s telling of his own life has a bit of Horatio Alger about it, a mix of hard work (he picked up odd jobs from a young age and got his teaching degree even as he chased his dreams of being a rock star), clean living (he eschews the “drugs” part of “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” though certainly implies he indulged heavily in the other two), and determination that resulted in his success and stardom. 

Simmons created his own image, changing his name and finding a passion that became his north star, pursuing music while doing what he had to make ends meet. If you get past the chesty bravado and, you know, the whole Gene Simmons oeuvre, On Power is a mainstream meditation on the way you can achieve success if you define that term by the amount of money you make and the power you exert. Simmons portrays himself as a clear-eyed realist, unafraid to tell it like it is, even if it means stepping on a few toes. This means (unsurprisingly) he has little patience for today’s everyone-gets-a-trophy attitude of child rearing and unapologetically encourages women to use their sexuality to get ahead. Simmons also has little patience for people who do not want to sully themselves with the tactics necessary to achieve power, explaining that wanting to do good is impossible if you are not in a position to do so (a fair point).

Other advice Simmons dispenses is basic but important - network to improve your career opportunities, have a back-up plan (and a back-up plan to the back-up plan), be frugal, focus your energy on what you are passionate about, understand the fine line between sucking up to your boss and being unafraid to tell uncomfortable truths (personally, I still have not mastered this one), associate yourself with the people who do the things you want to do, and on and on.

It all makes for light and fast reading and Simmons is heterodox in his examples, dropping references to everyone from Machiavelli (to whom Simmons offers a strong defense) to Warren Buffett (who shows that a shrewd businessman whose word is good can get very powerful people to do things they might not otherwise do) to further his points. Of course, Simmons’s success has also come from a relentless focus on his brand and that of KISS – they have licensed everything from coffins to comic books and, although the band has never had a number one album, retain a rabid following that has made Simmons a very wealthy man. In short, while you may not love the messenger, you cannot argue too strenuously with the message.  

That said, if it is possible for a small book of less than 160 pages to feel a bit padded, On Power certainly pushes the limit. The last third of the book is made up of what are essentially glorified Wikipedia entries for people Simmons looks up to or he points to as exhibits of the types of strategies he believes in – Churchill overcoming a speech impediment as a child and escaping from a prison camp during the Second Boer War illustrates tenacity, Oprah Winfrey rising from impoverishment and sexual abuse shows determination, Michael Jordan using the fuel of not making his varsity basketball team in ninth grade to feed his singular competitiveness, etc.

So, if you are looking for a pithy, sometimes potty-mouthed pep talk to tackle your life, DO NOT rock ’n’ roll all night and party every day - Gene Simmons’ orders.

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Saturday, June 2, 2018

Book Review - Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars

History is an imprecise thing. Events that, at the time, seem inconsequential, like a fledgling band happening upon a movie marquee and changing its name from Earth to Black Sabbath, or two teenagers meeting at a county fair in 1957, one being John Lennon, the other, Paul McCartney, turn out to be really important, while other events' importance is manifest as they are happening, like a young man witnessing Bob Marley perform at the Lyceum in 1975 or David Bowie announcing his "retirement" as Ziggy Stardust. 

In Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of Rock Stars, David Hepworth toggles between these two extremes, examining the arc of rock 'n' roll through one discrete event each year between 1955 and 1995. Instead of leaning on a collection of greatest hits, like a band that refuses to repeat a set list, Hepworth combs through the back catalogue. It is Springsteen way back in 1974 on the cusp of super stardom, but also at risk of becoming a never was, noodling through what would become Born to Run for six months before converting the promise expressed in his concert reviews into wide scale popularity. It is Hendrix, not at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival blowing every mind with his lights out performance and  incineration of his Strat-O-Caster or his iconic rearrangement of the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock in 1969, but rather, his low key introduction to England in 1966, long before Are You Experienced? rocket launched him into the stratosphere and made him a god. 

While Hepworth finds some of our musical heroes in their embryonic states, his book is also happy to marinate in their debauched success. Uncommon People is as much about the cost of celebrity as it is the music that produces that adoration. In this way, it is easy to understand why Janis Joplin (the subject of Hepworth’s 1967 entry) is eager to rub her hometown’s nose in collective shit when she decides to return for her ten-year high school reunion, only to feel as empty and ostracized as when her wildest fantasies of revenge do not materialize. 

At the level of celebrity enjoyed by the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, or Jim Morrison, it is all too easy to be sucked into a vortex of your own bullshit, to confuse the adoration you receive for the self-worth you may not feel. The list of rock casualties is long and Hepworth’s tidy summation of Elvis Presley’s demise in 1977 is Exhibit A for how the seductiveness of fame can blur easily with its isolating effects. Elvis was one of the most recognized human beings on the planet, yet he was surrounded by a cadre of sycophants lured by the whiff of easy money and access to his reflected glory but none of whom had his best interests at heart. 

Of course, as Hepworth notes, in death, the messy details that led to the early demise of artists like Presley, Morrison, Joplin, and Hendrix get swept away as fans mourn their artistry, not their very human flaws. And for those left behind, there is money to be made in remaking these stories. Presley’s survivors were monetizing him within days of his death, when his manager drily noted “the king is dead, long live the king,” to the present-day, when his ex-wife Priscilla executive produced a largely sympathetic four-hour documentary about him for HBO (naturally, with a soundtrack available in all the relevant physical and digital formats). 

Uncommon People is also deft in charting the trajectory of rock ’n’ roll. What starts out in tiny rooms and dingy bars moves inexorably with the times. As the baby boom exploded, so did rock ’n’ roll. As musicians went from being troubadours to voices of their generation, the stakes got higher but so did the temptations, after all, it’s not called sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll for nothing. In July 1974, Stevie Nicks was waiting tables after her and her boyfriend Lindsey Buckingham were dropped by their record label. Two years later, she was a millionaire co-headlining a bicentennial concert on the Fourth of July in Tampa, Florida before 50,000 screaming fans - how can that not mess with a person's head. 

As the book moves into the 80s, the predictable denouement for many rock stars who made their bones in prior decades comes to pass. As Hepworth charts rock’s domination of popular culture, it tracks closely with the lives of the people whose singular talents resulted in the form’s ubiquity. As musicians became bigger celebrities so too did their appetite for hedonism. The once-young deities like Clapton and Page, Starr and Crosby, were now middle-aged and doughy, struggling with addiction, bankruptcy, and divorce. Their challenges tracked closely with the industry. The self-indulgence and feeling of invulnerability resulted in spectacles that had tragic consequences. Michael Jackson was happy to take a check from Pepsi to shill its product, but a rogue pyrotechnic at a commercial shoot led him down a path to opioid addiction that, years later, resulted in his death. Meanwhile, the tour bubble that musicians travel in resulted in a gifted twenty-five-year-old guitarist named Randy Rhodes dying in an entirely avoidable plane crash. 

For me, the later chapters of Uncommon People are rightly bookended by the emergence of Guns ’N Roses out of the L.A. hair metal scene, applying a needed enema that flushed out the pop sensibilities of bands like Ratt, WASP, and Motley Crue and replacing it with precisely the type of hedonistic-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude that makes rock great. Ironically, when the band gave in to the same excesses that befell those before them, it is left to Kurt Cobain, the man Hepworth accurately calls “the last rock star,” to apply his own corrective. Of course, Cobain was a flawed messiah and Hepworth’s argument that in Cobain’s suicide note lay a message of inadequacy, of someone who, having reached the pinnacle of his profession, feared he was not up to the challenge of being a prophet for the millions who worshipped him. 

Cobain's 1994 suicide is also a useful marker for the music business. If this tragedy was not the death knell for rock 'n' roll, it certainly put the patient on life support.  The book’s final chapter tracks the migration of music onto the Internet and with it, the game changing file sharing programs that crippled an industry that was simply unprepared for the sea change that occurred once fans stopped accepting the idea they had to pay a premium (or anything at all) for artists’ music. 

Meanwhile, the rise of boy bands, pop divas, and the mainstreaming of hip hop and rap has pushed rock ’n’ roll out of the cultural zeitgeist. What remains is nostalgia. Music companies continue churning out greatest hits collections and decades-old concerts of classic rock acts knowing a generation of 40-, 50- and 60- somethings are dependable consumers. Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend can still be found marching under The Who! banner and you can now go on cruises and hear intimate performances by one-hit wonders still trying to squeeze a few more seconds out of their 15 minutes of fame. Turn on your TV and what were once anthems of youth and rebellion are now used to market Cadillacs and iPods. Of course, since the last phase of any successful artist's career is the lusty hiss of "sell out," this makes total sense.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy