reading recap: february 2018

I’m pretty sure I’m out of that slump and funk now, by the end of February. I had a great month of reading, much better than January. Almost all of these were audiobooks. Since I knew the end of my membership to my library back home in Kansas City was ending in February, I wanted to capitalize on using it as much as possible. I was pretty pleased to get some highly anticipated new releases, as well as discovering some new gems I hadn’t heard of before.

My favorites were easily Dark MoneyOtis Redding, and Broad Strokes, with Shark Drunk close behind. I’m happy I stuck with writing up posts after finishing books here throughout the month too!

Other bookish stuff… I started The Left Hand of Darkness for my Best Friends International Book Club and quickly DNF’d. It’s just not for me. I have trouble getting into high sci-fi fantasy in general, and I could barely follow the story. I didn’t know who was who or what was happening most of the time. Anthony, my book club buddy, DNF’d too, saying, “So many words I don’t know how to say, let alone keep track of. And the narrative voice doesn’t resonate with me; I can’t understand where I am in almost any given sentence.” Some people have the right kind of mind for elaborate, made-up words and worlds, some don’t. Our first-ever BFIBCDNF! I also bought two new Singaporean small-press books, SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century and The Infinite Library.

Right now I’m reading Homegoing (for BFIBC and the TBR Pile Challenge), The Summer That Melted Everything (TBR Pile Challenge), and SQ21.

Otherwise, I’ve been spending time drawing and trying to get out of the apartment more. I went to see the Museé d’Orsay impressionism exhibit at the National Gallery of Singapore last week, which was fantastic, saw the amazing  Black Panther movie, and also bought a new bass!! It’s a Fender American Elite Jazz Bass. I’m in love.

monthly recap image

dark money

My first book for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge! I bought Dark Money by Jane Mayer right after the 2016 election, but put it off for the usual, dumb, distracted reasons. Edited from the back of the book:

The U.S. is one of the largest democracies in the world—or is it? America is experiencing an age of profound economic inequality. Employee protections have been decimated, and state welfare is virtually non-existent, while hedge fund billionaires are grossly under-taxed and big businesses make astounding profits at the expense of the environment and of their workers. How did this come about, and who were the driving forces behind it?

I’m not religious, but if I was ever asked, I’d say that the absolute worst of the seven deadly sins is greed. I’m just so infuriated that my country has basically become a plutocracy. I knew some of the basics before reading this, but I had no idea the sheer depth to which this shady network goes. The devastation this small faction of billionaires has inflicted on America is staggering, and I’m worried for the future.

This is the Libertarian Party platform David Koch ran for public office on in 1980:

It called for the repeal of all campaign-finance laws and the abolition of the Federal Election Commission (FEC). It also favored the abolition of all government health-care programs, including Medicaid and Medicare. It attacked Social Security as “virtually bankrupt” and called for its abolition, too. The Libertarians also opposed all income and corporate taxes, including capital gains taxes, and called for an end to the prosecution of tax evaders. Their platform called for the abolition too of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, the FBI, and the CIA, among other government agencies. It demanded the abolition of “any laws” impeding employment—by which it meant minimum wage and child labor laws. And it targeted public schools for abolition too, along with what it termed the “compulsory” education of children. The Libertarians also wanted to get rid of the Food and Drug Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, seat belt laws, and all forms of welfare for the poor. The platform was, in short, an effort to repeal virtually every major political reform passed during the twentieth century. In the view of the Kochs and other members of the Libertarian Party, government should be reduced to a skeletal function: the protection of individual and property rights. (pg. 57–58)

Sounds like complete and utter chaos to me. That would clearly result in two classes: the ultra-rich and the rest of us impoverished and starving in a destitute wasteland. It would be catastrophic if their ideologies and policies were enacted as real legislation, right? They lost the election badly that year (receiving 1% of the vote), but Jane Mayer goes on:

The Kochs were not alone. … they got valuable reinforcement from a small cadre of like-minded wealthy conservative families … Philanthropy, with its guarantees of anonymity, became their chosen instrument. But their goal was patently political: to undo not just Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal but Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Era, too. (pg. 59)

Terrifying. Almost 40 years later, it’s unfortunately working. Look at how conservatives and Republicans have attacked democracy and its institutions, intellect and knowledge, culture and the arts and humanities, diversity and anyone who is “other” than cishet white male… the list goes on. An entire swath of Americans have been convinced to stand by the GOP, no matter how deceitful, disloyal, corrupt.

One of the book’s sections that blew me away most was about how the Koch Brothers and their friends have spent countless millions of dollars fighting the factual reality of climate change/global warming. Skeptical scientists are hired to make vague or misleading statements to the public, and Republicans spout lies about climate change, that the average American will lose their jobs and way of life if we do anything to combat climate change. The audacity of the lies is mind-boggling, and so is how easily and quickly Americans fall for the lies.

I already knew much of Congress and many politicians at the local level have been corrupted by dark money from the Kochs and their ilk. I became aware of that especially during the gubernatorial election of Scott Walker and his raping and pillaging of my home state, Wisconsin, and also watching the collapse of Kansas’s economy under its failure of a governor, Sam Brownback. But what I didn’t realize until reading this book is how they’ve infiltrated our education system at every level. Here’s what happened in North Carolina when a conservative Republican majority, bought-and-sold by radical libertarians, took over:

They authorized vouchers for private schools while putting the public school budget in a vise … eliminated teachers’ assistants and reduced teacher pay … abolished incentives for teachers to earn higher degrees and reduced funding for a successful program for at-risk preschoolers. Voters had overwhelmingly preferred to avoid these cuts by extending a temporary one-penny sales tax to sustain educational funding, but the legislators, many of whom had signed a no-tax pledge promoted by Americans for Prosperity, made the cuts anyway.

North Carolina’s esteemed state university system also took a hit. … dug up professors’ voting records in an effort to prove political bias. … imposed severe cuts that were projected to cause tuition hikes, faculty layoffs, and fewer scholarships, even though the state’s constitution required that higher education be made “as free as practical” to all residents.

“It’s sad and blatant,” said Cat Warren, an English professor at North Carolina State. [Art] Pope, [NC retail magnate and a friend of the Kochs], she said, “succeeds in getting higher education defunded, and then uses those cutbacks as a way to increase leverage and influence over course content.” (pgs. 340–341)

And influencing course content not only in higher education but in grade school and high school as well. I feel pretty good about my public school education, but as an adult and life-long learner I’m shocked at some of the realities of America’s history that were left out or glossed over in my classes during my formative years. I hate thinking about how generations of Americans have been unwittingly indoctrinated to a business-first philosophy that actively demonizes social programs and the roles of government.

All of this comes back to greed for me. I will never understand how these people with more money than they and their children and children’s children could ever spend in their lifetimes, more money than average Americans could ever dream of let alone earn in a million lifetimes… why do these people think they need more money? Their money is buying political power, which they bend to their will so they can amass more money. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I don’t get it. Don’t they know that when everyone does better, everyone does better? What’s going to happen when the 99% and 99.9% and 99.99% have all died off and they are alone with their riches. Who will do the real-world work they refuse to do: clean, cook, build? Don’t they know that money doesn’t buy happiness? How would they know, though, when most of these billionaires buying political power were born into their riches. They simply don’t care. They just want more, they want it all. The pure GREED. It’s breathtaking.

You know what, fuck the Kochs. Fuck their greedy billionaire cronies. Fuck Mitch McConnell. Fuck Paul Ryan. Fuck the greedy members of Congress and local politicians who accept dark, dirty money and selling out their constituents and all Americans. Fuck radical libertarians. Fuck them for duping enough Americans into buying their selfish ideologies and into voting against their own interests. Fuck them for their systematic efforts to ruin our democracy, government, and society for their own outstandingly greedy benefit. I hope against hope that the pendulum will swing back to the left (even center-left, where most Americans’ ideologies lie) sooner rather than later.

While this is all very depressing and has left me even more livid than I ever thought I could be, I’m also encouraged by the protests and acts of resistance around the country since the election. Research. Read. Listen. Don’t take political ads at face-value. Don’t take anything on the internet at face-value. Have an open mind. Be critical. Question. Show up. VOTE in every local election—that’s where this dark money is having the most, harshest impact—not just once every four years.

We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.
—Louis Brandeis (epigraph)

Dark Money is my first of twelve books read for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge.

Listened to audiobook in January–February 2018.

mini-reviews: evicted, janesville, and how to speak midwestern

It’s no secret I’m very homesick here in Singapore. There is no place better or more beautiful on earth to me than my beloved home state, Wisconsin. I somehow manage to find connections to the Dairy State in almost everything—an actor in a random movie I know is from Green Bay, for example, or a singer of a song playing on the radio is from Milwaukee. And I love to celebrate all the great, wonderful things about Wisconsin: natural beauty, excellent sports, delicious food and beer, progressive political history, and more. That’s not to say I don’t recognize flaws and shortcomings in some Wisconsin systems, and I’m always interested in learning more about them and what can be done. Two new books in the last year along these lines were very high on my list, plus another one just for fun:

Evicted by Matthew Desmond won the 2017 Pulitzer in General Nonfiction this year. It follows the author as he delves into destitute neighborhoods of Milwaukee and shares the intimate stories of a few poverty-stricken families living there on the brink, forced to spend the majority of their meager earnings on rent. They are adults raising kids, differently abled persons, drug addicts, and those mired in crushing debt, living in constant fear that one tiny mishap will destroy everything, and they’ll be evicted for falling behind on rent payments (because it has happened to them time and again), and may have to move to shelters or more dangerous areas… or end up homeless. Desmond outlines how people across the country find themselves in these precarious situations, and how the cycle viciously continues with virtually no relief in sight. It’s a personal, eye-opening look at the housing crisis, and how evictions, crime, segregation, and more are connected. I admired the tenacity of the tenants—they just want a normal, safe life, like everyone does. Of course they do! I’m just at a loss sometimes as to how the system so horrifically fails its people and turns a blind eye. This is an important, devastating work totally deserving of the Pulitzer, and one of the best books I read in 2016. [Listened to audiobook in November 2016.]

Amy Goldstein’s Janesville is an excellent companion piece to Evicted, but instead of the housing crisis, Goldstein examines the job crisis during the Great Recession, using the example of the closing of Janesville’s GM plant in December 2008 and its aftermath to today. She does a masterful job immersing the readers in this small industrial city during this time, following several families through the shock, frustration, and humiliation of losing good jobs these men and women thought were stable and were relying on until their retirement… and even seeing pensions disappear. Then being told to retrain in another field, only to find those fields weren’t hiring either, or hiring hundreds of miles away (can’t move, their homes have lost value and can’t sell)—finding themselves in impossible, no-win situations. How does this economic devastation divide a community? How does it try to heal and build again? This is an excellent look at the American dream and how difficult it will be to rebuild the middle and working classes after the upheaval of the Great Recession. [Listened to audiobook in June 2017.]

I read Edward McClelland’s How to Speak Midwestern in June last year to myself in the mood before my big trip home last summer. This is a fun, short book about the subtle differences in Midwestern accents and dialects. It also covers the history of how each regional way of speech developed—a blend of slight changes from the East Coast with adaptation of Scandinavian and North Germanic languages to English. I identified with some of all of it, but of course mostly with the parts about Wisconsin! [Read ebook in June 2017.]