“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” ― Mary Harris (Mother) Jones

Archive for the ‘review’ Category

Book Review: White Trash by Nancy Eisenberg

“Upward mobility”. It’s a phrase that’s as American as baseball, apple pie, and ousting the democratically elected heads of state of various foreign countries. From childhood, we’re told anyone can grow up to be President of the United States—or work their way out of poverty and join the Rich and Famous. The United States, we’re told, overcame the rigid class structures of Europe and became the first truly classless society. There’s only one problem.

It’s a lie.

In this excellently researched, if someone unnecessarily repetitive, exploration of the role of class in US society, Ms. Isenberg exposes the myth that “all men are created equal”, at least in the eyes of the moneyed and powerful who launched it 400 years ago. By dangling the carrot of upward mobility in front of the working class and the poor, the power brokers have maintained their control and exploited it to the fullest.

Although it’s no longer politically correct to say so, and for good reason, the first slaves in the northern reaches of the New World settled by British noblemen were White. They were the poor and the criminal, scooped up and shoved onto ships to be sold as indentured servants kept hard at work with the promise they would eventually work off the cost of passage they never asked for to begin with. They were replaced by the institution of African slavery, in no small part because poor White people couldn’t be as easily controlled as terrified Black people torn from their native homes and thrust into a totally alien world.

Redneck. Cracker. Hillbilly. There have been any number of similar slurs—and make no mistake, that’s what they are—applied to poor White trash in the last four centuries. Like those applied to Blacks, or on the basis of ethnic origin, the labels are meant to differentiate between those too lazy, worthless, and morally corrupt to be socially acceptable and “good people.” That the “good people” are almost always at least reasonably wealthy, college-educated, and White says all that needs to be said.

It’s also how those “good people” have made racism a systemic disease. “If you can convince the lowest white man that he’s better than the best colored man,” said Lyndon B. Johnson, “he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll even empty his pockets for you.”

More to the point of Ms. Isenberg’s book, you can also prevent him from realizing he has more in common with the people he’s been taught to hate and despise than he does those doing the teaching. Over and over, she recounts how the American aristocracy has overtly and covertly manipulated class warfare into race warfare, setting two groups who have the most in common against each other.

There’s much more to this history of how the citizens of a highly stratified society were and continue to be convinced there are no strata than how the fairy tale was used to keep the lower ones in their place. However, it’s the history I found particularly interesting, because none of it was in the history books I read in school. That, by itself, is indicative of how we still have to deal with rabid racism and unconscionable levels of poverty in what those power brokers keeping most of us in our place love to call “the wealthiest, most powerful nation on earth”.

White Trash is an easy-to-read journey into the depths of a myth, and one that in the current economic climate of gaping inequality should be taken by anyone who can’t understand how and why Donald Trump became President. Or why so many working-class people rejected the candidate the power brokers were certain would win. After all, she was one of the “good people”.

Essentially, White Trash exposes the reality that the “American dream” is and always was a fiction designed to keep the working class plugging away—a lottery on a few ever actually win. No matter who you voted for, or what your political persuasion, this is an important book that reveals the root of the why a crude-talking snake-oil salesman defeated the cultured rich woman her peers thought couldn’t lose. Rather than, as have other recent books on the subject, seeking to reinforce the false message the poor and the working class, who all too often are the same thing, are evil, uneducated, racist, misogynistic, homophobic idiots. You’ll understand once you’ve read it.

 

Review: HOW TO BE LESS STUPID ABOUT RACE by Crystal M. Fleming

A bit of background. I met my first person of color at the age of 17, my freshman year of college in 1965. She was a classmate from Philadelphia. I also had my first experience of blatant racism that same year, as my cousin and I boarded in the home of an Irish cop whose opinions of the African Americans he was supposed to protect and serve were appalling.

And I knew they were appalling, even though I’d never had any real education in racism. The trouble was, I was a child of the ‘50s, where children were to be seen and not heard and criticizing one’s elders was as beyond the realm of possibility as flying. That kind of relationship dynamic isn’t as universal as it used to be, but it still exists; and it’s going to be one of the hardest obstacles to putting Dr. Fleming’s ideas in process.

I pre-ordered a copy of Dr. Fleming’s book after reading a review of it on Black Agenda Report. I wasn’t disappointed. It didn’t hurt that, like me, she belatedly came to understand just how pervasive racism—and its attendants sexism, ageism, classism, genderism, and ableism—is in our modern world. And for basically the same reason, in that she, too, grew up insulated from the reality in which just shy of 15% of the country’s population lives.

Note that I didn’t limit the field of view to the US, although that’s Dr. Fleming’s focus. That’s important because racism isn’t a geographical but a cultural problem. It exists everywhere, for the simple reason a majority holding all the power will inevitably deny power to the minorities in its sphere.

“‘Race’,” says Dr. Fleming in her introduction, “is a fundamentally stupid idea that refers to the belief in visible, permanent, hierarchical differences between human groups defined in terms of biology, physical appearance, or ancestry.” Studies show over and over there are no actual differences among human beings, yet the idea that one’s complexion or other characteristic provides innate superiority persists. Of all the -isms, though, racism is the most pervasive.

“Much of the racial stupidity we encounter in everyday life derives from the fact that people think of racism as individual prejudice rather than a broader system and structure of power.”

Dr. Fleming goes on to support her statement with enough information only someone determined to hide behind “colorblindness” and consider the job done could ignore. Which isn’t to say they won’t, since confirmation bias is as hard to eradicate as athlete’s foot.

“One of the sad ironies of oppression is that it’s completely possible to grow up in a society ravaged by multiple forms of domination and not know that your society is ravaged by multiple forms of domination, especially when our educational system manufactures feel-good histories and progress narratives.”

Now that I’ve learned more of the real history of the United States, I can see exactly what she means. And I studied American history fifty years ago. The Holocaust was basically “The Nazis killed six million Jews.” The early labor movement was “people went on strike and eventually won better working conditions.” Even women’s suffrage was “woman protested until they won the vote.” There was no mention of the six million other people who died in the death camps—the Serbs and Poles and Rom and the disabled. The name “Haymarket” never came up. And I didn’t learn the true depth of the suffrage struggle until quite recently.

As for any discussion of Jim Crow and lynching and all the other horrors visited on African Americans, not just in the South but everywhere, it was a subject never deemed appropriate for the tender young minds of high school students when I walked among them. From what I’ve heard while observing the ongoing effort to privatize education, and the watering down of subject matter that goes with it, that’s likely gotten worse rather than better. This book is valuable, along with a number of others written in the last decade or so, in filling in the huge gaps.

But Dr. Fleming’s power-packed little book isn’t just an analysis of rampant racism. It also calls upon every one of us to look deep into our soul and locate the racism many of us have absorbed all unconsciously. Then, she says, have the courage to confront it wherever it appears, whenever it appears. It will not be easy. To assist, her final chapter outlines ten steps we can all take to begin breaking through the wall of denial that racism and its colluding systems of domination aren’t going away until we kill them. And that’s going to happen one person at a time.

Read this book. Even if you’re positive you haven’t a microgram of racism in your entire body, read this book. Then brace yourself to have the courage to address the problem when it arises, whether it be blatant or subtle.

Review: Jack Frost by Christopher Greyson

Available from all the usual suspects

It’s always a little difficult reviewing a book from a series you haven’t previously experienced. On the other hand, it allows one to see how well the author handles backstory without interrupting the flow of the story.

So, Jack Frost is the eighth adventure in Mr. Greyson’s Jack Stratton series about a PI who’s both a veteran suffering from PTSD (a trope that has been popular of late but is coming to border on cliché) and a former police officer. Jack is also an orphan (another popular trope) who spent many of his formative years in foster care, and his fianceé, Alice Campbell, likewise. One of the subplots, which reaches a degree of culmination in this book, is her search for the truth about the accident that wiped out her parents and younger brother.

The book also includes a mysterious Asian woman of dubious career who nevertheless has an unbreakable bond of loyalty to Jack and, by extension, Alice. So, all the standards of what the mainstream publishers seem to consider necessary in current popuar mystery fiction are met. And yes, I am being a bit sarcastic, but only because I find it disappointing talented writers seem to be stuck writing to those criteria instead of developing characters that don’t rely on the same elements over and over.

Anyway, in this tale, Jack is hired by an insurance company to go undercover on Planet Survival, an ultra-challenge reality TV show set on the top of a mountain to find out whether there’s anything nefarious going on. This because one of the crew died in an avalanche, the pilot of the helicopter that allegedly started said avalanche later died in a climbing accident, and now someone is painting threatening graffiti all over the mountainside.

Jack Frost is an entertaining thriller with a well-executed twist ending and an entire school of red herrings. It’s definitely plot-driven, but the characters are well-developed; in some cases, Mr. Greyson takes what could be a stereotype and skillfully adds touches that not only avoid that pitfall but creates someone one wishes had a larger role. He has also achieved the preferred goal of having a series book that, if it’s the first one read, may entice the reader to go back and catch up on history. If you enjoy Clive Custler, you’ll probably enjoy Christopher Greyson as well.