Books

If These Walls Could Sprechen

I’m delighted to share this recently published story of a small German country house that stood witness to nearly a century of history, two totalitarian regimes, and several generations of ordinary people. Humans will do remarkable (and sometimes terrible) things to persist and survive as wars, empires, and borders change around them.

A few miles west of Berlin, a little house sits on Groß Glienicke lake, a quiet eye in the storm of Europe’s worst century ever.

Nazi bureaucrats arrived at their Final Solution at nearby Wannsee. The Red Army poured through at the end of World War II. Churchill and Truman drove past on their way to meet Stalin in Potsdam. The Berlin Airlift rattled the cupboards as planes landed at and left Gatow airfield. Secret policemen lurked as the Berlin Wall rose. The house endured the long, twilight struggle of the Cold War, the fall of the Wall, and the reunification of Germany.

…Josef Stalin supposedly quipped that one death might be a tragedy but a million deaths are a mere statistic. Harding’s work stands in defiance of that heartless calculation. Against the No Life Matters ethos of the 20th century, The House by the Lake proves that history’s lethally impersonal forces, mass displacement, arbitrary borders, marching armies, and totalitarian dictatorships cannot fully erase the private joys and sorrows of individual lives.

Read more of my review of The House by the Lake at Reason Magazine.

Books

The monsters that torment us – All your fears are well-founded

On Halloween The Wall Street Journal published my review of two books of cultural history that connect our horror stories with very real phenomena.

Haunted by Leo Braudy and Ghostland by Colin Dickey show us that our horror stories are not trivial entertainment, but expressions of profound human emotions and indirect responses to very tangible realities. Both authors make clear that folk tales, urban legends and ghostly visitors carry heavy burdens of historical, spiritual and even theological significance—and they suggest that by analyzing them we can learn a great deal about ourselves.

…from the Sirens that tempted Odysseus to the demons Sarah Michelle Gellar faced down in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” “Each age has its own particular fears,” Mr. Braudy writes, “and the history of horror is the history of the disquiets of the soul, the inner life, made public, taking on the colorations of the era in which they appear.”

If you are a subscriber, you can read the full review of Haunted and Ghostland in The Wall Street Journal.

Baltimore

Making cops and underclass blacks our scapegoats

Submitted for your consideration: it is impossible to prosecute the drug war WITHOUT systemic abuses and routine violations of individual rights. Our history guarantees that African Americans bear the brunt. No consent decree, sensitivity training, or community policing strategy will fix the fundamental contradiction. Instead of facing up to the facts, we outsource the consequences to working class cops and underclass blacks. Then we blame the people we’ve put in these impossible situations for the inevitable abuses and bloodshed.

Culture

What causes zombie outbreaks in pop culture?

Since the canonical 1968 zombie film, George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” pop cultural zombieism outbreaks have come and gone in waves. Why do the undead ebb and flow so? The prevalence of zombieism has been linked to periods of political change, hysteria over HIV and other contagions, knowledge worker economic insecurity, and virtually all social disruptions.

Without directly disputing the validity of those theories, I have another hypothesis to add to the mix.

Zombieism is an expression of a very specific fear: becoming unemployed.

Zombieism is a collective emotional projection by employed persons terrified of their losing their work, income, and identity. For those who fear loss of livelihoods, the ranks of the laid-off, dismissed, underemployed, and never-hired are all too similar to a growing outbreak of zombies.

Fear

By one study at least, it appears that 47% of U.S. employment could be replaced by automation in the next ten years. Coupled with Great Recessionary catastophes, that brutal fact can instill abject terror. Seemingly secure workers could at any moment join the shuffling hordes of the unemployed. Their incomes are at risk, yes. But, perhaps more importantly, their idenitities are threatened: their social positions, their family’s esteem, and their investment (both psychological and financial) in the current social order. The illusions and pretensions of the upper middle class would seem especially vulnerable to this gnawing, flesh-rending fear.

Pity & Revulsion

Zombies were once human. Most disturbingly, they can be people we knew in life. Like a recognizable corpse, the unemployed can be both repulsive and heartbreaking. The unlucky creature may be family member, a former colleague, or a desperate acquaintance pinging plaintively for introductions on LinkedIn. They are consigned to the life without life of the long-term unemployed… to join the desperate clawing of middle aged professionals begging for an interview, as their friendships, business contacts, professional networks, their homes, clothing, and even their bodies decay and fall apart.

Zombieism spreads by proximity and feeding. Is unemployment contagious? Will the jobless devour? Will they sink their teeth in to extract emotional or financial nourishment when the employed are clinging to their own diminishing networks and resources? Stay away from the losers. Don’t be infected by their poor decisions, bad luck, unworthiness for life.

THE DATA

How do we prove this interchangeability of fears? What would establish a link between fear of unemployment and the cultural prevalence of zombieism?

Why data, of course.

Not since the Washington Post’s “President Obama and the horse mask person” investigation has there been a data-driven news story of this importance.

Through impeccable proprietary scientific processes, I have developed a Cultural Index of Zombieism™ (or CIZ™) derived from mentions of “zombies” in the New York Times, the word appearing in books in English scanned by Google, and the number of zombie films released each year.

The graph below charts the CIZ from 1968 through 2013 along with the percentage of Americans who told Gallup pollsters that they feared it was “likely” they would soon lose their jobs. For reference, the federal government’s annual unemployment rate is charted on the same graph. Behold the resulting infographic:

zombies and unemployment

It sure looks like something’s going on here. To find out, we sought a professional statistical analysis of the raw data by a Johns Hopkins University faculty member. The results were decisive:

THERE IS A CORRELATION!

When the percentage of people fearing job loss increases, there is a statistically significant increase in the CIZ. Based on the 1968–2013 statistics, the CIZ is predicted to increase by 1.2 for every one percent increase in Americans’ fear of job loss.

Because there is a correlation, there must be causation, right?

Fear of job loss drives our pop culture fixation on zombies.

Q.E.D.

#

Sources:

All the Pieces Matter / Podcasts

Baltimore must embrace The Wire – All the Pieces Matter – Episode Zero

Play

In this “Episode Zero” of our new online show, Andrew Hazlett (@andrewhazlett) and Sharon Paley (@sharon_paley) discuss recent news and talk with Baltimore’s own “evil genius for good” Hasdai Westbrook (@HasdaiWestbrook).

We discuss Hasdai’s work in the social enterprise sector, and we look closely at his argument that Baltimore should not try to flee from David Simon’s heartbreaking portrayal of the city in “The Wire.” Our vision for “All the Pieces Matter” is indebted to Hasdai’s writing on this theme at the ChangingMedia blog (“To #SaveBmore, Embrace The Wire”.) We’re very happy he could join us to help prime the conversational pump as we begin this new series.

Download mp3

Maunderings

A pledge of annoyance

This post marks my commitment to make the world just a little more overwhelming. There may well be more writers than readers online – see: Study: Online Content Creators Outnumber Consumers 2,000 To 1. I regret that this may be one of those Onion stories matched or exceeded by reality.

Still, my motive for these published “maunderings” is entirely selfish. Just write something, produce something, and see where it goes. The only way to start is by starting. A writer is one who writes. So there. I am a writer. Right now, at least.

Culture

Are you sick of TED too?

Guys, pat yourselves on the back right now… That pat on the back is for saving the world.

Best TED talk EVER!!!!!!!!

Actually, this talk may be the best summation of the absurdity of the TED ideology: Compost-Fueled Cars: Wouldn’t That Be Great?

Yeah, yeah, I know. TED talks can stir the imagination. They can also provoke exploration that goes deeper than the streamed microlectures. If I had anything important to say, I too would love to address that overclass audience, win favor, and join the retinue of some latter-day Medici.

Still, take a look at Benjamin Bratton’s anti-TED TEDx talk. He captures some problematic aspects of TED, such as “placebo politics,” and “middlebrow megachurch infotainment.”

Maunderings

Academic employment: worse than Walmart?

Walmart’s employment policies and pay look pretty good in comparison to the higher education industry. I wonder how Walmart workers’ pay and benefits compare to adjunct professors’? I bet the Walmart greeters get a better hourly wage.

There were some unique circumstances in this infamous case of an elderly adjunct professor whose life ended in squalor and poverty. Still, American universities should be ashamed of how they treat adjunct faculty. People entrusted with the education of our youth shouldn’t be a permanent underclass relying on public assistance and charity to make ends meet.

What Really Happened to Margaret Mary Vojtko, the Duquesne Adjunct Whose Death Became a Rallying Cry?
On Friday, Aug. 16, Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct French professor who’d recently lost her job at Duquesne University at the age of 83, suffered a cardiac arrest on a street corner in Homestead, Pa.* Vojtko collapsed yards from the house where she had lived almost her entire life…

 

Maunderings

The action most worth watching is not at the center of things

“…the action most worth watching is not at the center of things but where the edges meet. I like shorelines, weather fronts, international borders. There are interesting frictions and incongruities in these places, and often, if you stand at the point of tangency, you can see both sides better than if you were in the middle of either one.”

Anne Fadiman in the preface to The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down