What the Hell is Going On in America?

Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall—and Those Fighting to Reverse It

By Steven Brill

If you’ve been paying attention for the past few years, what Steven Brill tells you in his often times infuriating new book Tailspin will not surprise you. There’s a tremendous and still expanding disparity between the haves and the have-nots. The haves control the levers of government and they work actively to reduce government, because, frankly, government can do little for them; from their viewpoint, it mostly hinders them. The have-nots control nothing. They really don’t understand how government and business work. They especially don’t grasp how good government benefits them, and, amazing to many, they support the goals of the haves in their effort to shutdown government.

As a result, the country feels like it’s going to hell in a hand basket, what with crumbling infrastructure, skyrocketing medical costs, lack of meaningful work for many, shortage of affordable housing, spreading poverty, and the like. What Brill shows you is how after the 1960s we began spiraling downward, how almost unnoticed changes contributed, what good intentions morphed into, and how some, a handful, work now to pull us out of our spin. If the book has a weakness, it’s this last part, ways that we can level off, and climb, once again regaining our lofty status as a country that prospers by helping the least of us succeed. Unfortunately, as Brill presents it, the space he gives it, it really seems meager, particularly viewed against the entrenched powers.

Brill begins back in the early 1970s when a few forward thinking universities, among them Yale, actively endeavored to break the American old family network by developing outreach programs designed to accept students based upon merit. Other institutions followed, a culture of meritocracy blossomed, and, lo and behold, these new bright people began pulling up the ladder after them. They went where the money was, becoming lawyers, corporate leaders, bankers, and Wall Street financiers.

On the way up, they revolutionized banking and finance with complicated and dangerous financial instruments. They enlisted lawyers to transform due process into a weapon for besieging and crippling government regulators. They turned free speech on its head to give corporations much more leeway in advertising, dodging marketing regulations, working around product labeling rules, and accumulating and trading in personal data.

With the advent of multiple channels of information, the public no longer operated off of a shared set of facts. Using C-Span, a noble idea, political leaders with the loudest and most conservative voices gained control and moved the country rightward. The myriad of issues well known to us today, from healthcare, to immigration, to a diminished middle class, and to financial speculation, became unsolvable problems, mere pawns for demagoguery.

The first step to reversing descent into accent is understanding how we got here, really getting under the hood for a close inspection of the origins and operating parts of our dysfunction, examining it in its particulars and also from a gestalt view. Here, Brill, as he did with his America’s Bitter Pill on healthcare, does the public a great service. Tailspin is the book that should be on every American’s reading list who truly have an interest in helping America achieve greatness defined in human prosperity and dignity. Too bad many who should read it won’t. w/c

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At the Movies: Aronofsky’s Fallible God

mother!

By Darren Aronofsky, Writer & Director; Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris,  Michelle Pfeiffer, others

mother! (trailer) landed with a giant thud in 2017, at least at the box office. Critics reviewed it generally favorably. Even half the public who saw it rated it positively, though they might not have liked it. And it’s easy to see why viewers might be put off by the film. It starts off as a hot, confusing mess. You also might interpret their dislike as a comment on the film’s seemingly critical portrayal of major organized religions, given how it depicts God’s creation and His imperfectability and stubbornness in going about trying to get it right for all eternity. For that’s exactly what this chaotic film is all about. With religion as context, you can make sense of the film from the beginning the very first time you watch it.

Now, as caution, what follows explains the film in the context of a religious interpretation, and doing so tells you what happens in the film. If you haven’t yet watched mother! you might want to do so before reading further, or not; the choice is yours.

In the film, the writer (Javier Bardem) represents God. He has written the world into being, the house. Mother (Jennifer Lawrence), who you might regard as mother earth, mother nature, etc., busies herself maintaining God’s creation. While she does, she awaits God’s further creations. It’s been a long time since he as written a poem, producing tension in the house. In his writing room, which is off limits to mother, he has an object, a crystalline artifact; it has great sentimental value, as it seems to represent something that came before.

Eventually, Adam (Ed Harris) and Eve (Michelle Pfeiffer) show up. Adam comes first and the writer invites him in as if an old friend, to the discomfort of mother. Eve follows. There appears to be discord between the two, and they are very bad about obeying mother’s house rules, which involve no smoking in the house and no going into the writer’s room. They violate both.

In the writer’s room, they admire the crystalline object, but through carelessness, they drop and shatter it. Then sets off the destruction of the house, creation, and all those within. For it’s now that the house begins filling up with people, the first two of whom are oldest son (Cain, Domhnall Gleeson) and younger brother (Abel, Brian Gleeson). Younger kills older over an inheritance dispute. Mourning, and more people, follow. Eve taunts mother about her not having children. She, in turn, accuses the writer of neglecting her sexually, which he remedies immediately.

The next day, she announces her pregnancy. Overjoyed, the writer finds the inspiration he needs to complete his next great work (the scriptures). People receive these with great joy but read into them what they want to hear. Acrimony ensures in the now overcrowded house. Mother gives birth (son of God). The writer shares the child with the people to mother’s great horror. They worship the child but also tear him apart and devour him (communion with God).

Finally, amid unbelievable turmoil and conflict among the people, the house catches first, reducing creation to ashes. The writer comforts a scorched mother and extracts her heart from her (the new crystalline artifact). Mother awakens as she did at the opening. The house and the surrounding grounds are restored. The creation begins again (presumably to devolve in the same fashion as all the preceding times).

mother! has been billed as a horror film, which it isn’t. You certainly might find much of what goes on horrifying, as you probably find what happens daily in the world horrifying. But most wanting to watch a horror movie expect to have their socks scared off. mother! isn’t that kind of movie, and maybe that’s one reason it didn’t fare well at the box office. The other reason is that, well, it at first seems confusing and pointless, until you figure out what you are watching. For some, then, it might just be offensive.

However, if the film as a weakness, and it does, it is that the characters aren’t the kind audiences can connect with emotionally. Mother and the rest, rather, are archetypes illustrating creation mythology, God’s hubris in believing He could create beauty and still give the creatures of his creation free will. Kind of hard to establish a relationship with these folks. Visually and intellectually, though, the film should certainly warrant and reward the attention of questioning and thoughtful viewers. w/c

Behind Lori Baer: The Complete Novel

Behind Lori Baer

Behind Lori Baer is a psychological thriller. It tells the story of Lori Baer who brings death to whomever she forms a close relationship with. When her husband, a prominent Chicago businessman, turns up dead, his friend and business associate decides to play detective and find the killer. Gabe Angellini is a retired ad man in his fifties and his father-in-law a retired Chicago cop who runs his own security agency. Together, they set out to find an elusive killer, putting their own lives, and those of their family, in grave danger. They discover that Lori Baer is a woman with a complicated past and the killer almost a ghost. For the complete novel, click here.

Where Is the Worst Healthcare System?

Steven Brill has a new book out about America’s diminishment, the causes and possible ways to fix it, titled Tailspin. We’ll review it shortly. His current book brought to mind his last one on the American healthcare system, or what passes for our effort at it. What he said and we said of his book is as true today as it was way back in 2015. Take a look, and look for our take on his new book, coming soon.

America’s Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Back-Room Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System

By Steven Brill

Reality is a hard to face and accept. We Americans certainly have a hard time with it. For instance, when you tell people that our country has the highest number of incarcerated citizens and the second highest rate of incarceration, exceeded only by the Seychelles, (International Centre for Prison Studies), many are surprised and many flat-out don’t believe it. Same holds with healthcare. Of 11 developed countries, we come in dead last on efficiency, equity, and outcomes (Commonwealth Fund, 2014 Survey). For many reasons, some of them ideological, many people continue to insist we have the best health care in the world (or had, before Obama fiddled with it!). Dispelling delusion isn’t easy.

That’s what makes Brill’s book so welcome and worthwhile. It will be an eyeopener for many and for others will illustrate why we went wrong, when we went wrong, how we attempted to rectify our mistakes, why we failed, and how what we ended up with the Affordable Care Act that has left pretty much everybody disgruntled (now under dismantlement by Trump and his Republican allies to be replaced with, well, who knows). Blame it on the vested money interests: hospitals, doctors, insurance companies, and pharma; blame it on politics and our historical ideological divides (like the socialism bugaboo); blame it on a generally uninformed population, many of whom are happy to work against their own best interests. There are certainly plenty of places to point to.

If nothing else, if you find Brill’s book foreboding in volume and detail, you will learn a lot by at least reading Chapter 2, “Center Stage.” Here Brill clearly and succinctly provides the history of medical delivery and financial protection (which nicely describes what we call our “healthcare system”) in the U.S. This sets the stage for ACA and how we got what we have now, something that is better than what we had before, in terms of covering many more people, but that doesn’t solve the problem of cost control that is jogging to within shouting distance of 20 percent of GDP (currently just shy of 18%, nearly double that of the UK, Canada, France, and others [World Bank, 2014]).

If all the arguing over healthcare in the U.S. baffles and mystifies you, you should find some help in Brill’s book. Unfortunately, though, this book can’t supply us with what we need, a true healthcare system providing equity, efficiency (in delivery and cost), and superior outcomes. That requires a political will that doesn’t appear anywhere on the horizon. w/c

Terrorized by Religion

Boy Erased

By Garrard Conley

There was a time when psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, and psychologists considered homosexuality a disorder and experimented with a variety of techniques for curing the condition, the most notorious being transorbital lobotomies, torturous aversion therapies, mentally damaging blame the victim abuse, to name a few. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as a disorder from the DSM-I. This, however, did not stop groups from pursuing ways to pressure individuals into changing their sexuality, or at least suppress it. In fact, currently, only a handful of jurisdictions in the United States prohibit what Garrard Conley writes about in novelistic memoir, Boy Erased. Love in Action (LIA), of which Conley writes, still operates, now under the name Restoration Path. John Smid, a real person appearing in Conley’s book, now admits that he was wrong, and acknowledges his homosexuality; in 2014, he married his spouse, Larry McQueen. You can detect bitterness at the end of Conley’s life story regarding the ex-gay leaders who now admit to the harm they did.

Conley recounts when a fellow student at his college who had raped him outed him to his parents. Both were very religious people, fundamentalists. Conley’s father owned a car dealership wherein he not only sold cars but proselytized to buyers and held prayer meetings with his employees. At the time, his father was on the verge of beginning a new life as an ordained pastor in the local Ministry Baptist Church. As for Conley, he appeared on the outside to be an ideal prospective minister’s son, replete with beautiful and popular girlfriend.

Conley’s parents were not the harsh types. They thought perhaps they had done something wrong, that maybe he was medically defective in some curable way, that professional help would put him back on the Christian path. LIA, which came highly recommended to them, seemed like a good option.

Conley recounts his time at LIA and with leader John Smid. LIA subjected Conley and the others to conversion therapy. This version, as explained by Conley, employed a 12-step approach. It forced participants to look deep into their family histories for issues, among them alcoholism, spousal abuse, and the like, that might account for the subjects’ aberrant behavior. As you might imagine, constantly dredging for problems, continually trying to prise from yourself some reason for your sexual abnormality, this unrelenting type of self-flagellation could lead to dangerous mental instability.

Coupled with this was Conley’s fundamentalist religious upbringing. His was, and probably remains, engaged in an inner battle to reconcile his sexuality with religious dogma that condemned him, that viewed his sexuality as a choice and thus a turning away from God. Conversion therapy only served to intensify this struggle.

Conley tries to convey his pain, but, unfortunately, in trying to treat his experience more like a novel than an introspective memoir, readers might not fully appreciate the agony such pseudo therapy caused him and others.

Boy Erased will appear as a film in late September, starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, and Russell Crowe. with screenplay adaptation and direction by Joel Edgerton, and may do a better job of portraying the emotional and mental turmoil non-acceptance can produce.

Those interested in LIA and religious conversion therapy in general might like to watch the documentary This Is What Love In Action Looks Like, as well as view a few interviews with survivors online. w/c

Behind Lori Baer: The Complete Novel

Behind Lori Baer

Behind Lori Baer is a psychological thriller. It tells the story of Lori Baer who brings death to whomever she forms a close relationship with. When her husband, a prominent Chicago businessman, turns up dead, his friend and business associate decides to play detective and find the killer. Gabe Angellini is a retired ad man in his fifties and his father-in-law a retired Chicago cop who runs his own security agency. Together, they set out to find an elusive killer, putting their own lives, and those of their family, in grave danger. They discover that Lori Baer is a woman with a complicated past and the killer almost a ghost. For the complete novel, click here.

Women in the American Dungeon

The Mars Room

By Rachel Kushner

Are you of the mind that each person must accept personal responsibility for how he or she leads their life, and that all that befalls them is of their own doing? Or, are you more inclined to think people, yes, must bear a certain degree of personal responsibility, but that they often have little control of many aspects of their lives, from formative years on into adulthood. In The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner speaks to you in the latter group, but she also appeals to you among the formers. People, she seems to say, do not develop in a vacuum, do not live in one either. Society must accept some responsibility for how members turn out, because it’s society that bestows upon people crippling disadvantages and encouraging advantages. In The Mars Room, society as represented by our justice system, doesn’t come off very well when dealing with flawed people it has helped create.

The novel follows protagonist Romy Hall from the time she enters the California prison system. She had worked as a stripper and lap dancer at a club in San Francisco called The Mars Room to support herself and her child, Jackson. There, she attracted a clientele of men who requested her for lap dances, among them Kurt Kennedy, an ugly brute of a fellow with a leg damaged in a motorcycle accident. Kurt develops an imaginary relationship with Romy and begins stalking her, even after she leaves the Mars Room to avoid him. He finds her, though, and in a confrontation kills him by bashing in his brains. As a result of what she sees as incompetent legal representation by an assigned public defender, she receives two life sentences with added time, ensuring she will never leave prison. Not to put to fine a point on it, is this really justice?

From the prison bus to incarceration, Romy interacts with a variety of female prisoners all imprisoned for a variety of violent crimes, from robbery/murder to child murder. Kushner portrays everything about their treatment as dehumanizing and their accommodations as second rate, particularly in comparison to what they imagine men receive. Kushner doesn’t have to work too hard to accomplish this, just reproduce the signage and literature from prisons.

One day, Gordon Hauser appears on the scene. He, in addition to Kurt Kennedy, is a character with his own voice. Hauser, who has encountered difficulty in pursuit of his advanced degree, takes a job at the prison helping women interested earn their GEDs. Prison personnel, of course, deride him. As with all prison employees, at first he undervalues his charges and, like other employees, finds himself being manipulated by the women for their own purposes. Romy, he discovers, is different, an intelligent women who seems to want to learn. He orders her books via Amazon delivered directly to her, as prison rules forbid direct gifts. While Romy does enjoy the books, she hopes to learn about her son through him. At first resistant, he does deliver news to her that proves devastating and propels her into a desperate last act.

Kushner’s writing here conveys the rawness and brutality of the women’s lives but it is not without humor. If there is a message it’s that society has had a hand in creating these women and has chosen to banish them from its collective mind to a remote dismal prison into an equally dismal geography removed from sight and reach. w/c