The Bat Segundo Show: Janet Reitman

Janet Reitman appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #399. She is most recently the author of Inside Scientology.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Always on the run.

Author: Janet Reitman

Subjects Discussed: Scientology and cults, the way Scientology works, Orthodox Judaism, Michael Sklar, tax-exempt religions, the religious elements used to form Scientology, esoteric religious movements in early 20th century Los Angeles, L. Ron Hubbard’s design as “a matter of practical business,” Hubbard’s connection with Jack Parsons, Aleister Crowley, tapping into what people are looking for, Hubbard’s migratory lifestyle, finding respect for L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology and materialism, the financial worth of exclusive knowledge, how Reitman managed to obtain access to the Church of Scientology’s inner sanctum, how fact-checking can be used to generate journalistic access, personal phone calls from Tom Cruise, Rolling Stone‘s editorial reaction to the Church of Scientology, Lawrence Wright’s New Yorker profile, efforts to remain objective about the Church of Scientology, the Church’s tendency to bury its critics in paper and lawsuits, the Church’s battle against the IRS, efforts to determine why the IRS abandoned its fight against the Church of Scientology, Operation Snow White, David Miscavige’s persuasive abilities, top officials at the IRS being harassed, missing cats and dogs, anonymous sources, L. Ron Hubbard’s “cure for homosexuality,” the Church of Scientology’s support for Proposition 8, attempts to determine if the Church remains homophobic, Paul Haggis quitting the Church over gay marriage, comparisons between the Church of Scientology and the Mormon Church, Scientology’s regular purging of its top officials, David Miscavige’s good points, Cathy Lee Crosby, Narconon, Scientology’s involvement with the New York Rescue Workers Detoxification Project, Nancy Cartwright, scant political oversight of “drug rehabilitation programs,” the death of Lisa McPherson, Joan Wood’s amended cause of death for McPherson, the Church using its financial resources to hire top forensic investigators in the McPherson case, discussing the underlying facts of the McPherson case, charges that the Church destroyed evidence in the McPherson case, Scientologist couples being split apart, various waivers, easily replaced Sea Org workers, behavior tolerated by Miscavige, strategic alliances between the Church of Scientology and other religions, efforts to expand the Church in the Internet age, the Church targeting the African-American community, money coming in from celebrities and normal people, offshoot groups from Scientology, and Scientology’s ethical code.


Correspondent: You write that Scientology “was not a ‘cult’ insofar as it did not require separation from mainstream society — though it encouraged its acolytes to ‘disconnect’ from those who were critical of Scientology.” Now sociologist Howard Becker’s idea of a cult generally emphasizes the private nature of personal beliefs or a group of people that isn’t especially organized. Given how private and sequestered Scientologists are about their beliefs, I’m wondering. If you took away the organization, could you call them a cult? How is Scientology not a cult?

Reitman; I don’t like to use the word “cult.” Because I find that as soon as you use that word, it immediately stigmatizes a group and also marginalizes them. And it also delegitimizes them and takes them less seriously. The reader, the listener, will immediately say, “Oh yeah. Whatever.” Right? So one of the reasons I don’t use that word is because in order for me to write a book about them, I have to take them very seriously. And they are legitimized in our country as a religion. Now we could have a five hour argument over whether or not various other religions are cults. And we could have pros and cons on each side of that argument.

Correspondent: Well, why can’t you be a cult and a religion?

Reitman: You probably can be. I’m not a cult expert. But what I say about Scientology in the book and what I believe is that, at its innermost core, it is a completely, totalistic, all-encompassing organization that demands absolute 100% adherence to the rules and to the leadership of David Miscavige, the head of the Church. And it was also like that with L. Ron Hubbard when L. Ron Hubbard was the head of the Church. But there are stratums of the way Scientology works. I’m not a cult expert. So I’m not really qualified to answer a lot of questions about cults. But one of the points about Scientology is that in the outermost level of your dedication, which is where a lot of the celebrities are, to them, to those people, it is not a cult. It’s either a religion or a process of self-help or a bunch of techniques that help their lives. And that’s the way it begins for them. Now I think that’s the way it begins for lots of other believers of other totalistic groups, right? But you can be in Scientology for twenty or thirty years and remain on that outside periphery. Somehow there are people who have remained in that strata. Most people do not. Most people enter further in. And the further in you go, the more controlling it is. But I think the main point is that, whether it is a “cult” or not, in our country, it’s legitimized as a religion. They are given tax exempt status. They’re recognized. They have more protections than the Orthodox Jews in certain regards. Scientologist parents can write off their children’s education, for example. There was a very famous case recently [Michael Sklar] of an Orthodox Jewish family that attempted to do the same thing. It went all the way up to the Supreme Court. They claimed the exact same protections as the Scientologists did. And theirs was knocked down.

Correspondent: Internally, you can’t call them a “cult.” But externally, by virtue of their tax exempt status, you can or cannot call them a “cult”?

Reitman: I don’t think that it really makes a difference whether or not they’re a “cult.” Do you know what they are? They’re a global corporation. That’s what they are. And they have all the dysfunction of any gigantic global powerful corporation. And that’s how I look at them. I tend to look at them that way. They have religious components absolutely. If you believe in them, that’s great for you. I’m not going to judge their beliefs. I don’t judge their beliefs. My book is about their practices, their organization, their impact, their influence on people who have subscribed to them and bought, literally bought, into Scientology. Because you can’t just do Scientology. You have to purchase Scientology. They’re a very commercially driven spiritual enterprise. That’s what they are.

Correspondent: I’ll get to Scientology in a minute. But just from a philosophical standpoint, because it is a business proposition, this does away with the “cult” nomen?

Reitman: I’m not going to comment on whether or not they’re a “cult.” It’s not interesting to me.

Correspondent: No problem. In your original Rolling Stone piece, you wrote that Scientology was “rooted in elements of Buddhism, Hinduism and a number of Western philosophies, including aspects of Christianity.” Yet you note in the book that L. Ron Hubbard wrote in this 1953 letter that he incorporated the religious angle as “a matter of practical business.” In the interests of staying objective, what specifically qualities of Scientology a unique religion? I mean, how much of this hodgepodge you identify in the Rolling Stone article was designed as “a matter of practical business?”

Reitman: I don’t think any of it was designed as “a matter of practical business” originally. I mean, I think that L. Ron Hubbard grew up in the ’20s. He was born in 1911. He essentially grew up, so to speak, into the ’20s and the ’30s during the Depression. He was a young man in the Depression. And he found himself in Los Angeles after World War II. And Los Angeles, during that period of the mid to late ’30s and the ’40s (and also the ’20s), was this booming religious ground, where all kinds of weird offshoot faiths, new faiths and offshoots of Christianity as well, were then really popular. And one of those areas was the Western esoteric tradition that he found himself getting to know very well through this association he had with Jack Parsons, who was a famous astrophysicist and secret wizard. Follower of Aleister Crowley. It’s one of everybody’s favorite stories: L. Ron Hubbard’s association with Jack Parsons. But I think that he took those aspects of esoteric thought, which were things like secret knowledge, ascending the ranks to gain more and more knowledge. And that was very common in L.A. It wasn’t just through Crowley. The Rosicrucians had a big church. There were lots of societies that were based on that kind of tradition. The sort of alternative, new-agey stuff that was really popular in the early 20th century and then became popular again towards the end of the 20th century. And I think that Hubbard was a guy who was really interested in philosophy and was interested in power. And he took probably some of the best parts, as well as some of the dysfunctional parts in terms of Freudian thoughts that Freud had discarded years earlier. But he took a wide variety of ideas. He manufactured them in a way that made them palatable to people who were not well-educated. That’s very important to know. People who did Scientology were very middle-class. They weren’t uneducated people. Some of them were extremely well-educated. But they were, for the most part, very average, mainstream in that this was religion or this was self-help or psychiatry, or an alternative to psychiatry for the masses. And at the time, these things were very exclusive. You couldn’t do psychiatry for example. You couldn’t go to a psychiatrist unless you had a tremendous amount of money to pay for a psychiatrist. There were only a few psychiatrists even in the United States practicing.

Corresepondent: Or you lived in New York. (laughs)

Reitman: You had to live in New York. You had to live in Los Angeles. Seriously. Maybe Chicago. Or in Washington. Maybe three or four cities in this country. His philosophy — his Dianetics philosophy — clearly tapped into something people were looking for. And Scientology, which was the offshoot of Dianetics, did as well. And the reason that it had this religious component was that people began to experience these past life recall moments, where they would be in these trances that you got into when you were doing these auditing sessions. And they would, all of a sudden, be thrown back to some previous life. This was spiritual to L. Ron Hubbard. It was spiritual to the people that were doing it. Whether or not they saw it as religious is very different than spiritual. It was spiritual to them. He then thought, “Hey, I can package spirituality and make it religion. And I can get a tax deduction. Or I can avoid having to deal with the U.S. government.” He was extremely paranoid of the government. It was a big deal. And remember this was during the Cold War.

Correspondent: And always on the move.

Reitman: Always.

The Bat Segundo Show #399: Janet Reitman (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

Against Essays About Reviews That Have No Corresponding Set of Virtues

When Elizabeth Hardwick wrote of the “sweet, bland commendations” that plagued the book reviewing scene in 1959, she was protesting a few anti-intellectual developments at the time: (1) the hubris of then New York Times Book Review editor Francis Brown claiming in an interview that his outlet was superior to the Times Literary Supplement simply because “[t]hey have a narrow audience and we have a narrow one” (while failing to comprehend the editorial rigor then in place at many English newspapers) and (2) the fact that 44.3% of the reviews appearing in Book Review Digest were non-committal, thus providing a laughably self-undermining idea of what the book review was (one sees such a disastrous approach in place presently with The Barnes & Noble Review, which, in deference to its corporate entity, publishes mostly raves, regularly stubs out passionate voices, and fires any freelancer who offers fair journalistic reports on the parent company in another venue). In other words, Hardwick was pointing out that book reviews were little more than publicity, with “Time readers, having learned Time‘s opinion of a book, feel[ing] that they have somehow already read the book, or if not quite that, if not read, at least taken it in, experienced it as a ‘fact of our time.'”

Hardwick was not suggesting that the book review was dead, nor did she entirely stand against critical writing. She was calling for robust standards standing independent from the sausage factory. And when one looks at a woefully deficient “outlet” like Jacket Copy — with its superficial concerns (just in the last few days) for Keanu Reeves poetry books, its interest in Slavoj Žižek only in relationship to Lady Gaga, and Stieg Larsson considered only through personal gossip — one observes very clearly how the literary journalism’s clear debasement has been dyed to the roots, with any natural voice destroyed in the noise of forcing commenters to sign on to Facebook.

Despite all this, I must stand firmly against Elizabeth Gumport’s recent suggestion that we nuke the site from orbit. Unlike the previous Elizabeth, whom Gumport quotes, this Elizabeth doesn’t stand for any corresponding set of virtues. She asks for an end to the inanity of a book review outlet being “nothing more than a list of books,” but she assumes that “[n]ot only do we not want to read about Gary Shteyngart’s latest novel, we don’t even want to know it exists.” To which this reader of Larsson, Shteyngart, Joyce, Mieville, and Go the Fuck to Sleep responds, “Speak for yourself, O Boring and Incurious One!”

In quoting Virginia Woolf’s 1939 essay, “Reviewing,” Gumport fails to understand that Woolf was condemning a scenario whereby sixty reviewers at once assured the reader that some book was a masterpiece, while pointing out that the reviewer’s position more than seventy years ago was unsatisfactory (then as it is now). Reviewers were then forced to write quick spurts in haste for scant pay. And it is this observation (rather than the asterisks) that begs the comparison to Kirkus and Publishers Weekly — outlets that have both been slashing their compensation in recent years, even charging publishers for the privilege of being reviewed. (Seven years after Woolf, George Orwell offered his memorable portrait of a book reviewer as “a man in a moth-eaten dressing gown sit[ting] at a rickety table, trying to find room for his typewriter among the piles of dusty papers that surround it.”) It does not occur to Gumport that improving the reviewer’s dim station — whether by offering her more adequate compensation or hiring one more committed to well-grounded thought and passion writing at less frequency — may actually improve the quality of reviews. Gumport also doesn’t seem to understand that Woolf was clearly having a laugh with her piece:

There remains finally the most important, but the most difficult of all these questions — what effect would the abolition of the reviewer have upon literature? Some reasons for thinking that the smashing of the shop window would make for the better health of that remote goddess have already been implied. The writer would withdraw into the darkness of the workshop; he would no longer carry on his difficult and delicate task like a trouser mender in Oxford Street, with a horde of reviewers pressing their noses to the glass and commenting to a curious crowd upon each stitch.

With Woolf’s wry context revealed, Gumport reveals herself to be an upholder of the n+1 aesthetic: humorless misreads of seminal essays sprinkled with polemical cayenne. In failing to think, Gumport is no different from her characterization of book reviews: pointless in her condemnations, snotty and recidivist in suggesting that nobody is interested in a review aside from the author (especially when so many authors wisely ignore the takedowns and the hatchet jobs of their work), and, most criminally, without so much as a positive counterpart. As my online colleague Michael Orthofer has suggested, “the whole exercise appears pointless — like a piece ‘Against Blue’ or ‘Against Soup’.” Or, for that matter, an essay called “Against Essays About Reviews That Have No Corresponding Set of Virtues.”

UPDATE: Tom Lutz has also responded at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Paid Author Events: The Future of Independent Bookstores?

It was a humid Wednesday afternoon, and I was outside BookCourt with a microphone.

That morning, a New York Times story about paid author events ignited a firestorm on Twitter. Some independent bookstores, hurting for cash, were now charging admission for a reading. Sometimes it was as little as $5. Sometimes it was the price of the hardcover for an off-site event. What had once been free was now the cost of a pint at happy hour.

These developments began in April. In Colorado, Boulder Book Store announced that it would charge $5 a head to attend an event. In California, Kepler’s demanded a $10 gift card to admit two people through the new paywall.

Was this reasonable? Or was this a form of gouging? Wasn’t the purpose of an author event to give the customer a chance to sample the goods? And would such a practice, as Ann Patchett suggested, scare off those who didn’t have the clams for a hardcover?

And why had nobody talked to the customers about this?

The time had come to sweat in the sun and ask every person leaving BookCourt to take part in “a journalistic survey.” I talked to as many customers as I could before the next thunderstorm broke. Some people were skeptical. Others were kind, but in a rush. One woman ran away, calling me “one of those goddam bums.” (In my haste, I had forgotten to shave and I was wearing an old T-shirt.) But most were accommodating.

Listening to the Customers

During the afternoon of June 22, 2011, we conducted several interviews with book customers outside Bookcourt for this story. Listen to Glenn Kenny discuss his thoughts on author events with Our Correspondent. (3:27)

This text will be replaced

Lucas, a smiling 50-year-old man who doesn’t work, told me that he doesn’t really attend author events, but that he “bumps into them.” He said he wouldn’t pay for an author event, largely because he views it as a meeting. In his view, the reader shouldn’t pay to meet people. “It’s very bizarre to go to an author meeting or gathering. Because basically you meet authors through their books. So I read their books. And I sort of dream about meeting them. But I don’t really want to meet them.”

Miriam, a 35-year-old consultant, told me she attended two to three author events a year. She likes “to learn about the work that goes behind the writing.” Asking stimulating questions and “the author’s voice” were also big draws. She said that she would pay $5 for an author event “if it was an author I liked.” The $5 fee wouldn’t make a huge difference, but she felt that “these things should be free to get the maximum number of people.” Miriam said that, if she were intrigued, she would pay for a debut or an unknown author event. But the biggest reason that Miriam went to events was knowing the author in question.

Patty Greenberg, a 60-year-old stay-at-home mom tightly gripping the leash of a rather large and very well-groomed poodle, told me that she only attended one author event a year and that she would only pay $5 if she was really interested in the author.

A 24-year-old dancer who claimed to be “Devon Alberta” (stage name or lark?) said that he doesn’t attend author events, but that he would pay money “if he liked the author.” He would even purchase the book if this was the cost to attend. Why does he attend author events? “I always like to have access to the writer and the way that they communicate outside of the text.”

Then there was an unexpected run-in with the film critic Glen Kenny, who told me that he attended five author events a year. Would he pay? “Five dollars is about reasonable if I wanted to go. And if there was seating.” Kenny confessed that he mostly goes to events if he knows the author, but he is interested in the presentation. “Just a window into his own perception of what he’s doing, I think, is often conveyed through reading.” He pointed to key differences between seeing Martin Amis at an event when he wasn’t well-known versus when he was well-known. But he did admit that an author event “doesn’t necessarily enhance my appreciation of the work.”

Brandon Pederson, a 24-year-old gentleman who identified himself as “a real-time highlighter for Major League Baseball,” said that he usually attended four author events a year. He said he would pay $5 if he “was sold on them being someone I would give $5 to” — note the way Pederson views the money as going to the author, not the bookstore. Pederson said that he often attended author events because “friends told him to.” I suggested to Pederson that surely he had free will. He then told me that he was new to the city and interested in “theory” and “fiction that pushes what fiction is.” He enjoyed hearing authors talk about books, sometimes buying them to be signed. But if Pederson was asked to pay $5 for an author he hadn’t heard of, then his criteria changed: “if the work sounded relative to what I was interested in.”

Jen, a 27-year-old teacher, told me that she probably hadn’t been to an author event at a bookstore. She was fond of going to author lectures –“usually authors that we’re reading about and stuff that we’re taking excerpts from.” Why did she avoid bookstore events? “Honestly? Probably because it’s not marketed that well. I don’t know about them.” Jen said that she would pay for an author event at a bookstore, but, like the majority of the people I spoke with, it would depend on who the author is. She would pay for favorite authors, but she wouldn’t pay for debut or unknown authors. “Not unless it was a friend I was trying to help out.”

Another 27-year-old teacher named Lynn, accompanied by a highly animated dog, was an even bigger fan of author events than Jen, in large part because she teaches English. She copped to attending 40 author events a year and she was the only person I talked with who had read the New York Times article. Why did she attend author events? “I’m bad in bars.”

While paying for an event would make her think twice, Lynn said that, despite her teacher’s salary, she would pay $5 if she had to because she loved independent bookstores and wanted to see them flourish. “There’s a reason I don’t buy used books.” But she did say that her husband would probably give her a hard time if she was forced to pay out $200/year.

Lynn told me that she had been disappointed by some author events. “I just go to go. It would have to be more of a schtick. Some do interviews. And some just read. I might be a little more thoughtful about the events that I go to.” I asked if she would want more from a reading if she was ponying up a Lincoln. “Yeah,” said Lynn. “Instead of Paul Auster reading, Jonathan Lethem interviewing Paul Auster. Maybe there’s wine and cheese.” Like other paid author event supporters I talked with, Lynn said that she would have to be somewhat familiar with a debut or unknown author to attend a paid author event — perhaps through a story in The New Yorker or One Story.

Will Paid Author Events Create More Demands?

“Instead of Paul Auster reading, Jonathan Lethem interviewing Paul Auster. Maybe there’s wine and cheese.” Listen to Lynn, a 27-year-old schoolteacher, discuss her thoughts on paid author events with Our Correspondent. (1:59)

This text will be replaced

Doug Stone, a 40-year-old writer, said that he attended somewhere between three and four author events a year. Asked if he would pay $5 for an author event, he replied, “Well, it can’t be anybody.” Stone said that readings had a certain feel of inclusiveness that might be diminished by asking people to pay. “I’ve been to bookstores where you’re browsing and you didn’t even know there was going to be a reading. Then all of a sudden, we’re doing a reading. And you go over and you’re introduced to people.” He felt that charging money changed the spirit of the event and audience expectations. “The readings that I’ve enjoyed the most, they’re just a free event.” But Stone was not averse to someone passing the hat after an author event, if certain needs were stated. “I would put ten frigging dollars in that hat.”

* * *

What do these conversations tell us? It reveals that people like Lucas and Doug Stone often attend author events when it is random and that these happy accidents can produce potential acolytes. Nearly all of these customers see the author event as an experience to get to know the author beyond the book. Attending an event represents a perceived social experience. A $5 fee not only created the distinct possibility that debut, experimental, and unknown authors would be cut out of the loop, but it created new demands upon authors and bookstores. Would authors be required to perform? Should the authors be compensated? Would the audience demand more?

“Paid author events are common in Europe,” says novelist Stewart O’Nan. “In fact, a free author event would be uncommon, and even those are subsidized by the publishers and bookstores in co-op fashion, with the author being paid for each and every tour appearance. Because the author, when not writing, is being asked to be a performing artist. What other professional would be asked to travel across the country and perform their work for free? Even the lowliest dive bar has to give the band half of the door. This ain’t open mike night. The store provides the venue & the advertising & logistics, so they should definitely get a cut, but the author, being the attraction, should definitely be compensated.”

“Author events are a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, in a way,” says memoirist Alison Bechdel, who also offered an idea of authors performing foot massages for a small fee and splitting the take with the bookstore. “It’s understood that the bookstore and the author and the publisher all have a stake and a responsibility, but it’s a complex, overlapping mix in which you all depend on one another and work as hard as you can to have a successful event. All three parties want to sell the book. But there are other, less commodifiable, elements in the mix. It’s worth something to readers to have access to an author. It’s worth something to authors to have the opportunity to reach readers. It’s worth something to bookstores to get traffic and possible new customers. And when, inevitably, there’s an event that no one shows up to, the toll is not just financial — it’s depressing.

Stephanie Anderson, manager of the independent bookstore WORD Brooklyn, concludes that the author is being compensated on some level. “We’ve definitely noticed a strong correlation between how much an author and audience connect and how many books sell. I know royalties aren’t huge, but they are a good reason to want to sell a lot of your own book.”

I reached Tayari Jones by telephone as she was in the middle of a very involved indie-friendly tour for her latest novel, Silver Sparrow. Jones said that she was very grateful to the independents for their support of her book and that she wanted to do whatever she could for them. But she did express some reservations about paid author events could solve present problems.

“We need to raise awareness,” said Jones. “But I think that charging money feels punitive.”

Jones brought up a hypothetical example of a customer driving all the way from Detroit to an Ann Arbor bookstore and being turned away because she didn’t have the $5. “Can you imagine that?” Jones said that she didn’t want anybody turned away. Would this mean authors and publishers subsidizing author events for those facing financial hardship? I asked Jones if she would pay out of pocket. “$100,” said Jones. “I could front twenty people.”

Jones has adopted one strategy of informing her audience why it’s important to purchase a book at an indie — even if members of her audience have already done so. “It’s worked every time.” She notes that when such a request comes from the author (instead of the bookseller), it tends to have a less partial perception.

* * *

“My bottom line is this,” says novelist Jennifer Weiner. “I don’t think authors have any business telling readers where or when to buy their books. Would I love it if everyone bought my new hardcover the day it was published at Headhouse Books, which is my neighborhood independent in Philadelphia? Absolutely. Do I understand if they’ve got e-readers, or can find the books more cheaply at Sam’s Club or Target, or wait for the paperback, or visit the library because a hardcover isn’t in their budget? Absolutely. I’m grateful to have people reading my books, however and whenever they do it.”

Weiner hopes that struggling independent booksellers can consider the long-term customer. “Maybe the graduate student or young mom who shows up at my reading isn’t going to drop $27 on my newest hardcover, but maybe she will buy a trade paperback, and a few Judy Moodys for her kid. So the store’s making money, even if it’s not on my book. Or the putative reader won’t buy the book that day, but she’ll get it in two weeks. Or she won’t get it at all, but she’ll tell a friend, who will then buy a copy.”

Still, as former bookstore marketing manager Colleen Lindsay has observed, the author event is fraught with significant costs, including expenditures for returned books and those customers who couldn’t purchase a book that they wanted.

Off-site events, such as WORD Brooklyn’s recent ticketed event with China Mieville, have made a difference. “I think ticketing the event and having the vast majority of the books pre-purchased ended up making the event a better one overall,” says Anderson. “We and the venue were able to properly plan because we knew how many people were coming, which made setting up and transitioning from Mieville’s interview to his signing much easier (and meant he could spend more time with fans). It also meant that the act of commerce was essentially disassociated from the event, because everyone had already paid. There was no pressure to buy, because everyone had already bought. The staff could spend more time talking with people and helping out, instead of running a million credit cards. We did have some backlist titles available for sale and sold a few, but most people just got right in line with the book they had gotten when they walked in the door, and it all went very smoothly.”

Yet O’Nan suggests that shifting to a pay-for-play model generates additional problems of writers competing with celebrity writers. “Sarah Palin will sell a truckload more books and draw much bigger crowds than, say, Tom Wolfe,” says O’Nan, “who will sell a truckload more books and draw a much bigger crowd than, say, Steven Millhauser. In the end, is the idea merely to turn out the largest crowd and make the largest profit (and to sell the largest number of copies)? If so, book Sarah Palin. If it’s to enjoy the genius of a master storyteller, call Steven Millhauser. I’ll pay good money to see him.”

“There many be some evolution towards a revenue share model similar to what you see at a music venue, where they book in an act and share the door with the performer,” says Christin Evans, co-owner of The Booksmith in San Francisco. “We’d be open to considering that type of model. We already have a similar arrangement with the performer as our monthly adult cabaret event, The Literary Clown Foolery.”

Jones, O’Nan, and Weiner all tell me that they work very hard at their author events.

“I bring an A-game regardless,” says Jones. “There could be no more additional pressure.”

“I go out and give my all every time, whether I’m being paid decent money at a big university or reading for free at a tiny library,” says O’Nan.

“My secret weapon is baked goods,” says Weiner.

But do performance elements — what the dedicated bookstore customer might call “schtick” — create new demands for authors and bookstores in the 21st century?

Glenn Kenny suggests that some of these performance elements have been there all along. “I remember going to benefit events,” says Kenny, “which combined readings with music. It was something that McSweeney’s did after 9/11 at Angel Orensanz that had Chuck Klosterman reading from Fargo Rock City and David Byrne doing a PowerPoint presentation. So those things, which are packaged like entertainment events, they make more sense to be paid events, per se. But a plain reading might not necessarily be it. But I can’t rule anything out.”

While Weiner says that she would pay considerably more than $5 to listen to author Jen Lancaster, which she compares to “attending a stand-up performance,” author events can sometimes work in reverse.

“Some authors just aren’t very good at the performance component of this job,” says Weiner. “Which doesn’t mean they’re bad writers. It just means that maybe they aren’t necessarily the ones publishers and bookstores should send on the road and make readers pay to hear. And yes, there is something a little off-putting about charging for an event and the author, and her publisher, and whoever interviewed her if it was a Q and A, not seeing a cent of the money, particularly since publishers are the ones who pay to send authors on the road. I can see that independent bookstores feel like they need to take a ‘by any means necessary’ approach to cultivating revenue streams, but maybe there’s an approach where a bookstore could say, ‘If we clear more than X dollars that night, we’ll split the cost of the author’s plane ticket and hotel stay with her publisher.’ And anyone who volunteers his or her time to interview an author should at the very least get a gift card, or a few books for their trouble.”

It remains to be seen if paid author events will become a new regular fixture at this early stage in the game. In the meantime, some authors simply hope to go on with their business.

“The road of thinking that what we do is simply quantifiable — my ‘words’ or my ‘appearance’ having some fixed value — is the path of madness,” says Jonathan Lethem. “I’m just glad that anyone cares at all to either read the work or come catch a glimpse of me, and anything a bookstore can do to go on being a bookstore is just fine with me.”

“Everything is an experiment in the book business,” says Sherman Alexie. “We are talking about writers and independent booksellers. We are not talking about economic geniuses. We are all flailing.”

(Images: Rebecca Williamson, Daniel Huggard, bitchcakesny, Steve Rhodes)

Review: Bad Teacher (2011)

If Bad Teacher is a vocational reworking of Terry Zwigoff’s masterful Bad Santa, with Cameron Diaz’s lazy, money-grubbing, breast implant-seeking schoolteacher filling in for Billy Bob Thornton’s lazy, money-grubbing, alcohol-seeking mall Santa, then it’s a curiously tepid cousin needlessly sanitized by its good intentions. Diaz’s Elizabeth Hasley drinks bottles of whiskey hidden in her desk drawer, bluntly informs a kid who wears his abandoned father’s sweatshirt several times a week that he has no chance with the prettiest girl at school, and embezzles money from the seventh-grade car wash (shortly after using her body to spike up the funds and causing a police car to crash)*. But Hasley isn’t mean and interesting in the way that Billy Bob’s Willie T. Stokes captured our attentions. Instead of having a fast-talking dwarf Marcus as a sidekick, Hasley has the passive Lynn Davies (played by Phyllis Smith, best known as Phyllis from The Office), who looks forward to her three months off in the summer (with numerous trips to the zoo) and sees a surprise milk choice at the cafeteria (“2%? 1%? Chocolate?”) as a high point. What Bad Santa understood was that having a seemingly modest character constantly criticizing a middle-aged loser made us more interested in why the latter lived the way that he did. Hasley has no such luck with Lynn. Indeed, it’s Hasley who is the one to encourage Lynn to talk with two cowboys at a bar. Which works against the idea that her character is supposed to be, well, bad.

Perhaps screenwriters Gene Stupntsky and Lee Eisenberg (both veterans of The Office) should be faulted because they’ve been working too long within the needlessly restrictive limits of American television. They don’t seem to understand that an R-rated movie featuring a mean character really should be dangerous, but their floundering wit is here in spurts. There’s one funny moment early on when Hasley’s man shouts about the need for opera to be passed on to the next generation. And when Bad Teacher was especially irreverent, such as Justin Timberlake’s squeaky-clean teacher making racially insensitive remarks about a new Ethiopian restaurant or an especially aggressive method of getting kids to remember the details of To Kill a Mockingbird, I longed for the film to transcend into additional cringe comedy. But then the film would present another weak or gutless or repetitive moment, not understanding that incriminating photos of a naked administrator or Lucy Punch’s chirrupy Amy Squirrel getting a few comeuppances were mere variations on hackeneyed comic situations we’ve seen too many times before.

Jake Kasdan’s flat direction is also a big problem. I don’t know what has happened to Kasdan ever since his fine work on Freaks and Geeks and his very underrated debut feature, Zero Effect, but I fear that Lawrence’s son is now a lost cause. I’m fairly certain that Cameron Diaz was slightly miscast, but I don’t know for sure. Because she delivers her lines with heavy aspiration on the consonants rather than hitting the vowels hard. And because Diaz’s voice is mellifluous, this disastrous direction causes Diaz to lose the authority she so desperately needs to win our attention, especially because Hasley is rejected by several men when she tries to use her looks and she’s someone who spends cash so wantonly. And while I recognize that Justin Timberlake has about as many dramatic options as a home pregnancy test, a good director will understand that mixing up the only two settings available (as David Fincher did in The Social Network) is better than sticking with one. There’s something deeply unpleasant about seeing a 30-year-old guy who believes he’s in sync with Stanislavsky resort to the same terrible stage-hogging case of the cutes that he used in his twenties. Sure, Timberlake isn’t much of an actor. But can’t he at least pretend to be an adult?

The one actor I can commend here is Jason Segel as an underestimated gym teacher persistently trying to woo Hasley. I liked Segel in Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and he seems to be the only actor in this movie who is having any fun, perhaps because he knows how to use his face to suggest a social awareness that other characters lack. But Segel isn’t a mugger: he knows how to enter a scene without dominating it and he knows how to make his fellow actors look good. If we’re not drawn to Cameron Diaz in this movie, then Jason Segel serves that role.

But enough about Jason Segel, who hardly needs any help from me. In our post-Bridesmaids landscape, the time has come for women to be rude, crude, mean, and dangerous in mainstream comedies without being kept on a leash. Bad Teacher cannot live up to this basic requirement, and, in failing to be even modestly subversive, it becomes an instantly regressive and instantly forgettable offering.

* — A brief note on this movie’s recidivist exploitation of the physical female form: If Bad Teacher has been designed in any way as a double X counterweight to male-dominated comedies, why are the filmmakers here so desperate to use Cameron Diaz’s body like this? Furthermore, why does she seek a breast implant rather than cold hard cash? Still furthermore, in an opening scene, there is one fellow teacher — a slightly overweight (that would be “normal” weight) woman played by Jillian Armenante, whom I remember playing a sensitive therapist from The Sarah Connor Chronicles — who appears, expressing enthusiasm. She raises her arm. We see the sweat spots in her armpits. And that’s it. There is an additional moment when a woman’s breasts are there to be ogled for their silicone perfection by all and sundry. And that’s it. I submit to the reader that a movie that maintains such a superficial interest in women instantly loses credibility, especially when Eisenberg claims in the production notes: “We would see so many funny women on Saturday Night Live and on talk shows, and they’d be hysterical and charming, and then we’d go to the movies and they’d be props to get two guys to become friends or whatever. We really wanted to write a project for a comedienne.” Eisenberg may have wanted to write a project for a comedienne, but the film clearly views much of its supporting women as props.

The Bat Segundo Show: Mara Hvistendahl

Mara Hvistendahl appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #398. She is most recently the author of Unnatural Selection.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Considering cold water solutions if he attempts to sire sons.

Author: Mara Hvistendahl

Subjects Discussed: Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 address on the occasion of the UN’s 20th anniversary, the relationship between birth rate, sex selection, and development, the history of amniocentesis in India, cultural relativism, U.S. efforts to push population policy in the 1960s, forced sterilization programs, Paul Erlich’s The Population Bomb, Bernard Berleson’s “Beyond Family Planning,” cheap ultrasound machines flooded into the East, fetal sex determination in India, China and South Korea, efforts to crack down on sex-selective abortion, the influence of GE ultrasound machines, where the pursuit of “market demand: creates skewered sex ratios, surplus men in China who won’t be able to find wives, the UN Population Fund using the term “prenatal sex selection” instead of “abortion,” the global gag rule, abortion clinics advertising on Chinese television, abortion perspectives in Asia, the effect of a 1990 South Korean crackdown on sex-selective abortion upon sex ratio and abortion rates, the ethical dilemma of controlling “unnatural” sex selection through “unnatural” methods, the effect on ideology and technology on sex ratios, marriage agencies in East Asia, despondent women who are dependent upon their husbands for immigration status, abuse of mail brides in Taiwan and Korea, the relationship between lonely men and violence, parallels between surplus men in China and the problems with too many males during the Wild West, prostitution, a thought experiment about transferring surplus Chinese men into surplus single women New York (and vice versa) to solve sex ratio problems, why Paul Erlich can’t remember the details of his over-the-top ideology decades later, whether Paul Erlich is a crackpot, contraceptive mists over other nations, and the effects of right-wing agitation on global population policies.


Correspondent: In 1965, as you point out in the book, Lyndon Johnson delivers a speech on the occasion of the United Nations’s 20th anniversary. And he says before this crowd in San Francisco, “Less than five dollars invested in population control is worth a hundred dollars invested in economic growth.” Now development, as you point out, typically accompanies a plummeting birth rate. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that this issue of sex selection, which is in your book, goes away. You point to a Christophe Guilmoto study believing that the Middle East will be the next region to develop this gender imbalance. I have to ask. Are there any circumstances in which this plummeting birth rate or an increased development doesn’t create this gender imbalance? Is this something that we should look at nation by nation? Does one have to consider an individual nation’s cultural values? Let’s open up the ball of wax here.

Hvistendahl: Yeah. Sex selection imbalance is not something that’s automatically going to crop up in a country just because it’s developing. What we have seen in the countries where we have sex selection today, they are developing very rapidly. And the birth rate’s fallen dramatically. A woman who maybe had six kids in Korea in the 1960s. The average woman over her lifetime had six children. And today it’s just a little over one child per woman. There are other ingredients. Abortion needs to be legal and readily available. Because the method that many women use now is sex-selective abortion. New technology comes in. Ultrasound. But it doesn’t mean that every country that reaches a certain level of development will have this gender imbalance.

Correspondent: Well, we’ve got the predictions in the Middle East. What about other countries along these lines? I mean, how much of a correlation is there between birth rate, development, and sex selection?

Hvistendahl: For me, that’s kind of a triangle of trends. But obviously you need to have gender discrimination. Women need to want boys. Their husbands need to want boys. But gender discrimination alone doesn’t explain where sex selection occurs. In fact, in most countries around the world, women want at least one son. Either they tell researchers that. They say we want one son. Or demographers can look at where couples stop. This is actually called a stopping rule. So what was the sex of the last child? And it turns out, in most countries, women tend to stop when they have a son. That was even true of the U.S., until recently. So that’s the case in much of the world. And yet we only have sex selection in this area where you have a triangle of trends.

Correspondent: Well, let’s turn to a specific country: India. You describe the early days of amniocentesis there. Government hospitals, they serve the poor and the indigent. And they begin using this test, which is initially designed to detect fetal abnormalities. And, of course, word spreads among the middle and the upper classes. “Hey! We can also use this test to also look for gender.” As you describe, what’s astonishing here is that none of the doctors considered the ethical underpinnings of such a practice. And they viewed this as a way of making the world a better place. So what ultimately accounted for this attitude in India in the 1970s? It can’t just be tradition, as the Indian activists have said, or even cultural relativism. What causes something like this to happen?

Hvistendahl: Well, I told that story by way of explaining how the population control movement in the U.S. has played a role in shaping population policies in Asia. So the medical school where these tests happen is called the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. It’s the top medical school in India, basically. And in 1975, they were the first hospital in India to use amniocentesis. So that’s where you withdraw a small amount of amniotic fluid from a pregnant woman’s abdomen. And you can test fetal cells in that fluid for sex. It was an early way of determining sex. They were the first hospital to do that. They opened the test up to poor women, as you said. And there were close to a thousand women who aborted female fetuses by the time the test was over. So that story’s pretty well known in India, especially among people who are working on this issue. What I discovered was that this logic that sex selection is a good method of population control actually originates in the U.S. So the doctors in 1970s India were espousing this. “Isn’t this great? We’re doing something to control the population.” But that idea had been around in the U.S. since the 1960s.

Correspondent: Yes. Well, how do you contend with the issue of cultural relativism when you’re dealing with tradition in India versus contraceptive traditions in the United States?

Hvistendahl: Well, the United States in the 1960s, the population control movement was really looking at how to reduce population and birth rates around the world. They were not just looking at the United States.

Correspondent: Yes.

Hvistendahl: So there were projections from the United Nations showing that people were living longer than ever before. And then the projections showed populations kind of spiraling out of control. And there was a lot of concern about this issue on both the right and the left. It was a kind of bipartisan effort. Environmentalists were very involved. Also McCarthyists, who thought that a growing population would lead to Communism. And people were casting about for solutions. So organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and International Planned Parenthood Foundation — they were working very actively in developing countries to look at the ways in which you might reduce the birth rate. And one of the things that came up is that women kept having children until they had a son. Again, it’s this stopping rule. So then this idea emerged, “Well, what if we can guarantee them a son on the first try or the second try?” I mean, you have to understand that, at the time, there were all these radical solutions being tried. Forced sterilizations were happening in some parts of the world.

Correspondent: And in the United States too. Among poor people.

Hvistendahl: Yeah. We flirted with eugenics in the United States. People were talking about unveiling birth permits. What is now the one-child policy in China. So all of these strategies were on the table. And sex selection was voluntary. It was something that researchers knew what parents would choose to do on their own. They wouldn’t have to be forced. I think also that the fact that women and people of color didn’t play a very big role in the population control movement, that was a factor too. But you remember this book, The Population Bomb?

Correspondent: Yes, Paul Erlich.

Hvistendahl: Paul Erlich.

Correspondent: Who we’ll get into in just a bit.

Hvistendahl: Okay. He mentions sex selection as a good population control method. The President of the Population Council [Bernard Berelson], which is a very active group, at the time wrote an article for Science in 1969 [“Beyond Family Planning” — PDF here], saying sex selection is a great method. If we can just find a way to guarantee couples the child that they want — and he knew that was basically a boy — then we can production population growth.

The Bat Segundo Show #398: Mara Hvistendahl (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

Review: Green Lantern (2011)

Green Lantern isn’t as awful as The Green Hornet, but if this year’s cinema has taught us anything, it’s this: don’t trust a movie with “green” in the title. There are perhaps seven good minutes of action scattered within a soporific salmagundi of stilted scenes and here-for-the-paycheck performances. Our hero pulls off a few fun feats, such as responding to an energy bolt by creating a catapult in seconds, bouncing it back at his enemy. Green Lantern, famous among shut-ins who spend most of their time shrink-wrapping comics in basements for a fairly impressive party trick that transforms energy into solid matter, is tailor-made for CGI’s fluidity, especially because what Green Lantern creates (chainsaws, two jets attempting to steer him from the sun’s gravitational pull, and, most impressively, wheels attached to a helicopter and a corresponding racetrack) reveals his personality in modest ways.

It’s too bad that this effects-based commitment to character can’t be found anywhere in the lumbering script. One must sit through a plodding 90 minutes, including a murky beginning needlessly complicating a pedestrian origin story, to get to the good bits. And speaking of good bits, Ryan Reynold’s Hal Jordan has a chiseled body born to be ogled by a camera. Even as a straight man, I understood immediately why Scarlett Johansson felt compelled to ride his magic wand. Alas, this mighty chunk of sirloin doesn’t have much of a soul. Reynolds is a top gun firing blanks: a low-rent Maverick who never stops to wonder why Merlin is 25 years older, now answering to the name of Senator Robert Hammond, and playing father to an actor (Peter Sarsgaard) only twelve years younger. Unlike Tim Robbins, Sarsgaard’s Hector Hammond actually has a bit of fun being evil: he sips the rim of a margarita glass with arch relish, looks at strangers slightly askew, and has an adorably ridiculous moustache. For large chunks, Sarsgaard proves more capable of containing this movie than Reynolds Wrap. Alas, this wry fun is curtailed when the filmmakers slather too much makeup on Sarsgaard and ask the poor man to put a little spittle into his cornball dialogue.

Martin Campbell’s Green Lantern (written by Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim, Michael Goldenberg, and who knows how many other script doctors) appears to have pilfered Emerald Dawn (a miniseries revisiting Hal Jordan’s origin story authored by Jim Owsley, Keith Giffen, and Gerard Jones) for its narrative. But the filmmakers have failed to plunder the conflict that counts. Emerald Dawn featured Hal as an alcoholic whose selfish behavior caused his friend Ryan to die in a hospital. Campbell’s Hal, by contrast, merely wakes up late and can’t get over his father’s fiery death years ago testing an aircraft. As internal conflicts for a thirtysomething man go, this is exceptionally feeble material, especially given the insistence on an internal will vs. internal fear conflict that we’ve seen perhaps dozens of times just in the past three years.

This is a film so stupid that it flashes a SIX MONTHS LATER title card in a different galactic sector, not comprehending that time measurement is often determined by length of solar orbit. This is a film so naive that it actually expects us to believe that Hal Jordan can change the minds of the Guardians of the Universe, who are many thousands of years old, with a facile defense of human fallacy (“We’re young. We have a lot to learn.”). This is a film so laughably derivative that the filmmakers have somehow misunderstood Green Lantern’s ring to be easily interchangeable with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Sinestro looks suspiciously like Hugo Weaving’s Elrond. There is even talk of forging rings (with an arrogant ending that opens up a sequel). We even see the Green Lantern insignia contained within a giant edifice, yet another Mordor ripoff. Did I mention a circular device seen in the background that looks very much like the Stargate portal but that serves no function at all? One almost believes that the set designer was ordered by marketing forces to include random visual references to other geek-friendly TV shows and movies. A training scene with Kilowog has the feel and bad dialogue of a video game orientation, leaving one to search in the dark for a nonexistent controller.

But most criminally, the film cheats us of spectacular battles, which are few and far between, and a clearly identifiable hero we can root for. We see several Green Lanterns early on, but they never get to use their cool superpowers. They are merely eaten up by a boring marble-mouthed villain named Parallax. It takes a long while for Hal Jordan’s Green Lantern to show up. Indeed, thirty minutes into the film, I heard one very confused and very disappointed six-year-old ask his dad, “Is that Green Lantern?” as another meaningless character soared across the universe.

When multiplexes are saturated with so many superhero movies, why spend $300 million on another flick that means nothing?

BAMcinemaFest: On Tour and Where Soldiers Come From

This is the second in a series of dispatches pertaining to this year’s BAMcinemaFest, which runs from June 16th through June 26th.

I should probably confess from the onset that I’m a sucker for movies that depict show business. Mathieu Amalric’s On Tour, which concerns effervescent burlesque dancers as they play various gigs in France, is somewhat overstuffed (especially when compared against Abel Ferrara’s smooth and sleazy Go Go Tales). But it’s still a delightful diversion, greatly aided by Amalric’s energetic (and sometimes over-the-top, as seen during one moment on a train) performance as Joachim, a disgraced television producer turned low-rent showbiz manager.

Joachim may or may not be capable of dignity or redemption. But that’s a moot point. Because On Tour is at its best when depicting backstage process: the application and removal of pasties accompanied by bubbly banter, rehearsal sessions featuring women wiggling out of coiled rope, and attempts to woo the dancers back to their hotel rooms with bottles of champagne. (Joachim’s insistence that champagne will do the trick more than other methods says much about his management techniques and his understanding of women.) It is not quite on firm footing when investigating what Joachim has given up: the former lover occupying a hospital, his status as prodigal son and brother who has fallen from grace, and Joachim simultaneously looking after his children and the dancers. There is one absurd moment when Joachim asks his kid to hold the phone to his ear as he slobbers down Kentucky Fried Chicken. Amalric might have pursued this decided incompatibility between personal business and show business further.

But his camera is understandably drawn to the dancers, who include the balloon-popping Dirty Martini, the piano-playing Kitten on the Keys, and the alluring and curvaceous Mimi Le Meaux. Filmed burlesque, of course, can’t compare to the real thing. (With this in mind, the good folks at BAM have wisely planned a burlesque show to accompany this film’s June 24th spotlight screening.) And aspirations don’t necessarily translate into captivating talent. There’s one sad moment in Amalric’s film which illustrates this latter harrowing point: a woman working the grocery checkout counter, having seen the burlesque show the night before, lights up when seeing Joachim and one of his dancers purchase some goods. The woman attempts a sloppy and impromptu tease and, when denied, she shrieks at Joachim for being spurned as he leaves the store. It’s a sober reminder that all art, even the seemingly low strains, requires fluency and commitment overshadowing such envious fast track aspirations. The rest of us who understand this can enjoy the dancing.

“I don’t like hippie films where you watch a balloon for an hour and a half,” says one of the soldiers in Heather Courtney’s moving Where Soldiers Come From. It’s a message that may be lost on the film nerd set. This gripping documentary tracks three young men (Dominic Fredianelli, Cole Smith, and Matt “Bodi” Beaudoin) in the Michigan Upper Peninsula fresh out of high school who sign up for the National Guard, serve stints in Afghanistan, and return home permanently altered. Myopic film snobs clinging to desperate cinematic references like stray driftwood clogging up a human river will probably make comparisons to The Deer Hunter. Thankfully, this is an association that Courtney deals with fairly early on.

Courtney is after the bigger and little discussed picture of how sharp young people, attracted by the money and a desire to serve their country, don’t entirely comprehend the consequences until they’re in too deep.

It’s good to see a serious movie like this get programmed in with all the nauseating and forgettable offerings made by talentless hipsters. Courtney has not only skillfully earned the trust of all parties, but her coverage is comprehensive (even following them to Afghanistan) and her editing is highly organized. We see the training officer who can’t pronounce “Hamid Karzai,” bombarding his trainees with a decidedly reductionist overview of the country. Parents smoke sad cigarettes and work long hours. Girlfriends clutch teddy bears and patiently prepare for the shifts in mood and the traumatic brain injury when their men return. There are technical snafus when families try to connect with the soldiers through Skype. Dominic, before he is shipped overseas, is a talented artist. And right before he’s sent to Afghanistan, Courtney strings together a series of visuals where Dominic and his friends tag the interior of a decaying edifice with maps of the country, maps of Michigan, and other depictions of their lives. This ephemeral art wryly (and painfully) mimics how top brass perceives their services as soldiers. When he returns home and he’s flailing around to find a place, it’s a genuinely touching moment when his art teacher gives him a wall to paint a mural.

This film works so well because these young men aren’t mindless automatons. They’re aware of what happens when they single out a landowner to be searched (“I affected that guy’s life for the rest of this life. But the IED wont explode. So it goes both ways.”). They want to believe in the Afghan population, but the hard and thankless slog has caused these men to “learn to hate” them. They’re also aware of how disposable they are. As one soldier confesses, “Pretty much you’re nothing. Unless you rule a corporation, you’re pretty much shit.”

Where Soldiers Came From is a vivid cinematic portrait well worth your time and long overdue for distribution beyond the film festival circuit.

BAMcinemaFest: Weekend, Letters from the Big Man, and The Color Wheel

This is the first in a series of dispatches pertaining to this year’s BAMcinemaFest, which runs from June 16th through June 26th.

After bracing the buckling collision of books, bad advice, and crass commercialism known as BookExpo America, I retreated to the air conditioned confines of the BAM Rose Cinema the following week, where press screenings for this year’s BAMcinemaFest were being held. The hope was that many of these independent offerings would replenish my soul and cause me to dance variegated jigs in the street. While there were several quiet and knowledgeable peeps kind enough to answer my questions about esoteric filmmakers unfamiliar to me, there were nevertheless a few self-absorbed “critics” (in particular, one dark-haired dunce who I had observed before a 92nd Street Y crowd gushing like some junior varsity neophyte and who felt the need between screenings to blab loudly about her remarkably uninteresting life) talking nonstop about film programming gigs that they felt entitled to. (“Oh, is he going to leave?”) Something about persuading a bigshot teetotaler to drive her to some needlessly affluent affair so that she could spend the weekend completely plastered, life presumably passing by like nonbiodegradable plastic. Not my idea of fun. A year ago, I had moved from Manhattan to avoid this unpleasant type. Yet this doddering parvenu, who claimed the sui generis Tree of Life to “have slow spots,” was a sober reminder that, even in Brooklyn, obnoxious and entitled tastemakers have replaced the rough-and-tumble enthusiasts who really count. I report all this in the event that some of my BAMcinemaFest dispatches are declared needlessly sour or mean and so that the reader might understand some of the atmospheric conditions in which I caught these artsy flicks.

The first offering was Andrew Haigh’s Weekend — a film having nothing to do with Godard’s masterpiece and everything to do with the possibility of sustainable romance over a whirlwind weekend. If you’ve lived adventurously enough, you’ve probably experienced a few of these yourself. If not, you’re probably retreating to movies to tell you what it’s like so that you might “program” these feelings in the future. Independent cinema has been curiously reticent in exploring a gay naturalistic version of the Before Sunrise story. And I very much appreciated Haigh’s commitment to capturing the coke-snorting, tea-making, and jizz-splaying-across-chest moments that most purported mavericks steer clear from. What I didn’t know is that Haigh has apparently upset Joe Clark for reasons that, I must confess, aren’t entirely clear to me, but have something to do with Haigh mischaracterizing Clark’s early enthusiasm as “the kind of movie straight guys would like” and assistance that was largely unrequited (an admittedly tacky move on Haigh’s part). What I can say is that Haigh isn’t nearly as talented as everybody thinks he is; he’s more interested in how people look rather than how they behave. That’s a far cry from someone like Lisa Cholodenko, who has escaped being pegged precisely because, if we want to get all humanist about this, she’s an excellent observer and chronicler.

Haigh’s two actors are both very good (especially Tom Cullen as the slightly more squeaky-clean of the pair), but the capable Chris New (playing an artist who is somewhere between David Thewlis in Naked and an aging hunk with lunky billiard balls still cracking around upstairs) is directed to play to the camera like a peacock when he really needs to crackle off the screen like Richard E. Grant in Withnail & I.

A tape recorded confession bookending the romance (along with several shots of surveillance cameras and additional angles that look as if they’ve been captured by surveillance cameras) may very well be Haigh’s own admission that he knows how to capture an early morning postcoital murmur like “I smell of cock and bum,” but that he doesn’t quite have the emotional depth and the true candor to communicate inner torment. Haigh isn’t helped by having his characters spout callow philosophy (“Gay people never talk about it in public unless it’s just cheap innuendo”) when he’s already presented them as much smarter than this. If Haigh’s the kind of guy who would slag off a potential advocate for being straight, that’s probably part of the problem. Yet Weekend stands only vaguely for the Other, but really wants you to like it. That stance may win you points among the sneering film nerd set, but it isn’t really conducive to lasting art.

Christopher Munch’s Letters from the Big Man probably doesn’t stand a chance of nabbing distribution. That’s too bad. For me, it was one of the high points. One doesn’t expect references to Zane Grey and Farley Mowat in a Sasquatch movie, much less incongruously formal dialogue like “I really don’t want the inconvenience of being the last person to see you alive” or a character who addresses the mosquitoes who are biting her. This is also a movie that presents smart people who openly confess that they’re too smashed to follow a Shakespeare production. While it’s true that these moments are buried under a somewhat muddled philosophy, I felt very inclined to appreciate the film for what it was.

Swamp Thing gave us Adrienne Barbeau’s breasts. Letters presents us with Sarah Smith, a hydrologist played by Lily Rabe self-sufficient in the wild and not easily charmed by men. When one smarmy suitor insinuates that he has the mind as well as the meat, I was delighted to see him rebuffed and flailing. I also liked the way Munch didn’t bother to have his Sasquatch (the titular Big Man) occluded in shadows or cockeyed angles. When we see the Big Man for the first time, we see him in full form. Which is just as it should be.

Sarah is also an artist, sketching images both real and subconscious. The Big Man possibly inhabits our world and possibly does not, but he does make his way to Sarah’s sketchpad. At one point, Sarah says, “I can feel you nearby. Thank you for being here.” Some East Coasters may be put off by this New Age vibe, but as a native Californian, I didn’t mind this so much. If cinema can’t present us with off-kilter introspection every so often, then what’s the point of making movies?

To take the edge off some of the forthcoming vitriol, I have included an image of two happy dolphins. The next film I saw was so terrible that I can state with fair certainty that one would be better served locating two dolphins, such as the very nice ones pictured above, and spending 83 minutes with them instead.

Before watching The Color Wheel (shot in black-and-white: how eye-roooooooooooonic!), I had no idea who Alex Ross Perry was. Now I wish I had never learned his name. Perry is a filmmaker so incompetent with comedy that he presents us with a stock situation in which a young man named JR (naturally, played by Perry and far removed from the great Gaddis novel) accidentally breaks a vase. He is told by the shopowner that he must pay for it and that it’s worth $500. JR doesn’t have the money. Instead of Perry finding a solution for this, he abruptly cuts to the next scene. In other words, Perry can’t be bothered to resolve the scene. Is this laziness or someone “hip” and detached? Either way, this is a technique one expects in 1991, not 2011. And it makes me wonder if The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody (and, hey, I’ll even give Brody Ishtar) was off his fucking rocker in commending this film’s alleged “exquisite comic timing and incisive comic framing.”

In this way (and many others), The Color Wheel plays like the mentally handicapped love child of Kevin Smith and Diablo Cody. The film, shot in 16mm. is so grainy that I truly believed all of the actors were experiencing bad cases of dandruff. And that’s hardly the least of Perry’s witless amateurism. There is also a very long take of perhaps twelve minutes (was Perry running out of film stock?) in which Perry consummates the incest that we knew would go down from the beginning and in which moments that are intended to be spontaneous are revealed to be amateurish rehearsal.

As an actor, Perry has a high-pitched voice that is so monotone that it makes Michael Cera appears as if he has the range of a Mel Blanc or a Frank Welker. Despite such clear limitations, Perry has the effrontery to offer something vaguely approximating a Buster Keaton look. But where Keaton’s face invited mystery, Perry’s face only encourages anger.

A dolphin’s face, by contrast, does not encourage anger. And I will be spending a good chunk of the time between this BAMcinemaFest installment and the next watching this pleasant dolphin video to remind myself that there are at least 25 million better things that one can do than consider or acknowledge Alex Ross Perry.

A Conversation with Susan Freinkel

On June 8, 2011, I met Susan Freinkel, author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, at a Park Slope cafe. The intent was to record a conversation for The Bat Segundo Show. Unfortunately (and I blame the heat for my negligence here; I also had this funny idea of walking three miles to the cafe and three miles back home in very humid weather), some setting on the recorder was accidentally flipped to the internal microphone early into the conversation, resulting in muddled audio that was entirely unsuitable for listeners. In an effort to salvage this very interesting conversation, which deals with the impact of plastic on our environment, I have transcribed the entire 8,000 word talk.

Correspondent: Okay, so I am here with Susan Frienkel, who is the author of the charming volume, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story. Susan, how are you doing?

Freinkel: I’m doing great. I’m happy to be here.

Correspondent: I’m happy to talk love and toxicity.

Freinkel: (laughs)

Correspondent: This book started off with your own personal effort not to touch plastic. But even Beth Terry, one of the people foregoing plastic who you interview near the end of the book, says that she finds herself still using credit cards. Because she says that plastic lasts a long time. I’m wondering. Will reducing disposable plastic — of which we both have disposable plastic here, these cups [motioning to plastic cups containing cold beverages in 90 degree heat], it’s really terrible — will this alone do the trick? I mean, one can make the argument that the plastic which comes with the ATM and the credit cards that we replace every couple of years or the latest smartphone you have to upgrade and all this — this is just as much of a waste as a disposable lighter. So might this also contribute to the problem?

Freinkel: Well, I think half of all plastic goes to single use plastics. So that’s a lot of plastic. And that’s a lot of plastic that gets wasted. It’s a poor use of resources. But I also think it’s emblematic of this whole lifestyle in which we assume that we need a new cellphone every eighteen months. If we’re lucky. Or we assume that we need a new computer every two years. We have to wipe out our wardrobe and get whole new clothes. So I think there’s a whole lifestyle that plastic facilitates in this emblematic. Will it do the trick? I mean, that sort of depends upon what the trick is. If we want to live in more sustainable fashion, we’re going to have to learn how to get away from that throwaway mindset. Which is an incredibly modern thing.

Correspondent: Yes. But we’re talking about two throwaway mindsets. The throwaway of a single use plastic. And the lifestyle we live. Well, it’s inescapable. We’re locked into the smartphone multiyear contract. At the end, there’s something else. And if we actually want to keep up with the Joneses, so to speak, or even keep up with the latest software or the latest hardware, we’re at the behest of our own technology. Is there really a solution other than cut down on single use? Does that do the trick?

Freinkel: Well, again, it depends on what doing the trick means. If we stop using so many single use things like these lovely plastic cups and straws that we’re drinking from right now…

Correspondent: I’m filled with remorse.

Freinkel: (laughs) You know, that would reduce the amount of plastic that we make. And it would certainly reduce a lot of the plastic pollution that we are troubled by now. I think the reason that we’re having such a hard time grappling with the grocery bag issue, the reason there are these huge political fights around it, isn’t just that the plastic industry that is fighting those efforts to, say, ban bags. It’s also that we’re very ambivalent. We have developed a whole mindset that expects to be continually refreshing ourselves with new things in turn. And, yeah, you need a new smartphone. You want to stay up with the latest technology. But we also have a whole economy and a whole consumption orientation that presumes we need to do that. So I’m not really troubled by the use of plastic in durable goods. I love my computer. I love my cell phone. I don’t want to give those up. I don’t know if I need to replace them every two years. But I surely don’t need to do this. If I was really a good advocate for my book, I would have come with my own reusable cup.

Correspondent: (flourishing towards the plastic cups) I said, “She’s going to see me with this. And I’m going to be outed right here.” I’m thankful we’re both just as guilty here.

Freinkel: I actually debated whether to bring a reusable cup with me. To bring it across the country. And I said, “God, I do not want to schlep that cup.” I did bring my reusable bag.

Correspondent: That’s good. Well, I have this backpack, which has received much usage. But I mean, to go back to this problem. Biodegradability. You point to credit cards in the book. The card market is very much being dictated by what the card issuers decide. It’s not necessarily NatureWorks — this effort to try and have biodegradable plastic. So if the free market or the private industry decides the course of everything, I mean, what recourse is there? Does it require austere government measures such as San Francisco banning plastic bags? What of this? It almost seems like you have to prohibit everybody in order to actually get them on the program.

Freinkel: Yeah, the free market right now — green stuff, sustainable stuff is a cool market niche. And so companies are responding. They’re creating biodegradable products. They’ve been creating products that don’t have toxic chemicals. Blah blah blah. But the free market is also this fickle enterprise. And it can decide, as you saw — I mean, the Times had a story a couple of weeks ago about how all these companies are retrenching on their clean household cleaning products. Because they cost more. And in this economy, people aren’t willing to shell out an extra dime to have something that’s more environmentally preferable. So I’m not advocating austere government measures to deal with it. I think that government is doing more to encourage research in those areas. And in some cases, like dealing with toxins and dealing with the chemicals that are in commerce, people who are concerned about that — I don’t think that if you’re concerned about those synthetic chemicals and the lack of our knowledge of what synthetic chemicals are in consumer products, I don’t think that’s something that consumers can shop their way out of. I think that we need government regulation on that. On the other hand, I think consumer interest in cleaner stuff has helped stimulate that.

Correspondent: Well, you do point, for example, to the plastax — a lexical blending I’m not particularly fond of, but we’ll use it for the purposes of this discussion. A tax on plastic bags in Ireland that has actually proven to be very successful in cutting down on plastic bags. I mentioned just in the previous question about San Francisco and its plastic bag ban. This has had great results. But what is the best result outside of outright bans and taxes on getting people to change their lifestyles, so to speak, on plastic bags or something else?

Freinkel: It sort of depends on what we’re talking about. So if we’re talking about something like plastic bags — single use plastics — I personally feel, I’m not big on the idea of bans. Because they really tick people off. And in San Francisco, the ban on the bag was just on plastic. It didn’t apply to paper bags. And consequentially, a lot of stores in San Francisco, and the stores — if they’re small stores, they’re still giving out plastic bags; if they’re the big chain stores, they’re giving out paper bags. And so people are still using single use bags. They’re not as resistant in the environment as the plastic. But they’re still paper. Part of the problem with single use stuff is that we get a lot of this stuff for free. And so we don’t actually have to think about the fact that they have costs. The cost is built into my ice coffee here. It probably costs a little bit extra because the store has to pay for these single use cups that they give out. And there’s environmental costs associated with these that you pay in your taxes, you pay in your garbage bills, and whatever. So I like the idea of using the market as a way to alert people to the fact that this stuff has a cost. And I also really believe that all of us are penny-pinchers. And if we’re forced to pay five or ten cents for a plastic bag, or pay an added premium to get it in a non-reusable cup, that’s going to make people think a little bit. It’s not going to drive them off the scene. And some people just want to completely get rid of them. But it does reduce them. In Ireland, that “plastax” — that twenty-five cent fee on plastic bags, that dropped the use of plastic bags by about 90% in its first few months. In Washington DC, where it’s just five cents on plastic bags, they’ve substantially reduced the plastic bags. And that’s money being collected to clean up the Anacostia River.

Correspondent: Yes. Let’s go to the beginning, so to speak. You point out that the plastics industry was, in its early days, monopolized by the military. Largely from the 1930s through World War II. After this production, hey, no war is on! So let’s transfer it to the consumer market! You suggest that much of this had to do with, as you say, “a public weary of two decades of scarcity.” I’m wondering how much of this had to do with just the industry wanting to sustain a production level that was equal or greater to what it had going during the war. I mean, war is very profitable!

Frienkel: War is very profitable. What actually happened was that a lot of the plastics that are the modern plastics that we come into contact with every day today. A lot of those were actually invented in the 20s and 30s and didn’t really get into circulation. Because World War II came along. And the military substituted plastics for a lot of strategic materials. And I don’t think that there was any great conspiracy. You had this huge production capacity built up and the companies needed to find markets. And at the same time, again, you have this new lifestyle developing that was very amenable. Suddenly, people had a lot of money in their pockets. They were moving out to the suburbs. They were buying homes. There was a whole society and economy built and gearing up for consumption. And the plastics made that really possible and helped that.

Correspondent: But was it really about consumer spending and upward mobility? I mean, the public rejected plastic for a long period of time. And when companies such as DuPont started thinking very small — such as the disposable lighter — and also thinking very low-cost, this was when the public snatched it up. So was it really a matter of forcing all these low-cost goods such as the monobloc chair or the disposable lighter onto the markets? So that they would have to buy it?

Freinkel: I don’t think — the public didn’t reject plastic. They just didn’t have them there. You had celluloid and Bakelite and a few other plastics out there in the early decades of the 20th century. But they just weren’t there yet. And the production capacity, you didn’t literally have the technology to make stuff out of a lot of these new plastics. And a lot of that technology got perfected in the process of serving the needs of World War II. In some cases, you would have products that really got foisted onto the public. Plastic bags were foisted onto the public. Polyethylene companies — they gradually replaced paper bags with plastic baggies. They replaced paper dry cleaning bags with plastic dry cleaning bags. They replaced newspapers that people used to use to line garbage bins with big Hefty bags. And there was a very deliberate and strategic decision that, now, the next front was the checkout stand. And they were going to develop a plastic bag. They found a plastic bag in Europe and brought it to the States and went to great efforts. I mean, some of these companies sent trainers to the grocery stores. To train grocery stores how to pack these bags so that customers wouldn’t get ticked off that the bags tipped over. That was a very deliberate decision. And that was one in which people’s choices really got limited. Because soon grocery stores were only using plastic bags. And in other cases, with something like the disposable lighter, that’s just pure convenience. And again there were campaigns with the disposable lighter. When there’s convenience and when there’s abundance on the cheap, it’s never been unappealing to people.

Correspondent: Well, in the case of the disposable lighter, as you point out in the book — you know, I used to be a smoker. And Zippos were far more effective than any disposable lighter. Especially that really kickass sound.

Freinkel: Did you use Zippos?

Correspondent: I did use a Zippo. Until I lost it. And then I went back to disposable. Cigarettes went up here, thank goodness. I don’t smoke anymore. But the point is that there was a durability quality that had to be replaced with cheap. Was it a matter of flooding the market with cheap goods? Or was it a matter of training, so to speak, the consumer in almost a Bernaysian-like fashion? “Oh, hey! This is so instant. Disposable’s okay.” You have that photo that you allude to in the book.

Freinkel: Right. I think there was a whole push starting in the late 50s. Immediately after the war, the first push was to put plastics into durables. And then I think there was this recognition on the part of the industry that, if you want to keep going in the market, disposability was the way to go. But I don’t mean to paint that as some grand conspiracy. Because I think it fit really well into, and was appealing to the kind of society that we were becoming. Soda bottles, another one of the objects that I look at in the book. Those replaced glass bottles, which the beverage companies started getting rid of in the 50s. Why were they getting rid of them? Partly because the interstate highway system enabled them not to have to send all those back across huge regions to bottlers and bottle washers. They could now have more fragmented distribution facilities. And you started having one way bottles instead of glass. And into plastic. So it’s like disposable diapers. What parent hasn’t loved disposable diapers? For all of the environmental cost, it sure is a lot easier than cloth diapers. Is that an industry conspiracy? Well, Kimberly Clark and the other companies saw a niche and parents loved them.

Correspondent: I don’t wish to imply that it’s a conspiracy. I’m more just thinking in terms of what a business is thinking versus what a consumer is thinking. And maybe I have another way of getting at this issue by bringing up packaging. Which as you point out is one of the largest portions of the waste system. Up until the early 20th century, as you point out in the book, people tended to maintain this informal recycling system. They would reuse material. They would find new ways of putting things to use. But I’m wondering: if it takes a Mobro 4000 going up and down the East Coast or, hey, there’s all these gyres! There’s all these garbage patches in the ocean. Does it take this kind of visibility to get people to rethink their disposable habits? What happened here? Can we blame the perception of regular people who are starting to understand that there’s a consequence to their behavior? Or can we also blame governments and corporations that failed to employ enough safeguards or failed to predict the consequences of a sheer mass production in plastic?

Freinkel: Well, I think one of the points that I make in the book is that, if you look at packaging, packaging and manufactured products are the major part of the waste stream now. And that wasn’t true a hundred years ago. And what that has done in terms of who deals with that waste is, as you put, what someone would argue as a kind of unfunded mandate on local governments. Because all this packaging and all these disposable manufacturing products go into the waste stream. And it’s on the backs of municipal governments to deal with them. In some places, they have effective recycling programs that can deal with that waste. But for the most part, they don’t. And they just landfill it. I think one of the answers to that is that you have companies be held financially responsible for the packaging products in the marketplace. And when you say to a company, “Great. You can package this thing any way you want. But you’re going to have to pay for getting that packaging back. And you’re going to have to pay for the recycling and the disposing of it,” well guess what happens? What Europe has found is that, when you do that, companies are a lot more prudent with their packaging. They use much more recyclable materials. Recycling rates go up. There are nice cascading effects that come out of that. And you no longer have municipal governments and consumers/taxpayers carrying the burden of this kind of waste that we didn’t ask for. I mean, we don’t have a choice when we go into a store of what kind of packaging. We can say, “I’m not going to buy this overpackaged thing.” But we’re limited by the choices of what’s on the shelves. And if it’s all overpackaged stuff, that’s all we have to deal with.

Correspondent: Well, we may be limited, say, in terms of buying produce. That’s a terrible thing, where you have to put all the produce in separate plastic bags so that the checker knows which produce is which. But on the other hand, you can do what I do. We go shopping and we bring our backpacks. And instead of using this wasteful plastic, we put the groceries into the backpacks. On the other hand, Styrofoam nuggets and all this wasteful packaging — this isn’t exactly a new situation. This has been going on for decades. Why do you think there has been a lack of awareness or a lack of enforcement or a lack of appropriate legislation to respond to the obvious glut of waste that comes from something like this?

Freinkel: You know, it’s funny. It wasn’t until I started researching this book that I realized the issues that are coming up now have come up before. And there’s been at least two cycles of outrage over packaging and fast food packaging and so forth.

Correspondent: Twenty year cycles there. (laughs)

Freinkel: You know, the first was in the 50s, where there was this whole hysteria of dry cleaner bags. Infants had choked, suffocating on dry cleaning bags that parents were following the instructions on the bags: reuse. And they were using them to cover their cribs. And their babies were horribly suffocated. And those incidents sparked legislation to ban plastic dry cleaner bags. And the plastics industry fought back very hard. PR. All these campaigns to quelch those efforts to ban the bag. And that’s been the pattern that’s come up. In the late 80s, Suffolk County, New York was the very first place to propose a ban on takeout containers. And the plastics industry took them to court. And by the time the court case got settled, they also poured money into the recycling industry and started to build up a recycling infrastructure. By the time the court case resolved, which was four years later, Suffolk County had the court’s okay to go ahead with the legislation. But public interest had moved onto other stuff. The Mobro 4000 barge had sparked a lot of interest in the late 80s. And that petered out. Now, I argue, we’re really seriously at a turning point. And I think the specter of all this plastic in the ocean — this huge vast areas, where you’ve got the water swirling with plastic bits — really speaks to the long reach of our waste and our stupid use of plastic. Whether this has more staying power, I don’t know. Once again, the plastics industry is responding with a renewed push for recycling, though not putting a lot of money into recycling. You have the sustainability buzz word that’s in business. Because companies now see that it’s in their financial best interest to reduce packaging. You know, you hope that it lasts. But I don’t know. If I was looking at the history of this, I would be quite cynical about it.

Correspondent: Yeah. One thing I did not know until I read your book, and it seems rather obvious in hindsight and it makes perfect sense: if China is flooding the United States with all these cheap goods, well they have to take something back. And I was alarmed to learn that they’re taking 70% of the world’s used plastics and a good chunk of what we use here. When we think of something like that, is it really a matter of all these issues hiding in plain sight? Why isn’t there a discussion about the way we use something as obvious as plastic cups and the like? We’re starting here, I guess. (laughs)

Freinkel: I’m hoping to start that conversation. Because I think it’s an important conversation. Unfortunately, I think it’s been a long time. It’s kind of the province of the left and environmental activists. And even then, I think there’s a huge amount of misinformation about plastic. There’s a lot of people who look at things like the Pacific Gyre and say, “Well, I just don’t want anything to do with plastic.” Which is, in its own way, as wrongheaded as saying, “This isn’t a problem. I don’t need to worry about it.” I don’t know. It varies from place to place. In San Francisco, for instance, we have very aggressive recycling. And we walk down the street. And there are recycling cans all along the street. We were walking around Brooklyn today. And both my daughter and I were noticing that there’s no recycling cans. It just goes in the trash.

Correspondent: Well, to be clear on how it operates in Brooklyn, it’s really ridiculous actually. If you want to get your stuff picked up, you have to put it in a very specific bag. And even then, it all depends on the person who’s picking it up. They often won’t pick up your stuff. And so your stuff has to sit there. And you basically play this Russian roulette, hoping that they’ll pick it up one of the three days — Monday, Wednesday, or Friday. I’ve had stuff out there for two weeks. And the thing is, there’s no agreed upon conformity of the method in which one picks up cans and bottles.

Freinkel: It’s a total patchwork in this country. There are only ten states that have bottle bills where you can redeem bottles. And those have much higher recycling rates for those bottles, even if they don’t have good recycling rates for other types of plastics. You know, I think part of the problem is, because so much plastic goes into the cheap stuff, we consider it a junk material. Look at a lot of our waste. We just don’t think of waste as a resource. And instead of looking at this as stuff that you can mine for all sorts of useful purposes, we’re just very happy burning and burying them. That’s not just plastic. That’s also electronics. It’s metal. It’s fabric. Again, the way that we treat plastic is emblematic of the whole mindset that has evolved in the last fifty years. And this is very different from what our great grandparents lived by. By the ethics of reuse and conservation.

Correspondent: Let’s talk biodegradability. You point out that it does indeed have its problems. You write that even though plastic is more difficult to break down than wood, the biodegradability is a function of a polymer’s structure rather than its starting ingredients. You use the example of a tree toppling in the desert. There aren’t any microorganisms there to go ahead and eat it up. Therefore, you have petrified wood. Why is petrified wood any worse than nonbiodegradable or even slowly biodegradable plastic?

Freinkel: Well, there’s a whole lot less petrified wood than there is plastic. I think that’s the main issue. We don’t find petrified wood everywhere. And if it gets in the ocean, it might still be petrified wood. But the problem with nonbiodegradable plastic is that so much of it ends up in the environment. So much of it ends up in the ocean, where there’s really no method to break it down. And then it just fragments into smaller and smaller fragments. And the fear is that it can get into the food web. But biodegradable plastics, what they solve depends on what your problem is. I shouldn’t say biodegradable plastics. I should say bioplastics. Plant-based plastics. If you’re looking for a plastic that’s going to break down, there’s no guarantee just because you’re using plants as opposed to fossil fuels that’s going to biodegrade, if you’re looking for plastic that has a lower carbon footprint, you’re better off with that. If you’re looking for plastic that’s cleaner and is less likely to contain troublesome or toxic chemicals, that totally depends on how that bioplastic is made. I mean, that’s the thing about plastic. We talk about plastic like it’s one thing. But there’s a lot of different types of plastic out there. And we talk about the problems that plastics generate. And there’s a lot of different solutions. There’s not a silver bullet answer to all the problems associated with plastic.

Correspondent: Well, since you brought up bioplastics, let’s talk about that as well. You write that these bioplastics “may or may not be an improvement on their fossil fuel-based relatives.” In the interest of getting more specificity here, are there any disadvantages to bioplastics? Is it essentially that uncertainty? It may be a lower carbon footprint, but is it really better when compared to fossil fuels?

Freinkel: Well, it’s funny that you bring that up. Because I was just writing a little blog post about compostable dog poop bags.

Correspondent: Aha!

Frienkel: Which are the hot thing. Everybody who’s got a dog is thinking, “Oh, you know, I should get one of these disposable bags. And those are great if you live in a city which will compost them. Or you put them on your backyard compost. But if you take those compostable dog poop bags and throw them in the trash, and think “at least they won’t last in the landfill forever,” well, you actually don’t want things to biodegrade in the landfill. Because in the atmosphere of the landfill, once something biodegrades, it generates methane. Which is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So I think we need to create a new generation of plastics that are true cradle-to-cradle plastics, where they can either be recycled back in the industry or they can be recycled back into nature, composting or whatever. That could move a lot of different plastics. There’s no one single bioplastic that’s going to serve that purpose. Coca-Cola has their plant bottle — this much ballyhooed plant bottle which is made from plant-based plastics. And they’ve come under fire. Because people say, “It’s just like regular PET plastic. It’s not a totally new plastic. It’s not biodegradable.” But to a lot of people, and I kind of agree with them, at least it’s a recyclable plastic. And it fits very easily into a pretty well developed recycling strain. Right now, the technology is ahead of the infrastructure that we need to have support it. Compostable plastics only really make sense if you have a composting infrastructure. And that doesn’t exist in many parts of the country right now.

Correspondent: Capitalism seems to be one of the key problems in maintaining a feasible recycling system. Aside from the fact that you have companies like Coca-Cola more likely to manufacture more expensive bioplastics or even ban plastic bags when they’re told by the government, you discovered in San Francisco, when you followed the recycling people, that the homeless are swiping a good chunk of the cans and the bottles. And in San Francisco, the state of California is getting the lion’s share of all this recycling revenue. Because the homeless pick it up. And then San Francisco loses five million dollars a year to professional poachers. You grabbed those figures in May 2010. Has there been any traction in the last year to sort out this disparity between state and local governments. I know California is in a bit of a clusterfuck right now. (laughs)

Freinkel: I know. There are so many problems associated with California and its redemption problem. If I remember right, I think Arnold Schwarzenegger took money out of that program to cover other deficits in the budget. It’s kind of a mess. But the amount that a homeless guy or even these professional poachers pull out, they’re pulling it out of — it’s actually not a City-run program; it’s a private company that contracts with the City — I don’t really fault those guys. I mean, they’re taking advantage of an economy that exists. You know, they’re recognizing what a lot of people don’t recognize. Which is that this stuff has value.

Correspondent: But on the other hand, when you’re dealing with the idea that this has value — we can’t actually put this back into the system so that it comes back into the City and the like — you have a problem in maintaining a system through one authority, whether it be the City or a private industry. The sense I get from your book is that, even if you can get people to agree on something, you’re going to have situations along these lines. You’re going to have problems unless you have hard enforcement, as we saw with Ireland and also with the Green Dot Program. But going back to California, I’m wondering if it’s even possible for California to come up with a recycling system that is financially self-sustaining for resident, for recycler, and for poacher. Do you have any ideas?

Freinkel: I really don’t. Great idea? I don’t know. To me, the biggest issue in recycling is developing those secondary markets. Right now, the only really sustainable secondary markets are for PET plastics, the stuff that soda and water bottles are made out of, and high density polyethylene, like milk jugs and detergent bottles. But there’s still a whole lot of other plastics that we don’t have secondary markets for. And if they can’t be developed, then maybe we shouldn’t be using them so much. And California, I know, at one time, they were putting money into trying to stimulate these secondary markets for particularly kinds of plastics. I don’t really know how much is happening right now.

Correspondent: Can private industry offer a solution where California can’t?

Freinkel: If private industry stepped up to the bat, if the makers of polypropylene stepped up to the bat, it would be very helpful. Actually, there’s this private program. Polypropylene is #5 plastics. It’s the stuff used in yogurt containers. It’s a great plastic. It’s a very clean plastic. And there’s a company called Preserve that was founded by this guy in Boston who was disturbed by the fact that it’s almost never recycled. Because there are very few secondary markets. But it’s a very processable plastic. So he started this company and started trying to collect polypropylene and he started off making toothbrushes and trying them in Whole Foods. And it’s since developed into this program where Whole Foods and Stonyfield Yogurt, where they’ve got this program called Gimme 5 that encourages people to bring back yogurt containers that can then be recycled by Preserve. And toothbrushes. And cutlery. As far as I know, that’s mostly a private program in which private businesses step up to the bat. It’s sort of win win for everybody.

Correspondent: Well, what about carnival barkers, such as this guy Roger Bernstein from the American Chemistry Council? I thought he was quite interesting. You point out that he sees paper vs. plastic fights as sideshows. How much of this is reflective of American recycling policies? Is there a particular temperament or precedent in American policy that causes these carnival barking, sideshow, big blowups at town hall meetings and the like that you don’t see in Europe? Europe effectively mandates and introduces things such as the Green Dot Program.

Freinkel: Well, Europe has a more European policy that tends to have more government involvement instead of that ideology of rugged individualism.

Correspondent: Especially in California too.

Freinkel: Yeah. There isn’t that same, really strong commitment to letting the free market have its way. And so I think it’s easier for Europe to get these sorts of things true. Europe also has a problem that the US doesn’t, which is that they have almost no landfill space. So dealing with waste has a kind of urgency in Europe that it just doesn’t here — particularly the further west you go, where there’s just eminent room to go. Again, I think it’s not just plastic. It’s nuclear technology. We build nuclear power plants and say, “Oh, we’ll find a good place to bury this stuff. Eventually somebody will take it.” It’s a kind of mentality. We don’t like to look at ways to deal with waste and think through full implications.

Correspondent: But you’re giving me so many fantastic ideas! We could just ban the usage of all landfills and have this Wall-E situation where every amount of trash that we produce is right outside our homes! And then suddenly we see that there’s an actual consequence to this.

Freinkel: I think we’ll have to. At the end of the book, I did this challenge. This woman, Beth Terry, who you mentioned at the start, has been trying to go plastic free and has dramatically reduced the amount of plastic she uses. She is so far beyond anything that I ever tried. But Beth, on her blog, challenges people to spend a week collecting plastic trash. So you can just see what you’ve got there. And I resisted doing this. Because I just knew that it was going to be ugly. And at the end of my research, I said, “Okay, I’ll take the challenge.” And sure enough, I had this huge pile of stuff. And aside from the fact that it was a lot of waste, it also reflected a lot of waste. It reflected the fact that I was buying stuff that I didn’t really need or that I was throwing out bread because my kids won’t eat the heels. I had been throwing out food that had gotten to the back of the refrigerator. I had forgotten about it and now I had to toss it, along with the dirty wrapper.

Correspondent: You really should be baking your own bread, Susan.

Freinkel: (laughs)

Correspondent: We all should be. That would solve a lot of problems.

Freinkel: I mean, we have to figure out where we’re going to draw the line and how extreme we want to be. And I don’t know if I want to bake my own bread. Because I really like that bread from the bakery. But I could also be much careful about how much I buy and be more mindful about the way that I do this.

Correspondent: So you’re advocating communes and geodesic domes?

Freinkel: (laughs)

Correspondent: Is that what’s going on here?

Freinkel: Not quite. I’m just advocating going to the store and being more careful about how you use stuff. And if you want to take it further than that. I don’t want to make my own ketchup and my own deodorant, which is what some people do. But I can buy my grains and my ketchup in bulk and not buy the packets. I don’t have to buy the snack packs.

Correspondent: On the other hand, that is the kind of luxury that someone who is middle class or upper class can take. At Grand Army Plaza, which is north of Park Slope, there’s a farmers market. I went by there with some friends this last weekend and the prices had jacked up considerably to have this organic stuff in the last six months. So if you want to go ahead and live green and live fresh and live responsibly, and get away from the “lifestyle,” it literally creates a new affluent lifestyle that not everybody is going to be able to afford.

Freinkel: Absolutely. As I mentioned earlier, if you want to buy household cleaners that are cheaper and don’t have all sorts of toxic crap in them, those typically cost more. And not everybody is going to do that. And people live in poor neighborhoods generally don’t have access. If there’s a grocery store, it’s going to be a pretty crappy grocery store. And it’s not going to have a lot of fresh produce or organic produce.

Correspondent: We’ll have to become farmers. You point out that while experts have discovered some of the chemicals used in IV bags, kitchenware, toys, and furniture fire retardants are harmful, we don’t really know the full health implications of our exposure to all these plastic chemicals. How has this industry been allowed to flourish without considering, “Well, if we’re putting our food or our clothes or our bodies into these plastic environments, maybe we should think about what we’re doing here”? Has oversight mostly been passed on to private industry for this?

Freinkel: There is no oversight. Stuff that comes into contact with food goes to the FDA. And there’s some debate about how well they study it. But the main chemical law in the country — the Toxic Substances Control Act — was passed in 1976. At that time, there were about 60,000 chemicals in commerce. They were all grandfathered in under the Act. They didn’t have to be subjected to any kind of market review. And it’s estimated that another 20,000 or so have been developed and brought into the market since then with very minimal oversight. The basic crux of the law is a chemical is assumed to be safe unless it’s proven to be otherwise. But the way the law is written, it’s very difficult to establish that it may not be safe. And of those 20,000 chemicals, the EPA has only been able to get reviews from about 200. And the law is so toothless that the Agency could not have even successfully bar asbestos, which is an incontrovertible carcinogenic. So it’s just a law that pretty much has let industry have free reign. And as a consequence, we don’t really know what chemicals we’re being exposed to. You buy a plastic product. [pointing to cup] There’s nothing on this plastic cup to tell me what might be in this. What chemicals might be in it. Presumably because it’s got food in it, I can hope that it’s a safe plastic because the FDA has said that it’s a safe plastic. But otherwise, there’s nothing on this microphone [gesturing to my mike, worried expression from me about the dust that has accumulated on the windscreen] to indicate what plastic chemicals there may be.

Correspondent: Well, you’ve lost two days of your life by talking with me in this environment.

Freinkel: (laughs)

Correspondent: But on the other hand, you did point out in the book that Europe banned DEHP from children’s toys nine years after America did.

Freinkel: Nine years before.

Correspondent: Nine years before! I’m sorry. Well, what are some of the differences in terms of getting legislation oversight from Europe?

Freinkel: Europe has more of a history and some ideological predisposition toward more government intervention policies. Europe has passed a set of chemical policies where they take what’s called a cautionary approach. And the assumption is that, if there is suspicion that a chemical is dangerous, if there is some indication that a chemical is dangerous, it’s up to the manufacturer to prove that it’s not. So the burden is on the manufacturer to prove safety rather than on the government or the regulators to prove lack of safety. What that means is that they take much tighter and harder scrutiny of chemicals that come through. Now that’s just sort of getting underway. And it’s unclear what the final result of it is. Because some of the chemicals have been really controversial in this country, Europe has said it’s simply not worth the risk. That said, not only do we not know the chemicals that are in plastics, but we just really don’t know if they’re dangerous. DEHP, this softener that’s used in vinyl, there’s a lot of suggestive evidence that it may be an endocrine disrupter, that it may interfere with testosterone in the body, and that may have an effect on reproductive health in boys and men.

Correspondent: Don’t say that to me! (laughs)

Freinkel: We don’t know for sure. But the effects are subtle. These aren’t chemicals that are going to cause this massive wave of cancer. Not like asbestos, where you can draw a straight line. It’s more subtle.

Correspondent: Good. I was getting concerned about my virility.

Freinkel: (laughs) Well, it must have been like chewing on vinyl every day. You’re probably okay.

Correspondent: All those vinyl collectors. (laughs) Well, your book closes with the Wharton State Forest Bridge, a crossing that has been constructed entirely of recycled plastic that costs less to build than bridges, such as our lovely three crossing from here into Manhattan — the Brooklyn, the Manhattan, and the Williamsburg Bridges. But since plastic itself is so new, and we’re only just comprehending its environmental effects, how can we know that these plastic bridges will last as long as the 200 years that the engineers say they will? I mean, I also understand that some of the recycled plastic is being held up by fiberglass. Because there’s this creep that kicks in. And that’s also vinyl ester that they’re using in the fiberglass. So we may be reusing our resources. But could it just be as reckless as not knowing the plastic chemicals around us?

Freinkel: I guess that’s conceivable. That bridge is a short bridge. You’re not going to replicate the Manhattan Bridge or the Tappan Zee out of fiberglass.

Correspondent: I’d like to see them try the Brooklyn or the Golden Gate. (laughs)

Freinkel: It certainly wouldn’t be this beautiful kind of structure. The guy who invented the process for recycling plastics — I mean, he took milk jugs and car bumpers. The guy who invented that process claims that he has solved the problem of creep and that these are, in fact, really strong, really durable bridges. I mean, time will tell. It’s hard to know. Certainly I don’t see any reason to think that they’re going to have the kind of chemical footprint of chemically treated wood. But you’re right. There is a risk there. All we can sort of go for right now — those aren’t generally plastics that have a lot of stuff in them to leach out. Milk jugs are made up of polyethylene. Again, it’s a pretty clean plastic. I use the bridge. I close the book with the bridge really as a way to suggest rather than taking this kind of fabulous material and putting it into a milk jug that will end up in a landfill and maybe some future generation 200 years from now will come across this layer of plastic wrap and wonder what the hell is this thing. Put it into something that is meant to last and take advantage of the fact that it lasts a long time.

Correspondent: Well, it’s certainly a more efficient use of government resources than the Bridge to Nowhere. Susan, thanks so much. It was a pleasure chatting with you.

[Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to DDHT as “the softener that’s used in vinyl.” It has been corrected to DEHP.]

The Bat Segundo Show: James Gleick

James Gleick recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #397. He is most recently the author of The Information.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Giving little bits of your entropy.

Author: James Gleick

Subjects Discussed: Claude Shannon, the origin of the byte, Charles Babbage and relay switches, measuring information beyond the telegraph, bit storage capacity, being right about data measurement, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” information overload, TS Eliot’s The Rock, email warnings in 1982, information compression, George Boole’s symbolic logic, information overload, Ada Lovelace and Babbage, James Waldegrave’s November 13, 1713 letter providing the first minimax solution to the two person game Le Her, game theory, Lovelace’s mathematical aptitude, the difficulties of being too scientifically ambitious, connecting pegs to abstraction, Norbert Wiener and cybernetics, Wiener’s contribution to information theory, Wiener vs. Shannon, mathematical formulas to solve games, Ada Lovelace’s clandestine contributions, Luigi Menabrea, a view of machines beyond number crunching, entropy, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, James Clerk Maxwell’s view of disorder as entropy’s essential quality, dissipated energy within information, Kolmogorov’s algorithms and complexity, links between material information and perceived information, molecular disorder, connections between disorganization and physics in the 19th century, extraneous information, Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shifts, Richard Dawkins’s defense of dyslexia as a selfish genetic quality, new science replacing the old in information theory, the English language’s redundant characters, codebreaking, Shannon’s scientific measurements of linguistic redundancy, the likelihood of words and letters appearing after previous words and letters, Bertrand Russell’s liar’s paradox and Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, Gregory Chaitin and algorithmic information theory, Alan Turing, uniting Pierre-Simon Laplace and Wikipedia, extreme Newtonianism, and the ideal of perfect knowledge.


Correspondent: I wanted to first of all start with the hero of your book, Claude Shannon, who of course is the inventor of the byte. He built on the work of Charles Babbage. Shannon conducted early experiments in relay switches, creating the Differential Analyzer. He made very unusual connections between electricity and light. He observed that when a relay is open, it may cause the next circuit to become open. The same thing holds, of course, when the relays are closed. Years later, Shannon, as you describe, is able to demonstrate that anything that is nonrandom in a message will allow for compression. I’m curious how Shannon persuaded himself to measure information on the telegraph. In 1949, as you produce in the book, there’s this really fantastic paper where he draws a line and he starts estimating bit storage capacity. As you point out later in the book, he’s actually close with the measurement of the Library of Congress. How can he, or anybody, know that he’s right about data measurement when of course it’s all speculative?

Gleick: Wow. That was a very fast and compressed summary of many of the ideas of Claude Shannon leading into Claude Shannon. Well, as you’re saying, he is the central figure of my book. I’m not sure I would use the word “hero.” But he’s certainly my starting point. My book starts, in a way, in the middle of a long story. And that moment is 1948, when Claude Shannon publishes his world-changing paper, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” Which then becomes a book, The Mathematical Theory of Communication. And for the first time, he uses the word “bit” as a unit of measure for this stuff. This somewhat mysterious thing that he’s proposing to speak about scientifically for the first time. He would go around saying to people, “When I talk about information as an engineer and a mathematician, I’m using the word in a scientific way. It’s an old word. And I might not mean what you think I mean.” And that’s true. Cause before scientists took over the word, information was just gossip or news or instructions. Nothing especially interesting. And certainly nothing all-encompassing. I guess the point of my book, to the extent that I have a point, is that information is now all-encompassing. It’s the fuel that powers the world we live in. And that begins, in a way, with Claude Shannon. Although, as I say, that’s the middle of the story.

Correspondent: Got it. Well, as you point out also, information overload or information anxiety — this has been a truism as long as we’ve had information. You bring up both TS Eliot’s The Rock — “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” — and, of course, a prescient 1982 Computerworld article warning that email will cause severe information overload problems. To what degree did Shannon’s data measurement account for the possibility of overload? I didn’t quite get that in your book and I was very curious. There is no end to that line on the paper.

Gleick: No. Shannon didn’t really predict the world that we live in now. And it wasn’t just that he was measuring data. It’s that he was creating an entire mathematical framework for solving a whole lot of problems having to do with the transmission of information and the storage of information and the compression of information, as you mentioned. He was, after all, working for the telephone company. He was working for Bell Labs, which had a lot of money at stake in solving problems of efficiently sending information over analog copper telephone wires. But Shannon, in creating his mathematical framework, did it simultaneously for the analog problem and the digital problem. Because he was looking ahead — as you also mentioned in your very compressed run-up. He thought very early about relays and electrical circuits. And a relay is a binary thing. It’s either open or closed. And he realized that open or closed was not just the same as on or off, but yes or no or true or false. You could apply electrical circuits to logic and particularly to the symbolic logic invented by George Boole in the 19th century. So Shannon created his mathematical theory of communication, which was both analog and digital. And where it was digital, it had — we can see now with the advantage of hindsight — perfect suitability to the world of computers that was then in the process of being born.

Correspondent: It’s fascinating to me though that he could see the possibilities of endless relay loops but not consider that perhaps there is a threshold as to the load of information that one can handle. There was nothing that he did? To say, “Well, wait a minute. Maybe there’s a limit to all this.”

Gleick: I’m not sure that was really his department.

Correspondent: Okay.

Gleick: I don’t think you can particularly fault him for that or give him credit one way or the other.

Correspondent: It just didn’t occur to him?

Gleick: No, it’s not that it didn’t occur to him. It’s that — well, I would say, and I do say in the book, that this issue — I’m hesitating to call it “problem” of information overload, of information glut — is not as new a thing as we like to think. Of course, the words are new. Information glut, information overload, information fatigue.

Correspondent: Information anxiety.

Gleick: Information anxiety. That’s right. These are all expressions of our time.

Correspondent: There’s also information sickness as well. That’s a good one.

Gleick: One of the little fun side paths that I took in the book was to look back through history at previous complaints about what we now call information overload. And they go back as far as you’re willing to look. As soon as the printing press started flooding Europe with printed books, there were lots of people who were complaining. This was going to be the end of human knowledge as we knew it. Leibniz was one. Jonathan Swift was another. Alexander Pope. They all complained about — well, in Leibniz’s words, “the horrible mass of books.” He thought it threatened a return to barbarity. Why? Because it was now no longer possible for any person, no matter how well educated, no matter how philosophical, to keep up with all human knowledge. There were just too many books. There were a thousand. Or ten thousand. In the entire world. Well, now, there are ten thousand books printed every hour in the world. Individual titles. So yes, we were worried about information overload. And yes, you can say that Claude Shannon, in solving these problems, greased the skids. But I don’t know whether it’s true or not that he didn’t foresee the issue. It just was an issue that wasn’t in his bailiwick.

Correspondent: Got it.

The Bat Segundo Show #397: James Gleick (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

Jennifer Schuessler: “Literary Occupation: Housewife”

On September 21, 1832, Maria W. Stewart became the first African-American woman to lecture on women’s rights. She was jeered at by male crowds, who pelted her with tomatoes. A few years later in Philadelphia, Lucretia Mott received a similar reception when she pointed out that it was “not Christianity, but priestcraft” that had subjected women. Mott’s remarks, along with those of other women, were widely ridiculed by the press. On November 5, 1855, The New York Times would write of Mott:

The evident sincerity of feeling and intensity of thought produce a strong impression on the mind, but the utter absence of imaginative power stripped the impression of those almost higher attractions which beauty of illustration lends. Still, though the absence of this quality may neutralize the effect as far as popularity with a general audience is concerned, the effect on those who came with a preconceived sympathy with the ideas of a preacher, is likely to be more powerful, in proportion as the enunciation is simple and unaided by the poetical assistance of sensuous flights of imagination or classical touches of cultivated intellect.

In other words, Mott was merely some sincere country bumpkin who could only preach to the already converted. As far as The New York Times was concerned, Mott’s rhetorical approach, despite “a large and eager congregation,” could never reach the higher plains of cultivated intellect.

These ugly and prejudicial avenues were revisited on June 4, 2011, when The New York Times published a baffling article by Jennifer Schuessler. Schuessler suggested that, any time a woman author tweets a 140 character message, she is engaging in a literary feud. Was Schuessler longing for a presuffrage America? Or a continuation of the complacent and sexist approach from 150 years before? It certainly felt that way. Despite claiming that feud watchers “question whether Twitter feuds really qualify” (and who is a feud watcher anyway? Jonathan Franzen when he’s not watching birds?), Schuessler condemned numerous women for speaking their minds. By criticizing the establishment, numerous bestselling authors were somehow transformed into a mindless mob. And if Schuessler has possessed the linguistic and argumentative facilities of her 1855 counterpart, she might very well have claimed that these women carried an “utter absence of imaginative power.”

After serving up a laundry list of all-male literary “feuds” (Theroux v. Naipaul, Vargas Llosa v. Garcia Marquez, Moody v. Peck), with the feud defined as “a willingness to throw actual punches along with verbal jabs,” Schuessler writes:

If the literary feud has lost its old-school bluster, it might be tempting to lay the blame with what Nathaniel Hawthorne might have called “the mob of damn Twittering women.” These days, in America at least, it’s women authors who seem to start the splashiest literary fights, and you don’t need a stool at the White Horse Tavern to witness it.

The problem with this logic is that it assumes that those who have tweeted critical comments (the names cited in the article are Jennifer Weiner, Jodi Picoult, Ayelet Waldman, and Roseanne Cash) wish to engage in physically and verbally aggressive behavior, or that they have little more than barbaric contributions to offer to public discourse. In Schuessler’s defense, there is a modest case that Waldman, in defending her husband, was engaging in ongoing ressentiment towards Katie Roiphe. But the other women cited in Schuessler’s piece were not. If Weiner and Picoult “led a Twitter campaign against what they saw as the male-dominated literary establishment’s excessive fawning over Jonathan Franzen,” one must ask whether a campaign constitutes a feud.

The feud, as described by Schuessler, is one predicated upon hatred for another person. When an author receives a black eye or a knockout, this is little more than an ignoble pissing match revolving around egos. When Paul Theroux writes a poison-pen memoir condemning his former friend Naipaul, does this stand for any corresponding set of virtues?

Yet when a group of women is trying to raise serious questions about the manner in which books are covered by the media, can one really call it a feud? The evidence suggests nobler intentions. In an August 30, 2010 NPR article, Jennifer Weiner stated that the establishment is “ignoring a lot of other worthy writers and, in the case of The New York Times, entire genres of books.” On August 26, 2010, both Weiner and Picoult were interviewed at length by The Huffington Post‘s Jason Pinter about their positions. And it becomes clear from Pinter’s piece that the purported “mob of damn Twittering women” isn’t just “a Twitter campaign,” but an attempt to start a discussion.

Schuessler also condemns “a similar crew” who “took aim at Jennifer Egan” after Egan declared chick lit as “very derivative, banal stuff.” But in refusing to identify the “crew” in question (and only getting a quote from Katie Roiphe, who had little to do with the “feud”), Schuessler proved herself to be an irresponsible journalist. The conversation about Egan’s remarks extended well beyond Twitter, with detailed essays appearing for and against in such outlets as The Frisky and The Millions. Does such a debate really constitute a feud?

When Roiphe says, “The nature of Twitter is you don’t need to think about what you’re saying. Most of us need to think more about what we’re saying, not less,” she demonstrates her total ignorance of the way in which Twitter works. As seen by the Egan remarks and the Franzenfreude statements, there was an initial emotional outcry on Twitter that became dwarfed by a more serious discussion. People formulated their thoughts and wrote lengthy online essays. If the comments to those essays were somewhat heated, there remained numerous efforts by thoughtful people to maintain a civil debate.

So when Schuessler gets Waldman on the record to speculate about how Jane Austen might have engaged in a Twitter debate over Naipaul’s recent comments, Waldman (perhaps unwittingly) upholds the status quo: “Only those of us with impulse control issues take our snits into the ether.” But this falsely suggests that Twitter encourages nothing less than our worst impulses and that one’s initial outburst can’t be tamed into a more rational discussion. It also upholds a dangerous double standard: a man is permitted to speak his mind and punch somebody out (presumably for the amusement of “feud watchers”); but if a woman does anything close to this, she’s little more than “a damn Twittering woman.” If the purported paper of record — an outlet that suggested a few months ago that a gang-raped schoolgirl had it coming — is seriously equating today’s talented female authors with Freidan’s “happy housewife heroines,” then it is clear that The New York Times is ill-equipped to operate in the 21st century.

The Bat Segundo Show: Adam Hochschild

Adam Hochschild recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #396. He is most recently the author of To End All Wars.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Conscientiously objecting and objectifying consciousness.

Author: Adam Hochschild

Subjects Discussed: What is considered morally permissible in war, mustard gas, deadly military technology, Ray Bradbury’s “The Flying Machine,” the women’s suffrage movement and World War I, Emmeline Pankhurst and the Women’s Social and Political Union, splits within the Pankhurst Family, Women’s Dreadnaught, James Keir Hardie’s antiwar speeches, attempts to get socialists to agree, the duties of history to remember the losers, parallels between World War I and current wars, Osama bin Laden’s death, Wikileaks and the Czarist Archives, Margaret and Stephen Hobhouse, conscientious objectors, I Appeal Unto Caesar, Edmund Dene Morel’s hard labor sentence, the tendency of wealthy families and connections to carry more weight, Bertrand Russell, jingoistic writers during World War I, John Buchan’s imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, PG Wodehouse’s The Swoop!, the political stances of writers, contributions of famous writers to British propaganda, The 39 Steps, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and Germany spy conspiracies, responding William Anthony Hays criticism about “stack[ing] the deck by presenting such particularly unappealing characters as foils to the pacifists and liberals he seeks to praise,” attempting to find positive qualities about Douglas Haig (World War I’s worst general), Winston Churchill, Sir John French’s likable qualities, Haig vs. General Eisenhower, the Lansdowne Letter, attempts to understand why the World War I peace movement failed to catch on, relativistic courage, untrained pilots going up against the Red Baron, and the dangers of speaking out what you believe in.


Correspondent: It’s an unsuccessful story. Should history really be in the business of remembering the losers?

Hochschild: Well, first of all, for me, as a writer, it was a challenge to see if I could write a narratively interesting and emotionally meaningful story about a movement that failed. My last book was about the anti-slavery movement in the British Empire. That was a successful movement. Slavery did come to an end. These people failed to stop the First World War. But I still find them very, very much writing about. Because it takes a special kind of courage and nobility to go against patriotic madness that’s in the air. And very often, a movement like this, it doesn’t succeed the first time. We still haven’t stopped war today. We’re caught up in at least two unnecessary wars, in my view, in the United States right now. I would like to see people who opposed those wars take some inspiration from these earlier folks. Even though they failed.

Correspondent: On the other hand, I wanted to bring up your recent TomDispatch article, in which you draw parallels between our present times and World War I. I’m wondering if it’s an appropriate parallel simply because in World War I, there was considerably more death. Presently, you say, “Well, why aren’t we protesting the war?” Well, we did in 2003. It was the biggest protest in America against the conflict in Iraq.

Hochschild: Yeah.

Correspondent: So I’m wondering if really the parallels should line up or whether we should consider the full scope of any kind of war when considering it. Is there a danger here of parallel relativism? Or what? Maybe you can expand upon this.

Hochschild: Well, I don’t think the parallels to anything are ever exact or anywhere near exact when there’s nearly 100 years in between. But I guess some of the parallels I saw between the First World War and those that we’re in today are several. First, look at how the First World War started. Austria-Hungary was eager to make war on little Serbia next door. They felt the existence of Serbia was a threat. Because there were a lot of restless Serbs within the border of the old Austria-Hungarian Empire. They had actually drawn up invasion plans to invade Serbia and dismember it. Then Archduke Franz Ferdinand gets assassinated by an ethnic Serb, but an Austo-Hungarian citizen. And there’s no evidence that the top officials of Serbia’s government even knew about the assassination plot. But they immediately used this as an excuse to make war on Serbia. I see some resemblance between that and Bush using the September 11th attacks to make war in Iraq, which had nothing to do with those attacks. So when countries are hungering to go to war for one reason or another, they can easily use something as an excuse. That’s one similarity. I think another is that most of the time when a country starts war, they expect it to be over very quickly and easily. Kaiser Wilhelm II, when he sent his troops off to France in 1914, said, “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.” And the Germans had this masterplan that they’d worked on for years that very systematically and with great exactitude showed how they were going to subdue France, conquer Paris, and force the French surrender in exactly 42 days. Of course, it didn’t happen that way. But countries always expect it to happen that way. Like when Bush landed on the aircraft carrier in 2003 in front of that big sign MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

Correspondent: Sure.

Hochschild: Well, I’m still not sure what the mission was in Iraq. But whatever it was, it hasn’t been accomplished.

Correspondent: Well, we just recently had another MISSION ACCOMPLISHED allegedly with Osama bin Laden.

Hochschild: Yeah.

Correspondent: And I’m sure you saw some of the New York Post headlines here. They were really, really grisly. On the other hand, I should point out that there is a fundamental difference between al Qaeda, which is networked all around the world, versus the German nation, which is starving, which is machine gunning the soldiers. And the soldiers on the other side are machine gunning them. And there’s this trench warfare and all that. There’s even a sense of gentlemanly accord in World War I that one doesn’t see in the present conflict. Especially when you also factor in communications. I mean, there’s nothing even close, parallel-wise, to Wikileaks, for example, that you could have in World War I. That’s why I’m unclear as to the parallels. Are the parallels more in the way that governments inform the people and governments persuade the people to become involve in a conflict? Or what?

Hochschild: Well, as I say, the parallels from a hundred years are never completely exact. But there was a sort of Wikileaks episode in World War I, which was this. In 1917, there came the two Russian Revolutions: the February Revolution, when they overthrew the czar, and the October Revolution, when the Bolsheviks seized power in a coup. At that point, the Bolsheviks got into the Czarist Archives and they made public all the secret treaties that Russia, France, and the agreements between Russia, France, and Italy had. That showed how the Allies were planning to divide up the possessions of Germany and its allies once the war was over. And it had tremendous reverberations. In the same way that the Wikileaks material did in recent months. Because it showed that even though the Allies liked the Germans — they were saying they were fighting to defend civilization itself — nonetheless, they’d actually drawn lines on the map as to how they were going to divide up spheres of influence in the Middle East, for example.

Correspondent: Okay. I wanted to shift back to conscientious objectors. The case of Margaret Hobhouse. She’s a well-to-do woman. Her son Stephen is imprisoned as a conscientious objector. This suggests to some degree — this whole incident where she writes a book that is, of course, ghostwritten by Bertrand Russell, I Appeal Unto Caesar — that it takes the rich or the privileged in order to shift things. Because she manages to persuade 26 bishops and 200 other clergyman to sign a statement arguing for more lenient treatment of COs. Similarly, in 1916, some COs are sent to France. They’re fed bread and water. They’re forced to the front line. The No Conscription Fellowship is on the case trying to seek them out. But, of course, because they don’t have this Hobhousian connection, it’s a great difficulty to track these folks down. At the beginning of 1918, there were still more than 1,000 COs behind bars. You have Basil Thomson noticing that pacifism was on the rise. Now this comes after I Appeal Unto Caesar was published. Why was there such a delay between 1916 and 1918 in drawing attention to these maltreated COs? Does it take a book? Does it take a privileged person speaking on behalf of COs to ensure humane treatment for all classes? What of this?

Hochschild: Well, obviously, at all times and places, I think that when the people from wealthy families and so on speak out loudly on behalf of something, their voices carry much more loudly. That’s unfortunately the way the world works. One thing that was interesting to me about the war resisters in Britain was that they came from across the class spectrum. You had people in jail like Stephen Hobhouse, who you mentioned, who was from this very ancient wealthy family filled with connections to lords and bishops and so on. And a very close friend of the family was in the Cabinet — Alfred Milner, who was minister without portfolio on charge of coordinating the war effort. At the same time, there were labor unionists in jail, who didn’t have those powerful connections. And these folks all felt a real sense of solidarity with each other across those class lines.

Correspondent: But was the book really the linchpin? I mean, I don’t want to draw any false correlations here, but I’m curious how this connection to Basil Thomson saying, “Oh, pacifism is on the rise.” Is that more the increased awareness of COs? Or is that more people in grief? Because bodies are coming back. Or they’re not coming back. And they’re getting messages that their loved ones are dead.

Hochschild: Well, actually, the book you mentioned by Margaret Hobhouse, because it was allegedly written by Margaret Hobhouse, who was the wife of a prominent churchman and a big landowner and everything, it had considerable effect. Although in fact Bertrand Russell secretly co-authored it. The book helped bring about the release of several hundred conscientious objectors who were in poor health in one way or another. But that’s about all it did. The government still kept locking up conscientious objectors who refused to do alternative service. It still cracked down with increasing harshness on people who spoke out against the war. Bertrand Russell, despite being himself being the son of an earl; he later inherited the earldom from his brother, was sent to jail for six months in 1918. Edmund Dene Morel, really the country’s leading investigative journalist, spent six months in jail for his antiwar writings. Served hard labor. And it broke his health and he died a few years later.

The Bat Segundo Show #396: Adam Hochschild (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced