Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, by Jeff Gunn

Today I'm looking at a pretty serious book which examines the life of Jim Jones and his infamous organization the Peoples Temple. Jim Jones began as a preacher in the 1950's, promoting Christian Socialism and railing against racial and economic injustice. However Jones has become inextricably linked with the mass suicide of him and some nine hundred followers, including three hundred children, in Guyana. How nine hundred people could be convinced to collectively commit suicide remains a distressing puzzle. The debate over Jim Jones for the past forty years has left many wondering where Jim Jones went bad but Guinn's book leaves us with the impression that there was always something not quite right with Jones, perhaps some form of sociopathy, the result is a very dark story that shows people can do the right thing, but very often for the wrong reasons.

The biggest thing that struck me about this biography was the history of Jim Jones from his early childhood. Guinn amasses a large amount of evidence, including Jones's fascination with Hitler, that Jones was always a little bit off. And keep in mind, this is back during World War II when everyone else is solidly behind the Allied cause, Jones has a strange fascination with Hitler and his followers. Perhaps it's only with the benefit of hindsight that we see the numerous red flags, but it creates a long and concerning pattern of behavior over decades.

Even in his work as a church, there is evidence that Jones was doing it not for the help of other people or for the glory of god, but for the glory of Jim Jones. Jones tackled issues such as poverty and racism, but even in the earliest days it seemed to be for his own benefit rather than the benefit of his culture. For example, Jones would frequently ''poach'' members of different congregations by lobbying on behalf of newcomers, writing letters to local government, the local power board, speaking with local shop owners and convincing them to integrate. Jones manages to do good, but it seems to me that his motivation to do good was because it promoted Jim Jones.

As time this got even worse and perhaps more blatant as Jones moved his congregation from Indiana to California. Cut off from friends and family, Jones extorted even larger sums of money from his followers and had them sign over personal possessions to be sold for the good of the Peoples Temple. True, some of this money went to a variety of programs including college tuition for children who were part of the Peoples Temple, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, traditional Christian charity. But millions of dollars disappeared into personal accounts, some of which the government has never been able to recover.

The result is a book that shows a series of gradual increases until a mass suicide becomes the logical conclusion for Jones and some of his most dedicated followers. Many resisted, some hid, some escaped, but the result was three hundred dead children, killed out of fear that they were about to be kidnapped by the CIA.

Guinn does extensive research and provides exhaustive evidence, but the story is hard to read, to say the least. It's a long story and with the inevitable conclusion it all takes a very dark and sinister turn. I'd only read this book if you were really interested, and I'd suggest interspersing it with something light as well.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

God, A Human History, by Reza Aslan

A long time ago, but not in a galaxy far far away, I was a college freshman taking comparative theology. Among the books we read was a history of Islam titled No god But God by Reza Aslan. I remembered rather liking the book and when I found another book from the same author, I thought it was worth taking the time to check it out. Rather than dealing solely with Islam, this book looks at the history of religion in a broader context going back into the stone age and ending with the monotheism of Islam. This book is rather short for tackling such a broad subject and I'm left wondering what other resources are available for additional research, but as an introductory book I think Aslan does a pretty good job.

The issue with debating the theology of stone age humans is that the work is mostly conjecture from the fragments of archaeological evidence that we've found. We know that there are cave paintings throughout the world including discs, handprints, and animals. We can make guesses as to the significance of those paintings and what they might have meant to stone age humans,why they made those paintings, and how they understood the world. But ultimately the best we can do is make educated guesses.

As Aslan manages to get to recorded history he moves onto firmer ground, although again because this book is so darn short I feel like there was a lot more subject matter that Aslan could have talked about but he provided such a short overview that it felt incomplete. Aslan also makes arguments that are so broad and vague that it's difficult to contradict them by their own generality. The stuff that I thought was most interesting though, was Aslan's revelation of theological research showing monotheism only developed in Judaism after the Babylonian exile. Aslan states that there is evidence that Judaism actually practiced a polytheistic system with at least two deities, Elohim and YHWH. It was only after the Babylonian exile that Elohim and YHWH were merged into a single deity, the only deity. Needless to say, multiple books can be written about this subject so for Aslan to talk about it in just one chapter feels a little inadequate.

Aslan also throws in a chapter about early Christian schisms, again another book-length subject, before finally getting to Islam. The result is a tantalizing glimpse at deeper theological subjects showing how difficult the concept of monotheism can be for people to accept. I'd actually be interested in a full-length book from Aslan about just that subject but for an introductory book I think Aslan does a pretty good job.

Overall I think this book is worth checking out. Specifically the information that I didn't know about Judaism and Christianity was tantalizing and I'd have appreciated resource to check out more. (There actually may be more in the physical book but as with most of my books at this point I listened to an audiobook.) But if you're interested in the history of theology in a very general sense this book is a good choice.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 8, 2018

American Pain, by John Temple

Today I'm looking at a book that explores the industry of pill mills that cropped up in recent decades in the United States, with the most flagrant examples being ''pain clinics'' in Florida. The biggest and most profitable of these was American Pain, run by Chris George, a college drop-out, convicted felon with Nazi tattoos. The pain clinics that George operated took in thousands of dollars in cash every day, deposited in garbage cans because regular tills were inadequate for the sheer quantity. Large groups of people from Appalachia would make marathon drives from out of state to purchase supplies of powerful narcotics, and make the trip back in a month. And amazingly the entire thing existed within the realm of legality due to lax laws and weak regulation.

Ordinarily you would not think that a convicted felon in his mid-twenties, whose main experience is house construction, would be able to get involved in anything resembling the medical field. Chris George got his start by selling diet pills and steroids, but a doctor got him started in the field of opioid painkillers. George merely had to rent a location, and provide the start-up money to produce something resembling a walk-in clinic. The doctor would provide their DEA license which enabled George to make purchases of oxycodone and other drugs from wholesalers and the doctor would write the prescriptions. The pain clinic could then fill the purchases in-house under the ''supervision'' of the physician. George wasn't certain that the idea would really take off, but was willing to give it a try. As patients continued coming in, packing the waiting room and stretching the line outside into the tiny parking lot, George realized they were onto something. From there the business grew by leaps and bounds until George's clinic was processing hundreds of patients in a single day, and bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue each day as well.

Why this happened is because of a multitude of reasons, which created a perfect storm situation that allowed George and his cadre to grow absurdly wealthy on something that was (technically) legal. The first was the increase in the availability of opioids starting in the late 1990s. Prior to that period opioids were largely restricted to patients who most likely weren't going to live long enough for addiction to become an issue. However, starting in the 1990s drug manufacturers began aggressively campaigning for increased sales of opioid painkillers through a variety of methods. This included advertising campaigns with fallacious information about how new opioids were safe and non-addictive if taken ''as prescribed'', dubious or downright illegal efforts by drug representatives to encourage physicians to prescribe opioids, and lobbying of the DEA to increase annual quotas of controlled substances. (Go ahead and put a pin in that last part. We're going to come back to it later.)

In addition, Florida had fairly lax regulations regarding pain clinics and opioid prescriptions. Basically anybody who could fill out a business registration form could start up a pain clinic, regardless of their background. And any doctor, so long as they had a valid DEA license, could order and prescribe opioid painkillers. The doctors did not even have to be pain specialists, they just had to have a valid license. There were various ways that doctors could trip automatic alerts and cause increased scrutiny from the DEA and other police agencies, but generally as long as a doctor didn't prescribe more than 240 30mg doses per patient per 28 day period, they could fly under the radar.

George even went to the effort of making it appear they were a legitimate medical facility. MRI reports were required before treatment, mounds of paperwork including a pain management contract were created, and patients with obvious track marks or forged paperwork were turned away, just to give the organization a veneer of legitimacy. But it was at most a paper shield to cover everyone's ass. People could tell that this was drug-dealing, plain and simple. The fact that patients would start shooting ground-up pills in the parking lot was proof enough of that. Eventually the police did end George's operation and new legislation made setting up a pill mill more difficult, but the fact that they operated for two years in the wide open, with multiple imitators and competitors, shows how dangerously lax the regulatory environment was.

Okay, so to return to the issue of the DEA and quotas, this was my biggest takeaway from the book. Every year the various drug manufacturers submit requests to the DEA for quotas on how much of controlled substances, such as amphetamines, opioids, and other drugs, they can produce in a year. Now, the public doesn't know how much opioids a specific manufacturer is allowed to produce in a year, but the DEA does release its total for the industry as a whole. In the past 25 years, the total quota for opioids has increased dramatically. In the past ten years it's at least doubled. In the past 25, it's increased by a factor of 42. Yes. 42. For every kilogram of opioids produced in 1993, there are 42 being produced today. The question isn't how we ended up with an opioid epidemic in the United States. We're so awash in pills nowadays that the more apt question is how couldn't we?

And yet, there's something the DEA could have done. Back in the 1970s when there was concern that amphetamines were being abused, the DEA drastically cut national quotas for the drugs and severely curtailing supply. When the supply dried up, the market for amphetamines dried up as well. At any point in the past decade when people started expressing concerns about the abuse of prescription painkillers the DEA could have drastically curtailed the quotas and dried up the supply of opioids. Instead, year after year, the DEA has obligingly raised the quotas meaning, year after year, we end up with an even greater supply of opioids. If we were serious about ending the opioid epidemic in the United States we could cut the supply off at the source, and it wouldn't cost us anything we weren't already spending.

I think this book is definitely worth reading. If nothing else it reveals the core problems surrounding our current opioid crisis, an overly plentiful supply of drugs and lax regulations regarding them. I definitely recommend giving this book a read for that, as well as the true crime aspects of the story involving the American Pain clinic.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Changeling, by Victor La Valle

Today I'm looking at a novel by Victor La Valle that is only loosely, loosely defined as fantasy and even then I'm not sure if it counts. This book is mundane for basically three-quarters of its total length and when magic is finally inserted in the last fourth of the book it left me wondering if what they'd encountered actually was magic or if it was a hallucination shared by the characters. That's honestly my biggest frustration with this novel, it's classified as a ''fantasy'' novel, but it's so freaking mundane that I don't think it's worth the effort if you're a big fantasy fan.

I'm actually going to do something that I usually avoid in my reviews and include the blurb from the back of the book for this story. I remember being intrigued by the blurb when I looked at this on the library's website so this was a major reason I bothered with this book in the first place:

''Apollo Kagwa has had strange dreams that have haunted him since childhood. An antiquarian book dealer with a business called Improbabilia, he is just beginning to settle into his new life as a committed and involved father, unlike his own father who abandoned him, when his wife Emma begins acting strange. Disconnected and uninterested in their new baby boy, Emma at first seems to be exhibiting all the signs of post-partum depression, but it quickly becomes clear that her troubles go far beyond that. Before Apollo can do anything to help, Emma commits a horrific act—beyond any parent’s comprehension—and vanishes, seemingly into thin air. Thus begins Apollo’s odyssey through a world he only thought he understood to find a wife and child who are nothing like he’d imagined. His quest begins when he meets a mysterious stranger who claims to have information about Emma’s whereabouts. Apollo then begins a journey that takes him to a forgotten island in the East River of New York City, a graveyard full of secrets, a forest in Queens where immigrant legends still live, and finally back to a place he thought he had lost forever. This dizzying tale is ultimately a story about family and the unfathomable secrets of the people we love.''

Okay, so this plot summary literally, literally, describes the entire book. The major twist, Emma's horrific act, doesn't happen until about halfway into the book. And as I said, we have no evidence that magic is real until the last quarter of the book, and even then the evidence seems pretty scanty. I'm basically left thinking that perhaps this is supposed to be an entirely mundane story and the magic is how the characters understand things. That does leave a large plot hole or leaves us with the conclusion that Apollo and Emma when insane at the end of the book and they just hallucinated the ending. I'm not sure which is more possible.

This book also reminds me of a more ''literary'' novel and I say that because Apollo, the main character, is a rare book dealer and his wife, Emma, is a librarian. Authors by definition are people who enjoy books, that's why they write them. But inevitably whenever somebody wants to write a ''serious'' book it's almost guaranteed that the main character will be a writer or librarian or somebody somehow connected with books. Which would be fine, but I get the impression that Apollo doesn't really care about books. We're told that he's a consistent reader which is how he gets into the used book trade, but after that he seems to just trade in books for the money, rather than for love of books themselves.

I'm also left with multiple questions about this book. There's the character Kinder Garten who is the main antagonist of the book, except we're not given much to understand about him. Why does he go by the alias Kinder Garten? What the hell is his ideology, if any? The character is a consistent liar so we don't know what coming out out of his mouth is true. This gets even more confusing when we get to the end of the book and he's talking with people who use the words ''beta cuck'' and another one mentions white men's natural birth rights. Is he an alt-righter or isn't he? Was La Valle including these just to make the book topical and play well with critical audiences? Who are the Wise Ones? Like how did they come to be, and where and how do people find them? There are just a lot of these questions and I'm left grasping for ideas.

The result is a book that in my opinion isn't all that great. If it was trying to convince me it was a fantasy novel, it did a really bad job and left me thinking there wasn't any fantasy involved at all. This book felt like it was trying really hard to get an award of some sort. If you like the more literary sorts of novels then this book might be enjoyable for you, but this wasn't really my cup of tea.

- Kalpar

Friday, November 2, 2018

America is Going to Kill Refugees

America is going to kill refugees.

I earnestly hope that what I say isn't going to be true. I hope that in two or three months time people can look back and say, ''Well Kalpar was wrong and he worried over nothing.'' And if I get a bunch of people telling me how wrong that statement was, I'll gladly accept the criticism. But right now I am seriously afraid that America is going to kill refugees.

If you don't know, and I can't blame you if you haven't been watching the news, there is currently a caravan of refugees fleeing the crime and violence of Central America. This caravan numbers in the thousands, moving for mutual protection, and is working its way through Mexico towards the U.S. border. In response, the United States government, under the administration of DJT, has sent some 5,000 soldiers to the border and DJT is speaking of plans to send upwards of 15,000 troops to the border. As a fascist and pathological liar, backed by a pack of Quislings, DJT and the Republican Party have boldly claimed that refugee caravan consists of Islamic terrorists, gang members, thugs, with absolutely no evidence. In fact, some right-wing pundits have gone so far as to claim that the refugees will bring diseases to the United States including smallpox, which would be downright amazing considering smallpox was declared eradicated by the WHO in 1980.

On top of all this yesterday there was an off-the-cuff comment, something very easy to miss but which may prove deathly important. DJT made a statement that U.S. troops should consider rocks thrown by refugees to be firearms. What this will actually mean for U.S. troops is still unclear, and it looks like the actual use of firearms is going to be limited. BUT that doesn't mean things can get changed or even confused in the intervening weeks until the caravan actually arrives at the U.S. border. And that doesn't leave out the possibility of a horrible, awful mistake.

Let me tell you a story. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I was a Boy Scout earning a variety of merit badges including the rifle-shooting merit badge. As part of this merit badge we were required to hit a certain number of shots within the space of a quarter. The rangemaster would have us all get set up on the range, tell us to load one cartridge into our .22 rifles, and then wait for permission to fire. Inevitably, someone would fire their rifle before being given permission. I can't say how often this happened, but it happened more than once.

Now you're probably saying, ''But Kalpar! That isn't the same situation at all! You've never even been in the military!'' And that's basically my point. It wasn't the same situation as what's going on at the border at all. A Scout rifle range is fairly low-risk, low-stakes, and if the rangemaster is doing their job right, nobody's going to get hurt or killed. Troops on a border is an entirely different situation whatsoever. All it will take is one accidentally discharged firearm for the situation at the border to turn into a massacre.

There are good arguments that this nightmare situation, of U.S. troops firing on unarmed refugees, will not come to pass. The U.S. military is highly trained, they understand the rules of engagement, and there are rules in place to limit deployment of firearms to U.S. troops in situations such as these. A significant number of the troops being sent to the border, after all, are engineers who are setting up razor wire and other obstacles. And hopefully these safeguards will be enough to prevent something awful from happening.

But in an era where so many other safeguards and institutional precautions seem to keep failing. In an era where people are outright calling these refugees criminals and...well, vermin, in an era where concentration camps are being set up for children torn away from their parents, in an era where DJT thinks he can overturn the Constitution through executive order, I'm not so sure. In an ideal situation we assume everything works as it should and also assume the best of people. But I'm truly afraid there is too much of an opportunity for something to fail somewhere.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Democracy in Chains, by Nancy MacLean

Today I'm looking at another rather concerning book about the history of politics in the United States and how we got into the seemingly interminable mess that we now find ourselves. MacLean dug into archives from multiple universities and discovered what can only be called a conspiracy, spanning decades, and inspired by the ideological work of at least one man, James McGill Buchanan. This book is mostly a biography of Buchanan and his professional life until his break with the Koch brothers, forcing him into retirement. While I think it may be a stretch to say that Buchanan alone was responsible for the development of the radical right, I think it's fair to say that he was one of multiple influential figures who helped to shape the ideology of the modern right.

MacLean traces the origins of the modern right wing back to a key event in American history,  Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954. Many southerners resisted this decision, and the fight for integration continued for many years, and is in many ways still ongoing. However, the overt resistance in places such as Arkansas and Mississippi were not as appealing to border regions such as Virginia. The wealthy, elite ruling classes of Virginia maintained control through systems such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and extreme gerrymandering to ensure their continued dominance of their respective states, without any challenge from ordinary people. Effectively, an oligarchy in all but name. The federal decision to force integration of public schools under the Fourteenth Amendment promised additional federal changes to existing power structures within the states, breaking the chokehold of the oligarchs. The oligarchs needed a method to resist, without bringing overt attention to their objectives Buchanan managed to provide a solution. Privatize the schools. If there are no public schools, then there can be no discrimination. Private schools can refuse blacks admittance, and the burden of taxes for public education can be removed in favor of people who desire education actually paying for it. And in fact, that's what Virginia did in Prince Edward County for five years, despite massive local protest. The state government overruled local school boards and closed all the public schools, leaving black children without education for five vital years.

Buchanan and many of his compatriots were committed to an ideology that sought to return the United States back to an era of absolute economic freedom, resembling the Gilded Age more than anything else. No minimum wage, no right to organize, and no government regulation. Buchanan and his allies in fact want to go even further, disdaining corporate welfare systems such as health insurance and pension plans provided through employers. If people want health insurance or retirement money, they'll have to do it themselves. The government should exist only to protect private property and to repress the masses.

Yes, that's actually an important aspect of their entire ideology, repressing the masses. See, here's the biggest paradox that Buchanan and his ilk discovered when trying to promote their ideology. It's actually unpopular among the majority of people. For the most part, people like having clean air and water, good schools for children, old age insurance, and a number of other government programs that have to be supported by taxes. As libertarians discovered in the 1950's and 1960's, coming out directly and stating a desire to return to Gilded Age laissez faire did not go over well with really any focus group at all. The solution for Buchanan and their wealthy supporters was to impose their system of economic ''freedom'' on the majority through a combination of voter suppression and outright deceit, gradually dismantling the U.S. support net and regulatory systems until the network is completely destroyed.

This is perhaps the most galling and aggravating thing about libertarian intellectuals is their absolute and total lack of any morality or concern for political freedoms, which becomes apparent in much of their writing. MacLean includes an example of one member of Buchanan's cadre who stated that if their program was successful, many Americans would have to live in slums like the favela in Rio de Janeiro, casually stating that the air and water might not be what Americans are used to, but they'd have to adapt. It's social Darwinism pure and simple, the poor are poor because of some sort of inherent failing or weakness. If they're willing to work hard, tighten their belts, and raise themselves by their bootstraps, they can get ahead through rough individualism. If they're not willing to put in the work, then nobody else should have to carry them. This cruel callousness fits perfectly with their nineteenth century ideology. So long as they're fine, the rest of the world can go straight to hell for all they care.

The picture that emerges is highly disturbing. A small cadre of the ultra-rich and their lackeys, working to simultaneously undermine support for social welfare and regulatory programs while disenfranchising the very masses that they seek to exploit. The rise of the radical right, funded by ultra-wealthy backers, has thrown the future of American democracy in doubt. We are in the midst of a class war, started by the upper classes, and they are in the process of winning because they have convinced a significant percentage of the lower classes that the class war is in their own best interest. It is only through organization and education that we'll be able to fight back against the upper classes and ensure the future of social democracy.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Skin Folk, by Nalo Hopkinson

Today I'm looking at a collection of short stories written by Nalo Hopkinson. This is another one of those books that I picked up from one of the perpetual sales that Goodreads manages to throw my way, and I'm very, very glad that I did. If you haven't heard of Hopkinson yet, I highly recommend checking her writing out. This book in particular reminded my a lot of Neil Gaiman's writing, especially his short story anthologies like Trigger Warning or Smoke and Mirrors. I'm really glad that I picked up this book and I think everyone else should check it out too.

One of the things I really liked about this book was how Hopkinson incorporated her own cultural heritage into her stories. Hopkinson was born in Jamaica with her parents having roots in Trinidad and Guyana, and later emigrated to Canada. Hopkinson incorporates both Caribbean and Canadian elements into a lot of her stories which gives it a very unique flavor. I always really appreciate it when authors incorporate their own unique locations or cultural heritages in their works rather than seeing yet another story set in New York.

Another thing that I really liked about this book was how Hopkinson took a lot of old fairy tales and retold them in a different way. This is definitely a trick that Gaiman has pulled a number of times with great success. Hopkinson, by her own admission, includes a lot of adult themes (aka sex and violence) in her stories, something that I've noticed Gaiman does a lot in his stories as well. The results are stories that make you sit and really think about the results and can really punch you in the gut. It's really good writing that shows Hopkinson really has talent.

Otherwise, this is an anthology of short stories so there's not a whole lot I can say beyond ''these stories are good, go check them out''. It turns out that I managed to pick up another of Hopkinson's books with another Goodreads deal so I'm looking forward to seeing how a full-length book compares to her short stories. This is definitely worth taking the time to read.

- Kalpar