Thursday, March 23, 2017

Book Review: Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? by Thomas Kohnstamm

Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?
Back in 2008 when Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, and Professional Hedonism was published, it had a few hooks that ensured instant publicity. The first was the promise of exposing the life of a Lonely Planet guide-book writer on the road. The second was a whole lot of shameless behaviour depicted in the book, which was guaranteed to stoke one of the greatest of human past-times; judging other people. But most readers who make their way through the book are bound to ask the question: can someone who so casually discusses his corner-cutting, lying and criminal behaviour in pursuit of fulfilling his contract with Lonely Planet be trusted about anything he writes? Another question: does it really matter?

When the first promotional interviews and other pre-release publicity suggested that author Thomas Kohnstamm was not the only one of their writers spewing major amounts of horseshit regarding the locations he visited and the supposed research he conducted, Lonely Planet dutifully responded right on cue with unctuous, high-minded equivocating. What a shocker. You pay first-time writers meagre wages, impose unrealistic deadlines and provide little oversight, and the result is less than ethical behaviour. Instead of visiting every town and scouting out all the relevant hotels, restaurants and bars at every price point, some of the travelling facility inspectors re-write reviews from past editions, crib information online, pick other travellers' brains, and on occasion, make shit up.

Only the very naive cling to the belief travel guide-book writers have dream jobs. Of course, I have no problem believing that many of them have carved out a nice little niche for themselves. They've developed their own system for scoping out a new location and likely have little problem meeting deadlines and staying within their budgets. Perhaps most of them take a few shortcuts on occasion, while others play it as straight as they can. They make connections, write for various publications and one day they move on to another job within the industry. Or they do what they should have done in the first place; write their own travel book. Interestingly, Kohnstamm continued writing for Lonely Planet for years after the initial trip to Brazil, which is the focus of Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?. He provides no indication about whether he carried on with his "makin' up shit" approach to guide-book writing in those other locations.

As for the authenticity of many of the tales in the book--who can really say? However, I came to the conclusion that much of what Kohnstamm writes is embellished a great deal. And I am fairly confident that a number of events are undiluted horseshit of the highest grade. Casually deciding to become a drug dealer in a foreign country? Perhaps, but the emotions (and lack of) and the details he discusses in relation to that decision and the subsequent developments ring dead false to me. He probably thought he was quite clever in relating the entire apocryphal tale in such a way that he could later deny having done anything of the sort if anyone were to call him on it.

The passages regarding his escapades with various women in Brazil well may be true. Anyone who has done any amount of independent travelling knows that a certain kind of hedonistic experience can be had by just about anyone on the backpackers' circuit. However, many of the anecdotes about women sound as if they were written after polling members of the pick-up artist community regarding their most cringe-worthy fantasies. Bedding beautiful women and then developing an instant need to flee: check. Same women become enraged and try to cheat him financially only to have him best them in the end regarding money: check. Walking in on sleeping women whose breasts or other body parts are exposed, and then staring open-mouthed for a few creepy minutes: check. At least two examples of each of these categories appear in the book.

Of course, accurately reported incidents will also reflect patterns and tendencies, so perhaps everything regarding his interactions with women are only an insight into Kohnstamm's character. Come to think of it, there really are very few females Kohnstamm encounters about whom readers learn much besides what they look like and whether they are interested in casual sex. Oh, there is a graphic, painfully detailed scene in which a local Brazilian woman is brutally assaulted.

The male characters Kohnstamm chooses to highlight generally fall into male-fantasy territory as well. Drug fiends, drug dealers and the requisite James Bond character: a hard-case Israeli who dislocates the shoulder of a young pickpocket, casually discusses his mercenary past and dispatches with armed police in another incident that also involves Kohnstamm and which has the air of a comic-book fantasy about it.

The timeline of events is just a bit too pat as well; the good-natured first attempt at trying to visit all the destinations on the itinerary provided by Lonely Planet, and then the revelation (that was actually percolating all along) sparked by the jaded hotel owner who's hip to Kohnstamm's position as a guide-book writer.

I imagine that Kohnstamm wrote the book and realized that it just didn't quite have the appeal he had originally hoped. So he did some re-writing and packed it full of characters and narrative devices to spice it up. And what do you know? Here I am discussing many of those incidents he likely fabricated and in the process I'm providing validation for all the non-fiction writing fabulists out there. However, it might not have been such a bad thing as the sections of the book which take place in New York are dull as ditch-water and apparently involve no bullshit whatsoever. In his attempts to show how soul-destroying his existence in New York was before he accepted the job with Lonely Planet, he forgets that to accurately recreate such a reality is to put readers to sleep. Unfortunately, the sections that take place in New York make up at least 25% of the book.

If pressed about the liberal dollops of horseshit that found their way into his book, I have no doubt Kohnstamm would respond with some kind of clever, hipster rationalization that suggested he was angling for a certain effect and only the naive literalist would take everything he wrote seriously. Of course, most readers are willing to accept some exaggerations and the reorganizing of events in time to create a more entertaining book.

Regardless, I did find it to be quite a fast-paced, enjoyable read. On the other hand, I also liked many of the least sensational passages in which he writes about rolling into a new town and getting his bearings. Some of the minutiae related to actually doing his job as a guide-book writer were interesting as well. In this passage, he details some of the things he has to keep in mind when gathering information:
Lonely Planet would like 20 percent of the coverage going to budget, 60 percent to midrange, and 20 percent to top-end. I also need to keep in mind what a solo female traveler would want, what a disabled traveler would want, what a gay/lesbian /bisexual/transgender traveler would want, what a vegetarian or vegan would want, and I need to be sensitive to not write with a particularly American point of view. The company does not think that this will dilute the content or voice of the book.
I did a fair amount of backpacking many years ago and many of the emotions he experiences and the litany of different characters and situations really brought back some good memories. He riffs on the hypocrisy and absurdity of the constant search for pristine locations which become the new hot destination for backpackers only to evolve into over-developed cesspools full of angry, scheming locals and rich, sneering tourists.

Kohnstamm writes in a simple, straightforward way and avoids any attempts at literary flourishes. He appreciates the importance of scenes and characters in non-fiction writing and keeps the action moving along quite nicely for the most part. Unfortunately, the book is poorly edited. Not to the point of being rammed full of mistakes. But there are enough mistakes (typos, grammar mistakes, incorrect word usage when the word's homophone should have been used, to name a few) to make it annoying for anyone who expects a book to be well edited. In addition, Kohnstamm has some annoying writing habits, as almost every writer does. For example, one of his writing tics is to use "off of" when "off" alone would suffice (and would read much better).

If you want a relatively entertaining, quick read that chronicles some of the challenges of a travel guide-book writer mixed with tales of debauchery, you could do worse. Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? was published almost 10 years ago. For a first-time author, the book seemed to do quite well. Yet, since then, nothing more from Kohnstamm. Perhaps the intake of illegal drugs and alcohol he describes in the book got the better of him. Or maybe he's turned to his real calling--fiction writing.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Book Review: Wild Coast by John Gimlette

Wild Coast
In Wild Coast: Travels on South America's Untamed Edge, John Gimlette recounts three months spent travelling in Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. He travels extensively, interacts with many of the locals and provides historical background on the region.

It quickly becomes clear that potted histories will make up a large part of the book. Unfortunately, those are the least engaging passages (often stretching to numerous pages at a time). I often found my eyes glazing over as he detailed yet another instance of slaughter, uprising or unjust treatment of slaves. It's like the difference between wading through dry backstory and lively, engaging scenes when reading a novel.

At some point in writing the book, I believe Gimlette sensed this potential shortcoming as well, and so he utilizes some different methods in an attempt to spice up the narratives. For example, he occasionally switches to present tense and imagines what a particular historical figure may have experienced in certain situations instead of relying on dry summary. Some readers may find these sections enjoyable, but I just wasn't drawn into many of the stories.

In one chapter, Gimlette ventures to the location where the American preacher/cult leader Jim Jones and his followers set up the notorious Jonestown in the middle of the jungle. I've read a very good book about Jones and the build-up to the mass suicide/slaughter of over 900 people in 1978, which makes the retelling here particularly watered down and ineffective.

Of course, interspersed throughout the history lessons are descriptions of the places as they exist today. Gimlette provides contrasts to the way things were, and discusses the ways in which the past has shaped the present. Those passages can be quite entertaining.

Some annoyances crop up in Gimlette's writing. Like many good writers, he seems to forget, at times, about the importance of the good old-fashioned transition. Transitions between sentences, and between paragraphs. In this passage, he tells us about an important house in Georgetown. Yet, while I was reading, I wasn't quite sure about the details. Was it abandoned? Or was it a historical site preserved for tourists? If I had to bet, I'd go with the latter. But why not just bring the reader up to speed? If not at the beginning of the passage when he too is puzzled at the status of the house, at least clarify things after the fact.
The Red House was  grand and yet spartan, and covered in bristly crimson shingles. At first I though it was abandoned: the shutters were bolted, and the grass grew long in the yard. But then I noticed that the front door was open, and so I went inside.
...
After a while an Indian appeared.
It's never quite made clear who this Indian is.

Another related flaw: assumptions about how easily readers will lock onto his descriptions and actually know what the hell he is talking about. In this passage, Gimlette describes the architecture in Georgetown. No logical, realistic image rose up in my mind based on his description:
In a city of lacy buildings, this was the laciest of all. From the outside, it reminded me of a wedding dress, all spotlessly white and frilly.
Other times, the lack of information seems to be the result of poor editing. For example, here he writes about Jim Jones:
By 1963 he's head of the human rights commission, and his disciples assume a new name, the People's Temple Full Gospel Church.
Yet in the above sentence, I have no idea which particular "human rights commission" he is referring to.

A number of times, he mentions people with "blue" hair. I assume he means hair that is so black that it has a slight blue tinge. Maybe I'm being a stickler, but I would guess more than a few rubes reading the book would be left scratching their heads. More appropriate would be to explain that effect the first time he comments on "blue" hair and then in subsequent mentions it would be clear to everyone.

Similarly, more than a few times he uses metaphors that left me a bit perplexed. There's a fine line between using tired old metaphors and crafting good, original metaphors that are effective and easily understood.

Finally, while many of the here-and-now passages in the book were quite enjoyable to read, a certain sameness to many of the characters detracted from the believability. To be sure, he interacts with a wide variety of people from the towns and the countryside, from different ethnic groups and socioeconomic backgrounds. But inevitably they are almost all incredibly, nice people, or at the very least, honourable and genuine. Most of them are cast in the "unforgettable character" mold that stretches belief. I suppose it would be hard to get a glimpse of people's dark side in such a relatively short time, but still, some nuance would have been nice. It's not surprising then, that Gimlette offers up the occasional observation that can be classified as faux incredulity. In short, these passages say, it's hard to comprehend that such nice people should hail from countries that have undergone such turmoil.

Of course, Gimlette can write very well. In this short description, he highlights his literary skills and unwittingly includes a good criticism of his own writing:
As he talked he smoked, and his hands swooped around making vapour trails, like a dogfight in front of his face. He was thrillingly articulate but not always easy to follow.
Here is another paragraph in which he demonstrates his ability to describe settings in a vivid and evocative manner:
Eventually, at dusk, we reached the Burro-Burro River. It was like a streak of blackened glass sliding away, off through the trees. There, high on a bluff, we slung our hammocks and ate some chunks of catfish. It tasted of trout with an extra dollop of pond. Then we opened some rum, settled in our hammocks and waited for the show to begin.
Yet just as often there is an awkward turn of phrase or a built-in assumption that necessitates re-reading. For example:
She was round and exuberant, had a tattoo on her face and was dressed in a Guyanese flag. 
More explanation required. It sounds interesting. Is it an actual flag? If so, how is it fashioned into a garment? Or is it a t-shirt with an image of the flag on it? Or, is he trying to suggest that this woman is extremely proud of her country? The subsequent paragraphs don't seem to suggest that.

I have no doubt that many readers will enjoy Wild Coast. The sections which include histories of the places Gimlette visits may appeal to them a great deal. For me, the result was a book which I was never quite eager to return to after I started reading it. Also, as mentioned, the flaws in his writing became tiresome. At least one good re-write and some more editing would have produced a far better book. I believe that Gimlette saw some amazing things and was impressed by the incredible scenery and bloody history during his three-month journey. Unfortunately, because of his emphasis on the past and the shortcomings in his writing, I was never able to fully share his enthusiasm.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Forever a Buffoon: The Academy Awards Best Picture Screw-up

buffoon
The unsealing of an envelope sealed his fate as a buffoon for the ages.

The cock-up over best picture at the Oscars was cringe distilled into its purest essence. In other words, fantastic television. The kind of surreal train-wreck which the vast majority of viewers enjoyed immensely.

A bunch of overpaid actors being embarrassed in front of hundreds of millions of people. What's not to like?

Of course, for the person who caused the screw-up, it's not a laughing matter. It will likely have tangible, real-world effects and will define him for the remainder of his life. For the rest of us, he will be forever a buffoon.

"Buffoon" is one of those abstract words whose dictionary definition doesn't really do it justice.

buffoon definition


You could ask ten different people to write out a definition of the word buffoon, and you would get ten different responses.

For me, a buffoon has always been someone who engenders at least some sympathy and some contempt. There's always at least a hint of the emasculated and ineffectual about a buffoon. He's inevitably going to be middle-aged or older, male (can women be buffoons?), and gone to seed or maybe even obese. He probably has a desperate need for people to like him, and has discovered over the years that one way to accomplish this is to play the clown. A self-deprecating sense of humour seems to be common among buffoons. And most buffoons have an acute lack of self-awareness. Of course, who really does have an accurate sense of how other people see them? But the buffoon's lack of self-awareness is extreme.

Brian Cullinan, the accountant from  PricewaterhouseCoopers who has been singled out as the person who caused La La Land to be incorrectly announced as Best Picture at the Academy Awards when Moonlight was the real winner, appears to fit the definition if only because of that single mistake. Though he does have the stereotypical buffoonish appearance down cold.

He also appears to be something I call an Iphone-monkey. In fact, if he hadn't been an Iphone-monkey, his buffoon status would never have reached such mythic heights. What is an Iphone-monkey? It's someone who walks around with his head up his ass mashing away at his mobile phone with his thick peasant fingers when he should be paying attention to the world around him. Cemeteries are filling up with Iphone-monkeys whose last act was to engage in some asinine bit of online stupidity just before a semi-trailer plowed into them, smearing their innards all over the highway and delivering them into eternity. Lucky for Cullinan, his Iphone-mashing habit didn't have fatal consequences. Yet the fallout from his Iphone-monkey-induced blunder will follow him to the grave.

His colossal screw-up will attach new meaning to his every utterance and action. Every time he reaches for his mobile phone, he will likely hesitate and wonder if the distraction could have long-term, negative results. He may develop physical reactions when using a mobile phone, whether it be a cold sweat, tightening of the muscles, or a general sense of panic. When the Oscars roll around every year, his emotions will no doubt be affected. And of course, he will never again have the privilege of taking part in what he surely must have felt was an enjoyable night of rubbing shoulders with movies stars.

And when he finally ceases to exist, the local paper which announces his passing will remind the world of that fateful day when his reputation as a buffoon was sealed for all time.

May the lead clown bless your buffoonery
May all your screw-ups be sweet and true
May you always play the fool
And let others play you too
May you plant a ladder in the pit of screw-ups
And mangle every tune
May you stay forever a buffoon
Forever a buffoon, forever a buffoon
May you stay forever a buffoon

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Freak's Own: 8

Freak's Own: 8

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Donald Trump Comedy Bonanza

Trump Evil Clown
Who would have thought that the evil clown phenomenon that took off in 2016 was really a premonition of who would be the next president of the United States? As the reality sets in that Donald Trump will soon be the most invincibly ignorant, ill-suited, temperamentally unfit person to ever hold such power in modern times, we have to look for positives.

As we stand on the edge of the abyss, as the entire world becomes The Twilight Zone before our very eyes, there are reasons to remain hopeful. Among the lies, the shamelessness, the hate, the inevitable invasions, the strife, the trampled human rights, the decades of progress burnt to the ground, the corruption that will make third-world dictators envious, there will almost certainly be moments of comedy gold. There has to be. That's the only way we'll get through the coming nightmare.

And so I present The Donald Trump Comedy Bonanza. And don't worry Trump supporters, I've done my best to ensure that your saviour is not the only one who receives a well-deserved roasting. Those nasty lefties and the horror that would have been a Hillary Clinton presidency take their share of hits too.

***

What does the "J" stand for in "Donald J. Trump"?

It doesn't stand for anything. It prostrates itself in the hopes of finagling a cushy appointment that requires little work and even fewer scruples.

***

"Hey Donald, which movie do you prefer, Apocalypse Now or From Russia with Love?"

"Neither, I don't like documentaries."

***

Donald Trump is speaking to Mike Pence in the oval office.

"Mike, we think alike. I proposed that we build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. You proposed that women who get abortions be forced to pay for funerals for the aborted fetuses."

"That's a good point m'lord. After we're finished, there'll be a lot of people paying dearly for our great ideas."

***

Donald Trump is speaking to the head of the National Security Agency.

"I gave Putin our nuclear codes. I was giving him a back rub when he told me that I have long, beautiful fingers."

"Why the hell did you do that? You may have endangered America!"

"Because he was tired after bending me over the presidential desk."

***

Donald Trump is the great uniter. Israelis and anti-semites are both excited about his rise to power. Israelis have been given the go-ahead to expand and frolic in the desert, and anti-semites have the green light to go clubbing.

***

A con artist and an illegal immigrant walk into a bar. The bartender says, "Sorry sir, but even though this is the White House lounge, we don't serve liars and cheats."

"Don't worry, her speech-writing days are over."

***

What do you get when you cross The Manchurian Candidate with The Stepford Wives?

A first lady who is cold, emotionless and does as she is told...from across the ocean.

***

How do you make Trump feel emotion?

Walk up behind him when he's using Twitter and shake his chair.

***

In his ongoing attempts to find places for his family members in his administration, Donald Trump announces at a press conference that Melania will be joining the Federal Department of Geology.

Reporters shout out questions.

"Is it because of her experience digging for gold?

"No, that's got nothing to do with it," Trump responded.

"Is it because she has spent time handling precious gems?"

"Absolutely not," Trump insisted.

"Then what," said a young cub reporter "is the reason?"

"She will help improve relations with Russia. I've indicated that Melania can be mined by the Russians for any information they deem worthy," Trump said proudly.

"Will be Putin be involved in those operations?"

"I've told him that he can perform some of the drilling personally if he in turn praises me in public. But for the most part, Russian scientist Dr. Leon Gedyorogsov will be in charge."

***

"Mr. Pence, do you still believe in conversion therapy?"

"No, I've seen the light and recognize that sexual orientation is genetic."

"How about funding for HIV prevention and AIDS treatment? In the past, you were against that."

"I now feel that we should do everything in our power to help those suffering from AIDS."

"Mr. Pence,  in light of these comments and after you were seen on your knees in front of Donald Trump the other day, is it safe to say you've come full circle on homosexuality?"

***

"Mr. Trump, your daughter Ivanka converted to Judaism, yet one of your top advisers, Steve Bannon, is accused of being an anti-semite. How do you reconcile those two facts?"

"The fact that Ivanka and her children are Jewish provides cover when I'm accused of anti-semitism while Bannon's views more truly reflect my own."

"That's a rather cynical way of looking at the situation, isn't it?"

"No, not at all. I think people should come to understand that I'm not as bad as the liberal press has led them to believe."

"Well, maybe you're right! I'll see you next week for our next interview."

"OK, great. Here, have a commemorative lamp shade."

***

After Donald Trump had been president for two years, Maria traveled from New York to Kentucky to see her parents. It was her first visit since the momentous election of 2016. She was diametrically opposed to her parents in matters of politics. She voted Democrat and her parents voted Republican. She was eager to see if they remained committed to Trump.

As she drove up the driveway of their house, she noticed the neglect and decay. The bones of a dead dog lay in the long grass of the front yard. She looked at the garage--the door was off its track and part of the roof had fallen in. Her mother's usually well-tended vegetable garden was overgrown with weeds.

As she opened the door to the house she had grown up in, she was hit with a nauseating smell. She put one hand over her nose and mouth and walked into the kitchen. Both her parents were sitting on the floor. They were unkempt and mumbling. Their faces appeared to be covered in excrement. Two plates of shit were in front of them on the floor.

"What's going on? Have you been eating shit?" she asked her parents.

Her father looked up at her with glazed eyes. "What are you talking about? This is pure, unrefined sugar!"

Sweet Jesus! Somehow they had convinced themselves that shit is sugar!

Shit-eating Trump supporter
The sound of her father's voice seemed to animate her mother. "We will never go hungry again! The Great Donald has blessed us! Our assholes will supply us with sustenance and commerce for all eternity!" her mother said.

Commerce? Sweet God almighty, thought Maria. They're not actually trying to sell their own shit are they?

She ran outside to clear her mind and escape the stench. She walked over to the neighbor's house. The Korfmans had lived next door for as long as Maria could remember. Mr. Korfman was outside watering the grass. "Well, Maria! How are you?" he said. His face dropped. "I see you've talked to your parents. Come on in."

Once they were inside Mr. Korfman's house, Maria began to sob. "I can't believe it! It seems like they're not all there! What's happened to them?"

"Nobody knows. We don't know what to do about it," Korfman said. He tried to console Maria. He brought her some coffee and cake.

She wiped her eyes and ate some of the cake. "Is it really true?" she asked, and then washed back the cake with a sip of coffee. "Are they really trying to sell their own shit?"

Something changed in Korfman's eyes. "The problem is they're not producing as much sugar as the rest of us," he said in a strange voice. "Their most recent output was last week...just enough to sweeten your cake and coffee!"

***

Donald Trump lumbers into the oval office and finds his daughter Ivanka and his son Eric on their knees cutting up pieces of carpet from the floor.

"What the hell's going on?" Trump bellowed.

"We're cutting up pieces of the oval office carpet. We're going to flog them online. We can make a small fortune out of this!" Eric said gleefully.

"I won't allow this in my White House!" Trump thundered.

"But why not?" asked Ivanka. "You said that when you were elected president you would look out for our best interests above all else! You said that this was the greatest opportunity to expand our family's wealth! You said that we would plunder the useful idiots who handed you the reins of power and we would milk the brainless suckers for all they were worth! You said they would believe anything you said! You said that if you told them shit was sugar, they would believe it!"

"Exactly!" Trump said. "Which is why I won't allow such a lame attempt to sell off the oval office carpet. The pieces are much too big. Here, let me show you. You cut them into much smaller pieces like this..."

***

What's with Donald and Melania's constant slit-eyed squinting?

They're both always straining to see something admirable in the other.

***

The first black family in the White House is to be followed by a con artist and an illegal immigrant. Proof that anyone can occupy the house formerly burnt to the ground by Canadians.

Hey, give Canadians a break! Not only are they dealing with Americans fleeing north of the border to escape the newly-elected wacko and his band of right-wing freaks, but, just like everyone else, they're bound to suffer at the hands of Trump in the coming years.

***

Well, here we are at the end of this post, and what do you know? All the jokes had a slight anti-Trump slant to them despite the fact that I said otherwise in the opening paragraph. Well, what can you do? It's a sign of things to come. For the people who voted for Trump, the joke ultimately will be on you.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Donald Trump: Anatomy of an Unhinged Lunatic's Rise to Power

mushroom cloud
With word that the USA had just elected as president a sociopath with zero minutes of experience governing at any level, China spontaneously ejaculated. Now that Americans have handed the reins of power to an unhinged, easily manipulated, 70 year-old megalomaniacal buffoon, China can see their plans for hegemonic ascendance brought forward by at least a few decades.

When you have the most powerful country economically and militarily, but you also possess a relatively dismal public school system, and a populace whose belief in fundamentalist religion rivals any third world country, the US experiment in democracy was bound to end up where it has.

Or, as Winston Churchill once said, "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."

A shameless racist with zero knowledge of the world or how government works is now in control of one of the world's largest nuclear stockpiles. He's the same freak who comes unhinged at mild criticism, seeks vengeance against anyone who dares to defy him, brags about sexually assaulting women and has a soft spot for dictators and despots.

That's not to say that Donald J. Trump is completely absent any intelligence whatsoever. He perfectly played 62 million-plus morons in the self-described greatest nation on earth, spinning fantasies about policies that even he isn't stupid enough to try and implement. Even if he really were as stupid as his claims and promises suggest, the US constitution and system of governance simply wouldn't allow many of his inane proposals to get off the ground.

No, his intelligence is of the base, manipulative, reptilian sort, which legitimizes the worst instincts in angry, bitter people. He convinces his followers that they can wreak vengeance by proxy as he describes everything in simplistic, black and white terms, lines up weak, marginalized targets, and assigns blame to others for a litany of problems that plague individuals and society.

Donnie, 'Little Fingers' Trump has tapped into the fascist, authoritarian streak that runs through the heart of the good ol' US of A. Anyone with a brain who doesn't gain their knowledge of the world solely through mainstream media knows that it makes good sense to distrust, if not fear, American power and influence. In many ways, Trump is a more logical representation of what the US has always stood for, but without the sheen of respectability and Hollywood horseshit.

But Trump was right about some of the things he said during the campaign. His claims that mainstream media was giving short shrift to the power of his 'movement' appear to have been completely accurate. The suggestion that some people were reluctant to share their true intentions with pollsters, or that pundits and pollsters simply didn't know what they were talking about, also seems to have merit.

Speaking of some of those media outlets: they have some explaining to do, and perhaps even share some of the blame for Trump's victory. Take for example left-wing media like Huffington Post, Politico and the New York Times. During the last stretch of the campaign, some of those organizations pegged Hillary Clinton's chances at winning at 98% or higher (though those predictions quickly disappeared from their sites when the results started rolling in on election night). It's not much of a stretch to suggest that those kinds of numbers helped to lull some voters into a false sense that Clinton would finally, in the end, cruise to victory.

No discussion of Trump's victory would be complete without comparisons to good old Shicklgruber. Most people are familiar with the fact that Donald Trump's grandfather changed his surname from Drumpf to Trump when he arrived as an immigrant in the US in 1885. Just a few years later, the father of Adolf Hitler changed his surname from Shicklgruber to Hitler a few months before little Adolf was born in 1889. While the change to Trump was done for purposes of assimilating, the change to Hitler was because of a local law in Germany at the time which required a person who purchased land to have their father's surname (before the name change, Alois Hitler used his mother's surname, Shicklgruber). Even in German, the surname Shicklgruber sounds somewhat absurd. Would one of history's most brutal, murderous psychopaths have ever risen to power with such a name?

Aside from that little factoid, there are other similarities. Trump will never have the same raging, hypnotic, oratory skills of Hitler, but he does seem to possess some strange pull over an audience when he is speaking. Both were ridiculed as buffoons before they took power, and both had/have explosive tempers that tried/try to mask fragile, extremely narcissistic personalities. But perhaps more than anything, the societies in which they took power were both collectively angry and looking for vengeance for perceived injustice and thus ripe for someone with such a personality to take control. I've made this comparison numerous times between Germany post World War One and the USA post-9/11.

When Trump takes the oath of office and takes up residence in the White House in January, 2017 with his decades younger, eastern European, former illegal immigrant wife and their little Slavic-faced son, it will be a surreal sight indeed. The most shockingly ill-prepared, temperamentally unfit, invincibly ignorant person imaginable will occupy the most powerful position in the world. If there's anything that can provide hope to Americans with brains and the rest of the world it is this: Trump will also be the oldest first-term president in history.

At 70 years old, heavily overweight, and possessing the tendency to lose control in the face of minor annoyances, there's a very real possibility that Trump will never live to see the end of his first term. I'm calling it: Donald J. Trump will die while serving as president of the USA before 2020. In the meantime, for yanks who have stuck the fork in the light socket to see what happens, it's time to start living with the consequences.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Book Review: And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts

And the Band Played On book cover
And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, by Randy Shilts, details the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the US. Shilts focuses on a number of different groups and highlights their negligence in providing the funding to research the disease and their shameless indifference and lack of urgency in alerting people to the dangers of the disease. Specifically, Shilts looks at politicians, the media, the scientific community, the blood industry and the people who were affected most by AIDS (gay men, intravenous drug users, and haemophiliacs and other blood transfusion recipients).

This book is written in the reportage style (appropriate, as Shilts was a reporter) that results in, what I believe, is the type of non-fiction book that most people find the most entertaining and readable. In other words, real-life characters are developed, situations and dialogue are recreated, and tension is built up, despite the fact that the majority of readers know, in general, how things play out in the tragic saga of the AIDS epidemic. Shilts made no attempt to be objective. He editorializes heavily, or as some like to call it, offers up the "muckraking" style of reportage. His blunt assessments and judgmental asides are quite enjoyable most of the time. And the method gains credibility by the fact that he lambastes everyone with (almost) equal vigour.

Shilts was a gay man and lived and worked in San Francisco as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. But, in And the Band Played On, he does not hesitate to go after many in the gay community for their stubborn refusal to alter their behaviour as details of how AIDS was spread came to light. As Shilts states a number of times, many gay men literally "fucked themselves to death." He also heaps hammer-blows of well-deserved criticism on owners of gay bath houses, which Shilts refers to as "biological cesspools," and provides the kind of stomach-churning details that may be too much for some readers (think Crisco and limbs disappearing up...well, you get the picture).

As a result, Shilts was vilified by many in various gay communities throughout the US. Still, I can't help but feel that in some ways, he didn't go far enough in his criticism. For example, as the book moves into the early 1980s and the first instances of blood transfusion AIDS cases surface, Shilts rightly rips the arrogant executives of the blood industry for failing to take action to properly screen donors.

Yet, Shilts indicates that, for whatever reason, gay men donate disproportionately more blood than most other demographics in the US. They apparently continued to donate heavily as questions about blood safety were raised, and Shilts even mentions a phenomenon that he claims to have existed among some gay men: that they continued to donate blood as if the very act was a way of convincing themselves that they couldn't possibly contract AIDS.

So surely the question will rise up in the minds of many readers: does the gay community, or at the very least those infected men who donated blood, not bear some culpability in the horrible deaths of the many innocent people who died as a result of tainted blood transfusions? But Shilts never really goes near this angle and instead reserves the majority of his wrath regarding tainted blood for the money-grubbing scumbags in the blood industry who were apparently more concerned about the costs of implementing new screening procedures than the possibility of heading off the impending disaster.

Similarly, while Shilts despises the rationalizations and self-serving excuse-making of many in the gay community and other politically correct enablers in society (he calls their mealy-mouthed bullshit "AIDS-speak"), at times he seems to veer into that same territory himself.

Also, Shilts cannot resist the urge felt by so many non-fiction writers and engages in some myth-making. This is with regards to an early AIDS patient named Gaetan Dugas who was labelled "patient zero" for the apparent fact that he infected so many other men through his reckless sexual activity. This notion of a patient who caused the disease to spread faster than it otherwise would have has largely been debunked.

The storyline of Dugas features quite significantly in the early part of the book, replete with apocryphal anecdotes of Dugas happily informing other gay men that he has just infected them with AIDS. Also, Shilts builds Dugas up as being attractive in some kind of otherworldly way. But a Google image search turns up photos of a relatively average-looking dolt. I believe that Shilts knew how such a narrative would appeal to so many people's sense of the sinister and so he ran with it. However, to be fair, some researchers at the time also floated this idea of "patient zero" and gave some credence to it.

Shilts and the characters in the book rail against and righteously bash various levels of government, with the federal government under Ronald Reagan coming in for the most well-deserved and complete pasting. It's hard to believe how short-sighted and petty the Republicans were and how many lives were lost (e.g., limited funds for research and nation-wide information campaigns) due to foot-dragging and sometimes outright hostility. Reagan did not utter the word “AIDS” publicly until about 1986 or 87.

The book is prescient in many ways, especially in debunking the early propaganda that heterosexuals in North America should fear AIDS in the same way that homosexual men eventually did. And the Band Played On was first published way back in 1987 but Shilts already saw that kind of talk (i.e., that non-drug-using heterosexuals were at risk to the same degree as intravenous drug users and gay men) as fear-mongering and an attempt to get more people concerned about the disease and thus increase government funding. This was a number of years before the one-man North American heterosexual male epidemic hit in the form of Magic Johnson and before such shrill proclamations by the likes of Oprah Winfrey that heterosexuals in the US would be devastated by the disease in the same way that gay men had been. Of course, that has never happened.

Finally, I don't believe what Shilts says regarding those who died of AIDS; that they were heroic in the way they died. People beset by tragedy cope in any way they can because there is no other choice. Just as the word "hero" is tossed around casually in war, the reality is that, just as with millions who have already perished from AIDS, a much better description is “tragic waste.” However, I agree that people who had AIDS and spent their remaining days risking arrest during protests and did everything in their power to increase awareness and funding deserve a great deal of praise.

Despite some of the criticisms mentioned above, And the Band Played On is an informative and epic chronicling of the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the US and other parts of the world. While many people may have a general idea of how things transpired, they will undoubtedly learn a great deal about the disease and the numerous obstacles faced by scientists, activists and the people who were infected. Sadly, Shilts was diagnosed with AIDS and died in 1994. He leaves an impressive legacy with And the Band Played On.