Book Review: The Poisoned City by Anna Clark


AuthorAnna Clark
TitleThe Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy
Publication Info: Metropolitan Books (2018)
Summary/Review:

I briefly knew Anna Clark when I used to volunteer at the Haley House in Boston and she was a member of the intentional community that lived there. Ever since she moved to Michigan I’ve followed her journalism career from afar.  She seems the perfect person to bring together a passion for social justice and the skills of journalism to documenting the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

Clark tells the story from the perspective of the local activists who brought the problems with the water to light and the health and science experts who verified that the water was dangerous.  So much of the Flint water crisis is rooted in greed and indifference. The decision was made by the city’s emergency manager who was appointed by the governor to “run the city like a business” (a practice carried out in many Michigan cities leading to 53% of Michigan’s African American population living under non-elected local government).  The switch from Lake Huron water via Detroit to the backup system of the Flint River was purportedly to save money until a new regional water authority came online, although it is questionable if money was saved at all considering the costs of updating the local treatment plant.

While it’s often reported that the Flint River water is unhealthy, it turns out that water in the river and when it left the treatment plant was in fact clean.  But the different chemistry of the river water compared to lake water had a corrosive effect that leeched lead from the city’s ancient pipes and also promoted growth of infectious diseases.  The water authority failed to use the proper anti-corrosives to help prevent this from happening.  But the real scandal is that when residents complained of discolored and odoriferous water and the bad health effects, especially among children, the city and state officials refused to help and continued to claim there was no ill effects from the water.

In addition to thoroughly documenting the crisis, Clark also provides the historical background that shows why the water crisis inordinately affected Flint’s poorer residents, especially black and brown people.  The prosperous Flint of the mid-20th century was heavily segregated, with the effects of redlining and housing segregation still felt today. The movement of prosperous white families and corporations out of Flint was funded by disinvestment in the city itself.  And while medical experts have been aware of the poisonous nature of lead for centuries, that did not stop industry from making efforts to use lead – whether it be in gasoline or water pipes – and promote it as safe.

Poison City is a well-written book, and a very important book to read as Flint’s crisis is one that is happening or could happen in various ways in cities across the country.  It’s hard not to read this book without feeling rage, yet Clark finds hope in the community activists who fought to bring this issue to international attention, and continue to fight for clean water in Flint.

Recommended booksThe Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, The new Jim Crow : mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, and Foul Ball by Jim Bouton
Rating: ****1/2

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Podcasts of the Week Ending August 18


This is a particularly fruitful week for podcasts with a bumper crop of excellent episodes!

Afropop Worldwide :: Skippy White: A Vinyl Life

Checking in with a legendary soul & R&B record shop owner and entrepreneur, Skippy White.  His shop is located in Boston’s Egleston Square, not far from where I live, but this is the first I’ve heard of him!

Code Switch :: Behind the Lies My Teacher Told Me

An interview with James Loewen, author of the seminal critique of American history education, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.

Hub History :: Folk Magic and Mysteries at the Fairbanks House

Daniel Neff, curator of the Fairbanks House museum in Dedham, talks about the house build by Puritan colonists that contains hidden charms and hex marks meant to ward off evil.

99% Invisible :: It’s Chinatown

The stories behind the origins of the distinctive architectural styles of American Chinatowns and the fortune cookie, neither of which actually originated in China.

Snap Judgment :: Talk of the Town

A local salesman, a fixture of his Oakland neighborhood, goes missing and is believed dead leading to an outpouring of remembrance in the community.  But one journalist digs deeper to find out what actually happened to the mystery man.

Tiny Desk Concerts :: Yo-Yo Ma

The famed cellist performs pieces of Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach, and talks about learning to play the instrument.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Loop Groups

The work of the hidden actors who perform the background sounds of crowd scenes in movies.

 

Movie Review: Hidden Figures (2016)


TitleHidden Figures
Release Date: December 25, 2016
Director: Theodore Melfi
Production Company: Fox 2000 Pictures
Summary/Review:

This historical drama tells the story of 3 of the 20 or so African-American women who worked at NASA’s Langley Research Center in the 1960s as “computers,” mathematicians who performed vital calculations during the early days of the space race.  Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), considered “the brain” even among her peers, is assigned to the all-white, overwhelmingly male Space Task Group to use her skills in analytical geometry to calculate flight trajectories for the Mercury program.  Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who has the talent to become an engineer, goes to court in order to fight the Jim Crow laws that prevent her from attending a University of Virginia engineering program at a local whites-only high school.  And Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) is the de facto manager of the women in the human computers group without the title or the pay.  When she learns that an IBM mainframe will eventually replace her group, she sees it as an opportunity to to teach herself FORTRAN and retrains her colleagues as programmers, eventually being officially promoted to supervisor of the Programming Department.

Like many historical dramas, a number of supporting characters are fictional or composites, but in Hidden Figures that helps keep the focus on our three leads. Similarly, historical facts are fudged with a lot of details compressed or presented out of order, but again for a movie its more dramatic to have John Glenn request that Katherine Johnson verify the IBM’s calculations while he’s heading to the launch pad rather than a few days earlier.  As a humanities person, I’m also grateful that they dumbed down all the mathematics in a way I could understand, while simultaneously realizing that the best minds at NASA would not have been discussing such basic issues at Langley.

All three leads are well-acted and I appreciate that they show three very different ways that these women responded to the hurdles placed before them and achieved their goals.  Kevin Costner puts in a decent performance as the leader of the Space Task Group, who seems motivated to desegregate Langley less out of a sense of justice, and more due to it causing delays.  Kirsten Dunst plays Vaughn’s casually racist supervisor who eventually grows to respect her, kind of a stock character, but keeps it subtle enough.

A fun part of this movie is how much it parallels one of my all-time favorite movies, The Right Stuff, with some scenes and dialogue being exactly the same but from different perspectives. Hidden Figures is also a great historical film that I think I’ll enjoy revisiting, and especially important for making the story of Johnson, Jackson, Vaughn, and others at NASA so well known.

Rating: ****

 

Podcasts of the Week Ending January 27


A good crop of podcasts this week featuring Parliament and owls, but not a parliament of owls.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Six O’Clock Soundtrack

I always liked tv news music as a child too, particularly the Action News theme.  Here’s the story of how news music is made.

Sound Opinions :: New Wave & Alison Moyet

Another defining musical style of my childhood, New Wave, is examined along with an interview with New Wave musical great Alison Moyet.

Code Switch :: The ‘R-Word’ In The Age Of Trump

An exploration of when it’s appropriate to describe someone or something as racist and why some journalists are hesitant to do so.

All Songs Considered :: George Clinton & The P-Funk All Stars

Parliament Funkadelic are back and as funky as ever.

LeVar Burton Reads :: “The Truth About Owls” by Amal El-Mohtar

A sweet story about a girl from Lebanon who immigrates to England and finds her place through the study of owls and Welsh mythology.

Snap Judgement :: Senior Year Mixtape

The touching and heartbreaking of three students at a San Francisco high school over the course of their senior year.

Hit Parade :: The B-Sides Edition

The first live-audience Hit Parade episode features pub trivia questions about b-sides that became bigger hits than their a-sides and a performance by Ted Leo, “the nicest guy in punk.”

Book Reviews: The Sisters Are Alright by Tamara Winfrey Harris


AuthorTamara Winfrey Harris
TitleThe Sisters Are Alright
Narrator: Tamberta Perry
Publication Info: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015

Summary/Review:

This short collection of essays focuses on how Black women in the United States are maligned and held to toxic stereotypes of being oversexed, irresponsible, and irrationally angry.  Winfrey Harris breaks down these stereotypes historically and in the present day, and holds up the beautiful and accomplished reality of Black women.  It’s very short but powerful so it’s worth finding a little time to read or listen to this book.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Jackie & Me: A Baseball Card Adventure by Dan Gutman


Author: Dan Gutman
TitleJackie & Me: A Baseball Card Adventure
Publication Info: New York : Avon Books, ©1999.
Summary/Review:

This is the second book in the Baseball Card Adventure in which Joe Stoshack uses  his power to travel through time using baseball cards to meet Jackie Robinson.  As an added wrinkle to the story, he initially arrives in 1947 as an African-American boy and directly experiences the racial animus of New York at that time.  I felt that Jackie Robinson’s character in this novel was one-dimensional, too much of a heroic martyr, although the book does offer some nice glimpses of his family life.  Meanwhile, it seems too flippant that Stosh is traveling to meet Robinson merely to write a Black History Month report for his school, and spends much of the novel trying to gather rare baseball cards to bring to the future.  The lesson of the book is how to stand up to bullies without resorting to anger, which Stosh applies in his own youth baseball games, but seems to miss out on the heart of the Jackie Robinson story in the process.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Nobody by Marc Lamont Hill


Author: Marc Lamont Hill
TitleNobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond
Publication Info: Atria Books (2016)
Summary/Review:

Hill’s book is a collection of essays focused on the people whose names have become party of a litany of violence against African-Americans in recent years: Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin and others.  These people who have been made a Nobody in contemporary America are given their full human dignity in Hill’s account of their lives, as well as the incidents that brought their demise and their aftermath.  But Hill goes beyond the headlines and uses these incidents as a window into the greater societal and political trends that undergird them: “broken windows” policing, plea bargains denying people accused of crimes of their day in court and the incredible power this gives prosecutors, “Stand Your Ground” laws and the arming of America,  mass incarceration, and the neoliberal ideal of running the government “like a business” that leads to the exploitation and disasters of places like Flint, Michigan.  This is a powerful book and important book and one I highly recommend that everyone concerned about the future of our nation reads.
Favorite Passages:

“The case for broken-windows policing is compelling because it lightly dipped in truth.  Yet while there is a correlation between disorder (social and physical) and crime, research shows that this relationship is not causal.  Simply put, there is no evidence that disorder directly promotes crime.  What the evidence does suggest, however, is that the two are linked to the same larger problem: poverty.  High levels of unemployment, lack of social resources, and concentrated areas of low income are all root cause of both high crime and disorder.  As such, crime would be more effectively redressed by investing economically in neighborhoods rather than targeting them for heightened arrests.” – p. 44

“Unfortunately, since modern American society, as with all things in the current neoliberal moment, prioritize privatization and individualism, the very notion of the public has become disposable.  As the current criminal-justice process shows, no longer is there a collective interest in affirming the value of the public good, even rhetorically, through the processes of transparency, honesty, or fairness.  No longer is there a commitment to monitoring and evaluating public officials, in this case prosecutors, to certify that justice prevails.  Instead we have entered a moment in which all things public have been demonized withing out social imagination: public schools, public assistance, public transportation, public housing, public options, and public defenders.  In place of a rich democratic conception of “the public” is a market-driven logic that privileges economic efficiency and individual success over collective justice.” – p. 78-79

“There is plenty of reason to debate the central premise of privatization – that business always does it better – but we don’t have to go there to find this idea objectionable.  In the way that privatization separates government responsibilities from democratic accountability, the notion is flawed from its very conception.  Businesses are not made function for the public good.  The are made to function for the good of profit. There is nothing inherently evil in that.  In most cases, the profit motive will almost certainly lead to a more efficient and orderly execution of tasks.  But it does not necessarily lead to an equitable execution of tasks; indeed, it quite naturally resists and equitable execution of tasks. Furthermore, bu injecting moneymaking into the relationship between a citizen and the basic services of life – water, roads, electricity, and education – privatization distorts the social contract.  People need to know that the decisions of governments are being made with the common good as a priority.  Anything else is not government; it is commerce.  One only needs to look back at Michigan to see this idea manifested because the crisis in Flint, as Henry Giroux has written, is what happens when the State is ‘remade in the image of the corporation.'”

 

Recommended books: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Crash


It’s Christmas time in Los Angeles, and the film Crash (2004) depicts a day in the life of several Angelinos, all of whom tend to be awful people who are blatantly racist and spout ham-fisted dialog.  Along the way they have moments of heroics and frailty to show that their human, all done in a manipulative manner to rend one’s heart.  At the end, we all learn a big fat lesson about race relations in America.  It’s like that song “One Tin Soldier,” only less subtle.