Review of The Brethren

I haven’t read a trade paperback book in a very long time, however only two of the five books that I’d purchased with the intent to read while in Colombia came to me in sufficient time before my trip. Because of this, when I finished my last book on Colombia I picked up a copy of The Brethren by John Grisham for no other reason than it was there. The last time that I read a trade paperback that wasn’t a reissued classic was, I think, when I was early in my teenage years. Back then I read a lot of Grisham as well as James Patterson, Steven King and Clive Barker. I’m glad I read this, however, as it was nice to re-encounter the specific style and voice that based on sales has one of the widest audiences.

The novel develops around two separate plots that at converge to create the purportedly dynamic but unpredictable third act tension. I say unpredictable not as Grisham gives anything away, he plays the scenes close to the cuff, but because I’m sure if it’d been any other way then there would have been thought pieces published in some of the literary journals listing examples and posturing about the verisimilitude of the world we now find ourselves in.

The book opens on three imprisoned ex-judges that have been given the collective name of “the Brethren” by the security guards in the minimum-security prison. In this prison they attempt to re-create their former power by acting as Justices of the Court by hearing complaints amongst the inmates. Their judgements are considered final and are always a 2-1 verdict, so that if an inmate corners one of them they can claim they were the one that voted in their favor for security purposes. The Brethren also engage in an elaborate blackmail scheme that preys on wealthy, closeted homosexual men with the help of a drunkard lawyer. Since their job in the minimum security prison only pays cents an hour, this is a good way to save time and put money aside to prepare for their relase.

The second narrative traces the rise of presidential candidate Aaron Lake. Lake is, essentially, a puppet created by CIA director Teddy Maynard to fulfill his desire for increased U.S. military spending to counter a General in Russia that he foresees as rising in power and leading to an existential threat to America. Grisham does not quickly weave these two threads together immediately, thereby leaving the reader to wonder in the opening chapters how and when these two worlds will collide.

This plotting was tight, but the stakes for the characters involved was so low that I had trouble getting too invested in their struggles. Towards the middle and end, when there’s much more intrigue going on, I still never felt that anyone was in “real danger” or that the cause for actions was all that significant. Part of this is because I think Grisham want’s to cynically highlight the false personalities we expect of politicians and the political process – there are certainly a few passages and asides that accomplish this. However this intrusion of social commentary in sparse and comes off in all but a few passages less as insightful critique and more as scathing but essentially fatalistic pessimism.

I found Grisham’s portrayal of characters to be interesting but not altogether impressive. There are some complex figures, such as Justice Hatlee Beech, but even then this former millionaire judge rendered divorced, bankrupt, and friendless after his conviction for vehicular homicide while drunk (two students outside the car and a naked female stranger in his car) doesn’t strike me as well developed. His trauma is less from the acts that took him there and more from his loss of a job that was a well-paying appointment for life, prestige, his wife’s money. Even his children’s lack of contact with him, so as to stay in the good graces of their rich mother, seems to only be an afterthought. Presidential candidate Lake seems and even the CIA director Teddy Maynard also read to me as nearly one-dimensional. Maynard is not evil, but a puppet-master who uses his knowledge and connections to help mold the public will via ad campaigns, illicit contributions, and international intrigue. There is, however, little description on any of this and instead we read of CIA ops going on in the office of a small town lawyer that’s also a drunkard.

I didn’t particularly find the book’s resolution to be all that engaging. Spoiler alert! Even after The Brethren hustle their way out of prison they return to the scam that helped get them out. It’s sensible, as they were able to make a lot of money the first time around, however I find given their recognition of the precariousness of their safety (they’re being constantly watched) that they would be willing to risk this.


Review of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual

My mom gets me #bookstagram #black and #Latin #history #books #christmas

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I’ve been meaning to review The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual by Harold Cruse for quite some time. With it’s depth and breath of evidence and a forceful analysis it’s no surprise that following it’s publication it was a cultural touchstone amongst the cultural and political elites of the early 1970s. Truth is, whenever I’ve sat in front of an open Word document with the intent to respond to it’s arguments and evidence, I start to feel a bit overwhelmed. This despite the fact that I’ve had some pretty extended conversations on this book.

Thankfully, one of the Facebook groups whose posts I follow, the Society for United States Intellectual History, recently curated a Roundtable on the Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. Rather than provide you with my thoughts on the matter, I decided I’d share these instead:

Along with two other insightful PDFs:

Review of The Para-State: An Ethnography of Colombia’s Death Squads

The Para-State: An Ethnography of Colombia’s Death Squads by Alvo Civico is an engaging and at times haunting account of the armed conflict between various groups that has shaped Colombia’s political economy over the past forty years. The books anthropologically oriented methodology combines first person interviews with cocaine kingpins, leaders of para-military forces as well as the regulars, victims of paramilitary violence, as well as supporters of the paramilitary along with a historical account that contextualizes the events described in the interviewees stories. Through these accounts, Colombia’s rural interior comes to be seen as a space where actors project their desires for wealth and personally engage or organize horrific behavior in order to obtain it.

While it appears late in Para-State’s chapters, despo-capitalism is the term that Civio uses to describes the socio-economic dynamics of Colombia. It is a “threshold where the repressive forces of the despot combine with the liberating forces of capitalism” (140). His theoretical model for understanding the dynamics of despo-capitalism is decidedly Marxian with deference to Deleuze and a dash of Zizek. He states repeatedly, in fact, that the role of the AUC is what is described as a War Machine in the book A Thousand Plateaus. To bolster this positions, he includes a brief comparative political account based on interviews with an Italian prosecutor that illustrates the similarity of development of the Sicilian Mafia to the Colombian para-militaries.

Paisas Son Un Gente Muy Amable y Acogedoras

 If you consume enough of the marketing content that encourages travel and investment in Colombia or various polls, you’ll soon notice that one of the recurring themes is of how wonderful and welcoming the people are here. While as of writing this I’ve only spent time in Antioquia, this combined with the many others I met from this region while living in South Florida makes me feel that this is a general truism. The irony, of course, is the happiness that they feel despite there being a longest standing civil war throughout any Latin American country.

The reason for the Civil War is long, and stems in part to the violence between Liberal and Conservative Parties before that. Each operated with tenuous. After a number of periods of sectarian killings, including La Violencia, the political elite united around the Frente Nacional (1959), which is incredibly similar to Venezuela’s Pact of Punto Fijo (1958). This specifically lead to the establishment of the FARC and would later open up the conditions for the death squads the books describes. Unable to get enough civilian support in regions rich with fecund land and extractable primary goods, the para-militaries became a means for the elite to establish control.

Limpiezas were right wing paramilitary that went throughout the rural and urban areas and liquidated those that they considered FARC sympathizers (real and imagined) as well as desechables, gamines, and those in combos. There were a large number of such groups, such as the Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Cordoba and Uraba (ACCU), that came to be united in name but not always in orientation under the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). Regional groups were funded by either the upper classes with financial interests in a region or workers being under their total control or cocaine producers and distributors.

Death By BananasDespite what the above meme suggests, getting murdered because you don’t want to pick bananas for the wages offered is not something relegated to the not so distant past. In the period when the bi-lateral trade agreement between Colombia and the United States was being debated by the Legislative branches of government, the American trade unions pointed to the wave of over 450 assassinations of civil rights leaders, trade unionists and community leaders that was then going on. Chiquita Banana, may still face trial for its support of the AUC after the State Department deemed it a terrorist group.

The informant network created by the AUC deemed all such people as “collaborators to the FARC’s cause,” even if there was no such material support evidence. The mere belief that workers had a right to collectively bargain was considered cause for getting kidnapped, shot, dismembered by chainsaw and the remains left somewhere in the forest for animals to consume.

In regions with fecund soil that inhabitants had adopted a subsistence model of reproduction, market relations were either forced on them by paracos or they were dispossessed. In regions where wage-labor for agricultural production was pre-existent but drives for higher wages occurred, paracos enforced at gunpoint the continuation of work. In a word, the feudalistic model for enforcing labor participation for capitalist production was the norm.

The information network of the AUC would later identify and assassinate over 450 unionists, community rights leaders, and other “sympathizers” or collaborators to the FARC’s cause. If this seems high, well, the number of civilians the AUC killed is drastically higher. When a valley needed to be cleared of occupiers so that a foreign national company could grow bananas, for instance, or a gold lode was discovered that initial seismic wave readings indicated could be worth billions – paracos would declare that town a pueblo guerillero for resisting such displacement. After they’d encircle it with hundreds of heavily armed people, they’d raid a number of people specifically identified as trouble and then publicly execute them and put their bodies on display in an area with high pedestrian and automobile traffic.

The Direction of Colombia’s Economic Development is the Heart of its Civil Conflict

These capital and labor intensive industries along with cocaine production and trafficking are at the heart of the Colombian political economy. The latter more so as cocaine itself is a totem that organizes the distribution of bodies, practices, objects, symbols and words. The class divide determine by one’s placement in the such a system of capital circulation is both implicit by social norms but also by the legal system which designates people according to a legal class (estrata). Those that are lower class are not given much, if any, assistance by the state – hence the antagonism to it, as those on the lower end see the benefits given to those at the top – and thus can best earn through trafficking or muscle. An additional element driving the conflict has to do with US investment in the region.

Cocaine and the Development of Medellin

The Para-State’s account of cocaine’s role in the geographical and demographic development of Medellin describes evolving dangers from sundry violent actors working in unison and against each other. With vast amounts of capital coming into the country through sales via Miami and other points, the traffickers soon became the largest land holders in the country. Not all wanting to live in highly guarded fincas outside of the city center, they invested in different neighborhoods in Medellin.

As a result of the the aforementioned dispossessions and high level of unemployment, combos formed in these area. The effects that these two converging factors in one region is described on page 158 by Civico as follows:

“Medellin has long been crossed by these invisible but powerful boundaries, and transgression could trigger a death sentence from a rival armed group. These lives have shifted constantly, and residents have learned which streets to travel on, which ones to avoid, and which boundaries to cross. Walking on the wrong side of a street can get you killed. In several of the city’s barrios, survival has been a matter of such cartographic knowledge.

Having spent a few weeks now in Medellin, it’s worth noting that even now, 20-30 years after the period described the dynamic remain the same – with the higher areas along the mountains being more “dangerous” while the center is safer. That this is a dynamic caused by wealth inequality from the hegemonic economic capitalist enterprises is clearly shown to be the case.

De-armament, Reintegration and Politicization of the Struggle

Even before the recent FARC demobilization, those once in the AUC were in the process of demobilizing. As Civico describes it, however, this is not an easy process. The job prospects for those once involved pay significantly lower, making them ripe for recruitment by narcos, their history of violence makes them apt to end up in jail or dead over minor disputes and others that aware of their crimes – be they family members of those they killed or rival groups – sometimes take justice in their own hands. One of the interviewees that Civico writes about, in fact, is taken by a group that he was on bad terms with and is never seen again.

The politicization of the armed struggle is certainly a step in the right direction for a united Colombia, however as this book shows there is a lot of bloody history that will continue to make such a transition difficult. While it’s not clear if this will work, Civico is clear that if the massive modernization projects which dislocates thousands continue, if the assassination of leftists continues, if the state continues to fail in its ability to speak for all but the elite, that this project will fail.


Desechables – Literally means “disposable people”. This meant people that were drug addicts, petty thieves, homosexuals, domestic abusers and could sometime include people that had long hair.

Intreccio –the inter-twinement of the state and the parastate. First used to describe the relationship between the Italian Mafia and state

Traquetos – the people engaged in cocaine trafficking who make a show of their wealth with thick gold chains around their necks, expansive cars and stunning young women

Pajeria – literally means “squad”. People who enacted organized political violence

Vacuna – protection money

Farras – parties to get drunk

Urbano – a paramilitary working in an urban area

Bonification – a bonus according to the number of people you killed

Paracos – paramilitaries

Bara – The dynamic wherein a commander likes your performance and gives you frequent opportunities and recommends you

Limpieza – social cleansing accomplished through spectacular violence

Raspachin – coca gatherer

Pueblo guerillero – a town associated with guerillas

Gamine – street kids

Vallenato – romantic Colombian music from the coastal region with lyrical content similar to African griots

Pillos – a Medellin specific term for gang-members and junkies

Culebras – literally poisonous snakes. A term for one’s enemies.

Combos – street corner gangs

Review of Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing

Reading Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing by Les Edgerton reminded me how to be attentive to the variety of creative decisions that determine the voice of a work. How they can be interpreted, improved and evolved from different experiential exercises. The book contains focus on various voices – pulpy, sardonic, confessional, etc. – along with “before and after”  changes. Theres illustrate how a few different decisions can radically alter the ease and enjoyment level of the reading. Some of the various traps to watch out for that Edgerton cites are the “beige voice” as well as talking up or down to the reader. As all of the fictive dream – the neurological firings in your brain that are activated during the process of readings words on page or screen- occur as the results of words, best get them right. Right?!

There are, additionally, exercises contained within for identifying the ways in which honing in on voice in specific passages can radically improve the experience of the reader and how some choices can lead to it “going wrong” in one’s writing. For instance, say one wanted to get the reader to slow down. Not to scan the text; as so many are apt now to do. Well, the solution is simple. Place a number of shorter sentences back to back. This is a particularly effective practice following longer expository passages. Explaining difficult things, after all, requires the combination of lots of pieces. Much as in the same way that sentence variation forces the reader out of the simplistic subject verb object constructions.

The book is for both writers of fiction and non-fiction and addresses something that is very important as it relates to today’s media landscape – talking up, down and beigley to the reader. Explaining every and all thing can cause passages to drag on and o n. If they are known by the reader, it’s a bore, and leads to mental lagging. A good writer, Hemingway and others have stated, leaves something for the reader to want to discover. Writing in too high of a voice is the struggle that I’ve had, having an advanced academic background I can sometimes lapse into uncommon terms that are, nevertheless, quite useful for understanding today’s world. But this isn’t all about me. This is not purple prose, either, which I’ve only found in contemporary Latin American literature, is not gone in to but that’s just because it’s so rare in American fictional and non-fictional works that get published.

Edgerton’s colloquialisms, and the linguistic playfulness of the text was, I thought, a little corny at first. However it did grow on me. Plus, I recognized what he was doing with it. Not only was he describing insights into what makes a well crafted writers voice; but he was also demonstrating it! By sharing this, as well as the hat of instructor, he’s helping to show one of the Walt Whitman quotes about – I’m stacatato-cattically summarizing her : “there being multitudes that exist within each of us”. It’s true. There are!

Les’ lessons are follower by exercises to either read, write or re-write. The book is an attempt at a comprehensive attempt to teach the craft of good writing, plot, etc. but just focus on narrative voice and the voice of characters. He lists a large number of books that go into these other areas, and it’s clear with his familiar with them that a lot of experience and time went into the formation of this book.

I finished the book not only informed but also interested in seeing the dynamic that exists in his writing workshops. Having attended several writing workshops as an undergraduate at Florida Atlantic University and in Prauge, Czech republic as part of a University of Michigan program – not to mention other informal gatherings – I’ve always found workshops a productive place where people provide new eyes to help you see things you may not be aware of because you’re too close to the work, or wasn’t aware of some insight or whatever other reason that shows up when people gather with strategic and creative intentions.

I like how following this book one can apply like dissection tools onto the writings of your favorite writers in order to better place their style in history rather than a burden. Stealing can always be great art, but only if it’s great art does it get called great art – not just because it’s just an iteration of the same efforts. That last quote, ya, that’s me. Put that on a goddamn site so i can get me da stats higher.

Review of The Sounds of Things Falling

“And the walls of my dream burning, toppling
Like a city collapsing in scream”
Aurelio Arturo, Dream City


Before I moved to Colombia I looked up online a number of lesser known than Gabo Colombian novelists and saw a number of positive reviews for Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s book The Sounds of Things Falling. After reading it and getting taken in by the compelling storytelling, tone and language often only found in those writers whose medium is the romantic languages.

The novel begins with background the narrator, Antonio, who is a young, successful professor of law at the University of Bogota that is dating a former student, Aura, that he soon learns has become pregnant with their future daughter, Leticia. Antonio is shot on the street, not with intention but because he is a bystander of the successful assassination attempt of Richard Laverde. His recovery is not speedy and once the psychological fetters that makes him somewhat agoraphobic starts to wear off, he sets out determine as to what he can learn about the man that he played pool with for years, watched die in front of him and yet knew very little about.

Antonio recalls the few exchanges that he and Richard made and places them within a broad context of those that grew up in Bogota in the 1980s. As later in the novel conversations show, this generation grew up during the period in which Pablo Escobar was fighting the Colombian state apparatus that sought to either imprison him in Colombia or have him be extradited to the United States. At first the psychological difference between those born in 1970 and those born several years later is shown in the manner in which Antonio and Aura respond to the shooting that nearly kills Antonio – she being younger and thinking that it was such a “rare” act that he need not worry while he is now consumed by fear. Later, it’s shown in the discussion between Richard Laverne’s daughter, Maya, and Antonio and how it is that they are able to recall with perfect detail where they were on hearing certain people were assassinated or various places were bombed. However it is not the just the dead of years ago that weighs on the mind of the living. A tape, which we come to learn is the black box recording of a flight that recently crashed and caused the death of Richard’s wife, becomes like a fetish prodding those that listen to it to come to reconciliation with the violence and death of the past. Antonio doesn’t hear this tape, however, until nearly two years after the event. It’s effect on him is significant.

Shortly after Antonio hears this, the person who let him listen to it passes along his contact information to Richard Laverde’s daughter, Maya. She requests his presence to talk about her father, and he decides to go visit her in order to learn more about the “friend” of his that he really knew nothing about. Here the novel shifts perspectives and the story of Elaine Fritts and Richard Laverde is presented. Elaine was a Peace Corps volunteer who came into Colombia and fell in love with one of the men that she encountered during her classes in Bogota prior to assignment in the less developed regions.

While throughout the book there’s social criticism about attitudes, values and beliefs – such as Antonio’s resentment of the “vacuous courtesies always exchanged by Borodino’s, with no expectation of a sincere or considered response.” In this section, however, they take on a paternalistic form. As a result of the leadership role that Elaine is granted, she comes to feel that many of the ways that the rural community within which she operates is, in many ways, still suffering from what she calls a “colonial mentality.” Such behaviors that she mentions specifically include a deference to someone like herself (That is, a White Person, an Invader) to initiate and direct health, sanitation and economic cooperative projects; the role of bribes in making sure that government agents follow through on the assistance that they promise; the omnipresent role of alcohol in important discussions amongst all male community leaders, etc.

Laverde, who doesn’t come from campesino stock, is not like this and incrementally ratchets his aviation career from sundry medical and development supplies needed and people to marijuana to cocaine. Elaine Fritt’s lifestyle soon sees the results of his work and, at first, is not worried about where it comes from due to the new conveniences each stage of illegal drug transportation provides her and her new daughter. From horse, to truck, to large farm with a number of staff to support her, she’s shown simultaneously trusting totally her husband to recognizing, after an encounter with one of the American’s that helped him get involved in the business, that he won’t be returning as something terrible has happened.

The segue explaining how it is that Maya learned of the truth of her father’s still being alive, her mother’s plan to re-unite with him and leads to a conversation on the appeal that the cocaine traffickers had throughout wide swathes of society. A conversation on Hacienda Napoles, in fact, leads the two of them to go visit it in the jeep purchased by Richard 29 years ago from money made from transporting drugs to the United States. The two of them share a nostalgia destroying experience there, much of the once “amazing” statues and décor have fallen into disrepair and no longer appear as large, and at the former estate that Maya grew up on before her mother ran to the city with her.

With the problems previously described as existing between Antonio and Aura, I was not too surprised by the sexual relations that occur between Antonio and Maya on their return from the trip and like that it engenders a perpetuation of the traumatic dynamic that Maya previously went through – mother’s departure and the loss of father due. I thought it was a very clever way to not only wrap up the story but to evoke the causes of the social thought maladies that are mentioned throughout the text.

On a final reader’s note, I too want to thank Beatrice Monti della Corte and Suzanne Larenty for their assistance and patronage in helping this work to be written. I greatly enjoyed reading this and it is in no small part thanks to you that I’m able to do so.

Review of Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing, and Advertising

Ryan Holiday’s book Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer, is less a “how to” guide than a large number of case studies on how some of the most well-known companies today were able to get to where they now are. Dropbox, Hotmail, Uber, Spotify, Twitter, Groupon – all of these companies and many more used non-traditional marketing techniques, growth hacking, as a means of achieving massive market share growth.

Growth hacking is really more a mind-set for maximizing ROI than a tool kit. It’s an expansion of what the traditional definition of marketing was prior to the advent of social media and the digitization of everyday life. It can include those that produce content designed to be viral; product experience optimization; using platforms and APIs to reach large amounts of people, etc. Whereas all marketing focuses on “who” is receiving their message and “where” they are receiving it, a growth hacking mindset sees marketing as a more fluid process that includes new ways of looking at business. Here are a few of the many examples:

  • Creating an aura of exclusivity with an invite only feature.
  • Create hundreds of fake profiles to make your service look more popular and active than it actually is.
  • Targeting a single service or platform to cater to exclusively so as to piggyback off their growth.
  • Host cool events.
  • Bring on influential advisers and investors.
  • Do other things that are written about in Ryan Holiday’s other book Trust Me, I’m Lying

Because of the lower costs of “growth hacker marketing” in comparison to traditional outlets, with their press releases and media buys, it allows for the greater freedom in experimenting with what works. The evolution of Instagram and Airbnb’s company model are excellent examples of this. Rather than continuing to their original iterations, which is far from what they are now, they used data obtained from their customers use in order to develop a Product Market Fit, a dynamic wherein the product and its customers are “in perfect sync with each other.” While the decisions about areas such as the design of the product is typically given to the Development and Design teams, having in depth knowledge as to who the customers are, what their needs and and how to excite them are also marketing decisions. Growth hackers help structure these through data and information that is testable, trackable, and scalable – be it lead generation or internal optimization. Understanding and applying the principles contained herein can help turn start-ups into growth engines.

Review of Down These Mean Streets

I bought Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas shortly after I’d just finished reading all of Junot Diaz’s books. I’d read in an interview with Diaz that Thomas’ book was a personal favorite of his, so I was curious. In the vein of numerous other first works by male authors, the novel is a memoir-based bildungsroman. Covering his early childhood until his mid-twenties, Thomas’ protagonist is himself and like so many other such tales set in New York heavily features drug use, criminal activities and racism.

I found the lyricism that some people have accredited to the writing to not be as prominent as suggested. Thomas certainly captures the Spanish Harlem patois of El Barrio, however there are few and far between extended passages of beautiful writing or musicality. Furthermore the third component of lyricism, profound insight into the human condition, is also an infrequent feature.

Given Thomas’ character as an adolescent – someone that abhors reading ad foregoes completing high school in order to deal drugs, robs people and uses intravenous and other drugs – this should come as no surprise. In the closing chapters, after much maturation, this finally happens. This is not to say that insight into the cause of internal conflict is not fully flushed out, but that Thomas’ does this via short scenes (sans lyrical introspection) that is neverthless engaging and at times heart-breaking to the empathetic reader.

The predominant internal conflict for Piri is reconciling himself to himself in the racist milieu of New York in the 1930’s. Piri’s family is of Puerto Rican extraction. His mother is white, his father black. His siblings are able to pass not only as puertorriqueño but as white. However Piri’s skin color, however, leads others to view him as black. This is something that Piri has trouble accepting, and this leads him to numb the pains of being born into such a caste, to fight those that would keep him there and to search for inner knowledge and confidence by an extended trip from New York to the Jim Crow South.

Much of the tales told by Thomas are picaresque in nature, the chapter ending on some comic high note, however those with Brew – his black friends – often end without such levity. Brew, black as black coffee, plays Piri’s guide to navigating the racial divide in America and his position is one of resigned, but still angry, acceptance. He sings Piri part of a song he learned as a child whose content is about accommodating oneself to oppression by white people, contrasting the genocidal behavior of the whites to the Native Americans for fighting for what traditionally was theirs to the merely exploitative behavior that blacks faced. A discussion between Piri, Brew another mixed race youth, though one with a more privileged background that is currently in college, leads to further troubling reflections on Piri’s racial identity.

After Piri’s returns his bad behavior catches up to him. After having become addicted to heroin and engaging in a number of armed robberies, he is caught and ends up imprisoned in Sing Sing. This is a pivotal period for Piri and the last arc of the books is his slow development into someone able to embody emotional intelligence and rely on the new insights he gained from prison study. He studies with the Nation of Islam, though later rejects ummah for the less exacting Christianity that he was raised on.


Review of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator

Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by Ryan Holiday is a great read for a variety of reasons. First, it presents an account of all the ways in which different blogs, new media and traditional media outlets can be manipulated in order to get press coverage for products and services. Secondly, it is an explanation for why this newly formed digital media landscape is to the general detriment of society combined with a mea culpa for helping to have created such an environment. Ryan’s writing style is such that the combination of braggadocio for being able to serve his client’s needs so well with the recognition that it contributes to an abhorrent style of discourse comes off

The book opens with a variety of case study-style examples of various tactics that a media manipulator, or digital publicist, can use in order to obtain press coverage and social network shares for their client. Ryan’s clients, which include among many other Dov Charney of American Apparel and author of the book I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, Tucker Max, provide most of the specific stories, however many other clients and many other examples are provided through out. It’s these that media manipulators such as myself will find useful to be familiar with.

Holiday’s analysis of the new media environment is both compelling and frightening. While the books was published before it happened, it’s worth noting that what he’s talking about is a major social issue. Social media influence by the Russian government is being cited as a major factor in the most recent presidential election, the term Fake News is being used to dismiss a variety of news outlets and Facebook has implementing digital algorithms in order to prevent the dissemination of deceptive information on through its service offering.

Holiday starts with an analysis of the growth and influence of blogs, which he considered to be a variation of yesterday’s newswires. Blogs need not be solely personal affairs, like this, but include a large number of well-known outlets such as Business Insider, Politico, Huffington Post, Drudge Report, Buzz Feed and the now defunct Gawker. These, and other, outlets may not always have the largest readership – but their consumers are often people that work as producers for television and writers for national newspapers.

Frovocation, or faux provocation, is one of the many specific types of methods that the modern media manipulator uses in order to to exploit public perceptions and sell product. Manufacturing controversy, even if means making up fictions to spread about a client, creates a situation that allow for media content about a person or company to be traded up the chain. Training up the chain is when smaller blogs with lower standards publish groundless gossip or invented critical clamor for a certain group and because of its virality other outlets soon cover it as well. Holiday cites examples such as fake ads disclosed to bloggers so they could decry sexist ads, untrue rumors spread to gossip websites to obtain New York Times coverage and even Dick Cheney’s anonymous-at-the-time leak that, once it was “in the air” he then cited to support the invasion of Iraq. I include the last example as even though it’s not related to marketing, Holiday points it out as an example of the spread of the new digital media norms to the traditional media landscape that leads to widespread public deception and high-jacking of the political process.

The economics of media outlets are described as one of the primary driving features for the degeneration of the truth online. Ad revenue for companies are determine by page clicks, leading many to publish information that hasn’t always been vetted as felicitous and once proven wrong, isn’t retracted but left as is with an addendum on the bottom (re-working the whole piece takes too much time, so new information is merely copy and pasted near the end, meaning the reader is taking in lots of information as truth and then, if they even get to the end, comes to learn that everything above was false). This quest for scoops and exclusives, which builds reputation and traffic, incentivizes deception and poor reporting.

Holiday gives straight descriptions of a number of the ways that he’s taken advantage of this system – helping bloggers by investing in them early on; telling them what they want to hear (even if it’s not true); helping them trick their readers; selling them something that they’ll be able to sell up (and thus gain in influence); formatting enticing headlines for them that may not always reflect the reality of the article and a variety of other tactics. A short but compelling history of news media from the yellow journalism of the late 19th century to the subscriptions services of the early 20th century followed by analysis of the blogosphere and its relation to modern news institutions shows just how far people have come to again accepting misinformation as reality.

These qualities of a news publication all helps drive clicks and make things sell, yes, but at a cost. One example that I related to specifically, as I recall it getting shared by people back in 2009, relates to disaster-porn photos of Detroit. One set of photos shared many times depicted Detroit like New York looked in I Am Legend. Another set on another blog included people within the images, and wasn’t shared nearly as much. Thus, as a result of an ad-revenue incentivizing system people come to be alienated from the very depressing reality of massive job loss and community flight and instead perceive a nearly spiritual narrative as to the impermanence of man’s socio-economic achievements. Bad feelings, unless they’re directed at someone who caused the problem, simply don’t sell. As Holiday himself puts it, “What thrives online is not the writing that reflects anything close to the reality in which you and I live. Nor does it allow for the kind of change that will create the world we wish to live in.” Another quote worth citing in whole is this: “The death of subscription means that instead of attempting to provide value to you, the longtime reader, blogs are constantly chasing Other Readers – the mythical reader out in viral land. Instead of providing quality day in and day out, writers chase big hits like a sexy scandal or a funny video meme. Bloggers aren’t interested in building up consistent, loyal readership via RSS or paid subscriptions, because what they really need are the types of stories that will do hundreds of thousands or millions of pageviews.”

When I reflect on my own experience doing content marketing, I which was on a smaller level than what Holiday was doing, this rings true. In ideation sessions the purpose was rarely to use available or paid-for data to honestly depict the truth but instead try to create something viral. Some of the tactics that we would use included excluding certain survey data that didn’t align with the narrative we were trying to pitch to bloggers; failing to disclose that the small sampling size meant that in no way was the questions we surveyed people on were in no way representative of all of America, even though our write ups would certainly say that; and ignoring counter-factual data that ought to be included in content claiming to be authoritative on a particular issue.

I’m not a frequent reader of Breitbart, but from what articles I have read I’ve noticed a large similarly de-contextualized information. In large part this aversion to nuance is driven by Warnock’s Dilemma – or the dilemma as to why it is that some posts receive many comments from readers (thus driving up Domain Authority) while others do not. For one, context more takes time to produce and second, with that context it’s more difficult to take a simplistic, binary stance on the position. I use the example of Breitbart specifically as their blogging (I dare not call it reporting) does this so well. In an age where attention spans are so short due to the never-ending assault of media on our senses, they know that readers are fickle and, for the most part, prefer entertainment and salacious or rage-inducing subtle mischaracterizations and misleading information to longer format education and enlightenment. Holiday points out that people tend to confer authority to such content due to the “link illusion,” or the delegation of authority to articles with a number of HTML links on them, as it seems to replicate the academic methodology of publication – however this is, as the term suggests, merely an illusion. I too, for example, have done this in my own professional work so can relate.

If I ever find myself teaching media literacy again, I’m going to make sure to include a photocopy of Holiday’s chapter XXIV, How To Read a Blog. I’ve never made list as to what I look for in trying to determine whether or not content is “true” and thankfully I need not as he has made it here. The assessment as to “where things go from here” which follows is not at all optimistic and the proposals for change are not likely to be adopted anytime soon as it would mean a drastic re-structuring of the monetization process for blogs, online newspapers and online marketing content. What is likely to continue to flourish, at least until people are able to assert that their media outlets follower stricter editorial guidelines, is the continuation of media manipulation using the methods that Holiday describes through-out this book. In the case such a book is great for those, like me, who work in such a field and those that want to better understand how much of what they consume digitally is absolute garbage. People ought, as I says in his closing statement and which I have long agreed with, to read more books and less of the messes that get shared as “news”.

Review of Race to Revolution: The United States and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow

Gerald Horne’s book Race to Revolution: The United States and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow is an incredible account primarily on the relationships between the two countries mentioned in the title along with Cuba’s former colonial master, Spain. Horne’s account is not, however, a mere institutional history but one that illustrates that key role which enslaved and emancipated African Americans had in structuring attitudes and actions of the colonial Cuban government, the slaveholding Republic to its North and the center of Empire across the ocean to the East.

A large concern of the United States was that of a “black military republic” in Cuba that was sponsored by Britain. Secretary of State Daniel Webster was deeply concerned that London would “offer independence to the creoles, on condition that they unite with the colored government” in this Negro Republic “under British protection… and that “A Venezuelan general residing in Jamaica was to “take the command of an invading army,” which was to be “seconded” by an insurrection of the slaves and free men of color,” and thus with “600,000 black in Cuba and 800,000 in her West India Islands London will then strike a death blow at the existence of slavery in the United States (73).

The Long History of Interaction Amongst Cubans and American Negroes

Due to its prime ports and location, networks of trade and information were created between a large number of the States in Havana. Louisian, Mississipi and Texas were the primary buyers, however while slave markets closed in the United States due to abolition, they flourished in Cuba. Shipping now primarily to Texas, which was still a territory, Cuba experienced a boom in trade.

While all this was going on, in the halls of the Congress the Southern legislature hooted and hollered for annexation. Reading the speeches, yellow news article clippings, letters, diaries all depict a primal lust to aim, shoot and pull Cuba under the yoke of American capital and American style property management and enforcement. After all, American investment had dramatically increased as many of the Americans reinvested capital that was previously in the south to Cuba.

Cubans Considered by White Racists to be Lesser Humans

The Cubans, and for that matter also the Spaniards, were considered by the Americans to be less than white. In the racialist literature of the day, subscribed to by any politician of importance, the occupation of the Spanish by the Moors made them “not fully white”. Quoting Horne:

“U.S. nationals tended to think that Spaniard were “not quite white,” given the lengthy occupation of the Iberian peninsula by Arabs and Africans and, inter alia, this disqualified them from holding the prize that was Cuba.”(25).

The Spaniards subsequent intermarriage with the Negresses brought from the Ivory Coast increased the rationale for their being inferior.

A large number of expeditions – filibusters – went in in order to claim property and spoils. Former soldiers accustomed to the horrors of the Civil War re-enacted their old jobs. Like Hell on Wheels, but if when Bohannon first rolls up he just re-enslaves the black crew with the help of the white present – who he says now gets paid double. Richard Gott, perhaps no surprise, writes a wonderfully journalistic description of something akin to this in his history of Cuba. U.S. privateers were able to do this primarily as it occurred during a period of intensive rebellion in Cuba. Slaves, Freeman, and Mulattos united against the Spanish colonial administration. Over 160,000 people were killed in the ten years uprising. The atrocious and widespread slaughter literally split the country in two as domestic rebels acted as an insurgent and constituent force alongside the shores America. As can be imagined, what shape the constituent force to take was of prime significance to American politicians, which represented the interests that investors had made into Cuban railroads, sugar mills, land and labor.

Unlike what was said in the halls of power, the writings of Cuban newspapers were often written in part to target American Negroes and contained a message that didn’t sanctify property rights but one of community control. The content of these messages was often presented in a manner that would encourage readers towards a pan-African identity. By carrying tales of lynching and profiles of people such as Frederick Douglass as well as more daring stories such as that of “The Mutinous Sixth” – a deployment of African American Soldiers that were preparing to invade Cuba in Georgia that suffered casualties by American racists for refusing to submit to Jim Crow segregation. In 1886, the year slavery was effectively banned, the first cigar factory was built in Tampa, accompanied by the arrival of about a million workers from Cuba and other lands touched by Spain.” (159). Yet while slavery maybe have been made illegal in the United States, this did not prevent those that had profited from it from finding places where they were able to return to their high ROI practices. This put the US in the perilous position of, basically, fighting to impose a racial order on an island that was considered “colored”.

White Nationalists Afraid of a United Soviets of America

Horne’s book doesn’t go into the much detail as to the Soviet influence on either Castro’s or the Communists in Cuba – itself split along Trotskyist, longstanding anarchist, and nationalist lines. However he does point out how vastly inflated as a cause for fear this was by the members of the United States’ Havana Bureau. Whether this was because it gave informants cause to receive bribes from the U.S. government’s “liason and administration offices,” people that among others Cuban patriots would later call “vendepatriots,” is uncertain. What is clear from the record is that “Cubanidad” and distaste for Jim Crow style white supremacy was an organizing ideology against White Supremacy. Citizens of Cuba and the U.S. paid each other homage to the struggles going on there in a coordinated series of marches, demonstrations and exchanges between committed cadres of organizers.

Domestic sympathies towards the Cuban Communist party by America Negroes drove home the fear that Soviets would spread across the southern tip of the country and radical property struggles would again take place. This fear flamed by the KKK and others wasn’t entirely without cause, as the people involved in this cultural and intellectual exchange would soon have an outsized role within the civil rights movement in the United States.

Cubanidad as an Ideological Enemy to White Nationalism

Horne tells the story of Havana’s holding lucrative “black vs. white” boxing matches, a practice then forbidden in the United States. Havana allowed Paul Robeson to sing to “mixed race”, “mixed couple” crowds that were drunk on Bacardi family products. These, however, are shown to be showcase moments by the new economic and political leadership.

The reaction to the Jim Crowism that the US brought to the region was swift. It was so repugnant to the people that a domestic response force soon composed itself to eject such a social order. Most of the J26 movement – which I write about more on here – were also composed of Black Cuban nationalists. After black political organizations were banned, “the Communists came to play an increasingly conspicuous role on both sides of the strais, with those on the island going to far as broaching “the idea of an autonomous state in Oriente” (239). Domestic unrest lead to U.S. and Cuban elites embracing military rule via Batista, however his darkness made some in America suspect and uneasy. While first embraced by American blacks, subsequent secret police actions against poor, “colored”, Cubans that had mobilized against American investment and the enforcement of Jim Crow rules when Black American businessmen were visiting for conventions made him soon lose his lustre. Private party delegations between the countries increased to study each other’s answer to the “racial question” and increasingly the Cuban people – both the poor the suffered the most as well as the elite which more often dealt with resentment over American influence – came to view the US as prohibiting the social structures most appropriate to a post-colonial export economy. When Castro finally did come to power, one of the reasons he was so welcome by African-American was precisely because his policies were against such racialized oppression.

Review of The Spook Who Sat by the Door

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I first heard of The Spook Who Sat By The Door by Sam Greenlee in the source note of an academic journal article by George Ciccariello-Maher called Brechtian Hip Hop. The note provided a plot overview and stated that this text, about a black spy trained by the U.S. comes to recruit a number of gang members in Chicago to begin and spread a domestic insurgency, was formerly mandatory reading for CIA operatives in the 1970s. Given the zeitgeist, a few years after The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder had published The Kerner Report, which delineated concerns over rioting and Communism, such a work being produced seems apropos. On first learning of such a narrative, which is a variant of Happy’s story in my book Unraveling, I was somewhat bummed – yet also pleased to be able to learn from such a narrative. A few clicks later it was being delivered to me. A few more and I learned that the book was also made into a movie, which after reading the book and having watched it is, for the most part, felicitous to the original.

Dan Freeman is the “spook” of the book –  a play on the words meaning black person and spy. We learn through conversations midway through the book that he was in a Chicago street gang, the Cobras, as a young man and that while in college he was an advocate for a variant of Black Nationalism. He sits by the door as following an opportunistic senator’s push to integrate the C.I.A., he is the only one that is able to pass the rigorous testing regimen and is put into a position of great visibility so that visiting Congressmen and Senators can see the token black person hired for a non-sanitation or food preparation related job.

During the several years Freeman works for the C.I.A., he is described as having a dual life. One where he is a “good negro” that does all work beyond expectations at his job in Washington D.C. and the other a “hipster negro” that only exists once he slips in tail in New York. This is themes of masks and the social construction of identity is one of the main themes of the book. Freeman is always “putting people on” in order to meet the expectations that white people have so as to obtain social or political acceptance.

Dan leaves Washington D.C. in order to take a job as a social worker. Counterbalancing his behavior in this role as an “Uncle Tom,” one wholly deferential to the existent structure of white supremacist, liberal power, he also begins to organizing the Cobra’s into a militant, revolutionary organization. The comments that come out of Greenlee’s liberal characters at the dinner parties and community outreach foundation meetings Freeman attends and the divide between what he thinks and says are quite amusing. Freeman states how he feels more comfortable than the whites as they are actually less racist than the black middle class – which he sees as constantly struggling to be “more white” in their values, attitudes and behaviors than white people.

This disdain for the black bourgeoisie/middle class is another recurring theme of the book. Freeman’s psychological criticisms are akin to those voiced by Harold Cruse, as well as a number of other non-integrationist traditions. According to Freeman’s worldview, the “social worker” is less a means of helping empower communities and more a means of helping vent frustration over the conditions of the political economy away from rioting and toward more passive, less private-property damaging outlets.

In Freeman’s initial planning stages for domestic insurgency he is reluctant to try to recruit any members of the the black middle class to his cause. Following the beginning of the widespread civil disorders, they are described as one of the most outspoken groups delegitimizing the violence due to the fact that they are losing their “token” jobs over it.

Dan Freeman’s struggle to convert his childhood friend Dawson to his cause, who he sees as a potential asset due to his color and high rank in the police department, shows the irreconcilability of their two positions. While Dan sees freedom as the ejection of white political power and economic control from black communities, Dawson accommodates to it and has no trouble playing the jailor.

The novel as a whole, thankfully, never gets caught up in long, didactic passages as a number of ideologically motivated texts are often want to do. The Cobras transition from street hoodlums to disciplined cadre members leading five man teams to attack and harass the armed guard lacks any sort of crypto-catechism in conversational form, a la Ayn Rand, and the interpersonal struggles of Dan Freeman keeps him from being a one-dimensional character.