What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte

To begin with a mea culpa. Even though I knew Catte was fighting against the stereotypes, I still expected this book to be a sort of coffee table book one might find described in Stuff White People Like. A sumptuous publication in large format comprising artistic black and white photos of…weird poor people. Nice white people could talk about how awful it all is and how they wish they could do something about it. (Pass the organic vegan caviar, please.)

What did I ‘know’ about Appalachia before I read this? Image one: said black and white pictures. Image two: fiddle music. Image three: Deliverance. So yeah, not just fiddles, banjoes too.

As a consequence of this, if somebody had asked me, I would have guessed that Appalachia was small. It fits the homogeneity of the sense of the place. See? Place. Place is small. It’s a thing that’s clearly identifiable. Wrong word. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

One of the first things I found out, opening this small book, is that Appalachia is huge, encompassing many States and many millions of people. It would seem obvious, just from that fact, that it isn’t going to be homogeneous. This book is out to fight that, explaining how it has happened so that you understand why you’ve been duped.

It’s sort of an enraged lament, explaining the process of how we got to a particular point in US history which I hadn’t heard of before I read this book. Hillbilly Elegy. On Goodreads over 60 of my friends have read it, compared with a tally of four for this volume. Let’s lament just a little louder then, as we realise how many people have bought into the prejudice of Vance’s best seller.

There is a book coming out soon, Unwhite: Appalachia, Race and Film by Meredith McCarroll who says “Its central argument is that Appalachian people in cinema have been portrayed as phenotypically white, but using the same tropes that have long been used to portray non-whites in film.” If only that were it, films getting it wrong. The heartbreaking point of Catte’s volume is that this is a universal tendency, founded long ago, entrenched by those whose interests are served by it, and supported by the academic community which might largely hang its collective head in shame.

One of the more wrenching moments of a book which is full of them, is to find out that at Catte’s alma mater, not only has Hillbilly Elegy become required reading, but it has been put together with a deal to buy one of those books of photos which maintains the false image. For Catte on Hillbilly Elegy, which will give you a taste of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia go here. Eugenicists like Vance’s message. It makes you wonder what sort of educational culture presides in the US of A.

This is no reference book. It’s venting spleen, written in a way I assume she would not write with her historian’s cap on. There are no references, but a detailed reading list for where to go next. In a short, small form, it succinctly puts the reader in the shoes of those who live in this vast area. She makes you part of the action as she describes the long history of labour fighting capitalism, of capitalism cozying up with the academic sociologists and such like, of environmentalists – that is to say, ordinary people turned into activists by their foes – fighting for the preservation of the sweetness of the mountain areas as they are destroyed by coal production, amongst other evils. You watch the pregnant woman next to you being kicked by strike breakers. You watch sociologists agreeing with capitalists who want people off their own land, that it is for their own good to take them from their homes. You watch ordinary people being literally defined as cases for forced sterilisation because it makes it a moral imperative to take them from their homes, whether that be to rip mountains apart to mine coal, or to preserve areas for rich white people to take their vacations.

If you want a nuanced, if angry, view of this exploited expanse of the US, this is an excellent place to start, and it will guide you as to where to go next.


Stuff White People Like: A Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions by Christian Lander

These books are hilarious and really, the most hilarious thing about them is that white people think they are hilarious. Why is that?

I mean, it’s all true. But why doesn’t that mean that white people DON’T find it funny?????!

Read this morning:

To fully understand why white people love [Adult Swim] so much you have to understand the world of ‘under-ground animation,’ which is something that has been beloved by white people since Fritz the Cat. The more hard-core white people (single white men) will often take their passion for this type of animation so far as to attend an ‘Alternative Animation Festival,’ often held at movie theatres you thought were long abandoned.

So true! I took a couple of white men to a Fritz the Cat movie in Sydney ages ago now. It was held in a cinema in Glebe which was in the process of being condemned. Indeed, we all had to sit in the balcony level, I believe because it had been decided, all things considered, that it was better to fall than be fallen upon. Frankly, I thought the chances of falling were pretty good: any time anybody did something as vigorous as cross their leg, the entire balcony structure shook.

And, on the subject of bread:

It would be nice to believe that a white person has a choice in bread or cereal, but in reality they don’t.

When a white person is asked ‘Whole wheat or white?’ they are legally prohibited from saying ‘white.’ Watch them at any sandwhich shop or restaurant where they are given a choice. It is so ingrained in their heads that when presented with a list of options they will not let the waiter continue after he has said the words whole wheat….

Though they strongly prefer whole wheat bread, white people will eat white bread when there are no other options. And they will generally enjoy it, making the best of a bad situation.

When this happens you might be tempted to tell white people that being forced to choose white due to a lack of options sounds like your collegiate dating career. It is recommended that you avoid this, as white people might find this offensive. Not because you were forced to date white people, but because it will remind them that they are going to have to get their fibre from something else.

Following on from that, one of the things I find odd about white people is that although they do their very best to make sure people in refugee camps get more rice and water, they themselves think that they, white people, and their dogs should have the very very best modern scientific diet letting them live the very best life for longest. That would be hilarious, but somehow…

I don’t know. I guess somewhere Christian Lander makes that funny too.

Bad Show: The Quiz, The Cough, The Millionaire Major by Bob Woffinden, James Plaskett

I came upon this book via an internet post by GM Plaskett which discussed the case of the infamous coughing Major on the British version of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’. He suggested, based on his own experience of the show and his watching of the video of the Major’s episodes, that Charles Ingram was innocent. It’s important to give the Major a name, since he has gone through that experience of being turned into a non-person partly by taking his name from him.

I was immediately hooked. As a bridge player I’d followed stories of cheating in bridge and done some investigation of my own, not only into the contemporary game of bridge, but also its predecessor whist, and earlier card and dice games. The story sounded very similar to ones I’d looked at, a person found guilty, but was the evidence enough? The authors kindly organised to send me a copy of the book and I devoured it.

That was a couple of years ago and I’ve been sitting on it since, because….I wasn’t sure what I really thought. Reading the book, it is clear that there has been a miscarriage of justice from a legal point of view. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that based on the arguments and evidence presented by investigative journalist Bob Woffinden and Plaskett. And yet, as I read, even though I felt that the case for innocence was compelling, I nonetheless wasn’t convinced that this constituted the facts of the matter.

I looked at video on Youtube which shows Ingram in action, and I felt more doubtful. Unfortunately there isn’t undoctored video available as I understand it, and I’m watching it as somebody who knows what they are supposed to see. Scarcely ideal.

Still, it made me think back to some of the old cheating scandals in bridge. Often the story would be similar to this games show one, involving accusations of coughing or sniffing, or foot tapping or some such signalling to illegally convey information.

A common argument by those accusing others of cheating was a sense of feeling at the table that something was wrong. My own opinion, in the absence of proper proof of a system of cheating, was that there needed to be bridge evidence, and that this was sorely missing. Often hands were interpreted as evidence of cheating when other interpretations of what took place, more innocent ones, were possible, but not considered. I was, as a consequence, entirely intolerant of the idea that a bad sniff combined with a surprising outcome in the cards, was sufficient to convict a person.

We do, after all, live under a system of innocent until proven guilty. And yet, reading this book makes me feel some sympathy for those who don’t want due process, even though I disagree with them.

This book is a fascinating account of the legal side of what happened, how Ingram was convicted in court and the obvious unfairness of the process. It is equally an eye-opener on how the TV quiz system works. It is anything but fair to the people trying to get onto it, making its profits from this process. One can see how it becomes a situation of ‘us vs them’, where depending on your point of view, ‘us’ is the TV show trying to stop people colluding to get onto it or it is the innocent public doing what they can to avoid the horrendous phone bills which mount up as they try to qualify for the show. The book indicates that the show even advertised that it was still possible to ring in to try to get spots when in fact the selection for the series in question must have closed. Not a good look from the show and no surprises that people felt that they were up against a powerful force which they had to beat.

I wonder how often straightforward cheating might start from such a relatively moral position? Beginning with a sense of conviction that one is only realigning the stars and gradually, believing in one’s own moral position, forgetting altogether what is right and wrong. And is it what happened in this case?

As I write, a play of the whole sorry affair is showing in London’s West End: Quiz. It’s closing in a week or so, unfortunately, as I would have gone to see it in July. The play involves the audience, they are given keypads to register how they feel at the half way point after watching the prosecution case, and then again at the end after the defence. Interestingly it is at least generally the case that the audience changes its mind from guilty to innocent. Isn’t this how justice should work?

It prompted Chris Tarrant to write a piece exhorting prospective show goers not to believe what is dished up to them – that Ingram’s innocence is in doubt. You may think that the arguments presented in the article are overwhelming, but please do read the book and see a balanced discussion by two men who know what they are talking about!


Heretic by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

The premise of this book is so obvious that it is alarming to think we need a book to present its case. Why is it, Ali asks, that nice white people* are against Islamic dissidents?  (*expression I adopted after reading Stuff White People Like)

Shortly after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, Asra Noumani, a Muslim reformer, spoke out against what she calls the ‘honour brigade’ – an organised international cabal hell-bent on silencing debate on Islam.

The shameful thing is that this campaign is effective in the West. Western liberals now seem to collude against critical thought and debate. I never cease to be amazed by the fact that non-Muslims who consider themselves liberals – including feminists and advocates of gay rights – are so readily persuaded by these crass means to take the Islamists’ side against Muslim and non-Muslim critics.

and later….

In short, we who have the luxury of living in the West have an obligation to stand up for liberal principles. Multiculturalism should not mean that we tolerate another culture’s intolerance. If we do in fact support diversity, women’s rights, and gay rights, then we cannot in good conscience give Islam a free pass on the grounds of multicultural sensitivity. And we need to say unambiguously  to Muslims living in the West: if you want to live in our societies, to share in their material benefits, then you need to accept that our freedoms are not optional. They are the foundation of our way of life; of our civilisation – a civilisation that learned, slowly and painfully, not to burn heretics but to honour them.

The more I think about this situation, and think of females I know who consider themselves to be radical feminists lining up to take shots (do I mean that figuratively?) at Ali and others whose lives are threatened every day for urging Islamic reform, I come to my conclusion that anti-racism is the last bastion of sexism. To be seen as anti-racist is the only important mark of being a nice white person left. By defining concern about the plight of women under Islam to be this invented propaganda word ‘Islamophobia’, it has been straightforwardly established that women don’t count at all. And even females who call themselves ‘feminist’ are terrified of this accusation of being an ‘Islamophobic’.

I read Heretic just after it first came out on the recommendation of a friend and I am still uncertain what to say about it. Her message is important and one understands her bewilderment at being reviled and even prevented from speaking in universities. I wonder if universities were ever places of safety for free speech or if I’ve lived in fantasy land. They certainly aren’t any more.

I commend it to the reader for the rationality of its central thesis. Of course Islam needs a Reformation. What a pity those who argue the case are vilified the world over, both within the Islamic world and by nice white people.

Having said that, the book itself is a bit of a mess. It could have done with less haste and a good editor to help its structure and the way it goes about delivering its message. Passion may be enough for a blog post or a review, but for a book of this type? I criticise other pop nonfiction for not being rigorous, so why not this book too?

Maybe because the issues are not just important but of the moment. The content of this book is living around us every day right now. Most recently in Australia, Pauline Hanson, the much pilloried politician came to Parliament in full burka. Politics makes for strange bedfellows. It inspired a speech by Conservative politician Senator Brandis who attacked Hanson for mocking Islam by her behaviour. Supposedly he was close to tears. And this brought him into an unusual orbit: that of the love and warmth of nice white people who detest the Conservatives as a rule.

If you want to follow the details of this:

Pauline Hanson wears burka to Question Time in the Senate, slammed by George Brandis

Burkas are political symbols not Islamic ones, Muslim scholar says

Pauline Hanson’s stunt was a mere distraction from the national vote on same sex marriage. This led to the article on ABC: Same-sex marriage: Why have Muslims been so quiet in the debate?

Every now and then I visit London and go into a bit of a frenzy in an English bookshop – such a rare treat. This time, having spotted Heretic I bought that and three more by Ali. In retrospect, one would have been sufficient. However, I am curious to see if any of the others improve on the rough and ready sense of this one. I’ll be disappointed if they don’t.

Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World by Barbara Ehrenreich

I dare say I’m too late to the party on this one to say anything that hasn’t already been said. However….

Of course I  knew all about the delusion of ‘positive thinking’, radiating from independent hucksters and Christian conmen, making a fortune from the scam. But I didn’t realise that the scam reached deep into academia, shysters claiming to be teaching science, aka positive psychology.  And I hadn’t cottoned onto the point that it is a manipulative tool to keep people down in the US, in exactly the same way it has been used in, for example, Soviet society. Optimism is denial of reality. As people lost their jobs en masse, middle-class workers, sacked by CEOs who were themselves entirely removed from the morality of the situation, these ordinary folk were expected to be optimistic about everything.

The level of deception goes so far that it explains breast cancer as an opportunity which some women are lucky to get. Equally, each person thrown into the cold trauma of joblessness in the US, is expected to be positively grateful for the blessing thrown their way. Not only that, but part of the scam is that there is to be no complaining, no regrets, no objective analysis implying others might be at fault for one’s predicament. Everything is one’s own fault. What a horrifying judgment to put on people, and to think that they lapped it up, these moronic sheep constituting the middle part of the US’s economy.  Everything, they were prepared to believe – and still are, as far as I know – is in their heads. It is there that the good and the bad, the winners and losers, the success and failure is engendered. Question nothing except your own thoughts.

It’s just got to make your blood boil, reading a book like this and to think it’s only getting worse. And the worse things get, the further people fall, the more people fall, the more ‘positivity’ is drummed into a servile population’s heads.

Odd  moments of humour, but it’s only ever bitter: how could it be otherwise. Such as, ruminating as to the fact that breast cancer is pretty much tied into with ideas of positivity and pinkness and teddy bears, she asks why it is that men with prostate cancer aren’t given Matchbox Cars as their reward. Good question. I suppose in the servility stakes, women are an even worse case then men.

But mainly just the pain of it all comes through on every page. I’ve been meaning to read Nomadland, which is a case study of how that goes, being positive about whatever happens to you, following ex-executives living in caravans and working in appalling conditions at Amazon warehouses and beet picking. Are they all positive about their experiences? You can bet your last dollar on that. Though if you are down to your last dollar you can’t have been thinking the right way. The positive way. But if you are down to your last dollar, you can bet that it’s an opportunity. Nothin’ like bein’ down to your last dollar. Yes sirree. Once you let it in, there’s no escaping positivity. Things even worse than they were? Then you have to be even more positive. It’s the only escape in a country where escape is part of the carrot put in from of you, somewhere you can’t reach.

I find it all very hard to understand, being a games player. There is no room in that world for delusion. Reality – a dirty word in the US of A – is the only basis for success in games. It isn’t rocket science to extrapolate from that to real life and indeed, that’s Ehrenreich’s plea in this book. She’s begging for the bleeding obvious, that life got to be about reality. But I wonder if she got any converts? At the very least, if she’d been trying, there’d be products for sale. Reality t-shirts and stuff. You’d almost think she doesn’t really care.



Florence Taylor’s Hats by Robert Freestone and Bronwyn Hanna

Two pieces of advice: this is a serious academic work, not a light by-the-bed biography. The publishers kindly sent me a review copy upon request.

Most history work consists of revision, reassessment of what’s already there. But occasionally the historian has the opportunity to get their hands dirty, digging into the past in order to find clues, sources (not resources), unprocessed data in the field, which then has to be assembled (not reassembled) into a story. In short, one gets to drop all the ‘re’s. It becomes a task of vision and assessment. After history happens, then it is made, as if by an artist moulding clay or organising colours on a palette. The formidable list of sources reflect the work that’s gone into this book.

It’s all rather exciting and it’s onerous, not least because of the responsibility involved. Getting the interviews right because the chance might never offer itself again. Diaries, letters and the like must be found, guarded and interpreted to take their place in the story. The decisions as to what the world will see and how it will see it are yours. How heartbreaking it must have been to discover that a relative had dumped a lot of Taylor’s own collection of her past.

On top of these general concerns, is one that must have been deeply frustrating and disappointing for the authors. It transpires that the output of the architect is largely ephemeral. I hadn’t really thought about this until recently, reading about the work of Yamasaki. Imagine building the Pruitt–Igoe housing project in St. Louis only to see them demolished not so long after, followed by the demise of the Twin Towers in NY. In the case of Taylor, the authors have almost nothing to show for their attempts to seek out extant examples of her work. Adding to this issue is the practice of the work of underlings being appropriated by their seniors, common in so many fields.

Nonetheless, Taylor was prolific in so many ways that there is much referenced in this book. In her life’s work as publisher in the building industry she has left many publications behind which, surprisingly, have turned out to be less transient than bricks and mortar. She weighed into politics, administration, planning, and behind all her activities is the steady beat of her most consistent belief, that of bettering the situation of women. Even her rightwing politics don’t seem as important as her constant fight for equality of women in the work place and at home. She wanted houses designed for women in surrounds which worked for women, which permitted their lives to be easier, and paid work to be possible. Bravo Taylor!

At the time she pulled out of architecture in 1907, after constant battles against the hostile attitudes of the men who made it theirs, she got married and the start of the publishing empire was the combined effort of Florence and her husband. After he died early, that left decades where Florence did it on her own. They’d had no children because of his epilepsy. In fact, I can’t help wondering if the marriage was unconsummated – not something discussed in the book, but surely the authors must have had their questions about this too. In correspondence, interviews etc, they talk of each other as ‘mates’ in a way that seems curiously asexual and they seem close in a decidedly unromantic way, even though poems are written….

When writing such a book, how to organise it is always a dilemma. In this case the authors have chosen a number of themes. This permits the reader to be rather cursory if they please. In my case, although I was looking forward to the chapter dealing with her ideas about town planning, in fact it became evident that if you didn’t know Sydney and weren’t interested in or knowledgable about its planning, the chapter is heavy going. It is, however, important for it to be there. This is a reference book on many levels, not merely a biography. To have a record of what people were talking about, advocating for, at this level of a city’s development, the ideas which were raised, but not taken up, is imperative for a full understanding of that city. And the point should be made that although she was largely ignored at the level of decision making in Sydney, nonetheless some of her big ideas have come to pass.

Like all powerful people, Taylor was difficult and the authors don’t shirk from this. They regularly quote from the unpublished biography Kerwin Maegraith wrote in collaboration, if not collusion, with Taylor late in her life. It’s a disastrous shmaltzy piece of spin – Maegraith’s fame is as a cartoonist, so this may not be a surprise. Freestone and Hanna have put together, in contrast, a warts and all account of a woman who could feud forever – her vitriolic stand agains the Griffins was really something, the more so as they began as friends – or charm the King and Queen of England, as she did upon meeting them.

Taylor is also hard to write about because she’s all over the place. Her ideas change, her loyalties change, little is constant other than her will which she imposes over all she can. She’s indefatiguable, never says die, simply never stops until her body packs up on her completely and she spends the last years of her life more or less solitary. All this, though, from beginnings which did not augur well for her. She was a self-made person if ever there was one and it’s impossible not to respect her incredible rise in fortune.

This is a real labour of love by Freestone and Hanna, one which thoroughly deserves a place in the history of Australia. Could they have made something which was slightly more accessible whilst still being the highly useful work it is? I’d like to think so. The stars I have awarded it are for the content, not the style.

The Stone of Chastity by Margery Sharp

Folklore expert Professor Pounce is evading a bridge game by hiding in the attic of a friend’s place when he spies a diary which discusses, he discovers, the Stone of Chastity. Set in a brook, it is a test for females. If they can cross without falling as the step on said stone, they have passed.

For an academic it’s a godsend. He decamps to the village in question, with an entourage including his nephew who is to assist him as he finds out more about the stone and sets upon an experiment using the village women to test the veracity of the legend. What could go wrong?

It’s a nice commentary on the self-absorption of academics. Why on earth would these women object to giving him details of their sex life. It’s for science. Won’t cooperate? What a ridiculous idea. Of course they will.

Meanwhile, the nephew is having women troubles of his own.

This came out in 1940 – I expect Sharp had finished it before the war started. It must have been a gentle distraction at the time and as with all her work hasn’t dated. The humour is fresh, the scenarios hilarious. And as always with her books, I find some new aspect of the English language to delight in.