Politics & Social Issues

DANGEROUSLY FUNNY: The Uncensored Story of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour"
DAVID BIANCULLI

Touchstone
$18.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Now in paperback, a rollicking history of the rise and fall of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour —“A stunningly alive portrait of the 1960s and of two very different men who ‘refused to shut up’ and thereby made TV history” (People).

A dramatic behind-the-scenes look at the rise and fall of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour—the provocative, politically charged program that shocked the censors, outraged the White House, and forever changed the face of television.

Decades before The Daily Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour proved there was a place on television for no-holds-barred political comedy with a decidedly antiauthoritarian point of view. Censorship battles, mind-blowing musical performances, and unforgettable sketches defined the show and its era. In this compelling history, veteran entertainment journalist David Bianculli draws on decades worth of original research, including extensive interviews with Tom and Dick Smothers and dozens of other key players, to tell the fascinating story of the show’s three-year network run—and the cultural impact that’s still being felt today.

I CHECKED THIS BOOK OUT OF MY COUNTY'S LIBRARY SYSTEM. USE YOUR LIBRARY, FOLKS!

My Review
: If you remember the Smothers Brothers, read this book for a tiptoe thru the tulips (I know it was on a competing show, but timeliness was the aim) buried under the neiges d'antan. If either phrase has left you scratching your wig-holder, look THAT up in your Funk and Wagnalls.

But don't read this rather dense, somewhat longwinded recap of the three-season run of the Smothers Brothers's show. It will mean little to you, and the density of the behind-the-scenes material won't fascinate. The author clearly knows his onions about TV, about the time period, and about the brothers. His style isn't sparkling, but it is very informative and it's never dry. Just thick. Like a fallen souffle, it still has the savor but the texture's just a little off.

I grew up on Smothers Brothers material because my sisters are both much older than I am, so were listening to their albums, and Kingston Trio albums, and Vaughn Meader albums, and Bob Newhart albums. *sigh* What a way to grow up. Then along came the Beatles, and out went everything else...except the Smothers Brothers, the eldest sister was a granola-and-granny-gowns girl to the horror of our Balenciaga-wearing mother.

So along comes the TV show the clean-cut young men put on, on Sunday night opposite "Bonanza" which neither of my parents cared diddly about (if it had been opposite "Gunsmoke" I'd've never even heard of it); the closing-in-on-50 mom and closing-in-on-40 dad tried to be gravy (joke on "groovy," slang of the times...they were as inept at modern slang as I am, and you will be, youngsters) by watching it with their teens and the caboose.

We all loved it. Pat Paulsen was so funny that my arch-conservative parents thought he was the highlght of the show with his first-time-ever-done fake run for President. My sisters loved "Share Tea with Goldie", with a flower child making in-jokes about drugs that Mama and Daddy didn't get. I was in love with Mason Williams, of "Classical Gas" fame. Still one of my very favorite pieces of pop music, up there with "In Your Eyes" and "Solsbury Hill" by Peter Gabriel.

No one used dirty words. No one was more than mildly salacious, to my father's disgruntlement. But everyone was ethically opposed to the Vietnam war, and my mother's nephew was a Navy pilot at risk, plus she'd lost "someone close" in the Ia Drang battle (never discussed in detail, quite mysterious), so we as a family were opposed to the unwinnable war (Dad's name for it).

Hard to imagine now, in this fractured entertainment landscape, but the Smothers Brothers drew 35% (THIRTY-FIVE PERCENT) of the TV-viewing audience...and got canceled! If someone drew a 35% share today, the network execs would offer their grandchildren as slaves and their houses as rewards to the people who delivered such monster ratings. Then, well...that was just ordinary. What wasn't ordinary was the men delivering the ratings were young and idealistic and ready to talk about things that were taboo (eg, religious hypocrisy, racial politics) without hesitation. The people who watched the Smothers Brothers were mostly young, mostly rich, mostly well-educated and almost always all three. What an audience!!

And they got canceled.

Even my arch-conservative parents thought that was stupid. "Can't stop people thinkin' and best not to try," said Mama. "What's the use of a Constitution if you can only agree with powerful people?" asked Dad.

Yeah. That's what I'm sayin' after reading this book. They didn't back down from any fight, and they lost the war...but damn, it's hard not to admire their spirit. Tommy, though, comes across as a self-righteous little pisher and Dickie as a self-absorbed bore. But hey, they fought a good fight and today's TV landscape looks the way it does in good part because of these guys and their irritating ways.

Someone give them a show, quick! They're still alive, but who knows for how long!

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THE FORGER'S SPELL: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century
EDWARD DOLNICK

HarperCollins
$7.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: As riveting as a World War II thriller, The Forger's Spell is the true story of Johannes Vermeer and the small-time Dutch painter who dared to impersonate him centuries later. The con man's mark was Hermann Goering, one of the most reviled leaders of Nazi Germany and a fanatic collector of art.

It was an almost perfect crime. For seven years a no-account painter named Han van Meegeren managed to pass off his paintings as those of one of the most beloved and admired artists who ever lived. But, as Edward Dolnick reveals, the reason for the forger's success was not his artistic skill. Van Meegeren was a mediocre artist. His true genius lay in psychological manipulation, and he came within inches of fooling both the Nazis and the world. Instead, he landed in an Amsterdam court on trial for his life.

ARTnews called Dolnick's previous book, the Edgar Award-winning The Rescue Artist, "the best book ever written on art crime." In The Forger's Spell, the stage is bigger, the stakes are higher, and the villains are blacker.

LOOK AT HOW EFFECTIVE MANIPULATION IS DESPITE THE CLARITY OF THE LIE BEING SOLD. IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER BEFORE VOTING IN 2020.

My Review
: Here we have a non-fictional account of the 20th century's most astoundingly, resoundingly, and undeservedly successful art forgery scam.

In very, very brief, it's the story of a Dutch forger who cons Goering out of *boatloads* of cash for fake Vermeers. The book presents us with the fakes in a photo section. I simply cannot believe that anyone not completely blind and thus viewing these horribly hideous daubs in Braille could be taken in by them:

I shouldn't have to say it, but the left-hand painting (emphasis on "pain") is called The Laughing Girl and is probably van Meegeren's poor forgery imitation of Vermeer's sublime Girl with a Pearl Earring. (image via theveteranssite.greatergood.com)

There are quite a few characters involved in this scam, and so Dolnick bounces around more than Roger Federer's practice balls, with equally nausea-inducing speed and ballistic-ness. (Ballisticity?) As a result there are a number of times information is repeated, though not always detrimentally. The problem is that the author's organization of the actual text (as opposed to the basic outline of the story) is not strong enough.

Chapters are short. Sentences aren't. Story is fascinating. Piecing it together isn't. Vermeers are gorgeous. Forgeries are so Gawdawful ugly it makes the viewer want to weep from outrage (sort of like the effect Dickens or Shakespeare has on the sensible modern reader, or cats have on the non-demon-possessed).

Forger van Meegeren at the Devil's Work (image via The New York Times)

Recommended...but what a lukewarm recommendation it is. I wish I'd been able to follow one thread through the book, instead of eight (by my count), and I wish I'd been given halftone illos in the text instead of, or prefereably in addition to, a photo insert because I would have liked to be able to see what Dolnick was talking about as he was talking about it. I felt that was a bad decision on the publisher's part. Left me sort of hanging there, unsure of what I was supposed to be seeing.... Well. Anyway. If you like art, and if you're a fan of puzzle stories with tidy endings, here it is.

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THE TRANSPARENT SOCIETY
DAVID BRIN

Basic Books
$21.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: �In New York and Baltimore, police cameras scan public areas twenty-four hours a day.
�Huge commercial databases track you finances and sell that information to anyone willing to pay.
�Host sites on the World Wide Web record every page you view, and "smart” toll roads know where you drive.

Every day, new technology nibbles at our privacy.Does that make you nervous? David Brin is worried, but not just about privacy. He fears that society will overreact to these technologies by restricting the flow of information, frantically enforcing a reign of secrecy. Such measures, he warns, won’t really preserve our privacy. Governments, the wealthy, criminals, and the techno-elite will still find ways to watch us.

But we’ll have fewer ways to watch them. We’ll lose the key to a free society: accountability. The Transparent Society is a call for "reciprocal transparency.” If police cameras watch us, shouldn’t we be able to watch police stations? If credit bureaus sell our data, shouldn't we know who buys it? Rather than cling to an illusion of anonymity-a historical anomaly, given our origins in close-knit villages-we should focus on guarding the most important forms of privacy and preserving mutual accountability. The biggest threat to our freedom, Brin warns, is that surveillance technology will be used by too few people, not by too many.

A society of glass houses may seem too fragile. Fearing technology-aided crime, governments seek to restrict online anonymity; fearing technology-aided tyranny, citizens call for encrypting all data. Brin shows how, contrary to both approaches, windows offer us much better protection than walls; after all, the strongest deterrent against snooping has always been the fear of being spotted. Furthermore, Brin argues, Western culture now encourages eccentricity-we’re programmed to rebel! That gives our society a natural protection against error and wrong-doing, like a body’s immune system.

But "social T-cells” need openness to spot trouble and get the word out. The Transparent Society is full of such provocative and far-reaching analysis.The inescapable rush of technology is forcing us to make new choices about how we want to live. This daring book reminds us that an open society is more robust and flexible than one where secrecy reigns. In an era of gnat-sized cameras, universal databases, and clothes-penetrating radar, it will be more vital than ever for us to be able to watch the watchers.

With reciprocal transparency we can detect dangers early and expose wrong-doers. We can gauge the credibility of pundits and politicians. We can share technological advances and news. But all of these benefits depend on the free, two-way flow of information.

My Review: In his blog, Contrary Brin, the author posted a wonderful article today, called A Transparency Tsunami!, treating the latest advance in malefactor detection--and not coincidentally, social control. It's face recognition technology, using public database images and traffic cameras and surveillance videos from all imaginable public places to build a file of your very own physog. For, of course, your comfort and convenience. After all, you're safer when Big Brother knows where you are, who you're with, what you're getting up to. Right? And, since *you* aren't doing anything wrong, nothing criminal, what's the problem?

Tell that to the cops who come haul you to court for feeding the meter. Tell that to the IRS agent who demands to know where the money for that bracelet you bought at the mall came from when you're behind on your taxes. (And best hope your wife doesn't overhear.) Look (!), they already know what kind of porn you watch via your ISP and even how long it takes you to...get there...since no one watches past the, uh, crisis point. You want them to know you chiseled a Girl Scout out of an extra box of Thin Mints, too?

Brin's point, in this book and in that blog post, is that they know it and they ain't gonna un-know it. He wants our surveillance state, so heartily endorsed by the best Republican president we've had since 1956 by the name of Obama via his reauthorization of the USA-PATRIOT Act, to be looked BACK at: Sousveillance, the only practical protection against surveillance:
The article in the New York Times spirals downward into a list of begged-for impossibilities, never once considering the real issue…which is not how to blind elites (a utopian notion never achieved by any society in history and impossible today, as cameras proliferate faster than Moore's Law.) Rather, the solution is to limit what authorities can do to us with such systems. And to accomplish that, we need only get into the habit of looking back. Of embracing the tech waves and ensuring that no cop, no public official, goes un-recognized, unwatched.

What could be more obvious? To work with tech trends instead of (futilely) against them? But the well-meaning activists, though properly worried, never stretch their minds in a new direction. The only direction that can work.
Contrary Brin 26 September 2013, "Face Recognition Has Arrived...Smile!"
What Brin advocates is NOT LYING STILL, not shutting up or shutting down or shutting out reality, but engaging in the business of being a citizen and calling the Powers That Be to task by doin' unto them others what them others is doin' to you.

I expect that has a familiar ring to it. It's always been good advice. It's never been more crucial to follow.

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MOOD MATTERS: From Rising Skirt Lengths to the Collapse of World Powers
JOHN L. CASTI

Copernicus Books
$24.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Mood Matters makes the radical assertion that all social events ranging from fashions in music and art to the rise and fall of civilizations are biased by the attitudes a society holds toward the future. When the "social mood" is positive and people look forward to the future, events of an entirely different character tend to occur than when society is pessimistic. The book presents many examples from every walk of life in support of this argument. In addition, methods are given to actually measure the social mood and to project it into the future in order to forecast what s likely or not over varying periods of time. Casti's writing is a pleasure to read and its contents an eye-opener.

I RECEIVED AN ARC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA LIBRARYTHING'S EARLY READERS PROGRAM. THANK YOU.

My Review
: Readable, exhaustively researched, and completely iconoclastic, this book was a pleasure for me on many levels. I am always eager to hear about new ways to view this old world, and Casti has a very new way to view world events. His thesis is that the mood of the people isn't MADE by events, but rather MAKES events.

That's all, really. The mood of the country created the depression, not the depression made us moody.

The exhaustive research I mentioned is all documented in his appendices. I am not a professional socionomicist (from socionomics, the name given to this new way to slice and dice and analyze the tidal wave of data we're submerged under), so I won't even fake an explanation of what the science says. I will make the simple, defensible statement that your average reader won't like this book at all because every time "common sense" says x, this book says banana. Or hog-bristle.

Chapter 4, "Why Wars, Political Crises, and Economic Cycles Happen," is a giant and fascinating eye-opener for someone like me, who wondered whyinahell Americans RE-elected that goofball Bush. I suspect someone on Bush's team was a client of this man's. Everything made much more sense to me after reading this book.

Now, your common or garden economist, political scientist, statistician, and sociologist, not to mention historian!, will be inclined to herd together in muttering mobs, torches and pitchforks and pre-fashioned nooses at the ready, after reading this book. And that's a GOOD THING, because anything that makes the established truth's votaries mad, anxious, or just uneasy means leaps forward are about to happen. It doesn't much matter if Casti's analyses are right or wrong, on that level; he's made them public, and some of the establishment will be forced to address his work. They'll disprove it, or they'll co-opt it, but the quality of the conversation about why stuff happens and what we can do to shape the future has been improved.

Serious subject junkies only, please, no tourists, as the ride doesn't go through the more scenic dells and majestic passes on the way to Certainty.

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MORE BATHS, LESS TALKING (Stuff I've Been Reading #4)
Nick Hornby
Believer Books
$14.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: “Read what you enjoy, not what bores you,” Nick Hornby tells us. That simple, liberating, and indispensable directive animates each installment of the celebrated critic and author’s monthly column in the Believer. In this delightful and never-musty tour of his reading life, Hornby tells us not just what to read, but how to read.

Whether tackling a dismayingly bulky biography of Dickens while his children destroy something in the next room, or getting sucked into a serious assessment of Celine Dion during an intensely fought soccer match featuring his beloved Arsenal, or devouring an entire series of children’s books while on vacation, Hornby’s reviews are rich, witty, and occasionally madcap. These essays capture the joy and ire, the despair and exhilaration of the book-lover’s life, and will appeal equally to both monocle-wearing salonnieres and people, like him, who spend a lot of time thinking about Miley Cyrus’s next role.


My Review: What fun. What a perfect way to smile and wile a few hours away. What a terrible thing to do to myself, read a book of a book-lover’s book review columns. By dint of the most severe self-talk imaginable, I held myself to requesting one—ONE—book from the liberry after reading Hornby's review of same.

A biography. Of Charles Dickens.

Yes, that's right, Nick Hornby the Book Incubus, the Boy-Siren, has convinced me, the arch-hater of Chuckles the Dick, to eat his turnips and read a book about the horrid bore. If I'm honest, which depressingly enough I am, I must say that Claire Tomalin's disparagement of several of the Great Satan's novels played a large part in my willingness to put myself through this misery.

So if you don't know me at all, let me assure you that there are several jaws now being scraped off of floors on several continents and a selection of islands. Hornby? He got the goods, my man, he got the goods if he can convince Richard to read about Dickens.

And he does. Hornby's mix of personal life, professional writing career, and lifelong reader-of-stories is perfect for a grazing read, pieces of just the right length to amuse without burdening the pleasure-seeking reader with interesting but useless information. His sharp eye for the way books work, what makes Novel X miss where Novel O works brilliantly, and why biographies only ever get fatter and fatter as a person's life is serially biographized, and how history could be improved by thinning the cast...well, all that's so much a part of his observed world that it's merely the scaffolding he hangs funny, wise, glib, snarky sentences on.

Fourteen bucks retail. Worth every one of 'em, too.

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ZEITOUN
Dave Eggers

McSweeney's
$12.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a prosperous Syrian-American and father of four, chose to stay through the storm to protect his house and contracting business. In the days after the storm, he traveled the flooded streets in a secondhand canoe, passing on supplies and helping those he could. A week later, on September 6, 2005, Zeitoun abruptly disappeared.

Eggers’s riveting nonfiction book, three years in the making, explores Zeitoun’s roots in Syria, his marriage to Kathy — an American who converted to Islam — and their children, and the surreal atmosphere (in New Orleans and the United States generally) in which what happened to Abdulrahman Zeitoun was possible. Like What Is the What, Zeitoun was written in close collaboration with its subjects and involved vast research — in this case, in the United States, Spain, and Syria.

My Review: Okay. I herewith open my piehole for the crow to be inserted. I have said nasty, judgmental things about Eggers's writings, and I meant each and every one of them. I still do.

But this book is excellent, and this book is Eggers's, so it is obvious that the old adage about a stopped clock being right twice a day applies to writers and writing as well.

It's a direct, elegantly simple telling of the nightmare side of the American Dream. It's powerfully focused, unlike every other one of Eggers's overpraised books that I've read, and it's superbly structured, with no room for improvement in pacing and character development that I can find.

I don't believe I'm typing these things, someone reassure me that this is *me*! Every criticism I've leveled at this guy's previous writing is out the window! Will they turn off the gravity next?

But truth is truth, and honesty compels me to say: I haven't enjoyed a book this much in ages. Well, enjoyed is a strange term to use for the true and factual, and awful, story of a decent, honorable man made the butt of scoiety's opprobrium for no reason other than his religion and origins. But the book is deeply enjoyable, because at every turn, Zeitoun's decency and honor and integrity shine through. That alone makes the book worth buying and reading. Add to that the fact that, rare in this world failed of kindness, Zeitoun summons the best and the most positive people to him in his desperate hours.

I am disappointed that Twilight *shudder* and The Life of Pi *retch*, vastly inferior books to this one, and to name but two of the many, many books this applies to, have more copies on the site.

Please...do your part to change this, and go buy a copy. Then read it. It will, contrary to any expectation you might have, leave you uplifted and happier for having read a book about Hurricane Katrina and an Arab immigrant. Very strongly recommended.

And, thanks to my friend Terri for making me read this...even sending me a copy...one it will be extremely hard to release back into the bookosphere. That I will *have* to buy a replacement is a small economic price to pay.

********Addendum in 2013: Yes indeed, Zeitoun has been arrested and accused of crimes recently, and many have taken this as an invalidation of his post-Katrina experiences. Apparently no thought is given to what these experiences of injustice in The Home of The Free might be expected to do to a man is irrelevant to those who hold this opinion. That's just bad, sloppy thinking. What happened to Zeitoun after Katrina is still real, and his story of that time is still one of a horrifying miscarriage of justice using "race" as a flimsy, transparent attempt at justification.

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THE OBAMA HATE MACHINE: The Lies, Distortions, and Personal Attacks on the President--And Who Is Behind Them
Bill Press

Thomas Dunne Books
$26.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In Toxic Talk, Bill Press exposed the ways in which the extreme right-wing media has done an end run around the American voting populace by exerting a disproportionate control over open political debate. In The Obama Hate Machine, Press returns to show how the Right has taken rhetoric to slanderous new levels in attacking the nation’s forty-fourth president.

While presidents and presidential candidates routinely have been subject to personal attacks, the outright disdain Obama’s extremist opponents have for the facts has inspired an insidious brand of character assassination unique in contemporary politics.

Obama was born in Kenya . . . Obama sympathizes with Muslim terrorists . . . Obama is a communist who wants to institute death panels and touch off class warfare…The extent to which these unfounded assertions have taken hold in the American mindset shows just how ruthless, destructive, and all-powerful the right-wing machine—hijacked by extremists in the media and fueled by corporate coffers—has become. The author reveals how corporate interests such as the infamous Koch Brothers continue to steer political coverage away from fact-based dialogue into the realm of hysteria. Bill Press also observes this phenomenon is not limited to the airwaves and provides an “I Hate Obama Book Club” list, calling out the scores of anti-Obama tomes—and even some from the Left—that have helped drag politics even deeper into the mud. 

In his characteristic on-the-mark arguments sure to appeal to anyone on the Left or in the Center, Press shows how the peculiar nature of Obama-hating subverts issue-driven debate and threatens not only the outcome of the 2012 election but the future of the American democratic system.

My Review: I do not know what to say about this book. The people who should read it won't. The people who do read it will, if not sociopathic by nature, weep uncontrollably for the horrific fate of our country.

I tell myself that it's good, this outrage and pain I feel when reading the horrors perpetrated in the name of partisan conservatism, because when I stop feeling those feelings it will mean that I have given up any hope for change AWAY from the viciousness, the brutal ignorant selfishness, that is characteristic of today's “conservatives.”

Go to the library. Read Chapter 5, “The Brothers.” Sixty pages of documented and repugnant thuggery perpetrated by the Koch brothers against the democratically elected president of the United States of America. If it stirs in you no outrage against the monstrous, vile, and greedy people who pretend to care about the fate of the Americans who do the work that makes them rich, go buy your jackboots and practice your “Sieg heils” because that's the world people like you are passively agreeing to live in.

The Right is WRONG. And their actions against President Obama (not my favorite person, but still he's the president) are very, very, very close to seditious. They talk treason and call it free speech...which they've paid their millions to ensure for themselves and their horrifying, selfish, greedy views.

I tell myself it's good that these betrayals hurt me so, these smacks in my besotted citizen's face, because when they don't hurt anymore, I'll have given up on change, on reason, on life. I skate ever closer to this dread eventuality.

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BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS
KATHERINE BOO

Random House
$27.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: four horrfied, repulsed, politically appalled stars of five

The Publisher Says: I'll keep this short. Boo set out to tell the story of the cost that average Indians are paying for the rapid rise through the capitalist ranks that their country has embarked on. She chose as her lens the small tragedy (in the cosmic scheme of things) of a death and subsequent court case surrounding the death in Mumbai's slum called Annawadi.

Really and truly, this is all one needs to know; names, places, details aren't going to make this any easier to pre-process. One is best advised to enter into this book with little information about the events chronicled. It simply cannot be fathomed by those of us with thirty dollars to spend on a book, with access to a free public library, with an education sufficient to read the text, with lives so easy that we possess time to pass, as opposed to needs to meet, what this story will reveal. I will not steal Boo's thunder with a fuller report.

My Review: I hate this woman's writing. It feels so chilly and so removed from the subject that I can't believe how much praise this aspect of the text has received. It's the kind of gawdawful New Journalism crapola...get in the middle of the story, get all the juice and dirt, and then spew it back at a faux-objective remove...that I associate with Norman Mailer's terrible Executioner's Song, of unlamented memory.

The story is this generation's 12 Million Black Voices. It deserves so much more than it got from its author. It is, quite simply, necessary reading for free marketeers and libertarians and their misguided, often foolishly optimistic, ilk.

THIS IS WHAT REALLY HAPPENS IN YOUR TERRIBLE, UNFORGIVING, “COMMUNITY STANDARDS” WORLD. Read it. Recognize yourselves in the unseen overclass. Your tax-o-phobic refusal to recognize your duty to your fellow human beings leads directly to this world, its injustices and cruelties, its inhumane and indifferent treatment of the innocent-of-any-crime hoi polloi.

If you don't feel deep and humiliating PERSONAL shame after reading Boo's awful story, I fear you are a sociopath.

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