Floyd Abrams, The Soul of the First Amendment: Short, unhelpful book about how awesome the US First Amendment is, defending Abrams’ role in Citizens United because we should be able to spend unlimited amounts of money promoting candidates and the alternative is a slippery slope to government tyranny, and by we I mean rich people. This is a hard argument to make given that Abrams concedes that Canada, the UK, and Germany—none of which have an absolutist free speech protection—are functioning democracies, at least as much as the US is. There’s certainly a case to be made for protecting the hate speech etc. that those countries suppress, but the fact that Donald Trump could have been prosecuted for things he said about Mexicans during the campaign had he been running in one of those countries is not the knock-down argument to me that Abrams thinks it is. There is, I think, a case to be made that the same tools that coexist with democracy in other Western democracies would be misused more readily in the US because Americans are Weird, but it has to be made; the experience of those other countries cannot just be brushed off with claims that a slippery slope is inevitable once we regulate any speech. (And slopes go both ways; somehow the US got to its current absolutism from a past that looked a lot more like other Western democracies in terms of speech regulation, so evidently it’s not a permanent condition.)
Laurie Penny, Unspeakable Things: Sex Lies and Revolution: Witty feminist book about the personal and the political; not new but said well. “Feminism, like wealth, does not trickle down, and while a small number of extremely privileged women worry about the glass ceiling, the cellar is filling up with water, and millions of women and girls and their children are crammed in there, looking up as the flood creeps around their ankles, closes around their knees, inches up to their necks.” I also liked “The past is a different country: people are always laying claim to it in the name of one ideology or another, with no regard for the people that actually live there.” On men suffering from patriarchy: “What we are asking men to do is hard. Let’s be perfectly clear: we have careted a society in which it is structurally difficult and existentially stressful for any male person not to behave like a complete and utter arsehole.” Also: “Teaching men self-disgust is crucial to maintaining the architecture of modern misogyny. If sex weren’t dirty and degrading, there would be less reason to loathe women for letting you do it to them, no matter how much you want to.” On nonconsensual porn: “A naked picture is never an empty boast: it is proof, proof of your power over another person, and culture still tells us that power over another person is what makes a boy into a man.” On the insufficiency of physical violence to preserve patriarchy: “The threat of violence is a fearful thing, but its injustice is clear, and there is always the risk of rebellion…. To threaten them with loss of love, however, is a violence far more profound and painful ….” On the modern condition: “Under late capitalism almost all of us are damaged goods, but it is women who end up trying to fix that damage, or at least keep the gears greased so the machine carries on functioning. I see so many bright, brilliant women pouring their energy into salving the hurt of men who cannot turn to each other for comfort. We do it as sisters, as mothers, as friends, and especially as lovers and wives, because of the sheer number of men and boys who are socialised out of intimacy with anyone they’re not fucking…. [Y]ou can’t save the world one man at a time. That doesn’t stop many of us from trying.”
Mark Bartholomew, Adcreep: The Case Against Modern Marketing: Reviews various legal and social developments that have brought advertising into all sorts of spaces it never was before, including schools and other public/government spaces like national parks as well as on the bottom of TSA screening bins and on top of fire hydrants (KFC buckets advertising “fiery chicken wings”). Advertising is hard to avoid in other ways, too, as advertisers track you online and know more about you than you know about yourself. These changes, Bartholomew argues, are likely to change people’s self-concept in deleterious ways, making it harder for them to imagine noncommercial values and selves, and making them act as if they were always being watched, which will also ultimately destroy the trust necessary for social cohesion. (I’m more skeptical about the latter bit: we seem pretty good at acting as if we weren’t being watched—I think of it as the Freudian “I know very well that advertisers are tracking my every move, but all the same they aren’t really seeing me specifically.”) Advances in neuroscience make it easier to manipulate us more reliably below our ability to consciously detect—advertisers can manipulate our memories and our emotions to get us to buy. One example: though consumers say they hate Cheeto cheese dust on their fingers, brain scans show otherwise—perhaps due to “a pleasurable sense of subversion” (though I would have gone with stimulus-response/reminder of the delightful salt overkill that is Cheetos); when Frito-Lay revamped its ads with this result in mind, showing a Cheetos lover ruining another person’s load of white laundry and other antisocial behaviors, its sales jumped. Bartholomew worries that similar ads may ultimately encourage social transgressions, and I have to say that the legacy of the 2016 election doesn’t make it any easier to disagree with him. The less we pay attention to ads, the more their peripheral evocations of well-known brands are likely to leave us with favorable attitudes towards those brands. And the effects aren’t limited to our attitudes towards the brands themselves: In one study, “a brief flash of the Apple logo, so brief a flash that the logo was not consciously recognizable, caused people to become more impulsive when making financial decisions.”
Celebrities have increasing prominence and increasing legal protection for uses of their images, especially in advertising, which stifles the ability to use celebrities to talk about culture while also reinforcing a culture in which everyone tries to perform micro-celebrity. “When you are constantly selling yourself, it becomes less disconcerting to sell for others.” For this reason, along with fake reviews and paid promotion, we can’t tell who’s trying to sell to us or what the difference is between selling and genuine belief. He points out that the older term “star” was replaced by “celebrity” at precisely the point that fame itself, and not special skill or talent producing fame, became a primary cultural focus. I was also intrigued by his argument that celebrities’ performances of intimacy on Instagram and reality TV obscure the real processes of celebrity self-presentation. “[W]hen we self-identify with the celebrities in our Twitter feeds, we see ourselves as free entrepreneurs, branding and revealing ourselves by choice to succeed in a marketplace whose currency is visibility. When others complain, perhaps about privacy policies … or about the forced necessity of participating in these privately controlled spaces, we feel less sympathy. Labor is for loseres; we, like the celebrities we follow, are management.” Again, I see connections to Trump’s narratives of white fragility/dominance that proved so effective in 2016.
Bartholomew has some suggestions for legal responses, though they would be uphill battles even with a Democratic Congress and White House. I’m definitely in agreement with the point that courts are denying the government the ability to get equal attention to required disclosures—courts have struck down image-based warnings as too emotional and multivalent, but that’s why advertisers use images to get us to buy all the time. Commercial speech is too insulated from government regulation.
Mark V. Tushnet, Alan K. Chen, & Joseph Blocher, Free Speech Beyond Words: The Surprising Reach of the First Amendment: Formed around three articles by the authors about First Amendment protection for instrumental music, art (visual/performance), and nonsense, the book explores why the protection of these things at once seems so obvious to modern constitutional scholars and the Supreme Court but also is so difficult to defend using conventional First Amendment theories without a bunch of special pleading. Ultimately, the best answer seems to be that these things are socially understood to be speech—but that implies that the categories of “speech” might plausibly change to include (or perhaps exclude?) new things, such as dance or cuisine. The core claim of the book is that “[a]sking the easy questions can be surprisingly disturbing, because it reveals that the First Amendment’s foundations are less settled than we might suppose or want.” And the book does a good job of showing why the easy questions aren’t that easy.
Norman Ohler, Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich: Sensationally written, but then again the topic is pretty sensational. Ohler argues that a drug-taking culture, heroin and cocaine specifically, was a big part of Weimar life—Germany was the biggest producer of medical-grade heroin and cocaine by far, and popular culture often referred to taking those drugs (“Europe’s a madhouse anyway/No need for genuflecting/The only way to Paradise/is snorting and injecting!”). “Heroin is a fine business,” the directors of Bayer said, while Merck, Boehringer and Kroll controlled 80% of the global cocaine market. The Nazis purported to crack down (they wanted their ideology to be the key drug, Ohler says), putting drug users in concentration camps and associating Jews with toxins and narcotics. But the Nazis also heavily used—and mandated the use by troops of—meth, under the name Pervitin, which Ohler argues was key to the Blitz, allowing troops to fight or drive for hours and to overwhelm French and other opponents who thought them inhumanly uninhibited. Their judgment was impaired and they became addicted, but what mattered that to Hitler, who became as arrogant as if he were likewise high? (Heinrich Böll wrote from the front: “Music is sometimes really a great consolation to me (not forgetting Pervitin, which provides a wonderful service—particularly during air raids at night.) Pervitin wasn’t the only source—back at home, there were even meth-spiked chocolates, with five times the dose of a Pervitin pill. But it didn’t work so well in the war of attrition on the Russian front, where going sleepless for hours no longer brought tactical advantages. Hitler’s personal supplier diverted resources from supplying the troops to keep himself in the animal parts he used to make his nostrums. Elsewhere, the Wehrmacht experimented on concentration camp prisoners to find the right combination of Eukodal, cocaine, Pervitin, and morphine derivatives to make soldiers fight on past all sense and physical resources—“the strongest known substances in the world, thrown together at random” out of laxity and desperation. Victims in the camps knew they had to keep marching or die, and the naval staff doctor reported success: “On this medication, state of mind and will are largely eliminated.” The navy gave the resulting gum to young, barely trained sailors who mostly just died. At Auschwitz, the tests focused on brainwashing and consciousness control, experiments that were later continued in the US.
The last chunk of the book is taken up with Hitler’s own growing drug addiction, which apparently included a lot of cocaine and oxycodone (under the name Eukodal), together comprising the classic speedball, mixing sedation and stimulation. (From William Burroughs: “[Eukodal] is like a combination of junk and [cocaine]. Trust the Germans to concoct some truly awful shit.”) Near the end, his doctor wanted to try bloodletting, but “because of the fatty, hormone-saturated pig’s liver injections his blood had become as thick as jelly and clotted immediately, so the measure failed.”
Claire Langju Lee, Laws of Visual Attraction: Creating Displays that Sell: If you take for granted that selling products, or at least choice among products, has little to do with conscious thought, you then turn to the things that do matter: mostly what the store etc. look like, though smell and sound can also matter. This is Lee’s specialty, and she mixes some research with rules of thumb to explain her philosophy of store design. She’s big on accent color as the most important—she says that green only accounts for 5% of Starbucks’ color scheme (taking into account the rest of the store, the full awnings, etc.) while the rest is more neutral dark brown and warm ivory. I also learned the disgusting neologism “kidults” to describe a particular category of consumers; yellow appeals to them. Coffee tastes stronger from a dark brown can than from a yellow one, though.
Lee also spends a lot of time talking about lighting: the right warmth of lighting, from the right distance, can make products inviting (and the wrong can make them look terrible and unflattering). But, Lee says, part of this is cultural, and South Koreans prefer brighter lights than Europeans and Americans. Backlighting, she thinks, doesn’t work in most commercial spaces; it “creates an air of mystery and authority by highlighting the edges of a subject, which is why it is often used in religious settings.”
Of particular interest to me, vision interacts with other senses: “shelving dark-colored products on top can create the illusion that they might topple over,” making some shoppers anxious. Other uses of color and heaviness include the use of black or other dark colors to package small, expensive products so they seem heftier. One company reportedly saved a lot of money in heating costs by painting blue cafeteria walls orange, making the place feel so warm that people routinely complained even when the temperature was lowered from 24 degrees C to 20.
Overall, people looking for new ideas for store design—and some no-nos—could probably nab useful tidbits from the book.