Thursday, January 29, 2009

Charlatan by Pope Brock: "A Facinating book"

I just finished the new book Charlatan by Pope Brock. I was so excited by the book I wrote about it before I even finished. It reminded me of the time I called some friends in the middle of watching the TV show "Action" with Jay Mohr and said, "Turn on your TV right now, there is a hilarious new show on." Of course that show was designed for HBO but moved to Fox where it was too brilliant, so it was canceled. In the case of this book, it won't ever be canceled, it can only get more popular after more people read it.

I had no idea that it would touch so many of my areas of interest in such a gripping and entertaining way. It touches on the power of radio and radio personalities, politics, religion, the state of our country's pure food and drug laws and people who will say anything in exchange for enough money. It even included some famous characters like Sinclair Lewis, H.L. Menken and radio czar and secretary of commerce Herbert Hoover. (Hoover later went on to be the famous inventor of "Hoovervilles" which provided affordable housing to people who believed that the government should give more tax cuts to the rich during economic downturns.)

In 1932 Dr. Brinkley was broadcasting one million watts on XER-AM out of Villa Acuña, Coahuila, Mexico, making it the most powerful radio station on the planet. "On clear nights Brinkley reached Alaska, skipped across to Finland, was picked up ships on the Java Sea. In later years Russian spies reportedly used the station to help them learn English." In contrast, KSFO, out of San Francisco broadcasts on 5,000 watts reaches the entire Bay Area and "can be heard East to Reno, South past San Jose and North, nearly to Eureka." National syndication does for our modern day radio personalities what one million watts did for Dr. Brinkley.

[One Million Naomi Watts]

The fight about the radio air waves in the 1930's reminds me of stories from Eric Klinenberg's excellent book "Fighting for Air. The Battle to Control America's Media." Brock shares Klinenberg's crackling style and crisp characterization of the major players in the story.

Brinkley ran for governor of Kansas and came very close to winning. He used advertising, public relations, religion and powerful political connections to sell his ideas and his worthless (and in multiple cases deadly) medical procedures and tonics. In many ways he was a pioneer in spreading hope, fear and death in the guise of entertainment, medical rejuvenation and religion.

Like the best thriller fiction books, Brock's story sets up multiple clashes between the two main characters with the stakes getting higher and higher with each encounter.

I especially liked his portrayal of Dr. Morris Fishbein, editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association who fought against Dr. Brinkley. What is astonishing to me is just how long and hard he fought for things we take for granted today like medical licensing, regulation of drugs and medical devices. We have people like Fishbein, and Sinclair Lewis to thank for their hard work, but for every Fishbein and Lewis we had hundreds of quacks and hucksters who cheerfully sold false hope in a bottle.

As I said before, what makes Brock's book better than a simple retelling of an epic battle between two charismatic individuals is his answers to the question, "Why does this happen?"

Here is one of my favorite passages:
Still, there has probably never been a more quack-prone and quack-infested country than the United States. Flocking west with the pioneers, they struck in one town, vanished to the next, and taught their tricks to others. Dupes were as common as passenger pigeons. Many Americans viewed hospitals, sometimes with justice, as tricked-up funeral homes and doctors as crooks who had a financial stake in keeping them sick.

But quacks weren't just accepted; they were joyously embraced, thanks to a perverse seam in the American mind stretching back almost to the dawn of the republic.

It first appeared in the early nineteenth century. In the heady days of Jacksonian democracy, that delirious celebration of the ordinary, the nation's elite--preachers, doctors, lawyers--were overthrown (at least mentally) with an abandon reminiscent of the French Revolution. Suddenly, to be educated was to be despised. Now, when it came to physicians, Americans not only tolerated but demanded incompetence. So high was the common man exalted that state governments, all but three, actually repealed licensing requirements for doctors. In midcentury educator Lemuel Shattuck, asked by the Massachusetts legislature to conduct a sanitary survey of that state, reported back: "Any one, male or female, learned or ignorant, an honest man or a knave, can assume the name of physician, and 'practice' upon any one, to cure or to kill, as either may happen, without accountability. It's a free country!"
"Americans not only tolerated but demanded incompetence." Gee, does that sound like a time we know in the political world?

In recounting the story Brock hits upon another underlying theme. "[Brinkley's] career was sustained in part by America's deep reluctance to criminalize greed."

As we start to find out more about what happened during the Bush administration we often need to look at this perverse aspect of our national character. You will see it the "investigation" of the financial industry. Lack of regulation and oversight can generate tons of money for a few, but it can also cost many. When you see the admiration of someone who makes money off of "the rubes" is may be fun to pat yourself on the back that you weren't taken, but there is also a price that is paid for ignoring their plight. As my friend Athenae at First-Draft reminds us, we are all connected. Is losing your job and savings as devastating as losing your life? I don't know, I don't remember what it was like being dead, but I know how devastating losing money and the fear of losing money can be.

We have a lot to learn from Brock's book that applies to our time. We need more people like Dr. Morris Fishbein, Sinclair Lewis and H. L. Mencken. The hucksters will always be with us, but they can be regulated to do less harm when brave people stand up against them.

To be inspired, entertained and enlightened pick up Brock's book, Charlatan.

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Blogger Bor said...

KGO comes in clearly in up here in Washington State

12:01 AM  
Blogger Cerebus said...

Criminalize greed?? How about we criminalize the failure to pay taxes?
As far as hucksters are concerned, just 2 words-Caveat emptor

10:37 AM  
Blogger Sunil said...

Charlatan by Pope Brock book is really amazing and all have to read atleast once.


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1:49 AM  

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