No surprise: My hometown, St. Louis, ranks among the world’s 50 most violent cities.

45-st-louis-had-3414-homicides-per-100000-residentsIt hardly surprises me to see my hometown—erstwhile U.S. murder capital St. Louis, Missouri—make the top 50 of the world’s most violent cities, a list compiled by Mexico’s Citizens’ Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice. We’re # 45! With 34.14 homicides per 100,000 residents, St. Louis ranks ahead, so to speak, of Tijuana, Mexico, #47; Durban, South Africa, #48; and Port-au-Prince, Haiti, #49, putting us in some pretty select company. In the U.S.A. we were beat out only by Baltimore at #36, New Orleans at #26 and Detroit at #24. A total of 34 of the 50 most violent cities are in Latin America. (However, we seldom hear via American media of the complicity of U.S. recreational drug users in any of this violence—much of it drug-gang-related—north or south of the border, but that’s another topic.)

I’ve been keenly aware of St. Louis’s violent side for some time. Much of my evidence has been anecdotal but nonetheless, to me, impressive. Over the years I’ve had two friends shot by strangers, another bludgeoned with a sawed-off shotgun in front of her Central West End home, yet another woman raped and severely beaten, and a close friend raped, sodomized and fatally stabbed in her Lafayette Square townhouse where I used to visit. In addition I’ve had friends who have been victims of armed robberies, muggings, car thefts and more, including a neighbor who was stabbed in front of the high-rise on Forest Park where I lived. Just recently a friend, recovering from serious surgery, stepped out on the street for the first time since coming home from the hospital only to fall victim to the “knockout game” in front of his Lindell Boulevard apartment building. Further, I’ve had some close calls on the street myself but was alert enough and lucky enough not to have been hurt. And it’s not like I was ever in the gang life or ran with a rough crowd, unless you consider writers and bureaucrats rough trade.

My acquaintanceship with St. Louis crime led me in part to pen my newly released novel, Fail—that and the failure of its disaccredited public schools, from which half its students drop out to populate the streets with underprepared, discouraged, vulnerable and often angry youths. The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, a ten-minute drive from my teenage St. Louis home, have focused attention on urban ills located not just in St. Louis but in most cities. Nowadays 70 percent of state prison inmates across the U.S. are high school dropouts. As the epigraph of Fail, taken from Mark Twain, states: “Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail.”

The failing schools–coupled with failing families–are at the core of our urban violence and dysfunction, I believe. but others may have other opinions as to what’s so askew in our cities.



How freedom was made

17616246The success and dominance of the Anglosphere—notably the United Kingdom, Ireland, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and, increasingly, India—finds its roots in the rights of first-century free-born Germanic tribesmen, says Daniel Hannan. That heritage—which has evolved over two millennia into the parliamentary democracy of self-government, free trade, free speech, freedom of religion, property rights, and the rule of common law—distinguishes us from most of the rest of the world posits Hannan in “Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World.” Those rights have unleashed on the globe the economic, political and social free-for-all—despised by totalitarians of all stripes—that has produced so much wellbeing and happiness for so many people, he argues. It is, I think, a convincing argument.

Hannan, an Oxford-educated journalist and member of the European Parliament representing South East England, has produced in “Inventing Freedom” a fortifying and eye-opening historical page-turner that should be read by everyone who embraces the humanitarian values largely founded in that Anglosphere.

In state-run economies, he says, corruption is “systematic and semi-legal” while capitalism, conversely, harnesses homo sapiens’ inherent competitive greed to socially productive ends: “The way to become rich in a free economy is to give others what they want, not to suck up to those in power.” Alas, we are falling more into that latter category, he suggests, particularly in Britain, which has allowed self-government and elected representatives to be subjugated by European Union bureaucrats and appointed judges.

Throughout the book Hannan harkens back to our free-born heritage, showing the political progress of English speakers from their earliest days through the Magna Carta, the Reformation, the American Constitution and ongoing threats, both external and internal. “Anglosphere culture,” he says, “is based on self-government, localism, and the elevation of the individual over the state.” And on free contracts and free markets as opposed to centralized control and planned economies.

He cites foundering EU states such as Greece as examples of hamstrung socialized societies where people remain unproductive and unfulfilled: “Just as an individual can be infantilized by external subsidy so can an entire electorate.” Conversely, the free Anglosphere continues to lead the world in most endeavors and continues to attract people globally to its sanctuary states. However, he sees its freedoms under attack via speech codes, international tribunals that supersede local institutions, religious intolerance, and other encroachments on personal freedom and individualism.

“Once you reject the notion of exceptionalism as intrinsically chauvinistic, you quickly reject the institutions on which that exceptionalism rested: absolute property rights, free speech, devolved government, personal autonomy. Bit by bit, your country starts to look like everyone else’s. Its taxes rise; its legislature loses ground to the executive and to an activist judiciary; it accepts foreign law codes and charters as supreme; it drops the notion of free contract; it prescribes whom you many employ and on what terms; it expands its bureaucracy; it forgets its history.”

Hannan’s book, however, is a good, necessary reminder of that history.

On friends and fossils

photo-6 copy 2I was walking in the Missouri woods yesterday morning, in rural Warren County, some 60 miles west of St. Louis. A beautiful autumn day—50, sunny, calm. Still some orange and brown leaves on the trees but most had fallen. As had some of the persimmons, which are just now ripening. Lots of birds about, too—a wood thrush, four kinds of woodpeckers, hawks, juncos and others.

At Dry Fork Creek, which still held some water from recent rains, I found the fossil pictured here—a screw-like creature (a crinoid?) perhaps millions or billions of years old. It is but one of countless fossils of various shapes and sizes in the creek bed, left behind from a time when this was all ocean, I believe.

Fall is always a somewhat melancholy time for me as, here at least, the Earth goes to sleep for a while, and my thoughts turned somber for a moment. Earlier in the day I was perusing my contacts on my computer and told myself, “Rick, you really need to clean up this list—a lot of your friends there are dead.” Yet for some reason I don’t delete them—perhaps as a reminder of how brief life is. Which is the same reminder I got from the fossil as I studied it. This creature had existed for an instant some billion years ago and has lain there as inert stone ever since. The same script I’ll follow some day.

So best not to fret too much when things don’t turn out as I would have liked—not to worry about outcomes, as the Zen masters advise—but to enjoy the sweet persimmons and bright days while they last.



Poor grammar and poverty go hand-in-hand

21408675When an idiosyncratic book on English grammar becomes a bestseller in the United Kingdom, it makes one wonder who is buying it. English-as-a-second language immigrants? Schoolteachers? Students who feel their current instruction deficient? Adults who got short shrift in grammar when back in school? If so, then perhaps Gwynne’s Grammar: The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English will become a bestseller here in the colonies as well. It should. Heaven knows we need it.

Recently released here, the opinionated and delightful dip into the wonderfully complex and logical world of English grammar was an eye-opener for me. Not because I learned much I didn’t already know—I did not. But it alerted me to how good an education in the rules of grammar I got in public school in the 50’s and 60’s. And these were not well-funded schools in toney neighborhoods but, first, a rural southern Illinois grade school where farm kids came to class barefoot in September and, secondly, a working-class suburban St. Louis school district that has now lost accreditation.

My grammar education differed sharply from that received by the 18 African American students in a remedial grammar class I taught in the mid 90’s at St. Louis’ Forest Park Community College. I was stunned when I looked at the results of the first diagnostic writing assignment I had given them. All had gone through 12 years in St. Louis Public Schools, all had graduated from high school, and none—through no fault of their own—could write a grammatically correct sentence except by accident.

On the second day of class I gave them the bad news first: You have been screwed by repeated educational malpractice perpetrated by teachers and administrators who abdicated their main responsibility: to teach you the rudiments of the language you need to succeed in life. Then the good news: You have me as teacher, and I’ll correct that.

That promise was overly optimistic. After some stumbling about I obtained grade school workbooks for everyone and together we all went back to where the problem started—first grade. We worked on the parts of speech (diagramming sentences, helped, something they had never been exposed to), spelling rules and structure, verb-noun agreement, etc. By semester’s end most of them got it, and a few had turned into pretty competent writers. Three or four failed—their poor reading skills, which I couldn’t myself address, held them down. (The experience was the seed that led to my writing my new novel, Fail, a St. Louis-based mystery that dramatizes the city’s educational ills and its violent results.)

As Gwynne’s Grammar author N.M. Gwynne argues, “[G]rammar is the science of using words rightly, leading to thinking rightly, leading to deciding rightly, without which…happiness is impossible.”

I am unsure if I agree with that syllogism, although there is ample evidence everywhere you look that suggests poor grammar and unhappiness often go hand-in-hand. If you can’t use the language correctly these days, expect some hard times.



St. Louis book signings today, Tuesday, and Saturday

3596_4049_logoFor my St. Louis-area colleagues and friends: I’ll be doing a couple book signings of my new St. Louis-based mystery FAIL this week. First, 7 pm this evening, Tuesday, Nov. 4, at The Book House, 7352 Manchester in Maplewood, and Saturday, Nov. 8, between 1 and 3 pm at STL Books, 100 W. Jefferson in Kirkwood. Both events will also feature other Blank Slate Press authors. Hope to see you there.

St. Louis Magazine interview marks launch of my new mystery novel “Fail”

photo-6 copyThis week marks the launch by Blank Slate Press of my new St. Louis-based mystery Fail, whose events coincidentally mirror those taking place there recently–the shooting of a unarmed black man by a white cop, educational failure, thousands of disaffected youth on the streets. St. Louis Magazine‘s November edition, which focuses on race issues in St. Louis, features an interview with me on Fail and my take on the city. You can read it here. A shorter version appears in the print edition.

Fail is now available in print and ebook versions at, Barnes& and other online booksellers. For those of you in the St. Louis area, you can find it at  Left Bank Books, Main Street Books, Rose’s Bookhouse, STL Books, Subterranean Books and The Bookhouse.

Also, I will be doing book signings with other Blank Slate Press authors next week: Tuesday, November 4, at The Bookhouse, 7352 Manchester in Maplewood, 7 pm onward; and Saturday, November 8, 1 to 3 pm, at STL Books, 100 W. Jefferson in Kirkwood.



Rigorous summer math program suggests all kids can learn given the opportunity.

Valdes-Institute-Logo_25-Years_Gradient_v02I recently interviewed a couple Washington University Engineering grads who are partnering to deliver remedial math skills to Hispanic kids, largely, in a demanding summer program in the Bay Area. The resulting story shows one way to address the widespread deficiencies in public education. You can read it here.

As the Jose Valdes Institute director Lew Epstein says, “It turns out that the kids from East Palo Alto are just as capable as the kids from Palo Alto. All they need are the same resources and the same support system.”


Ebola vs. Bubonic Plague


The current concerns about Ebola causing a global pandemic sent me back to a review of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year that I wrote for the Virginian-Pilot’s Portfolio magazine some dozen years ago, which I’ve pasted below. For those keen on infectious disease or English history or human nature, the book is a terrific read. One note: my reference in the lead to the 20 million killed by the 1918 flu pandemic may have been a bit conservative. A noted infectious-disease M.D. I recently interviewed put it at 30 million.

A Journal of the Plague Year

By Daniel Defoe

Reviewed by Rick Skwiot

Thanks to 20th century medical and public health advances, we now know how to prevent, stem, and treat most infectious diseases. Though a few folks may still recall the flu epidemic of 1918, which cost 20 millions lives worldwide and a half million in the United States alone, for most of us living outside the Third World, fear of epidemic has become largely a thing of the past.

But if you wish to glimpse daily life under the threat of impending death by disease (without actually being threatened by it), along with the accompanying grief, despair, depravity, kindness, and courage, Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year can take you there.

However, Defoe‘s classic work is neither a journal nor of the plague year. Rather, it consists of an odd and hardly chronological collection of anecdotes, statistics, and ruminations written by the author of Moll Flanders some fifty years after the Plague of 1665(when he was but a child of four). While pretending to be a first person eyewitness account of the epidemic, the Journal is in fact convincingly realistic fiction. The author has wisely created a narrator and a literary vehicle that powerfully portrays 17th century London and the agonies of an epidemic that killed more than 100,000 in the city.

Early on, Defoe establishes credibility for his fictional construct by quoting detailed figures (seemingly culled from official documents) on the growing death tolls as the Black Death spread across London. Further, throughout the book he documents the legal measures, such as quarantining households, and describes the medical endeavors to fight the disease and its spread. But more important, having once persuaded the reader of the authenticity of his tale, Defoe gets under the skin of the plague by showing the human suffering and drama it created.

He accomplishes this through his fictional narrator, a bachelor merchant who saunters about London hearing cries of pain, listening to tales of death, observing grief-deranged survivors roaming the streets, and even visiting the mass graves where, under the cover of night, death carts dump their grisly loads.

Also, we are privy to the deliberations of our moralistic but pragmatic narrator—on whether or not to flee London with his brother’s family, on predestination and free will, on the quackery and skullduggery that fed on fear and ignorance. This imaginative character’s active, intelligent, and detailed surveillance of the epidemic places us in the streets of London and creates a work of lasting vitality.

Through him we see the people’s susceptibility to omens, religious superstition, prophets of doom, and astrologers; to quacks, charlatans, and fortune-tellers. We glimpse the duplicity and cowardice of the government and ruling class, who frequently fled London to save their own skins while abandoning their servants to penury and possible infection. We view mountebanks fleecing desperate families, nurses murdering and robbing their lingering patients, and the sick taking their own lives to save themselves a last few hours of pain. But we also are shown acts of great kindness, courage, charity, and love, as well as human ingenuity in service of a will to survive in the face of seeming doom.

Ultimately, the book is perhaps not so much about the plague as about human nature, of which Defoe is a keen observer, showing us that 17th century Londoners are not much different from ourselves. .

But as gloomy as this subject matter may seem, he can present it with a light and often-humorous touch, as in his story of the drunken piper. The beggar had passed out on the street after given an uncustomarily large amount to drink. A second man, thinking the piper a corpse, laid a plague victim beside him for the death cart to retrieve. The piper did not revive until about to pushed into a mass grave. He called out, “Where am I?” The sexton replied, “Why you are in the dead-cart, and we are going to bury you.” The piper then asked, “But I ain’t dead though, am I?”

Defoe presents the enigmatic narrator as both deeply affected by the suffering and aloof. He roams about London and its environs with seemingly little concern for his own well-being, at times viewing the horrific scenes with passion and compassion, and at other moments from a distant, Archimedean point of intellectual detachment. Along the way we get the narrator’s (and, we suspect, the author’s) views on religion, criminal justice, public health measures, medicine, government, and economics.

The pragmatism of Defoe’s narrator shows through in his discussion of the last. Virtually all commerce came to a halt in the months when the plague ruled. Ships did not dock, shops closed, construction stopped, and economic life was put on hold while death profited. Defoe shows us the repercussions of this economic death—not only the hardship, the admirable efforts of certain government officials to help the needy, and the charity of many—but also how it helped stem the spread of the disease by reducing contact among people.

In the end, it’s Defoe’s details that win out, making this fictional account read as the intimate first-person portrayal it purports to be: the 200,000 pet dogs and cats rounded up and slaughtered to help prevent the epidemic’s spread; the infection and quick death of infants who fed at the breasts of their diseased mothers; the public whippings of those who stole from the dead; the excruciating pain of the swellings brought on by the bubonic plague and the perhaps even more painful attempts by physicians to break the tumors with hot irons. Such details as these, perhaps too realistically rendered for the squeamish, give A Journal of the Plague Year an irresistible authority.

However, the whole conceit might have fallen flat had it not been crafted with such a deft, and I think, sly, touch. Defoe’s language n
ever flies toward hyperbole, but is grounded in seemingly careful observation—even when the narrator is deeply moved. Defoe’s slyness is evident in his narrator often claiming faulty memory or lack of knowledge—”whether he lived or died I don’t remember”—which augments the verisimilitude of his highly creative and still haunting work.


Understanding Fanatics

eric-hoffer large main pic

Anyone wanting to understand the psychology, motivations and goals of fanatics—and we seem to have so many these days, whether of the religious, political, social, cultural or other stripe—should read or reread Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. Originally published in 1951 and most recently reissued by Harper Perennial Modern Classics, it remains relevant, eye opening and entertaining.

The entertainment value comes from the epigrammatic Hoffer’s pungent language and frequent insights that carry the ring of revealed truth. For me they made this book of political philosophy into a page-turner. For example:

“Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for lost faith in ourselves.”

“The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless.”

“All forms of dedication, devotion, loyalty and self-surrender are in essence a desperate clinging to something which might give worth and meaning to our futile, spoiled lives.”

“It is the inordinately selfish…who are likely to be the most persuasive champions of selflessness.”

“Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents.”

“Self-righteousness is a loud din raised to drown the voice of guilt within us.”

“…[W]here a mass movement can either persuade or coerce, it usually choses the latter.”

“The creed whose legitimacy is most easily challenged is likely to develop the strongest proselytizing impulse.”

“Self-contempt, however vague, sharpens our eyes for the imperfections of others. We usually strive to reveal in others the blemishes we hide in ourselves.”

“The true believer is eternally incomplete, eternally insecure.”

And, finally, a cautionary word to fellow writers (and readers):

“The true-believing writer, artist or scientist does not create to express himself, or to save his soul or to discover the true and the beautiful. His task, as he sees it, is to warn, to advise, to urge, to glorify and to denounce.”

I could on. But such gems are found on most every page, so the only way to really appreciate the San Francisco stevedore philosopher Hoffer is to read the book. In doing so you might find, as I did, that The True Believer stands as a validation and call for individualism, liberty, civil order and prosperity—the very things that by their nature oppose and subvert fanaticism.