Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Book note: Regeneration by Pat Barker

September 20, 2022

REGENERATION by Pat Barker (1991)

I picked up this novel by chance at a neighborhood free book exchange.  It is a fascinating story, mostly true.

It is about the real-life encounter during World War One between Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, an Army psychologist, and Siegfried Sassoon, a poet and war hero turned war protester.

Sassoon had written a protest letter against continuation of the war.  He was not a pacifist.  He believed that the war had become a war of aggression and conquest, and that its original aims could be achieved through negotiation.

The letter was published in the London Times and read in the House of Commons.  Sassoon faced court-martial, but his friend Robert Graves, a fellow officer and fellow poet, arranged for his commitment to Craiglockhart war hospital to save him.

At the hospital, Sassoon met and mentored the war poet Wilfred Owen, another real-life patient of Rivers.  

Craiglockhart was for the treatment of shell shock (now known at PTSD).  Dr. Rivers before the war had been an expert on psychosomatic illness.  

His method of treatment, innovative at the time, began with convincing the patient that every man, no matter how brave, has a breaking point and the PTSD was not evidence of cowardice.  Then he helped the patient understand the cause of the trauma and so break its hold.

This was similar to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis except that Rivers believed the fundamental repressed human drive was not sex, but self-preservation.  He perceived that the basic loyalty of most soldiers was not to king and country, but to their comrades on the battlefield. 

Rivers treated officers.  In the novel, he met the real-life character, Dr. Lewis Yealland, who treated enlisted men.  His method of treating PTSD was very different.  It consisted of subjecting the patient to a worse trauma than the trauma that caused the symptoms.  

Yealland put his patients into a locked room and subjected them to extremely powerful and painful electric shocks, which ceased only when, step by step, their symptoms went away.  He claimed to cure his patients with just one treatment and to have a 100 percent success rate.

Rivers was shaken by Yealland’s apparent effectiveness, but he couldn’t bring himself to torture his patients.

The main fictional characters are Billy Prior, an officer of working-class origins, and Sarah Lamb, a factory girl with whom he has a love affair.  Prior suffered from “mutism,” the inability to speak, which was commonly found among enlisted men but almost never among officers.

The moral problem for Rivers was that his mission as a healer was to restore men to mental health so they could return to the battlefield and get themselves killed.  The average life expectancy of a British officer on the front lines in France was three months.

Sassoon and Graves hated the war, but they deeply resented civilians, including pacifists.  All things considered, they preferred being at the front with their doomed comrades to being safe at home.

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Michael Hudson on the clash of capitalisms

September 14, 2022

THE DESTINY OF CIVILIZATION: Finance Capitalism, Industrial Capitalism or Socialism by Michael Hudson (2022)

When I studied economics as a college undergraduate, I was taught there are three factors of production – land, labor and capital. And three sources of income – the rent of land, the wages of labor and the profit or interest from capital.

Land includes not just the soil itself, but all natural resources.  Labor includes all productive effort, whether of brain or brawn.

Capital, as I was taught, is the force multiplier. It includes everything that increases the productivity of land or labor – farm tractors, railroads, computers, steam engines, electric power plants, research laboratories, anything that increases or improves production.

So the landlord is a parasite, the worker is a contributor to society, but the capitalist supposedly is the driving force for progress.

Here’s the rub.  Financial capital is productive only when it is used to create physical or human capital.

But there’s no law that says financial capital has to be used productively.  In fact, most so-called “investment” consists of buying assets and collecting the income, with no value added. 

Michael Hudson, in his brilliant new book, The Destiny of Civilization, says that’s what’s happening in the U.S. specifically and also the broader world today.  Industrial capitalism, which, for all its faults, is productive, is being replaced by finance capitalism, which is parasitic.   

So much of the world’s resources go to paying off debts—government debt, business debt, mortgage debt, student debt—that too little is left over to provide for the wants and needs of ordinary people.  

So much of the world’s income goes to holders of debt that too little is left for those who do the actual work of society.

According to Hudson, the classical economists, from Adam Smith to John Maynard Keynes and including Karl Marx, thought that the chief economic problem was the rentier – the person who draws income from ownership of assets, without producing anything of value themselves.

The French economist Thomas Piketty has written massive tomes that show how the income from ownership of assets – whether land, government bonds, corporate stocks or something else – over time exceeds the rate of economic growth.

This leads to an ever-growing concentration of wealth, which ends only when some event – usually revolution, war or an economic crash – wipes out the value of the assets. This is the process that the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction.”

In the United States and countries that follow its lead, classical economics has been replaced by the so-called neoliberal economics.  Its guiding principle is that financial capital must be preserved at all costs.

This is why, just as one example, the Obama administration bailed out the banks following the 2008 financial crisis, but did not use authority granted by Congress to help the struggling mortgage-holders.

Karl Marx was fascinated by industrial capitalism’s power to increase productivity and increase wealth.  This form of capitalism, as he saw it, laid the foundation for a future utopian worker-ruled socialist state.  Finance capitalism, in Hudson’s view, leads nowhere.

Hudson says that today civilization is today at a fork in the road: 

  • one path leading to a neoliberal neo-feudalism dominated by a rentier oligarchy ruling over the indebted many.
  • the alternative path is broadly mixed-economy industrial capitalism leading to socialism.

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Book note: The Brothers Karamazov

September 6, 2022

THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV: A novel in four parts with epilogue by Feodor Dostoyevsky (1880) translated and annotated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (1990)

The Brothers Karamazov is one of the two or three greatest novels by a Russian, possibly one of the two or three greatest novels by anyone.  It will live as an example of the greatness of Russian culture long after current conflicts are forgotten.    

Dostoyevsky states in the first paragraph that the hero of the novel is Aloysha Karamazov, the youngest of the three legitimate sons of the depraved Feodor Karamazov.

He is a monk of the Russian Orthodox Church who tries to live by the literal teachings of Jesus—something that is unfamiliar to almost all respectable people, both now (myself included) and back then.

Aloysha forgives his enemies.  In fact, he doesn’t recognize the concept of enemy. He returns good for evil.  He thinks always of others and never of himself.  He cares nothing for success, possessions or personal gain.  He never argues and hardly ever criticizes, although he always states the truth as he sees it when asked.

He has been like this since his earliest youth.  No explanation is given of how he came to be this way.

He is very different not only from his elder brothers, the brilliant anti-religious intellectual Ivan and the passionate sensualist Dmitri, and from his depraved father, Feodor.

Feodor is as obnoxious as it is possible for a human being to be.  He is greedy, dishonest and malicious.  He openly embraces all the vices, and goes out of his way to be as offensive to others as possible, especially those with a claim to be virtuous.    

He despises his other two sons.  They in turn hate him and don’t like or trust each other.  Yet he trusts and confides in Aloysha.  Ivan and Dmitri, who despise their father and dislike each other, also trust Aloysha.

One day Ivan seeks out Aloysha, invites him to dinner and tries to probe the nature of his faith.

Ivan is an unbeliever, but not exactly an atheist.  “I long ago decided not to think about whether man created God or God created man,” he says.  “I declare that I accept God pure and simple.”  This is probably meant ironically or hypothetically.  But Ivan is full of rage at God, or at least the idea of God, whether or not God actually exists.  

He confronts Aloysha with horrifying accounts of savage cruelty to innocent children, in history and his present day, all based on fact.  He cannot worship the Creator of a world in which innocent children are tortured, and denounces Christian churches for justifying such a deity.  Nor can he apply the Christian idea of forgiveness to torturers of children.

He said he loves life, but he can’t endure the meaninglessness of life.  If he can’t find answers to his questions by the time he is 30 (he is 24 and Aloysha is 20), he will “return his ticket.”  

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Book note: Charlotte Bronte’s Villette

August 30, 2022

VILLETTE by Charlotte Bronte (1853)

Charlotte Bronte’s Villette is about a complicated young women who didn’t fit what was expected of women in the Victorian age.  It also is about the cultural clash of an English Protestant in a French Catholic environment.  I read it in a novel-reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.

The novel’s zig-zag plot has so many abrupt turns that I thought the author may have been making it up as she went along.  But, no, at the end, everything comes together like a solved Rubik’s cube.  I think it would make a good TV mini-series.   

Charlotte Bronte

Lucy Snowe, the narrator, is courageous, self-reliant, resourceful and also opinionated and judgmental.  She expects little of the world and much of herself.  Inside her stoic shell, she is highly sensitive and subject to mood swings.  A little thing can send her from the heights of ecstasy to the depths of despair, or vice versa.  Her greatest fear is exposing her emotional vulnerability.

She is left an orphan in her teens, and makes a living as a nurse-companion to an elderly invalid woman who needs 24-hour care.   This means, as my friend Judith observed, that she comes of age without having been socialized into how young ladies of her era should think and behave.

Her employer dies unexpectedly when Lucy is in her early twenties.  She is faced with the problem of earning a living and she has no network of family and friends to whom to turn.

She leaves for London, figuring job opportunities are greater there.  Somebody tells her there is good money to be made teaching English as girls’ schools in Belgium.  She immediately buys a boat ticket for Belgium.

She lands in the fictional city of Villette and heads for the nearest girls’ school.  She loses her way and arrives at the school at midnight in a pouring rain.  She talks her way into a bed for the night, and then into a job.

The owner of the girls’ school, Madame Beck, is herself an interesting character.  She is domineering, interfering, manipulative and utterly ruthless when it comes to upholding her own interests and the interests of the school.  But she is also sensible, fair-minded, a capable administrator and a good judge of character.

(Bronte, by the way, refers to Madame Beck and all the other Belgian characters as French.)

Lucy is set to work as Madame Beck’s personal servant and governess (tutor and nanny) of her children.  

 One day, on a few minutes notice, she is asked to teach a class of older teenage girls in place of an English teacher who failed to show up.  

The rowdy French girls are all set to make life miserable for the substitute teacher.  But Lucy quickly picks out the ringleaders and humiliates them.  She even locks one of them in a closet.  Her authority established, she goes on to teach the class.  

She notices Madame Beck watching through a keyhole.  From that day on, she leaves the nursery behind and is a full-fledged English teacher.

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Book note: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina final version

July 7, 2022

I accidentally posted a version of this book note before it was finished.  This is the final version.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877) translated from the Russian by Louise and Aylmer Maude (1918) Vintage Classics edition (2012)

Anna Karenina is the sad story of a beautiful, charming. intelligent and selfish woman who fails to find the love she needs from either her husband or her lover.

It also is the story of three marriages – the failed marriage of Anna to Alexei Karenin, and Anna’s seduction by Count Vronsky; the bad marriage of Anna’s brother, Stepan Oblonsky, to the former Dolly Scherbatsky; and the good marriage of Dolly’s sister Kitty to Konstantin Levin.

Neither Karenin nor Count Vronsky is a bad man.  Karenin is an honest civil servant, doing his best to make the world a better place.  He fulfills all the duties society expects of a husband, and thinks this should be enough.  But he feels neither empathy nor passion for his wife.  When his marriage falls apart, his conventional moral code provides him no guidance on what to do.

Vronsky has an aristocratic code of honor, which, however, allows for the seduction of a married woman.  He offers her the passion lacking in her marriage.  She succumbs after initial resistance.  As their relationship goes sour, his code of honor requires him to stand by her.  But he, too, finds this is not enough.

Anna is not a bad person, either—just narcissistic.  She is not malicious, and wishes people well rather than ill, but she has no code of conduct to guide her and no purpose in life beyond being loved and admired.  

When we meet her, her life revolves around being the center of attraction in balls, parties and other social events.   She happily lives the life of an American high school prom queen, carried on into adult life.  There is nothing to show she cares about her husband’s feelings, happiness or career.

When Dolly catches Stepan having sex with a family governess and decides to leave him, he calls on his sister Anna to salvage the situation.  Anna talks Dolly into changing her mind.  She assures her that Stepan is deeply sorry for what he has done, and won’t do it again.

All this is a lie.  Stepan is not sorry for what he did, only about the consequences.  Anna does not ask him to change his ways, and he doesn’t.  The result is that he lives a life of pleasure while Dolly’s life consists of a long succession of pregnancies and the struggle to care for her large brood of children.

Almost all the characters live by lies.  They lie to themselves about the reality of their lives, and lie to others about the reality of their feelings—what the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called bad faith.  This is a major theme of the novel.

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Book note: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

July 6, 2022

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877) translated from the Russian by Louise and Aylmer Maude (1918) Vintage Classics edition (2012)

Anna Karenina is the sad story of a beautiful, charming. intelligent and selfish woman who fails to find the love she needs from either her husband or her lover.

It also is the story of three marriages – the failed marriage of Anna to Alexei Karenin, and Anna’s seduction by Count Vronsky; the bad marriage of Anna’s brother, Stepan Oblonsky, to the former Dolly Scherbatsky; and the good marriage of Dolly’s sister Kitty to Konstantin Levin.

Neither Karenin nor Count Vronsky is a bad man.  Karenin is an honest civil servant, doing his best to make the world a better place.  He fulfills all the duties society expects of a husband, and thinks this should be enough.  But he feels neither empathy nor passion for his wife.  When his marriage falls apart, his conventional moral code provides him no guidance on what to do.

Vronsky has an aristocratic code of honor, which, however, allows for the seduction of a married woman.  He offers her the passion lacking in her marriage.  She succumbs after initial resistance.  As their relationship goes sour, his code of honor requires him to stand by her.  But he, too, finds this is not enough.

Anna is not a bad person, either—just narcissistic.  She is not malicious, and wishes people well rather than ill, but she has no code of conduct to guide her and no purpose in life beyond being loved and admired.  

When we meet her, her life revolves around being the center of attraction in balls, parties and other social events.   She lives the life of an American high school prom queen, carried on into adult life.  There is nothing to show she cares about her husband’s feelings, happiness or career.

When she takes up with Vronsky, she feigns interest in his activities.  She participates in high-level intellectual conversations on art or architecture, which would have been beyond Dolly and Kitty.  But she has no interest in these topics for their own sake.  Her obsession is with whether Vronsky still cares about her as before.

When she separates from Karenin, she misses her little boy, Seroyzha.  She needs his love, and plots a reunion with him.   But she always outsourced responsibility for his care and education to nurses, governesses and tutors.

I didn’t grasp Anna’s narcissism on my first reading of the novel because Tolstoy shows her suffering so powerfully.  Her suffering is real.  But it is pitiful, not tragic.

The novel begins with Dolly deciding to leave Stepan Oblonsky after she discovers he is having sex with the family’s governess.  He calls on his sister Anna to salvage the situation.  Anna talks Dolly into changing her mind.  She assures her that Stepan is deeply sorry for what he has done, and won’t do it again.

All this is a lie.  Stepan is not sorry for what he did, only about the consequences.  Anna does not ask him to change his ways, and he doesn’t.

The result is that Stepan is able to live a life of pleasure, and Dolly lives a life of misery.  Her life consists of a succession of pregnancies. 

Note:  I accidentally posted this before I completed it.  My next post is the final version.

Book note: Tolstoy’s War and Peace

June 29, 2022

WAR AND PEACE by Leo Tolstoy (1865-1869) translated by Almayer and Louise Maude (1923) edited and with an introduction by Henry Gifford (1983)

War and Peace is the best novel I have ever read.  Each time I read it, it seems new to me, and I notice things it it that I missed before.

It is the story of two very different friends, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Pierre Bezukhov, and the woman they both love, Natasha Rostov.  It is also a war novel, a historical novel and a comedy of manners, full of subplots, great descriptive writing and interesting, believable characters.

Andrei is the ideal Russian nobleman and military officer.  He is dashing, handsome, and rich, and occupies a high social rank.  He is a respected commander and staff officer, well able to cope with enemies on the battlefield and intrigues at headquarters.  Everything he does, he does competently.  His manners are impeccable, although some find him arrogant. 

His friend  Pierre is the opposite.  He is fat and clumsy, naive and foolish.  He is the bastard son of a nobleman, a marginal person in society until he unexpectedly inherits great wealth from his father, and then is taken advantage of by all.

What binds these two unlikely friends together?  Both question whether life has meaning.  Both want something deeper than the conventional values of society.  Andrei’s answer is to play the social game by its meaningless rules as best he can; Pierre’s is to search for meaning, in his blundering way, in freemasonry and other schools of thought.

The two friends differ in their opinions, and have interesting arguments.  Pierre is a would-be humanitarian reformer.  Andrei is a cynical conservative.

Both lack emotional intelligence.  Pierre is easily exploited, especially by his new, gold-digging wife, Helene.  Andrei is unable to form close relationships.  He enlists in the military partly to avoid his wife, who loves him deeply but whom Andrei cannot love in return.

Neither had a loving father and mother to set an example.  Pierre’s father apparently disowned him, until the very end; Andrei’s father was a harsh and distant widower, who didn’t like women.

Andrei does have a spiritual awakening of sorts when he is wounded in the Battle of Austerlitz and near death.  He comes to realize the futility of the quest for military glory, but otherwise is not permanently changed.

He spends years in isolation after the death of his wife in childbirth.  His capacity for affection is awakened by an encounter with the sweet, charming 16-year-old Natasha Rostov.

The Rostovs are everything that the Bolkonskys are not.  Natasha’s father is an irresponsible spendthrift; her mother is a foolish society lady.  But they are a loving couple, and their children, including brothers Nicholas and Petya, are affectionate and joyful, and have good values.

Andrei and Natasha are each fulfillments of the other’s ideal fantasy.  Andrei is a handsome, dashing prince; Natasha is a lovely, pure young maiden.  When they dance at a ball, they are smitten with each other, and soon decide to marry.

But the elder Bolkonsky intervenes.  He tells Andrei that he will give his consent to the marriage only if he and Natasha separate for a year and still want to marry at the end.

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Book note: Crime and Punishment

June 24, 2022

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT by Feodor Dostoyevsky (1866) translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (1992) with an introduction by W.J. Leatherbarrow (1993)

Dostoyevsky’s great novel is about how a young man with basically decent and humane feeling puts himself into a psychological state in which he commits a cold-blooded murder.

When we meet the young man, Raskolnikov, he is hungry, exhausted, and in ill health.  He is full of guilt for sponging off his needy mother and sister.  He is deeply in debt to a pawnbroker, a greedy old woman who has an abused half-sister.

We later learn that he wasn’t always like this.  A fairly short time before the action of the novel begins, when he was solvent and healthy, he was compassionate and responsible, keeping his own life in order and going out of this way to constructively help others.

But now he is in a state where his mind is on automatic pilot—acting on impulse rather than conscious decision.  Some of his impulses are generous and kind, some are bad, but none are the result of conscious decision.

This state has been well described by 20th century psychologists, starting with Sigmund Freud.  The conscious mind is not necessarily master in its own house.  It thinks it is the CEO of the human personality, but often it is just the PR department.  

Dostoyevsky understood through introspection and observation what Freud and others later figured out through scientific study and clinical experience.

Raskonnikov’s main source of self-esteem is an article he wrote about how the end justifies the means, and how a truly great person, such as Napoleon, pursues his goal by all means necessary, without concern for moral rules.

Napoleon knowingly caused the deaths of many thousands of innocent people, but he was regarded as a great man because he was a force for progress, Raskolnikov wrote; a Napoleon on the individual level, who acquired money through a crime, but used the money to do good, would also be great.  In fact, it could be your duty to overcome qualms of conscience to accomplish a great goal.

He begins to fantasize about killing the pawnbroker and using her money to help his mother and sister, canceling out the criminal act by the good deed.  But there is no point in the narrative at which he comes to a conscious decision to commit the murder.

One day he overhears a student arguing with a military officer about that very thing.  The student says that killing and robbing the pawnbroker would be justified if the money was used to accomplish a greater good, because the pawnbroker contributes nothing to society.  Ah, replies the officer, but would you really do it?  No, the student admits.

This is what the experimental psychologist Daniel Kahneman called priming or anchoring—one of the subtle things that influence human action below the level of consciousness.

Raskolnikov goes ahead and commits the murder.  He kills the greedy pawnbroker and then her innocent half-sister.  All the while he acts more on impulse and instinct more than rational judgement.  It is as if he is a spectator to his own actions.

I myself have experienced being in such a mental state.  I have done things with my mind on automatic pilot, sometimes to my great regret, and then wonder why I did them.

Raskolnikov flees the murder scene and gets away with loot, but not as much as if he had been able to act calmly, rationally and decisively.  

Later he reproaches himself, not for committing the murder, but for not being Napoleon-like character he imagined himself to be.   But his sense of guilt is too great and he eventually confesses.  Even so, he is still tortured by the conflict between his conscience and his philosophy.

Raskolnikov’s inability to overcome his basic human decency is not, as he saw it, a fatal flaw, but a saving grace

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Book note: Muhammad Ali’s own story

May 19, 2022

THE GREATEST: My Own Story by Muhammad Ali with Richard Durham (1975)

I happened to pick up this book at a free neighborhood book exchange.  It is the autobiography of Muhammed Ali, born Cassius Clay, then the world heavyweight boxing champion at the height of his success.  I never was a boxing fan, but I liked this book at lot.

One thing I got from it was an appreciation of the discipline and dedication required to be a boxing champion.  Another was an appreciation of what it means to live a life of integrity.

Ali was a polarizing figure because of his boasting and insults, because of his adherence to the Nation of Islam, and because he refused being drafted during the Vietnam Conflict.

He was well-respected as a boxer for beating physically stronger opponents through speed and agility, intensive training, tactical thinking and determination to win at all costs.  

He may or may not have been the greatest, but he was world champion for a longer period of time, and won more title bouts, than anyone except Joe Louis and the Ukrainian Wladimir Klitschko, brother of the current champion.

In training and in the ring, Ali pushed himself to the limit of endurance.  He said he never started timing himself on running, hitting the punching bag, skipping rope or the like until he started to hurt.  He regarded a day in which he got through training feeling good as a day wasted.

After he was exhausted, he would enter the ring with sparring partners, who would be fresh.  This was to prepare himself for actual bouts, when he would be tired and in pain.  He was monk-like in the rigor of his training.  Of course, all the top boxers trained hard.

Boxers and trainers believed that avoiding sex was an important part of their training, he said.  Sexual intercourse leaves a man feeling mellow; the winning spirit comes from feeling angry and frustrated.

Aki’s little poems, taunting his opponents, were part of a calculated strategy.  It brought him publicity, and it made it harder for his targets to turn down his challenges.

He said he felt energized by the hostility of crowds.  The pain of defeat was that it caused him to be ignored. 

Born in 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali started training as an amateur boxer at age 12.  He won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division of the Summer Olympics in 1960 at age 18, and defeated Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight title in 1964 at age 22.  

In 1967, he was stripped of his title as punishment for refusing to be drafted.  He sued and won a reversal of that decision in 1970, but he’d been out of action and out of training during his prime fighting years.  He lost the title to Joe Frazier in 1971, but won it back by defeating George Foreman in 1974.  He held on to the title, except for a brief interval, until 1978.

The book tells of his great respect for Joe Frazier, which seems to have been mutual.  The book includes a long transcript of a fascinating conversation they had.  Each was the one the other most wanted to defeat.

Ali fought Frazier twice more, in 1974 and 1975, right before and right after he regained the championship.  The last was a technical knock-out after 14 rounds; the fight was so punishing that Ali said he was considering retiring.  He probably would have been better off if he had.  He was 33, which is old for a boxer.

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Why is it so hard to pay attention?

May 9, 2022

STOLEN FOCUS: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari (2022)

I find it much harder to concentrate on a task than I used to.  

Once I could dash off a book review like this in a couple of hours.  Now what took me a couple of hours takes me a couple of afternoons.  

It’s partly that the task itself takes me longer.  But it is also that I can’t resist the temptation break off the work and check my e-mail or browse my favorite blogs.

I’ve attributed this to a combination of old age and weakness of character.  

But although my age and laziness are real, a science writer named Johann Hari has convinced me that there’s more to it.  He says our whole civilization and lifestyle are conspiring to distract me from focusing on what I need to do.

Hari is the author of Chasing the Scream, a best-seller about addiction, which I haven’t read, and Lost Connections, a best-seller about depression, which I have read and liked a lot.  In both books, he showed how a dysfunctional society makes personal problems worse, and the same is true of Stolen Focus.

In his new book, Stolen Focus, tells of his search for knowledge from neurologists, psychologists and his personal back-and-forth struggle to regain his own fading sense of focus.

He shows that distraction and the inability to concentrate are on the increase, not just for individuals but for society as a whole.

A study of office workers in the U.S. showed that most of them never get an hour of uninterrupted work in a typical day.  Another study shows that if you get interrupted, it will take, on average, 23 minutes to regain your focus.  Studies of top topics on Google and Twitter shows that the life of a hot topic on these media is growing shorter and shorter.

Increasingly, studies show, Americans and Britons are more stressed, more tired and more distracted.  We don’t get the sleep we need.  We read less and are less able to concentrate on what we read.  More and more of us juggle multiple jobs, or are on call 24/7 in the jobs we have. 

 It’s no wonder we find it hard to concentrate on things at hand. 

But if we can’t focus of this, we can’t deal with with the big challenges ahead we face individually and as a society.

Lots of things contribute to this—the faster pace of society, lack of sleep, our artificial manner of life and, of course, social media.

Hari offers tips on how to cope:

  • If you can, find a pursuit or sport that gets you into a state of “Flow”—a state where you are totally engrossed in something worthwhile that challenges you.
  • Get a good night’s sleep in a completely darkened, completely silent room.
  • Take long walks in the fresh air and sunshine without a phone.
  • Read long novels or watch long TV mini-series.  Fiction is more immersive than non-fiction and also makes you more empathetic.
  • Avoid or cut down on stimulants and sedatives.
  • Use all the Aps on your devices that enable you to set limits on notifications and interruptions.

∞∞∞

But trying to change individual behavior isn’t enough, he wrote.  The problem is deeper.

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Book note: A journey around Russia

April 13, 2022

THE BORDER: A JOURNEY AROUND RUSSIA through North Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Norway and the Northeast Passage by Erika Fatland (2017) translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson (2020)

Russia is the largest country in the world, and has the largest border.  The circumference of Russia is half again as large as the circumference of the globe itself.

A young Norwegian woman named Erika Fatland circumnavigated Russia, which is no small feat, and wrote this book about it.

She visited every country on Russia’s southern and western borders. She saw the sights in each country, talked to some of the locals and brushed up on the history of its relations with Russia.  

Every one except Norway bore the scars of having been attacked or occupied by Russia at some point in its history, most of them in the 20th century.

The implication is that there is something about Russians that makes them a standing threat to their neighbors, no matter whether they are ruled by Tzars, Communists or Vladimir Putin.

I don’t agree with this framing.  Russia itself has been attacked and invaded many times.  And, like the 18th century conservative Edmund Burke, I know not the method of drawing up an indictment against a whole people.  

Even so, I found the book worth reading.  I learned interesting things from it.  I thank my friend Judith Judson for recommending it.

 It is too big to summarize.  I’ll hit some high points.

Fatland’s first stop was North Korea, whose existence is a reminder that totalitarianism is real.  People there have less freedom than an American or Briton in prison, yet they think they are free.  They are poor and backward, yet they think they live in the most advanced nation in the world.  

Or so they said.  But maybe the system of surveillance is so complete that many or most North Koreans inwardly have doubts, but don’t dare to say so.  The result is the same.

Back in the 1950s, many of us liberals feared that totalitarian governments could come to dominate the world and establish a complete system of thought control.  North Korea shows that danger wasn’t altogether imaginary.

I found Fatland’s account of Mongolia was the most interesting section of the book.  Mongolia adopted Tibetan Buddhism in 1586 and their spiritual leaders came from Tibet.  But the prediction is the next Mongolian lama will be incarnated in Mongolia.   Fatland heard a Mongolian throat singer, who’d mastered the art of singing in two tones.  

She interviewed reindeer herders in Tuva, the remotest part of this remote country.  She talked to “ninja miners,” individuals who prospect for gold and other minerals in this mineral-rich country.

Kazakhstan is a prime example of Soviet and Russian imperialism.  Along with the other Central Asian nations, its government is a continuation of the Soviet government and it is under the thumb of Russia.  An uprising a few months ago was quashed with the help of Russian troops.

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Book note: The Waterworks

April 2, 2022

THE WATERWORKS by E.L. Doctorow (1995)

The Waterworks is an enjoyable hard-boiled detective story, set in early 1870s New York.  I came across it a few weeks ago in a neighborhood free book exchange.

The protagonist is a cynical newspaperman with a heart of gold, who has a sidekick, one of the new honest cops on the city police force.

They try to solve a minor mystery, an apparent sighting of a dead millionaire riding a city bus, and find themselves unraveling a far-reaching conspiracy, involving the top echelons of New York City, led by a criminal genius.

The villain gets to make a speech explaining the rationale for his crimes.

Doctorow makes it all convincing, based not just on his skill as a writer, but his ability to evoke the New York of 150 years ago.

It is not just his research and his skill as a descriptive writer (he is a fine wordsmith, as we used to say), but also his immersive understanding of the era.  As somebody said, he does not put any thought into the mind or mouth of any character that comes from our time and not theirs.

He’s not nostalgic. The high-level corruption, the extremes of wealth and poverty, the homeless newsboys, the crippled Civil War veterans begging in the streets—Doctorow’s descriptions make me glad to be living now and not back then, in spite of all the dire problems we face now.

At the same time, there’s a grimy glamour to his New York,  just like Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles. 

Being a former newspaper reporter, I particularly liked his description of newspaper life back then. The rotary press had come into operation, but not the Linotype machine.  Newspapers used compositors who set type by hand. The compositors thought they knew more than reporters and frequently did.

There were no newspaper layouts, and newspaper articles did not have to be trimmed (or lengthened) to fit a particular space. Each newspaper page had seven columns, each article had a single-column headline and was as long as needed, and the next article followed wherever the previous article left off.

Newspapers had changed a lot when I started out as a reporter in 1959, but in many ways they were more like they were in the 1870s than like the newspapers of today. There was a news room, a composing room and a press room.  The latter two are no more and the first is on its way out.

I liked this novel.  You may like it, too, especially if you enjoy historical fiction or crime fiction.

What is Ukraine?

March 30, 2022

FRONTLINE UKRAINE: Crisis in the Borderlands by Richard Sakwa (2015, 2016)

The Ukrainian flag consists of a field of blue, symbolizing the sky, above a field of yellow, symbolizing a field of wheat.

To Richard Sakwa, a scholar specializing in Russian and European politics, the flag also symbolizes the two schools of Ukrainian nationalism.

The blue sky symbolizes a unified blood-and-soil nationalism, the idea that Ukraine belongs only to those of Ukrainian lineage who speak the Ukrainian language, and everybody else is a lesser citizen or a foreigner.

The yellow field of wheat symbolizes a pluralistic nationalism, one that respects the cultures of all the peoples who live in Ukraine, not just Ukrainians and Russians, but Poles, Jews, Tatars and other minorities.

In Frontline Ukraine, Sakwa traced the history of Ukraine from 1991, when Ukraine become an independent nation, to 2014, when anationalistic anti-Russian government took power, and Ukraine was set on its present course of irreconcilable conflict with Russia and its own Russian-speaking minority.

Europe 2014. Click to enlarge.

He said Ukraine’s problems are due to a shift from the yellow to the blue.  I think this is true as far as it goes.  But Ukraine’s problems are not all of its own making.

One is that Ukraine’s boundaries were not determined by Ukrainians.  They were drawn by Joseph Stalin, and were created with the intention of making trouble down the line.

When the Soviet Union was formed, V.I. Lenin promised the Russian Empire’s former subject peoples that they could have self-government.  Stalin was given the job of drawing the boundaries of the new Soviet republics.

As someone pointed out to me, these boundaries were drawn so that each of the republics would have a large minority group and so would lack national unity.  The result has been frozen conflicts and ethnic clashes all across the former Soviet Union.  In many cases, they invited—or provided an excuse for—Russian intervention.  

Ukraine was part of this pattern.  Its eastern boundary was set so as to include many ethnic Russians.  Then, following the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, Polish and Rumanian territories were added to Ukraine in the west, 

However, Stalin was careful to keep Crimea, with its important naval base and Russian-majority population, as part of the Russian Soviet republic.  It didn’t become part of Ukraine until 1954, by decision of Nikita Khrushchev, an ethnic Ukrainian.

But the real explanation for the intensity of Ukrainian anti-Russian nationalism lies in what Ukrainians call the Holodomor, the deliberate killing of millions of Ukrainians by Stalin’s government in 1929-1933  This was twofold: an attack on independent peasants, who were the majority of the population of Ukraine, and a specific attack on Ukrainian culture and nationality.

 Robert Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow tells the story of the Holodomor.  It makes extremely painful reading.  The consequence was that some Ukrainian nationalists saw the Nazi invaders as a lesser evil than the Soviets.  Their legacy continues to this day.

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How the mentally unfit became cannon fodder

March 23, 2022

The blogger known as Nikolai Vladivostok called my attention to a book entitled McNamara’s Folly: the Use of Low-IQ Troops in the Vietnam War by Hamilton Gregory (2015).  It’s shocking.  Here’s a review, by Arnold Isaacs for the Modern War Institute at West Point.

On the day in 1967 when Hamilton Gregory reported to a Tennessee induction center to begin his service in the U.S. Army, a sergeant presented him to another young man who was also headed to Fort Benning, Georgia, to start basic training.

The other new soldier’s name was Johnny Gupton, or so Gregory calls him. “I want you to take charge of Gupton,” the sergeant told Gregory.  Before they boarded the bus to the airport, the sergeant handed Gregory Gupton’s paperwork along with his own, to carry on the trip.

In the next hours and days, Gregory discovered why the sergeant had put Gupton in his care. Gupton could not read or write. He didn’t know his home address or what state he was from, so he could not send the pre-stamped postcard the new recruits were given at Benning to tell their families they had arrived.  He didn’t know his next of kin’s full name, didn’t know that there was a war in Vietnam, and couldn’t tie the laces on his combat boots.

How did a man so obviously unfit for service get drafted? A slipup? Far from it. Gupton was one of more than 350,000 other young men drafted during the Vietnam war under a deliberate policy requiring that nearly a third of all military recruits should be drawn from men with general aptitude test scores at the bottom or for a certain percentage below the minimum standard.

This while draft boards around the country made it shockingly easy for middle class, better educated men to avoid serving — just ask Bill Clinton or Donald Trump or Rush Limbaugh.  The policy was known as Project 100,000.  Its principal promoter was Lyndon Johnson’s defense secretary, Robert McNamara.

Hamilton Gregory — who was not drafted but enlisted voluntarily — was troubled and outraged by his experience with Johnny Gupton and subsequent encounters with other low-IQ draftees. During his Army service he raised questions about the policy with various superiors, and after his discharge, while making a career as a journalist and author, he kept on tracking down official documents and seeking out personal accounts.

The evidence he accumulated over more than 40 years makes the story he tells in McNamara’s Folly not just convincing but ironclad.  Its conclusion is ironclad too: U.S. draft policy during the Vietnam war was a moral atrocity.

Project 100,000 troops were killed or wounded in Vietnam at higher rates than in the U.S. force as a whole, but the unfairness didn’t stop there. More than half left the service with less than honorable discharges — not surprising, for men who weren’t mentally fit to be soldiers to begin with.

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How the U.S. turned being in debt into power

March 22, 2022

SUPER IMPERIALISM: The Economic Strategy of American Empire by Michael Hudson (1972, 2003, 2021)

You’ve shown how the United States has run rings around Britain and every other empire-building nation in history.  We’ve pulled off the greatest rip-off ever achieved.  [==Herman Kahn to the author, in 1972]

The USA as a nation  consumes more than it produces, borrows more than it saves and imports more than it exports.

All the supposed laws of economics say that we should be bankrupt.  But instead we are the world’s dominant economic power.

Michael Hudson’s Super-Imperialism, written 50 years ago, explained how this came to be.  Almost everything he described is still in place today.

U.S. Treasury bonds have replaced gold as the world’s store of value.  The bonds don’t have to be repaid because they are treated as valuable in themselves.

Americans buy oil from Saudi Arabia or electronics from China, and pay for them with dollars.  The only thing of value these dollars represent is Treasury bonds.  So the dollars come back to the United States in the form of Treasury bond purchases, which makes it possible to sustain the twin deficits—the U.S. government budget deficit, and the trade deficit.

It is as if I could go to the grocery store or hardware store, pay for my purchases with IOUs and get the world to use the IOUs as if they were money without ever paying the IOUs off.

So as long as the world is willing to use the U.S. dollar as its basic currency, there is no upper limit on the United States ability to issue money to pay for its wars or bail out its failed businesses.

This has gone on for 50 years, and counting.  It stands to reason that it can’t go on forever.

∞∞∞ 

Hudson’s book is in three parts.

The first part, covering 1917 to 1946, shows how the United States used its position as the world’s leading creditor nation to undermine its economic rivals, especially the British Empire.

The middle part shows how the United States set up the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other international economic institutions so as to lock in its dominance of the world financial structure..

The last part shows how the United States went from world’s leading creditor to world’s leading debtor, but in a kind of economic jiu-jitsu, leveraged its debtor status to maintain its economic supremacy.

There are brief epilogues bringing the story up to date, and an introduction that summarizes the main points of the book.  If you just read the introduction, you’ll understand the gist of the book.

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Jeffrey Epstein and his protectors, exposed

February 2, 2022

PERVERSION OF JUSTICE: The Jeffrey Epstein Story by Julie K. Brown (2021)

Jeffrey Epstein was a rapist and a pimp.  He sexually abused young girls and trafficked them out to be abused by others.  

Yet for years he was shielded from criminal charges by his wealth and by his network of rich and powerful protectors.  

We the public may never know the names of Epstein’s clients.  But thanks to the reporting of Julie K. Brown of the Miami Herald, we do know some other things..

Her book, Perversion of Justice, touches on many aspects of the Epstein case, but the high points are how he used his wealth and connections to shield himself from prosecution for his crimes, and how he used seduction, blackmail and threats to trap young girls into sexual bondage.

She began her investigation in 2017 when Alex Acosta was nominated by President Trump to be Secretary of Labor.  Back in 2008, when Acosta was U.S. attorney for southern Florida, he signed a non-prosecution agreement that allowed Epstein to get off with a wrist slap in return to pleading guilty to trafficking young girls.

The fact that Epstein was prosecuted at all was due to the dogged persistence of Palm Beach Chief of Police and Detective Joe Recarey (who is deceased).  When they began to interview young girls victimized by Epstein, it seemed like an open-and-shut case, but they met resistance every step of the way.

Epstein was a social friend of the mayor of Palm Beach.  He donated expensive equipment to the Palm Beach Police Department and created a scholarship fund for children of police.  He was one of the leading members of the city’s social elite, and he was a lavish giver of gifts and donations to charity..

Epstein’s legal team consisted of Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor and high-profile lawyer; Kenneth Starr, the former special prosecutor who brought about the impeachment of President Bill Clinton; and Jay Lefkowitz, a former senior adviser to both Presidents Bush.

He also hired a local lawyer, Jack Goldberger.  That resulted in an aggressive prosecutor, Dahlia Weiss, being pushed off the case, because her husband was one of Goldberger’s law partners.

The defense team gathered information about the girls Epstein had seduced, often looking at their social media and visiting them at their homes, trying to paint them as the seducers or at least as willing.  

One young woman phoned Recarey and told him Epstein’s investigators asked her about things that she had told him that she thought were confidential.  How did the investigator get access to that information? she asked. 

Reiter and Recarey got a search warrant for Epstein’s mansion, but when they got there, it had been stripped clean. Six computer hard drives had been removed.  Video surveillance cameras had been disconnected and the video recordings and other electronic data removed.  Nude photos of young girls that. had adorned the walls had been removed.

They never figured out who told Epstein of the warrant.

Palm Beach County prosecutor Barry Kirschner chose to take the case to a grand jury, although this wasn’t necessary.  He also chose to prosecute only one case, although Recarey had collected information on 14.

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Alessandro Manzoni’s classic Italian novel

January 29, 2022

THE BETROTHED by Alessandro Manzoni (1827) translated by Bruce Penman (1972)

Recently I got around to reading an old paperback copy of Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed.  I picked it up years ago because I read somewhere that it is a classic greatly beloved by Italians—much as The Pickwick Papers is beloved by the English and The Three Musketeers by the French.

The setting is northern Italy, around the end of the 16th century.  It is about the misadventures of Renzo, a good-hearted but foolish young workman, and his sweetheart, Lucia.  

I enjoyed it.  The author was a good storyteller and also a witty observer of the foibles of human nature.  

I also liked it because it gave me a glimpse of another time and place.  This helps remind me that today’s crises are not uniquely bad and that the way I and my friends see the world is not the peak of human wisdom.

Renzo and Lucia are eager to marry, but the local parish priest, Don Abbondio, keeps putting them off because he is afraid of the wicked local nobleman, Don Rodrigo, who has designs on Lucia.  

The two sweethearts flee, with the help of another Catholic clergyman, the Capuchin monk Father Cristoforo.  The two become separated, and Lucia takes refuge in the convent of the notorious Nun of Monza.

The Nun of Monza was a real person.  She was a member of an aristocratic family, pressured to take vows as a nun, more or less against her will, for dynastic and inheritance reasons.  

As a nun,  she lived a life of luxury and self-indulgence.  She look a lover, gave birth to a stillborn child and murdered a nun who threatened to tell about it.  But, in the novel, she takes a liking to Lucia.

Then Lucia falls into the clutches of an even more powerful and evil nobleman, the Unnamed.  He supposedly was so terrifying and ferocious that nobody, in his lifetime or after, dared refer to him by his real name—something like Voldemort in the Harry Potter series. He also was a real person, although his name, Francesco Bernadino Visconti, is known to history.

Renzo meanwhile finds himself in Milan, where riots are going on because of a shortage of bread.  Manzoni observes that the authorities think they can increase the supply of bread by holding down the price, while the street mob’s solution is to burn down bakeries.

Our hero shoots off his mouth, and a police spy decides to finger him as the ringleader of the riots.

Renzo is arrested, but gets away.  Lucia is freed because of the intervention of the saintly Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Frederigo Borromeo.  He, too, was a real person, the first cousin of St. Charles Borromeo.

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Love and marriage as it used to be

January 26, 2022

THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL by Anne Bronte (1848) with an introduction by John Weeks (1979)

Most educated people have heard of the Bronte sisters—Charlotte Bronte, who wrote Jane Eyre, and Emily Bronte, who wrote Wuthering Heights.  I didn’t know there was a third sister, Anne Bronte, until one of her novels was selected by my novel-reading group.

Her best-known novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a shocker in its day, which is why Charlotte didn’t want it to be republished after Anne’s death.

What made it so shocking?  The heroine was a wife who’d run away from her husband.

Marriage then was an iron-clad contract.  Indeed, someone who broke off an engagement could be sued for breach of promise.  Once married, the woman was transferred from the authority and protection of her father to the authority and protection of her husband.

England in those days was a patriarchy—a real one.

Married women could not own property.  Everything a wife owned, including what she earned herself, belonged to her husband.  The husband could even take her children away from her.

Marriage was the transfer of the woman from the authority and protection of her father to the authority and protection of her husband.  The only truly independent women were, like Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley, fatherless, unmarried and in possession of sufficient property to support themselves.

Many Victorian novels tell of unhappy marriages and abusive husbands, but the wife, if she is to expect any sympathy from the reader, must do her best to put up with it.  Freedom only came when the abusive partner died, which, iIt must be said, very commonly happened in not only in novels, but in real life.)

###

We begin with reminiscences of Gilbert Markham, a classic unreliable narrator.  He’s a nice young man working on the family estate, oblivious to what is going on around him, but providing enough information that the reader can see what he is blind to.

For example, he is unaware of how his mother and sister cater to his needs and wishes because the man of the house comes first.  He doesn’t notice how the desperately the young women in his circle want and need to get married.  What for him is an amusing flirtation is, for them, a question of their whole futures.  The women in my novel-reading group said his is typical male behavior.

Gilbert’s attention is captured by a mysterious Helen Graham who has moved into a remote, previously-vacant house called Wildfell Hall with her small son.  She is cold and stand-offish, especially to men, but also lonely.

They gradually grow closer, despite his blunders, based on his tendency to act impulsively after jumping to false conclusions.

Finally she gives him a diary that tells her back story.

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The radical socialism of George Orwell

January 21, 2022

George Orwell is remembered as an enemy of fascism and Stalinism and for his totalitarian dystopia, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)

But, a friend of mine asked, what was Orwell’s utopia?  What did he advocate?

It’s important to remember that Orwell was not only a hater of tyranny and lies.  He also was a hater of inequality and of social and economic class privilege.

George Orwell

His idea of a good society was a society of equals, which honored the moral values of the working class.

In The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), his book about coal miners and the unemployed in England in the 1930s,  Orwell drew a word portrait of a working class family—dad reading his racing form, mum doing her sewing, children happily amusing themselves and the family dog lying before the fire.  

Provided dad had steady work at good wages, that was probably as good as life got, Orwell wrote.  It was better than typical middle-class life, with its  status seeking, worship of success, fear of poverty and lack of solidarity.

But he said his picture of a working class family sitting around a coal fire after kippers and strong tea was something that could only have existed at this particular moment in time.

He said it would not exist in the imagined utopian future of 200 years hence, with no coal fire, no manual labor, no gambling, no horses or dogs, everything hygienic, sterile and made of steel, glass and rubber.  

But such a home could not have existed in the medieval past.  There would have been no chimney, moldy bread, lice, scurvy, “a yearly childbirth and a yearly death” and “the priest terrifying you with tales of hell.”  (Orwell, by the way, had no use for religion.)

Orwell regarded class distinctions are inescapable, something baked into the nature of British consciousness.  He accepted that he himself was a middle-class person and that he could never make himself think and behave as a working-class person did.  

But he did not agonize over it, as many white liberal Americans nowadays do over their inescapable “whiteness.”  And in other writings, he celebrated middle-class virtues and the widening of the British middle class.

In Homage to Catalonia (1938), his book about his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, he said he experienced for the first time a society truly committed to equality

When he arrived in Barcelona, he said, he was in the midst of a true workers revolution.  Every building had been seized by workers and draped with Communist or anarchist flags.   Every church had been gutted and its images destroyed.  

Every restaurant had a sign saying it had been collectivized.  There were no private automobiles; they had all been collectivized, too.

Nobody called anybody “señor” or “don,” just “comrade.”  Nobody said “buenos Dias,” just “salud.”  Nobody wore suits, just overalls or other work clothes or a militia uniform.  Waiters looked their customers in the eye and took no guff from them..

“I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for,” Orwell wrote.  Later he served in a Spanish militia, in which officers had to argue with troops to get them to agree to follow orders, but the troops fought bravely.  He admired this, too.

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Therapy as a substitute for religion

December 6, 2021

THE TRIUMPH OF THE THERAPEUTIC: Uses of Faith After Freud by Philip Rieff (1966)

The world’s great civilizations, and all cultures that I know anything about, have been based on religions or philosophies that taught people to regard themselves as part of something greater than themselves.

The greater thing can be conceived as a supernatural order, as natural law or as a web of existence of which we are all a part.  Or it can be service to God or some transcendent force.  Or it can be a continuation of ancient ways of the ancestors.

The atheist sociologist Philip Rieff, like many before him, noticed how such ideas were fading in rich Western countries.  In these countries, people were, and are, increasingly focused on individual self-fulfillment.  For many, religion was and is either ignored or regarded as a stepping-stone to self-fulfillment.

Psychotherapy’s purpose is to make self-fulfillment possible.  In this book, Rieff looked at the potential for psychotherapy to become a substitute for religion, by examining the thought of Sigmund Freud and three of his critics, Carl Jung, Wilhelm Reich and D.H. Lawrence.

I have some basic knowledge about these four thinkers, but I am not a deep student of their thought.  What follows is my understanding of Rieff’s account.

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, was an atheist who was committed to scientific rationality.  He discovered that people were much more subject to irrational subconscious forces than they had thought.  

He classified the human mind into the “ego,” the conscious rational mind, and the subconscious “id” and “superego.”  The id consists of all the feelings and desires the ego is unwilling to admit, and the “super-ego,” consists of all the rules and taboos imposed by parents that are subconsciously taken for granted.

Freud believe that, in order to live in society, especially modern industrial society, it is impossible to act out all your emotions and fulfill your desires.  Some control is necessary.  Complete happiness is impossible.

But people make themselves more miserable than necessary because they are unconscious of both their desires and the internal taboos that prevent them from attaining their desires.  Freud thought unconscious sexual taboos and desires were especially harmful.

He was not a libertine.  His goal was to make his patients more aware of their unconscious feelings and desires so that they would not be controlled by them.

Freud believed in moral neutrality.  If a patient behaved in a warm and compassionate way because of unconscious guilt feelings, and, freed of guilt feelings, became selfish and ruthless, that was no concern of the therapist.

Although Freud despised the USA and U.S. American culture, his ideas fit well with a certain kind of American individualism.

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Book note: The dawn of interstellar travel

December 3, 2021

BEYOND THE HALLOWED SKY by Ken MacLeod (2021)

Ken MacLeod’s newest SF novel, the first in a trilogy, is on a theme that’s new to me – the discovery of faster-the-light travel, and its impact on earthly events.

It’s set about 50 years in the future, when the world is divided into three power blocs, the Union, the Alliance and the Co-ordinated States.

The Union includes all of Europe, including Ireland and Scotland, but not England.  The Alliance consists of the Anglosphere—the USA (where democracy has been “recently restored”), England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand—plus India. The Coordinated States are Russia, China and their satellites.

The events of the Rising are only vaguely known because the instigators have had all personal records of their activities deleted from the Internet.  It seems to me like something resembling H.G. Wells’ Open Conspiracy, in which like-minded intelligent people understand what needs to be done, and work together to lead the way, without being directed from any center.

Iskander is not only a provider of information and services.  It also is part of the Union’s military-intelligence system. It may ask you whether you a cup of coffee, or it may ask you whether you want to defect.

The novel opens when a young Alliance mathematician gets a letter from her future self proving that faster-than-light travel, contrary to Einstein, is possible. She does not dismiss it out of hand because, if faster-than-light travel is possible, time travel is also possible.

(This is not something I understand at all, but if time slows down to nearly zero as you approach the speed of light, then it’s not crazy to think it would go into reverse if you exceed the speed of light.)

She publishes her proof in the expectation that it will be refuted. She is attacked on all sides, but not convinced she is wrong.  

Taking that hint, she defects to the Union, joins with other bright young people to build an actual FTL ship, who then are amazed to learn that the Alliance and Coordinated States have had bases on a planet of another star, and have had FTL travel for at least that long.

This would imply that covert interstellar travel is going on right now. How is this possible?  Presumably the next volumes in the series will tell us.

Ken MacLeod’s novels are notable for being dense with science fictional and political ideas.  I think he’d be more popular and better understood than he is if he limited himself to one strong idea per novel.

I like his work and you will like his novels, too, if they are the kind of thing you like.

An alternate USA vs. a new America

November 30, 2021

I enjoy science fiction.  It’s good escape literature, but, at its best, it is a vehicle for thought experiments—asking “what if” such-and-such were true.

Charles Stross is one of my favorite SF authors.  He’s good at world-building, the SF art of creating a convincing imaginary background for his stories, he’s good at asking “what if” questions and he’s good at creating thrilling action-adventure plots.

But I can’t recommend any of his recent books because they’re all parts of long series of novels that are hard to understand unless you’ve read the preceding books.

His current book, Invisible Sun, is the third book in a trilogy, which is a sequel to a previous series (three or six books depending on which edition you’ve read). There’s lots of stuff that needs explaining if you’re entering the series at this point.

But I think it is worth writing about because of its interesting premise—a possible inter-dimensional nuclear war between two North American republics, both ostensibly developed to liberty and justice, but products of different histories in different time lines.

One is an exaggerated version of the present US warfare / surveillance state, in which Washington, D.C., has been wiped out by a nuclear weapon planted by terrorists from a different time-line. 

The other is the newly-independent New American Commonwealth, threatened by a global French Empire, a British royal family in exile and now by Alternate USA.  

A defector explains threat Alternate USA poses to New America:

They’re a planetary hegemonic power with a very aggressive foreign policy, a tendency to project their own worst intentions onto others, and a system that makes it really difficult to back down from a fight.  Any leader who shows weakness hemorrhages support with the electorate, and the foreign affairs hierarchy is structured to systemically filter out doves and promote hawks.

If they look at us and think we’re weak, they’ll try to manipulate us, and if they look on us and see their own mirror image—a nuclear-armed superpower with pare-time capability and a revolutionary ideology, they may panic and attack.  Possibly with a nuclear first strike.

The founders of the New American Commonwealth were aware of the history of our timeline and wrote a constitution intended to avoid the mistakes made by the founders of the USA.  A character’s said New America’s constitution had a closer resemblance to the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran than it did to the 1789 Constitution of the USA.  

Now, the Iranian government overthrown in a CIA coup in 1953 was a democratic government.  The Shah’s dictatorship, which replaced it, lasted for 26 years.  The Islamic Republic of Iran has lasted 42 years despite continuous economic warfare and covert action against it.

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The case against infrastructure

November 23, 2021

STRONG TOWNS: A bottom-up revolution to rebuild American prosperity by Charles L. Marohn Jr. (2020)

I wish I’d read this book before I posted anything on my blog about infrastructure.  Charles L. Marohn Jr., an engineer and land-use planner, calls attention to something important and obvious, once pointed out, but which I overlooked.

It is that infrastructure involves a maintenance cost as well as a benefit, and the cost can and often does exceed the benefit.

When you buy a house or a car, the longer you have it, the more it costs to keep it in repair.  The same is true of public roads, water and sewerage systems,  and other physical infrastructure.

The long-range cost of maintaining a road or a water and sewerage system can exceed the economic benefit of the system.  Benefit can be measured in the willingness of the property-owner to pay taxes and fees in return for the benefit, or in the revenue per acre from the land whose value is enhanced by the infrastructure.

Neglect of this truth is a main reason why so many American cities are in financial trouble these days.  The other reason is the financial obligations, such as employee pension funds, that they’ve taken on over the years.

Something beneficial was done, or some problem was solved, in the short term by taking on a long-term obligation.  Future growth was supposed to take care of the long-term obligation.  For many decades, it did.

I’ve posted a good bit on my blog about declining infrastructure.  I’ve quoted estimates by the American Society of Civil Engineers about the huge cost to bring existing U.S. infrastructure up to snuff.

But I failed to make a distinction between spending to maintain existing infrastructure and spending to build new infrastructure.  As I’ve said, it’s not feasible to be constantly building new stuff if you can’t afford to keep up the old stuff.  I can’t figure out from news accounts how much of President Biden’s infrastructure bill is for maintenance and how much is for new construction.  

Marohn wrote that the USA doesn’t need one brick of new infrastructure, but only to maintain what it’s got.  I wouldn’t go so far, but I understand what he’s getting at.

We in the USA have come to the end of the era of growth, Marohn wrote.  U.S. cities are limited by what they can afford, and should not make capital investments that do not produce a return.

Now, this kind of reasoning sounds like the rationale given for red-lining poor and majority-black neighborhoods in the bad old days.  The decision to disinvest became a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Nowadays this is understood to have been a terrible wrong, whose consequences continue today..

But Marohn argued that the poor neighborhoods aren’t usually the ones that don’t pay their way.  He gave examples from his home city of Brainerd, Minnesota.  

On one side of a street is an Old and Blighted Block, on the other a New and Shiny one.  On one side are  nine marginal businesses, including a pawn shop, a bankruptcy attorney, a couple of liquor stores, a barbershop and a neighborhood restaurant.  On the other is a Taco John restaurant franchise, with plenty of green space and off-street parking.

But the assessed value of Old and Blighted is $1.1 million.  New and Shiny is only $620,000.  Furthermore the Old and Blighted businesses hire local accountants, attorneys, printing shops and other services; it’s not known whether Taco John does.  And the nine marginal businesses may well employ as many full-time equivalent workers as Taco John.

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Book note: The Good Lord Bird

November 20, 2021

Mural of John Brown by J.C. Curry in Kansas State Capitol

THE GOOD LORD BIRD by James McBride (2013)

The Good Lord Bird is the story of the abolitionist John Brown as it might have been written by Mark Twain, if Mark Twain had been black.  I happened to pick it up at a neighborhood free book exchange.

One of Brown’s beliefs is that the ivory-billed woodpecker, the “Good Lord bird,” is sent by God with the mission to destroy dead and rotten trees so the good trees can grow. This is a symbol of his own mission. 

The narrator is Henry Shackleford,  a young black boy growing up in the Kansas territory during the guerrilla war of the late 1850s to determine whether Kansas will enter the union as a free or a slave state.

He is a more-or-less contented slave until he is “liberated” after a shoot-out by John Brown and his sons, who adopt him as a kind of mascot and good luck charm.  Brown has the idea that Henry is a girl, because he was clothed in a gunny-sack that looks like a dress, and he plays along. 

Henry is like Huck Finn.  He is naive and ignorant of politics and religion, not to mention grammar, but a shrewd judge of human nature and human pretensions.  

The language and way of speaking McBride gives him is highly entertaining and full of what you might call black humor.

 Henry shares the hardships of Brown’s band and learns about all their eccentricities.  All his efforts to save his own skin are interpreted by Brown as heroism.

At one point he is separated from the band, is enslaved again and winds up as a servant in a Missouri whorehouse, where he is more or less content, until he is liberated again by Brown’s men.

The last half of the book is devoted to the planning and execution of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, an apparent failure, but the spark that set off the Civil War.  We see Brown as erratic, often foolish, but with an indomitable will and energy that prevails over setbacks, hardship and danger, and a charisma that binds his followers to him in spire of everything. 

We get Henry’s view of historic figures such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.  

Tubman is depicted as a majestic figure, but Douglass as a speechifier who is unwilling to give up his good life in Rochester, N.Y., with his black wife and white mistress.

That’s harsh. I wouldn’t condemn Douglass for holding back from joining what is obviously a suicide mission.

The Harper’s Ferry raid is shown as a true tragedy. We see how bad decisions of Brown and his lieutenants lead to mistake after mistake, depriving them of what little chance they had of accomplishing their plan to ignite a slave rebellion.  There is a final, fatal mistake that is Henry’s fault.

But ultimately Brown was successful. The raid precipitated the American Civil War, which brought about the end of slavery and, in the course of time, full political rights for African-Americans.

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Berry Street Essays: 200 years of UUism

November 1, 2021

THE THROUGH LINE: 200 Years of the Berry Street Essay, edited by Kate R. Walker (2021).

In 1820, the Rev. William Ellery Channing, minister of Boston’s Federal Street Church, was the proponent of a heretical theology called unitarianism.  He called together fellow unitarian ministers to hear a lecture entitled, “How Far Is Reason to Be Trusted in Explaining Revelation?” and to talk about the new ideas.

They agreed to meet the following year, and they and their successors have met every year down to the present.  The talks are known as the Berry Street Lectures because the building in which they originally met opened on Berry Street; the meetings currently are held in a different place each year.

They are of interest not just to us Unitarian Universalists, but to anyone interested in the trajectory of religious liberalism.

The Rev. Kate R. Walker found that the present-day record of the Berry Street Essays was woefully incomplete.  She and her helpers did a great service to history and to Unitarian-Universalism by tracking down missing texts.  The archive now includes roughly three-quarters of the original essays, some of them in the form of summaries or reports.

Her new book, The Through Line, consists of reviews of the essays during 13 different periods of history, plus texts of essays for 19 different years, and an introduction and conclusion by herself.

Two essays are by UU ministers I personally know and greatly esteem, the Rev. Richard S. Gilbert and the Rev. Mark D.  Morrison-Reed.

The essays are interesting snapshots of liberal religious thinking, past and present, but the reviews don’t add much.

The reviews are marred by “present-ism,” aka “the whig interpretation of history.”  UU ministers of the past are condemned for not sharing the present-day understanding of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, ableism, etc., not to mention most of them being white, male and members of the New England elite.  

It would have been better to omit the reviews and include more essays, at least one more for each era reviewed.

Fortunately the Unitarian Universalist Ministers’ Association has created a web page with links to all the known essays.

You can browse through them on the Ministers’ Conference at Berry Street: Essays web site.  In my opinion, you’d get as much or more out of checking out the complete series of essays on-line as by reading the book.

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