Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

If you had your life to live over…

August 19, 2019

Sometimes I like awake in bed going over the many times in my life when I’ve been foolish, weak or blindly selfish, and rewriting the script so that I behaved as I wish had I behaved.

What would it be like to actually have the chance to live your life over?  Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is about a women who had that chance, not just once, but many times.

Her heroine, Ursula Todd, dies or is killed at least 15 times, including once in childbirth in 1910, four times in the influenza epidemic of 1918 and three times in the London Blitz in 1940.  On each new iteration of her life, she has a dim memory of having lived before.

She learns to survive the ‘flu epidemic by pushing a family servant girl, Bridget, down a flight of stairs and making her break her arm the night before she would have gone into town and gotten inflected.

In later lives, she achieves the same result by telling Bridget lies that cause her to break up with her boyfriend, thus depriving her of the reason to go into town.

But no matter how many times she lives, she can never realize all possibilities.

During one iteration of her life during the Blitz, a man sitting next to her on the Tube (subway) notices she is good at working crossword puzzles, gives her his business card and says he is recruiting “clever girls.”  She decides to follow up on this, but loses the card.

We the readers know, as she does not, that she has lost a chance to be a codebreaker at Bletchley Park.  That chance does not come again.

The Blitz is the “dark beating heart” of the book, Atkinson wrote in an afterword.  She was born in 1951.  “During the war we were weighed in the balance and not found wanting.  The more I read about the war, the more I think that … we really were at our best then, and I would have liked to have known that.”

The book is “about being English,” she wrote.  “Not just the reality of being English, but also what we are in our own imagination,” she wrote.   Yet Ursula lives one of her lives in Germany and dies in Berlin in 1945.

Ursula decides to change history by assassinating Hitler.  In the following life, she learns German and marksmanship, makes the acquaintance of Eva Braun in 1930 and is introduced to Hitler.  She pulls a gun out of her handbag and gets off one shot, because being shot down by his bodyguards.

This is the end of the book. It is where I, as a long-time reader of science fiction, would expect the novel to begin.

What does she do next?  Will she do the same thing in all her subsequent lives—devote herself to preparing to kill Hitler, dying in a hail of bullets at the age of 20, and never knowing for sure what effect her sacrifice had? Or perhaps, in repeated lives, perfect her technique so that she can kill Hitler and get away with it?

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George Alfred Townsend’s The Entailed Hat

August 10, 2019

Time for something a little lighter!  I recently finished reading a literary curiosity, THE ENTAILED HAT, or Patty Cannon’s Times: a romance by George Alfred Townsend.  It was published in 1884 but is long out of print.  

Set on the Eastern Shore of Maryland around 1830, It has two plots.  One is a beauty-and-the-beast story about how circumstances cause a beautiful young woman to wed an ugly man who wears a very ugly hat.  The other is an action-adventure story, which graduallly takes over the novel, about an attempted rescue of victims of a criminal gang that kidnaps and sells black people, both enslaved and free.

George Alfred Townsend

The author was a best-selling writer of his time.  He was reportedly the youngest correspondent to cover the Civil War and achieved fame for his reporting of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the pursuit of John Wilkes Booth.

Later he become one of the first syndicated newspaper columnists and a fiction writer.  He used the pen name Gath, based on the Biblical version, “Tell it not in Gath, publish it not on the streets of Askalon.”

The Entailed Hat is considered his best novel.  His character Meshach Milburn of Princess Anne, Somerset County, wears a hat passed down by his family through the eldest sons since the 17th century.  It is extremely ugly and makes him an object of ridicule, but he stubbornly continues to wear it out of family pride.

One day a pretty little girl, Vesta Custis, gives him a rose to put in his hat.  He is so touched that he falls in love with her and waits for her to grow up  so her can marry her.  

Although an uneducated backwoodsman (a “forester”) low on the social scale, Milburn quietly builds up a fortune over the years.   

At the same time, Vesta’s father, Judge Custis, invests the family fortune in a failed enterprise to smelt iron from low-grade “swamp ore.”   He finally gets to the point where he uses the same property twice for security on different loans, which means that he is in jeopardy of criminal charges as well as bankruptcy.

Milburn buys up all the judge’s IOUs and offers an exchange—a write-off of all his debts in exchange for his daughter’s hand in marriage.  The judge refuses.

Here the novel takes an unexpected turn.  Vesta interviews Milburn, evaluates the situation and concludes that he would be an adequate, non-abusive husband and that the benefits of marriage would exceed the costs.

Soon after the marriage, Milburn falls ill with fever and Vesta takes charge of his affairs.  She also takes charge of her father’s affairs.  Her example causes her father to reform and give up his bad habits.  She teaches Milburn social graces to make him acceptable in polite society—although she can’t persuade him to give up his hat.

About this time some of Vesta’s slaves and Milburn’s free black employee, Samson Hat, are kidnaped by members of Patty Cannon’s gang.  Patty Cannon was a real person, and her gang, operating near the Maryland-Delaware border, was once the terror of the Delmarva Peninsula.

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Lessons from Hitler’s rise to power

August 6, 2019

Benjamin Carter Hett’s THE DEATH OF DEMOCRACY: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic is a month-by-month account of the politics of the years leading up to the Nazi conquest of power in Germany.

Hett described how Hitler went from 2.8 percent of the popular vote in the 1928 elections to 37.6 percent in 1932,  how he leveraged Nazi voting strength to make himself chancellor by legal means in 1933 and how all pretense of legality ended in the “night of the long knives” in 1934.

That was when Hitler destroyed all remnants of legality by simply ordering the execution-style murder of his opponents, including dissidents in the Nazi party.

Adolph Reed Jr. said in an Interview that Hett’s book is not only good in itself, but it throws light on contemporary U.S. politics.  In fact it does have lessons for the present-day United States, although not in a straightforward or obvious way.

A number of European countries, following defeat in World War One and with middle classes threatened by powerful Communist movements, became right-wing dictatorships.  Fascist Italy led the way.

Germany followed a different path.  A Communist revolution was crushed by a government supported by Social Democrats.   Socialists then joined forces with the Catholic Center Party and moderate conservative parties to form a democratic government.

The democratic coalition worked for a number of years.  The economy recovered.  Inflation was curbed.

Germany became a model for democratic socialism.  Labor unions were powerful.  The government provided compulsory wage arbitration and a strong social safety net.  Homosexuality and abortion were legal.

But, like today’s USA, Weimar Germany struggled with the issue of globalization vs. economic nationalism.

One big issue Weimar Germany had in common with the present-day USA was the question of globalization vs. economic nationalism.

The governing coalition accepted the need to pay reparations for Germany’s supposed guilt for starting World War One and to back their currency with gold.  Both were seen as the price of participating in the world economy.

The right-wing nationalists, including the Nazis, objected to these policies because they denied Germany the means to pay for rearmament and a large army.  They also objected to globalization on principle.  The Nazis wanted to end reparations, abrogate international trade treaties, limit foreign trade and make Germany as self-sufficient as possible.

The refugee crisis was another big issue.  An estimated 1.5 million refugees entered Germany between 1918 and 1922.  Most of them were Germans from former German territory in France and Poland, and many were refugees from Bolshevik Russia, but a lot of them were Jews.

Many Germans worried about their country’s inability to secure its borders. The Nazi position was to expel all refugees and also all Jews, refugees or not.

Weimar Germany had its own version of identity politics, which however was based on social class and religion rather than race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.  By identity politics, I mean politics based on an affirmation that your own group is good and other groups are bad, rather than politics based on getting what you and your group want.

The identity group to which the Nazis and other right-wing nationalists appealed were the rural and middle-class German Protestants.  The American and British image of Weimar Germany is based on Berlin, but more than a third of Germans lived in villages of fewer than 2,000 people.  Rural Protestants tended to be highly religious, respectful of authority and nostalgic for the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm.

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How George Washington crossed the Delaware

July 4, 2019

If General George Washington had not led American troops across the Delaware River on Christmas, 1776, and defeated Hessian troops in Trenton, American secession from the British Empire probably would have failed, and the United States would not have become an independent nation when and how it did.

I recently finished reading Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer, which tells the story of that victory— how it was achieved, what came after and why it mattered.

By describing events in fine-grained detail, drawing in letter, diaries and reminiscences of many individuals on both sides, he drew a vivid picture of what it was like to fight in that era, and also showed how differently the two sides viewed the war.

Fischer’s history begins with the British driving the Continental Army out of New York City in the summer of 1776, and then winning victory after victory until they occupied all of New jersey.  He ends with the turning of the tide in a way that showed how Americans would win ultimate victory.

In grade school, I was taught to think of the British redcoats as fools, who marched in formation while Virginia and Pennsylvania riflemen picked them off from behind trees and stone walls.

The fact was that the British troops who occupied New York City in the summer of 1776 were veterans of regiments who, a short time before, had won battles in every continent in the Seven Years War against the French Empire.  They were backed up by the British fleet , which commanded not only the high seas, but the waters around Manhattan island.

They out-fought and out-maneuvered the inexperienced American troops, driving Washington’s troops out of New York and south through New Jersey.

By Christmas, the British and their Hessian allies had every reason to think they had all but won.   Washington’s desperate plan to attack across the Delaware River involved coordinated crossings at three different locations.   Two of the crossings failed.  Washington failed to make his crossing on schedule or as planned, but he pressed on to the attack anyway.

He pressed on and won.  As a schoolboy, I also was taught that he caught the Hessian garrison hung over from a drunken Christmas Eve party the night before.  Not so!  The Hessians were tough and well-disciplined troops who put up a brave fight, but were defeated in the end.

Fischer gives a powerful account of what it was like fight in those days, marching and pushing wagons through knee-deep mud and freezing rain, and fighting on despite hunger, exhaustion and lack of adequate shoes or clothing.  I can’t even imagine what it would be like to march through mud that was literally knee-deep or worse.

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Gender, race and the 2016 psychodrama

June 26, 2019

I recently read a collection of essays entitled NASTY WOMEN AND BAD HOMBRES: Gender and Race in the 2016 US Presidential Election edited by Christine A. Kray, Tamar W. Carroll and Hinda Mendell (2018).

The question the book seeks to answer is how such an ignorant and misogynistic man such as Donald Trump could have defeated such an intelligent and well-qualified woman as Hillary Clinton.

The answers are sought in rhetoric, psychology and popular culture, not public policy. Clinton and Trump are treated as symbols, not as individuals with public records.  The election is treated as a psychodrama, not as a struggle for power.

The common theme was the need to overcome prevailing male attitudes toward women (“the patriarchy”) and prevailing white attitudes toward people of color (“white supremacy”).

I have reservations about this approach, which I’ll get to in due course..  But I first want to acknowledge the book’s merits.

One chapter discussed the obscene and vicious abuse directed at Hillary Clinton based on her gender, in the form of postcards, posters and Internet memes.  She was caricatured as a witch, a Medusa, a hag, a lesbian and a transgender man.  Unlike with Trump and Bernie Sanders, her age was held against her; she was depicted as a hag.  No human being should be subjected to this.

This unfortunately is not unusual nowadays for women who successfully compete with men.  They are subject to harassment via the Internet, up to and including threats of rape and death..

Donald Trump got his share of abuse, too—for example the widespread meme, including a video distributed by the New York Times, showing Trump and Vladimir Putin as gay lovers—the unstated assumption being that gays are weak and disgusting.

But I don’t think Trump, Sanders or any other male candidate was subjected to anything comparable to what Clinton had to endure because of her sex, and that Barack Obama had to endure because of his race.

I’d be interested about the experience of conservative woman in politics, such as Sarah Palin and Nikki Haley,  Do they get the same level of vicious and obscene abuse as white women?  My guess is, probably not, but I don’t know.

Another of the essays was about images of the women’s suffrage movement of a century ago.  The suffragists were mocked for presuming to assume male roles.  The mockery was extremely condescending, but it wasn’t threatening or obscene.

Is the viciousness of attacks on women nowadays due to a lowering of standards of public discourse?  Or do anti-feminist men today feel more threatened than than anti-suffragist men did back then?

But then there also are women, quoted in another chapter, who think that Hillary Clinton does not behave as a woman should.  Many of these same women excused Donald Trump’s bad behavior.

Indeed, the 2016 Presidential campaign illustrated the double standard for personal morality for men and women.  It is not just that Hillary Clinton could not have gotten away with trash-talking like Donald Trump.  Neither she or any of the current crop of female Presidential candidates could have been forgiven for infidelity in their marriages, as Bill Clinton and Donald Trump have been.

Various writers highlighted this double standard and speculated as to the cultural and psychological reasons why it exists.  Others dealt with a range of topics, from the myth of immigrant crime to religious freedom for Muslims.

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Neal Stephenson’s vision of a secular afterlife

June 19, 2019

The idea of uploading a copy of your brain into a computer and living forever is well-established in science fiction.  Some Silicon Valley scientists and entrepreneurs are coming to think they can do it in reality.

Neal Stephenson’s new novel. FALL, or, Dodge in Hell is the closest thing I expect to see of a plausible thought experiment as to what such immortality would be like and what it would take to make it real.

Although I don’t think this is Stephenson’s intention, it reinforces my belief that I wouldn’t want to live in such a world, even in the highly unlikely event that this were possible.

The novel begins with the unexpected death of Richard “Dodge” Forthrast, the billionaire founder and CEO of a fantasy role-playing game empire.  Due to a provision of his will that he probably forgot about, his brain is scanned and the data stored or later uploading.

Over the next 17 years, the Forthrast family joins forces with El (for Elmo) Shepherd, the developer of the scanning technology, to create the world’s largest data base to be a matrix for Dodge’s consciousness.

Dodge is activated as a disembodied consciousness with no memory of his previous life and no awareness of anything beyond “I think, therefore I am.”

Gradually, he evolves.  Through mental activity alone, he, like a god, is able to impose order on chaos.  The first thing he creates is the image of an autumn leaf, one of the last things he thought about before his death.

Slowly he forms a whole world with an “up” and a “down,” with a ground surface at the bottom and a sky above.  As he becomes aware of other entities entering his world, he gives himself a physical form, something like a bat-winged demon, with a skin to separate himself from the rest of his environment.

He is aided by a second entity in his world named Spring.  She does not embody herself, but gives the trees, the birds and the bees and Dodge’s other creations the attributes of living beings, rather than mere scenery.

The earliest immigrants into Bitworld are members of the Forthrast family and their hangers-on.  They also have special powers.  They are called the Pantheon.  Later ones are the product of full-body scans, not just brain scans, and are limited to the human form and human powers.

The Bitworld population has no memory of a previous existence, which is a good thing, because their memory of the wondrous actual world would make them unhappy.

Bitworld is much like the world of a fantasy role-playing game, with overlays of Greek and Norse mythology.  Dodge is a Zeus, complete with a warehouse full of thunderbolts, with god-like powers but lacking god-like wisdom.

The saving grace is that the souls in Bitworld have the possibility of a second and final death.  They are not condemned to having to do the same things over and over for all eternity.

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Alternate history and ancient science

June 14, 2019

Alternate history is one of the most popular types of science fiction.  It is based on speculation as to what would have happened if history had been different from what it was – if the Axis had won World War II, or if the South had won the U.S. Civil War.

CELESTIAL MATTERS by Richard Garfinkle (1996) is a work of both alternate history and alternate science.  I read it with great pleasure when it first came out, and reread it with pleasure recently.

The alternate history is what would have happened if the ancient Greek culture had not self-destructed during the Peloponnesian Wars.  

The alternate science is what the world would be like if ancient Greek science were correct—if matter consisted of the four elements of earth, air, fire and water, if the sun, moon and planets revolved around the earth, if medical theories of the “humors” were true, if life could be created through spontaneous generation.

In the novel, the Delian League, the alliance of the Greek city-states formed after the defeat of the Persian invasion, did not become a vehicle for Athenian domination, but was an equal alliance of Athenian thought and Spartan valor that endured for a thousand years.

Alexander of Macedon, influenced by his wise tutor Aristotle, did not attempt to conquer Greece, but joined the Delian League.  He did not cut the Gordian Knot, but allowed Aristotle to gently untie it.  He conquered not only Persia but India, lived to a ripe old age and set up an enduring stable government.

The Delian League’s only rival was the Middle Kingdom, whose technology was based on Taoist principles of Yin and Yang and “xi” force.

The novel’s protagonist, Aias of Tyre, is a scientific officer on an expedition to the Sun to obtain solar fire to use as a high-tech weapon against the Taoists.  The principles of space flight in the novel, of course, have nothing to do with gravity or Newton’s laws of motion.

Alas has to contend with Taoist attacks, sabotage by a secret traitor, personality conflicts in the high command and his doubts about the possible blasphemy against the divine Apollo—not to mention his growing attraction to the female Spartan officer appointed as his bodyguard.

The Greek gods exist and speak to him and other characters, but as voices and images in their minds.  Each of the gods represents a separate aspect of life and of the good.

This is not a novel for everyone, but if this is the kind of novel you enjoy, you will enjoy Celestial Matters a lot.

Lessons from the fate of ancient Athens

June 14, 2019

The alternate history novel Celestial Matters describes a world in which the Delian league of Greek city-states endured a thousand years.  This of course did not happen in reality, and the reasons it didn’t have a moral for us Americans.

The Delian League was an alliance of Athens and other Greek city-states against the Persian Empire, which had invaded Greece and was defeated by the Spartan army and Athenian navy.

Allies of Athens were supposed to contribute money to a treasury located on the island of Delos to be used to construct ships to wage war against Persia.

In time, the treasury was shifted from Delos to Athens.  In time, Athens gave up the pretense that the contribution was anything more than tribute exacted by Athens.  Delian League money went to help pay for construction of the Parthenon.

Allies revoted against Athens, and were put down ruthlessly.  All this was before the outbreak of war between allies of Athens and members of the Spartan-led Peloponnesian League.  Athens lost the war, but it was devastating to both sides.  Greece was successfully invaded by Macedonia and later by Rome.

What would have happened if the Athenians had maintained the Delian League as a true alliance rather than making it into an empire?  They might have been more powerful rather than less, because they wouldn’t have to expend blood and treasure in suppressing rebellions against their empire.  Their aggression might not have been feared as much by the Spartans.  These things aren’t knowable.

I see a parallel between Athens after the Persian Wars and the United States after the Second World War.  The United States was the trusted leader of the Western world.  

It sponsored the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a defensive alliance against the Soviet Union, the United Nations as a means of implementing international law and the Bretton Woods agreement as a means of stabilizing the world financial system.

I think that if the U.S. had been faithful to the purposes of the international organizations it created, and had been willing to submit to the laws that it demanded other nations obey, our nation still would be a respected world leader.

But over time the Western alliance and U.S.-created institutions such as the International Monetary Fund have become a vehicle for American empire.  The administration of Donald Trump does not try to hide this.

I don’t want to lean too heavily on historical analogies, but I believe that, unless the U.S. changes direction, we will meet the fate of Athens.

The Athenians were not hypocrites.  They did not violate any of their professed ideals.  Athenian democracy was based on the citizens’ right to govern themselves collectively and their duty to govern themselves individually.

They lacked any idea of humanitarianism, universal human rights or the rule of law, which are part of the American ideal of democracy.  It is we, not they, who will be judged by history by failing to live by our own principles.  

Slavery did not end with the Civil War

June 5, 2019

Source: ADOS.  Click to enlarge.

I was taught in school that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, but in fact tens of thousands of African-Americans in the South were enslaved in everything but name from the 1870s through the 1930s.

They were bought and sold for money, whipped and abused by their masters, supervised by overseers with guns and hunted down with hounds when they tried to flee.

Douglas A. Blackmon wrote in SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War Two that we should not speak of the “Jim Crow” era, but the era of neo-slavery.

The way it worked was this.  A black person would be arrested.  Sometimes he would be guilty of a real crime.  But any black male not under the control of a white employer was subject to being arrested, charged with something like “vagrancy” or “offensive behavior” or a trumped-up charge.  Some records list only the sentence and not the nature of the offense.  

The black person would of course be convicted automatically and sentenced to a prison term or a fine, which would include not only the lawful penalty for the offense, but also the cost of his arrest and imprisonment.

A white employer would pay the fine in return for a contract entitling him to the black person’s labor  The sheriff or police chief, jail keeper, magistrate and court clerk would divide up the payment.  The buyer might sell the contract to someone else.

The convict would typically work under armed guards and be whipped regularly for trivial offenses or for not working hard enough.  Overseers would commonly soak a leather strap in water or molasses and then coat it with sand, so that a whipping would flay the skin off. 

It is true that, unlike slaves before the Civil War, the convict did not serve a lifetime sentence, his children were not automatically enslaved and the majority of blacks were not enslaved.  

But the threat of enslavement hung over everyone, and conditions under the new slavery were often worse than under the old.

In the earlier era, slaves were valuable property and slave owners had an incentive to keep them strong and healthy.  

But in the neo-slavery era, there was no reason not to work them to death because, just as in Hitler’s labor camps or Stalin’s Gulag, there was an unlimited supply of fresh laborers.  Employers suffered no penalty when convicts died, even when they were beaten to death.

I’ve heard people say that slavery would have ended of its own accord if there had been no Civil War because slave labor was not suitable for modern industry.

But Blackmon showed that neo-slavery was practiced not just by individuals, but by corporations that exist to this day.

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Tales of a dystopian near-future

May 20, 2019

It’s often said that science fiction is not so much a forecast of the future as a mirror of concerns about the times in which it is written.  That is most certainly true of Cory Doctorow’s new book, RADICALIZED: Four tales of our present moment.

The title story is the most powerful and disturbing of the four.  It is about an on-line community of men who’ve been denied, or whose loved-ones have been denied, insurance coverage for treatable cancer, and who, one by one, decide to take revenge.

The first engages in a suicide bombing at a Blue Cross / Blue Shield office to avenge the death of his six-year-old daughter.  The second is a widower who kills a Senator who ran in a platform of health care for all, then voted against Medicare expansion.

The third is the elderly moderator of the forum, who has been subtly encouraging the bombings and killings.  He wheels his wheelchair into the middle of a health insurance conference at a Sheraton before setting off a home-made bomb that blows away himself and a sizable percentage of the guests.

Their objective is not just revenge, but health care reform.  They think that the power of fear may be enough to overcome the power of money.

Joe, the protagonist, joined the on-line forum when he was in despair about his wife not being able to get an “experimental” treatment that would cure her breast cancer.  She turns out to be a lucky one who has a spontaneous remission, but he stays on the forum, arguing against suicide and violence on private lines

He realizes that he is guilty of a crime simply by being aware that crimes are being planned and not reporting it to the police.  But he can’t bring himself to do this.

“Health care terrorism” spreads.  There’s more security at HMO and insurance company offices than at airports.  People who are denied insurance claims are put on terrorist watch lists.  But bombings and killings continue.  And Joe realizes it’s only a matter of time before Homeland Security catches up with him.

The conclusion is that a lot of people, including bystanders, have been killed, but Congress has enacted something called Americare.  Joe’s wife, visiting him in prison, remarks, “Who says violence doesn’t solve anything?

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Charles Dickens’ Hard Times and our times

May 7, 2019

Throughout the 20th century, critics regarded Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (1854) as one of his lesser novels.  It didn’t have the huge menagerie of colorful, memorable characters that most of his novels did, nor did it provide much comic relief from its hard tale..

Hard Times is back in vogue because the philosophy of its central character, Thomas Gradgrind, is back in vogue.  Gradgrind is a schoolmaster and later Member of Parliament for Coketown, a stand-in for the gritty industrial city of Manchester.

Gradgrind’s philosophy is based on the famous fact-value distinction—the idea that facts are objective because they can be proved or disproved, but that values are subjective because they arise from personal feeling.

He operates a school devoted to rote memorization of facts—no games, no art or literature, no appeals to the imagination—and to a philosophy based on the ethic of rational self-interest.

It was a fundamental principle of the Gradgrind philosophy that everything was to be paid for.  Nobody was ever on any account to give anybody anything or render anybody help without purchase.  Gratitude was to be abolished, and the virtues springing from it were not to be.  Every inch of the existence of mankind, from birth to death, was to be a bargain across a counter.  And if we didn’t get to Heaven that way, it was not a politico-economical place, and we had no business there.

This was a living philosophy then, and it is a living philosophy still.  We now call it neoliberalism, and its adherents are to be found throughout Silicon Valley, Wall Street and the economics departments of great universities.

Gradgrind practices what he preaches.  He stifles sentiment and emotion in himself.  He denies himself the emotional intelligence to see through the boastful, hypocritical self-made industrialist, Josiah Bounderby.

He encourages his daughter, Louisa, to marry Bounderby, and his son, Tom, to go to work for him, as does his star pupil, Bitzer.

Louisa has a good heart, but she is morally adrift because she never is given any justification for the promptings of her heart.  Tom, on the other hand, lacks moral intuition, and is not taught anything to make up for the lack.  He is a self-destructive fool because his extreme self-absorption makes him unaware of the possible consequences of his actions until it is too late.

But it was Bitzer who is the most perfect representation of Gradgrind’s teachings.  He is diligent at his job, saves his money, doesn’t drink, smoke or gamble and guides his life by cost-benefit analysis.  When in the end he turns against Gradgrind in order to advance his career, he calmly justifies his decision by citing his old schoolmaster’s “excellent teaching” about self-interest.

∞∞∞

I read Hard Times as part of a novel-reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.  It was published the same year as Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, which was our group’s previous book.  Although there is no reason to think the two writers influenced each other, there are remarkable similarities.

Both have morally sensitive heroines with inadequate fathers.  Both depict self-made industrialists in conflict with labor unions.  Both make their noble worker character speak in a hard-to-understand dialect that sets him apart from all the others.  Both have their worker character ask the industrialist for help, and be rebuffed.

But the two novels are very different in both style and viewpoint.  North and South is an effort to give a fair and balanced account of conditions in 1850s Manchester.  Hard Times burns with indignation.

Gaskell’s Margaret Hale has a Christian faith that not only gives her a moral compass, but is a magnetic field that draws others into her influence.  Dickens’ Louisa has the same moral impulses as Margaret, but she has no philosophy or faith that would give her the confidence to act on them.
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A novel of China between old and new

April 24, 2019

Ha Jin is a writer who immigrated to the United States in the 1980s and writes novels in English about China.  I liked his novel WAITING (1999), which I read after picking it up in the free book exchange at my local public library.

The novel is about life in China and about Lin Kong, a Chinese army doctor, who is torn between the old China of arranged marriages and subordination of the individual to the family and the new China of supervision of personal morality by the state.

Ha Jin depicted a China much more tranquil than I imagined.  The 1960s saw the tail-end of the Great Leap Forward and then the Cultural Revolution, but, in the novel, all this happens off-stage.

Nobody is forced into a collective farm at gunpoint, nobody is dragged off by the police, nobody is forced to confess their political sins at a mass meeting.  The worst thing that happens to Lin is that, during the Cultural Revolution, he turns in some of his books and puts covers on the others so that the titles don’t show.

He’s considered daring for owning a copy of the war memoirs of Marshall Zhukov in the original Russian.  Later on he encounters a high-ranking officer who is privileged enough to own a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Everybody in the novel enjoys a modest prosperity.  The characters, except for a few high-ranking officials, all lead austere lives, but nobody lacks food, clothing or shelter.  Lin’s parents own a small piece of farmland, which nobody challenges their right to have.

That doesn’t mean that critical accounts of China such as Simon Leys’ essays or Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts  are wrong, or that, on the other hand, the novel gives a false picture.  It means that China is a vast country, and not all one thing.

In 1962, Lin’s parents pressure him into an arranged marriage with the good-hearted, but illiterate and unattractive Shuyu, so that someone will be available to take care of them in their declining years.  She is one of the last Chinese women to have bound feet.  Lin has no desire to marry her, but goes along rather than defy his parents.

His military duty keeps him far from home, except for 12 days leave a year.  An attractive educated army nurse, Mannu Wu, falls in love with him, and, after a struggle with his feelings, he returns her love.  His superiors tolerate the relationship to the extent of allowing the couple to take walks together in private, but not to the extent of allowing adultery..

Each year, for 18 years, he  returns to his home village to ask Shuyu for a divorce, and each year she refuses.  He waits for the 18th year, when he can legally obtain a divorce without her consent and marry his true love.

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Iris Murdoch on love, justice and truth

April 19, 2019

I recently read Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature, a collection of philosophical writings by the late Iris Murdoch from 1951 to 1986.

I bought the book because I enjoyed her novels, although I admit don’t remember the plots of any of them clearly, and because of praise of her by Matthew Crawford, author of The World Beyond Your Head, which I admire and which I am re-reading as part of a reading group.

I admire Murdoch as a thinker, but there is much more in her thought than I could absorb in one reading.

What follows are ideas I took away from reading this book, which may or may not represent her thought.

One idea that, in order to perceive reality as it is, you must cleanse your mind of egotism and wish-fulfillment fantasy, which are the source of illusion.

This is true not only of scientists, writers, artists and religious mystics, but of everyday people.

She said, moreover, that those who look on life with a desire to be just and loving will comprehend the world in ways that the self-centered cannot.

Her example is a mother whose son marries a woman of a lower social class, whom she thinks is lacking in refinement.  She always behaves nicely, and never lets her opinion of her daughter-in-law show.

But then she thinks she may be unfair, and makes an effort to look for good qualities in the daughter-in-law.  She decides she is not vulgar but refreshingly simple, not undignified but spontaneous, not juvenile but youthful, and so on.

Her new perception changes her behavior not one whit.  Nevertheless it has moral significance.

I’m reminded of a remark by Bertrand Russell in The Scientific Outlook.  Russell said there are two motives for seeking knowledge.  One is to better understand something or someone you wish to control.   The other is to better appreciate something or someone that you love.  And, he added, the pleasures of the lover are greater than the pleasures of the tyrant.

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‘It is worse, much worse, than you think’

March 20, 2019

“It is worse, much worse than you think.”  So begins David Wallace-Wells’ THE UNINHABITABLE EARTH: Life After Warming (2019), one of the most important books I’ve read in years.  

It is not proof that global warming is taking place, and it is not a plan to mitigate or reduce global warming.  It is simply a compilation of all the ways that climate change is disrupting the world we live in, and what may happen if nothing is done.

The best-case scenario is a future like the present, only more so—more storms, more droughts, more floods, more wildfires, more tidal waves, more heat waves, but with the basic social order remaining intact.

The worst-case scenario, which can’t be ruled out, is that most or all of the earth’s surface becomes unfit for human habitation.

When I first heard about global warming, I wondered whether it was real.  I didn’t see how it was possible to measure average temperatures over the whole Earth to within a degree or so, or rise in average sea levels within inches.  Actually, I still don’t.

Still, I thought, the possibility of global warming provides one more reason for doing a lot of things that are desirable in themselves—reducing air and water pollution, switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Over the years I came to the realization that since the greenhouse effect was scientific fact, and since greenhouse gasses were being emitted into the air at an ever-increasing rate, there was bound to be a crisis sooner or later.

That crisis is now upon us.

Fourteen of the world’s 20 largest cities have experienced water shortages or drought.  Cape Town, South Africa, nearly ran out of water.  Freshwater lakes from Lake Mead to Lake Chad are drying up.  The number of major floods have quadrupled since 1980 and doubled since 2004.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is dying because of the warming ocean.  The melting of the Arctic ice cap has changed wind patterns in China in ways that caused life-threatening smog in major cities.

The summer of 2017, in the Northern Hemisphere, brought unprecedented extreme weather: three major  hurricanes arriving in quick succession in the Atlantic; the epic “500,000-year” rainfall of Hurricane Harvey, dropping on Houston a million gallons of water for every single person in the entire state of Texas; the wildfires of California, nine thousand of them burning through more than a million acres, and those in icy Greenland ten times bigger than those in 2014; the floods of South Asia, clearing 45 million from their homes.

Then the record- breaking summer of 2018 made 2017 seem positively idyllic.  It brought an unheard-of global heat wave, with temperatures killing 108 in Los Angeles, 122 in Pakistan and 124 in Algeria.  

In the world’s oceans, six hurricanes and tropical storms appeared on the radars at once, including one, Typhoon Mangkhut, that hit the Philippines and then Hong Kong, killing nearly a hundred and wreaking a billion dollars in damages, and another, Hurricane Florence, which more than doubled the average annual rainfall in North Carolina, killing more than 50 and inflicting $17 billion worth of damage.  

There were wildfires in Sweden, all the way to the Arctic Circle, and across so much of the American West that half the continent was fighting through smoke, those fires ultimately burning close to 1.5 million acres.  Parts of Yosemite National Park were closed, as were parts of Glacier National Park in Montana, where temperatures also topped 100.  In 1850, the area had 150 glaciers; today, all but 26 are melted.

The years to come will not be better.  One key fact about the greenhouse effect is that it is additive.  Nothing that is done to reduce greenhouse gasses in the future will remove the greenhouse gasses now in the atmosphere, at least not in the lifetime of any living person or their future children.

Another is that annual greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing.  Half of the emissions that occurred since the start of the industrial revolution took place in the last 30 years.

We can’t predict how successful the world’s nations will be in cutting back on fossil fuels and other sources of greenhouse gasses.  We can’t predict the exact impact of these gasses.

All we know for sure is that every addition to the world’s greenhouse gasses makes this worse.  And everything that is done to stop additional greenhouse gasses prevents things from being worse than they otherwise would be.

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Climate, migration and border militarization

March 13, 2019

Click to enlarge.

The two agencies of the U.S. government that take climate change most seriously are the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security.

They foresee droughts, floods and storms on a scale that will create global political instability and millions of climate refugees, mainly from countries already ravaged by war and poverty.  While other parts of the government dither and deny, they have spent billions since 2003 preparing for the coming emergency.

Their preparation, however, is not aimed at preventing or slowing down climate change, nor is it principally aimed at relieving distress.  Rather it is in protecting the U.S. homeland and American business interests from the desperate masses.

A journalist named Todd Miller did a good job of reporting on this in STORMING THE WALL: Climate Change, Migration and Homeland Security, published in 2017.

He attended a Defense, National Security and Climate Change conference in Washington, D.C., in 2015, attended by top military brass and government and corporate officials.  A NASA representative told how the Space Shuttle and F-35 fighter required chrome, columbium and titanium, which are sourced from South Africa, Congo and Zambia, all threatened with political instability due to climate change.

“If these stressing factor result in increased migration,” he said, “it will just increase the potential for instability and conflict,” which would affect the U.S. ability to obtain elements “critical to the alloys we need to support the system.”

It was at that meeting that Miller for the first time heard the expression, “military-environmental-industrial complex.”  Billions of dollars are being spent to, on the one hand, wean the U.S. military itself from dependence on fossil fuels and, on the other, maintain the political and economic status quo in the face of climate-driven upheaval.

He devoted several chapters of the book to migration from central America and Mexico into the southwest USA.  He showed that the border is not a line on the map separating the United States from Mexico.

The border area extends 100 miles into the interior of the United States, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) acts like a military occupying force.  Miller noted that an order by President Obama against racial profiling specifically exempted the Department of Homeland Security.

It also extends down through Mexico into Central America, where there are a series of checkpoints, aided by U.S. military advisers and U.S. military equipment, designed to intercept migrants on their way.  There are fewer arrests nowadays at the international border, but this may not mean that fewer people are trying to cross the border.  It may just mean that more of them are intercepted before they get close.

The U.S. Coast Guard nowadays does more than guard the coasts.  After the 2010 earthquake, the Coast Guard patrolled the coast of Haiti, turning back anyone who tried to flee, and even set up a detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

Migrants leave their home countries for many reasons—commonly poverty, war, tyranny or crime.  But, in the words of a Marine Corps general, climate change is a “threat multiplier.”  Events such as the 2015 drought in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua make all the underlying social problems worse.

The United States is not unique.  The new “smart border” between Turkey and Syria has a new tower every 1,000 feet, a three-language alarm system, and “automated firing zones” supported by hovering zeppelin drones, Miller wrote.

Experts say floods and a rising sea will cause millions to flee Bangladesh.  India has a 2,000-mile ‘iron wall” on its border and soldiers with orders to shoot to kill.  More than 1,000 Bangladeshis were killed between 2001 and 2011 while trying to cross the border.

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Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian

February 10, 2019

I picked up a copy of THE HISTORIAN: a novel by Elizabeth Kostova (2007) on a free book exchange rack at my local public library.

This novel, which is about a multi-generational search for the grave of Count Dracula, is more of a historical novel than it is a horror novel.

Dracula was a historical figure who lived in the 15th century in Transylvania and Wallachia, regions of what is now Rumania.  

His life overlapped with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks.  He was known for his cruelty to both his subjects and the Turkish enemy.

The framing story is a narration by a history professor, living in the present, about her attempt as a 16-year-old in 1972 to discover the truth about her father and his interest in the Dracula legend.

We then revert to 1954 and a narration by her father, a young graduate student in history, of his quest to save his advisor and mentor who has been taken by Dracula.  The quest takes him and a mysterious young woman to Turkey, Hungary and Bulgaria.

Within this narration are letters by the mentor of his journey in 1930 to Rumania, where he discovers the original (but empty) burial-place of the Count.

The 642-page novel moves at a leisurely pace, which I didn’t mind but others might.  I like her sketches of the life and landscape in all the countries that the characters visit.  Kostova is a marvelous descriptive writer and, from what I can tell, a meticulous researcher.

We get a glimpse of the struggles between Turkish Muslims and Orthodox Christians in the 15th century Balkans.  These wars were as murderous, heroic and tragic as World Wars One and Two, and, as the conflict in Bosnia shows, they aren’t completely over yet.

Near he end, we get to meet the Count, visit his library and hear him explain that inasmuch as human nature is basically corrupt, the only kind of perfection that is possible is perfection in evil. 

The book’s layered history reminds me of Rebecca West’s great book, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which is about her travels through Yugoslavia in the late 1930s and how the past lives in the present.

I would have liked an appendix telling what is fact and what is fiction in the novel, but evidently the author preferred to maintain the pretense that this is a true story.

Daniel Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine

February 6, 2019

In 1961, the philosopher Bertrand Russell said President John F. Kennedy and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, because of their commitment to nuclear weapons, were worse than Adolf Hitler..

“…Macmillan and Kennedy, through misguided ignorance and deliberate blindness, are pursuing policies which are likely to lead to the extermination of the whole human race,” Russell said.  “Hitler set out to exterminate the Jews.  On a purely statistical basis, Macmillan and Kennedy are 50 times as wicked as Hitler.”

I recently got around to reading Daniel Ellsberg’s 2017 book, THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, which indicates that Russell was basically wright.

Kennedy, like Truman and Eisenhower before him and every President since, was willing to threaten nuclear war.  Ellsberg wrote that this not only could have led to the death of virtually the whole human race, but, on Kennedy’s watch, very nearly did.

I remember the 1950s and the 1960s, and the public’s well-founded fear of nuclear war back then.  The fear has gone away, but the danger hasn’t, as Ellsberg made clear..

The book is in two parts.  The first is a personal history of nuclear policy, leading up to the Cuban missile crisis.  The other is a historical look at how American leaders in World War Two came to regard mass killing of civilian populations as morally acceptable, and how no American leader since then has been willing to give it up.

The Eisenhower administration had a war plan called “massive retaliation.”  That meant that in the case of military conflict with either the USSR or China, the U.S. would implement a plan that called for the nuclear bombing of every town in Russia with a population of more than 25,000, and also every large population center in China.

The Air Force, in response to a query by President Kennedy, estimated that this would result in the deaths of 324 million people in China or Russia through blast and radioactive fallout, which is more than died at the hands of Hitler, Stalin and Mao combined.  It estimated that up to an additional 100 million people in Communist ruled nations in eastern Europe, in allied nations in western Europe and also in neutral nations, depending in which way the wind was blowing.

This amounted to more than 600 million people, a quarter of the human race at that time.

But wait.  There’s more.  The Air Force did not attempt to estimate casualties due to fire.  Nuclear bombing would have set off fire storms that would have made World War Two Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo seem like the victims of children playing with matches. Ellsberg wrote that, if you count direct deaths to fire, a nuclear attack on the Communist bloc would have taken the lives of between one third and one half of humanity.  I can’t get my mind around such an enormity.

All of these estimates were based on a successful U.S. first strike that destroyed the Communist countries so completely that their military would not be able to retaliate.  If that didn’t work, there would have been tens of millions or hundreds of millions of American deaths as well.

Later on certain scientists awoke to the possibility of “nuclear winter”.   Firestorms resulting from a nuclear attack would send so much soot and smoke into the upper atmosphere that they would literally blacken the sky.  The dark layer would be above the clouds, so there would be no rain to wash it down.  It would remain for 10 years or more, making it impossible for plants to grow or for most complex life-forms to survive.

So an all-out nuclear attack could literally be a Doomsday Machine.

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A true history of SF’s golden age

February 2, 2019

I just got finished reading ASTOUNDING: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee (2018)

This book is the story of how John W. Campbell Jr., the editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine, and three writers most closely associated with him, shaped the American mind.  It provides a detailed and objective account of the personalities, relationships and accomplishments of these four figures, both for good and ill.

In 1937, when Campbell became editor of the magazine at the age if 27, popular science fiction was a minor subset of the action-adventure genre.  

His ambition was to make science fiction not only a source of entertainment, but a way of thinking about science and the future.

He was an outstanding editor, full of ideas, able to prod and provoke writers into doing better work than they thought they could.  

He was a second-rate intellect who was outside the literary mainstream, but he punched above his intellectual weight. 

Albert Einstein subscribed to Astounding.  Werner von Braun, in wartime Germany, reportedly took the trouble to obtain copies of the Swedish edition. 

Carl Sagan, Gene Roddenberry, Stephen King, Paul Krugman, Elon Musk, Newt Gingrich and George R.R. Martin all acknowledge Campbell’s influence.

When I visit my local Barnes & Noble bookstore, the space given to science fiction exceeds all other genres combined.

Without Campbell, there still would be adventure stories set against a science fiction background, like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars stories, and there still would be literary writers, like H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapleton, who use science fiction themes, but It’s highly unlikely that science fiction would pervade the culture of the English-speaking world as it does today.

The other factor in the growth of science fiction, mentioned only in passing in this book, is science fiction fandom, a distinctive and maybe unique community in which writers and readers can interact and discuss the genre.

As for myself, I never participated in fandom, Astounding Science Fiction magazine and books by Astounding writers were my main source of intellectual stimulation when I was a young teenager.  I have continued to read science fiction all my life, and while I pass over the bulk of it, I find the best science fiction a source of great pleasure and food for thought.

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A sequel to The Three Musketeers

January 25, 2019

TWENTY YEARS AFTER by Alexandre Dumas (1845) is the first sequel to The Three Musketeers.

The Three Musketeers was the first and maybe the best of the swashbuckling action-adventure novels.  I enjoyed it a lot, and I enjoyed this sequel, too.  It would make a highly enjoyable TV miniseries.

The first novel ended with the 20-year-old D’Artagnan being rewarded for her heroism with a commission as lieutenant in the King’s Musketeers.  As this one begins, he is a hardened veteran of 40, somewhat embittered  at never having been promoted further.

Cardinal Richelieu and King Louis XIII are dead.  France is ruled by Cardinal Mazarin, an Italian, and the widowed Queen Anne, a Spaniard,  who is regent for the 10-year-old Louis XIV.

D’Artagnan happens to command a military escort to protect Mazarin from the rebellious Paris mob one night, and Mazarin, impressed by his professionalism, takes the trouble to learn his history.

He asks D’Artagnan to reassemble his team—Aramis, who’s entered the Catholic priesthood; Porthos, who’s married a rich widows; and Athos, who has resumed his life as a high-ranking nobleman.

But D’Artagnan only succeeds in recruiting Porthos.  Unknown to him, Aramis and Athos have joined the Fronde—a coalition of rebellious nobles and commoners united against oppressive taxation and foreign influence.

Mazarin wants them to carry a message to Oliver Cromwell that he will not oppose Cromwell’s overthrow of King Charles I and persecution of Catholics if Cromwell will not support the Fronde or attempt to protect French Protestants.

Also unknown to him, Cromwell’s emissary, Mordaunt, is the son of the evil Lady De Winter, who has sworn vengeance on the musketeers for supervising the execution of his mother for her crimes.

When D’Artagnan and Porthos reach England, they meet Athos and Aramis, who persuade them to change sides. 

D’Artagnan’s idea is that as a soldier, his duty is to obey orders, and that, as a Frenchman, he has no concern with what happens in England.

But Athos convinces him that he has a higher duty, a duty to the idea of royalty, which stands for everything that noble and honorable.  Oliver Cromwell, in this version, is neither; he is suspicious, cunning and ruthless, like a Mafia don.

The four attempt to save King Charles, but D’Artagnan’s various plans are thwarted by Mordaunt, who nearly succeeds in killing the four musketeers as well.

Mazarin is naturally angry at D’Artagnan’s disobedience of orders, but through a combination of force, blackmail and Queen Anne’s influence, he gets a promotion to captain and rewards for all his friends.

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Why do we whites refuse to admit we’re racists?

January 5, 2019

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Robin DiAngelo has spent more than 20 years conducting diversity workshops in which she tries to explain to white people that they are intrinsically racist.

By her own account, she has been unsuccessful.  But she does not see this as an example of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

She maintains in her new book, WHITE FRAGILITY: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (2018), the the stubborn refusal of white people to admit their racism just goes to show how racist they are.

∞∞∞

Historically, racism was an ideology that said that humanity was divided into races, and that the white race was superior to the black race.  It came into existence to justify slavery and colonialism.  

Woodrow Wilson and Winston Churchill, among others, were proud racists.

Racist ideology fell into disfavor after the war against Nazi Germany and the 1960s struggle against segregation.  

DiAngelo says racist attitudes persist in the form of unconscious prejudice, even among liberal white people who think we’re anti-racist.

She says a white person can have black friends, be nice to black people and oppose to racial discrimination in any form and still have false derogatory opinions about black people and behave in ways that make black people feel uncomfortable and stressed.

This is true—as far as it goes.  

It is true of me.  

White people, myself included, ought to welcome feedback on how we are perceived by black people and what we may be assuming that isn’t true.  To the extent that she provides this, she is doing a good thing.

The book’s main value consists of DiAngelo’s many stories of ways in which white people unknowingly insult or condescend to black people, and the lessons to be learned from this.

∞∞∞

Why do liberal white people resist her message?

∞∞∞

One problem is her vocabulary.

When you accuse white people of being “racist,” you are putting them in the same category as the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Brotherhood.  I don’t react well to that, and neither do most white people.

DiAngelo says this is a misunderstanding.  When she calls people “racist,” she says, she does not intent to imply that we are bad people, and she we shouldn’t react as if she was.

But it is her choice to use such highly-charged words as “racism” and “white supremacy” rather than milder words such as “implicit bias” or “racial insensitivity.”  Such language puts people on the moral defensive, and I’m pretty sure that’s her intent.

She says she is not making a moral statement, but she is saying is that (1) whites—all whites—harbor attitudes that produce great evils in the world, (2) we need to change, but (3) in fact we never can—not completely.  

This is akin to the theological doctrine of original sin.  For her, being a racist, like being a sinner, is something you are, not something you do.  In the Christian context, awareness of sin and repentance is followed by redemption.  But for DiAngelo, there is no redemption.  Whites can diminish, but never eliminate their inherent racist sinfulness.

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Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South

December 18, 2018

England during the reign of Queen Victoria was the world’s first and greatest industrial power and the center of a global empire that governed a quarter of the world’s population.

Yet you would hardly know this from reading most Victorian novels.  They’re typically set in London or in rural southern England, often the most backward parts.  Industry and empire are offstage.

One exception to this is Elisabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855), which I recently read as part of a novel-reading group hosted by my friends Linda and David White.

Mrs. Gaskell did not just lament slums and poverty.  She took the trouble to try to understand newly-industrializing England—how the textile mills operated, the economics of the textile industry and the Issues at stake in the conflict between capital and labor.

Her viewpoint character is 20-year-old Margaret Hale, who is forced to relocate with her family from the sunny agricultural and aristocratic South of England to the grimy, slum-ridden town of Milton (Manchester) in Darkshire (Lancashire) in the North.

There she encounters John Thornton, a self-made industrialist who, at the age of 30, has risen from low-paid employment as a draper’s assistant to the owner of a manufacturing business that does business worldwide, and Nicholas Higgins, a worker in Thornton’s factory, who is driven by poverty and need to organize a strike.

Thornton is handsome, energetic and articulate.  He could easily be a character in an Ayn Rand novel.  He feels beholden to no one, asks nothing of anyone and refuses to accept dictation or advice from anyone, including the workers in his factory, whom he regards as antagonists.

Competition from American factories causes him to cut wages—but he does not feel he needs to justify this to his workers or anybody else.

Inspired by Nicholas Higgins, the workers go on strike.  Most of the major strikes in the 19th century UK and US were, like this one, in response to wage cuts, not demands for wage increases.

Thornton imports strikebreakers from Ireland, with a priest to keep them under control and guards to prevent them from communicating with the strikers.

The strikers probably would have lost anyway, but some of the workers disregard Higgins’ advice to remain nonviolent and stage a riot in front of Thornton’s house, which gives him an excuse to call in the police.

The textile mill owners hire the strikers back, if they pledge not to join a union.  Higgins refuses to do this.

He asks Margaret to help him move to the South and get a job as an agricultural labor.  But she tells him this is not realistic.  Bad as conditions in the factories are, the plight of agricultural workers is worse.  They do nothing but eat, sleep and work, she says; they are incapable of the comradeship of the workers in the North.

The same is true of the servant class in the South.  The Hales find it difficult to hire servants in Milton.  Factory girls would rather work 10 hours a day and have the rest of their time free than endure the life of a servant, which means being on duty 24/7 with maybe one Saturday afternoon off every couple of weeks.

In the South, some servants find this endurable because they regard themselves as members of their families.  But this is not the spirit of the go-getting North, where everyone is out for themselves.

So far, so realistic.

But Mrs. Gaskell then veers from her realism in order to bring about a happy ending.

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Matthew Crawford on cultural “jigs”

December 7, 2018

I’m currently re-reading Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head, this time as part of a reading group.  In the following passage, Crawford compares “jigs” used by skilled craft workers to simplify their tasks to cultural constraints that simplify moral choices.

In the boom after World War II, the [American] left lost interest in economics and shifted its focus from labor issues to a more wide-ranging project of liberation, to be achieved by unmasking and discrediting various forms of cultural authority.

In retrospect, this seems to have prepared the way for a new right, no less committed to the ideal of the unencumbered self (that ideal actor of the free market), whose freedom could be realized only in a public space cleared of distorting influence—through deregulation.

Few institutions or sites of cultural authority were left untouched by the left’s critiques.  Parents, teachers, priests, elected officials—there was little that seemed defensible.

Looking around in stunned silence, left and right eventually discovered common ground: a neoliberal consensus in which we have agreed to let the market quietly work its solvent action on all impediments to the natural chooser within.

Another way to put this is that the left’s project of liberation led us to dismantle inherited cultural jigs that once imposed a certain coherence (for better or worse) on individual lives.  [snip]

The combined effects of these liberating and deregulating effects of the right and left has been to ratchet up the burden of self-regulation.

Some indication of how well we are bearing this burden can be found in the fact that we [Americans] are now very fat, very much in debt and very prone to divorce.

The dangerous new cold war in cyberspace

November 28, 2018

When President Barack Obama was pondering what to do about Russian interference in the 2016 elections, his intelligence chiefs, according to New York Times reporter David Sanger,  considered the following possibilities for retaliation:

  • Reveal the secret tax haven accounts of Vladimir Putin and his oligarch friends.
  • Shut show the servers of Guccifer 2.0, DCLeaks and WikiLeaks, the web sites that disseminated confidential Democratic National Committee e-mails
  • Attack the computer systems of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence system.
  • Cut off the Russian banking system’s connection with SWIFT, the international clearinghouse for banking transactions.

Those are the kinds of things that are now possible.

None of these options were acted upon or even brought officially to the President’s notice.  The reason is that American computer systems would be virtually defenseless against retaliation.

It would be a new form of mutually assured destruction, less lethal than nuclear weapons, but still capable of destroying an industrial society’s ability to function.

For that reason President Obama chose to use economic and diplomatic sanctions instead.

Sanger in his new book, THE PERFECT WEAPON: War, Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age, described this new ongoing cold war and arms race in cyber weapons.

Nations are developing the capability to use the Internet to shut down each others’ electric power grids, financial institutions and other vital public services, as well as engage in espionage and political subversion.

Each country’s cyberwar aims are somewhat different, Sanger wrote.   Russia uses the Internet to spread propaganda and disinformation, but it also has “embeds” in the U.S. electrical grids and voter registration systems.

China’s interest is in electronic espionage to acquire U.S. intellectual property and trade secrets for its high tech industry.  North Korea and Iran just retaliate against U.S. economic sanctions.

He reported that the United States Cyber Command has the most powerful offensive cyber weapons, yet the United States is vulnerable to cyber retaliation from even as backward a country as North Korea.

One way to defend against this would be to strengthen defenses, by encouraging all American institutions to protect their data by means of secure cryptography.

Sanger reported that the FBI, CIA and NSA are reluctant to do this because they want access to private computer and communications systems themselves.

Cyber surveillance is, as he said, a powerful means to track spies, terrorists and criminals and, I would add, dissidents and protesters.

So we Americans are more vulnerable than we know to cyber attacks, and our government isn’t telling us about our vulnerability.

∞∞∞

The first major act of cyberwarfare, according to Sanger, was the unleashing of the Stuxnet virus against Iran’s nuclear development program in 2010.

The attack, according to Sanger, was planned by the National Security Agency and Israel’s Unit 8300 military cyber unit in order to appease Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, so that he would not order a bombing attack on Iran.

The operation, called Olympic Games, took out about 1,000 of Iran’s 6,000 or so centrifuges, and caused the Iranians to shut down many more out of fear, he wrote.

But a year later, Iran had 18,000 centrifuges in operation.  At best, its nuclear development program was delayed for a year, not stopped permanently.

The Iranians might never have been completely sure what hit them, except the the Stuxnet virus spread beyond Iran into industrial computer systems all over the world.  Computer scientists analyzed the virus and figured out its purpose.

He said the United States developed another plan, called Nitro Zeus, a cyber attack that, in case of war, would shut down all of Iran’s electrical and electronic systems.

 The significance, Sanger pointed out, was that it set a precedent, like the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

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Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Moon

November 16, 2018

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my three or four favorite science fiction writers.  Red Moon, which just came out, is not his best, but I like it. 

The action takes place in 2047 in China and on China’s future colony on the moon. The main viewpoint character is a young American named Fred Fredericks, who seems to be on the autism spectrum.  

He goes to the moon to deliver a secure two-way communication device based on quantum entanglement, and is framed for murder by mysterious Chinese political conspirators.

He becomes involved with a pregnant young Chinese woman, Chan Qi, who is both the spoiled, proud daughter of a powerful member of the Politburo and the figurehead leader of a vast Chinese protest movement.

They escape capture, flee, are captured again, escape again and flee again back down in China and up on the moon again. 

The growing relationship of these two characters, so very different in personality and cultural background, is the emotional core of the novel.

The second most important viewpoint character is Ta Shu, an elderly poet and celebrity Chinese poet, who takes a liking to Fred and tries to befriend him.  He engages in conversations with various old friends that provide the reader with background information on Chinese history, culture and current and future problems.

Ta Shu sees Chinese history and culture as continuous. and the Communist regime as the latest Chinese ruling dynasty, not as a revolutionary break with the past.

Then there is a rogue agent within the Chinese Great Firewall surveillance network, who is trying to track Qi and Fred while trying to teach an artificial intelligence program, nicknamed Little Eyeball, to think autonomously.

Robinson’s future China has benefitted from Xi Jinping’s reforms, of which the most important he sees not as  the Belt and Road Initiative (aka the New Silk Road), but landscape renewal and restoration.  The benefit is not only repair of the environmental damage created by China’s rapid industrialization, but in reduction in the amount of poverty and improvement in public health.

China in 2047 is the world’s foremost economic and technological power, and has used its new wealth and knowledge to colonize the southern hemisphere of the Moon, leaving the northern hemisphere to late-comers—the USA, the European Union, Brazil and other great powers.

But many problems remain.  First and foremost among these problems is a vast underclass, comparable to unauthorized immigrants in the USA, consisting of 500 million poor peasants who have left their villages without authorization to seek a better life in the cities, but who are mercilessly exploited because they are outside the protection of the law.

The goals of the protest movement are to abolish the hukuo system, which forbids Chinese to change residences without permission, to restore the “iron rice bowl” (guaranteed job security) and to establish the rule of law.  None of the characters wants to overthrow Communism, only to make the Party live up to its ideals.

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What’s so great about democracy?

November 14, 2018

My core political beliefs are the ideals of American freedom and democracy I was taught as a schoolboy.  My belief in freedom as a political ideal was challenged by a book I read recently, Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick J. Deneen (2018).

Now I have read another, Breaking Democracy’s Spell  by John Dunn (2014), a gift from an old friend of mine, which questions democracy as a political ideal.

Dunn believes that the idea of democracy—especially as understood by 21st century Americans—is incoherent.  Unlike Deneen with liberalism, he does not have a theory of democracy; he just criticizes the shallowness of American thinking on the topic.  Oddly, he deals with the experience of only three countries, the USA, India and China.

He maintains that most Americans fail to realize that—

  1. Democracy does not guarantee good government.
  2. Democracy does not guarantee human rights or the rule of law.
  3. Voting affects governmental decisions but little.  Its main purpose is to give the public the impression they are in control.
  4. Democracy has been in bad repute through most of Western history.  
  5. Democracy’s current popularity is a product of specific circumstances in the past few centuries and may not last.
  6. China’s authoritarian system may prove to be more lasting than democracy as practiced in the USA or India.

Here are my thoughts.

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