Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

China bids for world leadership

February 19, 2020

China has the world’s largest or second largest economy, depending on how it is measured.  It is world’s leading manufacturer and exporter.  It has nuclear weapons and the world’s largest standing army.

Its leader, Xi Jinping, has a plan to connect the interior of Eurasia an integrated whole, through construction of railroads and oil and gas pipelines.

This Belt and Roads Initiative, together with China’s informal military alliance with Russia, would make the interior of Eurasia an economic zone dominated by China and largely invulnerable to U.S. sea and air power.

It would mean world leadership for a nation whose leaders explicitly reject such ideas as universal values, intrinsic human rights, freedom of the press and an independent judiciary—ideas that we Americans consider foundations of Western civilization.

How likely is it that China’s leaders can realize these ambitions?  A scholar named Elizabeth C. Economy took a calm and skeptical look at China in a 2018 book entitled THE THIRD REVOLUTION: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State.

The first revolution, in her view, was Mao Zedong’s victory over Chiang Kaishek in 1949.

Mao made China a unified nation free of foreign influence, and started China on the road to industrialization.  But his utopian dreams and totalitarian government brought China to the brink of collapse.

Hundreds of thousands and maybe millions of Chinese were killed in purges.  Millions and maybe tens of millions starved to death because nobody dared tell the truth about his failed agricultural policies.  Mao’s Cultural Revolution, intended to break up a new emerging social hierarchy, reduced the whole country to chaos.

The second revolution, in her view, was the emergence of Deng Xiaoping.  He accomplished what few leaders in history have been able to do—reform an authoritarian government.   Typically reformers fail to change the system, like Khrushchev, or undermine the stability of what they are trying to reform, like Gorbachev.

Deng loosened the authority of the Communist Party and relaxed economic controls just enough to allow for individual initiative, while keeping control.   He set up a system of collective leadership with an orderly succession.

Unlike Mao, he kept in the background and exercised power from behind the scenes,  On the world scene, his policy was to quietly make China stronger without alarming the existing great powers.

His policies, and not Mao’s, produced a great leap forward in economic development.  China’s rise from the wreckage of the Cultural Revolution was as great an economic miracle as the rise of Germany and Japan from the ashes of World War Two.  Dang was one of the great statesmen of the 20th century.

Many Western observers thought that as China became integrated into the world economy, it would adopt liberal and democratic values.  Xi Jinping’s third revolution is intended to prevent this from happening.

Xi has eliminated tern limits.  He evidently intends to serve for life, which could mean a succession struggle like the one that followed the death of Mao.  He has reaffirmed Communist Party control of the economy, and insists on ideological orthodoxy.

But what is the meaning of Communist ideology in a country with a stock exchange, giant profit-seeking corporations and 485 billionaires?  Under Xi, Communism is reduced to Chinese nationalism and obedience to authority..

One reason for the downfall of the Soviet Union was that people stopped believing in Marxism-Leninism as an ideal.   How long can the Chinese believe in a “socialism with Chinese characteristics” that is indistinguishable from capitalism?

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The new Chinese surveillance state

January 29, 2020

Shoshana Zuboff warned us of the perils of American surveillance capitalism, and Edward Snowden of the American surveillance state.  But China’s ruler, Xi Jinping, is creating a surveillance system that leaves anything else far behind.

I recently read WE HAVE BEEN HARMONIZED: Life in China’s Surveillance State, by a German journalist named Kai Strittmatter, about how the components of the new system are now being put into place in different parts of China.

The components are:

A unified Internet service that combines the functions of a smart phone and a credit card, and allows for tracking of all electronic communication and all financial transactions.

A video surveillance system using facial recognition software that allows for tracking of all public behavior.

An artificial intelligence system capable of integrating all this information.

Algorithms that give people a “credit score” based on the government’s approval or disapproval of their behavior.

This is something like the two-way television sets in George Orwell’s 1984 and something like the East German Stasi’s real-life eavesdropping and surveillance system.

Both the fictional and the real system were limited by the human inability to keep track of everything all of the time.  The Chinese government’s hope is that advanced computer technology can overcome these limits.

At the same time, China is still an old-fashioned Soviet-style police state.  Dissidents are treated the same as in the Soviet Union in the 1970s.  The new controls do not replace the old.  Instead they are layered on top of them.

China, according to Strittmatter, is a virtually cashless society.  Payments are made through the WeChat app on the TenCent smartphone service or the Alipay app on the Alibaba service.  All transactions and all calls are monitored.

Certain words and phrases are forbidden in electronic communication. including “I do not agree,” “my emperor,” “Animal Farm” and “Winnie the Pooh”—the latter a nickname for the tall, stout, benign-looking  General Secretary Xi.

A law imposes three years in prison for anyone who posts a harmful rumor on the Internet, if it is shared 500 times or viewed 5,000 times.  There was a wave of arrests in 2013 for spreading false rumors.

Strittmatter saw a video surveillance system at an intersection that showed the faces of jaywalks on a huge screen, together with their names, home addresses and ID numbers.  These systems do not exist everywhere in China, but they are examples of what might be.

He saw a video surveillance system in a collage classroom that monitored whether students were paying attention.  It also recorded their facial expressions, which were fed into a system that supposedly could evaluate their feelings and emotions.

Robin Li, CEO of Baidu, a leading Chinese search engine company, told Strittmatter that his goal was to insert artificial intelligence into every aspect of human life.

The Chinese government plans to use this data to set up a “social credit” system which will give each Chinese person a score for “social truthworthiness.”  Strittmatter saw such a system being tested in the small city of Rongcheng.

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Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters

December 31, 2019

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters is a novel set in England in the late 1820s and early 1830s when the only role for middle-class and upper-class women was to be somebody’s wife or somebody’s daughter.  Lower-class women, of course, were “free” to make their own way as servants.

It was published in incomplete form in 1866 after Mrs. Gaskell’s death.  The main plot thread is the progress of step-sisters Molly Gibson and Cynthia Kirkpatrick from being daughters to being wives.  I read it as part of a reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.

It’s very readable, with likable believable characters and a moderately intriguing plot.  It’s also interesting as a portrait of a vanished way of life.

It is very different from North and South, which is the only other Gaskell novel I have read. While North and South is written in primary colors, so to speak, Wives and Daughters has many subtly different shades.

North and South is a report on the conflict between workers and factory owners in industrial Manchester, which is presented as a social problem that needs to be solved.

Wives and Daughters is full of shrewd observations about men and women and the different social classes relate to each other, but this is presented as an interesting and amusing reality, not as a problem.

Molly Gibson is the daughter of Dr. Gibson, a widower.  He is a good man, who is devoted to his patients.  He loves his daughter dearly and would do anything to make her happy, but he doesn’t make an effort to understand her.  He regards her desire for an education as silly, and unnecessary for a women.

Molly, on the other hand, devotes a lot of thought to understanding her dad.  Like Margaret Hale in North and South, she takes on adult responsibility at a young age and, in some ways, is more of a parent to her father than he is to her.

Early in the novel Dr. Gibson marries a widow, Clare Kirkpatrick.  She is a schoolmistress with a daughter, Cynthia, who is Molly’s age.  Being a schoolmistress or governess was the only profession open to respectable women in those days, and even that involved a step down in social rank, so she regards marriage as an escape.

Their courtship is very quick, and the two of them hardly know each other when they marry.  Because of their social position, they had few choices of marriage partners.  They wouldn’t marry down into the laboring class and they couldn’t marry up into the monied landowning class.

Their expectations are different.  Dr. Gibson wants a wife who will be a mother to Molly and keep house, but otherwise allow him to go on living as before.  Mrs. Kirkpatrick wants the perquisites of a higher social position and a household that upholds that position.

She is not cruel or malicious, but she is self-centered and never thinks about what other people think or want.  In her blindness to what others think or want, she is an example of how extreme selfishness makes you stupid.  She loves no-one, including her daughter.

Cynthia has grown up without experiencing a mother’s love.  Mrs. Kirkpatrick sent her away to school at a young age and treated her as a nuisance when she was at home.

She is exceedingly beautiful and charming.  She has the superpower of being effortlessly fascinating to men.  I’ve known women like that in my life, and so have most men.  So, interestingly, have the women in our reading group.

She is, like her mother, without an emotional core.  But unlike her mother, she is aware of what she lacks.  She regrets it and yet feels powerless to change.  She cares about what others think of her, but feels no true affection for anyone—except her stepsister Molly.

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Edward Snowden tells his story

December 5, 2019

In 2013, at age 29, Edward Snowden became the world’s most famous whistleblower.

He told the world that U.S. Intelligence agencies were gathering information on everyone on earth who’d ever made a phone call, text message or e-mail, used Google, Amazon, Facebook or a credit card or had electronic medical, educational or financial information on record.

His new book, PERMANENT RECORD, tells how he got the information out, and why he risked death and prison and suffered exile to do it.

I don’t think anybody, no matter how much they may question his actions, can doubt the sincerity of his motives.

He grew up in a family with a heritage of military and government service.  Both his parents had security clearances.

HIs basic values (like mine) were belief in American freedom and democracy as he was taught about them in school.  Also, like many others in the 1990s, he believed in computers and the Internet as a force for human liberation.

From a young age, he had a knack for analyzing systems for weaknesses.  He analyzed the grading criteria for his high school courses, and figured out that he could get a passing grade without doing any homework.

As a teenager, he found a hole in the security system of Los Alamos National Laboratories and pestered authorities until they acknowledged it and fixed it.

His first impulse after the 9/11 attacks was to enlist in the Army and try to qualify for the Special Forces.  But he was injured in a training accident and discharged.  He then joined the Central Intelligence Agency instead.

Organizations based on hierarchy and adherence to a chain of command do not usually welcome recruits who are given to pointing out flaws in the system.  But the CIA dealt with Snowden by giving him special permissions so they could use his talents.

As a CIA officer and later as a contractor for the National Security Agency, Snowden gained unusual access to the whole range of CIA and NSA activities.  He became aware that they were spying not just on foreign governments and suspicious characters, but virtually everyone in the USA and abroad.

Knowledge is power.  If someone knows everything about me, they have power over me.  Most people (myself included) have done things they’re ashamed of, and wouldn’t want known.  Almost everyone has done or said something that can be made to look bad.

In the days of J. Edgar Hoover, the Federal Bureau of Investigation would wiretap prominent figures and read their mail, then blackmail them.  There is no guarantee that the heads of the CIA and NSA would not use their knowledge to blackmail.  There is no guarantee they are not already doing so.

Government agencies that are doing this operate in secrecy.  They have power over us, but we the people can’t set limits on them because we don’t even know what is happening.

Snowden could not discuss his qualms with anyone, not even his lover, Lindsay Mills (now his wife).  To breathe a word to anyone would have been considered a violation of the Espionage Act, which carries a maximum penalty of death.

Having reached a decision in silence, he had to make a plan silence and execute it alone.  He had to figure out exactly what the CIA and NSA were doing, how to prove it and how to disseminate that proof in a way that would have an impact.  Any error in his plan or its execution would have been fatal.

The strain must have been almost unbearable.  The temptation to confide in someone must have been almost irresistable (which was the downfall of his fellow whistleblower, Pvt. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning).

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Edward Snowden on the 9/11 attacks

December 3, 2019

The following is from Edward Snowden’s new book, Permanent Record.

Nearly three thousand people died on 9/11

Imagine everyone you love, everyone you know, even everyone with a familiar name or just a familiar face—and imagine they’re gone.  

Imagine the empty houses.  Imagine the empty school, the empty classrooms.  All those people you lived among and who formed the fabric of your days, just not there anymore.

The events of 9/11 left holes.  Holes in families, holes in communities. Holes in the ground.

Now consider this: over one million people have been killed in the course of America’s response.

Edward Snowden on the surveillance state

December 3, 2019

The following is from Edward Snowden’s new book, Permanent Record

Algorithms analyze…[our data] for patterns of established behavior in order to extrapolate behaviors to come, a type of digital prophecy that’s only slightly more accurate than analog methods like palm reading.

Once you go digging into the actual technical mechanisms by which predictability is calculated, you come to understand the its science is, in fact, anti-scientific, and fatally misnamed: predictability is actually manipulation.

A website that tells you that because you liked this book, you might also like books by James Clapper or Michael Hayden isn’t offering an educated guess as much as a mechanism of subtle coercion.

We can’t allow ourselves to be used in this way, to be used against the future.  We can’t permit our data to be used to sell us the very things that must not be sold, such as journalism.  If we do, the journalism we get will be merely the journalism we want, or the journalism the powerful want us to have, not the honest collective conversation that’s necessary.

We can’t let the godlike surveillance we’re under to be used to “calculate” our citizenship scores, or to “predict” our criminal activity; to tell us what kind of education we can have, or what kind of education we can have, or what kind of job we can have, or whether we can have an education or job at all; to discriminate against us based on our financial, legal and medical histories, not to mention our ethnicity or race, which are constructs that data often assumes or imposes.

And as for our most intimate data, our genetic information: if we allow it to be used to identify us, it will be used to victimize us, even to modify us—to remake the very essence of our humanity in the image of the technology that seeks its control.

Of course, all of the above has already happened.

The Plain of Snakes: Paul Theroux in Mexico

November 20, 2019

In 2017, the travel writer Paul Theroux, at the age of 76 set out in his car to drive through Mexico, disregarding well-founded warnings of danger. He wrote about his trip in his new book, On the Plain of Snakes: a Mexican Journey.

The Plain of Snakes is an actual place in Mexico, but Theroux wrote that for ordinary Mexican people, most of the country is like a plain of snakes.

There is no safe haven from the murderous criminals that run the drug cartels.  Nor do the corrupt police and military offer an protection.

Yet ordinary Mexicans, he found, are amazingly hospitable and helpful.  He saw a stark contrast between the integrity and courage of individual Mexicans he met, and the corruption and savagery of Mexican society.

The drug cartels demonstrate their power by dumping mutilated corpses in public places.  They kidnap powerful people and hold them for ransom.  They kidnap poor migrants and coerce them into being prostitutes or couriers.

More than 200,000 Mexicans have been killed since 2006 when the Mexican government, at the instigation of the United States, declared war on the cartels.

But the killings aren’t just due to the drug wars.  Many were in power struggles between cartels, or attacks on honest journalists, judges and police, or just demonstrations of raw power.

In many parts of Mexico, the narcos are more powerful than the government.  Recently there was confrontation between a cartel and the government, and the government backed down—which may have been justified under the circumstances, but does not bode well.

The Mexican military and police are almost as violent and abusive as the cartels, according to Theroux.  They are often interlocked with the cartels, while the gangs themselves recruit from elite Mexican and Central American military units.

Narco terrorism in Mexico is a more serious concern for the USA than ISIS terrorism in the Middle East, but of course any U.S. military intervention in Mexico would be a disaster..

There is a widespread cult in Mexico of an entity called Santa Muerte (Holy Death), who is cross between a Catholic saint (although her worship has been condemned by the Vatican) and an Indian spirit.  Theroux said she has an estimated 20 million worshipers, including members of the cartels but also many ordinary Mexicans.

The distinctive thing about Santa Muerte is that she supposedly offers unconditional help to those who worship her.  You don’t have to be in a state of grace or repent of your sins, just willing to venerate her.  I can see why this would be appealing to poor and desperate people.

One of the distinctive things about Mexican culture is acceptance and even embrace of the fact of death.  The Day of the Dead is an important Mexican holiday.  It is in some ways like an exaggerated version of U.S. Hallowe’en, but all skeletons and ghosts, and also a time for picnicking near the graves of loved ones.

With all these things bearing down on them, one might expect Mexicans to be callous and suspicious.  That’s how I would be in their circumstances.

But Theroux’s experience was just the opposite.  Except for his encounters with police, all his interactions with Mexicans were positive. HIs trip depended on the helpfulness of many people.

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How progressivism was defeated in its birthplace

November 6, 2019

Wisconsin is arguably the birthplace of progressivism in the United States.  At the dawn of the 20th century, that state enacted the nation’s first workers’ compensation law, its first unemployment insurance program, and the first recognition of collective bargaining rights for public employees.

Under the leadership of the great Robert M. “Fighting Bob” La Follette, the state established direct primary elections, banned corporate contributions to political candidates and regulated railroad rates.

He forged a powerful political coalition of wage-earners, independent farmers and small-business owners, defending their interests against corporate monopoly.  In 1910, running for re-election as senator, he won 78 percent of the vote and carried all but one of Wisconsin’s then 71 counties.  After his death in 1926, his two sons carried on his legacy.  From 1901 until 1946, a La Follette was either senator from Wisconsin or governor of the state.

Wisconsin became known for the quality of its public schools, state university and public services.  Much of what was done there became the model for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.  The La Follette legacy was very much a living memory when I attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1952-56.

Later Wisconsin became known as a leader in protection of the environment.  The state was the home of Aldo Leopold, the noted writer and advocate of soil and wildlife conservation, and Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, who was both governor and senator.

But in 2010, the voters of Wisconsin elected Scott Walker, an extreme right-winter as governor.  He pretty much wiped La Follette’s legacy off the blackboard.  And then, in 2016, Wisconsin’s choice for President was Donald Trump.

I read THE FALL OF WISCONSIN: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics by Dan Kaufman to try to understand what happened.

What I learned from the book is that Wisconsin’s rich and interesting political tradition is irrelevant to what happened.  Scott Walker is not a product of Wisconsin politics.  He was the product of a national right-wing movement that has been building for 40 years.

This movement consists of an interlocking network of corporate donors, tax-exempt foundations and think tanks whose agenda is restore corporate business to a position of dominance.  Their specific goals are tax cuts, budget cuts, reduced pubic services, no public welfare, deregulation of business and regulation of labor unions.  Their claim is that all these things will attract business investment and promote prosperity, but this didn’t happen in Wisconsin or anywhere else it was tried.

The key right-wing institutions mentioned in the book are (1) Americans for Prosperity, the political advocacy arm of the billionaire Koch brothers, which among other things funded the Tea Party movement; (2) the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, whose “weaponized philanthropy” funds conservative think tanks, public interest law firms and opposition research firms; and (3) the American Legislative Exchange Council, which writes model legislation to advance the corporate cause.

For them, winning elections is not a goal, but a means of enacting their agenda.  Leaders such as Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove and Mitch McConnell do not try to appeal to as broad a constituency as possible, because the broader the appeal, the more their program would have to be diluted.

They prefer a narrow majority and an extreme program, which includes measures to lock in their power.  They recognize that, inevitably, the tide will turn against them.  Their calculation is that the tide will never go all the way back to where it was before, and meanwhile they will have left things in place that will help them make a comeback.

The problem is that there is no equivalent force to stand in their way.  There is no La Follette coalition of wage-earners, independent farmers and small-business owners left to defend the La Follette legacy..

All three groups have been losing ground, economically and politically, for decades.  None has a powerful voice in Madison (Wisconsin’s state capital) or Washington.  None of the three groups regards either of the other two as an ally or potential ally.

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The making of the Oxford English Dictionary

November 2, 2019

The Oxford English Dictionary, which attempts to encompass the whole English language, was and is an epic achievement.

Commissioned in 1857, begun in 1879 and completed in 1926, it consisted of 12 volumes containing 414,825 words and 1,827,306 illustrative quotations, most of them in type set by hand.  New editions and updates of the OED continue to this day.

This unflagging commitment to a purely cultural project, of no monetary or military value, is truly remarkable.  It is like the construction of the medieval cathedrals that were begun with the knowledge they would take a century or more to complete.

I learned about the background of the OED by reading Simon Winchester’s book THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1998, which my friend Jan Hickman gave me.

The professor was James Murray, the chair of the committee overseeing the compilation of the dictionary.  He was a Scot who dropped out of school because of poverty at age 14, but was respected as an expert on philology, having taught himself multiple ancient and modern languages, including Roma, the gypsy dialect.

Because of the immensity of the project, the OED depended on volunteers to contribute definitions and examples of word usage.

One of the most prolific volunteers was one Dr. W.C. Minor, who submitted tens of thousands of definitions and turned out to be an inmate of an asylum for the criminally insane. He had murdered an innocent man whom he thought was part of a plot to assassinate him.  Murray liked and respected Minor, and visited him regularly.

Minor’s distinctive contribution was to collect centuries-old books and read them through, not out of interest in the content, but simply to find early usages of words and how the definition would change.

By day, he was a scholar,  By night, he felt he was being tortured by enemies coming out of the walls and floor.  His performance, under the circumstances, was heroic.

Winchester remarked that it is too bad that mental illness was not understood back then as it is now.  But if Minor had lived 50 or 100 years later, he might have been subjected to lobotomies, electric shock treatments or mind-altering drugs. We still do not know to what extent mental illness is biological in nature and to what extent it is due to life experiences.

Instead his keepers treated him kindly and simply prevented him from wandering off and tried to prevent him from harming himself or others.  Of course good treatment was encouraged by the fact that his family was immensely rich.

I put down the book with increased respect for these Victorian men—their strength of character, their devotion to learning, their determination to carry through what they had committed to do.  I also appreciated the great individual dictionary makers—Samuel Johnson in 18th century England and Noah Webster in the 19th century USA.

What project could be started today that people would still be committed to carrying on a century or more from now?

LINKS

Simon Winchester’s website.

Blog | Oxford English Dictionary.

Contribute to the OED | Oxford English Dictionary.

U.S. history from the viewpoint of the Indians

October 21, 2019

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s disturbing An Indigenous People’s History of the United States is, in the author’s words, the investigation of a crime scene.

She told a story of a nation that broke treaty after treaty in order to engage in unprovoked military aggression, ethnic cleansing and genocide in order to gain living space.

Settler militias and government troops burned crops, demolished homes, and paid bounties for the scalps of Indian men, women, and children. The buffalo were deliberately destroyed to deny sustenance to the Plains Indians

British General Jeffrey Amherst practiced germ warfare against the Pontiacs in colonial times.  US army personnel skinned Indian victims to make bridles for their horses.  The buffalo were deliberately destroyed in order to deny sustenance for the Plains Indians.

General William T. Sherman, who headed the War Department under the Grant administration, famously said that the only good Indians he ever saw were dead.

I see an obvious analogy.

What happened to the Indians was not happenstance, Dunbar-Ortiz wrote.  It was a result of both government policy and the core values not only of American culture, but of European civilization as a whole.

These policies and values shaped U.S. military tradition and its way of waging war today, she wrote.  U.S. troops still call occupied territories “indian county.”

I kind-of, sort-of, in-a-way vaguely knew much of the contents of the book, but it never fully registered on me until I read it.  Having all these facts concentrated into one 236-page indictment has an impact I can’t forget.

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When Columbus sailed in 1492, there was a flourishing native American civilization.  Dunbar-Ortiz said it was wiped out not only by the unplanned spread of European diseases, but also as deliberate policy.  European and native American civilizations were incompatible.

Europeans believed in the “doctrine of discovery,” which is that Christians have the right to claim territory they discover for their own, regardless of the non-Christian inhabitants.  This is still part of U.S. law, she noted.

The Puritan settlers of New England were Calvinists, like the Boers in South Africa.  They believed that they, like the ancient Israelites in the Old Testament, had made a covenant with God that entitled them to the land they settled and that the existing inhabitants were to be killed, subjugated or driven out, like the Canaanites.

In the South, the economy was based on plantation agriculture worked by forced labor, which poor whites couldn’t compete with.  They became frontiersmen instead.

The settlers’ goal was to own land individually, to exploit or sell as they saw fit.  The Indian nations could never accept this.   The varied Indian cultures all believed that land was a common inheritance that could not be alienated.

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U.S. labor’s new strategies for a new century

October 15, 2019

Freedom of contract begins where equality of bargaining power begins.  (==Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.)

A class war is being waged in the United States, and American workers are losing.  For the past 50 years, labor unions, the only institutions whose specific purpose is to defend workers’ rights, have gone from defeat to defeat.

New Deal protections of labor rights have been taken away, one-by-one, through court decisions, anti-labor laws and non-enforcement of labor laws.   Republican politicians, with few exceptions, regard unions as hated

American business is increasingly a network of supply chains, franchises and “independent” contractors,” which are almost impossible to shut down through strikes.  As a result, labor union membership has steadily fallen.

Steven Greenhouse, who was a long-time labor reporter for the New York Times, describes the state of American labor in his new book, BEATEN DOWN, WORKED UP: The Past, Present and Future of American Labor.   

He reviewed the history of U.S. labor’s rise and decline. but the most interesting parts of the book are his reports on successful tactics and strategies of today’s labor movement.

They often operate outside the framework of labor law. I’m not surprised or shocked that unions sometimes defy the law.  Employers routinely break the law, in firing workers for belonging to unions, for example, or not paying workers for all hours worked.

They often bypass being certified as bargaining agents by the National Labor Relations Board or asking for legally-enforceable contracts.   Instead their power comes from their own solidarity and power.

They found allies in the broader community.  They used unconventional tactics.  Saul Alinsky would admire many of today’s labor leaders.  They didn’t confine themselves to strikes.  They organized boycotts, publicity campaigns, mass demonstrations and lawsuits—anything to inconvenience or embarrass their opponents.

But often when they won, management found they were better off treating their workers with respect than as enemies.

A large number of labor leaders and rank-and-file workers quoted by Greenhouse are immigrants, women and people of color.  I don’t think that’s affirmative-action reporting on his part.  It is the nature of today’s work force.

Here are some of the stories he told/

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About 90 percent of fresh tomatoes in the USA are picked in Immokalee, Florida.  Tomato pickers historically worked long hours in the 90+ degree temperatures.

Women pickers were sexually harassed.  Pickers were often cheated of their wages.  A few were actually enslaved—held prisoner and forced to work without wages.

Farm workers are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act, which supposedly guarantees the right to organize unions.

In 1991, farmworker activists founded the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a coalition that did outreach and education.

The founding group included three Haitians  pickers who’d been peasant organizers in their own country, but were now refugees in the United States.

They followed the Latin American labor tradition of “popular education,” using classes and skits to teach about labor history, U.S. agribusiness and how to educate and organize.

In 1993, they carried out their first strike.  They won minor victories from different growers, but then decided to focus instead on Taco Bell, a principal buyer of tomatoes.  In 2001, they organized a national boycott of Taco Bell.  Twenty colleges barred Taco Bell from campus.

After a huge demonstration at Taco Bell’s 2005 stockholders’ meeting, the company agreed to adopt a code of conduct for its suppliers, which set standards for wages, benefits, working hours and employee safety and also to pay a penny a pound more for its Florida tomatoes.

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Kate Atkinson’s Transcription

October 9, 2019

For light reading, I turned to Kate Atkinson’s spy story, Transcription.  It’s not as amazing as her Life After Life, but it’s a good read.

The central character, Juliet Armstrong, is working for the BBC in 1950 when she encounters someone from her past—the time in 1940 when she was 18 years old and transcribing recordings from hidden microphone for Britain’s MI-5 counterintelligence service.

Armstrong is an interesting and complicated character.  Her 18-year-old self is innocent and naive.  We the worldly readers who’ve read spy fiction understand what she sees better than she does herself.  Yet she also is secretive, deceptive and disinclined to take things at face value—a good fit for the world of espionage.

She is part of a team eavesdrops on a British fascist cell whose leader, unknown to its members, is himself a British intelligence agent.  Her job is to transcribe recordings from the hidden microphones in the rooms where they meet.

Eventually she is promoted to being an agent herself, spying on a higher-level group of British fascists called the Right Club.

At first her targets seem like harmless cranks.  But she soon learns she is in a real war, with real casualties.

The Right Club makes contact with one Chester Venderkamp, an American embassy employee who has obtained copies of secret messages exchanged by cable between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

These cables show President Roosevelt has violated American neutrality by supporting the British and trying to involve the United States in the war.

Vanderkamp gives copies of the cables to the Right Club so they can be sent to Germany, and, with Juliet’s help, they all are caught red-handed.

The Right Club really did exist, and it was headed by a Russian emigre named Anna Wolkoff, just as in the novel.  The real club was in contact with an American embassy employee named Kent Tyler, who did have copies of the Roosevelt-Churchill cables.

Unlike the Vanderkamp character, Tyler Kent was a whistleblower, who wanted to inform the U.S. Senate and American press of what President Roosevelt was up to.  In his own mind, Kent was an American patriot.

I think present-day whistle-blowers such as Chelsea Manning are heroes.  I don’t think Tyler Kent was a hero.  Am I inconsistent?  Maybe.  Circumstances alter cases.  Civilization hung in the balance in 1940.  Not so in 2010.

Kent got off lightly because the U.S. government could not afford a public trial in which the facts would come out.  Back in 1940, the U.S. government had no legal provision for secret trials or secret evidence based on claims of national security.

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A black woman in ‘a world made for whiteness’

October 2, 2019

Austin Channing Brown was a beneficiary of the civil rights movement.  But she never reached the point where she was judged on the content of her character instead of the color of her skin.

She grew up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when overt racial prejudice had ceased to be socially acceptable.  She attended a good majority-white private Christian school and good majority-white colleges.  She had a career in majority-white religious non-profit institutions, all of which paid lip service to diversity and inclusiveness.

She now is a writer, lecturer, workshop coordinator and producer of a new TV program, The Next Question, which will air starting Oct. 6.  Few if any of these things would have been possible before the civil rights era.

But, in her memoir, I’M STILL HERE: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, she wrote that she still feels like an outsider in a white world, and for good reason.

Her response is to immerse herself in what she calls Blackness (with a capital B) and take an oppositional stance toward what she sees as a monolithic entity called whiteness (all lower  case)

I have reservations about that.  The value of the book for me is its account of what even well-off black people have to put up, even when they’re with supposedly nice liberal white people.

Her parents named her ‘Austin Channing’ because they hoped that, when she sent in job applications, the potential employer would mistake her for a white man and invite her in for an interview.

Her parents were realistic.  Studies have shown that job applicants and loan applicants with characteristically black names get turned down at a higher rate than identical people with characteristically white upper-crust names.

And her own experience was that, in fact, interviewers were discombobulated when she came in the door and they saw who she was.

Another lesson from her dad: Never put her hands in her pockets or in her purse when in a store.  Because she was black, somebody might think she stole something.

When problems arose with white co-workers, Brown wrote, her mentors would invariably assume that she herself was the problem.  They would say they knew the co-workers and knew that they could never be racist.

There was a lot of racial prejudice, she wrote, underlying apparent concern and kindness.  Possibly she saw prejudice when it wasn’t there.

But that is the problem that black people face.  They never can know for sure whether a white person’s behavior toward them is a response to them as individuals or to their race.

Added to this is the problem of not fitting in, of not sharing the background, interests, tastes and assumptions common to her white co-workers.  This isn’t malice, it isn’t racial prejudice, but it is a real problem.

In my own case, I always felt a little uncomfortable when I was the only white person in the room.  I did not completely understand what was being said or done, and I was a little afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing.

I am socially awkward generally, so somebody else might not have felt the way I did..  But I think I did get a glimpse of the stress that many black people must feel when they are in this kind of situation every day.

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More about the Brahmin left and merchant right

September 24, 2019

Democrats in the U.S., the Labor Party in Britain and left-wing parties in France no longer primarily represent the interests of wage earners, according to Thomas Piketty, the famous French economist.

Instead they represent an educated elite, which he calls the Brahmin left, while the conservative parties represent a financial elite, which he calls the merchant right.

The educated elite are not an intellectual elite.  Having advanced college degrees don’t make you an intellectual any more than owning stocks and bonds makes you an entrepreneur.

I agree that there is less conflict of interest between the educated elite and the financial elite than there is between the two elites and the majority of wage-earners.

In a typical Fortune 500 corporation, the CEO, the board of directors and the institutional stockholders would be the merchant right.

Salaried middle management, the highly-paid consultants and most especially the human resources department would be the Brahmin left.  Their income would not come from financial assets, but from their rank in an organization, for which they would qualify by means of educational credentials.

The human resources department of an organization usually determines the organizational culture.  Typically HR people are big on diversity training and being LGBTQ allies because these things do not affect the wealth of stockholders or the power of top management.

American non-profit organizations such as universities and hospitals and also government agencies are adopting a  corporate model.

This means a well-paid top-heavy administrative overhead along with lower pay, higher demands and less security for those who do actual work.   Adjunct teachers, hospital nurses and letter carriers are treated just the same as factory workers.

Just to be clear, I’m in favor of sticking up for the rights of minorities, women and other groups that are targets of prejudice.  What’s wrong is using this as cover for lower wages, longer hours, expansion of contingent work and a fight against labor unions.

Such are my observations about American institutional life.  I don’t know how true these observations are true of institutions in Britain and France, or whether they are true at all, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were.

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Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red

September 23, 2019

I finished reading Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red, last week.  Published in 1998 and translated from the Turkish in 2001, it is an interesting oddity—a historical novel, a love story, a murder mystery and a novel of ideas.  Pamuk won the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature.

The chapters have various narrators, all addressing the reader in a conversational style.  The narrators are not just the principal characters, but the two dead murder victims, their anonymous murderer, illustrations of a dog, a horse, a tree, two dervishes, Satan and Death, an unnamed man imagining himself as a woman and the color red.

Islamic Empires. Click to enlarge

The setting is 1591 Istanbul, capital of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled north Africa, western Asia and the Balkans. a territory as extensive as the Roman Empire.

The Ottomans were eventually left behind by modern civilization, but at the height of their power, some Europeans admired their government, in which administrators were chosen for ability and disinterested loyalty, not noble birth, wealth or connections.

By the standards of the time, the Ottoman Empire was notably tolerant in religion.  It gave refuge to persecuted Jews and heretical Christians, including unitarians.

In the novel, Sultan Murat III commissions an illustrated book to celebrate the glories of his realm.  The problem is that he wants it painted in the European style, which many of his subjects consider contrary to Islam..

Pamuk’s artists see art is a form of mysticism.  A picture of a horse should be an ideal horse, a horse as God sees it, not a recognizable image of a particular horse.  If an artist has a unique style, that is an imperfection in his art.  The works of the greatest artists should be indistinguishable because they converge on a true vision.

I don’t know to what degree actual Turkish and Persian artists of the time thought that way and how much is Pamuk’s invention.

The two murders in the novel are a product of the murderer’s fear that the artists will be attacked by fanatic religious mobs if knowledge of their project gets out.

Two characters. the master miniaturist Osman and the apprentice Black, are given 72 hours to solve the second murder.

If they fail, the Ottoman judicial system will revert to its default procedure, which is to torture all suspects (in this case, including Osman and Black) until someone confesses or offers evidence of guilt of someone else.

To be fair, judicial torture was part of the judicial systems of Europe and China at the time, and the Ottoman system was used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in its hunt for terrorists following the 9/11 attacks.

I’m sure Pamuk planted enough clues to identify the murderer in advance, but I did not figure out who he was until the end.

Black is in love with the beautiful Shekuri, daughter of the illustrator Enishte, who is in charge of the Sultan’s manuscript project.  He has returned from eight years of wandering and found that she is married and the mother of two young sons.

Her husband is a warrior who has been missing in action for four years, and she lives in the house of her domineering father-in-law and lustful brother-in-law.  So she sees Black as a possible solution to her problem.

The two female characters, Shekuri and Esther, the Jewish neighborhood matchmaker and fixer, are the only ones who are able to think two or three steps ahead.  All the male characters are prisoners of passion and illusion..

There are fables within the main story and many, many allusions to how various illustrations related to Turkish and Persian literate and folklore.  I found this part of the novel tedious because I don’t know the background.

My Name Is Red would not be to everybody’s taste.  I found it interesting for its characters.  They operated under very different cultural assumptions from mine, but still reflected universal human nature in unexpected ways.

The world of Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley

September 12, 2019

I enjoyed reading Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley as part of a reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.  Published in 1849, the novel is set in Yorkshire in 1811-1812 at the time rebellious factory workers were fighting the introduction of labor-saving weaving machinery.

The title character is Shirley Keeldar, a rich, beautiful extroverted heiress who, in the absence of either father or husband, comes as close to being free and independent as was possible to any woman in that time and place.

By good-humoredly refusing to conform to the expectations for women in that era, she gets the men to accept her as a kind of honorary man.  She isn’t a rebel against society; she just wants to be a full participant.  She enjoys managing her estate and organizing charities.  She gets a number of proposals of marriage from rich suitors, which she turns down.

The Shirley character was the orphan daughter of a man who wanted a son and raised her as a boy—which was in fact the background of many accomplished women of that time and later.

Shirley was then a man’s name; it may have become more of a woman’s name because of the novel.

The emotional core of the novel is the intense personal friendship Shirley forms with the introverted and penniless Caroline Helstone, who lives as a tolerated poor relation of her uncle, Matthewson Helstone, an Anglican rector.

Rev. Helstone thinks he is doing his duty by Caroline by giving her food, shelter and a place to sit and do her sewing until some man comes along who is willing to marry her.

She is unhappy with these limitations, but the only choices for an upper- or middle-class woman of that time would be to find a suitable mate or live a marginal life as an old maid.   There was long before women could become school teachers, nurses or typists.

The only occupation open was governess, which is being a nanny and tutor to a rich family’s children.  Only educated women from genteel backgrounds are eligible to become governesses, but their lives were constant reminders that they are servants and social inferiors of their employees.

The older characters all regard Caroline’s discontent as girlish foolishness.  Their view is that life is not supposed to offer you love or happiness.  It is a grim test in which you prove or fail to prove your worthiness to enjoy eternal happiness with God in Heaven.

Caroline is attracted to her cousin, Robert Gérard Moore, a half-Belgian factory owner, who has affectionate and protective feelings toward her.  She accepts the fact that marriage is out of the question because she has no money.  Moore in turn has a platonic, intellectual friendship with Shirley.

Moore is in the forefront of the struggle against the “frame breakers,” workers are fighting mechanization of the weaving industry.  Brontë depicts them as criminals and terrorists who have successfully intimidated magistrates and other industrialists by threat of riot and assassination..

Moore alone has the courage to fight back.  He brings in troops to protect his factory, tracks down rebel leaders and sees to it that they are sentenced without mercy to transportation to Australia.  This is at great personal risk because at one point he is shot and nearly dies.

Rev. Helstone and the other Anglican clergy are all on Moore’s side.  They do not attempt to be peacemakers.  Methodist and Baptist preachers are depicted as part of the rebellious riffraff.

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World power and the rise and fall of population

September 5, 2019

Modern-day demographers view the nations of the world at different stages of what’s called the demographic transition.   And what stage they’re in has a lot to do with their power on the world scene.

There are nations at an early stage of the transition, with high fertility rates (number of births per woman).  There are nations at a middle stage of the transition, with fertility rates falling but population still growing.  And there are nations at the end stage of the transition, where the fertility rate is less than needed to replace the current population.

A demographer named Paul Morland, in a book called THE HUMAN TIDE: How Population Shaped the Modern World, explained how population growth and decline is related to geopolitical power.  There are nations with small populations that are rich, and there are nations with large populations have been poor and weak, but there are no nations that are both small and powerful.

The first nation to undergo the modern demographic transition was England, Morland’s own country.  In the days of Queen Elizabeth and the Spanish Armada, England was small and poor, compared not only to France, which was Europe’s largest nation, but also to Spain.

The high English birth rate enabled the English to grow strong and to found new nations—the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  In 1870, the English fertility rate was six children per woman.  British statesmen such as Cecil Rhodes foresaw a day when the English would overrun and rule the planet.

The high fertility rate of Anglo-Americans in the early 19th century explains their belief in their “manifest destiny” to create a nation that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  Mexico was no match for the USA because its population growth had not yet taken off.  Texas and California were virtually empty when Anglo settlers poured in.

The demographic transition began in the 20th century.  The English fertility rate was down to three children per woman in 1914 and down to about two in the 1920s and beyond.

The English and French feared the higher German fertility rate.  They may have been more willing to go to war in 1914 than they otherwise would have been, because they feared Germany would have had a greater population advantage in the future.

The Germans, in turn, feared the higher Russian fertility rate.  They may have been more willing to go to war with Russia for the same reasons that the English and French were more willing to go to war with them.

Russia benefitted from its population surge.  During the Second World War, the Red Army suffered many more casualties than the Wehrmacht, but won not only through its courage and fighting ability, but its greater numbers.  If the opposing forces on the Eastern Front had been equal in numbers, Nazi Germany might have won the Second World War.

Now the fertility rate is below the replacement rate in all these countries—the USA (including all races and demographic groups, not just Anglos), the UK, Germany and the Russian Federation.

Americans, English, Germans and Russians are no longer spreading through the world.  Instead Mexicans have been moving into the United States, citizens of the former British Empire are moving into the UK and the formerly subject peoples of Central Asia are immigrating into the Russian Federation.

Morland’s history covered many other nations and all the world’s regions.  He did not of course claim that population is the only factor in world power, only that it is an important one.  There is a correlation, although not a perfect one, between the rise and decline of economic and military power and the rise and decline of population.

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Attending to reality is a moral imperative

August 23, 2019

I read Matthew B. Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction .when it first came out in 2015 and reviewed it favorably.  I read it again recently as part of a reading group hosted by my friend Paul Mitacek and found it well worth re-reading.

Crawford’s basic idea is that we are what we pay attention to, so we should be careful what we pay attention to.  He wrote that there is a moral imperative to attend to the real world and not retreat to a world inside your head.

But attention is a limited resource.  You can’t focus on everything all at once, and your ability to focus is depleted over the course of a day.

The book has two themes.  One is the challenge of engaging with reality—the realities of tangible things, of other people and also of tradition—because reality can be frustrating.  It is what it is, regardless of your wishes..  The temptation is to buffer yourself by use of technology

The other theme is the danger of letting your attention be hijacked by people and organizations that want to manipulate you for their own purpose.  Attention comes in two kinds, purpose-driven and stimulus-driven.   The more you are forced to respond to stimuli, the less you are able to focus on your own purposes.

In the contemporary USA, there are billion-dollar industries devoted to capturing your attention and manipulating your perceptions.  It’s almost impossible to get away from this, as Crawford noted.  Silence has become a luxury good.

All this may seem abstract, but The World Beyond Your Head isn’t an abstract book.  Crawford filled the book with reports of skilled practitioners, including carpenters, short-order cooks, ice hockey players, martial arts fighters and motorcycle racers, and how they train themselves to focus their minds and hone their skills.

Crawford himself, at the time he wrote this book, had a job making components for custom-made motorcycles.  There is no postmodern way of making motorcycle parts.  The component is real.  It either functions or it doesn’t.

He said he felt validated every time he presented his bill to a satisfied customer.  But he added that the public are not the best judges of craft work.  The only true judge of a skilled carpenter is another skilled carpenter.

Skilled manual work is devalued.  A good auto mechanic is just as intelligent as, say, a good pharmacist or librarian, but the mechanic is not respected because he gets his hands dirty.

Factory workers are deskilled by design.  Customers also are deskilled by design.  An example of this is the battle over the right of farmers to repair farm machinery, rather than sending it back to the manufacturer for a replacement.

Technology buffers us from the physical world.  It also buffers us from other people.  It’s much less risky to relate to people on social media than it is face-to-face.   There are many anecdotes about college students today demanding to be protected from the discomfort and even fear that they feel when someone expresses a hostile opinion.

Big institutions have rules for how their employees are supposed to behave, all of which involve not expressing personal feelings and opinions and not exercising individual judgment, no matter what the situation, so that they never give offense.  Instead they’re supposed to face the world with a bland, smiling neutrality.

The last chapter of the book is a report on a firm of pipe organ builders.  They’re the inheritors of a centuries-old tradition of organ building.  They’re the masters of an age-old craft.  But they are more than that.  They can’t just be historic preservationists.  The organs they build have to be fit for use not just now but for a long time to come.  They express their individuality not be rebelling against a tradition, but by enriching and adding to it.

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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.