Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Book note: Crime and Punishment

June 24, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book note: Muhammad Ali’s own story

May 19, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why is it so hard to pay attention?

May 9, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hari offers tips on how to cope:

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

∞∞∞

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

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Book note: A journey around Russia

April 13, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book note: The Waterworks

April 2, 2022

THE WATERWORKS by E.L. Doctorow (1995)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is Ukraine?

March 30, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

Europe 2014. Click to enlarge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How the mentally unfit became cannon fodder

March 23, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 22, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

∞∞∞ 

Hudson’s book is in three parts.

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

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

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

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

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Jeffrey Epstein and his protectors, exposed

February 2, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They never figured out who told Epstein of the warrant.

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

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Alessandro Manzoni’s classic Italian novel

January 29, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Love and marriage as it used to be

January 26, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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The radical socialism of George Orwell

January 21, 2022

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

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

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

George Orwell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Therapy as a substitute for religion

December 6, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book note: The dawn of interstellar travel

December 3, 2021

BEYOND THE HALLOWED SKY by Ken MacLeod (2021)

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

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

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

The Union is the most interesting of the three.  It has recently undergone something called a “Rising” which has brought about something called a “Cold Revolution.”

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

In the Union, there is an entity called Iskander, an “algorithmic anticipatory artificial intelligence,” which has access to all on-line information, whether from the equivalents of the NSA or of Facebook.  It can be talked to, and it fulfills requests, like Apple Computer’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa.

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

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

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

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

Finally she gets a visit from a mysterious figure who tells her that, by a strange coincidence, all mathematicians who’ve published such proofs have died soon after.

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

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

Also, pioneers at the interstellar base are discovering things that all in question our ideas about the nature and origins of life.

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An alternate USA vs. a new America

November 30, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A defector explains threat Alternate USA poses to New America:

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

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

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

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

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The case against infrastructure

November 23, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book note: The Good Lord Bird

November 20, 2021

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

THE GOOD LORD BIRD by James McBride (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Berry Street Essays: 200 years of UUism

November 1, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The magic realism of Rudyard Kipling

October 19, 2021

My friend Judith took exception to my posting that “The Man Who Would Be King” was Rudyard Kipling’s greatest short story.  She said Kipling wrote a great many others that were better than that one.  

She loaned me several of her Kipling anthologies.  I didn’t read all the stories, but I read enough of them to convince me she was right.

Kipling is known for his stories of India.  He was born in 1865 and spent his early childhood there, then returned to work from 1883 to 1889 on newspapers there.  

As a newspaperman, he met all kinds of people, as he also did as a Freemason.  The Masonic Order admitted monotheists of many ethnicities and varied social standings.

He wrote poems and stories, including The Man Who Would Be King (1888), that made him an overnight success.  He left India at age 24 as a literary celebrity, and never went back except for one brief visit.  He died in 1936.  

As Judith pointed out, many of his best stories have nothing to do with India.

Kipling was a keen observer, a master of the English language and an inspired storyteller.  His stories bring to mind the phrase “magic realism.” 

He had a keen eye for details and got the details right, whether he was writing about civil engineering, tiger hunting or life in the trenches during World War One.  

At the same time, many of his stories had a supernatural or mystical or some other angle that went beyond the mundane, like the Latin American magic realist stories.  Maybe that’s one reason Jorge Luis Borges liked his writing so much.

Here is an account of my recent Judith-inspired reading of Kipling.

One of my faults is reading too fast, and not stopping to appreciate literary style or take in detail.  

Probably I would have done better just to have read a few and appreciated them more deeply, rather than greedily gobbling down so many in a short time, as is my habit.  But, as G.K. Chesterton said, anything worth doing is worth doing badly.

The first three in my list below are, in my opinion, equal to or better than “The Man Who Would Be King,” which I still think is great.   Not all of them are equally good, but I enjoyed them all and together they give an idea of Kipling’s range.

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The Bridge-Builders (1893)

This was a mind-blowing story.

The bridge builders are Findlayson, a civil engineer in charge of building a bridge across the Ganges, plus Hitchcock, his assistant, and Peroo, his native assistant.  

These three are presented as the only important characters because only they are dedicated to the mission of completing the bridge.  Deaths of individual workers because of disease or accidents are not regarded as important.

Peroo is accepted by the other two as their equal in terms of competence and character, the only qualities they value, although he will never be, and never aspires to be, their equal in rank.

The first part of the story is about the obstacles they overcome—technical, administrative and political—and I at first thought the story was going to be about to be about heroes of science, engineering, discipline and the work ethic.  

But then, just as the bridge is almost, but not quite, completed, it is hit by a devastating flood.

Findlayson and Peroo are swept away by the waters and find themselves on an island in mid-river, where animals have also taken refuge.  

Peroo gives Findlayson a bit of opium to help him get through the night, and he begins to perceive the animals as talking avatars of the Hindu gods.

The crocodile, avatar of Mother Gunga, the goddess of the river, asks the other gods for their help in destroying the bridge and, by implication, Western civilization.

A tigress, representing Kali, the goddess of death is inclined to agree.  But Hanuman, the monkey god, recalls how his own exploit as a bridge-builder described in the Ramayana.
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Matt Taibbi on Robin DiAngelo’s ‘Nice Racism’

October 12, 2021

Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragilityhas a new book out called Nice Racism.  Here’s what Matt Taibbi had to say about it:

Nice Racism’s central message is that it’s necessary to stop white people from seeing themselves as distinct people.

“Insisting that every white person is different from every other white person,” DiAngelo writes, “enables us to distance ourselves from the actions of other white people.”

She doesn’t, or maybe she does, see where this logically leads.

If you tell people to abandon their individual identities and think of themselves as a group, they sooner or later will start to behave as a group.

Short of selling anthrax spores or encouraging people to start exploring sexual feelings toward nine-year-olds, is there a worse idea than suggesting—demanding—that people get in touch with their white identity?

Of course there’s nothing wrong with attending a workshop to help you to better understand your unconscious prejudices, or to become more culturally sensitive about people of other races and ethnicities.  

The problem is when we as a society operate on the premises that (1) being racist is a firing offense and (2) everyone is racist until proven otherwise.

Taibbi wrote:

Her books are chock full of overt threats, using the language of the inquisitor.

When she goes through the list of arguments people make in favor of the arguments that they can or should exist beyond race, she concludes ominously, “None of these factors provides immunity.”

The idea that “continually” availing oneself of DiAngeloid antiracist training is a requirement to remain above suspicion is an explicit warning.

No other strategy is permissible; as she puts it, “Niceness is not antiracism.”

LINK

Our Endless Dinner With Robin DiAngelo by Matt Taibbi for TK News.

Rudyard Kipling’s “The man who would be king”

October 5, 2021

THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING and other stories by Rudyard Kipling

After our reading group read Kim, Rudyard Kipling’s best and best-known novel, we turned to Kipling’s best and best-known short story, “The Man Who Would Be King.”  

John Huston made a good movie of the story in 1975; it’s unusual for an excellent work of written fiction to be made into an excellent movie.

“The Man Who Would Be King” is the story of two adventurers, Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnahan, both ex-soldiers of the British Indian Army, and how they reached the inaccessible land of Kafiristan (“land of the heathen”) and established themselves as rulers, only to have everything go horribly wrong.

Dravot and Carnahan sign a “contract” to stick together, refrain from indulgence in alcohol or women and “behave with dignity and discretion.”

They establish their power by demonstrating firearms, whose power to kill at a distance seems like magic, and by their ability to drill troops, which makes them a force that can defeat mere mobs of individual fighters.  

The two men are Freemasons, and the local priests decide they are gods because symbols on their Masonic paraphernalia correspond to ancient sacred symbols known only to the priests.

Everything is fine until Dravot decides to take a wife and establish a dynasty.  The people are horrified because they believe a woman who mates with a god will die.  Dravot chooses a beautiful but unwilling woman.  She bites him, and his bleeding shows that he is a man, not a god.

The story shows Kipling’s gifts as a descriptive writer, an observer of human nature and a storyteller, but it also echoes basic themes of literature.  It is a classic story of hubris being clobbered by nemesis.

It is a classic story of the downfall of a ruler who allowed himself to become a tyrant.  So long as Dravot ruled justly, he was all right.  It was the act of tyranny, taking a woman against her will, that led to his downfall.

It is an echo of Genesis, and of myths and legends, of how people are granted everything they could want, provided they observe one simple rule, and how they fail to keep the rule.  In “The Man Who Could Be King,” the simple rule is the contract—the promises to avoid women, and to behave with discretion.

Kipling’s story is said to have been inspired by the exploits of an American adventurer, Josiah Harlan, who in 1839 marched an army into Hazarajat, in the center of Afghanistan, and proclaimed himself the sovereign Prince of Ghor.  

Like Kipling’s characters, he fancied himself a successor to Alexander the Great.  His reign was short-lived; a year later, a British army invaded Afghanistan and replaced his rule.

There also was Sir James Brooke, the white rajah of Sarawak, who established a family dynasty that ruled the northwest coast of Borneo from 1841 to 1946.  But Brooke was granted his authority by the Sultan of Brunei and Harlan also was acting as agent of Dost Mohammed, then ruler of Afghanistan.  Their stories were not Kipling’s story.

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In order to read “The Man Who Would Be King,” I bought a collection of Kipling stories.  I read the other stories, too, and mostly enjoyed them. 

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The real Great Game

September 27, 2021

THE GREAT GAME: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia, by Peter Hopkirk (1990)

The Great Game was the 19th century cold war between the British Empire and Russian Empire for control of Central Asia.  To generals and statesmen in London and St. Petersburg, it must have seemed like a global game of chess.

Peter Hopkirk, in his book, The Great Game, told the story mainly from the point of view of the chess pieces —agents of empire, British and Russian, venturing alone, sometimes undercover, into territory where their governments could not protect them.

I read this book as a follow-up to reading Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, which was about a young boy being groomed to be a player in the Great Game.  Hopkirk referred to Kim in his book; he said the Mahbub Ali, Hurree Babu and Colonel Creighton characters were based on specific individuals.

Hopkirk gave a clear explanation of the geopolitical background, but his book also can be enjoyed as a series of real-life action-adventure stories.  The careers of some of the British political officers read like fiction.

While still in their twenties, they mastered local languages and customs well enough to disguise themselves as natives and penetrate unknown territory.  They were explorers, map-makers, spies, diplomats and sometimes commanders of troops in the field.

They command admiration—regardless of whether you think the game of empire was worth playing.

Their field of operation was mainly in what later became the Soviet Central Asian republics, but also included the Caucacus, Tibet and Xinjiang.  The Central Asian region historically has been a center of civilization, but in the 19th century, it had been overrun by warlords, bandits and slave traders. Dealing with them was no job for the timid or the trusting.

One political officer, Eldred Pottinger (not an action-hero name!), at the age of 26, was operating undercover in Herat in 1835. A Persian army with Russian advisers attacked and beseiged the city, and Pottinger offered his services to the local ruler.

He soon established himself as an effective and tireless leader. At one point, the besiegers broke through and the Herat commanders panicked, but Pottinger rallied them and drove back the attackers. In negotiations that followed, one of the Persian-Russian demands was that the Herat send Pottinger home.

This was only one of his exploits.  He died at age 32 of a fever.

Hopkirk focused mainly on British agents.  He did justice to Russian agents.  He barely mentioned the “pundits,” native Indian agents, because permanent records were not kept on them.

The pundits were regarded as more expendable than the white agents, but many of them, like Kipling’s fictional Mahbub Ali and Hurree Babu, faithfully served an empire treated them unequally.

In general, there was a high level of competence and realism on both sides. The one big exception was the occupation of Afghanistan in 1839, which replaced its ruler, Dost Mohammed, with a more compliant ruler. General Elphinstone, the commander, allowed his troops to outrage local sensibilities by drinking alcohol and seducing local women, but refused to take reasonable measures for security. The upshot was an evacuation and retreat, in which literally all but one of the 16,000 retreating troops were massacred.

What followed was 20 years of back and forth struggle for control of Afghanistan, which ended with the British inviting Dost Mohammed back.

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Kipling’s Kim and Kipling’s India

September 23, 2021

KIM by Rudyard Kipling (1901) with an introduction and notes by Jeffrey Meyers (2002) 

I read Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim as part of a reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.

Rudyard Kipling was a British imperialist.  He believed the British Empire was, for all practical purposes, permanent, and that it was a force for good.  The first belief proved wrong, and there are few who would defend the secondW.

So why read Kipling’s Kim?

Kim is an interesting story about the coming of age of a young boy and his struggle to define his identity.  Like Huckleberry Finn, Kim is often mistaken for a boy’s book because its central character is a boy, but it isn’t. 

Kim is also an idealized but fascinating portrait of the diversity of India, with its varied religions and ethnic groups.

Kim is the first, or one of the first, espionage thrillers, a new genre in which the spy is the hero and not the villain.

And finally, Kim is a work by one of the masters of the English language.

Kipling was, as we newspaper reporters used to say, a great wordsmith.  Anybody who loves writing can benefit from reading his sentences closely and noting his word choices and the rhythm of the sentence.

He is one of the few 20th century writers admired by both critics and the general public

His books of poetry were best-sellers.  Their rollicking rhythms stick in the mind, like Broadway show tunes.  He also wrote novels short stories, including the Mowgli and Just-So stories for children.  Henry James praised his prose style and T.S. Eliot edited an edition of his poetry.  He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907.

The hero of Kim is Kimball O’Hara, the orphan son of an Irish ex-soldier and a servant woman.  We meet him at age 13.   Kim has allowed to run wild in the streets of Lahore (now part of Pakistan).  He speaks local languages better than he speaks English, and is so sunburned nobody thinks of him as white.  

He earns money by begging and carrying messages.  The closest thing he has to a mentor is Mahbub Ali, an Afghan horse trader who turns out to be an agent of British intelligence.

As the novel opens, Kim encounters a Tibetan lama and decides to follow him on his religious quest.  They have adventures as they travel along the Great Trunk Road, meeting varied people.  These passages show Kipling’s genius as a descriptive writer, both of people and of the sights and sounds of India.  

He makes contact with his father’s old regiment, which takes him in.  He attends the regimental school briefly, then a Catholic school that serves India’s native Catholics.  These include the Thomas Christians, whose ancestors were supposedly converted by the Apostle Thomas, and mixed-race descendants of Portuguese seamen and traders who came to India in the 16th century—another example of India’s diversity.

Manbub Ali and Colonel Creighton, the secret head of British intelligence in India, are impressed by Kim’s talent for languages, disguise and deception and determine to groom him for a career as an espionage agent.

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Another look at critical race theory

September 21, 2021

CRITICAL RACE THEORY: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, edited by Kimberle Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller and Kendall Thomas, introduction by Cornell West (1995)

Up until a couple of years ago, hardly any of US Americans outside academia has heard of something called “critical race theory.”   Now public opinion polls show about two-thirds of us have heard of it, and more than one-third think they have a good idea of what it is.  Republicans think it will be a winning issue for them in the 2022 elections and beyond.

Critics blame critical race theory for everything they dislike about affirmative action, cancel culture and Black Lives Matter protests.  Defenders say it mere consists of facing well-established and obvious facts about racism and racial prejudice in the past and present USA.

For the past month, I’ve been reading up on what critical race theorists have to say for themselves.  My latest reading is the 1995 Critical Race Theory anthology, which consists of writings of the founders of the movement.  I admit I read only some of the 27 essays and skimmed the rest.  I have links below to 15 that I have read.

I don’t claim this makes me an expert on a topic to which some have devoted years of study–only that I know more than those who haven’t read anything at all about it.

Critical race theory arose from the disappointment in the results of the civil rights revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.  

After a heroic struggle, in which churches were bombed, protesters were jailed and beaten and some were murdered, African-Americans, with the support of white allies, achieved full civil rights and protection of the law.  And then they found that most of them were as poor and just as unequal as they were before.

Some responded by trying to broaden the struggle to achieve equality for all Americans, and not just black people.  This was the idea of the Poor People’s Campaign planned by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. just before his death.  It was the idea behind Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition campaigns in 1984 and 1988 and the current Poor People’s Campaign led by the Rev. William J. Barber II

Others decided that African-Americans needed to double down on black interests and black identity, and not worry about white opinion.  Instead of thinking of themselves as citizens who were denied their individual rights, they should think of themselves as part of an oppressed nation, like people under colonial rule.

During this time, there was a movement among legal scholars called critical legal theory.  Critical legal theorists said it was a mistake to look at the law as a quest, however flawed, for justice.  The whole purpose of the law, they said, was to codify and maintain injustice.

The moral was that if you are lawyer, prosecutor or judge who believes in social justice, you need not think about whether the law is being correctly applied.  You should only think how to interpret the law in ways to help the oppressed.

The critical race theorists picked up this idea and applied it to race.  It is not an accident that most of the original critical race theorists were law school professors and published their findings in law journals.  

Their idea was that whole social structure, including the law, is set up to serve the interests of white people and repress black people.   The purpose of critical race studies is to show how this works.

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Derrick Bell’s parables of despair

September 18, 2021

THE DERRICK BELL READER edited by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefanic (2005)

I’ve been reading up on critical race theory to prepare for a presentation I’m going to do Sept. 21 at a Zoom meeting at First Universalist Church of Rochester, N.Y.

At the time I agreed to do the presentation, I’d read a college textbook called Critical Race Theory: an Introduction.

I thought I understood the topic reasonably well, although I was turned off by the authors’ rejection of ideas that I hold hear—liberalism, universalism, the possibility of solidarity across racial lines.

Since then I’ve been reading more about the topic, and especially works of the late  Derrick A. Bell Jr., who is considered the father of this school of thought.

Although I haven’t changed my mind about CRT,  I have come to respect Bell and take his ideas and the ideas of his followers more seriously than before. 

Bell had a distinguished career as a civil rights lawyer for the U.S. government and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and a second distinguished career as a law school professor, scholar and writer.

Bell was the first African-American to be a tenured professor at Harvard Law School.  He resigned in 1992 in protest against Harvard’s failure to hire a black woman as a tenured law school professor. 

The video above shows young Barack Obama, then a Harvard law school student, speaking at a protest in support of Prof. Bell.  The video then segues into a review of Bell’s life.

Bell thought that racism is baked into the white American mind.  The only times that African-Americans advance is when these advances benefit elite white people, and such advances are small and temporary.  He said black people should protest racial inequality, not because there is a realistic hope that it will be overcome, but for the sake of self-respect and honor.

Some of the most interesting parts of The Derrick Bell Reader are a series of fantastic stories, or parables, illustrating his ideas and feelings.  They are not proof of anything, but they are windows into his mind.  They are thought experiments.  You are invited to think about them and decide whether you agree.

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The Chronicle of the Space Traders

In this story, extraterrestrials land on the East Coast on Jan. 1 and offer the USA a bargain.  They will provide the means to solve the USA’s international trade, pollution and energy problems.  In return, they ask one thing: the nation’s African-American population.  The country is given 16 days to decide.

There are some objections.  Black Americans are a cheap labor force, but also a market for U.S. business.  More importantly, they serve as a target for the resentments of poor and working-class whites, which might otherwise be targeted a white elites.

But the benefits of the trade to white America outweigh the benefits.  A Constitutional amendment is rushed through, and, on Martin Luther King Day, the USA’s black population leave the country the same way their ancestors arrived, naked and in chains.

Bell said that when he tells this story to his law classes, almost all his students, both black and white, agree that US Americans would make the trade.

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