Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

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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Derrick Bell and the problem with desegregation

August 26, 2021

SILENT COVENANTS: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform by Derrick Bell (2004)

When I was a wet-behind-the-ears college liberal, I thought the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation meant the slow-but-sure end of racism in the USA.

I thought then that simply getting black-and-white children together in the same room day after day would make them recognize their common humanity and bring an end to racial prejudice.

In hindsight, I see how naive that was.  But I wasn’t alone.  The late Derrick Bell, who later became one of the founders of critical race studies, thought the same thing at the time.

His book, Silent Covenants, is about why he changed his mind.  I read it as part of a personal project to understand critical race theory from the viewpoint of its proponents.

As a lawyer for the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, he pursued many lawsuits based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that racially segregated schools are unconstitutional.  

But later, after he joined the Harvard Law School faculty, he came to believe he was pursuing a false goal.

He said the desegregation decision was based on a false choice between, on the one hand, sending black children to schools that were separate and inferior and, on the other, on the other, sending them to schools where they were unwanted and in the minority.

Desegregation, when it was implemented, was typically carried out by closing black schools, some of which provided excellent educations and were greatly beloved by students and graduates. 

Desegregation resulted in job losses by black teachers and principals, many of them outstanding educators.

Some 50 years later, Bell wrote, American public schools are still segregated, in practice if not by law, and the educational achievement gap between blacks and whites is as great as it ever was. 

The great mistake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision decision, he wrote, was to pretend that the Constitution is color-blind.

Racism is baked into the structure of American society and the consciousness of white Americans, he wrote; this will never change.

Any apparent progress made by black Americans is the result of a temporary convergence of their needs and the agenda of some group of white people. 

Slavery was abolished in Northern states because white workers there did not want to complete with slave labor.  Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a last-ditch effort to preserve the Union.  The 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution were intended to foster Republican political dominance of the South.

When limited civil rights for black people ceased to serve the interests of powerful white people, those rights were wiped off the backboard, Bell wrote.

Judges in the 19th and early 20th centuries held that racism was a fact, which was not created by law and could not be abolished by law, but which the law had to accommodate.

Why, then, did the Supreme Court in 1954 suddenly decide that the Constitution was colorblind?

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Derrick Bell and one little black girl

August 26, 2021

Derrick Bell Jr., a civil rights lawyer and one of the seminal thinkers in critical race theory, wrote a book, Silent Covenants, about the  U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate schools and why it failed to achieve its purpose.

In 1961, he was a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, filing lawsuits calling for desegregation

He was called upon for help by two sisters, Winson and Dovie Hudson, pillars of the community in the all-black town of Harmony, Mississippi. 

Their town’s school, built by the residents themselves in the 1920s with help from Northern philanthropists, had been closed in retaliation for their civil rights activism.

He told them that he would not file a lawsuit to reopen a segregated school, but he would represent them if they were willing to sue to desegregate the county school district.

They agreed.  Several families signed onto the suit.

A bitter struggle followed.  Night-riders fired guns into private homes.  Many of those who signed on to the lawsuit lost their jobs or credit.

But they won.  A federal judge ordered desegregation of Harmony’s schools, starting with the first grade in the fall of 1964.

Just one couple, A.J. Lewis and his wife, Minnie, sent their little daughter, Debra, to the all-white school.  She was accompanied by federal marshals armed with shotguns, who escorted her through a large, hostile crowd.

The next day Mr. Lewis was fired from his job and whites tried to burn down his house.

But the American Friends Service Committee provided some financial aid.  Debra eventually graduated from the local high school, left the area and “held several interesting positions.”  When she died of pneumonia in 2001, the Harmony community erected a memorial in her honor.

Was it worth it?  All this struggle and suffering for just one person?

Years later, Bell met with the Hudson sisters, and said he wondered if he shouldn’t have helped them reopen their school instead of what he did.

“Well, Derrick, I also wondered if that was the best way to go about it,” Winson replied.  “It’s done now.  We made it and we are still moving.”

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Why the U.S. failed to avert the pandemic (2)

July 21, 2021

Like Michael Lewis’s The Premonition, Andy Slavitt’s Preventable is a story of how people in authority disregarded warnings and allowed the COVID-19 virus to gain a foothold in the United States.

But while Lewis described the efforts of a number of far-sighted prophets, Slavitt concentrates on just one—himself.

Slavitt is an interesting figure—a political operator and member of the professional-managerial class, who influences policy, moves back and forth between government and the private sector, but would be unknown to the public except for this book.

He was an investment banker with Goldman Sachs, a consultant for McKinsey & Co., and founder of a company called HealthAllies, and then worked for United Health Group after it acquired HealthAllies. 

He served the Obama administration as head of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services from 2014, and was a medical adviser to the Biden administration during its first few months.

His power comes from being embedded in a network of politicians, corporate CEOs, wealthy philanthropists and academics, who all answer his phone calls and listen to what he has to say.

Preventable is about how he tried to alert the public to the danger, while also trying, from behind the scenes, to influence the Trump administration to take action before it was too late.

His book is a good overview of the Trump administration’s pandemic response and of the inadequacies of the American medical care system generally.

Much of the criticism of Trump is based on a knee-jerk response to his vulgar and offensive comments on Twitter and elsewhere, which don’t matter, and on a gullible acceptance of charges of collusion with Russian and Ukrainian leaders, which were either bogus or trivial.

Slavitt did a good job of showing the real problem with Trump, which was his inadequacy as an administrator and leader.  Trump refused to face unpleasant facts.  He thought of policy only in terms of public relations, not in terms of consequences, and he failed to think ahead even about public relations.

He calculated that closings are unpopular and openings are popular, so he shifted responsibilities for closings onto governors of states while positioning himself as the champion of openings.

As damning as Slavitt’s portrait of Trump is, it will not change the minds of Trump’s admirers because of Slavitt’s obvious bias and partisanship. 

The only named persons he holds accountable for the COVID-19 pandemic are Trump supporters, members of Trump’s administration and Donald Trump himself.  Democrats get a free pass.

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Why the U.S. failed to avert the pandemic (1)

July 20, 2021

Michael Lewis’s The Premonition tells stories of Americans who foresaw the danger of a pandemic and created workable plans and technologies to fight it, but in the end were brushed aside.

He throws light on U.S. unpreparedness to deal with pandemic disease and how COVID-19 was allowed to take hold when it could have been eradicated.

The stories of his heroes are oddly inspirational, even though they mostly failed in the end.  Their plans and inventions were usually not tried, or tried too late.  They were like Winston Churchill’s in a world in which he was never called to power and World War Two ended in stalemate.

Lewis’s book leaves off in the spring of 2020 when it became plain that a pandemic was not going to be averted.  Andy Slavitt’s Preventable takes up the story at that point. 

Slavitt’s provided a good overview of the Trump administration’s failures, but I learned little that was new to me.  Lewis’s book is more fragmentary, but his insights are deeper and his writing is much more readable.

The back stories of Lewis’s heroes are as illuminating as their responses to the pandemic.  I’ll just give the highlights of one of them.

Charity Dean was public health officer for Santa Barbara County, California.  In 2013. she was alerted that a student at the University of California at Santa Barbara had symptoms of meningitis B, a rare infectious disease that attacked healthy young people and could kill them in hours.  The test for the disease was inconclusive.

She asked the Centers for Disease Control what to do.  The CDC advised her to do nothing.  She didn’t have enough data.  She ordered the university medical authorities to test any student with a low-grade fever four the disease.  Three tested positive.  The CDC still advised her to do nothing.

Instead she ordered lockdowns of the fraternities and sororities and to gave the 1,200 students a prophylactic (preventive medicine).  Over the objections of the CDC, she thinned out the dormitories by sending some students into hotel rooms, shut down intramural sports and administered a vaccine that had been approved in Europe, but not by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

There were no more cases.  Two years later, the CDC drew up a plan for best practices for an outbreak of meningitis B, which included most of the things Dr. Dean had done.

Another time she was faced with the decision as to what to do about a home for the elderly, which was within the path of a possible mudslide that would kill them all. 

Meteorologists said there was a 20 percent chance of such a mudslide.  The medical director of the home said that maybe 5 percent of the 100 residents were so frail to they would die if they were moved.

Based on those figures, she ordered the evacuation.  Seven of the old people died.  There was no mudslide.

A short time later, Karen Smith, public health director for the state of California, asked Dean to become deputy state public health director. 

Dean asked, Why me?  Smith answered, Because you make decisions.

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Book note: White Supremacy Culture

June 18, 2021

A SELF-CONFESSED WHITE SUPREMACY CULTURE: The Emergence of an Illiberal Left in Unitarian Universalism by Anne Larason Schneider (2019)

In 2017, the Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees took the unusual step of declaring that the UUA was part of a “culture of white supremacy,” and declaring that its mission was to root out this culture.

The UUA is, by some definitions, the most liberal religious movement in the USA. So why would its leaders would describe themselves in words formerly applied to neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan?

It makes a little more sense if you realize that “white supremacy culture” is something more vague and insidious than plain white supremacy. White supremacy is an ideology that says that white people have a right to conquer, enslave, drive out or kill off non-white people.

“White supremacy culture” is defined as a set of traits and attitudes that are common to white people, including nice well-meaning white people, and not shared by nonwhite people.

At worst, it is claimed that these attitudes are detrimental to non-white people and maintain white dominance. At best, they exclude non-white people. Either way, the “whiteness” of even well-meaning white people is believed to be harmful, and needs to be overcome.

A Unitarian-Universalist named Anne Larason Schneider, a retired political science professor, took it on herself to research whether there is any basis for belief in white supremacy culture, and such related concepts as white privilege, implicit bias, micro aggression and white fragility. The results are in this book.

She found that the most commonly-used description of white supremacy culture comes from a 2001 article by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun. A Google search shows the article is still widely quoted, including by Unitarian Universalists.

Jones and Okun said white supremacy culture is marked by (1) perfectionism, (2) sense of urgency, (3) defensiveness, (4) quantity over quality, (5) worship of the written word, (6) only one right way, (7) paternalism, (8) either/or thinking, (9) power hoarding, (10) fear of open conflict, (11) individualism, (12) “I’m the only one,” (13) progress is bigger and more, (14) objectivity and (15) right to comfort.

One notable thing about the Jones-Okun article is that race, racial groups and racial prejudice are not mentioned except in the title and opening and closing paragraphs. Take them away and it would be a typical critique of business management practices. It is almost as if such a critique had been retitled and repurposed.

Another thing that struck Schneider is how the alleged traits of white people fit in with historic racial stereotypes.

Are white people perfectionists? If so, does that imply that black people, Hispanics and American Indians are sloppy? Do white people have a sense of urgency? If so, does that imply that non-white people are habitually late?

Do white people worship the written word? If so, does that imply non-whites are only semi-literate? Do white people value objectivity? If so, does that imply that non-white people don’t care about facts?

Would non-white people benefit if white people become less individualistic, perfectionist, objective and so on? Schneider said there is no evidence and no logical reason to think so.

The important question is whether there is any reason to think that whites and non-whites are divided along these lines. Or are “power hoarding,” “fear of open conflict,” or belief in “a right to comfort” traits found in all human beings?

Schneider found a survey showing that whites were on average a little more individualistic that blacks, Asians and Hispanics, but only by a few percentage points. Other than that, she found no empirical data either supporting or refuting the essay. It is mere assertion.

Because White Supremacy Culture ideology cannot be defended on rational grounds, it can only defended based on appeals to emotion, attacks on motives and exercise of authority.

One example of this is the campaign against Schneider’s friend, the Rev. Todd Eklof, to whom she devotes a chapter.  This is bad news for Unitarian Universalists who believe in historic principles of freedom, reason and tolerance.

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Book note: The Gadfly Papers

June 17, 2021

THE GADFLY PAPERS: Three Inconvenient Essays by One Pesky Minister by Todd Eklof (2019)

At the 2019 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, the Rev. Todd F. Eklof set up a table outside the meeting hall to give away free copies of his new book, The Gadfly Papers.

He was immediately denounced by UUA leaders and barred from the floor of the General Assembly.

This was followed a denunciation in a group letter signed by nearly 500 white UU ministers, plus rebukes from several groups representing UUs of color.

He was officially censured by the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association for allegedly causing harm to “people of color, indigenous, trans, disabled and other marginalized communities.”

Later he was removed from UUA ministerial fellowship, an action that in the past has been taken very rarely, and then mainly to ministers guilty of sexual misconduct.

I have been a Unitarian Universalist almost all my adult life.  I was taken aback when I learned about how Eklof was treated.  What originally attracted me to this movement was its emphasis on freedom of conscience and thought.

The UUA has no required religious dogma, only a commitment to Seven Principles.  Earl Morse Wilbur, a leading historian of Unitarianism, said it is defined by its commitment to “freedom, reason and tolerance.”

The joke about Unitarian Universalists is that, coming to a fork in the road, we turned away from the path that led to heaven and chose the one that led to a discussion about heaven.

So what makes Todd Eklof’s book out of bounds for discussion?  To find out, I decided to read it.  I think his book and the response to his book throw light on questions that are of interest to a wider public than just Unitarian Universalists.

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Chapter One. The Coddling of the Unitarian-Universalist Mind: How the Emerging Culture of Safetyism, Identitarianism and Political Correctness Is Reshaping America’s Most Liberal Religion.

Borrowing from the framework in The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, Eklof said the same disturbing ideologies that have been seen on college campuses in recent years are now being manifested in the UUA.

These include “safetyism,” which holds that people should be safe from the expression of threatening ideas, and “identitarianism,” which holds that political mobilization must be based on race, gender, sexuality or other marginalized status.

An example of these attitudes was the reaction to a UUWorld article entitled “After L, G and B.” The author told what she had learned while relating to her daughter’s transgender girlfriend, discussed some of the difficulties faced by transgendered people in the UUA and stressed the importance of getting language right.

Eklof told how the article was greeted by denunciations on the ground that a cisgendered person had no standing to write about the experiences of transgendered people. The President of the UUA issued an apology, which was attached to the internet archive of the article, and the author apologized for her presumption.

Another example he gave was protesters shutting down a workshop on nonviolence communication, given at Liberal Religious Education Directors Association fall conference. The reason for the protest was that the facilitators were white men, and, therefore by definition, representatives of white supremacy and patriarchy.

Eklof mentioned a number of other things, including rewording of a hymn, “Standing on the Side of Love,” on the grounds that it was hurtful to people confined to wheelchairs, and being told his sermons were “too white.”

I might be tempted to think he was exaggerating, if the UUA’s over-reaction tp his book hadn’t proved the truth of what he wrote.

He contrasted these attitudes with words and deeds of great Unitarians of the past, who fought for freedom of conscience and equal rights for all, and for the common good of all.

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Book note: Ida B. Wells’ autobiography

March 30, 2021

Last year Ida B. Wells, a black woman who died in 1931, received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for her investigative reporting about lynching.

She lived in a time when white people could not only kill black people with impunity, but commonly turned the killing into a public spectacle.  She was a pioneer and one of the few who reported on this.

Black people deemed guilty of crimes, rather than being put on trial, were hanged, mutilated, burned alive or tortured to death while crowds looked on.  Lynchings were sometimes written up in local newspapers.  Public schools were let out at least once so that children could witness the spectacle.

Wells fearlessly went to the scenes of lynchings and riots in order to get an accurate picture of what really occurred, and her work brought the crime of lynching to the attention of the wider world.

Click to enlarge.

To learn more, I read her autobiography, which recently has been reissued.  She said she wrote it in order to provide a factual record of black struggles, and so there is little in it of her personal reflctions or feelings. She led an interesting life, but wrote about it in very prosaic way. 

Ida B. Wells was born in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, the daughter of slaves and technically a slave herself.  

Her father, James Wells, was the son of a white slave owner and an enslaved black woman. The owner’s wife had no children and, when the owner died, his widow had Wells’ mother stripped naked and whipped. 

Her mother, Elizabeth, was born on a plantation in VIrginia and “sold South.”  She never was able to reconnect with her parents and siblings. Such were the realities of slavery.

Ida B. Wells’ parents were strict and loving, with high standards of personal behavior and a strong sense of independence.  They saw to it that their children got every educational opportunity offered by Reconstruction..

They died in a yellow fever epidemic, along with many of Wells’ siblings, when she was 16.  She went to work as a school teacher, supporting four younger siblings.

Over time she wrote for church publications, realized she had a talent for writing and became a  journalist.  This became a full-time job after she was fired from her teaching job for criticizing conditions in segregated black schools.

While in her 20s, she challenged segregation in a lawsuit, a decade before the Plessy vs. Ferguson legalizing “separate but equal” segregation.  She was traveling on a first-class train ticket, and a train conductor tried to force her to leave the first-class car and go to the smoking car.

She refused and resisted, and it took three men to eject her from the car.  She sued on the grounds she was denied what she paid for, was successful in a lower court and was offered a generous settlement if she would not contest an appeal.  Even though she could really have used the money, she refused, and lost the appeal.

The year 1892 found her in Memphis, Tennessee, the editor and part-owner of a newspaper called the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight in Memphis, Tennessee.  It had a wide readership among African-Americans.  Illiterate black people bought it and had it read to them, and it was printed on special pink paper so they could read it.

Three black friends of hers, the owner of the People’s Grocery Store and two employees, were lynched by a mob.  She wrote many articles in protest, supported a boycott of white-owned businesses and advocated that black people leave Memphis for the new territory of Oklahoma, which many did.

She said she had been led to believe that lynching was a response to rape and other violent crime, but she began an investigation into lynchings and found that, as with her friends, they were often provoked by black people competing successfully with white people.

She also found that alleged rape cases were actually consensual relationships between black men and white women.  When she published this in her newspaper, an enraged mob destroyed the newspaper offices and press.  She was out of town at a A.M.E. Church conference at the time, and was warned she would be killed if she tried to come back.

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Revisiting Samuel Butler’s ‘Erewhon’

March 17, 2021

Samuel Butler’s EREWHON (1872) and EREWHON REVISITED (1901) may have been the first dystopian science fiction novel.  It is a literary curiously—broad social satire within a “lost kingdom” adventure story.

I’ve had a copy lying around the house for years, and just recently got around to reading it.  What’s interesting is how what Butler must have thought were the most outrageous parodies of British life of his day are the parts that have the most relevance today.

Butler was what we’d now call a cultural radical and an economic conservative.  He questioned Church of England dogma and Victorian morality, but was all for business enterprise and the British Empire.  His Erewhom novels are what he is most remembered for.

The plot of Erewhon is that an adventurous young Englishman named Higgs, in a British colony much resembling Australia, crosses a mountain range and finds himself in a nation where everything is a kind of mirror-image of how they do things in Britain.

Erewhonians do not feel shame or guilt about moral offenses.  Rather they regard them as Britons do physical ailments, and discuss them just as freely.  If you have “a touch of embezzlement,” you turn to a family “straightener,” who would prescribe a treatment such as a diet of bread and water for a specific number of weekss.

Physical ailments, on the other hand, are regarded as Britons regard moral offenses.  They are known to occur, but they aren’t talked about, and are severely punished when exposed.

Certain Erewhonian reformers suggest leniency for minor illnesses, such as the common cold, while admitting the need for harsh punishment of more severe offenses, such as pneumonia.  But conservatives say this would mean subjecting people to the power of “doctors,” who would be able to interfere in family life.

Erewhonians have called a halt to technological development. Their philosophers have pointed out the parallels to human evolution of the evolution of machinery. 

They point out that machinery has grown more complex, and is being constantly improved through natural selection.  Human beings devote more and more effort to finding fuel and raw materials for machines, and keeping machines in repair.  It would have been only a matter of time, they said, before machines rule.

No doubt Butler was just kidding, but nowadays many people are worried about runaway artificial intelligence and self-replicating machines. 

I read a comment on some Internet thread saying that there are only three real threats to human existence.  They don’t include nuclear war, overpopulation, global warming or a meteor impact because all of these would leave a remnant from which the human race could be reconstituted.

No, these people say, the existential threats are (1) runaway artificial intelligence, (2) extraterrestrial invasion and (3) someone turning off the simulation of reality we’re all living in.  I wonder what Butler would have made of that.

Other Erewhonian philosophers developed a philosophy of animal rights, which Butler no doubt thought a joke, but which foreshadowed the serious animal rights philosophy of today.

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Christopher Lasch and the case against progress

March 8, 2021

The American Dream, as I was taught growing up, is that it is possible for members of every generation, provided they make the effort, to be better off than members of the generation before.

Recently I finished reading THE TRUE AND ONLY HEAVEN: Progress and Its Critics by Christopher Lasch (1991), which argues that all this is an illusion.  He wrote that limitless material progress is not only impossible, but incompatible with the idea of justice.

Lasch, who died in 1994 at the age of 61, was a thinker who didn’t fit any of the usual categories.  A radical in politics and economics, he was a conservative in morals and culture. 

Virtue in the contemporary USA is equated with striving for success, according to Lasch.  Success is defined as improving your economic and social status.  This is not enough to inspire a good society or a good life.

He is nearly forgotten now, but I find his ideas more relevant today than I did during his lifetime.  Most Americans are pessimistic about the future, and with good reason.

Lasch didn’t believe in optimism, which is faith that things are bound to get better.  He believed in hope, which is the unwillingness to give up.

The True and Only Heaven is an intellectual history.  Lasch told how various thinkers, generation by generation, decided it was necessary to subordinate tradition, religion, family loyalty, self-government, patriotism and other moral principles to the goal of increasing moral output with less work.

The book begins with Adam Smith and the idea that free enterprise plus self-interest would ensure ever-increasing material abundance.

Smith did have misgivings, as Lasch noted.  He thought enlightened self-interest was an ignoble motive, compared to patriotism and religious faith. 

He noted that the widening of the market would lead to increasing division of labor.  He predicted assembly-line production, which he saw as degrading.  He also worried about replacement of militias with professional armies, which he saw as leading to a decline of discipline and patriotism.

But Smith was no friend of large corporations, which is his day were almost all government-established monopolies.  His vision was a society of prosperous independent farmers, artisans and shopkeepers.

He famously said that the self-interest of the baker, the brewer and the butcher who provided him with his dinner would be kept within the limits of a baseline middle-class Protestant morality.  As for the rest, he hoped popular education would make up the difference.

Smith’s vision seemed to be realized in the northern United States between the Revolution and the Civil War.  It seemed that any hardworking, thrifty Protestant white man could thrive as a farm owner, shopkeeper or self-employed artisan.  Working for wages was something you only did when you were getting started in life.

After the Civil War, as the USA transformed from an agricultural to an industrial nation, it became apparent that the economy would be dominated by large corporations, and that the majority of American workers would be “hirelings” all their working lives.

This was shocking, at the time.  Many an editorial was written about the equivalence of “wage slavery” and “chattel slavery.” 

But in the end, most people accepted the corporate form of capitalism as the price of continued progress. 

Karl Marx was one of them.  In contrast to the “utopian” socialists, who experimented with alternative ways of organizing society, he thought corporate capitalism was a stage through which civilization had to pass on the way to socialism.

He wrote about how capitalism substituted profit-seeking for all other values—tradition, community, kinship, religion, even the marriage bond. 

But Marx thought that was a good thing in the long run because these older values were obstacles to human liberation, which could be achieved once industrial productivity reached the point of being able to provide abundance for all.

John Maynard Keynes thought the salvation of capitalism required the sacrifice of the core values of capitalism itself—hard work and thrift.  Rather the functioning of the capitalist machine required spending and borrowing in order to maintain consumer demand.

He, too, looked forward to a future of effortless abundance, without, in his case, even the need for revolution.

Material output in the USA, UK and other industrial nations has reached the level that Keynes hoped for.  But here is the result, according to Lasch—

To see the modern world from the point of view of a parent is to see it in the worst possible light.

This perspective unmistakably reveals the unwholesomeness … of our way of life: our obsession with sex, violence and the pornography of “making it”; our addictive dependence on drugs, “entertainment” and the evening news; our impatience with anything that limits our sovereign freedom of choice, especially constraints of marital and family ties; our preference for “nonbinding commitments”; our third-rate educational system; our third-rate morality; our refusal to draw a distinction between right and wrong, lest we “impose” our morality on others and thus invite others to “impose” their morality on us; our reluctance to judge or be judged; our indifference to the needs of future generations, as evidenced by our willingness to saddle them with a huge national debt, an overgrown arsenal of destruction and a deteriorating environment; our inhospitable attitude toward the newcomers born into our midst; our unstated assumption, which underlies so much of the propaganda for unlimited abortion, that only those children born for success ought to be allowed to be born at all.

It didn’t have to be that way, Lasch wrote.  Economic and intellectual elites consciously chose material progress over other values, and opposed those who proposed alternatives.

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Saint Augustine and original sin

February 5, 2021

In his Confessions, St. Augustine sought the truth about himself and his motives, and the truth about the nature of God and His creation. 

What’s interesting to me is that he didn’t see his investigation of subjective truth, about himself, and of objective truth, about the nature of time and free will, as two separate things.  He saw them as different sides of the same thing.

What’s also interesting is that he didn’t see religious revelation as opposed to philosophical reason.  He saw them as mutually reinforcing.

I recently read The Confessions of St. Augustine for a couple of reasons.  One is that I just got finished reading Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, which said fanatic mass movements such as fascism and Bolshevism were imitation religions, and I thought it worthwhile to read an account of actual religious belief.

Another is that there is a move afoot to abolish the teaching of the ancient classics on the grounds that they are irrelevant, and I thought it worthwhile to read an ancient classic to see whether it is relevant or not.

What follows is not a summary of the Confessions, but my personal reaction to it.

The main thing I got out of it was an understanding of how fundamental the doctrine of Original Sin is to Christianity.  This is the idea that sin is something baked into your nature that you can’t get rid of, no matter what you do.

Augustine condemned himself because, as a little baby, he didn’t care about anything except his selfish hunger for his mother’s milk. 

He condemned himself for what most people today would regard a normal desire for career success and for the approval of his peers.

He even criticized himself for being excessive in mourning the death of good friends.  It meant that he may have loved them more than he loved God.

He criticized himself for taking pleasure in the beauties of nature, or of art, unless it was combined with gratitude to God.

One act that particularly tore at him happened when he was a teenage boy.  He was part of a gang that invaded a walled orchard and stole pears.  He thought it was particularly evil because he didn’t need the pears.  He committed the theft because it was forbidden and because of peer pressure, not for the sake of pleasure or benefit to himself.

I have to say there is something to his last point.  I do think there is such a thing as evil, which is hatred of the good.  I think is different from mere badness, which is the inability to resist temptation.  But if this minor act of juvenile delinquency were the worst thing I myself had ever done, I would be well pleased with myself.

I do not see Augustine’s attitude toward sin as a distortion of Christianity.  Just the opposite!

Jesus taught that the great commandment is to love God with your whole heart, soul and mind.  He also taught a second commandment, to love your fellow human beings as yourself.

If you take these commandments literally, they are almost impossible to fulfill, even by people who are extremely spiritual and compassionate.  Who can say that the only thing they care about is God and his love?  Who can say they give other people’s needs the same priority as their own?  By this standard, who can escape sin?

All religions teach the need for atonement for wrongdoing and the need to make restitution to those you have wronged.  But none of them make repentance for sin the center of their religion in the way that Christianity does.

Only a Christian would say sin is inescapable.  Only a Christian would say that there is more joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents than ninety and nine just persons who need no repentance.

One thing wrong with many people today, especially secular liberals, is that they no longer believe in God, except in a vague, metaphorical sense, but they still have a sense of sin. 

Not being Christians, they don’t know how to get rid of it, and this can shape their beliefs in strange ways.

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Rain of Gold: an immigrant saga

December 31, 2020

RAIN OF GOLD by Victor Villaseñor is a novelist’s re-creation of the lives of his  Mexican immigrant parents—their childhoods in Mexico in the early 20th century, their arduous journey to the United States and their lives up to the point of their marriage.

It was published in 1990 after 15 years of research in the USA and Mexico.  I never heard of it until I happened to come across it a few weeks ago in a free book exchange in my neighborhood.

Villaseñor’s parents—his father, the fierce, macho Juan Salvador Villaseñor, a child laborer who became a successful bootlegger, and his mother, the beautiful and good Lupe Gomez—were amazing people whose lives deserve to be recorded.

The stories of their survival, and of how they met, are sagas in themselves. In the telling, Villaseñor gives a detailed, fascinating picture of Mexican and Mexican-American life in the early 20th century. 

What’s especially interesting to me is how his parents resolved the conflict between the Mexican culture based on defense of personal honor  versus the US American culture based on achievement for personal success.

∞∞

Juan Salvador was the grandson of Pio Castro, a soldier who fought with Benito Juarez in the 1860s to liberate Mexico from a puppet government established by the French.  Pio Castro then went on to establish a prosperous and free community in the mountains of central Mexico called Los Altos de Jalisco.

But the family was pushed aside during the reign of Porfiro Diaz, and we meet Juan Salvador as an 11-year-old boy, on the road with his mother, brothers and sisters. trying to get to the United States.  They were so poor that, among other things, they ate grain found by young Juan Salvador horse droppings.

By age 13, Juan Salvador was working as an adult for a copper mining company in New Mexico.  He was arrested and sentenced to six years in prison for stealing scrap copper.  While he was awaiting trial, he accepted an offer of $500 (more than $50,000 in today’s money) to his family if he pleaded guilty to a murder the rich man’s son had committed.  He was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder.

While on a prison work gang, he was set upon by rapists and nearly killed while resisting.  He escaped from the prison hospital and made his way to Montana, where he worked in copper mines there under a different name.

Still a teenager, he learned from a Greek-Turkish mentor how to play poker for money.  He later became a valued employee at Montana’s biggest and most exclusive whorehouse.

By age 21, he had done well for himself in Montana, but answered an appeal by his sister Luisa to rejoin his family, which had moved to California.  Her message was that individual success is meaningless unless it contributes to the building-up of a family.  

At this time, Prohibition was in effect.  He continued to do well at cards—without cheating, the author emphasized—and made some money smuggling tequila across the border with Mexico.

He found himself in jail, together with a group of other prisoners dominated by two brutal Anglos.  He put down the two thugs, and established a kind of government in the cell, with elected judges and enforcers of order, paid out of a carton of cigarettes he’d brought with thim. 

A middle-aged Mafioso in the cell was impressed by Juan Salvador and made friends with him.  He agreed, for a price, to tell him how to distill whiskey.

At that time, although Juan Salvador had learned his ABCs from a Mexican cook in prison, he was functionally illiterate.  He could not read a newspaper in English or Spanish, nor locate Europe or China on a map. 

Yet he was able to make acceptable whiskey based just on an interview of a single person, and also run a successful business which happened to be outside the law.

I am a college graduate, but such things would have been beyond my ability.

The important thing about Juan Salvador is that although he was a criminal, he was an honorable man.  He didn’t cheat anyone, he didn’t exploit anyone and he kept his word.  His family, friends and neighbors looked up to him.

He carried a gun and, although the author is coy about whether his dad actually killed anyone, he was capable of violence.  Yet he was gentle with his loved ones.  He and his equally violent brother, Domingo, gave absolute respect and obedience to their mother, Dona Margarita.

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