Archive for the ‘history’ Category

“Sold on a Monday,” by Kristina McMorris

January 18, 2020

The wooden sign reads “2 Children for Sale,” in 1931 rural Pennsylvania. This propels the novel, Sold on a Monday.

Ellis Reed is a struggling junior Philadelphia newspaper reporter with a photography hobby, who snaps a photo of the sign accompanied by two small kids. This leads to a feature article getting wide attention, advancing Reed’s career. And to two children actually being sold.

Their cash-strapped mother thought she was dying. Turns out she was misdiagnosed. Reed goes on a labyrinthine mission to reunite the family, helped by press room secretary Lily — of course they fall in love.

The tale was inspired by an actual newspaper story, from 1948 Ohio, centered on a photo of a mother and four children with a sign offering their sale. Author McMorris’s afterword notes that that sign was suspiciously well lettered. Yet those kids did get sold. Moving the story to the Depression era enhances verisimilitude. However, the book doesn’t really convey a Depression ambience; doesn’t actually show us the deprivation. Go read instead Evans and Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, giving a much grittier picture.

In McMorris’s novel, Reed’s original photo had gotten accidentally spoiled, so he went back for a re-do. But the family was gone. He did manage to find the sign lying in the dirt — and a different pair of kids to photograph with it. But after his article goes “viral,” Reed is haunted by the photo’s journalistic dishonesty — as well as its upshot of those kids’ fate.

I would not have been much troubled by different children illustrating the article, if its substance was true. However, about that crucial text we’re actually told nothing. With Reed having interviewed no one, what exactly did he write? Generalized social commentary would have been fine. But if he made up particulars about a family, then we’re in Janet Cooke – Jayson Blair territory. Seriously unethical. This is left strangely unspecified.

As for the book’s writing, I had a hard time putting my finger on what irked me. It wasn’t bad writing. Even fitting, perhaps, for a ’30s flavor. Indeed, it felt like the text for a movie of the time, not a noirish one, but more like Miracle on 34th Street, exuding a kind of forthright innocence.

With characters not unreal, exactly, yet behaving in such a formulaic way that I couldn’t quite take the story seriously. The nastiness of some characters was almost made to feel endearing. Even the tense conflict between Reed and his father seemed formulaic.

Maybe it’s just that I’ve been spoiled by more searing modern literary realism. For all the iniquity it actually depicts, this novel seemed like a throwback to a more innocent time.

Numismatic fun: A Quietus Tetradrachm

January 15, 2020

I’ve written before about the fun of collecting Roman coins. The realm is really so rich, with so many fascinating byways.

One is that there are coins of guys who don’t appear on the regular list of Emperors. These were “pretenders” or “usurpers” or rebels, typically military commanders who’d make a brief grab at power — typically fatally unsuccessful. One way to cloak themselves with legitimacy was to issue coins with their portraits. Generally of course these are rare, but many are reasonably obtainable.

One such rebel was Macrianus. This was in the “East” (Asia Minor and the Levant); for about a year, 260-261 AD. He didn’t actually take the purple himself, but had his two young sons crowned instead — named Quietus and Macrianus Junior. With coins issued for them. Fairly rare, but not prohibitively so.

In the early ’70s, there were some interesting ads in a coin paper, with an address in Manhattan near where I was doing some regulatory hearings. So I went there, the guy had a loft, and it turned out he was Robert Bashlow — yes, the one responsible for the well-known 1961 “Bashlow restrikes” of the Confederate cent. He was quite a character and had tons of intriguing stuff, which I would sort through, during lunch breaks. In one batch of junk I found a rather low grade Roman coin on which I could read the name “Quietus.” This was before I was really much into ancient coins, but I did recognize this as rare, and bought it. (Bashlow tragically died not long after in a Spanish hotel fire.)

Some decades later, we visited Ephesus, and there were the usual guys hawking fake coins to tourists. I waved them away, but one got the idea I knew coins, and insisted he could show me good stuff. He led me into the recesses of his shop, and produced a little group carefully wrapped in tissue paper. Most of these were fake too, or else too poor to be worth anything. But one was a Macrianus! Genuine and in decent condition. He quoted 100 Euros. I said no and walked away, but he followed and continued to dicker. Finally, on the steps of the tourist bus about to depart, I bought it for 50. I’m not sure if he really knew it was rare. I made some money selling it.

Meantime, for my own collection I’m a real condition snob, and over time have managed to get several types each of Quietus and Macrianus in really excellent preservation. They go for some hundreds.

Those coins are antoniniani, which were the main “workhorse” coins of the Roman Empire in this period. The Romans also controlled Egypt, and the coinage system there was separate and very different. Its principal coin was the tetradrachm. It had started out, in Greek times, as a sizable silver coin, but by the Third Century had diminished to a smaller thick bronze coin (inscribed in Greek). It’s a very nice continuous series of coins that ran into the beginning of the 400s; my collection is fairly comprehensive on them.

Macrianus did have control of Egypt for a brief time, so tetradrachms were issued for his two sons. They are rather more rare than the Roman-style antoniniani. I have had a nice Macrianus tet for quite some time, but Quietus seems somewhat tougher, and had eluded me. A definite gap in my collection that begged to be filled.

Victor England

Classical Numismatic Group is a coin firm specializing in ancients, and the biggest such. It was founded by Victor England, a good guy I’ve known for over 30 years, always a pleasure to deal with. I visited their Pennsylvania offices, a great place, during our Gettysburg trip; bought from Victor a wonderful lot of 50 late Roman bronzes, in superb condition — after my careful cleaning. Anyhow, CNG runs frequent internet auctions. I always bid, though it seems pretty futile, as they’ve built a gigantic clientele, so coins get bid up high. Still, I persist, on the outside chance of getting something cool. Usually I do snag at least one lot — of no consequence.

Recently they had a special sale of a large collection focused on coins of the Valerian-Gallienus period — which included Macrianus and Quietus. One lot was a pair of their Egyptian tetradrachms; the Macrianus fairly nice except for some nasty looking green crust spots on the reverse that I thought I could ameliorate. The Quietus unfortunately was pretty rough. Well, I got the lot for what I felt was a very good price of $140 (plus 18% buyer fee). So I unleashed my restorative skills on the two coins, and was able to make the Quietus, if not superb, at least minimally passable for my snobby collection. It does have a good sharp obverse inscription and portrait detail.

I’ve reproduced here CNG’s original sale photo, above, with the Quietus being the lower coin; and the same (at left) after my cleaning. I enjoyed adding this to my collection.

 

 

 

“People of color” versus “colored people” — call in the language police

January 11, 2020

A recent local newspaper story* reports a Schenectady council meeting, where one member touted the election of a nonwhite council president, rejoicing in the body’s diversity, including two “colored — people of color.” He almost said “colored people” before catching himself.

The article reports “an audible gasp,” an “incredulous-looking councilwoman,” another saying she was “offended” (adding “at least try to be politically correct”), another observer saying she was “stunned,” an African-American man who “walked out of the room in apparent disgust,” and the local NAACP head saying he was caught off-guard and the issue will be taken up at the group’s next meeting.

The relevant linguistic background is fraught.** “Colored people” once was a term they themselves preferred, as the polite one. Eventually it acquired a demeaning odor and was supplanted by “Negro.” That word echoes a past paradigm classifying people into three races — “negroid,” “caucasoid,” and “mongoloid.” (It’s not really that simple, nor even is the concept of “race” scientifically coherent.)

And using “Negro” was not new, but repurposed an old word, which originated as the Spanish for “black,” and had actually referred to slaves. The N-word was a more degrading version. Some southerners would later snarkily pronounce “Negro” as “Nigra,” to be just this side of politeness while conveying what was really meant.

Then “Negro” was discarded and “black” became the chosen word. Even though it too had designated slaves. At least “black” is English, rather than Spanish. Though brown might be more apt — as well as unfreighted with historical baggage.

Next it was “African-American.” A bit of a mouthful, but possessing a certain verity, since most people so described do have African ancestry, albeit usually far in the past.

And so we come to “people of color.” I generally believe in calling people what they want to be called. But I’m frankly baffled by this latest rehabilitation of old words once considered derogatory. “People of color” does perhaps entail a nuance of putting “people” first; and whereas “colored people” typically implied just African ancestry, “people of color” today encompasses all non-caucasians. Yet still the words in the two phrases are actually identical in meaning, and both arise from the same linguistic roots, using the same word as a signifier of ethnic difference. If “people of color” is now acceptable, “colored people” should be too. Maintaining a sharp distinction seems absurdist hair-splitting.

True, the two terms can have different meanings depending on who uses them and why. But political correctness tends to put that cart before the horse, with inferences drawn from the bare words alone, regardless of context. What it’s really all about is people setting themselves up as paragons of right-thinking, while wrong-footing others, as offenders against purity, consigning them to outer darkness.

This syndrome was on full display in the Schenectady council episode. A few people quoted did acknowledge that the “offender” was guilty merely of a slip of the tongue, and nothing ought be made of it. That’s just common sense and reasonableness. After all, the fellow was applauding nonwhites. But common sense and reasonableness go out the window in such cases. There are now always people eager to mount high horses, getting out their pitchforks and torches.

The absurdity here rises to dizzying heights, when it’s not even about something the man said, but what he almost said. Nevertheless, that was sufficient pretext for those who relish the deliciousness of taking offense.

A final irony: the article, again, quoted the local NAACP head. Perhaps in that future meeting he talked of, they can also discuss their own organization’s name: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

 

https://www.timesunion.com/news/article/Councilman-s-remarks-rankle-some-members-of-14960079.php

**Here’s a good article discussing it: https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/11/07/362273449/why-we-have-so-many-terms-for-people-of-color

Psycho-sociology, politics, and reality lenses

January 5, 2020

“Events, dear boy, events.” That was British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan’s famous reply, when asked what could shake up the status quo.

We’ve seen a lot of events in the last three years. Government shut-downs. Mueller investigation. Cruelties at the border. Charlottesville. Kavanaugh. Ukraine scandal. Impeachment. Yet nothing moves the political needle. Trump’s poll ratings have stayed stuck at around 40%.

This is actually very strange. If anything, historically, and throughout the world, voters have exhibited not steadfastness but fickleness. France’s President Macron was elected in 2017 with 66% of the vote (unimaginable in America), then his favorability polling plummeted to only 23%. Never mind whether that made sense — at least the French were attuned to events, and changing opinions in response thereto. In almost any country, a leader conducting himself as abominably as Trump, caught in so many lies, etc., would see his support plunge close to zero.

A recent David Brooks column tackles what’s going on. “Events,” he writes, “don’t seem to be driving politics. Increasingly, sociology is.” Who you are as a person tends to be determinative. This by itself is no revelation: a gay urban artist is likely to vote Democrat; a rural churchgoing construction worker Republican. But Brooks goes on to say an event itself is not what’s salient; “it’s the process by which we make meaning of the event.” Each seeing it through our own lens.

And, says Brooks, different segments of American society “now see reality through nonoverlapping lenses. They make meaning in radically different ways. Psychosocial categories have hardened.”

This cultural segmentation has very deep roots. Brooks writes that if a region was settled, in the 17th and 18th centuries, predominantly from East Anglia, it probably votes Democratic; if from the North of England, for Trump. He adds that the 1896 election is also a good predictor of today’s politics — 22 of 23 states voting for Democrat Bryan in 1896 are Republican now.

But if that kind of sorting is not new, it has greatly intensified in recent decades. For reasons Brooks says he doesn’t understand.

Nevertheless, in the rest of the column, Brooks contends that any political analysis must today concern itself not just with the ostensible ramifications of events themselves but with the different ways different groups see them. However, nothing he writes here suggests that those very different lenses are not equally valid. Yet therein lies much of the tale.

I wrote recently of a conversation with some Trumpers which included assertions that Adam Schiff had been outed as a pedophile; that Biden was not a candidate when Trump spoke with Zelensky; that child migrants were caged only during the Obama administration; they weren’t separated from parents, as proven by DNA tests! And so on and so forth. All right-wing fake news. Including saying mainstream media spouts fake news.

This isn’t just seeing reality through a different lens. It’s seeing reality on a different planet.

Can 40% of Americans have succumbed to mass psychosis? If Brooks is baffled by what’s happened, I’ll suggest a theory:

Our reality perception was honed by evolution to promote survival. That makes us very good at seeing reality insofar as that aids coping with all life’s hazards. You won’t mistake a red light for green. But that doesn’t apply to the realm of public affairs; that’s a freebie, where reality perception isn’t life-or-death, giving us the luxury of a different criterion: what makes us feel good.

That’s a perfectly valid human concern. One might even say it’s the very purpose of being alive. Hence feeling good, along with the survival instinct, is a powerful motivator.

Nevertheless, in normal circumstances, we don’t really see it as an option to believe something that’s false just to feel good. However — if it does somehow seem to be an option — if one can rationalize believing it — then heck, let’s go for it!

Trump and his enablers have hypercharged this. Helped by the explosion of garbage on the internet, much put there with cynical intent. They’ve made it seem a valid choice to believe things that actually are, well, lies. Indeed, they’re undermining the whole concept of truth versus lies. Truth is whatever you’d like it to be.

It helps if you’re not alone, if there’s a whole community of others with you. And a major TV network. Even  the President of the United States. 

In this environment, “events” actually don’t matter much at all. It’s not just that you see events through your own sociological lens. Social psychology dictates your politics regardless of events. 

All this plays to people wanting (naturally) to feel good about themselves. Eliminating the cognitive dissonance of trying to reconcile support for Trump with the rotten reality. Without having to give it up and admit to yourself you’ve been conned. Especially with everyone around you staying conned. Far preferable to live in an alternate universe where what you’re supporting is all good (and opponents are all bad). Where DNA tests prove no children were taken from parents.

 

America’s coming redemption — or its demise?

December 13, 2019

I never expected Communism’s collapse. Still less America’s — in terms of what it stood for.

I awakened in 1964. Living near the World’s Fair, one day at West Germany’s pavilion I saw a film about the Berlin Wall. I started to understand.

For the next quarter century the Cold War was a defining political reality. A dark one. Around the late ’70s, it seemed the world was going headlong in the wrong direction. I felt despair. But then things turned around. Like Hemingway’s line, gradually, then suddenly. And the Wall came down.

When 1989 closed, watching new year fireworks (with my new wife — another seeming miracle), I saluted it aloud as a blessed golden year. In 1993 I visited Russia — now a free country. Seemed a miracle. Walking up St. Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospekt, the grim grey Soviet facades were interspersed with occasional flashes of color — new stores! I returned in 1995 and now the Nevsky was all color. I was elated at this total triumph of my deepest ideals.

It wasn’t “the end of history.” But it appeared humanity had turned a corner, into a new dawn, finally putting behind us so much that had hobbled and afflicted us.

The “Flynn Effect” is named for a researcher who revealed a perhaps surprising global trend: people getting smarter. IQs literally rising over a long time span. More education and more exposure to different kinds of people are partial explanations. And if we were putting a lot of bad stuff behind us, better thinking played a role.

But now we see bad thinking is more tenacious than we may have realized. Especially when, as always, some people can benefit from exploiting it.

Of course I’m talking about today’s America. In the great moral triumph that was the fall of Communism, America had a leading role. We won the Cold War not because we were more bad-ass than the Communists, but because we won the war of ideas. Because our kind of society, the values we reflected, were more attractive to human beings. As a deep student of history, I’d always loved my country as (for all its human imperfections) a uniquely good creation in humanity’s story. Those triumphant American values were key positive components of my own personal identity.

Now that’s been betrayed. How could America have gone so far off the rails? I could never before have imagined a regime here that so travesties everything the U.S. once stood for. With four in ten Americans idiotically cheering it on. Defying the Flynn effect. Seems you can fool enough of the people all the time.

Because I’m no cynic, an idealist really, the country’s disgrace, by a regime behaving so contemptibly, lacerates my soul. My shock and pain have continued to intensify, and will not abate until this evil is purged.

This has re-energized, in the past three years, my political engagement (mainly through blogging). People find meaning in life through concerns larger than themselves. Seeing my country’s fate at stake is certainly such a cause, and my advocacy has been a source of meaning in my life, a deep part of my very personhood.

I have no illusions about what Trump’s 2020 defeat would portend. I have seen too many hopeful developments in the world turn sour. Trump and his minions will not disappear,* their poison will long continue to infect American politics. Their reality denial extends to believing victory is certain; losing will unhinge them even more. I worry about his gun nuts. He’s already darkly tweeted about civil war. At a minimum, thirsting for revenge, Republicans will wage partisan war against a Democratic administration with an intensified deranged ferocity. Untethered from truth and reality, with morality askew, there are no limits.

Yet nevertheless, their 2020 defeat will, for me, feel like a great moral triumph, on a par with the fall of Communism.

Maybe it could even be a turning point for the whole world, bending back a trend of brainless voting for authoritarian populists. And even while the infection will persist here, demography would militate against its recrudescence. That whole nasty strain in American politics will inexorably die off along with the older religious white voters upon whom it depends.

But on the other hand — if they cannot be defeated in 2020 even with a candidate so blatantly vile as Trump, then what hope would there be for the American ideal? How much more will that monster, drunk with triumph and unconstrained by any further need for votes, crush that ideal? His second term would be the end of America.

That would crush me; it would be existentially demoralizing.

I’d have to figure out a different way of being in the world. Deploying the serenity prayer. Perhaps going into exile — if not literally to Canada, then mentally. Disengaging, tuning out — at my age leaving it for another generation to deal with. For them to re-achieve, finally, the human revolution that I’d once thought had been achieved.

* Or maybe, given his off-the-charts narcissistic personality disorder, unable to handle the humiliation of defeat, he’ll kill himself. It wouldn’t surprise me. How would his supporters react? Would it break the spell — or martyrize him?

Christian destruction of the classical world

November 19, 2019

Hans-Friedrich Mueller is Professor of Ancient and Modern Languages at Union College. I heard (twice!) a talk he gave, based on a book by Catherine Nixey titled The Darkening Age — the Christian Destruction of the Classical World.

Nixey was brought up in a religious environment, and got the traditional “sunday school” story of Christian monks preserving, through the Dark Ages, the writings of the ancient world. She was shocked to find out that in fact such preservation was almost accidental and was overwhelmed by a much bigger tale of destruction and suppression. Her aim in writing was to present this other “untold” side of the story.

The religion of the ancient Greeks and Romans was what we call “pagan,” with a pantheon of deities like Zeus and Athena (Jupiter and Minerva to the Romans). Actually the word “pagan” was a Christian coinage intended to be derogatory; it derived from “pagus,” meaning “countryside.” Hence a religion of country bumpkins.

The change came when the Roman Emperor Constantine I (ruled 307-337 AD) converted to Christianity, making it now the state religion. But Professor Mueller observed that it’s actually hard to convince people to change their religion. He pointed to conflict in his own family concerning his marriage, involving two kinds of Christianity; and of course between paganism and Christianity there is a far bigger gulf. The conversion was accordingly achieved by much violence and repression.

Indeed, Mueller started by reading from Nixey’s account of what happened at Palmyra, a Syrian city, in 385 AD. “The destroyers came from out of the desert,” it began. A large “swarm” of Christian men, targeting everything pagan in Palmyra. Described in detail was the dismemberment of the beautiful marble statue of Athena, likened to a rape. “The triumph of Christianity had begun.”

In an unmistakeable reprise of this past, Palmyra’s ancient monuments were again ravaged, in 2016, by ISIS, with a quite similar religious impetus.

Hypatia was not a marble statue, but an actual woman, a notable philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician, in Alexandria, Egypt. In 415 AD, she was lynched by a Christian mob at the direction of their bishop. Professor Mueller gave a graphic description but I will spare my readers here the ghastly details.

Meantime, however, we’ve all been told how Christians themselves had suffered persecution in prior centuries. This is part of the mythology Nixie sought to debunk. While the Romans did require everyone to partake in some pagan rituals, and executed refusers, this wasn’t a big thing. Mueller quotes a letter from the Emperor Trajan (98-116 AD) to a Roman governor, embodying a kind of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The Roman state practiced a whole lot more religious tolerance before Constantine’s conversion than afterward, with persecution of pagans far more severe than what Christians had experienced. Indeed, Christians persecuted each other far more, over doctrinal disputes.

Nixey thinks not only that Christianity’s triumph by violence and oppression was a crime, but also that something valuable was lost. Pagan religious practice was a part of civic community life, and may have accorded more holistically with human nature. Professor Mueller noted in particular that ancient pagans had more open attitudes about sexuality, that were probably healthier, in comparison to Christianity’s frankly twisted up doctrines.

The ancients more generally took religion less seriously, tending to view their gods as being merely symbological or metaphors. Poseidon, for example, was the personification of the sea. But most intelligent people were not so silly as to imagine the gods were actual beings. Religion was for them a way to acknowledge our context within the natural world. It was not something central to their lives, as it is for high octane modern Christians or Muslims, for whom god does play a big role in the world and in their lives.

The degree of violence and social upheaval experienced in past civilizations, as depicted in Professor Mueller’s talk, was actually pretty typical throughout human history. Our own societal dispensation, with its separation of church and state, ethos of tolerance, and constraints upon violence and other forms of governmental power, is something not to be taken for granted. Yet there are fools today actually trying to tear this down.

Also there’s a notion that modern monotheism is a somehow more advanced religion than silly childish paganism with belief in many deities. A humanist might agree only insofar as belief in just one god approaches the correct number.

Impeachment, Nixon, and me

October 22, 2019

I watched Nixon’s 1974 farewell speech live, with tears in my eyes. Not tears of sorrow; it was actually a bizarre speech. But at the moment’s poignancy and historical weight.

I’d been a fervent Nixon supporter in 1968, and he was my friend. A slight exaggeration, but I did feel a personal connection. In my teens I would write to famous people for autographs. This was before celebrity culture; they weren’t inundated and would often reply. I wrote to Nixon several times about politics while he was in New York exile after his dual election defeats. Looking toward a comeback, he was working the Republican vineyards; probably didn’t realize I was a kid. Anyhow, he would respond to me not with form letters but meaty disquisitions that seemed obviously personally dictated.

He was my dream presidential candidate, which seemed a pipe dream at first, given the GOP’s crushing 1964 defeat. I was very active in Republican politics, both on campus and in the real world. I signed up with Nixon’s campaign. A huge Nixon poster adorned my bedroom. On Election Day (my first vote), I was a poll worker, then stayed up through the night watching returns. It was a nail-biter.

I remember my elation the next day, commuting to my law school. My classmates were mostly radical left, with only a handful of “out” Republicans. Sixty-eight was such a tumultuous year. But in the end, it was my guy who’d won. I was over the moon.

Later I was actually appointed by Nixon to a minor federal commission.

As Watergate unfolded, I followed events closely. Carefully read the transcripts of White House tapes, and was appalled. The man there revealed was not who we’d thought he was. Most Republicans had the same reaction.

I was as partisan as anyone. Indeed, at the time, deeply engaged in the political wars locally, as a ward leader. But I saw no animus by any Republicans against Democrats over impeachment. It was not a partisan issue, it was about the facts. Nixon resigned because his own party could not condone what he’d done.

Certainly they were not demonizing Democrats as “traitors,” as trying to mount a “coup” to overturn the previous election, or any such nonsense. Even Nixon himself, in that mawkish farewell speech, did not impugn his opponents’ motives.

Trump’s offenses are far worse than Nixon’s. Nixon tried to cover up a “third rate burglary.” Trump, the mis-use of hundreds of millions in U.S. aid, perverting our foreign policy, for his own base political ends. Mulvaney saying this is normal, and we should just “get over it,” insulted our intelligence.

But not only do Republicans defend Trump, their idea of a defense is cooking up false smears against Democrats, like their meritless attack on Adam Schiff for supposedly lying — he didn’t — as if Trump isn’t the biggest liar ever. What a sickening disgrace.

Trump’s behavior shows he’s trying to prove he can get away with absolutely anything. Our president is literally an insane out-of-control monster, a patsy for dictators, yet Republicans still have his back. When Senate Republicans vote to clear him, it will be their final, ultimate degradation. While Democratic presidential canmdidates are off on another planet somewhere fixated on the minutiae of health care plans. If Trump is re-elected, America will need mental health care.

In 1974 we were all Americans, first and foremost. Not blinded by partisan tribalism. We could tell right from wrong. Truth from lies. And true patriots from Russian stooges.

What a different country that was. I mourn for it, with tears of sorrow in my eyes.

DeRay Mckesson and Black Lives Matter

October 20, 2019

DeRay Mckesson is a Baltimorean who got activist during the Ferguson protests and is prominent in the “Black Lives Matter” movement. He wrote a book, On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope. I wanted to like it.

The opening chapters reminded me of when an opposing lawyer called my first major brief a “Proustian stream of consciousness.” It wasn’t a compliment. (I was the sidekick on that brief; the next I wrote alone, more coherently.) Mckesson seems to string together a flood of thoughts as they occur to him, with no organization or clear line of argument.

The third chapter is much better, focusing on police vis-a-vis blacks. Mckesson’s basic point is that the police have little accountability. We hire them to uphold our laws but they become a law unto themselves. The book explains this in detail, examining local police contracts, negotiated by their unions, geared toward protecting cops against any misconduct charges, by creating roadblocks for complaints.

But a point strangely missing here is that while many cops are sincere public servants aiming to do good, too often police work attracts the wrong sort. Who see the badge as a license to assert their manhood by swaggering with weapons, to be a bully, to vent what are really antisocial proclivities. Or just plain racist ones. Whites may be oblivious to this police brutality because they don’t bear its brunt.

Which brings us to the chapter on white privilege. Here again, unfortunately, the author throws together a welter of ideas, many really rhetorical non-sequiturs, with no coherent line of argument. The “white privilege” trope is polemical jiu-jitsu. It’s not that whites enjoy some special status. What they get is what everyone should get — human privilege. The problem is blacks not receiving it. A simple concept unspoken in Mckesson’s treatment.

“Black Lives Matter” is not a negation of other lives mattering. It’s black lives mattering as much as others. Recognizing the reality that for most of our history, and even now in many places and many hearts, they matter less. Mckesson never says anything so straightforward. The point, like so much else, gets lost in all his verbal gymnastics.

Nearing the book’s middle, I realized that two words in particular were weirdly absent: slavery and lynching. They finally did get a passing mention. But Mckesson first unfolds a bizarre analogy to a stolen lottery ticket, enriching the thief and his descendants, while the victim’s remain poor. As if losing an unearned lottery windfall is remotely comparable to the suffering of slavery and lynching.

A Martian reading this book would not realize that enslavement was the foundational experience of African-Americans. And that during the Jim Crow century, thousands of blacks, often (or mostly?) innocent, were lynched, often with hideous barbarity, to “keep them in their place” through plain terror. In Georgia in 1918, Haynes Turner, an innocent man, was lynched. His wife protested to authorities. She was then arrested, and turned over to a mob, stripped, hung upside down, soaked with gasoline, and roasted to death, her belly slashed open to pull out her unborn child, who they stomped to death.

It’s as though Mckesson can’t bring himself to talk plainly about such things. Odd, considering all his assertions that America isn’t truly confronting its race situation, actually one of his key themes. He ends the chapter saying this: “Whiteness is an idea and a choice. We can choose differently. We can introduce new ideas to replace it.”

What?? Maybe I’m too dumb to grasp what he’s talking about there. Or maybe it’s just meaningless word spinning.

Mckesson too often gets tangled in such rhetorical knots and convoluted concepts. He says Charleston racist killer Dylann Roof didn’t get called a “terrorist” to somehow avoid holding him accountable and to “preserve this lie” that crimes by blacks reflect racial pathology whereas white people’s crimes are “just the errant actions of individual actors.” What??

The author’s indictment encompasses most whites, few (if any) meeting his stringent wokeness test, hence being part of the problem in his eyes. Too broad a brush, methinks. Meantime, notwithstanding his mention of Dylann Roof, he says little about burgeoning white nationalist ideology, egged on by Trump, which is coming to be recognized as the nation’s number one terrorist threat. Even absent continued shootings, this poison’s spread could tear the country apart. Mckesson has no answer.

The antepenultimate chapter is a breath of fresh air. Starting it, I sat up and realized this immediately. No more cutesie rhetorical pyrotechnics but clear eloquent honesty — about his growing up gay and how he’s come to terms with it.

But thinking about the book as a whole — this may seem strange for me to say now — what it really is is poetry. Poetry isn’t necessarily linear. It’s more about feeling than argument. I can see Mckesson performing a lot of what he wrote in a poetry slam. But as a book trying to actually elucidate a subject, it really didn’t work for me.

Strangers in Their Own Land: Understanding America’s right

October 14, 2019

Since 2016 I’ve striven especially hard to understand what’s happening in America. Arlie Russell Hochschild is a Berkeley professor who, in the same quest, immersed herself with “Tea Partiers,” as told in her 2016 book, Strangers in Their Own Land. Every Democrat should read it.

In the Tea Party’s heyday, I was still a Republican and could understand, even sympathize with it. But how did it transmogrify into blind support for a lying con man with ruinous divisive policies? Including a trillion dollar annual federal deficit — blowing off the Tea Party’s ostensible signature issue?

Our most basic ideological divide has long been that Democrats look to government to address societal problems, while Republicans don’t want government meddling in our lives. The Tea Party — a driving force among Republicans — demonized government as an outright enemy. This was a backlash against Obama’s presidency. Yet his administration was hardly radical. His real offense seemed to be governing while black. More broadly, Tea Partiers saw government as working more for non-whites, outsiders, and moochers than for good ole true-blue hard-working Americans.

 

Hochschild went to Louisiana, to dive into the culture she sought to understand. And this is really a matter of culture. Most people tend to situate themselves psychologically within a culture and shape their personal identity from it. Politics is part of this. In fact, as told in Bill Bishop’s book The Great Sort, many Americans gravitate into communities of like-minded people, accentuating the red/blue divide.

Hochschild sought to unravel what she deemed a “Great Paradox.” That people most hostile to government are often the ones most apt to need it. She focused particularly on the environment, especially pollution, Louisiana being one of the worst affected states, with widespread human harm. Yet Louisiana Tea Partiers opposed EPA pollution regulation. Louisiana also ranks at the bottom on measures like poverty, health, education, etc. Federal money helps. This too they oppose.

But this doesn’t seem so paradoxical to me. Hochschild discusses Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, What’s the Matter With Kansas (which I’ve unfavorably reviewed). Frank was exasperated at people voting against their economic interests (as he saw them). But how often are we told (by lefties) that homo economicus is a mythical creature? While people do sometimes pursue perceived self interest, life is more complicated. Voters are often expressing values rather than interests.

So you can oppose big government despite suffering from pollution. Yet Republicans actually favor bossy government when it suits them, like prohibiting abortion. Indeed, Hochschild notes that they’re fine with thusly regulating women’s lives, but not man stuff like motorcycle helmets, liquor, and of course guns. And also keen for regulation when aimed at blacks. A local Louisiana law regulates how they wear their pants. Talk about intrusive government. Louisiana has the nation’s highest percentage of people incarcerated, and those are disproportionately black.

What right-wing Louisianans mainly dislike is the government in Washington. Not only physically distant but, more importantly, culturally distant. There’s a fundamental sense that the elites calling the shots in America lately have not been their kind of people.

Hochschild discusses one big Louisiana environmental disaster, the 2012 Bayou Corne Sinkhole. Locals felt state officials were asleep at the switch and did nothing for them. Feeding their general cynicism about government. But Hochschild sees that attitude itself as the cause of state government being weak in the first place.* They want minimalist government, yet want it doing the job. That may again seem contradictory, but only partly. There’s a sense that government can’t be trusted to do what’s right. Maximalist government that gets the job done is something of a fantasy too. Hochschild herself lists some big ways government has betrayed her liberal values, while saying her “criticisms were based on a faith in the idea of good government.” Talk about paradoxes.

Underlying everything is what Hochschild calls “the deep story” — the “feels as if” story — embodying these Louisianans’ “hopes, fears, pride, shame, resentment, and anxiety.” Valorizing work as a source of personal honor. The grit of enduring — including enduring the pollution harms discussed. Religion is a big factor, their endurance strengthened by believing God has their backs. This is part of the cultural divide too, vis-a-vis secular coastal liberals.

And key to the “deep story” is the idea of “line cutting.” People see themselves lined up for the American dream by working hard and playing by the rules. It’s very tough and many feel stuck; maybe even slipping back in the line. And then others are allowed to cut ahead of them. Often by government, taking from good hardworking people and giving it to less worthy ones. Especially ones “not like us.” Blacks especially, but also immigrants, and women, even animals (endangered species). Obama was seen, and the Democratic party in general is seen, as on the side of those line cutters.

While the left resents the rich, the right resents government beneficiaries. And rubbing salt in the wound is disrespect, offending their sense of honor, cultural marginalization, being called backward, racist, etc. They don’t consider themselves racist; don’t use the N-word or hate blacks. Hochschild says it’s more like belief in a natural hierarchy, with blacks at the bottom, and whites’ self-worth based on distance from that bottom.

She notes half of all government benefits actually go to the richest 20%. And blacks have not in fact jumped the queue — in recent decades, statistics show, if anything they’ve fallen further behind whites economically. Women have moved up but still lag behind males. So who are the real line cutters? Robots. (Automation and technological change, that is.)

Democrats need to make clear they’re for fairness for everyone. Not just ethnic minorities, women, LGBTs. But especially hard working Americans. Should explicitly disavow condoning “line cutting.”

Having written in 2016, Hochschild tacks on a section about Trump — who exploited the “deep story.” With Trump, they no longer feel like strangers in their own land. This is not about issues or policies so much as feelings. (Thus the deficit is forgotten.) It’s the music, not the lyrics. Trump does seem to speak their language, yet it’s less about Trump himself than the solidarity they feel with fellow Trumpers. He is a totem, a symbol. It’s really a battle of their culture against the other one they consider degenerate. “Send her back!” served as a battle cry, intensifying their sense of unity in moral superiority.

All this Hochschild likens to an anti-depressant drug, even a drug giving them a high. Which they don’t want to lose.

They’re (mostly) not bad people. Reading this book made me feel a lot of empathy for them. I can understand why they feel the way they do about Trump, and refuse to let go. Yet it’s a national tragedy that they’ve so blinded themselves to fall for so wicked a man, so bad for the country they so love. Who’s in many ways the biggest line-cutter of them all.

*She cites data showing red states generally, due to weaker regulation, tend to have worse pollution problems than blue states.

Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed: good news story

October 12, 2019

Ethiopia’s leader Abiy Ahmed has received the Nobel Peace Prize. Those prize choices sometimes seem strange, but not this one, it’s a bull’s eye. I’d been meaning to write about Abiy, as a rare good news story among national leaders; but attention gets monopolized by our own vile one.

Ethiopia’s longtime Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in 1974 by a brutal Communist gang (“The Derg”). They were overthrown in 1991, by less brutal rebels. Meantime, after a long insurgency, Eritrea broke away; though the Eritreans had fought together with the new Ethiopian leaders against the Communists, they soon feel out. Eritrea’s boss, Isaias Afwerki, instituted one of the world’s worst tyrannies and fought a pointlessly bloody border war with Ethiopia. Whose own regime then faced enormous protests, and responded with much repression.

Enter Abiy Ahmed, becoming Ethiopia’s prime minister in April 2018. He swiftly made peace with Eritrea, even went to meet with Isaias; this is what he got the Nobel for. But Abiy’s done far more, transforming the Ethiopian regime’s ugly repressive character, making it more open and democratic, freeing the press, and thousands of political prisoners, some of these former dissidents now even brought into government.

Why do this — unlike so many African leaders? Most humans act, one way or another, to serve their own well-being. Dictators dictate because they can; power and wealth and all it can buy, a fleet of Rolls-Royces (and women), people licking your boots, provide undoubted satisfactions. But, for a different sort of person, there can be different and actually greater satisfactions. Like actually doing good. This can serve one’s psychological needs better than power, wealth, and sycophancy. An Abiy can enjoy a more rewarding life than a Mobutu or a Mugabe. Maybe it’s surprising more leaders don’t see this.

I am realist enough to know how often good news goes bad. A former Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, was a hero of mine, until she wasn’t. But I’ll take good news where I can and root for Abiy to keep up the good work.

Not everything in Ethiopia is now perfect, nothing ever can be. And with Abiy doing so much so fast, inevitably there’s pushback; a lot of people who had power are losing it. There’s a lot of ethnic tension and violence. Recently there was an episode of armed revolt. But Abiy seems to be riding the storm, continuing to make Ethiopia a better place.

Can America follow its example?