Archive for the ‘history’ Category

King Zog

July 15, 2018

Knowing nothing about the story, except vaguely its strangeness, out of simple curiosity I picked up this biography, King Zog, by Jason Tomes.

Albania was an outlying part of the Ottoman Empire. A most backward, primitive, impoverished land (which it still is). A century ago it had no railroads, hardly even any roads, and three automobiles. Scant literacy or intelligentsia. No law, apart from a tribal vengeance code.

The tale begins with the outbreak of the First Balkan War in 1912, a confusion of would-be states scrambling in a war of all against all.

Enter Ahmed Zogolli. Just turning seventeen.

His early life is murky. The bio is full of “might haves” and “perhapses.” He apparently had some schooling in Constantinople (Istanbul). But in 1912 he didn’t come out of nowhere — not quite exactly. He’d inherited the chiefdom of a small Albanian backwoods clan, the Mati, with a ragtag army of maybe a few hundred men.

Albania was actually full of petty chiefs like him. But Zogolli, despite his extreme youth, excelled them all in intelligence, self-possession, self-discipline, guile — and in his vision for nation-building. Already he was a player when a statelet of Albania emerged out of the war in 1912. The European powers put a minor German prince on the throne; Zogolli backed him; he didn’t last. When WWI soon erupted, the Austrians came in, and he aligned with them too.

They gave Zogolli, now 21, a rank of Colonel, and even brought him to Vienna to receive a medal and an audience with the new Emperor Karl. All very nice. But then he was told it would be best to just remain in Vienna.

So he sat out the rest of the war, nightclubbing — and studying history. At war’s end he finally returned to Albania where, Austrian rule having disintegrated, a provisional government emerged. Within months Zogolli was minister of the interior, and soon thereafter calling all the shots. By 1922 (now all of 27), he was also prime minister.

The next year Zogolli organized elections — the only free election Albania ever had until the 1990s. His own party didn’t do too well. In 1924, on his way to Parliament, he took three bullets from a would-be assassin but persevered to deliver his speech. Nevertheless, things were falling apart, and Zogolli was soon ousted and exiled. However, his successor was such a crackpot that by year’s end Zogolli managed to return again, raise a new army, and seize control. He rode at the head of his tribal warriors wearing a pressed business suit.

Now, he made himself president, restyled as Ahmed Zogu; and in 1928 as King Zog I.

It was not a cushy billet. Albanian politics (if it could be called such) was a morass of tribal blood feuds; and in consolidating power, Zog had stepped on many toes. He managed to hold things together, just, but foresaw an almost inevitable violent end.

A certain fearlessness had vaulted him to power, yet he lived in constant fear now, and it kept him virtually imprisoned in the palaces he built.

In these circumstances, a benevolent monarchy was not in the cards. Some repression was required. Some inconvenient characters did die violently. At least the word “torture” does not appear in the book.

However, it was not solely self-aggrandizement. As mentioned, Zog did see himself on a nation-building mission, little though he had to work with. Albania was still a collection of feuding clans with no national consciousness. Zog did do some things of a liberal, progressive nature, trying to drag the country out of the Dark Ages. But a key hindrance was simple lack of money. Obviously, these grizzled tribesmen would not submit to taxation. Indeed, what funds Zog did manage to scrape together went largely to buying off warlords.

He did not get a queen until 1938: Geraldine. He couldn’t marry any Albanian gal because of the clan rivalry factor, and mainline European royalty shunned him as an upstart adventurer. Geraldine was of minor Hungarian nobility and half American. It actually seems to have been something of a love match.

Zog’s challenge was not just to play off rival warlords but (to keep Albania in existence) also Italy, Yugoslavia, and Greece. He made Albania virtually an Italian client state. Though accused of selling the country out to Mussolini, the riposte was that he’d never actually delivered it. But finally, in April 1939 — Mussolini, to keep up with the Joneses — that is, the Germans, who rolled up Czechoslovakia — invaded Albania, after an ultimatum that Zog refused.

Albania would have been totally outclassed militarily, even had anyone been willing to fight. But no one was. Zog fled into exile, yet again.

For the next 22 years he and his court flitted among various countries, financed by quite a bit of loot he’d managed to accumulate and abscond with. Unsurprisingly, Zog intrigued relentlessly for a return. During WWII, various partisan armies — none supporting him — fought over Albania. The eventual victor was Enver Hoxha’s Communists, who installed a brutal Stalinist regime, that lasted until 1991.

Zog had meantime ruined his health in numerous ways, including smoking more cigarettes than was humanly possible. He was 65 when he died in 1961.

He did not come back again.

Geraldine lived until 2002.

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How to become a Nazi

July 9, 2018

You’re a nurse, and a doctor instructs you, by phone, to give his patient 20 Mg of a certain drug. The bottle clearly says 10 Mg is the maximum allowable daily dose. Would you administer the 20 Mg? Asked this hypothetical question, nearly all nurses say no. But when the experiment was actually run, 21 out of 22 nurses followed the doctor’s orders, despite knowing it was wrong.

Then there was the famous Milgram experiment. Participants were directed to administer escalating electric shocks to other test subjects for incorrect answers. Most people did as instructed, even when the shocks elicited screams of pain; even when the victims apparently lost consciousness. (They were actors and not actually shocked.)

These experiments are noted in Michael Shermer’s book, The Moral Arc, in a chapter about the Nazis. Shermer argues that in the big picture we are morally progressing. But here he examines how it can go wrong, trying to understand how people became Nazis.

Normal people have strong, deeply embedded moral scruples. But they are very situation-oriented. Look at the famous “runaway trolley” hypothetical. Most people express willingness to pull a switch to detour the trolley to kill one person to prevent its killing five. But if you have to physically push the one to his death — even though the moral calculus would seem equivalent — most people balk.

So it always depends on the circumstances. In the nurse experiment, when it came down to it, the nurses were unwilling to go against the doctor. Likewise in Milgram’s experiment, it was the authority of the white-coated supervisor that made people obey his order to give shocks, even while most felt very queasy about it.

Nazis too often explained themselves saying, “I was only following orders.” And, to be fair, the penalty for disobeying was often severe. But that was hardly the whole story. In fact, the main thing was the societal normalization of Nazism. When your entire community, from top to bottom, is besotted with an idea, it’s very hard not to be sucked in.

Even if it is, well, crazy. Nazi swaggering might actually not have been delusional if confined to the European theatre. They overran a lot of countries. But then unbridled megalomania led them to take on, as well, Russia — and America. This doomed insanity they pursued to the bitter end.

Yet they didn’t see it that way. The power of groupthink.

And what about the idea of exterminating Jews? They didn’t come to it all at once, but in incremental steps. They actually started with killing “substandard” Germans — mentally or physically handicapped, the blind, the deaf — tens of thousands. With the Jews they began with social ostracizing and increasing curtailment of rights.

This was accompanied by dehumanization and demonization. Jews were not just called inferior, genetically and morally, but blamed for a host of ills, including causing WWI, and causing Germany’s defeat. Thusly Germans convinced themselves the Jews deserved whatever they got, had “brought it on themselves.” These ideas were in the very air Germans breathed.

Part of this was what Shermer calls “pluralistic ignorance” — taking on false beliefs because you imagine everyone holds them. Like college students who’ve been shown to have very exaggerated ideas of their peers’ sexual promiscuity and alcohol abuse, causing them to conform to those supposed norms. Germans similarly believed negative stereotypes about Jews because they thought most fellow Germans held such views. Actually many did not, but kept that hidden, for obvious reasons. There was no debate about it.

Of course it was all factually nonsense. An insult to intelligence, to anyone who knew anything about anything. Yet Germany — seemingly the most culturally advanced society on Earth, the epicenter of learning, philosophy, the arts — fell completely for this nonsense and wound up murdering six million in its name.*

Which brings me to Trumpism. (You knew it would.) Am I equating it with Nazism? No. Not yet. But the pathology has disturbing parallels. The tribalism, the groupthink, the us-versus-them, nationalism, racism, and contempt for other peoples. The demonization of immigrants, falsely blaming them for all sorts of ills, to justify horrible mistreatment like taking children from parents — even saying, “they brought it on themselves.” And especially the suspension of critical faculties to follow blindly a very bad leader and swallow bushels of lies.

I might once have said “it can’t happen here” because of our strong democratic culture. Today I’m not so sure. Culture can change. That within the Republican party certainly has. Not so long ago the prevailing national attitude toward politicians was “I’m from Missouri,” and “they’re all crooks and liars.” Too cynical perhaps but the skepticism was healthy, and it meant that being caught in a lie (or even flip-flopping) was devastating for a politician. Contrast Republicans’ attitude toward Trump (a politician after all). Not only a real crook and constant flip-flopper, but a Brobdingnagian liar. That 40% of Americans line up in lockstep behind this is frightening. And as for our democratic culture, the sad truth is that too few still understand its principles and values. Germans in their time were the apogee of civilization, and then they became Nazis.

Shermer quotes Hitler saying, “Give me five years and you will not recognize Germany again.” Fortunately Trump will have only four — let’s hope. But America is already becoming unrecognizable.

* My grandfather was a good patriotic German who’d even taken a bullet for his country in WWI. But that didn’t matter; he was Jewish. Fortunately he, with wife and daughter, got out alive. His mother did not.

Are humans smarter than (other) animals?

June 27, 2018

Around 1900, “Clever Hans” was a famous German horse with seeming mathematical ability. Asked “what is four times three?” Hans would tap his hoof twelve times. He was usually right even when his owner wasn’t present; and even when given the questions in writing!

Animal intelligence — and consciousness — are age old puzzles to us. French philosopher Rene Descartes saw other animals as, in effect, mechanical contrivances. And even today many see all their behaviors as produced not by intelligent consciousness (like ours) but rather by instinct — pre-installed algorithms that dictate responses to stimuli — like computers running programs.

Clever Hans’s story is recapped in Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Homo Deus. It was eventually proven that Hans knew no math at all. Instead, he was cued to stop tapping his hoof by onlookers’ body language and facial expressions. But, Harari says, that didn’t debunk Hans’s intelligence, it did the opposite. His performance required far more brain power than simple math! You might have memorized 4×3=12 — but could you have gotten the answer the way Hans did?

This points up the difficulty of inferring animal mentation using human yardsticks. Harari explains Hans’s abilities by noting that horses, unequipped for verbal language, communicate instead through body language — so they get pretty good at it. Much better than us.

So if horses are so smart, why aren’t they sitting in the stands at Saratoga while humans run around the track? Well, for one thing, building that sort of facility would have been a lot harder for horses with hooves rather than our dextrous five-fingered hands. Our tool-making capability is a huge factor. And our intelligence, taken as a whole, probably does outstrip that of any other animal. It had to, because early humans faced far more complex survival challenges. Countless other species failed such tests and went extinct. We did not because an evolutionary fluke gave us, just in time, an extreme adaptation in our brains, unlike any other animal’s. Our equivalent of the narwhal’s huge tusk or the giraffe’s neck.

That happened around a couple of hundred thousand years ago. Yet for around 98% of those years, humans achieved little more than mere survival. Only in the last few thousand have we suddenly exploded into a force dominating the Earth as no creature before.

Why that delay? In fact, Harari notes, our stone age ancestors must have been even smarter than people today. After all, their lives were much tougher. One mistake and you’d be dead; your dumb genes would not make it into the next generation.

Harari thinks — I tend to agree — that cooperation proved to be humanity’s killer app. PBS TV’s recent “Civilizations” series illuminates how things really got going with the development of agriculture about 10,000 years ago. Arguably farmers were actually worse off in many ways; and maybe even humanity as a whole for about 9,800 of those years. But agriculture, and the production of food surpluses, did make possible the rise of cities, where people could specialize in particular enterprises, and interact and exchange ideas with large numbers of other people. That eventually paid off spectacularly, in terms of human material well-being, in modern times.

Harari notes that ants and bees too live in large cooperative communities. So why haven’t they developed computers and spaceships? Our super intelligent consciousness also gave us great flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. Insects have a far more limited repertoire of responses. As Harari writes, “If a hive faces a new threat or a new opportunity, the bees cannot, for example, guillotine the queen and establish a republic.”

Fear and loathing in the Sultan’s court: The Mapmaker’s Daughter

June 20, 2018

A twelve year old Venetian girl is grabbed as a slave, from her home island, and carried off to Constantinople, capital of the Ottoman Empire, in the 1500s. The Mapmaker’s Daughter is her novelized memoir, by Katherine Nouri Hughes.*

And quite a tale it is — the girl Cecilia, renamed Nurbanu, rises to become a Sultan’s wife, effectively queen. If that sounds implausible, history actually offers other similar cases. Helena, Constantine I’s mother, started as what was perhaps euphemistically called a barmaid. She wound up not only an Augusta but a saint!

Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent

Cecilia/Nurbanu prospered because she wasn’t just another slave girl, but well educated, with a connection (albeit illegitimate) to Venetian nobility; and she caught the eye of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. It was Suleiman’s son Selim II (“the Drunk”) she married. Selim was indeed a big drunk. But he’s consistently called a good man. This tells you something about the others. Life in “the good old days” wasn’t pretty.

As in, say, grabbing children as slaves. Nurbanu worried about the fate of the many others taken off that island with her, but it’s left vague. No doubt few of those others enjoyed her good fortune.

Sultan Mehmet II

But one particular bit of nastiness forms the story’s fulcrum. This part of the world had a long history of rulers’ sons contending among themselves for power, with often bloody results. So Sultan Mehmet II (“The Conqueror,” of Constantinople, in 1453) promulgated a law aimed at forestalling such rivalries and thereby protecting civic order. Each wife or concubine of a Sultan would be allowed only one son. And when a Sultan took power, any surplus male siblings would be . . . dispensed with.

The one-son-per-girl rule was hard to enforce. And there was another factor. Life in those times was precarious, even for the healthiest. So to ensure the dynasty’s continuation it was deemed vital for a Sultan to produce extra standby sons.

Sultan Selim II

On that score, Selim the Drunk was slacking off. He didn’t want any woman but Nurbanu and had only one son. So finally his dad Suleiman ordered him to get with the program. Selim then obediently sired a bunch more sons. And soon thereafter died.

Meantime, when he himself was dying, Suleiman had also given Nurbanu a command — to be the enforcer of Mehmet II’s grisly law. For years, while Selim lived, she wrestled with the moral dimensions, seemingly resolved to disobey. But when Selim died, and the time arrived, she wound up giving the order. All Selim’s small sons were killed.

They were half-brothers of Nurbanu’s own son, who became the new Sultan Murad III. He hated what she had done.

While the author had to imagine a lot about Nurbanu, the book appears to stick closely to known historical facts, based on a little checking I did — prompted by one episode I found scarcely believable. Murad III built a very advanced astronomical observatory, aimed at putting Islamic science in the vanguard, outdoing all European efforts. Then, just a few years later, Murad ordered it demolished. (The book implies this was to spite Nurbanu, over the killings; but it seems the quest to penetrate God’s secrets was ultimately deemed un-Islamic.)

Sultan Murad III

It’s often pointed out that, at one time, Islamic science and scholarship were indeed in the forefront of human progress. And the question is often posed — what happened?

One great thing evolution endowed us with is changeability. It’s often forgotten, or even denied, but societies and cultures can and do change. In 1983, Ireland voted two-to-one to outlaw all abortions. In 2018 they voted two-to-one to repeal that. The Economist commented: “In 35 years, Ireland has changed utterly.”

So too did Muslim society change. But change is not always positive. Demolishing Murad’s observatory may have signaled an epochal inflection point for Muslim society.

America’s culture of democracy, freedom, openness, and tolerance can change too. And we seem to be undertaking our own demolition.

More accurately, a big part of America is doing that. Another part is fighting them, but somewhat ineffectually, with its own head partly up its rear. Right now, the former lot is on top (arguably illegitimately, by dint of gerrymandering, voter suppression, and other manipulation). Can this be overcome? America’s soul hangs in the balance.

But back to the book:

Sultan Mehmed III

Nurbanu (in Hughes’s telling at least), after years of defending the executions of Selim’s sons, eventually repented, and on her deathbed seemingly persuaded her son Sultan Murad to change the law. Yet the genealogy helpfully prefacing the story has already informed the reader that after Murad came his son Mehmed III — with “19 sons executed.” The author, in an afterword, says Mehmed’s 19 half-brothers (not sons) were executed. I checked; it is the genealogy that’s incorrect.**

Anyhow, the law was never abolished, but those 19 were the last such killings. Subsequent sultans satisfied themselves with putting half-brothers under confinement.

The Ottoman sultanate itself was abolished in 1923, followed by more or less democratic governance, interspersed by occasional military regimes, until President Erdogan made himself sultan in all but name.

Sultan Recep Tayyip Erdogan

* Note, there are at least six other books, by six other authors, with the same title!

**Another error I spotted: Cecilia/Nurbanu keeps in touch with her Venetian grandfather (perhaps implausibly till her death at 58). When her grandson (later Mehmed III) becomes a father, her grandfather writes to ask the name of his great-great-grandson. Of course it would have been a great-great-great-grandson!

Iraq revisited — rising from the ashes?

May 12, 2018

Iraq holds parliamentary elections today.

Conventional wisdom calls the Iraq War an unmitigated disaster rooted in lies about weapons of mass destruction.

I had supported the war. Saddam was no garden variety dictator; his regime ascended heights of monstrousness; it seriously threatened the whole region; severe sanctions were failing, even while further torturing the population.

About the “lies” — all the major intelligence services (even France’s) concluded Iraq had WMDs. Saddam had already used chemical weapons. And was trying to make it look like he had more. But casting that as a certainty was Bush’s mistake. He should have said, “We can’t be sure whether or not Iraq has WMDs, and can’t take the risk that it does.” (But maybe that would have sounded too ambiguous.)

The invasion was badly botched. It spawned much conflict, destruction, and ultimately the horror of ISIS, overrunning half the country including a leading city, Mosul.

A depressing story. But The Economist’s March 31 issue had a fascinating report on today’s Iraq — “Moving forward” — saying the country is now “righting itself.”

Abadi

ISIS had made monkeys of Iraq’s army under egregious former Prime Minister Maliki. But his successor, Abadi, is far better, and ISIS’s territorial incarnation has been destroyed by Iraq’s soldiers.

The Economist now calls them the region’s “winniest.”

In Mosul

The battle for Mosul seemingly evoked the sardonic Vietnam War line about destroying the city in order to save it. Yet Mosul is recovering with remarkable speed. Shops, hotels, and restaurants bloom; and “[t]there’s not a niqab, or face-veil, in sight.”

The UN says it takes, on average, five years after a conflict for half its displaced people to return. But Iraq’s conditions are so positive it’s taken only three months. They’re rebuilding.

Meantime, Iraq’s Kurdistan had long been a separate country in all but name. Then in September Kurdish President Barzani (no beloved figure) overreached by insisting on an independence vote. The backlash included Iraq’s army retaking some territories the Kurds had occupied, including Kirkuk, a key city. Now Kurdish separatism seems dead, and Iraq is a more united nation than in a long time.

In 2003, Bush had talked of planting a seed of democracy in the Middle East. Cynics loudly laughed. Yet even while the subsequent “Arab Spring” (partly inspired by Iraq) largely turned to fiasco, the fact is that Iraq did become a functioning democracy — and remains one. Indeed, The Economist’s report is quite upbeat on this score too.

Iraqi democracy had appeared to fall prey to sectarian enmities. Saddam’s minority Sunni regime had oppressed the Shiite majority. After his fall, Shiites sought revenge while Sunnis refused to accept disempowerment. But, in The Economist’s telling, this conflict is finally abating; Iraqis have learned its lessons; having peered into the abyss, they’re drawing back from it.

So secularism is on the rise, with a “striking backlash against organized Islam.” In Fallujah, once the “mother of mosques,” people are rebuilding homes but ignoring wrecked religious sites. “Only old men go to pray,” a 22-year-old says. ISIS’s religion-warped cruelty spoiled the brand. And whereas Iraq’s political parties used to be loudly sectarian, a recent opinion poll showed only 5% of Iraqis would now vote for anyone with a sectarian or religious agenda.

Iraq still has plenty of severe challenges. Governance is still largely shambolic and pervasively corrupt. But the country rebuts cynics who believe people never learn and never change. Progress does happen.

How ironic that while Iraq rises above tribalistic politics, America sinks into it.

Footnote: That photo is of an Iraqi woman after voting in their first post-2003 election. (Fingers are dyed purple to prevent re-voting.) I well remembered seeing the picture at the time; her look of pride and determination moved me deeply. For this blog post I googled “Iraqi woman voting” and happily it came right up. It still thrills me.

Malaysia’s election shocker: good defeats evil

May 10, 2018

In today’s world, with democracy eroding in so many countries, it’s great to see one go the other way. To see some voters, at least, stand up for democratic values, defying extreme efforts to manipulate them otherwise.

Malaysia’s election was expected to follow the trend toward rising authoritarianism, with the ruling party having cynically used every trick to make its ouster a virtual impossibility. Yet it’s been ousted.

I know that happy developments like this can turn sour (like Egypt’s 2011 revolution). Indeed, the Malaysia winner is no knight in shining armor. But still, voters behaved wisely, and this is a good day for believers in “the better angels of our nature.”

Mahathir Mohamad

Here’s the backstory (another of those long-running soap operas playing out on the world stage). Malaysia was ruled since independence (in 1963) by the UMNO party (“United Malays”), its success owing much to racialist coddling of the ethnic Malay majority (as against other ethnicities like Chinese). From 1981 till his 2003 retirement, the Prime Minister was Mahathir Mohamad, who grew increasingly authoritarian.

Anwar Ibrahim

Groomed as Mahathir’s successor was Anwar Ibrahim, until in 1998 Anwar became disenchanted and left the government to found an opposition party. The regime tried to neutralize Anwar by jailing him on what were apparently false charges of “sodomy.” Twice. He’s still in prison.

Nevertheless, Anwar’s opposition coalition remained strong at the polls. In fact, in the previous election, it got more votes than UMNO. But UMNO retained its parliamentary majority by grace of extreme gerrymandering. Malaysia doesn’t have “one man one vote,” and parliamentary districts can vary in population. The regime packed opposition voters into a few huge districts while its own Malay stalwarts are advantageously spread among many small ones.

Najib Razak

UMNO’s latest prime minister was Najib Razak. His regime was noteworthy for billions of dollars going missing from a government development fund, 1MDB. A big chunk of the money showed up in Rajak’s personal bank account. He explained it, straight-faced, as a gift from an unnamed Saudi royal.

So great was the stench that ex-leader Mohamad, now 92, came out of retirement to join, and lead, the opposition in this May’s election. But the government pulled out all the stops to thwart them. Such as a “fake news” law enabling it to jail anyone for saying anything it doesn’t agree with (including, especially, anything about 1MDB; Mohamad was among the first to be prosecuted). And the gerrymandering was made even more outrageously rigged in UMNO’s favor.

Still, for that to work would require some voters to vote UMNO. You can normally count on some voters, at least, taking the party line and doing what they’re told. But in Malaysia, this time, too few did. Despite everything, almost unbelievably, the opposition won a parliamentary majority. Malaysians are celebrating this as a national renewal.

So Mahathir Mohamad has been sworn in as prime minister, again (oldest in the world). He promises that, having little time left, he will use it to clean things up; and that within two years he’ll hand the reins to Anwar Ibrahim. (Well, we’ll see.)

But maybe there’s hope for America too.

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi — not the best book I ever read

May 1, 2018

The blurbs: “powerful,” “blazing,” “devastating,” “spellbinding,” dazzling,” “epic,” “luminous,” “spectacular,” “hypnotic.” This debut novel by Ghana-born Gyasi, raised in Alabama, had provoked a publishers’ bidding war.

“Hypnotic?” More like “sleep inducing.” Ninety pages in, I said to myself, “This is a bore.”

It begins in what is now Ghana, in the 1700s, tracing two lines of descendants of one woman, through eight generations (thus sixteen in all). Maybe it could have been a good thousand-pager. Yet Gyasi does it in 300. I admire conciseness. But here, one hardly meets a character before they’re gone.

The result is not a story so much as a series of barely linked snapshots. And not only are the characters fleeting, none is a flesh-and-blood human being. Instead they’re all idealized stereotypes, each existing to make a point. They often speak, too, in stilted, tendentious declamations.

This is what makes Homegoing a bore. Even though the episodes it chronicles might seem highly dramatic. This is, after all, mainly the story of slavery, including the horrors of African slave capture, trade, and transport, and American slavery and its aftermath. In the hands of a Toni Morrison, this stuff grabs your gut. But Gyasi sounds like she’s just phoning it in.

Part of it is the writing style. Or lack thereof. Contrast again Toni Morrison, a writer with a distinctive voice. Gyasi has none. Occasional flashes of interesting prose are only occasional. Mostly it’s simply matter-of-fact. Maybe that itself was the style Gyasi was deliberately aiming for. I just found it dull.

I said the characters are idealized. Indeed, they’re almost olympian. The most beautiful; most handsome; most muscular; strongest, bravest, most virtuous. Their stories also unfold in extremes. Ness, for example, has such extreme whipping scars that the slaveowner’s wife faints upon seeing them.

And how about H (his name), arrested and sent to a coal mine in the 1880s South. Making the daily quota (and avoiding punishment) is just barely possible for the strongest. One day, a white newbie is paired with H, complaining loudly about being cast among “n—–s.” But he falls apart, unable even to pick up his shovel. H heroically saves his sorry ass by taking a shovel in each hand and filling both their quotas.

Magical realism, you say? I’ve read magical realism, I get magical realism, but this is no magical realism. It’s just overblown and silly, another way in which Gyasi’s characters have no reality, and so her book lacks impact.

The story of slavery, and of the black experience of American racism, has been told a lot. Overtold? No. I used to think we’d pretty largely moved beyond all that, but lately it’s back with a vengeance. This is a story that needs to continue being told. Gyasi’s book doesn’t live up to its blurbs, but if you don’t already know the story, you’d benefit from it. Unfortunately, that’s not her likely readership; she’s preaching to the choir.

Visiting sunny tropical Iceland

April 23, 2018

Years back we made the mistake of visiting Washington, D.C., over Christmas. It was bitterly cold. I vowed no more icy vacations!

My wife’s windblown selfie

So this time we chose . . . Iceland. Well, how cold could it be in April? And wet, and windy? I didn’t realize it’s supposedly the third windiest place on Earth. The other two are uninhabited.

But it was fun. Long underwear helped.

Iceland is a small country, and sparsely settled; population only a third of a million (about equal to Anaheim’s). Partly because it is indeed fairly inhospitable. Its first settlers, in the Ninth Century, could just barely eke out survival. They came from Norway. How awful must Norway have been?

During Iceland’s next thousand years things only got worse. They quickly consumed all the island’s trees, thereafter making do with driftwood. And it grew colder.

The only saving grace was self government, of a sort, embodied in the Althing, an annual gathering for making laws and settling disputes (which seemed to be legion), presided over not by a king but the “law speaker.” Iceland’s Althing continued more or less continuously since the year 930; today the parliament still bears that name. We visited the place where the ancient Althings were convened.

Luxurious traditional Icelandic homes

But otherwise Iceland’s history was grimly depressing. Windy though the place is, the winds of progress passed Iceland by, and the Middle Ages continued there until the middle of the Twentieth Century. Epitomizing this is the language being virtually unchanged over the millennium. Try reading or understanding Ninth Century English (if you could call it “English”).

Also, Iceland never developed the modern convention of people having last names. Instead, Bjorn’s son Eric goes by Eric Bjornsson; his daughter Ingrid is Ingrid Bjornsdottir. (I suppose transsexuals change both their names.) This makes it fun trying to look someone up in a phone book.

Iceland was finally blasted from a medieval existence into modernity during World War II. A possession of Denmark, which was occupied by the Nazis, Iceland was preemptively occupied by the Brits and Americans. Then it took the opportunity to declare independence from Denmark in 1944. Foreign investment, and tourists, poured in, and Iceland, in a few decades, vaulted into First World ranks.

Seeking some breakfast our first morning in Reykjavik, we went into what looked like a very modest little place. A chocolate covered croissant seemed tempting until we saw it was $17! Such prices are very typical, showing how “advanced” Iceland has become. The Economist has a “Big Mac Index” gauging how over- or under-valued a nation’s currency is by reference to the local price for a Big Mac. That’s a universal commodity — except in Iceland, which has no McDonalds restaurants. But according to one analysis based on comparable burger prices, Iceland’s currency is actually the most overvalued in the world (i.e., its prices are the highest).

Nevertheless, its people are imbued with a very positive attitude. We got a wool-making demonstration, by a gal named Harpa who characterized herself as “hyper.” She was so animated and bubbly that it made this wool demonstration a highlight of the trip for me.

Speaking of positive attitude, my wife’s, as always, greatly enhanced the experience. She enthusiastically appreciates everything and never complains about anything.

Me, under a waterfall

Another trip highlight was our glacial lagoon boat ride. That glacier is the biggest in Europe. The lagoon had only just unfrozen, and was still full of ice crunching under our open rubber boat. We were encased in rubber ourselves — looking like astronauts in space suits. Getting suited up took longer than the boat ride. And it didn’t keep us from getting wet in the cold rain. But . . . you had to be there.

We also visited the Eyjafjallajokull Volcano, whose 2010 eruption messed up European air travel. Actually, we couldn’t see the volcano itself; but a farm at its foot had set up a visitor center, showing a really excellent home-made film about the eruption’s impact on them. Our visit was just about the last before the facility was closing so the family could get back to full-time farming.

Then there was the Blue Lagoon, touted as the world’s biggest jacuzzi. It’s heated by geothermal action and clouded with silica and other minerals. It was a weird sensation to have one’s body in hot water with the head (slathered with mineral goop) exposed to a cold breezy drizzle, while the whole scene is enveloped in a steamy mist (so I couldn’t see much of the bikinied babes). But, again, you had to be there.

The one key attraction we missed was Reykjavik’s Penis Museum. Maybe next time.

Fake News and government propagandists

April 8, 2018

Researching my 1973 book on Albany politics, I pored over early 20th century local newspapers. I was astonished how partisan they were, openly touting candidates, with no division between news and opinion pages. This was typical; many American papers called themselves “The Democrat” or “The Republican.” Some still retain those vestigial names. But the standard journalism model has changed, and for a long time now it’s been universally understood in the news media that opinions go on the editorial page, while news reporting is just that: reporting.

It’s true that most journalists, due to their cultural backgrounds, personally lean liberal. Yet it’s really a lie that their work is skewed by bias (let alone calling it “fake news”). Modern professional journalists are steeped in the ethos of accuracy and neutral objectivity, and generally strive hard to uphold it. Making stuff up is an absolute no-no; correcting errors a must. And if anything, they bend over too far in giving both sides of a story, even when one side is rubbish (for example, lending credence to climate or vaccination science denialism).

I’ve regularly watched PBS’s Washington Week, where reporters discuss the news. It’s striking how their personal opinions are never detectable. Indeed, it’s almost maddening to hear them talk, in bland neutral tones, about Trumpian outrages. And even Jon Stewart, on The Daily Show, making no secret of a liberal stance, was an equal-opportunity satirist, often freely skewering Obama and other Democrats.

But then there’s Fox “News.”

I put it in quotes because Fox is in fact the regime’s fawning cheerleader and propaganda mouthpiece — making a cruel joke of its former slogan, “Fair and Balanced.” Fox is anything but. It’s the real fake news channel, shattering the longstanding paradigm of news media striving for accuracy and objectivity.

And now too Sinclair Broadcast Group. Sinclair owns about 200 local TV stations covering 40% of the country, and aggressively seeks to gobble up more. Like Fox, Sinclair is uncritically all-in for Trump. While it can’t, like Fox, control every word going out over its airwaves, Sinclair can and does put words in broadcasters’ mouths. Recently we saw every Sinclair station (including Albany’s WRGB Channel 6) required to air a script about “fake news.” While the lockstep parroting in these hostage videos was itself ludicrous enough, so was the content: straight out of Trump’s potty mouth, telling viewers not to believe what they hear from supposedly biased mainstream news media, which Sinclair called a threat to democracy. At least Sinclair stopped short of calling them “the enemy of the American people.”

See what’s going on. Trump lauds slimy Fox and Sinclair while demonizing all legitimate news sources. It’s a concerted effort to cripple news media not in the government’s thrall, and replace them with ones that are — with regime propagandists. This is something very new to America, and very chilling. THIS is the threat to democracy.

We saw its apotheosis in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and the Communist world; we see it today in Russia, China, Turkey, Venezuela, and too many more places. Malaysia just passed a law with stiff jail terms for “fake news” — defined as anything the government doesn’t approve (presumably including any reference to Prime Minister Rajak’s billion dollar theft from a state development fund).

Am I being alarmist? Yes, I am very alarmed. I do not want America with a government of lies unaccountable to a free press. Like Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, Malaysia, and other such shit-hole countries.

America Trumped (my “Trolley” article)

March 21, 2018

The wonderful New York State Writers Institute (founded by William Kennedy; headed by Paul Grondahl) has published a very interesting online magazine, The Trolley. (Click here.) I was asked to contribute an article, a follow-up to my blog review of their October symposium on post-truth politics.* The magazine’s inaugural issue focuses mainly on the same general topic.

Since the last election, I’ve been grappling with the really dramatic lurch our civic life has taken into uncharted territory. It has a lot of aspects, and I’ve written a lot trying to unravel them. For this Trolley article, I aimed to draw all these strands together into one big picture, titled America Trumped.

I consider myself a student of history. And we are at an historical hinge point, with huge implications for the future of this country and, indeed, the world. I am not one of those fatalists who believes human beings are at the mercy of forces beyond our control; it’s why I continue to call myself a rational optimist. It is by using our rationality that we can master our situation. That’s how we’ve progressed so enormously since the Stone Age. And in order to master our situation, we must first understand what it is. Such understanding is a key quest in my own life; after half a century at it, I feel I’ve made progress. That’s what I’m trying to share on this blog, and in my Trolley article.

* Find it here; scroll down past a few later posts.