Category Archives: society

Books about society in general.

Review 211: The Diamond Age

LL 211 - Diamond AgeThe Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

I sometimes get the feeling that Neal Stephenson’s writing process goes something like this:

Hey, I found a really cool idea here! I wonder what I can do with it…?

He then writes about 200 pages of really awesome, meticulous world-building, with innovative ideas about, in the case of this book, the possible uses of nanotechnology and its eventual social, political, and economic ramifications, and then thinks, Oh, crap, I’m writing a story here, and high-tails it to the end of the book, leaving the reader a little wind-blown and confused. It happened in Snow Crash, where he was playing with the origins of language and the fundamental functioning of the human mind. It happened in Cryptonomicon, where he dove into the murky waters of cryptography and World War 2 treasure and brought up all kinds of gems, and it happened here, too.

First, tiny guitars - then the WORLD!!

First, tiny guitars – then the WORLD!!

The Diamond Age is, fundamentally, about what would happen – or what might happen – if we really got nanotechnology working properly. How would society adapt if, suddenly, government and commerce as we know them became obsolete? With the Feed and Matter Compilers able to create anything out of nothing, the entire economic and political underpinnings of the planet would come undone, and in the case of the world that Stephenson has made, this led people to reorganize their social loyalties. Rather than band together into geographically or historically determined nation-states, they came together in phyles – places where like-minded individuals could come together and bond with each other through shared values and morality, united only by a commonly upheld treaty. This treaty of phyles, in turn, supported the new economy that nanotechnology allowed.

Within one of these phyles, the Neo-Victorians, one of the more highly-placed Lords realized what was wrong with the world in which he lived. The problem wasn’t the corruption of values of which the old always accuse the young. Indeed, it was that those values were passed on too well. Children did not elect to join their phyles, becoming members of their own free will, but they were indoctrinated into them from birth. This, in turn, made them… well, boring, and it was making the community stagnant.

You'd think martial arts would be a challenge in those skirts.

You’d think martial arts would be a challenge in those skirts.

And so Lord Finkle-McGraw commissioned a great work – The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer – to guide his granddaughter into a more interesting life. And had that been all that happened, the story would have been rather short. Two other copies of the Primer were made, however. One for the daughter of the book’s designer, and another that fell into the hands of Nell, a young girl born into poverty and otherwise destined to lead a life of misery and sorrow.

The Primer is a smart book, of course, fully interactive, able to teach reading, science, history, and martial arts, among many other things. What it teaches Nell, whom we follow more than most, is how to be great. In a world ruled by this amazing science and yet rigidly stratified by an ancient Victorian code of social stratification, Nell generates turbulence wherever she goes, and the book helps her do it.

All of this is quite awesome – there’s a great hunt for the Primer, plans within plans, and all that. And then, suddenly, for no reason that I can recall, a new plot about a technology to supplant the Feed and some kind of Chinese revolution and the whole book runs off the rails.

I know a lot of people who love Neal Stephenson, and I can understand why. He’s an incomparably imaginative writer, able to find ways to express ideas that some of us couldn’t even imagine. He’s an heir to the world that William Gibson and his contemporaries pioneered. He creates captivating and detailed worlds with living characters who have complex problems without simple solutions. Hell, even Stephen King gave him a direct shoutout in his book Cell, which was had some thematic similarities with Snow Crash.

I'm not saying it IS a train wreck, but still...

I’m not saying it IS a train wreck, but still…

For all that, though, he just can’t seem to stick the endings, and that more than anything else has kept me away from his newer books. Seriously, it’s like a whole new story kicks in around page 250. If he can kick this problem, he’ll be a writer for the ages.

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The difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts. But that has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent. The difference between stupid and intelligent people–and this is true whether or not they are well-educated–is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations–in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.
-Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age

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Filed under coming of age, culture, nanotechnology, Neal Stephenson, science fiction, society

Review 192: The Audacity of Hope

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

I know, I was supposed to have read this, oh, back in 2007 or ’08 when everyone else was reading it. And I thought about it, really I did. But the cynic in me thought, “Come on – what do you think it’ll be? It’ll be a 400 page sales pitch about why he should be President.” I lost faith in our elected officials a long time ago, and if I wanted to learn about Obama, I would rather have done so from a third party, rather than reading a self-aggrandizing autobiography about how awesome he is.

In a way, my Cynical Self was right – this is a sales pitch for Barack Obama. I don’t know if he was giving the Presidency serious thought when he was writing it, but he could have re-titled the book “Why You Should Vote for Barack Obama” and it would have been perfectly appropriate. Given that he wrote the book after his exceptional keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, however, it is very likely that he wrote it with higher office in mind.

What an unpleasant little man he is…

The table of contents reads like a campaign platform, with chapters titled simply, “Values” or “Faith” or “Family,” and each chapter deals not only with Obama’s views on the topic, but his personal experiences dealing with it. In “Republicans and Democrats,” for example, he talks about how the Gingrich Rules bled out from Washington to infect his own state of Illinois, and how hard it was to get anything done when Republicans and Democrats viewed each other as enemies, rather than as different actors in the same play. In “Opportunity,” he talks about meeting the guys over at Google who can’t find enough American software engineers and the auto workers who can’t see their jobs surviving in the new economy. In “Family,” he talks about the challenges he faces as a political husband and father, and the more serious challenges facing other families around the country.

Make no mistake – this book is, first and foremost, an answer to the question “Who Is Barack Obama?” And it’s a very comprehensive answer. We get not only his positions on the issues of the day, but also his personal history (and how it informs his opinions) and a good sense of how the man looks at the world. For an angry, post-Bush Liberal, however, it is immensely, frustratingly even-handed.

You should see me – I’m grinning like an idiot already.

I’ll admit – if I’m feeling a little low, I think about my favorite things: a good book, a thunderstorm on a summer afternoon, sunlight filtered through autumn leaves, and Dick Cheney in an orange jumpsuit and manacles, preferably tarred and feathered. With bells on.

It’s a natural human impulse, I think, the drive to give as good as you get, and after the last eight years of being on the side slandered every time it questioned authority; of being a supporter of elected officials who have been the target of right-wing vitriol since I was in college; of having to defend the idea that government can be a force for good against thirty years of the incessant, endless, Reaganite drumbeat of Government Is Bad, what I really, really want is to see some heads roll. I want shame and ignominy visited upon those who put their own twisted and medieval ideologies ahead of governing the country. I want to see talking heads and pundits begging on the streets for spare change while the rest of us soar into a utopia of rational understanding.

And Barack Obama won’t let me have that. Dammit.

There are a lot of people annoyed with President Obama right now, and not only from the opposition party. There are Democrats who are frustrated with his pace and what they perceive as his lack of action. All of those people really should have read this book before they got behind him. I’m sure they still would have thrown their support to him, but they would have known better what to expect – a centrist, deliberative politician who plays the long game in lieu of scoring empty political points by, just to pick an example out of thin air, sending Karl Rove to Gitmo.

Not a bad role model, if you ask me.

Throughout the book, he emphasizes that while he has indeed picked a side in our political system, he can also see the value in opposing opinions. He knows that there is merit to some GOP ideas, and that they have simply lost their way at this time. Rather than dismiss ideas that don’t match his own, he looks for where his ideas and those intersect, and tries to find some kind of common ground to work from, in the hopes that a synthesis can lead to good governance. He is constantly questioning his own assumptions and trying to examine his own biases, seeing the world in the manner of Atticus Finch. He admits that no real problem has a simple solution, no matter how much we wish it were otherwise. And above all, he knows that hope alone won’t make the world better. Only deliberate, consistent action will lead us to a better country. Hope merely points the way.

Reading this book is a glimpse not only into the mind of Barack Obama but, in some sense, into the mind of everyone who wants to occupy higher office. A great deal of the book focuses not only on his positions and how he has come by them, but what it’s like becoming and then being a lawmaker. He says near the beginning that it takes a certain kind of personality to make it this high in public office. “Few people end up being United States Senators by accident,” he writes. “At a minimum, it requires a certain megalomania, a belief that of all the gifted people in your state, you are somehow uniquely qualified to speak on their behalf….” Along with a burning ambition, he also admits to the other lodestone of campaigners: fear. “Not just fear of losing – although that is bad enough – but fear of total, complete humiliation.”

Describing not only the physical trials that are involved with becoming a Senator but also the emotional and interpersonal ones that come with it, my first thought was, “What sane person would choose this kind of life?”

Oh, the notes I’ve taken…

It’s an illuminating book in many ways. My Inner Cynic has asked me to remind you that this is a book about Barack Obama, written by Barack Obama, and is not necessarily trustworthy in that sense. But the things Obama said in here are very consistent with the things he’s saying now, as long as we control for new information gained between 2006 and now. If I learned anything from this book, it’s that I now have confidence that he’s dealing honestly with the American people (given a certain political value of “honest” of course).

While I still don’t know if he’s going to be able to pull the country up into greatness the way his advance press claimed he would, I am at least confident that he has the nation’s best interests at heart. I like a lot of his ideas, and I think he’s got a good vision for the kind of America that I would enjoy living in someday. He may not get us there, but he can at least get us started.

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“I am convinced that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose.”
– Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope
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Filed under Barack Obama, memoir, politics, society

Review 191: The Great Derangement

The Great Derangement by Matt Taibbi

There is an essential flaw in human nature that makes us think we’re special. It used to make us think that we were literally the center of the universe, which it turns out we aren’t. It makes us think that we’re all going to grow up to be movie stars and astronauts, which we aren’t; our children are all brilliant and well-behaved, which they aren’t; and that God is on our side, which It isn’t.

Oddly enough, though, there is one place where this boundless optimism is flipped on its head. Every generation is absolutely convinced that this is the nadir of human accomplishment, that we are well and truly screwed and that there has never been a more messed-up, terrible time to live. The past was better, we think, and we look back on the days gone by as a golden age when things were simpler and no one had the kind of troubles that we have today.

When you join us, all will be perfect. Join us. Join us.

Of course, that’s not true. We are healthier, freer, and generally better off than generations before us, who were healthier, freer, and generally better off than the ones before them, and so on. While things certainly aren’t perfect, they’re not nearly as bad as we like to think that they are. If people were able to look at their world with an unjaundiced eye and a fair heart, we would realize that and maybe start living our lives accordingly.

Of course, if we were able to do that, then Matt Taibbi wouldn’t be able to sell his books.

To be fair, the first decade of this century was messed up on a grand scale. Not the same way the 60s were, or the 30s, or the 1860s, but truly twisted and burdensome in their own special way. We had been attacked, seemingly out of nowhere, by a shadowy cabal of extremists who managed to make a laughingstock of our supposed invulnerability. We reacted by flipping out and invading the wrong country and passing reams of knee-jerk legislation designed to chip away at civil liberties wherever they could. Our government, when it wasn’t handing us lies that were about as transparent as a window where the glass has been removed and replaced with nothing but pure, spring-fresh air, was telling us that there was nothing to see here and that the best way to get involved was to go shopping. And if you did have to get involved, you’d better be with us.

Because we know who’s against us. The tehrists.

Overseeing all of this was a simplistic frat boy idiot manchild of a President and the band of Washington technocrats who had been itching to bomb the hell out of the Middle East since the 70s. The media, for its part, was playing along, doing what it was told, and making sure that the people, with whom sovereign power resides in the United States, had no way of knowing what its government was actually doing at any given time.

This could probably be a campaign sign for whatever politician is running near you.

Americans had been lied to over and over again for decades, starting with the post-ironic age of advertising (which Taibbi pinpoints as the Joe Isuzu ads) up to the utterly unswallowable “They hate us for our freedoms” line that we were supposed to believe when it slid, wet, horrible and putrescent from the mouth of George W. Bush. And then, if you raised your hand and asked questions about the story you were expected to buy into, people turned around and accused you of being a faithless traitor. So what are people to do when they can’t trust the narrative that their leaders are giving them?

Why, they turn inward, of course, and build their own narrative. Their own bubble, as it were – a space within which everything makes sense. Everything can be explained, people can be trusted, and all the rules work. It is utterly incomprehensible to outsiders, but that’s okay because outsiders are the whole reason the bubble exists in the first place. As Taibbi discovers, there is far more in common between the far right hyper-Christians and the far left conspiracists than you might expect, and that there are far more of them than you really want to know.

This book is basically two interwoven parts, with a few interludes to keep the story on track. In one part, Taibbi goes down to Texas, uses a fake name and gets involved with a Megachurch in San Antonio. He joins the church to find out what brings these people together in a time when the government and the media can’t be relied upon, and what attracts people to a life of fundamentalist Christianity in the first place. He goes to meetings where demons are cast out, to small group discussions in beautiful Texan homes, and listens to people explain why it is that they’ve given their lives to Christ, something that Taibbi would never do himself, were he not researching a book.

Woah.

He also finds himself drawn into the shadowy world of the 9/11 Truth movement, a group that believes that – to varying degrees – the Bush administration bears some of the blame for the attacks on New York and Washington D.C. Some believe they knew about it but chose to do nothing, so that they would have a reason to launch their war against Iraq. Others believe that they directly caused the attacks, mining the collapsed buildings and aiming the aircraft. The more elaborate theories involve holograms, missiles and a conspiracy of silence that is continually upheld by thousands of otherwise loyal Americans.

Much like the fundamentalist Christianity, Taibbi immerses himself in Truther culture, trying to find out what it is that keeps them going, even when they – like the Christians – have no real evidence to support what they believe. Even moreso for the Truthers, there is actually a lot of logical, circumstantial and physical evidence that outright debunks their theories, but they soldier on anyway, utterly convinced that they are the only ones in America who haven’t surrendered to the lies of the political and media machines.

So what do these two groups have in common, and what do they say about America?

American politics are, generally, about Us versus Them. All politics, really, but we do it really well. The parties in power do their best to say that they stand for Us against Them, regardless of which party you vote with, but it’s become increasingly evident that the parties in power are not really for Us – they’re for Themselves. They push the same canned platitudes and wedge the same minor issues every election cycle with the sole purpose of keeping their jobs, and that is finally becoming evident to the public. Rather than governing, which is ostensibly their jobs, Our Representatives in Congress are doing what they can to help themselves, their parties and their friends, and this is more and more evident the closer you look. To have them then turn around and say, without a trace of irony, that they’re doing their best for the country they love, that they actually care about the concerns of the voter, is enough to make even the most optimistic Pollyanna turn into a Grade-A cynic.

“A riot is an ungly thing… undt, I tink, that it is chust about time zat ve had vun!!” – Inspector Kemp, Young Frankenstein

But rather than rising up as one and kicking the bastards out, the public turned inwards and went into their bubbles. If the game we’re playing is Us versus Them, then let’s do it right. Now we’re not just one group of people with a certain set of political views, we are the anointed of God or, depending on where you are, the only intelligent people in a world of sheep. And who are They? They are not just corrupt politicians. They are agents of Satan, sent to bring about the end of the world. They are power-hungry chessmasters, bent on ruling with an iron fist.

It’s a world view that makes sense to the people who have chosen to live in it, more sense than the “real” world does.

Now this book was written back in 2006 and a lot has happened since then, so it is very much a book of its time. Since then, we have seen our political theater change in many interesting ways, not the least of which is the Tea Party, which is kind of the coming-out party for a lot of the people who felt they had been left out of the discussion for so long. They’ve had their chance to incubate in the churches and on the internet, and now they’re out in force and ready to change the way politics works. A later addition to the party is the Occupy movement, bound together in its view of a nation run by plutocrats and their puppet government. They’re what happens when the Left sits in the echo chamber for a while.

Whether they will ultimately be successful is still up for argument, but so far, well… They’re all kind of freaking me out.

The take-home message from the book is this: There have been far worse times to be in the United States, and our nation has seen its way through far greater trials. But each one is different, born of different causes and with different effects, and we do not have the benefit of being able to look back and see how everything works out. It is much easier these days to find people you agree with and isolate yourself with them, and every time Congress or the President or the Media lets us down, it’s more and more tempting to do so.

HAVE YOU ACCEPTED JESUS CHRIST AS YOUR PERSONAL SAVIOR?!?!

But that way lies madness. The madness of an evangelical movement that is anticipating the end of days, the madness of a conspiracy of vast and perfect proportions. The answer is not to isolate ourselves with the like-minded but to seek out those with whom we disagree and make sure that we’re all living in the same world, no matter what it’s like. Rather than dividing ourselves into two giant camps of Us and Them, pointed and aimed by people whose only interest is in seeing us rip each other to shreds, maybe we can finally see what it is that unifies everyone.

Once we can do that, once we can fight the derangement, perhaps we can see our way to making our country into the one we want it to be.

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“Washington politicians basically view the People as a capricious and dangerous enemy, a dumb mob whose only interesting quality happens to be their power to take away politicians’ jobs… When the government sees its people as the enemy, sooner or later that feeling gets to be mutual. And that’s when the real weirdness begins.”
– Matt Taibbi, The Great Derangement

Matt Taibbi on Wikipedia
The Great Derangement on Amazon.com
Matt Taibbi’s blog at Rolling Stone

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Filed under american history, analysis, Christianity, culture, economics, Matt Taibbi, memoir, nonfiction, politics, religion, society

Review 189: Men at Arms

Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett

When last we left our intrepid Ankh-Morpork Night Watch, things were looking up. This is a nice change from the gutter’s-eye-view we had at the beginning of Guards! Guards!. Things have changed in the time between books. The Watch has a new headquarters, much nicer than its old one, thanks to Lady Sibyl Ramkin, the fiance of Captain Sam Vimes. She comes from an ancient and respectable family, has more money than anyone else in the city, and loves Vimes despite his deep-seated curmudgeonliness, if that is a word.

What’s more, the Watch is taking on new recruits, as ordered by the Patrician. Ankh-Morpork is a city with a very diverse population, and the Patrician believes that the Watch should reflect that diversity. Now we have a Watch open to anyone – trolls, dwarfs, the undead, apes, women – who wants to join, or who doesn’t want to get their heads beaten in. Carrot Ironfoundersson has become a beloved figure in the city – he knows everyone and everyone knows him. All in all, things are looking up.

But there are those who are of a mind that things would be better if only Ankh-Morpork had a king….

Of course, some kings only make things nightmarishly worse…

This is a recurring theme in the early Watch books – the irrational need for royalty. Although, that’s not entirely accurate. Pratchett is a British writer, of course, and he’s got the Queen to look up to, but she doesn’t have all that much real power. Certain people in Ankh-Morpork are looking for a sovereign – not to wave at them and make a Hogswatch speech, but to actually take over their city. They hope, in their hearts, that a king will solve everything. In that way, this recurring theme is not so much about royalty versus populism, but rather the ability to control one’s own life versus allowing someone else to control it for you. The idea that one has responsibility for one’s own actions and well-being is dominant in the Guards books, no more so than in this one.

There is a man named Edward d’Eath, and he has a vision. He is the last of an aristocratic line whose power has declined in this age of guilds and merchants. He looks to the past and sees it as better, brighter than the future. He knows that, if he can just do one little thing, Ankh-Morpork – and he – will be restored to glory. That one little thing, of course, is to put a king on the throne.

Not just any king, of course. The fools who thought to use a dragon to set up a puppet king showed how ineffectual that would be. No, this would only work with a real king, a descendant of the ancient kings of Ankh-Morpork. Find him, put him on the throne, and everything will finally be set straight.

I like to imagine it looks like this.

Of course, that doesn’t work out nearly as well as Edward hopes. He steals a mysterious artifact to set his plan in motion – the Gonne. It is a weapon created by one of the most brilliant minds on the Disc, a man kept peacefully imprisoned by Ankh-Morpork’s Patrician. It is a device that should have been destroyed, but was instead put on display so that the Assassins, the bringers of death, could look at it and say “Beware this thing.”

Like I said, this book is all about making choices in life. Vimes is engaged to be married to Sybil Ramkin, and thus his days as the Captain of the Watch are numbered. He may be in a better position than he was in the last book – having someone try to kill you is always refreshing, after all – but he knows that the life he’s giving up, with all of its pain and trouble and heartache, is the life that he needs to live.

Corporal Carrot needs to choose how best to serve the city of Ankh-Morpork. He is an excellent policeman, probably the only man on the Disc who could get in the middle of an incipient troll/dwarf race riot and shame them out of killing each other. People do what he says – he is, in his own words, “good at being obeyed.” If he wanted to, he could run the city and the city would be glad to let him do it. But is that the best thing for the city?

How could you not trust a chin like that? (art by Simon Lissaman)

The troll Detritus and the dwarf Cuddy both have choices – will they conform to the ancient animosity that stands between their two races, or will they overcome it for the common good?

And then there’s the Gonne itself. As a weapon, it is frighteningly powerful – much more so than the standard-issue crossbow – and as a firearm, however primitive, it represents a vast escalation in the way violence is done. What’s more, since this is a fantasy novel, the Gonne has something of a mind of its own. Its wielders hear it talking to them, convincing them that the only thing standing between them and what they want are a few simple deaths – something the Gonne can easily provide. It even uses the old NRA saw verbatim – Gonnes don’t kill people. People kill people.

But people have a choice, perhaps more of a choice than the characters of these books do. The Gonne controls them, the trigger practically pulls itself, and when you’re holding it, you can easily understand how a simple shot, one simple thing, could change the world. For the better, of course – always for the better.

Pratchett’s views on guns and their efficacy aside, it’s a very gripping book. There’s the mystery of it, of course – who has the Gonne, and why are they using it – but it’s also a story about characters and the choices they make for themselves. My absolute favorites in this are Detritus and Cuddy. Trolls and dwarfs have a famous antagonism, stretching back to the ancient battle of Koom Valley (the only battle in the multiverse where both sides ambushed each other) and it would be very easy for them to fall into simple, culturally conditioned roles.

They’re better buddy cops than you’ll likely to see in the movies, anyway.

While it may be a cliche to say that they found common ground, learned to look past their own prejudices and learned to respect – nay, to like one another, that’s exactly what they did. It is due to Pratchett’s skill as a writer and as a creator of characters that we come to deeply care for this relationship, investing a lot of hope in it. We know that if Cuddy and Detritus can become friends, then maybe there’s hope for everyone. This emotional investment pays off, and Pratchett reaches deep into our hearts at the end, showing that just because you start with a cliche, it doesn’t mean it can’t have depth.

Of course, if you’re not quite as analytical as I am, you can still enjoy it as a good murder mystery. Watching Vimes and company piece together the crime is always fun, because there’s always a twist somewhere that you never saw coming. And Vimes really is one of my favorite Discworld characters – he’s cynical and world-weary, but he still has enough idealism within him to carry him through those times that look like they’re trying to kill him.

All in all, a great book and one that’s highly recommended. The earlier Discworld books are largely stand-alone, so if you’ve never read any of the series before, don’t worry – you can pick this one up and you won’t really miss anything. You may, however, find yourself driving back to the bookstore to get as many other Discworld books as you can. I’m just saying….

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Generally, I meet people before they’re buried. The ones I meet after they’ve been buried tend to be a bit over-excited and disinclined to discuss things.
– Death, Men at Arms
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Terry Pratchett on Wikipedia
Men at Arms on Wikipedia
Men at Arms on Amazon.com
Terry Pratchett’s homepage

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Filed under choices, death, detective fiction, Discworld, fantasy, friendship, guns, humor, murder, mystery, police, revolution, society, Terry Pratchett

Review 167: A People’s History of the United States

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

History is, in its way, a fiction.

While it is made up of facts, things that are verifiable or at least reliably accepted as being what really happened, our understanding of history rests on a certain assumption that doesn’t always hold up – that what we are reading or hearing is The Truth. It’s how we learn about history when we’re kids – that this happened and that happened, and that’s all we really need to know.

The problem, however, is that what we got in our history books wasn’t the entire story. Oh, it was true, for a given value of “true,” but the historian who wrote the book did so with a specific narrative in mind, one that fit his or her perception of the past and which – more importantly – would sell textbooks to hundreds of schools across the country. The history that we get from those books is designed to appeal to the sensibilities of a populace that is already inclined to think well of its nation, and rarely deviates from the theme. While they do try to note the excesses, injustices and impropriety of the past, they tend to bury it in the glorious achievements of governments and industry.

AMURRICUH!!

Unfortunately, doing so means that there’s a lot of history that gets left on the cutting room floor. Incidents, people, whole populations get brushed aside because either there’s not enough room for them or because telling their story in detail ruins the mood that the historian is trying to set – usually one of bright optimism for a good and just nation.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, either. An historian cannot practically include all of the historical viewpoints, good and bad, into a book meant to be used for only 180 days out of the year. So out of expedience, if not a conscious desire to tell an uplifting tale, they write books that look upon our past as favorably as possible, while including just enough criticism of our failures to fend off any serious accusations of bias.

As Zinn tells us, though, there’s no such thing as an historian without bias. Every historian has a story to tell, and Zinn has decided that he doesn’t want to tell the one we’re all used to hearing.

He starts in much the same place as most American history books – with the coming of Christopher Columbus to the New World. Immediately he reminds us that Columbus’ mission was not one of exploration but of commerce, and that the first question he asked the natives of what he would label Hispanola was, “Where is your gold?”

It all went downhill from there.

Reading this book, it would be very easy to get depressed. I can see how those who were brought up with a healthy dose of American Exceptionalism (the idea that the United States obeys different rules from the rest of the world and, more importantly, cannot do wrong) would really dislike this book. It is page after page of lies, misdeeds, cruelty, greed and deception. It is the story of a nation built not on the principle that all men are created equal, but that all men must be leashed to the yoke of the capitalist overclass. It’s a tale of genocide and oppression, of revolts both peaceful and violent, and it never lets up for a moment.

To his credit, Zinn tells us right up front that he’s going to take the side of the oppressed, the dispossessed and the put-down, and there’s no way you can tell that story without it being really depressing. It’s pretty clear pretty quickly, though, where his sympathies lie:

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

Hey, even executioners got problems, buddy...

His portrayal of the underclass, rebellious or not, is one of suffering nobility, and the System as a deliberately malevolent entity. Any good that it does is simply whatever was necessary to maintain its power, and the above quote speaks to that. The parallel structure that he uses effectively groups all of the upper class into the “persecutor” role, and the lower class into the “victims.” And while there is some truth to that – human history, after all, is a long story of rich and powerful elites governing poor and powerless people – it is painting with too broad a brush, in my opinion. He seems to work from the premise that all those with power are bad, and so those without must therefore be good.

As much as I wish that admitting bias was an excuse for it, it isn’t. It does a disservice to all involved to flatten your view of the American class system into a two-dimensional shadow play. Not all of the populist agitators were good and noble people, nor were all politicians cunning manipulators. Just keep that in mind as you read.

It’s a sobering read, though, to say the least. The best simile I could come up with is that it’s like watching your parents have sex. It’s something that you always suspected went on, but you could have gone your whole life without being presented with the reality of it. So it is no surprise that, after reading this book, some people become absolutely insufferable, cynical and disillusioned.

If you’ve already gone through that stage of your political thinking, however, you find something else in this book – hope. It’s something you have to dig for, but it is there, buried in the larger narrative that Zinn is telling us.

Not sure he saw this coming...

Given the amount of detail he goes into, it’s very easy to lose sight of the larger picture at work. Zinn details slave rebellions, gives stories of workers pushed to the extremes of human existence, soldiers thrown away for nothing, and entire segments of the population ignored or actively persecuted. But alongside these horror stories come tales of resistance. Whether it’s the quiet contemplation by a poor white farmer over whether he might have more in common with his black neighbors than his white landlords, riots of prisoners and guards against a corrupt prison system, or the militant, city-wide shutdowns organized by the Wobblies, the people can only be pushed so far. And while the Powers That Be are very good at figuring out how to distract, scare or defy the people, they eventually do make changes for the better, and everyone benefits a little bit.

Inasmuch as this book is a chronicle of America’s misdeeds over the last few centuries, it is also a tale of Americans’ triumphs. It is a tribute to the will of the people who, no matter how difficult it may have been, decided to stand up and demand respect from the men who held the reins of power. It is a testament to the women who wanted equality, the socialists who wanted a better world, the workers who wanted safe jobs at living wages, the blacks who wanted to be full citizens, and the Indians who wanted the wrongs of the past redressed.

Not everybody has gotten what they wanted – America is still very much a work in progress, and there is bound to be some backsliding as we go. What Zinn shows in this book is that no matter how bad the American government can be or how greedy American business might become, the American people want what’s best for themselves and, when the time comes, will stand up and shout for it. Given enough time, and enough courage, The United States will continue to be a better and better nation, and perhaps someday – someday – it will finally fulfill our expectations for it.

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“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will….”
– Frederick Douglass, 1857
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Review 166: Sex at Dawn

Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

Hey! Hey, baby, baby, waitwaitwaitwait. Wait. Wait! Baby, don’t… don’t freak out

Okay, okay, I know what this looks like, but I can explain! Quiet, Chad, let me handle this. I can explain! I’m just – please, stop crying and listen – I’m just fulfilling my evolutionary heritage and helping to cement social bonds with… um… the pizza boy, but that’snotthepoint!! That’s not the point! Look, before you do anything, y’know, drastic, you just need to read this book….

Image from wearscience.com - buy their stuff.

Humans are really good at figuring things out. As far as we go, we have a real knack for taking things apart and figuring out how they work. Though determined curiosity and perseverance, we know what’s happening at the center of the sun, we know how the continents slide across the surface of the earth, how plants turn sunlight into potatoes. We can smash atoms and cure disease and peer back to the moment of creation itself. There is almost nothing that humans cannot comprehend if we put our minds to it.

Except ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong – we have made great strides in philosophy and psychology, and come very far in understanding human origins and our spread across the planet. But there is a fundamental problem that we have when we study ourselves, and that is that we cannot do so objectively. Try as we might, it is impossible to completely put aside our own biases, judgments and backgrounds when we study how humans behave and try to understand why they do what they do. They are still there, if you look for them, and nowhere are they more evident than in the search for the origins or foundations of human sexuality.

The standard model, as it’s often called, goes something like this: ancient men and women established a pattern of monogamy based on mutual self-interest. The man would keep to one mate in order to be absolutely sure that he was dedicating his efforts towards raising his own kids and not someone else’s. If a man had multiple partners, he wouldn’t be able to provide for them all, and his genetic investment would die out. So, in terms of efficiency, it is much better for the man to keep himself to one woman, focusing all his attention on the children he knows he has fathered and making sure they live to have children of their own.

Not all women need the protection of a man, however.

As far as women are concerned, they require the resources that the men bring. When pregnant, a woman’s physical capacities are reduced and she is in a vulnerable state, so by staying monogamous, she is essentially purchasing security and resources that would otherwise be unavailable to her in a world that brought quick and merciless death. If she slept around, the man wouldn’t be sure that the child she bore was his, and would therefore have less interest in taking care of the both of them. Thus, monogamy is the best bet to assure the survival of herself and her child.

This is the story that’s been told for a long time, and it’s considered by most to be the truth. Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, however, disagree. Not only do they think the standard model is wrong, but they think it is nothing more than a relic of our own modern biases and hang-ups. The process, they say, can be referred to as “Flintstonization.”

As you know, the characters in “The Flintstones” were more or less just like us. They went to work, they had houses and appliances and domestic disputes. They had the same issues and amusements as we did, because we overlaid our own society onto a prehistoric setting. Now in cartoons, that’s good entertainment, and in the right hands it can be used as powerful satire and commentary. In science, though, it’s just no good.

Ladies...

Starting with Darwin, people have imagined prehistoric humans to have the same sexual values that we have: a demure, reluctant female who is very choosy in deciding which male she will mate with. A bond forms, and they are faithful to each other until the end of their days. Later researchers, looking at our ape cousins, have plenty of observational research to support the idea that very early humans were monogamous. They look at chimps and gorillas and baboons and confirm what they had always suspected – that our natural sexual state is one of monogamy.

The logical conclusion, then, is that our modern attitude towards sexuality, with the rising rates of divorce and teen sexuality, represents a deviation from the way things “should” be, and must therefore be fixed. A loveless marriage, a man’s roving eye, a woman who cuckolds her husband, serial monogamists, all of these, according to the standard model, result from our attempts to go against our nature.

Or is it the other way around?

Ryan and Jetha have put together a very compelling argument that the standard model of pre-agricultural human sexuality is not only wrong, but dangerously so. By looking at modern foraging tribes and the way they live, as well as doing a comparative analysis of humans against our nearest ape cousins, they have come to this conclusion: our “natural” sexual state is one of promiscuity. Back in the day, communities were small and tightly bonded, and sex was one of the things that held those bonds tight. Rather than one man and one woman struggling to protect their own genetic line, their entire community made sure that children were cared for and raised well. Everyone was everyone else’s responsibility, and in a world of plenty there was no reason to try and enforce any kind of sexual exclusivity.

MINE!

It was only with the rise of agriculture that it became important to know what was yours, as opposed to someone else’s, and that quickly extended from fields and livestock to wives and children. Now that people were keeping their own food and making sure to divide their lands from their neighbor’s lands, sharing went out of style. With so much work put into growing crops, that’s where the standard model of economic monogamy settled in, and it’s been with us ever since. The advent of agriculture changed everything, and not everything for the better.

In addition, the very biology of humans, from the way sperm behaves to the shape of the penis, to the anatomy of the clitoris to the noises women make in the throes of orgasm – all of these point to an evolutionary history of sexual promiscuity. The evidence of our bodies tell us that being locked into a lifetime monogamous pair-bond is not what we evolved to do.

Ryan and Jetha know that their view of the fundamental nature of human sexuality will not be popular, mainly because it completely undermines our vision of who we are. So much law, tradition, education, entertainment and just plain common sense relies on humans being naturally monogamous. It’s something that seems so obvious to us that we cannot imagine a society built any other way. Unfortunately, if Ryan and Jetha are right, society is the problem. We have established a cultural norm that goes completely against our biological and evolutionary nature, and which makes people miserable on a daily basis.

I bought this book mainly to stop Dan Savage from nagging me about it. If you listen to Savage’s podcast – and you should – you will soon realize that monogamy is something that a lot of people aren’t good at. We look at other people with lust in our hearts, we cheat, we stay in relationships where we’re sexually miserable just because that’s what we “should” do. For most people, our sexual urges are to be fought against, with everything from self-restraint to social shame to law itself. It seems like staying monogamous is one of the hardest things for many people to do.

This, of course, raises the question: if it were natural, would it really be so hard?

My mother is a SAINT!!

It is a fascinating read, which covers a lot of ground and makes some very compelling arguments. It’s also quite funny in places, which was quite welcome. In discussing the standard model the authors note that this is, fundamentally, prostitution, wherein the woman uses sex for material resources. This sexual barter system has been assumed to be true for years, leading the authors to write, “Darwin says your mother’s a whore. Simple as that.” They also put in some special notes for adventurous grad students in the field of sexual research (especially genital to genital rubbing, something popular in bonobo apes, but which is rarely studied in humans) and re-titling the extremely popular song “When A Man Loves a Woman” as “When a Man Becomes Pathologically Obsessed and Sacrifices All Self-Respect and Dignity by Making a Complete Ass of Himself (and Losing the Woman Anyway Because Really, Who Wants a Boyfriend Who Sleeps Out in the Rain Because Someone Told Him To?)”

I don’t really know what can be made of the serious information proposed in this book. No matter how it may seem, the authors are not proposing a dissolution of marriage or compulsory orgies or anything like that, nor is this book a “Get Out of Cheating Free” card. We’ve spent thousands of years putting these restraints on human sexuality, and they’re not going to come off anytime soon. The best we can do right now is to be aware of where our ideas about relationships come from, and stop to think about the difference between what is true and what we wish were true. This understanding might help to save relationships that would otherwise fail. People cheat not because they’re scum or whores, but because they’re human. Being monogamous is really hard not because we’re weak or flawed, but because it’s not what our bodies want for us.

The search for a better understanding of human nature should lead us to being better humans, and nothing should be left out. Not even our most sacred beliefs. Not even sex.

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“Asking whether our species is naturally peaceful or warlike, generous or possessive, free-loving or jealous, is like asking whether H2O is naturally a solid, liquid or gas. The only meaningful answer to such a question is: It depends.”
– Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, Sex at Dawn
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Okay? Okay, baby? So you see, I wasn’t really cheating – okay, I was, but you can see why, right? I was just acting in accordance with my fundamental humanity, following the biological impulses as determined by millions of years of evolution when we… Hey, where are you going? Where are you? Oh, hell, he’s going for the shotgun. Run, Chad, leave your pants, you don’t have time, run!

Sex at Dawn on Wikipedia
sexatdawn.com
Sex at Dawn on Amazon.com

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Filed under anthropology, biology, Cacilda Jetha, Christopher Ryan, evolution, history, nonfiction, science, sexuality, society

Review 156: Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys

Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys by Dave Barry

If you’re reading this, and there’s a good chance that you are, you probably know a guy. You may even be a guy, though the way Barry talks about them, you wouldn’t think that guys would be into book reviews. If you know a guy, then this book is for you – it will illuminate some classic guy behaviors and shine some lights into the dark corners that your rational mind has been unable to penetrate. If you are a guy, then this book is also for you. Guys aren’t famous for their introspection, but perhaps it will allow you to understand why it is your wife and/or girlfriend get so frustrated with you from time to time (hint: it’s not her, it’s you).

This book is a tribute to guys (not men – those people have enough advocates as it is) and the ways in which they live. It’s like a documentary in print, really, giving us a rare glimpse into the lifestyle and habits of the modern guy.

So, what exactly is a guy, then? Well, you’re lucky – Barry has included a self-analysis quiz in the first chapter. For example:

As you grow older, what lost quality of your youthful life do you miss the most?
a. Innocence
b. Idealism
c. Cherry bombs

Complete this sentence: A funeral is a good time to…
a. … remember the deceased and console his loved ones
b. … reflect upon the fleeting transience of earthly life
c. … tell the joke about the guy who has Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.

What is the human race’s single greatest achievement?
a. Democracy
b. Religion
c. Remote control

I think you can guess which answers reveal your guyness.

Being a guy means more than just being a man, and in fact there is a very definite difference between men and guys. Men are people we of the male persuasion wish we could be – Superman, Edward R. Murrow, George Clooney. Guys are who most of us turn out to be – Homer Simpson, Bill O’Reilly, Tom Arnold. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. It’s just that as long as we assume that guys will act like men, we’re bound to be disappointed. Guys are terribly misunderstood in modern society despite the very important role they play.

Definitely a guy. (photo by John B. Carnett)

For example: without guys, we wouldn’t have a space program. Don’t believe it? What other type of person would deliberately design a rocket, watch it shoot up and then say, “I wonder if we can make a bigger one?” Guys, that’s who. The Saturn V is a tribute to guyness, as is the space shuttle – an endlessly tinkerable machine that almost never blows up.

Without guys, there would be no professional sports, to say nothing of the parasitic fan industry that has sprung up around sports like a remora. Guys have an undying and unyielding attachment to sports teams – you might see a guy leave his wife of twenty years and the children they raised together, but I’d be willing to bet that he would sooner die than switch his team allegiance from, say, Red Sox to Yankees. The unshakable, irrational dedication of these guys is what keeps modern sports afloat despite scandal and disappointment. Now I’m not a sports fan, I’ll admit, but I can certainly relate – I’ll support NASA until the last breath leaves my body, and no force on earth will ever get me to switch from DC Comics to Marvel, no matter how badly DC messes with the characters that I’ve always loved, the bastards.

I also don’t get to play a part in the endlessly frustrating relationship that exists between guys and women, seeing as how I’m, well, into guys. As a side note, The Boyfriend is also a guy, but less than I am – he cleans, for example. And I don’t mean that he cleans the way a real guy cleans – spray a little, wipe a bit and say, “Good enough.” He actually cleans. Like, every day. I know – weird, isn’t it?

Her: "I wonder what he's thinking about right now...?" Him: "Juuuuust sit right back and you'll hear a tale / a tale of a fateful ship..."

Women and guys will always frustrate each other, you see. Women love to read meaning into every nuance of conversation, every raised eyebrow or dropped word. Women want to know what the guy in their life is thinking. The answer is that he probably isn’t thinking. At least, not about what she would want him to think about – her and the relationship they share. In fact, as Barry takes pains to point out, he may not, technically, be aware that he’s in a relationship at all. You ladies have a lot of work to do if you’re hooked up with a guy.

But before you go thinking that the life of a guy is sweet ignorant bliss, think again. You ladies will never know the pain of the Urinal Dilemma, or the feeling of knowing that, no matter how hard you try, you’ll never be able to fix anything in your own home – your wife will have to call a man (probably named Steve) for that. Guys’ minds aren’t terribly complex, but they do run on certain rules. Know these, and your relationship with the guy in your life will go much more smoothly.

It is true that the man/woman divide is an old one, and it’s a place that nearly every comedian has gone to once or twice. Or three times. Or they’ve just staked a claim right there on the joke and built an entire career out of it. But here, Barry isn’t so much talking about the difference between men and women as much as he’s talking about men and guys, which is a fascinating idea.

He's just so disappointed in you...

As I said before, those of us with XY chromosomes and little dangly bits generally want to be Men (with the exception, of course, of those who don’t), and what’s more are expected to be Men. We’re told as youths to “be a man” or be the man of the house. Our role models are Men, our cultural icons are Men. Even in our commercials, we have the Old Spice Man and the Most Interesting Man in the World.

But most of us are fated to be Guys. And deep down, we know that we’ve somehow missed the mark.

Fortunately, we don’t do introspection really well, so it doesn’t bother us all that much.

This is really one of Barry’s classics, a book that everyone can easily enjoy. Whether you are a guy or just know a guy, there are laughs to be had here.

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“To understand guys, it’s essential to remember that, deep down inside, they are biological creature, like jellyfish or trees, only less likely to clean the bathroom.”
– Dave Barry, Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys
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Dave Barry on Wikipedia
Dave Barry’s website
Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys on Amazon.com

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Filed under Dave Barry, gender, gender roles, humor, jokes, parody, society