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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Keepin’ ‘em Down in the Swamp

A startling new look at our history that every American should read

Philosopher with Feet of Clay

I thought I knew John Locke. I’ve studied and taught, intensively, the second of his Two Treatises on Government (the first, also, but not with anywhere near the rigor) and felt close to the political John Locke encountered there. The empirical Locke of the Essay on Human Understanding I also found congenial. Though not #1 in my philosophical pantheon (that honor belongs to Henri Bergson), he was one of “my guys.”

Now along comes Nancy Isenberg, who shows me a horrid little man behind the curtain, “a founding member and third-largest stockholder of the Royal African Company, which secured a monopoly over the British slave trade” and the anonymous author of the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, a document granting “ABSOLUTE POWER AND AUTHORITY” of “every Freeman in Carolina ... over his Negro Slaves”! John Locke!

Yes, I knew that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, but John Locke was a philosopher. Not just any philosopher, either, but one who imagined the State of Nature as a state of perfect freedom, “wherein all the Power and Jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another.” Natural equality! A State of Nature “not a State of Licence,” but governed by natural law, every human being equal before God. Even mothers and fathers, as Locke imagined the State of Nature, would have had equal authority over their children. Nothing else made sense.

“Much better,” wrote John Locke in the Second Treatise, for human beings to remain in the state of nature than “to submit to the unjust will of another.” What democrat could resist that John Locke?

But how are two so different Lockes to yield to a single key?

Peter Laslett, Fellow of Trinity College and Locke scholar, feels that efforts to make Locke consistent through the body of his writings are doomed. Locke, Laslett believes, wrote differently when speaking for himself and when speaking for his patron, Lord Shaftesbury, another adventurer in the North American colonial enterprise.

Does chronology help at all? Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina saw daylight in 1669. Laslett believes the Two Treatises were written a decade later, in the period 1679-80 (but not as late as “established dogma” would have it, i.e., in 1688). Could Locke’s political thinking have mellowed sufficiently in ten years for him to have renounced slavery? Well, he never did so publicly, and Laslett himself says Locke is hardly the spokesperson for a rising middle class, let alone an egalitarian who would do away with all distinctions. He remained “the determined enemy of beggars and the idle poor,” and at the same time “profoundly mistrusted commerce and commercial men.”

That “unjust will of another” to which it would be so unreasonable to submit – that would have been the will of an absolute monarch. The will of a household head, a property owner, even the owner of slaves had “justice” on their side, it seems. For John Locke was, first and last, an English gentleman, with all the prejudices of his class and his era.

War Between What and Whom?

Only other philosophers and maybe a handful of political historians will be as shaken as I was by the toppling of my formerly revered John Locke, or even care about his views, but the Civil War, or War Between the States, remains relevant in American politics today, a century and a half beyond the official end of armed hostilities. And so Isenberg’s seventh chapter in White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America bears very careful reading (though it would be a serious mistake to skip to Chapter Seven, “Cowards, Poltroons, and Mudsills: Civil War as Class Warfare” without first reading six preceding chapters, which lay a groundwork back to colonial days).

“Mudsills” was a Southern epithet used by James Henry Hammond of South Carolina to denigrate Northern democracy and a Union army made up of “a foul collection of urban roughs, prairie dirt farmers, greasy mechanics, unwashed immigrants, and ... insolent free blacks.” Menial laborers, stuck in the mud from which they would never emerge, were the base of all civilizations, in Hammond’s view of the world, but Southern slavery kept only slaves of African descent in this lowly condition, while the North “debased its own kind,” i.e., white men.

Isenberg reframes the Civil War conflict (though there is no reason to think she has distorted or misrepresented what anyone of the times thought, said, or write) as one of class rather than race or geography. As much as the South rebelled against the North, it was also those who saw themselves as aristocrats rebelling against others they saw as beneath them -- Davis “born to command,” Lincoln a “rude bumpkin,” whose very honesty was grounds for class suspicion. As Isenberg puts the Southern case against Lincoln,
His Kentucky home made him white trash, and his chosen residence in Illinois made him a prairie mudsill.

But Northerners took up the “mudsill” epithet as a badge of honor, a sobriquet of independence and stark contrast to the tired, dead, Old World aristocratic ideals of the South. Many Union officers felt the war would liberate not only black slaves but the South’s poor whites, as well. “They too needed emancipation,” declared Ulysses S. Grant. Secession, after all, except in Texas, had never been subject to a popular referendum, and the sons of large landowners (planters with 20 or more slaves) easily gained exemption from service, while the suffering of poor recruits and of their families left at home fueled discontent and led frequently to desertion. In the South, the wealthy held all the good land, slave labor made poor white farm workers redundant, and terrible poverty often resulted. The North was the land of economic and political opportunity and must prevail in the end.

Southern leaders, for their part, saw inequality as a natural condition. Large plantation owners of good bloodlines and the benefit of education were clearly born to rule. To the Southern mind, a Northern economy had poor white men working like slaves, and the Northern political system that allowed those same poor whites to vote like gentlemen was an outrage against natural law. Such a debased system could only devolve into squalor and anarchy. The South, therefore, with its culture firmly rooted in established classical principles, must in the end prevail.

And so both sides, North and South, saw the other as “an alien culture doomed to extinction.” And yet, Isenberg notes --
Little separated northern mudsills from southern trash. Neither class gained much when reduced to cannon fodder.

Over and over, it is the different groups on the bottom of the heap – be they mudsills, squatters, crackers, “white trash,” black African slaves or displaced Native Americans – who have the most in common. Over and over these groups without franchise must be kept apart, made to see each other as enemies, so that the wealthy and powerful of North and South, old East and new West, can claim their allegiance to ensure an open road ahead for their own continued self-enrichment.

Who Dwells in the Swamp?

Along the boundary between Virginia and Carolina was a large and forbidding wetland known as the Dismal Swamp. ... 
 Virginians viewed the twenty-two-hundred-square-mile wetland as a danger-filled transition zone. The seemingly endless quagmire literally overlapped the two colonies. There were no obvious routes through its mosquito-ridden cypress forests. In many places, travelers sank knee-deep in the soggy, peaty soil, and had to wade through coal-colored, slimy water dotted with gnarled roots. 
...The Great Dismal Swamp divided civilized Virginia planters from the rascally barbarians of Carolina.
The story of the Carolinas and the reality and potent image of the “swamp” comes chronologically long before the Civil War. So now let us return to colonial times.

William Byrd II, a wealthy Virginian, had an idea: Drain the swamp! Ditch it and create farmland!  Such a wild, uncivilized country was not, however, easily tamed and became the natural refuge of poor whites crowded out of the good land. With little farming experience or knowledge, many lived in rags and starved. They certainly had no wherewithal to pay the rents demanded by landowners, who held large tracts, in absentia, by royal charter. In pockets of desperation, rebellions formed.

Enter Lord Shaftesbury! Yes, the patron of John Locke. The disorder of “Culpepeper’s Rebellion,” Shaftesbury argued, was no “rebellion” at all, since Albemarle County had no government worthy of the name and, so, remained in – yes! -- a State of Nature, and as such its inhabitants could expect no protection from civil law!

In 16th-century colonial America, the “swamp” was basically North Carolina, a buffer between prosperous Virginia plantations and the South Carolina seacoast, gradually undergoing civilization. It was inhabited by the poor, the uneducated, the hopeless and landless. Could the “swamp” have been sufficiently “drained” in colonial days, the newly homeless poor whites of its wilderness would have been forced elsewhere, along with Native American tribes, instead of remaining in their remote Appalachian communities. So much for historical precedent.

Our recent U.S. election went to a candidate who promised once again to “drain the swamp,” but with important differences in the phrase as it was used in 1728 and then in 2016. This time around, last year, the reference was to Washington, D.C. and the promises seemingly given to “forgotten” poor whites. It would not be they swept down the drain this time, but the “elites.” Did that mean the rich and powerful? Doesn’t look like that so far. Instead, career government workers and appointees with education and background in their fields are being run out of town, their places taken by a wealthy business and industry elite.

So how about the big swamp-draining promises? Will those who have been at the bottom of the heap for 400 years finally catch a break? Or will the most rich and most powerful smash to pieces the flimsy ladder of worker protection, educational opportunity, health care, and hope for cleaner air, soil, and water so painfully constructed for all Americans in the decades since 1929? Will the “forgotten” finally prosper, or will they be pushed yet deeper into the mud?

What do you hope for? What do you fear? What do you expect?

You can probably tell how it looks to me, but then, Americans have never been of a single mind on anything, have we?


Locke’s Two Treatises on Government: A Critical Edition with Introduction and Notes, by Peter Laslett, 2nd edition. Cambridge University Press, 1967

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg. NY: Viking, 2016

Friday, February 10, 2017


Everybody, it seems, is reading Hillbilly Elegy, the recent memoir by J. D. Vance. I read it myself and thought he did a good job of conveying his background story. I’m very curious to see where his life will go next – and I’m not alone in that. Right after reading the Vance memoir, I turned to Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America and am making my way slowly and carefully through this excellent, eye-opening, carefully documented piece of work that will surely be a classic of American history for as long as the United States of America lasts. I’ll have much more to say about this book in the near future.

That I received the other day an advance reader copy (ARC) of a novel set in Appalachia, among “the forgotten folks” Baines Creek, North Carolina, in 1970 – that was purely coincidental, but like so many coincidences in a reader’s life, it was serendipitous, given what I’d already been reading. The characters in this novel by Leah Weiss are unschooled and hardscrabble poor. They live high on a windy ridge, where the air is thin, and so is the soil. As if the Civil War ended only last week, they still despise Yankees. The very people Vance in his memoir and Isenberg in her history described, Weiss brings to life in her fiction.

She’s not an opportunist riding a hillbilly bandwagon, either. Her mother grew up with fourteen siblings in an unpainted house without electricity or plumbing, and the first chapter of If the Creek Don’t Rise began as a short story entered in a writing contest in 2011. Weiss worked on the novel through 2014 and put it in the hands of an editor in 2015. The interview at the end of the book made me happy: here is a writer who not only understands but loves the hard work of revising and rewriting, which she calls “polishing the silver.”

But, how about the story?

Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge inspired the novel’s structure and enriches it in ways that are impossible to exaggerate. The book opens with pregnant teenage bride Sadie Blue, beat up again by her husband of fifteen days, moonshiner Roy Tupkin. Roy himself has a turn at narrating, but not before we’ve heard from Sadie’s grandmother, an aunt by marriage, the community preacher, the preacher’s sister, the new teacher enticed to the mountain by the preacher’s entreaty (teachers come and go fast in Baines Creek, and no one expects this one to last any longer than the others), and a boy who lives in the woods by hunting and fishing. Kate Shaw, outsider and new teacher, also has a guardian angel in the person of an herbalist midwife neighbor some might call a witch, and Birdie gets to tell her story, too.

Character names beg the reader to pronounce them aloud. Along with Sadie Blue and Roy Tupkin are Gladys Hicks, Marris Jones (proud to be named for the famous Mary Harris “Mother” Jones), Eli and Prudence Perkins (brother and sister), Tattler Swann, Billy Barnhill, and Birdie Rocas. Pharrell Moody looms large in the preacher’s story of his calling. Weeza Dillard is one of Kate Shaw’s little pupils. The store proprietor is Mooney – and only “Mister” if he’s in trouble with the law.

An important gain in having multiple narrators is that we see all of them not only as they see themselves or even as an author might wish to portray them, out of sympathy or lack of it, but as other characters see them. For example, Birdie Rocas at first looks like an urban homeless woman to Kate Shaw, but when Birdie has a chance to tell her story we learn why she wears so many wool skirts at once. Eli Perkins hints at his sister’s excessive martyrdom, her bitter devotion to living poor than she needs to live, but only when we look through Kate Shaw’s eyes do we see Prudence’s dirty neck and fingernails, clothes like rags, and shoes tied together to keep the soles on. The most unlovable characters in the book, we learn, have their own secret heartaches and pain.

Kate Shaw is far from perfect herself. “Book smart and mountain dumb,” is the way Sadie Blue puts it. But what I really appreciate about this book is that Kate Shaw does not come into the community as Sadie’s savior, nor is she shown up as an incompetent fool with all her book learning. Kate recognizes that “the mountain” has a lot to teach her and that the mountain people are not the only ones with needs. She needs a purpose and a place to belong as much as the Dillards need food, Eli needs intellectual companionship, and Sadie needs to find her way to a better life.

If the Creek Don’t Rise country is rich with homemade quilts and watermelon pickles, herbal remedies and colorful stories. It is also home to wife-beating, near-starvation, falling-down houses, and mine accidents that can take breadwinners out quick as snuffing a candle. Leah Weiss captures the rhythm and wit of Appalachian speech without resorting to incomprehensible spellings and a blizzard of apostrophes, and the reader is drawn eagerly and easily into a world that is, for most of us, as remote in experience as the mountain where its characters live is far from the rest of the country.

You’ve probably heard something about studies showing that reading fiction increases empathy. Well, a lot of Americans these days are having a hard time feeling empathy for one another, aren’t we? Feeling bruised ourselves, we rush to judge each other rather than trying to see the world from another’s point of view. If the Creek Don’t Rise just might be the novel to provide a breakthrough perspective to many. Already I can hear lively book club discussions as members exchange opinions on different characters, why they are the way they are, and if they can or should try to be different!

The book is not scheduled for release until late summer, but put it on your list now, or let me know if you want to pre-order a copy.

If the Creek Don’t Rise
by Leah Weiss
Sourcebook Landmark
Paper, $15.95
Available August 2017

Monday, February 6, 2017


Aaron Stander’s latest northern Michigan mystery, once again featuring Sheriff Ray Elkins of Cedar County (a fictional county on the shore of Lake Michigan), may be his best so far. I stopped reading halfway through in order to get a night’s sleep but woke early to pick up where I’d left off and didn’t put the book down again until the last page.

The story unrolls in two sections. In the first quarter of the book we read journal entries, written by a female freshman student, covering a one-week high school camping trip gone bad, a winter wilderness experience in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It is Thanksgiving week, but these students are not going home to family, for various reasons. We then skip ahead twenty-five years, arriving on a Friday before Thanksgiving, when former campers from the ill-fated trip come together again on the grounds of their old private school for a posh reunion arranged by the wealthiest member of the group.

Both the camping trip and the reunion a quarter-century later are marked by severe blizzards. The faculty member leading the group in the wilderness went for help and never returned; the sheriff and detective have to hike in the last couple of miles after going off the road in their SUV. 

The U.P. campsite was far from roads, the private school below the Bridge located outside even a small town, and both scenes are further isolated by the severe winter storms indicated in the book’s title. 

It is a classic setup, reminiscent of Agatha Christie – a limited cast of characters, trapped together for a period of time, isolated from the outside world. But Stander brings to this classic his own gift for evoking the physical and social landscape of northern Michigan, and he is especially good capturing winter.
Even in the blizzard conditions, they could make out his jagged trail. His path ran down the steep slope toward the lake. ... Their thighs burned as they struggled to move forward through the deep drifts. In places where the wind had blown the snow cover away, they encountered steep walls of sheer ice. The hardened steel rims of their shoes cut into the surface, providing some traction, but not preventing an occasional fall....
Gales of November is the ninth Ray Elkins book from Aaron Stander. “Do you have to read them in order?” people often ask of books in a mystery series. No, of course not. The sheriff’s life and relationships develop over time, as is true of most characters that recur in a series, but each book works fine as a stand-alone reading experience, too.

Starting your Aaron Stander reading with Gales of November is no crime and will not put you in jeopardy. Another of my favorites is Shelf Ice. As I say, Stander does Up North winter very well. But start with any of his books, in any season, and you will not be disappointed -- just hungry for more!

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Thoughts on Escape


In December I was on a headlong, high-speed, emotional retreat from the world. I read three Lee Child “Jack Reacher” novels practically in a nonstop row, beginning the second immediately upon finishing the first and then, after a short interval with other material, returning for a third. But running (away) that fast can be exhausting, and it doesn’t really work, anyway. Never mind. It was a phase it seems I just had to go through.

Depression, Nightmares, Insomnia, and Facts

The very phrases ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ are depressing, not to mention the way nightmares involving the U.S. Congress have invaded and interrupted my sleep. Me, not the world’s most politically engaged person for most of my life!

As for truth and facts, though, I’ve long realized (I remember a few insights when I was a young child) that we all have different perspectives on the world around us. It’s winter now, so take the fact of snow:

To a puppy, blowing snow might be frightening or wildly exciting. A human toddler might greet snow as does the braver puppy, but if snow keeps blowing in the baby’s face, he’ll probably start to cry. Athletic types cheer up at the prospect of good skiing, while old people worry about slippery sidewalks and roads. Even the plow driver and UPS driver don’t have identical perspectives on snowy weather. But no one denies the fact. No one says, “That isn’t snow, it’s confetti! It’s little bits of paper people threw to celebrate my victory! Whaddya mean, dangerous? Nah! Don' worry about it!"

No, we recognize snow, and we understand that we have to deal with it for what it is, like it or not.

Anyway, I am hardly alone in depression and insomnia. Numerous friends share the same experiences, and we try to buck up for one another’s sakes.

Day of Ups and Downs

On Thursday I walked out of the house to drifted snow and an unplowed shared drive. Don’t ask. As crises go, this one was not so much as a blip on the radar. Merely a challenge. The low right front tire was another, more serious matter.

Rocking the truck back and forth and shouting curses (new studies show cursing can help), I finally broke free and slithered and slewed up the hill. I would air the tire up in town before starting back home in the afternoon. Maybe it would be warmer then.

First village stop was at the corner store for gas and a newspaper. The very young) woman at the cash register noticed a Tiffany's ad on the front page and expressed skepticism that anyone would ever be offering her a ring from Tiffany's. When I said I'd never wanted diamonds, she admitted she'd be just fine if some guy offered her a HORSE as an engagement token! I'd been pretty low-key up until then but shouted, "Yes! Me, too!" To which she said, "Or even a goat. I'd take a goat," to which I said, "Not me, but I'd take a cow," and she agreed she'd take a cow, too, but we agreed that a horse would be best. I left with a big smile on my face! What a wonderful interlude on an otherwise cold, bleak day! I loved it!

Six people came in during the day to sign my letter to our new U.S. Representative, and that was gratifying. No one came to look at books, which was discouraging., and my UPS delivery came too late in the day to get word to people to pick up their orders. Oh, and then there was the call to AT&T about my phone bill, up in two years from under $70 to over $100 with no new services added, which made me think again of the price of facial tissue and paper towels, up an even greater percentage, and the cost of having my teeth cleaned, which went from $95 in the spring to $160 this winter....

But the real challenge of the end of my business day was the low tire. Twenty pounds, my gauge said when I went to the air hose, checking the pressure first. Next I put two quarters in, cursing the cold, but couldn't get the hose to work. Tried another two quarters. Fingers freezing! Finally gave up and drove north of town to the garage, where I threw myself on their mercy! Told Mark's wife I was desperately in need of help! Told her my pathetic story. She said someone else had had the same problem and that they had concluded the hose
must be frozen. "You mean it isn't just me?" She smiled and shook her head. Thank god! I was feeling so incompetent! She had me pull around to one of the bays, and Mark came out and checked all four tires and brought them up to 35 pounds. I was so relieved I wanted to cry. Before that I'd been so frustrated and felt so stupid I wanted to cry!

Turning to Fiction

After dinner and a movie, I picked up The Assault, by Harry Mulisch. I figured it was time for another novel after so much nonfiction, but this novel offered no escape, other than from the specifics of 2017, because the same questions recur in the troubled history of human civilization:

What apparently insignificant remark or desire sets chains and webs of events in motion? Why, when every single one of us has such a short tenure on this earth, do we muck it up so badly for ourselves and each other? How can mankind be so cruel? And how can one oppose inhumanity without taking on some of its traits?

Does anyone have ‘clean hands’? Is it possible to remember? Is it possible to forget? If we cannot forget, and if we remember only dimly and confusedly, can we forgive and move on? How?

The central character in The Assault is a boy in the first section of the book. The year is 1945. A cruel Fascist policeman is assassinated on the street by anti-Fascists, and neighbors drag the body from in front of their house to in front of Anton’s family home. German occupiers soon arrive and, in retaliation for the killing, set Anton’s house on fire. After a confusing and frightening series of events, in which the boy is taken into custody by authorities who have no idea what to do with him, he is given over to his uncle and aunt. 

Subsequent events take place in 1952, 1956, 1966, and 1981, and gradually the truth of what happened in 1945 comes to light for Anton, piece by piece, and each time Anton has to recalibrate his memory.

Big issues and stunning writing.
And there were not only negative reasons for his choice of anesthesiology. He was fascinated by the delicate equilibrium that must be maintained whenever the butchers planted their knives in someone—this balancing on the edge between life and death, and his responsibility for the poor human being, helpless in unconsciousness. He had, besides, the more or less mystical notion that the narcotics did not make the patient insensitive to pain so much as unable to express that pain, and that although drugs erased the memory of pain, the patient was nevertheless changed by it. When patients woke up, it always seemed evident that they had been suffering. But when he spoke of this theory once to his colleagues, who were talking about yachting, the way they looked at him suggested that he had better keep his thoughts to himself if he wanted to remain in the club.

Final Thought to Ponder

If, under anesthetic, our bodies feel pain – and if bodies continue to feel after-effects, although we have no conscious memory of surgery’s pain – and if learning can take place during sleep – and if, as countless studies have shown, much more takes place in our brains than ever reaches the level of consciousness – why would we ever think we could escape the real world, deny it though we will?

You may be wondering -- was I sorry to have chosen such a serious, non-escapist novel to read? Not at all. It was worth the time spent and left me calm and thoughtful.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Leafing Against a Snowy Background

Book catalogs and seed catalogs – those are the ones I can’t resist. And yet, as I’ve cautioned authors thinking about titles and book cover design, any particular item in a catalog has but a moment to capture attention before the reader turns the page. Here, for example, is the way I recently leafed through a catalog of philosophy titles from Rowman & Littlefield.

Opening the front cover, I was immediately faced with a page of book covers. One read, in prominent letters, Jane Austen, and underneath the image, “See page 35.” So yes, I turned right away to page 35 and there found Jane Austen and Philosophy, an edited volume with contributions by many philosophers. Once, years ago, I wanted to write a book to be called Jane Austen and the Age of Reason. (Though the “Age of Reason” actually predated Austen, I felt she was strongly influenced by it and had any number of passages in her books in my mind.) But I had other work to do then, and after that the years went by, and soon everyone, it seemed, was writing about Jane, and I felt she’d been pestered enough. But I did not make a career in academia, and “publish or perish” is not the fire held to my feet. If it were, no doubt I would have turned to St. Jane in my hour of need.

I note any number of “X and Philosophy” titles. Stephen King and Philosophy sits to the left of Jane Austen, and she is flanked on the other side by Jim Henson and Philosophy. Turning back to earlier pages of the catalog, I find The Philosophy of Pornography and say a mental “No, thank you” to that one. Am I not curious? Not curious enough, it seems. Later on in the catalog I find Roald Dahl and Philosophy and Dr. Seuss and Philosophy.

There are books on politics, race, animals, and the environment – all important topics – but when I see Deleuze’s Political Vision, I say “No, thank you” again. I cannot forgive Deleuze his reading of Bergson. And here is a book called The Moral Defense of Homosexuality, which makes me pause to reflect on the strangeness of such an idea -- that is, the idea that homosexuality is in need of a moral defense. Does red hair need a moral defense? Does entropy need a moral defense? I can see moral objections to promiscuity or pedophilia or any number of sexual practices, on the part of heterosexuals or homosexuals, but homosexuality itself is a fact, isn’t it?

I continue to turn the pages, content to have made my life as a bookseller rather than an academic. I don’t get summers off, have no paid benefits, not even a guaranteed salary (or minimum wage!), but I can read whatever I like, in the field of philosophy as elsewhere. Feeling no professional pressure bearing down on me as I survey titles and descriptions makes the browsing delightful.

Then I see The Dialectic of Duration and yelp excitedly! I read the title aloud to David, who responds, “So?” “Duration is a Bergsonian concept,” I remind him, “and it’s written by Gaston Bachelard!” Now he is mildly intrigued (he loves Bachelard), so I read the description of the book, and there, sure enough,

The work is motivated by a refutation of Bergson’s notion of duration – ‘lived time’, experienced as continuous. For Bachelard, experienced time is irreducibly fractured and interrupted....

It troubles me not that Bachelard opposes Bergson, since it seems he has done it in an interesting way, and anyway, I find anti-Bergson writings very thought-stimulating – though sometimes, I must admit, almost too much so. When I read Bertrand Russell’s quibbles with Bergson, for instance, I was so irate I could not sleep and stayed up all night writing a refutation of Russell’s critique. Really, I wondered if he had read Bergson at all, he got him so wrong! Someone of Russell’s stature should have been ashamed of himself to skate over the surface in that sophomoric way, I thought.

But back to the catalog. One title, The Changing Face of Alterity, reminds me of a dear friend, no longer among us, whose chief area of study was alterity. Otherness. I wonder what Annie would make of our world today. And here’s another one that stops me in my tracks: The Phenomenology of Gravidity. Of what? Gravidity, the description notes, is “the actual experience of bearing a child.” Well, there, I’ve learned something new.

Then comes Hegel, Hegel, and more Hegel. “They just can’t let him go,” I observe, and David is vastly amused. Of course, the same is true of Heidegger and Socrates and all the big names. If I were in an academic world, I would surely have to read Socrates Tenured, a book claiming to diagnose the crisis facing the humanities and charting a road forward.

Well, that was refreshing, and along with the general entertainment of browsing, I found one irresistible title. So now, on to the seed catalogs!

Winter is a time to read books and to dream of spring.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Direct or Indirect or Not at All?

Not long ago I wrote about a book causing a big ruckus in the publishing and bookselling world. That is, I did not write about the book, per se, but about a movement within the publisher’s customer base to boycott – in some cases, only the book; in other cases, everything coming from that publishing house. The question I raised was whether or not a boycott constitutes censorship, and I argued that it does not. One reader took a different point of view and seemed to find my rhetoric equivalent to that of religiously conservative bakers and florists not wanting to provide wedding cakes and flowers to gay couples. I rejected the equivalence (see comments following original post) but failed to convince my opposition. I guess you would say we hold different views on the moral legitimacy of boycotts, as well as on their efficacy.

A piece by Alan Rusbridger in the December 8, 2016, in the New York Review of Books may  shed further light on the question. At any rate, it is an important look at the question of freedom of the press and so deserves reading. 

Rusbridger looks closely at journalism in Kenya and highlights what he calls “financially induced self-censorship,” which he abbreviates as “fiscing.” I find the abbreviation infelicitous, but the phrase is central to his article. There is no direct censorship involved, he notes, in financially induced self-censorship. Instead,
 ... newspapers respond to the potential withholding of revenue by censoring themselves.

I have refrained from adding my own italics to the quote above, but I believe it is a rare human being who has not “self-censored” at one time or another. Who has not railed in private, in very intemperate language, against something or someone and at another time given the opinion more moderate expression in a social or public setting? I would say, in fact, that a certain amount of “self-censorship” greases the wheels of society and allows us to live together, creating space for civility. Sometimes it may go by the name of diplomacy.

Rusbridger, however, is not concerned with politesse. In Kenya, it is increasing fear of journalists, specifically newspapers, and the “government’s extreme sensitivity to criticism” that are at stake when it comes to reporting stories unfavorable to the government. For instance, riots following an election with questionable results killed 1200 people. Charges were filed by the International Criminal Court against the president and his deputy. Quite a story! Not one getting covered by the press in Kenya, however. As one investigative reporter asked rhetorically, “[W]ho is going to go up against the president and the deputy president?” One who tried was killed and the hard drive of his computer stolen.

As I look at the phenomenon of “financially induced self-censorship” as it exists in Kenya, three features of the situation stand out:

Ø  Kenyan journalists are not self-censoring solely out of fear that they may lose their jobs or see revenues drop. They also fear for their lives.

Ø  Kenyan journalists are refraining from criticizing the government out of fear of the government’s power.

Ø  The financial hardship Kenyan newspaper people fear is a direct consequence of government advertising on which newspapers depend.

Rather than call this any form of “self-censorship,” then, I would call it indirect censorship. There is no government office through which articles must pass for permission to print (that would be direct censorship), but the fact the government holds the purse strings and threatens to withdraw funds if criticized – with more dire threats in reserve – is certainly a strong disincentive to the exercise of freedom of the press.

What about when an advertiser rather than a government is holding the purse strings? Such temptations to “financially induced self-censorship” (to stick with Rusbridger’s terminology) have always existed for American newspapers and magazines and are nothing new Betty Friedan, in The Feminine Mystique, revealed the way stories in women’s magazines were directed to advertisers’ interests. Right here in northern Michigan, within the past decade, a major advertiser in Traverse City’s daily newspaper pulled all ads after the paper covered a story unfavorable to the company. Print media sometimes selects only that advertising that promotes values it wants to uphold or, more rarely, decides to raise subscription prices to do away with advertising altogether so that editorial integrity is not compromised in any way.

Yes, loss of revenue can tempt journalists – writers and editors both -- to suppress stories unfavorable to advertisers. But this is very different from having the financial rug pulled out from under one by a government, with power to inflict still greater harms, if a newspaper criticizes the government.

Relating what Rusbridger calls “financially induced self-censorship” to a boycott by consumers, whether wholesale or retail buyers, I see another important issue at stake, one I did mention in my earlier post. A government, backed by a military establishment, has enormous coercive power. The same is true of any large corporation dispensing advertising dollars, although I have argued here and elsewhere that it is only a government can inflict actual censorship, direct or indirect. Consumers of goods and services, on the other hand, will always hold the weaker financial hand, and it is only by joining forces in a boycott that they can hope to level the playing field and bring about changes in the behavior of businesses looking for profits, wherever they are to be found.

Direct censorship, indirect censorship, self-censorship, boycotts. How do you see them?

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Out in the Country, But Far From Dead

The lines of the Scottish poem came into my head as I waited for my screen to come to life.
Breathes there a man with soul so dead 
Who never to himself has said 
      This is my own, my native land!
Okay, that was a digression. Couldn't resist. Back on track now.

I don’t generally underline in books. But when it's an old 60-cent paperback, and someone else has already underlined a lot in it and spilled coffee on the cover, and when the pages are literally falling out, for Pete’s sake – then I feel completely free to underline to my heart’s content.

Our reading circle’s latest self-assignment was Gogol’s Dead Souls, a book I’ve read more than once before but always enjoy re-reading, because just as you can't step into the same river twice, a book is always a new experience each time you enter its world. 

This time around I was very conscious of the ways Gogol refuses to keep to any recognized literary formula. Not only is Chichikov an anti-hero, but the author himself keeps intruding into the narrative to remind us of his characters’ failings (not just Chichikov, all the characters) and to plead for our sympathy. He mourns, in particular, the negative reception his protagonist is sure to find among critics and general public and how that will all bounce back on him, the author. Oh, poor me! An author such as I, “who dares to bring all that he sees into the open,” is much to be pitied!
All those things that an indifferent eye fails to notice—all the slimy marsh of petty occurrences into which we sink, all the multitude of splintered everyday characters who swarm along the drab, often painful road of life—he shows them clearly in relief, thanks to the power of his merciless chisel, so that the whole world may view them. This author will not receive world-wide acclaim, nor will he see tears of gratitude or feel the unanimous enthusiasm of hearts he has stirred; no sixteen-year-old girl will throw herself at him, giddy with admiration for her hero; it is not for such as he to become drunk at the sweet sound of his own words; and, of course, he cannot avoid trial by his contemporaries, a hypocritical, unfeeling court, which will pronounce the characters he has created with such care insignificant and vile, will assign him a dishonorable place among authors who have insulted mankind, will ascribe to him the traits of his own characters, and will rob him of his heart and soul and of the divine flame of talent. This is so because his contemporaries will not recognize that microscopes ... are just as wonderful as telescopes....
“I’m showing the world as it is, people as they are, and of course I’ll pay the price for my honesty!” the author complains bitterly. Do you feel sorry for him, or are you laughing?

I laughed. Somehow in the context of the novel -- and though passages like these leave the story to one side for as long as they last, and so are not really “in the context of the novel” – somehow even these passages come through time as comedy, as if Gogol, dressed as a clown, pushes Chichikov off-stage for a few minutes, takes center stage himself, and cries the tears of a clown for a laughing audience before going over to drag Chichikov back into the spotlight.

George Lucas, of “Star Wars” fame, says he quite consciously followed the structure of Joseph Campbell’s myth of the hero's journey: Departure, initiation, return. With Gogol, on the contrary, we meet the anti-hero Chichikov already well launched into his journey. He is no longer young. His quest is absurd. Only after ten chapters of misadventures does the author give us Chichikov’s background, the story of his childhood, youth, adult trials, and the inspiration for his journey. “Departure” is the final chapter of the book! And the journey is not over, either, when the book has been closed. Gogol intended Dead Souls as the first book in a trilogy. He completed one of the sequels but burned it before he died. 

It’s difficult to see what Chichikov would have done for two more volumes and what kind of conclusion the author could have found for his tale. No matter, I say. I find this novel ever so much funnier and more believable and satisfying than Gogol’s famous short stories.

There is another story formula that Dead Souls does not fit. -- In fact, as many formulae as there are, it’s a safe bet that Dead Souls fits none of them, but the one I have in mind was laid out by Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher mystery novels, in a talk he gave in Traverse City at the National Writers Series. Here’s the formula: There is a town with a problem it cannot solve. A stranger arrives. He solves the problem and is rewarded. Think of the riddle of the Sphinx, which no one could answer until Oedipus appeared on the scene.

Well, Chichikov comes to town as a stranger, but the village where he lands had no obvious problem before his arrival. It's a place where nothing much seems to happen at all, which is why everyone is so delighted to welcome a stranger. But then Chichikov's bizarre, incomprehensible business deals get everyone stirred everyone up and give rise to even more bizarre speculations until all hell breaks loose! And far from laying to rest the fears he has produced, Chichikov is lucky to escape with his own skin!

As he did in his short stories, Gogol again trots out generalizations and stereotypes –
The haven was familiar, just as the inn was – the kind of provincial inn where, for two rubles a day, a traveler can get a quiet room, with cockroaches peeking out of every corner like raisins....
-- but with his own distinctive, remarkable additions, e.g., those cockroaches “like raisins”! Stinginess, he tells us, has “a wolf’s appetite and grows hungrier the ore it devours.” And who can forget the picture of Plewshkin, with his black eyes like darting mice!

In a way, Chichikov and his quest to acquire “dead souls” – that is, to acquire, by purchase or outright gift, deeds showing him as the owner of serfs who have, in fact, died since the last census, relieving the seller of the tax liability and gaining for himself, he hopes, collateral that will qualify him for a generous government loan – serve as a scaffolding on which Gogol builds the portrait of a pre-Revolutionary rural Russian village. Looked at it this way, the village is the main character of the novel.

I don’t know. I need to think further about this. Actually, I’ll run it by the others in the reading circle and see what they think. But be honest now -- weren't you relieved to find a literary topic rather than a political topic here today? 

Earth keeps turning, sun keeps shining....