Saturday, August 17, 2019

Revolutionary Mothers by Carol Berkin

Revolutionary Mothers by Carol Berkin is a survey of women’s role in the American Revolution. The author does a good job of chronicling this underreported aspect of the conflict. As folks who have read my blog in the past know, The American Revolutionary period is of particular interest to me. This work helped to fill in a lot of gaps and enhanced my understanding of The Revolution itself.  I wanted to read a book that centered on women and the Revolution and I had heard that this work, along with Women of the Republic by Linda K. Kerber, were the most respected on the subject. I may read Kerber’s book soon. 

Berkin covers multiple categories of women in this book. One thing that makes it difficult to write about this work is its survey nature.  It covers a lot of fairly unconnected topics concerning women who came from very different backgrounds and cultures. Segments are dedicated to women on the patriot side, loyalist women, black women, Native American women, camp followers, and women who engaged in espionage as well as actual combat. A lot of issues and trends are explored. A few main points involve: patriot women taking on male roles of household and farm management when their husbands went off to the war; persecution of loyalist women and their eventual displacement from their homes; women in actual combat; Native American women who sometimes held leadership roles in their societies; black women who were usually enslaved , many of whom took the opportunity to attempt to flee to the British side as British commanders had promised them freedom. The author tells of many personal accounts and relies heavily on diary entries and letters. 

The book concludes with an examination of the aftermath of the Revolution in regard to women. As a result of the revolutionary spirit and the fact that so many women took on important roles, many Americans, both men and women, argued for equality. The result was a major change in women’s education in America. In most places, girls were provided the same education as boys. Unfortunately, reform stopped there. Berkin explores the reasons for this. 

As I mentioned above, because this book brings up so many points and focuses on so many individual women, it is difficult to pin much down in a single blog post. For instance, there is a lot here about camp followers. Both American and British armies had a groups of thousands of women who followed them around. These consisted of a combination of women that provided laundry and other services, wives of enlisted men, and prostitutes. I had previously known a little bit about camp followers, but this work really dug into the details concerning the many different women who composed this group. Camp followers are just one among several groups that are focused on on in this book. 

Just one fascinating example of the many individuals covered in this work is Molly Brant. Most of the tribes of the Iroquois nation chose to side with the British. Thus, there was heavy and brutal fighting between American and Native American forces in upper New York State. The more I read about the Native Americans in the era when they came into contact with whites, the more I realize that there were a lot of people who fit into and moved between both white and Native American worlds. Brant was such a person. She was a Mohawk from a powerful family.  The Mohawks were one of several Iroquois tribes. Women held more power in Iroquois society as opposed to European and Colonial society. In this area, the Iroquois and some other tribes were more enlightened than the Europeans. Brant in particular held a position of power and influence within the Iroquois confederation.  She also married Sir William Johnson, who was a high British official involved in Native American affairs. Brant was supposedly very comfortable and mixed freely in booth Iroquois and European society.  As an important member of Iroquois leadership, Brant helped guide the tribe into an alliance with The British. Throughout the war, she served as a liaison and supporter of The British cause. Berkin writes,
                                                                                                                    
Throughout the war, the British relied heavily on Molly’s influence with the Mohawks. It was Molly who persuaded the Society of Six Nations Matrons to press their men to fight for the king, and it was Molly who rallied these Indian warriors when they began to question their participation in the war . British officials never underestimated her importance.

This work is filled with similar interesting and important stories. 

This is very good book. Though it is not that long, it covers a lot of ground and shines light into lots of areas. It is full of interesting accounts, and I learned a lot from it.  Berkin is also a very good writer who manages to hold my interest throughout. I recommend this to anyone interested in the American revolutionary era, women’s’ history, or the social history of America.



Thursday, August 8, 2019

O Pioneers! By Willa Cather

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather is the story of the Bergsons, a family of Swedish immigrants who settle in Nebraska in the late nineteenth century. First published in 1913, this is a short novel and is the first book of what is known as the Great Plains Trilogy. I found the story and the characters compelling. The prose is beautifully written. Cather’s description of the Nebraska region that the book takes place in, known as the Divide, is a major feature of this book as the landscape practically becomes a character in and of itself. In some ways, this work reminds me of Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, and that book’s incorporation of Egdon Heath in its narrative.

The novel is segmented into sections, each section jumps several years forward. The entire story encompasses the late nineteenth century and moves into the early twentieth century. The tale begins as John Bergson, the father of the family, is dying. His parting admonishment to his family is to leave his daughter, Alexandra, in charge of the family farm. At this point, the clan consists of Alexandra, her mother and her three brothers. Lou and Oscar are older and are basically competent farmers but are flawed people with limited imagination. Emil is the youngest sibling who is intelligent and sensitive. Carl Linstrum is a neighboring boy who becomes Alexandra’s romantic interest. Marie is a lively young girl who grows up alongside the Bergsons.

The Bergson farm, as well as the Bergson’s neighbors’ farms, are failing as a result of years of bad weather. Neighbors are abandoning the area. Carl and his family move away to the city. Alexandra comes under pressure to sell the property and vacate, but persistently resists and holds out. In a turn of events, as the years go by, the region starts to thrive. Alexandra’s management turns out to be competent and energetic, and the entire Bergson family eventually prospers. Alexandra helps Emil to get a university education. For his part, Emil becomes interested in the unhappily married Marie. The two initiated an affair and serious trouble ensues. There are other interesting characters and plot threads. 

Eventually, Carl returns to the area. He is penniless. An interesting but unfortunate role reversal starts to play out. Alexandra wants to marry Carl, but her family objects because he is broke. The independent Alexandra wants to go ahead anyway, but social pressure leads Carl to set off into the world to earn a fortune before he will marry a more prosperous woman. The social interactions involving gender and money are interesting. If the roles were reversed, a wealthier man would be able to marry a poorer woman, but it is the disparity of income combined with gender that keep the two apart. The fact that it is Carl who responds to the social pressure and declines marriage is interesting. 

The characters, plot and themes are well crafted and interesting. However, where this novel really shines is in Cather’s wonderful prose. The author weaves this prose to fit and connect with various characters and themes. 

For instance, Alexandra is tied to the land. When other pioneers are abandoning it and going back where they came from, Alexandra stubbornly hangs on. She does this in the face of even her two brothers’ opposition. In this passage, Cather pulls it all together,

When the road began to climb the first long swells of the Divide, Alexandra hummed an old Swedish hymn, and Emil wondered why his sister looked so happy. Her face was so radiant that he felt shy about asking her. For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. Then the Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.

I find the fact that Alexandra may be the only person to look at The Divide with such a fascinating love and yearning. Thus, The Divide bends its will to her, and history begins.

Likewise, Cather uses her skill with prose, people and nature to illuminate Marie’s character and predicament. This young woman has found herself trapped in a bad marriage. She once seemed to have loved Frank her husband. However, not only has Frank allowed pessimism and depression to bring him down, but he has taken his bad feedings out on Marie. This is painful and stifling to her.  She looks for some way to escape, no matter how bad it is.

Marie stole slowly, flutteringly, along the path, like a white night-moth out of the fields. The years seemed to stretch before her like the land; spring, summer, autumn, winter, spring; always the same patient fields, the patient little trees, the patient lives; always the same yearning, the same pulling at the chain— until the instinct to live had torn itself and bled and weakened for the last time, until the chain secured a dead woman, who might cautiously be released. Marie walked on, her face lifted toward the remote, inaccessible evening star.

There is a lot to the above passage. It is interesting that Marie flutters like a moth. She is a person on a chain, tied to the mundane. Symbolically, she is bleeding and weak. She still looks for release and gazes upon evening stars that seem equally inaccessible. Once again, I think that Cather’s language is superb.

This is a very good, short book. The characters are interesting and somewhat complex. The story is compelling and drives worthy themes. I simply love Cather’s prose, which is excellent and ties everything together. As I was impressed with this book, I am likely to read the remainder of the Prairie Trilogy soon.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

People are talking about Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility quite a lot. The book was best seller and it is being mentioned all over social media. First published in 2018 the main point of this work is to critique white Americans’ reaction to conversations about race and racism. I found that the ideas presented in this book to be emblematic of critical race theory with a few twists added. I recently posted commentary on Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things here. Where that book was an exposition of critical race theory in the form of fiction, this work presents the theory in a more traditional, philosophical way. DiAngelo is a diversity teacher and holds a PHD in Multicultural Education. She is a self - proclaimed expert on “whiteness studies.” I disagreed with most of the author’s arguments and also found that many of her contentions to be  made in bad faith. 

DiAngelo believes that American society is based upon and is infused with racism and white supremacy. Furthermore, most interactions between white people and People of Color are based upon power. All whites hold what is commonly called “white privilege”.  Furthermore, all white people are, at least unconsciously, racist and white supremacists because of socialization. She labels this system “whiteness”.

According to DiAngelo, when white people disagree with these arguments, their objections and disagreement are based upon this ingrained racism and the refusal to confront it.  The author labels these objections to her perceived reality as white fragility.

I think that the first thing that one must talk about in relation to this book is a concept called a Kafka trap. The term Kafka trap is a reference Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial in which there is a protagonist whose protestations of innocence in the face of false accusations are taken as proof of his guilt. As has been pointed out by others, the entire premise of white fragility is a Kafka trap. This book is filled with supposed examples of white fragility that are in fact Kafka traps. DiAngelo, as she accounts what she does in her in real life diversity trainings, and in her writings, actually calls people racist. When people object, she labels the objections white fragility. Thus, disagreeing with the author's arguments are proof of the author's arguments. Kafka traps are false and illogical arguments that involve circular reasoning. They are usually accompanied, as they are here,  by ad hominem attacks on people who object to accusations and personal attacks.  Thus, I think that a major basis of this book is based on an invalid concept. 

There is something very serious that this author and other advocates of a set of theories that many are calling postmodernism are doing . Dozens of times in this book DiAngelo makes all - encompassing statements about white people and black people. Just one example, 

white people raised in Western society are conditioned into a white supremacist worldview because it is the bedrock of our society and its institutions .

DiAngelo even contends that there are no exceptions to many of her generalizations. Civil society has struggled long and hard to reach a state where generalizations based on race, ethnicity and religion  are unacceptable in the public discourse.  In reputable articles, opinion pieces, general discourse in both the mainstream media and elsewhere, this kind of generalization has been absolutely unacceptable.  Now, both DiAngelo and other people who fall under the umbrella of postmodernist thinkers are routinely doing this. There are so many problems with this. If it is logical and ethical to generalize about race and ethnicity then it would stand to reason that it is acceptable to generalize negatively about blacks or Asians or Latinos or Jews or any religion or ethnic group. This is in fact what white supremacists do. I must also mention that this kind of generalization has also been creeping into mainstream right wing discourse as of late. Donald Trump has made all sorts of awful statements. In my opinion, the clearest example occurred when he said that Federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel could not fairly judge his case because Curiel is a Mexican American. I bring up Trump's statements to highlight how this vital norm is being eroded from several directions.

I understand that in private life some people generalize about these things all the time. Hopefully that tendency is also on the wane. However, the benefits gained by eliminating this kind if stuff from public conversations is of great value. 

The author justifies all this as follows, 

As a sociologist, I am quite comfortable generalizing; social life is patterned and predictable in measurable ways. But I understand that my generalizations may cause some defensiveness for the white people about whom I am generalizing, given how cherished the ideology of individualism is in our culture.

DiAngelo’s excuse that she is a sociologist and that there are patterns to social life falls flat and is trite. These generalizations are unethical, whether the person making them is a sociologist or a President or member of any other profession. In technical terms the author is engaging in race essentialism, that is, assigning immutable psychological characteristics to people based upon race. Doing so risks tearing down a vital norm that decent and ethical people have fought for. 

As the above quotation also indicates, DiAngelo is critical of what she calls individualism and argues that one’s racial identity trumps any supposed distinctiveness. She argues that socialization, at least in the developed world, is so strong, that it overwhelms any individual stances on these issues. Once again, this flies in the face of the reality of human nature. Throughout history and across every society that has ever existed, individuals have asserted themselves on every issue imaginable and bucked their societies.  Of course, culture matters, but individualism always comes into play. 

At multiple points of the book. The author cites examples of white people contending that they are not racist and attempts to refute their arguments. The problem here is that this is framed with situations where the author has actually labeled people as racist. The author attacks individuals and their arguments because they cannot prove that they are not racist. However, it is impossible to refute such an all-encompassing negative such as an accusation of racism.  It is akin to demanding that someone prove that they never stole anything in their life. It cannot be done. 

Another pillar of reason that DiAngelo goes after is the ability of anyone to be really objective and unbiased. Once again, she argues that socialization on the issue of race makes this impossible. This is a common postmodernist argument, that only certain people, depending upon their race and ethnicity are capable of knowing the truth,

She writes.

I came to see that the way that we [white people] are taught to define racism makes it virtually imposable for a white person to understand it

Bias is always something to look out for. However, to say that the truth is impossible to understand based upon one’s race, is counter to the basic rules of reason. Logic, reason and the ability to move beyond bias is possible. In fact, the ability to move beyond bias is the basis of  science, law and  every  bit of social progress that the world has seen going back centuries. 

Critical race theorists often argue that one cannot be racist towards white people. The reason that is given for this contention is that there is a sociological definition of racism that is not the common definition. The sociological, critical race theory based definition of racism states that racism always involves power and oppression. Furthermore, these theories postulate, white people always have power so one cannot be racist toward whites. Many postmodernists that I have encountered contend that theirs is the only definition. Furthermore, I have interacted  with  several people who argued that not accepting this modified definition of racism is in itself racism.  Surprisingly, DiAngelo is somewhat moderate on this issue and at least recognizes that both definitions might apply depending on one’s perspective. 

In regards to the issue of privilege, DiAngelo goes beyond the typical popular usage of the word  and actually argues that privilege as something that white people actively promote,

Viewing privilege as something that white people are just handed obscures the systematic dimensions of racism that must be actively and passively, consciously and unconsciously, maintained.

I have written before how I do not agree with the way that the modern left often uses the word privilege. I tend to object to the concept of privilege and almost all the ways that it is being used as late. My objections are numerous and somewhat complex and would take an entirely seperate post to explain. Perhaps I will delve into this at another time. 

A concept that flies in the face of both decency and reason been pushed by postmodernist thinkers as of late is the concept of “white women’s’ tears.“ There is an entire chapter of this book dedicated to it. The idea here is that when white women cry, it commonly  promotes racism. The argument is that there has been a terrible history in America of black men being falsely accused of rape and subsequently murdered, often by lynch mobs. Furthermore, the author contends that white women use tears to deflect from situations when they have been justifiably accused of racism. DiAngelo goes further and contends that even when white women express genuine sadness and cry when they are made aware of racism and violence, that it distracts from the actual oppression that black people face. The author writes, 

White women’s tears in cross - racial interactions are problematic for several reasons connected to how they impact others . For example , there is a long historical backdrop of black men being tortured and murdered because of a white woman’s distress , and we white women bring these histories with us . Our tears trigger the terrorism of this history , particularly for African Americans .

And later, 

For people of color , our tears demonstrate our racial insulation and privilege .


Even later, the author is actually critical of black men who attempt to comfort white women who happen to cry,

Yet coming to the rescue of a white woman also drives a wedge between men and women of color .

There was a time in American history where black men were lynched on a regular basis based upon false accusations of sexual assault. This was monstrous. However, tying this to white women crying even when it is in sympathetic response to racism is ludicrous and threatens to make a mockery of the real crimes and real racism.  The contention that when black men show kindness to white women it drives a wedge between black women and black men is illogical and smacks of a terrible and racial  division between human beings. These arguments show a lack of humanity in DiAngelo and others who perpetuate these concepts. I have seen Twitter mobs taunt several women who they targeted with this white women’s tears nonsense. 


DiAngelo also makes other contentions that are based upon critical race theory that I disagree with. She argues for what is referred to as blank slatism, that discrimination is a zero - sum game that involves white people giving up privileges. I wrote about my objections to these arguments in my post on Small Great Things as well as when I wrote about postmodernism and race here.

I believe that the concepts that DiAngelo is pushing have done harm. The obsession with white men has led some on the far left to side against third world human rights supporters because the oppression that they fight is not propagated by white men. There has been a rash of false accusations and mobbing on both college campuses and elsewhere against people falsely accused of racism. My post on Russel Blackford's The Tyranny of Opinion covered several of these mobbing episodes. That post is here.


I have been very negative  about this book. I have always been open to ideas that I disagree with, even when those ideas were off the wall and radical. However, like many other postmodernists, DiAngelo takes her arguments in directions that are extremely dubious. Her generalizations about both white and black people are ethically questionable. Her use and application of term “white women’s tears" is particularly odious and demeaning to both white and black people.  As noted above the work is also filled with Kafka traps, ad hominem attacks and other bad faith tactics. I have previously written about books by Andrea Dworkin, Chandra Mohanty, Ania Loomba and others that presented ideas that I disagreed strongly. However, none of those writers generalized about entire groups or presented such bad faith arguments. The ideas in this book are also not off the wall or obscure. As mentioned above, this book is a best seller and these ideas are very popular in many areas of academia and social media and are being incorporated in various diversity and bias trainings.

Racism and bias are no joke. These are gravely serious issues. Likewise, subtle racism and bias is a subject worth talking about. This book and other postmodernist expressions threaten to diminish the seriousness of these issues and are harmful in other ways. This sort  of approach runs counter to multiple values that have driven positive change.   No human rights campaign in history has ever been based upon this kind of obsession with so called privileged groups or generalizing and stereotyping to the degree that is done here. Nor  were they based upon rhetorical and logical tricks. Instead, successful human rights campaigns have focused upon universal principles  such as logic, empathy,  equality, freedom and tolerance. 

I strongly disagree with  the ideas in this book as well as  in the methods that they are argued. However, there are reasons to read it. Critical race theory has become popular in some important quarters as of late. At least in the short term, this work has become very influential and very popular. Whether one agrees, disagrees or has mixed feelings about with the ideas in this book, I think that it important to understand them.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Kidnapped by Robert Lewis Stevenson


Kidnapped by Robert Lewis Stevenson was originally considered a "boy's book” when first published in 1886. Since then, the novel has garnered enormous popularity throughout the world. Though many people seem to have read this in school, this was the first time for me. I found that this work deserves all the accolades that it has received. This was a very entertaining and fun book that also displayed substance. 

The work is a historical novel that takes place in 1751. Several characters are real historical persons, and some of the plot is based upon real events. The book’s protagonist is 17-year-oldDavid Balfour, who tells the tale in first person. Balfour is a resident of the Scottish Lowlands. When Balfour’s father dies, he sets off to find his place in the world. The young man visits his uncle, Ebenezer Balfour. Ebenezer turns out to be a wretched schemer who, in order to avoid passing on the family fortune and lands, plots to have David kidnapped and sold into slavery. When the ship that is carrying Balfour to servitude picks up the real-life historic person and Scottish rebel Alan Breck Stewart, the pair form an alliance and fight the crew for control of the ship. Eventually, the vessel is wrecked, and Balfour begins a set of adventures in the Scottish Highlands. 

At this point, though Balfour has nothing to do with it, Alan and himself are implicated in the assassination of a corrupt and repressive royal official called the Red Fox. This killing is based upon the real-life historical event known asthe Appin murder.The remainder of the book involves Balfour and Alan fleeing through the Scottish Highlands while being pursued by British Troops. 

This short novel works on many levels. I found it to be a wonderfully written adventure story. Almost every page was fun and enjoyable. There are also some interesting things going on with characters and themes. Alan is a flawed but absolutely wonderful character. He is roguish, vain, and sentimental. He can be dishonest, loves to brag, and has a sense of honor that is both noble and a little silly. He has a personal code of morals that often comes into conflict with David’s conventional Christian beliefs. He is incredibly brave and resilient. He is an expert swordsman but can also mix it up in musical bagpipe duels. He and Balfour often find themselves in conflict, but eventually form a bond that is akin the love between a father and son. 

The issue of different moralities is interesting. At one point, Alan is talking about protecting the man who shot the Red Fox. He will sacrifice his own life to do so. When Balfour realizes this he observes,

Alan’s morals were all tail-first; but he was ready to give his life for them, such as they were. “Alan,” said I, “I’ll not say it’s the good Christianity as I understand it, but it’s good enough

Balfour is a Christian. Alan is something else. It seems that while Stevenson might not be completely on board with Alan's morals, he is not entirely condemning them either. 

This is the third Stevenson book that I have read. I have also read Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde as well as Treasure Island. I had previously written how the author has a certain knack for describing nature and integrating the descriptions into the plot. I found that this skill was apparent in this book. One stage of this tale involves Balfour and Allen traversing through the Scottish countryside during a very rainy period where both men are gloomy due to circumstances. 

This was a dreadful time, rendered the more dreadful by the gloom of the weather and the country. I was never warm; my teeth chattered in my head; I was troubled with a very sore throat, such as I had on the isle…I would be aroused in the gloaming, to sit up in the same puddle where I had slept, and sup cold drammach; the rain driving sharp in my face or running down my back in icy trickles; the mist enfolding us like as in a gloomy chamber— or, perhaps, if the wind blew, falling suddenly apart and showing us the gulf of some dark valley where the streams were crying aloud. The sound of an infinite number of rivers came up from all round. In this steady rain the springs of the mountain were broken up; every glen gushed water like a cistern; every stream was in high spate, and had filled and overflowed its channel. During our night tramps, it was solemn to hear the voice of them below in the valleys, now booming like thunder, now with an angry cry. I could well understand the story of the Water Kelpie, that demon of the streams, who is fabled to keep wailing and roaring at the ford until the coming of the doomed traveller. 

There is a lot to the above quote. One can feel the misery of sleeping outdoors in the rain and the cold. Stevenson personalizes nature in an effective way as the streams and thunder are described as crying. I think that the above also creates a very powerful atmosphere of a waterlogged and flooding landscape. The introduction of the myth of the Water Kelpie adds to an effective impression of a personalized and not so friendly natural world.


I loved this book. Though originally a kind of young adult story designed for boys, Stevenson has infused so many good things into this work. It can just be read for fun, but the reader can also go a little deeper and discover some rewards, I think that this one deserves the popularity that it has garnered as well as its reputation as a classic. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

I first attempted to read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann about twenty years ago. I stopped reading about ten percent of the way in. I felt that I was not ready for it. I wanted to go in understanding the underlying ideas a little better. This time around I felt a little better about taking on this novel. Though the book threw a dizzying array of ideas at me, I found it to be a brilliant and fulfilling work. First published in 1924, this is an enormous, dense and challenging book that is bursting with ideas. The novel is a mix of serious and parody. I read the John E. Woods translation. This is a long work. My copy was 700 pages long. These were long and dense pages. The book goes slowly. Mann takes his time in getting anywhere.  A book that was formatted differently may have contained about a thousand pages. Despite some difficulties, I ultimate found this to be a superb novel. In fact, this was one of the best reading experiences that I have ever had. 

The plot of the book is fairly simple. During the years preceding World War I, Hans Castorp, a young German man, visits his friend Joachim Ziemssen, who is staying at the Berghof tuberculosis sanatorium in the mountains of Switzerland. Originally planning to stay only three weeks, the young protagonist ends up staying 7 years. During this time, a host of characters who live and work at the sanitarium are introduced.  These characters spend a lot of time discussing philosophy, social issues and life in general. In fact, the novel is driven by these musings.   Characters include Lodovico Settembrini, who is a humanist and seems to get the most philosophizing in. Professor Naphta is a strange Jesuit priest who is also a radical in every way. Castrop’s friend Joachim is a military man who emphasizes values of duty and loyalty.  Mynheer Peeperkorn is a rich and hedonistic man with a magnetic personality. Clavdia Chauchat is Castrop’s love interest and seems to embody eroticism. Ellen Brand may have some kind of psychic powers and appears to represent spiritualism. 

I generally do not read too much commentary on a book until after I have written my post on it. However, I read a little on this one as I felt that I needed a little grounding. The consensus among critics is that the Berghof sanatorium and its guests are a microcosm of pre-World War I society with emphasis on intellectualism. Furthermore, Castorp is on a kind of quest for ideas. The book is highly symbolic with many of the places and characters having mythological analogies. How Mann felt about the various belief systems explored here is open to debate, as he was apparently elusive about this point. At times, he seems to be making fun of ideas, and at other times, he seems to hold some of them in reverence.  Time is also a recurrent theme. Its passage is noted, observed and analyzed throughout the narrative. As the novel takes place in a tuberculosis sanitarium, death and illness is also an important theme. Various characters try to analyze illness in the context of religion and philosophy. There seem to be parallels between the sickness of the patients and the sickness of Western thought that led to World War I. Through all of this, Castorp observes and takes it all in as he occasionally participates. 

The book is sprawling and at times chaotic. What I mean by this is that the story does not present organized debates and discussions by people with clearly defined belief systems. Instead the chapters jump from one topic to another, and then revisit topics. There is also a lot that goes on in between discussions, delving into the day to day activities of Castorp and the others involving eating, romantic connections, medical issues, explorations of nature, playing games, etc., much of it infused with meaning. Sometimes ideas are represented by a character’s actions rather than their speeches. Some of the characters are not clear-cut representatives of particular belief systems or lifestyles and are sometimes all over the place. Mann also goes down some obscure philosophical directions. The characters often act in silly and over the top ways. The effect is often very funny. 

There are strange things going on in this book. People get drawn into life at Berghof. Many are promised that they will be cured in a few months but instead stay for years. The institution pulls people in. When Castrop’s uncle James Tienappel comes to visit, he is nearly pulled into staying long term in the same way that Castorp was and barely breaks free.  There is in place a bizarre system where sicker patients are almost looked at as more virtuous and have higher social status than their less ill peers. A rift forms between patients and their family and friends back home. 

I find the quest aspect of all of this very interesting. The entire searching through ideas that Castorp is engaged in throughout the novel is in some ways akin to my philosophy when it comes to reading.  That is, take in different ideas as well as their counter arguments. Try to approach these concepts with an open mind. However, in the end, one must assess and make judgement about these ideas.

Settembrini and Naphta spend a lot of time debating their respective belief systems. As they do so, it seems that they engage in this activity for the benefit of Castorp. 

Frequently they did not speak to one another, but instead each would turn to Hans Castorp to deliver his views, lecturing him, while pointing a head or thumb at the real opponent. Hans Castorp was trapped between them: turning his head back and forth, he would agree first with one, then with the other, or he would come to a stop, bending his body backward and gesticulating with a hand inside its fur – lines goatskin glove, and offer some opinion of his own – some highly unsatisfactory comment
  
Once again, I find that the above is somewhat akin to writers who are aiming their prose at readers. The fact that they debate one another is not so different from authors and philosophers who are often in a kind of conversation and debate with one another.  

As someone who also loves philosophical and other types of musings, I loved this book. Despite being unusual and at times enigmatic, I feel that I was treated to a feast of ideas. Sometimes the ideas grappled with the great questions that humans have grappled with for centuries, and at other times, it went off in some unusual directions. Thus, Mann rarely fails to interest and delight. 



Some thoughts about  Nihilism and World War I (The Below Contains Spoilers)



There is so much going on in this book. This work will lend itself to rereading. I would compare it to a giant buffet of ideas. I just want to focus upon one idea that I had about one aspect of the story. As per above,  I read some commentary on this work before composing this post. However, the below musings are entirely my own.  I have been thinking about the fate of Professor Naphta and Lodovico Settembrini. 

There is a confrontation near the end of the book. Throughout the narrative, Settembrini and Naphta have debated their ideas. Settembrini is a humanist who is optimistic about human progress and the future. Naphta is a radical and a nihilist. He is described as a terrorist at several points. Naphta has gone as far as to welcome war and destruction. Towards the end of the novel,  Naphta challenges Settembrini to a duel. The reader suspects that the nihilist has decided that he wants to kill Settembrini once and for all. For his part, Settembrini declares that he will not kill and in fact shoots into the air at the commencement of the dueling.  To everyone’s shock Naphta does not shoot into the air nor does he  shoot Settembrini. Instead, he turns his pistol on himself and commits suicide. Settembrini survives the duel, but he seems to be left damaged. He grows weaker and sicker. He stops writing and stops participating in the intellectual circles of humanist Europe. 

Naphta represents chaos, nihilism and destruction. It seems to me that Napata’s suicide did to Settembrini what World War I did to optimistic humanism. That is, the war demoralized many of its adherents and left it, as the belief system, a shell of what it was before. At the very least, this seems to be Mann's view. 

As he is portrayed as being ethical and reasoned, it seems that Mann may have been sympathetic to the humanistic views of Settembrini. Yet, he understood what the cataclysm of World War I did to such an optimistic outlook. 

At the novel’s conclusion, Castorp gets pulled into the combat of World War I. Mann reminds us of the horror of it all as well as of the scientific and technological connections.

He has thrown himself on his stomach at the approach of a howling hound of hell, a large explosive shell, a hideous sugarloaf from the abysses.  

Laden with horror, this product of science gone beserk.

Optimistic, pro - science and technology humanism seems to have failed and instead led to horrific cataclysm. This was the view of many following the catastrophes and slaughters of the first half of the twentieth century. Settembrini’s fate seems symbolic of all this.  Eventually, decades later, optimistic humanism did bounce back and seems to be at something of a high point right now. I count myself as one of its cautious adherents. 

Monday, July 1, 2019

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

This post contains some spoilers.


Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult is an exploration of race, bias and power in AmericaIn this work the author attempts to paint a picture of a world based upon critical race theory in a way that is not just unconvincing but that in my opinion damages the entire book.  The strong part of this novel is its characters which are often portrayed in a powerful and complex ways. The book also has an interesting plot that is at times very affecting. This novel was first published in 2016. I recounted the story of why I choose to read it here.  

Ruth Jefferson is at the center of the story. She is an African - American maternity nurse who works in a Connecticut hospital.  Brittany and Turk Bauer are parents of a newborn, Davis Bauer, who is in Ruth’s care. The Baurs are hardcore, violent, white supremists. They bully the hospital into removing Ruth from the case because of her race. When the baby stops breathing, Ruth attempts to save him despite her orders. Unfortunately, the child dies and Ruth is unfairly charged with murder. Kennedy McQuarrie is her public defender attorney. The story is told in first person from three alternating points of view between Ruth, Kennedy and Turk.


Eventually Ruth goes in trial. Much of the narrative involves a learning curve for the characters. During the trial Ruth and Kennedy start off believing that most white people are not racist and that racism is a problem with a limited number of individuals. In the end, they both come to the realization that, at least in the world of this book, that racism is pervasive in society. Turk, who is shown to be a brutal thug throughout most of the book, eventually finds redemption. 

It is important to understand some of the tenets of critical race theory in order to comprehend much of what is underlying this novel. As of late I have been reading about this and related  ideologies and engaging in some discussions with strong adherents to the theory.  I cannot help to recognize how these beliefs are infused into this story 

The themes are fairly obvious, of course the white supremacy is terrible and it is a violent and hateful ideology. However, more importantly, though they do not initially believe it, Ruth and Kennedy both come to the conclusion that most whites are subtly racist. This soft racism is present everywhere and represents power.  Eventually Kennedy admits that most white people benefit from racism and that most whites are in some way racist. A key theme is that while most white people are not hardcore white supremists, their soft racism hold up white supremacy. As I understand it, these are key tenets of critical race theory. 
  
I am fine with books that advocate for particular ideologies, even if I disagree with those ideologies. What is a serious flaw in this book is that the author fashions a world in order to fit the theory. Most of the poor and lower middle-class whites are white supremists. Most of the upper and middle - class whites, including the sympathetic ones, are racially insensitive beyond all sense of credibility. The white people in this book cannot get through a single conversation with a person of color without making a racially charged comment. The author is attempting to illustrate subtle racism and soft bigotry.  The problem is that there is nothing subtle about the clueless white people in this book.  Obviously, there are racially insensitive folks out there.  However, every single white person in this book acts like they have no idea how to talk to fellow human beings who happen to be people of color. At one point, Kennedy is trying to reassure Ruth,

“I know. Listen, I’m going to do my best. I have a lot of experience in cases with people like you.” [Ruth] That mask freezes her features again. “People like me?”
  
Later a hospital administrator describes Ruth as “uppity”

For those not familiar with the American culture, these are obvious, racially insensitive gaffes that few people would use in conversation. The word “uppity” was a way to disparage African Americans who stood up for their rights that went out of style in the 1970s. I emphasize, there are undoubtedly white people who speak like this, but almost every single interaction between a white person and an African American in this book includes such dialogue. 

There are other unrealistic elements that are used to build the world within this book.  Just to name a few: the hospital risk management attorney is so incompetent that she actually advises Turk to sue Ruth, who is a hospital employee for his son’s death; The police conduct an investigation into the death of the infant without even trying to question Ruth.  Ruth’s medical license is arbitrarily revoked without a hearing. Turk is able to easily manipulate the police and the press and no one besides Ruth really questions his background or motives. 

This book is based upon a real - life incident. In reality, the African – American nurse was taken off of a case of caring for an infant because the white supremacist parents’ insistence. The baby did not have medical complications, did not die, and there were no charges filed against the nurse.  The nurse sued the hospital for discrimination and won her suit. I think that it is significant that the plot of this book took an actual incident, that did indeed involve racism, and changed it to fit with the framework of a particular belief system based upon implausible events.

Outrageous and bizarre things do happen in real life.  However, this string of implausible events mars the entire book. Realism is important in a novel like this. All these unlikely events help to build a world where everything conspires to oppress black people. The author is trying to show how racism and bias operate. Unfortunately, this cartoon - like world created here is no template for reality. This lack of plausibility destroys the novel’s themes, took out any suspense in the plot and hurt the characters. Once again, this version of the world is consistent with critical race theory which postulates that all structures in society are set up to oppress people of color.

Critical race theorists also argue that many, or all, social interactions promote oppression of the marginalized by the privileged. We see this in almost every interaction between a white person and a black person in this book. The theory labels these interactions “microaggressions”. Furthermore, according to theory, language is a major source of oppression, with the privileged unable to see or understand the oppression of the marginalized.  Thus, the importance to these conversations as part of the narrative. Another aspect of the theory is that many marginalized people are unable to see their oppression because they have been socialized to accept such. Hence, Ruth’s “awakening” and realization that prejudice has been around her all along as well as the nature of white people. The belief system postulates that almost everything that happens in society is a means to perpetuate oppression. Thus, the construction of the implausible reality in this book. Another aspect of various postmodern belief - systems such as critical race theory is that oppression, racism and bias is a zero - sum game. Thus, the privileged will need to give things up and lose some sort of benefit in order for real equality to happen. At one - point Ruth is talking to Kennedy and says,

white people would have to buy into being equal. Who’d choose to dismantle the system that makes them special?

Kennedy reacts,

” Heat floods my neck. Is she talking about me? Is she suggesting that the reason I won’t buck the system is because I, personally, have something to lose?

In the later part of the story the concept of white people needing to give up benefits for equality to be realized is mentioned several times. 

Finally, critical race theory leans heavily on what is being popularly called blank slatism. That is the idea that humans are entirely the product of culture and that there is no such thing as human nature. 

At one point Ruth is observing newborn babies and muses,

Babies are such blank slates. They don’t come into this world with the assumptions their parents have made, or the promises their church will give, or the ability to sort people into groups they like and don’t like….I wonder how long it takes before the polish given by nature gets worn off by nurture.

I strongly believe that racism and bias aimed at people of color is real. Racism is outrageous and unfair, deserves condemnation and drives justifiable anger. Furthermore, I believe that racism is one of the root causes of multiple social problems that disproportionally affect people of color. This is a terrible ill that society needs to combat.  It sometimes involves subtlety and complexity.  It is valid and important to examine it in fiction. This book does not do that, instead it creates a world to fit theory. I fear that folks who are skeptical about racism will read this book and become more skeptical. There are indeed many instances in this work of realistic racism and rings true. However, this realism is overwhelmed by the all the rest.

I am not unaware of potential arguments against my point about the reality described in this book.  I talked and read opinion pieces number of adherents of critical race theory and related  postmodernist ideas. A pure postmodernist argument would be that I am a white person and that I should have nothing to say about racism. This argument does not even bring up the issue of bias. Things like bias are beside the point, only members of certain races, genders and sexual preferences are capable of knowing the truth and are capable of discussing certain subjects. I have talked to read fair number of people who argue as such. 

A more coherent argument might say that as white man I am biased and cannot evaluate these issues fairly.  My response to this is that my arguments are based on reason. One must apply a little common sense as well as logic to this. If white people talked and acted the way they do in this book on a nearly universal scale one would have to be near delusional not to see it. In my workplace if anyone spoke like white people do in this book they would be told that they must stop.  If they continued they would be fired. The book implies that both white people and people of color who have not yet become “woke “and are blind to what is going on. This is an ad hominem argument that basically says if one does not agree with critical race theory, even if one is a Person of Color, that one is deluded. I could make such an argument to support almost any worldview no matter how preposterous. 

I am also a diversity facilitator. Diversity programs have gotten a bad name in some quarters, perhaps because some of them now seem to be pushing some controversial ideologies.  I must note that the program that I am involved in is about celebrating diversity and not stereotyping people. It is also about letting everyone, with all types of opinions, express their views on these issues such as racism, sexism, bias, discrimination, etc. Our program is based upon rationality and ethics. As a facilitator I listen to the views of scores of People of Color every year. I have certainly taken these views into consideration when formulating my own opinions. I find that I my views are in line with the majority of people, of all backgrounds, that I have listened to. 
                                                       
As for critical race theory itself. I have major disagreements with it. There is no rational basis to contend that all white people are racist or that society is a network of oppression. This contention is partially based upon implicit bias studies, which have been more or less refuted in the past few years. 

I especially disagree with the belief that white people will be giving something up in order to alleviate racism. That is not how the world works. A society with less bigotry and bias benefits everyone. I also think that blank slatism is a denial of obvious aspects of human nature.  So much of what we do, good and bad, comes from our genes. I will have more to say about all this when I post about Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility

Despite my objections I want to note some very positive things about this book. Ruth, Kennedy, (despite her tendency to say idiotic things when talking to People of Color) and Turk are very complex.  The portrayal of Turk is near brilliant. His views and actions are shown to be monstrous. At the same time he is humanized as he is shown to love his family, is shown to be intelligent and shown to have had a bad childhood. I believe that his transformation is based upon interviews with real ex – white supremacists that Jodi Picoult engaged in. It is a believable change.

Jodi Picoult also inserts complexity into a lot of aspects of the story. Sometimes very biased characters often show surprising insight and humanity. Similarly, the African American prosecutor who leads the case against Ruth is shown to be bigoted towards African Americans who have light skin. The book is filled with such interesting nuance. I also found that Jodo Picoult’s portrayal of trauma and pain to be very effective and moving. There are several passages about parents who lose newborns that are heartbreaking.

I wrote in my introductory post that I expected to agree with this book’s main propositions more then I ended up doing.  I thought that the ideas here would be a little closer to traditional liberal and anti – racist ideas and less towards critical race theory. I generally will not dislike a book whose ideas that I disagree with. However, the distorted view of reality presented here a fatal flaw. It gets in the way of so much. With that, anyone who wishes to understand how postmodernism and critical race theory can be applied to viewing the world would be interested in this book. I think that it is a good way to understand these belief systems without actually reading theory. I found just reading about a world where all these ideas were bouncing around to be interesting. Whether one loves these ideas or hates them they seem to be gaining in popularity. It is not a bad idea to be familiar with them either way. 

Monday, June 24, 2019

Some Books on Racism

I will be  posting about pair of books that center upon racism in America. Because the books involve hot button social issues, and the stories behind me reading seem noteworthy, I wanted to put up an introductory post so as not to distract from commentary on the actual books. 

For the last couple of months, I had been planning on reading Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. The reason that I chose to read this book is that the work has influenced many people that I encounter on social media as well as articles, blogs and other commentary that I read. I will add that I usually find myself in disagreement with these folks. Obviously, this book gets to the heart of various contentious issues. It is at the center of the so - called culture war. From what I understood about this book, it strongly espoused what myself and others have been calling postmodernism or some variation on the term.  This particular set of principles, though not really new, seems to be gaining in popularity as of late. This is beside the fact that its principles are in direct conflict with a host of other belief systems. 

Though it did not really start out as such, what I am calling postmodernism, at least in terms of current social debates, involve classifying every single individual into one of two categories. Those categories are “privileged” or “marginalized”. According to what is coming from this belief system, almost everything in the world is based on power relationships with the privileged holding all of the power. When a group is considered privileged the basic rules of avoiding stereotypes, hearing diverging viewpoints, freedom of speech are turned off for them. "Whiteness studies” is now something that some academics are studying. "Whiteness" is viewed as a societal ill. I believe that whiteness studies is covered in DiAngelo’s book. Many postmodernists will argue that privileged people should not even have an opinion about issues that affect the marginalized. Therefore, certain groups should not even comment upon oppression, even in the developing world.  Furthermore, privileged people should not create art that depicts marginalized people. For instance, several writers have recently come under heavy criticism for depicting so called marginalized people in their books. The initial group that was most known for its privilege was white men. However, one can now find opinion pieces in major publicans arguing that white women, Jews, gay white men, light skinned African Americans, non – Transgender gay people, among other groups, are privileged. Many, but not all, postmodernists have also called for censorship of ideas and speakers.  Postmodernism also calls into questions the basic principles of science and reason itself. In all fairness I did not know for certain which, if any, of these arguments that D’Angelo supports. This is one reason why I decided to read her book. 

I have read arguments that the current crop of postmodernists have completely misinterpreted and distorted the belief system. I will be eventually reading Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida who helped to found postmodernism at which time I will have more to say about this. Either way, I think that I have described what is coming from the postmodernists at this time. Of course, it is difficult to talk about this without generalizing.   There are many people who agree with certain postmodernist principles without being dedicated postmodernists. A good example is the very popular term “white privilege”. Lots of people use and accept it while rejecting many other tenets of postmodernism. Also, it is important to remember that not everyone who does hold many postmodernist beliefs holds all of them. For instance, I think that many people who adhere to many of these views are against the censorship part. I have also only provided the barest hodgepodge summery above. It is based on what is coming out of late. This belief system also seems to be changing relatively quickly.

In general terms I identify with what I call the humanistic left. I am a liberal in the traditional American sense of the term. I also agree with the tenants of liberalism in the broad and more general sense of the term. Many of my beliefs are in direct  conflict with postmodernism. I believe that both racism and sexism are problems that need to be fought. In fact, combatting these ills is a great and noble endeavor.   However, classifying everyone as "privileged" or "oppressed" is simplistic and often distorts truth. I also believe in freedom of speech, the scientific method, the importance of not stereotyping individuals, that violence and oppression are harmful no matter who perpetuates them, etc. It is vital that we treat individuals equally. The  last trends in postmodernism are in conflict with these values.  “Humanistic left” may sound a bit fancy, but I have found that most people including classical liberals, moderate conservatives, moderate religious folks, people who do not like labels, etc. share similar values.

I will refrain from posting more detailed arguments in this post. I recently posted about several books whose subject involved postcolonialism. At least in part, postcolonialism is a postmodernist belief system (the conglomeration of postmodernist ideologies, such as postcolonialism, intersectionalism, queer theory, critical race studies, etc. is sometimes referred to as "Critical Theory" or “Theory”.)  I expressed my views in those posts. I also posted commentary on Russell Blackford’s The Tyranny of Opinion here. That book delved into some of the excesses of the postmodernist movement in some detail.  I will of course share more opinions when I read DiAngelo’s book and another book that I will mention below. 

On a very related topic, the other book that I will posting about, before DiAngelo’s work, is Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult. I had a disagreement with Jodi Picoult on Twitter over her use of the term “white privilege”. As I hinted above I do not agree the premise of the term or the ways that it is commonly used. She responded to a Tweet that I sent disagreeing with her. We had a Twitter conversation about the issue. I found her to be very polite and she attempted to make her points using reason. While we still did not agree on the use of the term, I found that we agreed on a lot of related topics and I found her to be very moderate. She suggested that I read her Small Great Things to better understand her views.  Thus, I decided to give it a go. 

I try to read everything with an open mind, however,  I went into the reading expecting to mostly disagree with DiAngelo’s book. I expected to find it very interesting. I think that it is important to read things that we disagree with. Though Jodi Picoult’s book is a novel, I suspected that it contained lots of underlying ideas concerning race and similar topics.  From what I had heard, and based on my impression of Jodi Piccoult herself, I expected that I would mostly agree with the direction that she has taken in this book, but I would find that I disagreed with some of her ideas. 

More to come on both of these books and on these issues. 

My Blog editing and posting is a little behind. I wrote the above before I started reading these books but have since delved into both works. Except for spelling and grammar corrections and changes from future tense to past tense I have not changed anything above since I started reading.