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Friday, June 29, 2012

Is your book reading you? Publishing in the twilight of the printed word continued

by John MacBeath Watkins

There exists a press copy of James Joyce's Ulysses signed by Ernest Hemingway, which was published back when you had to cut the pages of a novel in order to read it (with form printing, someone has to cut the pages, which are printed with several pages on a large piece of paper, then folded before being bound, though now it's the publisher who does the cutting.)

The pages are not cut.

This may make your think this means that we know Hemingway didn't read the book, but actually, we don't. We know he didn't read the copy in the Ernest Hemingway collection at the John F. Kennedy library, but reading a book is such a private act, we cannot know if Hemingway read Ulysses, because he might have read a different copy. Book did not report back to the publisher.

Only now, they do.

The technology of the e-book make it possible for the book to report back to the company that sold you the product, be it an Amazon Kindle or a Barnes & Noble Nook, how many pages you read, what you highlighted, and what book you downloaded next.
Barnes & Noble, which accounts for 25% to 30% of the e-book market through its Nook e-reader, has recently started studying customers' digital reading behavior. Data collected from Nooks reveals, for example, how far readers get in particular books, how quickly they read and how readers of particular genres engage with books. Jim Hilt, the company's vice president of e-books, says the company is starting to share their insights with publishers to help them create books that better hold people's attention.

What kind of details are companies like Barnes & Noble and Amazon collecting? From the same story:
It takes the average reader just seven hours to read the final book in Suzanne Collins's "Hunger Games" trilogy on the Kobo e-reader—about 57 pages an hour. Nearly 18,000 Kindle readers have highlighted the same line from the second book in the series: "Because sometimes things happen to people and they're not equipped to deal with them." And on Barnes & Noble's Nook, the first thing that most readers do upon finishing the first "Hunger Games" book is to download the next one.
I'm actually less worried about a corporation learning these things about me than I am about a government learning such things (and frankly, if I highlighted the quoted line from Collins's book, I wouldn't want anyone to know I found something so banal deep and meaningful.) Of course, it's not a problem as long as you trust your government with such private information (or, right now, if you trust your corporation.) A traditional book is as untraceable as a samizdat. You pay for it, often with cash, take it home, read it, and pass it on or keep it on the shelf for future reference. Even the store you bought it from, if it's anything like mine was when I kept an open shop, has no record of which books you've bought in person, let alone which you've actually read. Reading is a private act for most of us, but not for the e-reader.

We've already seen that Amazon can at will remove a book from your e-reader, a thing that with a real book would at least require that they hire some thugs and equip them with jack boots, whatever that sort of footwear looks like. Oh, wait, Wikipedia has a picture:

"Stalin's Boots" sculpture in Hungary.
More on publishing in the twilight of the printed word: 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The politics of inequality, the corruption of elites, and the decline of Venice

by John MacBeath Watkins

Karl Smith points out the forces that lead to the corruption of meritocracies, and I think this ties in with the declining mobility of America and the reasons for the decline of Venice.

First, the paradoxical fact that meritocracies are prone to corruption. I can't put it better than Smith:
Cheaters may almost never win but, given equal opportunity and a large enough competition, the winners are almost always cheaters.
Well, no one cheats because they think if that even if they get away with it they will be worse off. No, they cheat because if they get away with it they will be better off. Cheaters are taking a gamble.
Even if the system is pretty good and the odds are stacked against the cheaters, if there are enough players then some of the cheaters will get away with it, nonetheless.
When they do they will gain an advantage. Now, imagine that life is a series of such competitions played over and over again. Each time some people will cheat and some will get away with it. Each time some will gain an advantage.
If the competition is immense, say it encompasses a country of 300 Million or a global population of 7 Billion, then by the Law of Large numbers some cheaters will be lucky enough to get away with it every single time. This means every single round they gain an advantage and slip ahead of the pack.
After enough rounds the front of the pack is completely dominated by cheaters.
And of course, one way to cheat is to rig the game so that you control who has opportunity. This ties into another essay by Smith, about how societies can discourage cheating: "Boil them in oil." And because parents have been known to make nearly any sacrifice to give their children a leg up, the sins of the father must be visited on the child, so that cheating won't help your children.

It has become an article of faith in Republican circles that inheritance taxes are unjust, and that those who advocate them suffer from envy. But viewed from a Smithian perspective, inherited wealth is a way to pass on ill-gotten gains for those who cheated to get their wealth. From a different perspective, Andrew Carnegie believed that inherited wealth was a great evil, and gave away most of his money before his death. Did he object to inherited wealth out of envy?

Now, as it happens, we have some idea of the effect of their decisions on their offspring for several very wealthy people. A&E has done a series of biographies on what they call American Dynasties, including Carnegie and such other wealthy men as J. Paul Getty.

Getty, you may recall, had a grandchild kidnapped. The kidnappers demanded $17 million for the return of J. Paul Getty III. His grandfather wouldn't pay more than $2.2 million, the maximum he could deduct on his taxes. Getty's son paid most of the ransom, and Getty senior loaned him $800,000 of the money at 4% interest.

I've watched the episodes on the Gettys and the the Carnegies, and certainly, Carnegie's descendents were living better and happier lives. Yet few wealthy people would do as Carnegie did. Most prefer to establish a dynasty, and pass on their wealth.

Which is how the decline of Venice occurred. The process is described in Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, and described in part by Acemoglu in this video.

Venice gained great wealth at a time when it was relatively easy for ambitious young men to join the merchant class. The commenda, a type of joint-stock company, allowed an arrangement where a wealthy merchant put up the money and stayed home, while an ambitious person of lesser wealth went on a trading voyage. The rise to economic prominence of new families lead to the creation of the Great Council, which new families could join and which was the ultimate source of power in Venice. Inclusive institutions fed inclusive institutions, and fresh blood ensured a level of competence in the ruling council and in the merchant activities of Venice.

This era ended with La Serrata (the closure.) Members of the Great Council and their families no longer needed confirmation, it became difficult for new families to rise to the top, and between 1296 and 1315, Venice came to be ruled by a hereditary nobility. The political closure was followed by an economic closure, according to Acemoglu and Robinson, including banning the commenda which made it nearly impossible for those not already of the nobility to become wealthy and influential.

This resulted in a decline in competence, in trade as well as in statecraft, and ultimately to a decline in the wealth and influence of Venice.

In some ways, the Republican Party has become the party of entrenched interests. It opposes inheritance taxes, wants to reduce the progressivity of the tax system, wants to allow the wealthy to have more influence on the politics of the nation, and wants programs aimed at helping those who have in the past been discriminated against limited or eliminated. Not surprisingly, the party has been active in trying to limit voting for the young, minorities, and others who might want to achieve the wealth its donors already possess.

Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, (R), recently claimed that the state's voter I.D. law would help Mitt Romney win the presidency, according to TPM. Boasting of his accomplishments, he said, according to TPM,
“Pro-Second Amendment? The Castle Doctrine, it’s done. First pro-life legislation - abortion facility regulations - in 22 years, done. Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.”
This is the way elites cement their holdings and prevent new blood from competing with their offspring. People like Turza do not plan to adopt policies that will lead to the decline of our economy, they adopt them because it is in the interest of their financial backers (and, of course, many are wealthy on their own, and share the same interests.)

Hard-headed businessmen and American chauvinists they claim to be, they pursue political and economic arrangements that could lead to the nation's economic and political decline. The point of limiting the voting franchise is to limit political power. As we've discussed before, the Republican Party is more white and more male because it represents the fears of lost privilege. Not all of these people are wealthy, but many perceive their privileged position in society slipping away. The game used to be rigged in their favor, and over the past 40 years, being white and male has lost much of its privilege.

Friday, June 22, 2012

88 books that shaped America

The Library of Congress has issued a list of the 88 books they think did the most to shape America.

All appear to have been written in America, which may explain the glaring omission of John Locke's Second Treatise of Government.

Full list here:

Violence and mental illness: The canary in the coal mine

by Jamie Lutton

On May 30th, at Café Racer, Ian Stawicki, a mentally ill man, shot several people, then crossed town and killed a woman while he was stealing her car. He soon after this shot himself.
There has been great public outrage about these killings, most of the conversation  has centered around the easy availability of powerful handguns.  I have been thinking about this for several weeks, as I think this focus  is wrong, for several reasons.

The mentally ill are the “canary in the coal mine” of modern society. When a mentally ill person becomes violent, or more frequently commits suicide, they are playing out in a microcosm  the violence endemic in our society. As they are more susceptible to mental influence, they  act in a way that is only an exaggeration of the culture at large.
The lack of decent, affordable mental health care is a big issue as well. The culture of shame associated with acknowledging mental illness is itself shameful.  But most of all, our culture has a very violent fantasy life, as well as a violent and aggressive foreign policy.
Our television programs and video games are violent, and use violence to solve problems. This is so common a thing, that perhaps we never reflect on the effect this has on susceptible people.  There are murders and shootings in all cop and detective programs, and they are very popular. Movies with violence in them are very popular. Video games involve shooting to kill, in very realistic ways.
Our culture in the real world uses violence to solve problems. We have been at war in the Middle East for 10 years. Our president orders drones to kill enemies of  our country from the skies.  Even our police forces use stun guns to subdue people, using a new tool instead of voice persuasion or waiting people out. So the mentally ill, in particular those who have not been helped or rejected help, are swimming in a sea of violent images from seductive sources, in fantasy, fiction, and real life.       
When someone is deluded, a gun seems to be the right tool to solve a problem; that is what they have learned from the culture.  This, most of time, results in suicide, but now and then someone who is mentally ill is angry and deluded enough to attack family or strangers.

I strongly support two measures. One, make mental health care affordable for everyone. This is of high priority. Make it easier for families to have someone either helped or even committed.
Two, take away the shame of being mentally ill. When someone gets a diagnosis of manic depression (or schizophrenia), the first reaction of friends, loved ones or family is to either pull away or deny the problem.  Manic depression has a strong genetic component, so the denial and panic family members show is part of this.  Family members often think that they will have to be treated, too, so they deny the diagnosis, and reject the answer.  Often the mentally ill are abandoned by their families.
Being mentally ill is to be the lowest of the low in our culture. The worst curse that can be shrieked out is that ‘you are crazy!’. When it is true, the level of self hatred can be unbearable.
And most doctors do not know how to deliver the news to a mentally ill person. After telling someone that they have to take pills for the rest of their life, they usually tell the patient that they should never marry or have kids, because they are unfit, as the illness is passed on genetically.
This is often wrapped in medical language, but the message is clear.  Then they turn the person loose with prescription and a general vague suggestion that the avoid coffee and alcohol.  Few people can afford to be seen by an expert on this illness, who can offer more help and support than the average doctor.
Facing this, half the people diagnosed walk away from modern medicine, choosing to self medicate using alcohol or illegal drugs. They deny the diagnosis, and are often angry and reject further help. It is more socially acceptable to be a drug addict or drunk than to be taking medication for mania, and less shameful.   And most people want to be sane, and will lie to themselves to cling to the illusion of sanity.
And when someone is really ill, ideating violence and raving, there is no place for family members to take them. Unless they are in imminent danger to themselves, like threatening suicide, or are putting people in immediate danger, the State has no place to help them. Except, perhaps, to put them in jail. A great many jail inmates are there because they are mentally ill.  President Ronald Reagan, to ‘save money’, shut down the big mental hospitals in the 1980’s.   The mentally ill often ended up roaming the streets as homeless vagabonds.
This man had family who cared for him. He had had a girlfriend. But they were not given a clear path on how to help him. And as this illness has symptoms of rage and paranoia mixed with euphoria,  he did not seek out help himself. The euphoria of mania gives the manic depressive false, fleeting comfort and confidence, that most medication takes away.  And the stigma may have held him back,  I do not know if it did in his case.
When we make help for the mentally ill not a public good, paid for by the public, everyone suffers.  Not only by random murders like these, but by suicides and despair. The mentally ill’s lives are forever stunted, and they rarely reach their full potential. And we all are the poorer for this.
So, a fairly easy step would be to make mental health  treatment more affordable.. Families who have manic depressive members should be alerted, as they are much more likely themselves to have alcohol dependence and drug dependence, as well as a strong tendency to depression.  But the most difficult change we should make is to reduce the cult of violence in our popular media.
We worry about children finding sexual content on TV or the Internet, not noticing the deadening effect of violent entertainment seen over and over.  And the social affect of  endless war abroad cheapens the use of violence here. The rise of the stun gun by the police nationally  happened in the decade we have been at war, the last decade, and I don’t think this is a coincidence.
And finally, let us remove the stigma from being different. We are working now to protect gay and lesbian youth from being abused in the public school system, we should work to protect the kids with early onset of mental illness. Often this is triggered at an early age, when the child is in an unhappy or stressful home, such a home where there is emotional violence as well as physical violence. Or if they have parents with a drinking problem.  If we can reach out and help one group, let us put these kids on the list, too. And treatment that is started early is more likely to be successful.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Property and freedom: Why language is the proper basis for the social contract (Rethinking liberal theory 8)

by John MacBeath Watkins

I keep finding myself writing about two books, Leviathan and The Second Treatise of Government. I hope I may be excused for this tendency, because I think these two books are among the most important in shaping our way of life.

Today, I'm writing about the relationship between property and freedom. It's an argument that echoes down the years from the Civil War to the current day, between those who say the first freedom resides in our ability to use and dispose of our property as we see fit, and those who argue that the rights of people matter more than the rights of property.

It's a conflict that was present at the creation of liberalism. John Locke famously founded the social contract on property, and said that we are all born with property, because we own ourselves. As we've discussed before, in Locke's day you had to have property in order to vote. In saying we are born owning ourselves, he was taking a radical position that everyone should have full citizenship.

Objectively, many people did not own themselves in his day. One of my own ancestors was kidnapped from the streets of Glasgow and taken to the new world, were she was sold to an old man as an indentured servant, to care for him in his declining years. This was in a Quaker community, and after the old man's death she married a Quaker preacher. Not all forms of slavery are equally pernicious.

One of the most pernicious was race slavery as practiced in the Old South. Slavery is the ultimate extractive institution; all the fruits of the slave's labor belong to the slave's owner. White indentured servants like my ancestor were cheaper than African slaves, but they were genetically inferior as slaves in Dixie. They lacked the resistance to malaria, a disease which devastated whites nearly as badly as native Americans. Black slaves cost more because they were worth more.

But Locke's notion that all people hold property in their own person was a ticking time bomb under the institution of slavery. That institution had probably been with mankind as long as war and property, and yet, if the ownership of ourselves is, as Locke suggested, an inalienable right -- one we cannot sell or transfer to another -- slavery is an unthinkable evil.

The Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus was born a slave; the name his parents gave him is unknown, and Epictetus means "acquired.". He was not so different from his master, a freedman who was a secretary to Nero. Consider how different this is from the situation of the slave in the antebellum South. The racial divide helped make it possible to dehumanize slaves, and the rules provided few legal protections to them from the whims of their masters. As recently as 1968, the striking Selma, Alabama, sanitation workers carried signs saying "I am a man." History can change quickly, but culture changes slowly.

There was a contradiction in Locke's philosophy and his own life. He taught that we are born owning ourselves, but he was a shareholder in the Royal African Company, which bought slaves in Africa and sold them in the new world, and wrote a constitution for Carolina that gave slaveholders complete power over their slaves.

That conflict still reverberates in our society. The Republican Party, which started out as the Northern, abolitionist party, but because it was the Northern party, also became the party of industrialists and financiers, has now dropped its northern liberal wing and joined the business interests to the people who used to be represented by Dixicrats. And the argument that freedom to dispose of your property however you will is the most basic freedom still rings true to the conservatives of the South. It's an argument the leading men of the secessionists states made forcefully in the various declarations of secession issued as the left the union.

Consider these words from the Georgia  Declaration of the Causes of Secession:

The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property, and by the use of their power in the Federal Government have striven to deprive us of an equal enjoyment of the common Territories of the Republic. This hostile policy of our confederates has been pursued with every circumstance of aggravation which could arouse the passions and excite the hatred of our people, and has placed the two sections of the Union for many years past in the condition of virtual civil war.

From the South Carolina Declaration of the Causes of Secession:

For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the *forms* [emphasis in the original] of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.
This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.

On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.

The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.
The cries of "constitution" and "property" were central to the grievances of the slave states. Even the claim that the North has tried to "arouse the passions and excite the hatred of our people" seems familiar to the modern ear, because these arguments are the language of the Tea Party.

Property is woven into our system of thought, our social order, and our language. It is not objects, or the desire for objects; those are conditions that call out for the institution of property.

Property is the system of rights, obligations and rules regarding the human use of things. One might say that it is the meaning and the grammar of desired objects. It encompasses a universe of categories of thought that make it possible for us to peaceably make and use things.

And, of course, meanings, and the rules governing how we use meanings together in discourse, originate in language. Language does not just express our thoughts, it makes  symbolic thought possible; one might even say, as Ferdinand de Saussure did, that language gives us the categories we use to think. The notion of property, and the rules of property, are not just expressed in language, they are based on language. Property is just one galaxy in the universe of meaning.

It is language that gives us the structure of though that makes the strange, symbolic world of humanity possible, and property is only one part of that world. Property cannot, therefore, be the basis for the social contract.

Language is a social enterprise. As de Saussure noted, we have signs -- the words we use to express meaning -- and the signed -- the meaning we express with the word. The signs are arbitrary. It does not matter whether a culture refers to a substance as eau or water, as long as all agree that the word used refers to the meaning of that wet stuff we like so well we have it piped right into the house.

Before symbolic thought can give us the concept and vocabulary of property, symbolic thought must exists, so language must come first. The most distinctive feature of human society, this weird web of meanings in which we live our lives, so unlike the world of other animals, is the thing which makes a society human. We do not form a society to protect our lives (even wolves do that) or to protect our property. We form a society to imbue the world with meaning.

The freedom to participate in that conversation, to have a say in what the world means, is the most basic freedom, and it belongs to anyone who possesses language. Locke persuaded us that we were born owning ourselves, even though it was not objectively true in his day, and in so doing, he changed the meaning of the lives of slaves and slave owners. We had presidents who owned slaves, that's how respectable the institution once was, but now consider slavery unspeakably evil.

That Locke could change the nature of property with language is a dead giveaway to the fact that property is a product of the system of meaning language gives us. It is a secret that has been laying in the laps of mankind for a century and a half, at least, invisible the way air is, because language is the symbolic world we live in.

The Selma strikers carried signs saying "I am a man" because they wanted to write the meaning of their own lives, rather than be told their lives were meaningless or have the meaning of their lives dictated to them. The were reaching for the most basic human freedom, to have a say in who they were.

Links for this series:

Rethinking liberal theory 1: Thomas Hobbes, blasphemer and patriot
Rethinking liberal theory 2: The outlaw John Locke, terrorist, liberal, and advocate of freedom
Rethinking liberal theory 3: A compact to protect property, or a conspiracy to create meaning?
Rethinking Liberal Theory 4: John Milton and the many shapes of truth
Rethinking Liberal Theory 5: Adam Smith, moral philosopher of the marketplace
Rethinking Liberal Theory 6: Mythmaking and manufacturing
Rethinking liberal theory 7: Hegel, the end of history, and the triumph of the liberal idea
Rethinking liberal theory 8: Liberalism and individualism: The invention of the Util and the way west
Rethinking liberal theory 9 Property and freedom: Why language is the basis for the social contract 
Rethinking Liberal theory 10: Physiocrats & mercantilists: The economic philosophies of the founding fathers
Rethinking Liberal Theory 11:Stateless income, global capital, and the death of empires
Rethinking Liberal Theory 12:Capitalism:So much more than market
Rethinking liberalism 13: What is money? 
Rethinking Liberalism 14: Tribalism and the emerging new world order
Rethinking liberalism 15: The poverty of neoconservative philosophy
Rethinking Liberalism 16: More on the poverty of neoconservative philosophy

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Rodney King is dead

by John MacBeath Watkins

Rodney King is dead at 47. His fiance heard a noise, saw him in the pool and called for help. Paramedics pulled him from the bottom of the pool and tried to revive him to no avail.

He still lived in Los Angeles, where video of police beating him result in a criminal trial of four LAPD officers. Their acquittal set off riots and finally changed policing in the city. (Two officers were later tried and convicted on federal charges.) Those riots killed 37 people and did more than $200 million in damage.

To my mind, the most remarkable moment in his story occurred when rioting had been going on for three days, and he came out of seclusion to make a statement.

"People, I just want to say, can we all get along? Can we get along?" he said. The man had nearly died, had been operated on for five hours after his beating, but he still had enough forgiveness in him to ask for peace. And he got it. The rioting ended. And watching him say that on television, I saw a different man than I had expected.

King was on parole for a robbery conviction, had been drinking in violation of his parole, and tried to flee police because he didn't want to go back to jail. That's what resulted in the cops catching him and beating him.

He was no angel, but in that moment when he asked for peace, he showed there was a good man in there trying to get out. He was close to tears in that statement, displaying empathy for the victims of the rioting. He was not so involved in his own troubles to imagine he was the only one suffering.

He sued the city and got $3.8 million, but he had more brushes with the law. He wrote a memoir, The Riot Within, about his life, his personal demons, his struggle with sobriety and the beating. He appeared on the reality show Celebrity Rehab, and Bob Forrest, the counselor who worked with him on the show, remembers him as "a wonderful, sweet man."

You don't expect a hard man, an ex-con and former robber, to be a sympathetic character in life's pageant, but there was a kind of redemption in King's life.

From the CNN story about his death:
King said earlier this year he has forgiven the officers who beat him.

"Yes, I've forgiven them, because I've been forgiven many times," he said. "My country's been good to me ... This country is my house, it's the only home I know, so I have to be able to forgive -- for the future, for the younger generation coming behind me, so ... they can understand it and if a situation like that happened again, they could deal with it a lot easier."

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Building a new boat

by John MacBeath Watkins

Today, Vashon Printing finally managed to output the full-scale prints of the panels of the boat I'm fixin' to build. I'm going to be building outdoors, so I'll be going slowly, on days when it's not raining, generally. I doubt I'll get much done before the Wooden Boat Festival the weekend of July 4. After that, the weather tends to dry out and I should have more time.

I've got an El Toro rig (the spars of which still need sanding and painting) which will power the boat. The boat will be narrow enough to put in the back of my compact pickup truck and 9 1/2 feet long. This is the shape of the hull:

I should be able to toss this in the back of the truck, go to my launching point, toss it in the water, plop the rig and rudder on it and go sailing. It will cost $80 less to take on the ferry than Black Swan on her trailer. I'm shooting for a weight of around 50 lb., and I can always use a hand truck or something to move the boat if I have to.

I'm not sure what I'll name the boat yet. Something small and clever. Elf would be dead easy to paint on the transom. It's cat rigged, so Meerkat is a possibility, as are any number of names related to the smaller real felines, such as Felix or Jellicle.

Meerkat was also the screen name of a departed internet friend.

More posts on this topic:

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Thank God For the Atomic Bomb: Fussell the Contrarian.

by Jamie Lutton

Paul Fussell  died a few days ago, and my business partner who writes most of the articles for this site suggested I write about him, because of what I owe my very existence to.

Fussell is renowned for writing Class and The Great War in Modern Memory, and I have read both of these books.  However, my personal connection is to his essay Thank God for the Atomic Bomb, which I think he wrote to upset people, by taking an unpopular point of view on the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. 

He got the title from William Manchester, a respected historian. In his book  Goodby Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War; he said:
After Biak the enemy withdrew to deep caverns. Rooting them out became a bloody business which reached its ultimate horrors in the last months of the war. You think of the lives which would have been lost in an invasion Japan’s home islands – a staggering number of  Americans but millions more of  Japanese – and you thank God for the Atomic Bomb.

Fussell was a veteran of World War II, and had knowledge of what was going on in the Chinese mainland before the atomic bombs were dropped. Thousands of people – Chinese, Japanese, and American civilians and solders were dying from direct combat or as civilian casualties. Allied casualties ran to 7,000 a week alone.   Eminent economic experts, like John Kenneth Galbraith, after the fact, deplored the dropping of the atomic bombs. He is an author and economist, who had served in FDR’s cabinet, in charge of controlling inflation during the war. He is an author I revere,  that I have rarely disagreed with; an important Keynesian who has written intelligently and well about American follies and economic fortunes. But here, he had no hands-on experience in the war.

The Hiroshima bomb made a cloud 11 m. high.
Fussell wrote “he’s  (Galbraith) not the only one to have forgotten, if he ever knew, the unspeakable savagery of the Pacific War.”  Fussell pointed out that Galbraith (and other contemporaries who deplored the use of the bomb) did not have boots on the ground military experience.  To put it bluntly, they had not carried a gun, slog though the mud and shoot people, over and over.  And had not had to face the fury of the Japanese Empire in the Pacific, which had had over five years to entrench themselves in China and other lands they occupied.

There was a lot of abuse of the Chinese population during the Japanese occupation alone.  In one city alone, Nanking, in a six week period in 1937, 250,000 to 300,000 civilians were massacred, some rounded up while alive and flung into mass graves and buried alive, bayoneted, etc. Infants and women were not spared.

Nanking was the capitol at this time of the Republic of China, so I imagine the Japanese wanted to absolutely control the country by destroying its capitol..  So, when preparing for the invasion of Japan, at the end of the war, the American military leaders knew that there would be heavy causalities on both the Japanese side and the American side. The Japanese government was blindly determined to sacrifice their own people and fight street to street to hold the Japanese mainland.  When the bomb was dropped on those two cities, the Japanese gave up.

I have some skin in this history.  My dad was in the group of Marines that would have landed on Japanese soil. 5’6” tall, weighing about 110 ten pounds, and not that adept with a rifle (as he said to me) he would have died in the invasion.

And I would not have been conceived, and would not be here now..

Paul Fussell is renowned for his book on World War I, The Great War in Modern Memory, and Class his amusing  and provocative book about the American class system he wrote in the 1980’s.   But it was this essay that he shows his contrarian genius. I suggest anyone reading about the war in the Pacific in World War II read this essay.   It is easy nowadays to deplore dropping the bomb.  The real villain here is ideology.  Evil ideology led the Japanese to invade their neighbors and murder them wholesale. Evil ideology led the Nazis to murder their non-Aryan citizens and their neighbors, the Slavs, etc.

First, the evil ideology is formed, then violence ensues. Both nations' ruling elites wanted to occupy oil fields to fuel their empires. It is, after all, cheaper to own oilfields than pay for oil – and establish ‘colonies’ for their ‘superior race’ were willing to murder millions of civilians who stood in their way.

We must be alert when evil ideologies arise, and combat them with reason and knowledge.

As important his Fussell’s other books are, and certainly better known and more widely read than this essay, this is the writing of Fussell’s that I remember most vividly. But after all, I have skin in the game:  My own life.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The shrinking conservative tent and the left foot of fellowship

by John MacBeath Watkins

Joe Dupree recently posted this on the WoodenBoat forum:

I used to be a conservative, and never really thought much about it, and pretty much always voted Republican. Somewhere along the line, probably before I actually started reading the WBF, (way back in the days of the old Kingdom of Miscellaneous), I started to question what I believed about politics and religion and culture. There was a growing disconnect between what I was hearing from conservative leaders (political and religious), and what I was seeing them do. When the disconnect got too great, I had to separate myself from the conservative movement. Actually, I didn't really leave so much as I got the left foot of fellowship from them. It started in 1991 or thereabouts when the conservatives said me and my kids were not a 'real family' because we didn't have a mother in the picture. Then I wasn't even a real Republican any more, just a RINO. And before I knew it, Sarah Palin was saying that I wasn't even a 'real American'. I ain't the sharpest tool in the kit, but even I can tell when I'm not wanted. So, I left.
 The only quibble I have with this is, Joe is one of the sharper tools in the kit.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ray Bradbury dead at 91: Raise a glass of Dandilion Wine

by John MacBeath Watkins

Lift a glass of dandelion wine: Ray Bradbury is dead at 91.

“I don’t try to describe the future,” he once said. “I try to prevent it.”

Edgar Rice Burroughs gave us a Mars fit for a white man to come and seduce the princes. Bradbury gave us a Mars that made us think. Both versions of Mars were filmed. John Carter bombed at the domestic box office, although it set records as a hit in Russia, but it was bombastic, action-adventure imperialism that belonged to another age. The Martian Chronicles was arid and arid and intellectual by comparison, and a modest, low-budget television miniseries as well.

The fireman in Fahrenheit 451, Montag, was memorable to me not just for his reform from burning books but also for the wall-sized television sets and the sad people acting as if the shows were their lives, and treating their lives frivolously. His books had the complexity that the firemen in Fahrenheit 451 found so dangerous in literature. In his dystopian future, special-interest groups had objected to books that offended them, so authors tried to avoid offense, and all books began to seem the same, but that was not enough, books were dangerous, so they started burning them.

And of course, Fahrenheit 451 has been banned repeatedly, a circular joke that Bradbury must have marveled at.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Diamond Jubilee, divine right, and the rebel angels of the anglophone world

by John MacBeath Watkins

If sovereigns rule by divine right, Americans are the rebel angels of the anglophone world.

Britain's other colonies evolved toward independence, while our leaders decided they would rather reign in America than serve in the British Empire. We are the anglophone country, as a consequence, that was never part of the British Commonwealth: We were cast from that particular heaven.

Yet we cannot get enough of royalty. The Queen Mum and all of Britain are celebrating her Diamond Jubilee, which should mean almost nothing to us, and it certainly does mean less here than there, but it gets plenty of coverage never the less.

Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, arrival at St. Paul's
Part of the reason is that the special relationship between America and the United Kingdom is more than just a political alliance. As a bookseller, I can assure you that Americans read British history as avidly as their own. It is nearly impossible to sell Canadian history, even though it happened on our doorstep, and there's far less interest in Santa Anna than in Henry VIII or his daughter, Elizabeth, even though Antonio López de Santa Anna lost half of Mexico to America when he took his country into war with us.

Part of the issue is that the history of Britain is the history of Americans prior to the founding of America. Even those who have no British ancestors understand that there is a cultural continuity that ties us to them.

And part of the fascination with the British royalty has to do with our own lack of royalty. Thomas Paine may have been right, we're better off without them, but they do seem to fulfill an emotional need. There is a sovereign-sized hole in the American psyche, which we have tried to fill with the occasional Kennedy or Reagan. Part of the reason conservatives have derided President Obama as "the chosen one" is that they fear him becoming one of those.

But when royals rule as well as reign, it doesn't take long for the bad king problem to come up. You may get many good kings, but the selection process is about heredity rather than competence, which means you will eventually get a bad king, and will have great difficulty getting rid of the fool.

Having a monarch whose duties are purely symbolic allows the British to have a symbol of the nation's magnificence without actually screwing up the country. In America, we give this role mainly to presidents who are safely dead, and can make no more mistakes. Instead of a monarch sitting on a throne, we have the Lincoln Memorial. People may admire the symbol and revere their nation without being obsequious to a living person.

It's a good system, but the Queen gives a warmth to the symbolic life of the nation that no dead president can. And besides, what point would there be in sending a dead president a lamprey pie?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Love by the book

Happy Lovers by.Jean-Honore Fragonard, approximately 1760.

by John MacBeath Watkins

Let's love each other by the book
and by the film and by the play
We'll skip the sly come-hither look;
such romances are concluded in a day

Instead we'll meet, and bicker, and fight
and regret that we drive each other away
I'll wear black, and you'll wear white
and your disapproving father will be gray

I'll be the professor, bewildered and amusingly enraged
and you will be my manic pixie dream girl
My severe fiance will become estranged
as I'm drawn into your disorienting whirl

We'll argue 'til we're laughing, struggle 'til we're man and wife
and rather strangely burst out into song
One alternative is drama, poison and the knife
and final scenes that always last too long.

Or I can be the rebel that only you can change
arriving out of nowhere on my
motorcycle/space ship/stallion on the range
and you'll be lovely, innocent, and shy

You will save me from myself and I
will save you from a most unlikely danger
and our audience will be transfixed, and cry
about the girl next door and the taciturn stranger

More love poetry: