Google analytics

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The past is a foreign country

by Jamie Lutton

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there," wrote L.P. Hartly. It is the first sentence in his novel The Go-Between, published in 1953.

I noticed one of my favorite history reference books is going to be re-released in a few months in a revised edition: The Past Is a Foreign Country by David Lowenthal, published in 1999 by Cambridge University Press 0521294800. 

I was not a history major in college, but I enjoy reading history books. I found this book to be valuable as a reference when reading other historians or archeologists, as a reference and a guide to 'the past' as we know it.

This sizable history book makes a great case that we misunderstand and misinterpret  the past, due to our prejudices and lack of complete knowledge, which is lost to us forever.
The author distinguishes between the past that is utterly lost to us, and 'the past' we recreate from our own prejudices to suit our own needs, as we examine the buildings, landscapes, and books left behind. When we try to recreate the past, either in history books, or interpenetration of ancient cultures, or by 'restoring' buildings built a few decades or a few Milllena ago, we usually get major details quite wrong, or 'interpret' cultures as being 'decadent' or 'advanced' according to our prejudices at the time.
This book is encyclopedic in scope, and is crammed with opinionated information .It is good first book for the amateur interested in the field of both history, and memory, and the flaws in both.
The first thing the author points out is that perception of 'the past' as a different sort of time came about in West in the Enlightenment in the 18th century , when intellectuals began to differentiate the present from the past, and to see it as a different sort of place; that real changes had occurred.
The book seizes the reader in the first chapter with a discussion of the reconstruction of the Parthenon in the 19th century,and all the egregious errors that were made at that time that are clear seen as wrong now, as we know more about the Classical Athenians.
I was excited when I saw this book was going to be issued, for the practical reason that the older edition will drop in price for the casual reader,  (It is now well over $10, and scarce locally used) and that the newer edition will have expanded ideas and new insights from the author. I liked this book so much that 12 years ago, I bought 5 copies new to give as presents to  everyone in my family who liked to read history for pleasure.
Either by picking up the new edition, or by picking up a (soon to be cheaper) copy of the old one, this book would make a fine present for a history buff, or for someones' permanent history library.
Another book not to be missed is Pronouncing Shakespeare - the Globe Experiment by David Crystal, also published in 1999. It is an account of the production of a performance of the play Twelfth Night, done in the original dialect of the early 17th century. 

This book is exciting;  like The Past is a Foreign Country it discusses how difficult it is to reconstruct just what that London dialect of the time was like.

When we read Shakespeare's works aloud, no modern performer, either English or American sound like actors from this time. The accent  of the early 17th century seems to sound at a little bit like a West Virginian American accent, which is linguistically directly descended from early colonists from England. though an Australian who heard the production thought it sounded 'cod-Irish with some 'west country' mixed in, which may be much the same thing.   This dialect of Shakespeare's and his contemporaries is separated from us not be geographic distance, but time, and is very hard for untrained ears to understand. 
This book makes the rediscovery and reconstruction of this accent exciting; as many wish to hear Shakespeare as he wrote it, in the precise dialect of the time. This book is in the form of a journal of the production, with thie linguistic part lucidly written for the beginner.
Certain passages make more 'sense' in the original dialect, the ryming and puns are more lucid.

For example, Shakespeare in the 17th gets a little dirty in  the play As You Like It, because 'hour' used be pronounced to sound like 'whore'.. The pronunciation has changed, and the pun is lost completely, leaving the reader to wonder what the cause was for laughter, or what the "tale" was that hung.


(the fool)
Says very wisely, 'It is ten o'clock:
Thus we may see,' quoth he, 'how the world wags:
'Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more 'twill be eleven;
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale.' When I did hear
The motley fool thus moral on the time,
My lungs began to crow like chanticleer,
That fools should be so deep-contemplative,
And I did laugh sans intermission.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Putin, Obama, and American Exceptionalism

by John MacBeath Watkins

In his recent Op-Ed, Vladimir Putin criticized President Barack Obama for using the term "American exceptionalism."

He wrote:
My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.
This is a bit ironic, because one of the things President Obama has been accused of in the past is not believing in American exceptionalism. But I think we may take it that a former KGB man knows the excesses that can come from encouraging people to see themselves as exceptional. After all, look at all the lives lost in the purges and famines of Russia's Communist history, because people thought they had a moral mission. But Putin is overlooking the difference between the way Obama uses the term and the way his domestic opponents do.


When a term moves from the halls of academe and the depths of the think tanks into the political sphere, it tends to be transformed, and this has certainly happened to the term "American exceptionalism."

In my misspent youth, I did a BA and an MA in political science, in which I ran across the term in its original meaning. The term springs from a 1929 conversation American Communist leader Jay Lovestone had with Joseph Stalin, in which he informed Stalin that American workers were not interested in rising up against the capitalists, because America lacked a true class system.

Stalin demanded that he end this "heresy of American exceptionalism." He ridiculed America as abnormal, but non-Marxist American political thinkers were delighted with the term.


The term gained currency in academic circles as shorthand for the curious fact that unlike European nations, America had no strong socialist movement. Communists were intent on proving it wasn't so, but their failure, even in the 1930s, to make much progress toward building a Communist movement in the U.S. seemed to vindicate the idea that America is different, and sociologists and political scientists studied why this was the case.

This is why, when the Washington Post did a story on the meaning of the term, the sources reporter Karen Tumulty contacted referred her to the work of Seymour Martin Lipset. You might say he wrote the book on American exceptionalism, and that book is American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword.

Lipset said it  “can be described in five words: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez faire.” But he saw it as having potential for excesses, such as an emphasis on individualism that fosters a contempt for the weak, an emphasis on achievement that can lead people into crime if they are denied advancement by legal means, and a distrust of collective enterprises such as government.

Lipset is perhaps best known for his theory of modernization, which says that economic and technological advancement leads to democracy, so it might be said he actually believed that the rest of the world would become more like America, and "exceptional" in the same way.

What Lipset and other academics did not take the term to mean is that America is "exceptionaly great." Yet if you Google "America exceptional greatness" the first thing that comes up is the Amazon listing for Newt Gingrich's book, A Nation Like No Other.

Gingrich, who worked as a history professor at West Georgia College until the school denied him tenure, is aware of the academic meaning of the term. From the blub in that listing:
Our nation is exceptional, continues Newt, because we—unlike any nation before or since—are united by the belief and the promise that no king, no government, no ruling class has the power to infringe upon the rights of the individual. And when such a government attempts to do so, we will vigorously reject them.
We see here both the acknowledgement of the accepted meaning of the term, in his bow to the issue of class, and an emphasis on the individual, showing that he is wielding the other edge of the sword.

At a South Carolina forum in September, 2011, Gingrich said, "What makes American exceptionalism different is that we are the only people I know of in history to say power comes directly from God to each one of you. You are personally sovereign. So you're always a citizen, never a subject,"

The notion of the sovereign citizen is beloved of the far, far, far, and further right. It is incoherent in the theory of society our nation is based on, which says that you need the sovereign -- the authority of the state -- so that your rights will be protected from infringement by those stronger than you.

Prior to the 2012 election, a Republican friend informed me that it would be an election about national greatness, which explains why Republican politicians were so intent on talking about American exceptionalism. They like the sound of the words, which when you first hear it out of context sound like you are saying "America is exceptional!"


Gingrich, who in 2011 dreamed that he might become president, and his wife Callista, also appeared in a film they produced, A City Upon a Hill: The Spirit of American Exceptionalism.

You see, in 2009, President Obama was traveling in France when a reporter asked if he subscribed to American exceptionalism. The first part of his answer is often quoted by conservatives:
“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
Oh, they said, so you don't think we're better than everyone else?

The second part is more nuanced:
“We have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional…. I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we can’t solve these problems alone.”
Remember, he was in Europe when he answered this question. Aside from the fact that based on his career, what he said is apparently what he believes, how well would it have gone over if he'd said, "Hoo Yeah! America is exceptionally great!"

The nuance was needed so that he could demonstrate that the American exceptionalism he believes in is not mere jingoism. It is also consistent with his statement in his Syria speech that America has a moral imperative to act for justice even when its interests are not directly threatened.




Monday, September 23, 2013

It was oil, not Reagan, that brought down the Soviet Union

by John MacBeath Watkins

One of the enduring myths in our history is that Ronald Reagan won the Cold War by starting a huge military buildup that  the Soviet Union couldn't match, causing their empire to collapse.

My own opinion is, the Soviets started their buildup well before we started ours, and accelerated the buildup when they went to war in Afghanistan. They pissed off Saudi Arabia, and their empire collapsed when the Saudis dropped the price of oil.

First, I refer you to this chart comparing Soviet and American defense spending:


The Soviet buildup clearly preceded the American one, and had flattened out before the American buildup equaled theirs. It remained at about the same level until the end of the Afghan war, then fell like a stone.

The Soviet deployment in the Afghan war started in 1979. In 1985, Saudi Arabia stepped up oil production, and from the early 1970s on, the North Sea oil was coming on line. These factors produced shocks to the price of oil:

Now, the Soviet Union earned much of its hard currency with oil exports, but it had a lot of heavy industry, and was capable of producing lots of stuff. We should keep in mind that economic sanctions, if they are effective, often take a long time to be effective. A country can endure a great deal as long as it produces enough to eat, or as North Korea has shown, even if it doesn't, provided the regime makes sure the people see no alternative to enduring it.

But however much stuff the Soviet Union could produce, it could not efficiently predict or fulfill the needs of customers, which goes a long way to explaining this chart:

Mikhail Gorbachev managed a sharp increase in GDP, but the economy was still not earning enough foreign exchange, and the problem was made worse by a farm sector that was not producing enough food to feed the nation. This meant that what foreign exchange the country had was needed for buying grain.

I should point out that this theory is not my own invention. Yegor Gaidar wrote a very well-researched paper for the American Enterprise Institute in 2007, which I recommend you read. From Gaidar's paper:


The timeline of the collapse of the Soviet Union can be traced to September 13, 1985. On this date, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the minister of oil of Saudi Arabia, declared that the monarchy had decided to alter its oil policy radically. The Saudis stopped protecting oil prices, and Saudi Arabia quickly regained its share in the world market. During the next six months, oil production in Saudi Arabia increased fourfold, while oil prices collapsed by approximately the same amount in real terms.
As a result, the Soviet Union lost approximately $20 billion per year, money without which the country simply could not survive.
Which meant they had to go looking for loans from countries that were capable of producing things the world wanted, like food. Gaidar again:

Government-to-government loans were bound to come with a number of rigid conditions. For instance, if the Soviet military crushed Solidarity Party demonstrations in Warsaw, the Soviet Union would not have received the desperately needed $100 billion from the West. The Socialist bloc was stable when the Soviet Union had the prerogative to use as much force as necessary to reestablish control, as previously demonstrated in Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. But in 1989 the Polish elites understood that Soviet tanks would not be used to defend the communist government.
This was not acceptable to the hardliners in the Kremlin, who staged a coup in August, 1991. Within three days, it became apparent that the plotters had no plan to make grain appear or control the empire. In a matter of weeks, the Soviet Empire ceased to exist, because it could not use sufficient force to retain control and still feed the people well enough to avoid a popular uprising.

This is a very different story about the fall of the Soviet Union than the one that persists in the minds of many Americans. In it, the American buildup was reactive, not preemptive, and the Soviet Union could not afford to continue, not because it couldn't afford the military buildup -- money it owed itself, in that the defense industry belonged to the government -- but because it could not afford food. The Saudi decision to let the price of oil fall to half what it had been bankrupted them, not the Reagan buildup. The price of oil went from about $42 when the Saudis mad their decision, to as little as $9.75, and stayed around $20 a barrel for years.

In this narrative, a productive farm sector, sound finances, and good relations with other countries were the basis for America coming out on top. Reagan contributed little to these, and his military buildup and tax cuts actually increased our debt and reduced our solvency, though fortunately not enough to cripple us.

This is a lesson in the perils of an aggressive foreign policy -- invading Afghanistan had as much as anything to do with Saudi decision to open the spigot, though there were certainly other factors.

This is also a lesson that a sound economy is essential to the strength of the nation. And that had to do with America having some of the most scientific farming in the world, and with the flexibility of a market economy.

It also tells us something about empire. The Soviet empire was not economically rational, and was a drain on the dominant country. It's my belief that in general, attempts by one country to militarily dominate an unwilling foreign population, in our modern age of global capital and stateless income, simply will not pay off.

When budget cuts cost lives

by John MacBeath Watkins

When Aaron Alexis shot an killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard Sept. 16 before he himself was shot, the Yard had about half as many people working security as it should have.

This should shock you, but we're all so jaded from watching politics at this point, it probably won't.

From a CBS story reported by David Valcourt:
Inside the building, security had been contracted out to a private company. Outside, the closest sworn police officers were the Navy District Washington Police, or NDW police—charged with manning the entrance gates and patrolling the Navy Yard.

“More lives possibly could have been saved if we had the appropriate amount of manpower,” said Anthony Meely, Chairman, Fraternal Order of Police Navy District Washington Labor Committee.

Meely is with the Fraternal Order of Police union that represents the Navy District Washington Police. He says budget cuts from the sequester and from the base realignment have come at a price.

Meely: “There was not enough staffing.”

Valcourt: “How many people were there?”

Meely: “There was only seven on staff, sir.”

Valcourt: “How many should there be?”

Meely: “There should be, at minimum, 11. At appropriate levels, beyond minimum is 15.”
He says with more NDW police on duty, officers could have responded even faster.


The  Washington, D.C. mayor, Vincent Gray, says the sequester may have been part of the cause of the understaffed security situation, and budget cuts also caused the Navy to give the job of vetting people for security clearances to the company that also vatted Edward Snowden, who leaked an unprecedented number of NSA documents.

 Aaron Alexis had a checkered past and mental health problems. When he lived in Seattle, he shot out all four tires of a construction worker's car in what he described as a blackout caused by anger. Seattle authorities have yet to explain why he was never prosecuted for this.

The Tea Party spin on this story explains that President Obama is to blame, under the headline, "Did Obama’s Sequester Cause Navy Yard Shootings?"

Because, you know, the president is always to blame when Congress can't do its job. And now, they want to extend the sequester level of spending.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Why do we need myths?

by John MacBeath Watkins

Why do we need myths?

As we discussed in this post, in my opinion we developed a feeling that things had an existence beyond their physical existence when we invented the weird, symbolic world of language. If Julian Jaynes is right, we may have lived for untold millennia under a system of myth that told us how to act prior to our developing that metaphorical space in our heads he termed "consciousness."

But we now have that awareness of self, and we are very conscious of our reason. So why are we still fascinated by myth, religion, and made-up narratives such as fiction?

Well, for one thing, I have to wonder to what extent we are really reasonable creatures, and to what extent we are creatures who justify what we choose to believe with reason, rather than arriving at what we believe through reason.

After all, there is an entire order of the Catholic church, the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, who are famous for their ability to argue in favor of church doctrine regardless of what it may be.

In the 16th century Ignatius of Loyola said, "That we may be altogether of the same mind and in conformity [...], if [the Church] shall have defined anything to be black which to our eyes appears to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black."[2]

And they have done so ever since. Jesuits are committed to education and research, and are some of the best-trained intellects Catholicism has to offer, but their conclusions most often precede their logic.

And before we blame them for this, let me say, they are not alone. Logic appears to combine our problem-solving abilities with language, but I'd be hard pressed to justify the claim that we use logic more often to find truth than to defend what we already believe. It can be done, and I try to do it as often as I can, but I must always be aware of the trap of using logic only to justify what we already believe.

Which, of course, means we must arrive at many of our beliefs by other means, and those means are a mystery wrapped in myths, traditions, and the very structure of our language and culture. Many of our beliefs are formed in our unconscious, and only later justified in our conscious minds.

This is not the sort of hallucinatory hive mind Jaynes described, but I suppose you could say it is what's left of that system of human organization. Jaynes titled his seminal work The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Consciousness may, if he's right, only be about three millennium old, but the unconscious is much older, and did not cease to exist when the self-conscious mind appeared.

It is so old, in fact, that Carl Jung thought we must be born with a collective unconscious featuring a pantheon of archetypes. Wikipedia does a nice summation of this part of Jung's theory:

For Jung, “My thesis then, is as follows: in addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents.”[1]
Jung linked the collective unconscious to 'what Freud called "archaic remnants" - mental forms whose presence cannot be explained by anything in the individual's own life and which seem to be aboriginal, innate, and inherited shapes of the human mind'.[2]
I can see no justification for his claim that archetypes are "innate."  I believe everyone who carries with them the archetypes has learned language, and been told stories. The language and literature of a culture contain the archetypes, and to fit into the collective unconscious of your society, you must learn them. They are memes, strings of self-replicating information that are a large part of what our minds consist of.

Every culture has tricksters, whether it's the devil, or fox, or Pan, or raven, or coyote. Many have stories of the flood. There is a Chinese version of Cinderella as well as a European one (actually, several of each.)

Even if we don't learn the folk tales, we find the archetypes in words like hero, villain, shepherd or king. We learn to associate animals with narratives of their archetypes -- the loyal dog, clever and tricky fox, sensual cat, timid mouse, alarmist chicken. The archetypes are both derived from their behavior and imposed by our need for the images that populate the narrative our our lives.

While that narrative may be spoken by the conscious mind, to a great extent it springs from the unconscious. We do our best to explain our feelings when called upon to do so, and often our feelings are an emotional reaction to a rational conclusion, but even more often, they are irrational or pre-rational, the ways we react before we think.

The collective unconscious is essentially conservative. When Edmund Burke outlined what has become known as organic conservatism, he said that the feelings we carry are a better guide to life than reason. From Reflections on the Revolution in France:

"You see, Sir, that in this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess, that we are generally men of untaught feelings; that instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree, and, to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them. We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages."
Those "untaught feelings" are still cherished by conservatives, who liked George W. Bush's gut reactions better than the cool reason of President Obama, pretty much regardless of results. And I must admit, I do distrust the cold reason of the libertarians, much as I distrusted the cold reason of the Communists when they had not yet become discredited. I cannot trust the intellectual vanguard to guide us any better than the cherished prejudice of the anti-intellectual rear guard.

But in my view, there is little doubt that we must know those untaught feelings and partake in the collective unconscious in order to integrate ourselves in society. I must confess, I'm often socially awkward, in part, no doubt, because I've not learned the untaught feelings as well as the socially graceful. I may be a social gooney bird rather than a social swan, but I understand the value of social grace.

But to be a part of the collective unconscious without soaring above it, and looking on with cool reason while apart from it, is to trap yourself in an unchanging society that cannot adapt. It is this need for reflection and invention, for new solutions to new problems, that Jaynes claims led to the origin of consciousness.

Those archaic remnants that make up the collective unconscious are part of what makes us human, but the ability to stand apart and examine ourselves is what enables us to adapt to new circumstances.

After all, the collective unconscious does not say the same thing to all of us. To the Trojan king Paris, presumably the voices in his head whispered, "take the hot chick, what could go wrong?"

But when the gods spoke to Agamemnon, they said something rather different. And the inability of either man to step outside of the strange, symbolic world of the collective unconscious meant that Troy must either be destroyed, or Agamemnon's  orders from Zeus must be proved false.

The gods no longer tell us what to do. Not everyone is happy with this. There are those who for their whole lives pursue the dream that the bush will burn for them, the angel will wrestle them, and they will know God in a way we haven't since the time of the prophets. They have my sympathy, though I think they pursue something no longer on the horizon, because our minds have changed so much. Most of us are not ready to even try to do away with the myths that make up so much of what we are.


The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

1
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/06/to-read-is-to-become-stolen-child.html
2
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/03/on-disenchantment-of-world.html
3
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/02/blue-man-speaks-of-octopus-ink-and-all.html
4
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/05/bicameral-mind-and-strangeness-of-being.html
5
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/05/structure-of-thought-and-death-of.html
6
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/11/ane-how-will-our-minds-be-rewired-this.html
7
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/07/sex-death-and-selfish-meme.html
8
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/10/what-is-soul-of-man_10.html
9
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/11/stories-language-parasites-and-recent.html
10
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/god-language-and-structure-of-society.html
11
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/be-careful-who-you-are-more-on.html
12
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-strangeness-of-being-weird.html
13
Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
 14
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/03/night-of-unread-do-we-need-ethnography.html
15
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/03/when-books-become-part-of-you.html
16
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/drunk-on-milk-of-paradise-spell-of.html
17
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-power-of-forbidden-words-and.html
18
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/so-like-filler-words-you-know-they-uh.html
19
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
20
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
21
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
22 
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
23 
Why do we need myths?  
24 
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone
25 
"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word




Sunday, September 15, 2013

Pricing books at the Ballard store


Pricing is a bit of a challenge, but we've got enough stock to open. I was pricing books in this position when Jamie decided it needed to be documented, but those pix didn't come out, so I got a job applicant named Candace to take the picture with the flash engaged. 

It looks like we'll be opening in early October. Still can't put the shelves up, but when we do, we'll have books ready for the shelves immediately.

johnw

Friday, September 13, 2013

Where I live now, but not much longer

A view from the ferry, returning last night from pricing books in Seattle. Soon, I'll have to move into town to mind the new shop.

That's the Cascade mountains in the background with the sun shining on one last peak before it sets.

John MacBeath Watkins

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

John W. Campbell, icon of science fiction

by Jamie Lutton


Fredrich Pohl died a few days ago, at age 94. He was one of the very last of the writers from the Golden Age of Science Fiction. He had even been Isaac Asimov's literary agent. 


This fact caused me to remember the editor who created science fiction as we know it, John W. Campbell the editor of Astounding Science Fiction, later called Analog. He was the editor from 1937-38, when he gradually took over the post, till 1971.

I had always vaguely hero-worshiped him since I was a young teenager. I had access to my Dad's and older brother's science fiction magazine and book collection, and had plowed through years and years of issues of Analog from the 1960's and 1970's. 

I had read editorials he wrote during the Viet Nam war, and I had known he had supported it. I also knew he supported smoking; thought it had to be good for you somehow. I paid little attention to this; I was familiar with the state of denial smokers got themselves into. My parents both chain-smoked inside, in grocery stores, in the car. I once tried to get my Mother to quit for a few weeks, working on her, till she turned to me and drawled 'Jamie, just how long did you really want me to live?"

And I knew many reasonable people supported the war in Vietnam, I lived as a teen in a small town filled with Republicans in Eastern Washington.. I had been raised, however, by staunchly liberal parents.

 Both my parents vocally supported the Civil Rights movement. My mother had supported Shirley Chisom's candidacy for president in 1970; she was a black congresswoman from new york. 

So I assumed all adults who were good, smart readers \were liberals, who believed blacks (and women) had been treated unjustly, and that the new changes that were being struggled for. civil rights, women's rights was a very good thing.

After his death, everyone praised his brilliant work as an editor. He single handily developed the standards and concepts of the Golden Age of Science fiction.

He instructed contributors to throw out the cliche's of the field, and insisted that his writers know science, and know people. He refused to publish the 'garbage' that passed for science fiction in the past. The carnage in the field was compared to the upheaval in Hollywood when talkies replaced silents;. He often would show writers art for covers he had already bought, and the author had to create stories to match.

He would give story ideas to writers, and ask them to flesh them out.
Many inventions that later came to be were predicted in Astounding Science Fiction - the Moon landing, satellites, advances in computers, etc.
One story published in 1944, one year before the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, Campbell worked on a story with Clive Cartmill, Deadline, that described the basics on how to build an Atomic Bomb. Campbell read the extant papers available on the subject for the story. 

The FBI descended on his office, demanding he retract the issue and pull it from the newsstands. Campbell rightly pointed out that this would alert everyone that the US was on the verge of building an atomic bomb, and that it would be better to ignore the story.

However, as time went on in the 1950's, Campbell got interested in ESP, and asked for stories with 'psi' powers of various sorts in them - telepathy, precognition, even- teleportation, . The huge number of science fiction stories and books that had this theme can be blamed or credited to John Campbell. He also published the first Dianetics story by L. Ron Hubbard, claiming to be an adherent to this religion. 

Later on, in the early sixties, when the Civil Rights movement was heating up, he alienated nearly all his friends by claiming that slavery had been good for blacks, and that they had a herd mentality. He proposed these beliefs in a half-joking 'devil's advocate' fashion, making outrageous statements as fact about such matters. As he got older, most conversations with him became one-sided monologues. This was, I surmise, madness of a sort.

When he died, the new editor of Analog and his old friends chose to forget his excesses, and most of his outrageous beliefs were swept quietly forgotten. He had been a great editor, and he had helped put humans on the Moon, and the development of NASA. Because young people read Science Fiction that had plausible ideas and some good science, they looked up at night and dreamed of the going into space.
Shakespeare said 


"The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones." 
In this case, the great good John W. Campbell is what has survived. But I have dug up his evil to make a point. While all those young people were reading science fiction published by Campbell, they were also reading his editorial and absorbing his racist politics. His influence was pernicious.   Even today, older engineers tend to be more conservative and reactionary; Campbell was helped bring about some of our technical marvels and achievements, but sadly lived in the 19th century as far as human beings went. 

The future world of brave white men with cleft chins solving the world problems, striding into a future rather like the past did not happen. The science fiction that he published and pushed was curiously missing women and people who were not white. We live in a much more colorful, complex world than Campbell ever imagined.

I won't  hero-worship Campbell. anymore, even though I have fond memories of  reading two SF books a day, mostly Golden Age stuff that he had helped create. But I am appalled at his casual and ignorant racism; reading about his racist delusions made me quit liking him much.

Monday, September 9, 2013

What, me worry? The legacy of MAD magazine


by Jamie Lutton
A book fell into my hands a few days ago, which reminded me of   my gloriously wasted pre-teen years.

It was a MAD Magazine Bathroom Companion, a fat collection of classic MAD Magazine parodies, cartoons, which often comprised of over the top social commentary aimed at pre-teens.

MAD is often overlooked when writing about 20th century  writing for  pre-teens. It is not taken seriously; stuff written for at kids rarely is.  But this magazine, which self-identified itself cheerfully as pure trash and aimed at corrupting young minds, did more than any other magazine to undermine American adult's blind faith and unquestioning support  for the way things are. 

The generation that rose up and said "hell no" to Nixon and the Vietnam war, and cheerfuly chased Nixon out of the White House, was created by 7 to 14 year olds of both sexes buying, trading, hoarding and re-reading tattered copies of MAD magazine.
For fans of newspaper political cartoonists   you can see a parallel existence here, political cartoon and social satire aimed at children and young teens.  But the humor was not always 'easy', often making the young audience work a bit to follow the wit, the way it takes an adult a minute to get a good New Yorker cartoon.  
At its height, in the early '70s it had a circulation of over 2 million. Each issue of MAD had several different artists with wildly different styles attacking some American sacred cow, or current hit movie or TV series, or political figures. Some artists use no words at all, conveying the stories (often published in the margins of the magazine, like doodles) though funny images alone. It was always packed with social commentary framed so a bright 8 year old could follow the story; aimed at undermining all authority everywhere. 

We would not have had Saturday Night Live, or John Stewart, etc., without MAD.

The cover almost always has Alfred E. Newman on it, a cartoon of the same very  ugly red-headed freckled boy, often in the place of some poltical figure like the president, or a celebrity, lampooning them.

Nothing was sacred in the 1960's MAD -- not the pious  hippies, or strident revolutionaries nor their uptight whiskey drinking parents and teachers in suburbia.  Every issue attached some  American Sacred Cow. MAD also attacked LSD use and pot, as well as pill popping, whiskey and cigarettes. It had a curiously puritan edge. MAD's artists also were  clearly taking themselves seriously, maintaining excellent standards for the cartoons and humorous content,  while loudly in every issue calling itself 'junk'. 

This striving for quality has MAD at times  verging on genius, on art and true literature. As an adult, looking at the material, I can tell the cartoonists and editor slaved at making each story hilarious and biting.

For many many years, after it was properly launched, MAD would accept no advertising. The last few issues it would parody the ads it did have, so cleverly that the ads had to be labeled 'REAL ADS".   This was so they did not have to self-censor, to avoid offending advertisers. This allowed to attack nearly everyone and everything.

For many years MAD made money on circulation alone; an amazing feat.

If the magazine had any fault in it's golden years, was that it had only male writers, so the chance to skewer  the male point of view of the world was missed.  Also, the parody humor using gay stereotypes is jarringly out of date.  But old MAD magazines  rarely feel   overly crude.

And MAD won an important free speech case. In 1961, the publishers of Irving Berlin and other important composers sued MAD for $25 million for an issue titled Sing along with Mad that had wild parodies of famous songs. MAD won, paving the way for all the parodists that followed. 

One justice remarked ""We doubt that even so eminent a composer as plaintiff Irving Berlin should be permitted to claim a property interest in iambic pentameter."(Wikipedia).
Musicians like Weird Al Yankovic and others  were freed to parody modern  songs, musicals etc. The importance of this cannot be overstated. Cartoonists and playwrights don't have to self-censor so much, because MAD magazine's lawyers did the hard work for them, defending free speech for satire. 

I do know a case here in the Seattle theater scene where 20 years ago,  a marvelous parody-musical of first generation Star Trek. Called Star Drek, it was a clever parody of an old Star Trek episode, with a singing Spock being transformed into a woman. 

Leonard Nemoy came to the opening night, remarked that this show had a lot of original ideas; "Gene Roddenbury had never thought to put Spock in a dress," he said. I attended one night and had a wonderful time.

But my understanding is that Paramount threatened to sue this tiny production because of alleged copyright infringement, so this excellent musical survived only a few weeks.
The protection of free speech in parody is an important one. Sometimes even with this landmark decision,  productions can shut down when they get 'too close' to what they parody. 
I recommend then picking up a MAD collection from the 40 years ago or so, and give it a try.   
 Reading one page of an old MAD magazine is like eating one potato chip, savory but impossible to stop.
.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Ballard store update

by John MacBeath Watkins

It's been, as the Grateful Dead would say, a long, strange trip, but the opening of our store at 2001 Market St., Ballard,  is in sight.

Joel Radin, owner of Bauhaus Coffee and the fellow I'm subletting from, says he hopes to open on the 20th of this month, but isn't certain of it. The contractor in charge of the remodel is, understandably, concentrating on finishing the coffee shop first. Joel is paying him, after all, and I'm subletting.

I've been pricing my little heart out, thousands of books so far and thousands yet to go. I've got to organize the books in the basement, most of them priced, so that they can be easily placed on the shelves.

My hope is to be open by the beginning of October. It's going to be tough, in terms of money, in part  because I'm out of pocket a lot of money from becoming a cyborg, in part because, having spent a lifetime doing things I enjoy, I'm not a wealthy man. Much of my stock looks very good, some of it looks very weird, and I'm beginning to wonder if my University District experience has led me to stock overly intellectual books. Part of my preparation was to buy out the stock of Renaissance Books when the owner retired, and his area of concentration was intellectual history and 19th century studies.

I've got to move my on=line shop to Seattle, and my own self and my own library -- almost as many books as the on-line shop.

It's all a bit overwhelming.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A child's reading of Why Children Fail

by Jamie Lutton

An earnest young writer was putting together a collection of essays, and wanted a contribution.
 She asked me to write about a book that I knew had changed me.
All books change me. Sometimes, I will read a book, usually non-fiction, and I will run around telling anyone who will listen (usually customers) how good it is. Sometimes for weeks. I frequently have no copies of the book in question, but I like the book so much that that does not matter. But what was the first book?
The first book was the most important book, and it came to me when I needed it the most.
I read the book Why Children Fail, by John Holt, when I was a child, and stuck in a horrible life. I was failing fourth grade, and was the focus of a lot of adult attention - administrators, teachers, child psychologists. I had even been sedated and tested for epilepsy  I got angry a lot, and lashed out at other kids, and was the focus of bullying by other kids constantly (which was then not checked by administrators or teachers) 

None of the adults could really help me. They did not have a clue about my home life.  My Mother was a chameleon - a respectable reference librarian by day, an emotionally violent alcoholic by night.  She had the teachers all fooled about what my home life was alike. And my Dad, a smart, fun dad generally, did not do much to confront or control her.
One of the worst possible childhoods I could have, with an undiagnosed   bi-polar disorder plaguing me, was to have a mother who was a drunk.  This unfortunately happens a lot, as bi-polar runs in families, linked with alcoholism genetically.

This meant I had no idea what it was like to have any real happiness. Even when my home was pleasant (as it could be, when my mother was sober), my mind  was disordered.  Back in the day, when a child 'acted out', home-life was not factored in. And my mother was adequate at fooling teachers and psychologists.
I was already a good reader; my home was filled with books, as both my parents were great readers. I came across this book lying around my parent's house, and was of course intrigued by the title. 
I found John Holt to be astounding. I had never gotten .out of my own misery' before; suddenly (which happens with good writing) I was John Holt
I stepped through the Looking Glass that day, and was in the adult world, observing troubled unhappy kids, and with a compassionate eye.  And this was a new experience for me. I suddenly was out of my world, and in saw other children - troubled children. And most of all, my own troubles seemed as if they would have, someday, and end.
And they did, didn't they?
John Holt watched young kids in third and fourth grade or so attempt to solve math problems, and being frustrated in the attempt to the point of tears. He commented about the nature of an educational system that takes eager, happy kids and make them hate math and be frustrated by it, and end up being disconnected from school, enduring it like prison.

This book by John Holt is a first-person narrative, meant to be persuasive, written in a simple, open style. It seems to have been written for teachers as well as the general public, a book meant to open the eyes of teachers and parents to the unwitting damage they do..
One of my favorite accounts was him watching from a distance a 16 year old girl at a public picnic who had the mental age of 6 or so.

The child was sitting quietly, terrified of disobeying her parents, obviously trained to 'ape' a child of her own physical age by being very, very good and still. Holt eloquently described the look of strain and horror on her face, as she forced herself to be still, when she (obviously to Holt) wanted to run and play.
I, too, have been constrained by that terror. Bi-polar disorder drove me to have extra energy, to have steep mood swings. But my parents made clear that when I was 'good', I was sitting still and reading a book. That I was not to react to whatever Mother said or did, or what the kids at school said or did.  This was not a bad solution; unlike that mentally handicapped child, I could escape. I could quietly attempt to tune out the violent cacophony around me, day and night, at school and at home.

In the end, it is reading that saved me, and continues to save me.. In the face of all the violence. misery and cacophony in the world, a good book is a wonderful distraction and solace. . 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics

by John MacBeath Watkins

In this post we discussed Julian Jaynes's theory that consciousness, in the sense of a metaphorical space in your head that narrates your life, originated about 1,200 BCE. But what happened next?
  
The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, by Karen Armstrong, does not address Jaynes directly, but she is examining the ethical and religious response to the breakdown of the bicameral mind, in my opinion.   

Jaynes theorized that prior to 3,200 years ago, civilization functioned as a sort of hive mind, a shared hallucination that had evolved a way of life that worked if people followed the guidance of the gods. He further theorized that the part of the brain that generates hallucinations, which is now seldom used by anyone who is not schizophrenic, was active and integrated with the reasoning part of the brain in a left-right bond unlike the way our brains work now.

This worked very well in civilizations that changed slowly. By about the time the Odyssey was written, the world was changing too rapidly for this to work well, and people had to learn to think for themselves. Jaynes thought that this explained why the Illiad was all about people doing as the gods directed, and the Odyssey is about an individual adapting to changing circumstances.

But once people learned to think for themselves, the natural inclination was to think in terms of one's own self-interest.

So we find that the age of the breakdown of the bicameral mind was followed by what Karl Jaspers called the axial age, that pivotal time when prophets and philosophers as diverse as Jesus, Socrates, the Buddha, and Confucius taught the golden rule: Do not treat others in a way you do not wish to be treated.

This was a call for empathy and compassion, for seeing the word through the eyes of others as well as yourself. Prior to this era, you were simply required to follow the way the gods dictated, directed by voices in your head that could not be denied, according to the theory Jaynes propounded.

If Jaynes was right, there was no need for ethics during the time of the bicameral mind. Acting selfishly or failing to follow the customs or your society was, for most people, not really possible.

But in a rapidly changing world, customs did not always give guidance. Armstrong notes that the axial age was also the period when coinage was invented.

My theory about money is that it represents a favor owed, which can be claimed in the form the owner of the money desires -- meals prepared for you, new wheels for you chariot, or sex with a person of negotiable affection, for example.

Money made it possible to trade in these favors with strangers, and to accumulate favors in a form that would keep. Prior to money, you relied on the memory and custom of people you knew. If you gave someone grain, they would remember it, perhaps write it down, and that person would know who the grain came from and what its quality was.

Money made it possible to trade favors with strangers, to accumulate them in great quantity, and vastly increased opportunities to cheat. It also brought on new ethical questions, as the parable of the talents demonstrated; the master reaps where he does not sow.

This would have been a confusing world to people who had no framework for working out what they should do when the gods fall silent. In addition, there were questions in peoples' minds that could never have occurred to those functioning with a bicameral mind, questions about identity, and what one's life means.

This brought forth an age of thinkers, sages, and prophets. People were hungry for a chance to learn how to live when the gods fell silent and no longer directed their actions. In the bicameral era, all were part of a whole, in this new and unfamiliar world, individuals had to look for guidance outside their heads.

And the advice that struck a chord in many different societies was to show compassion and try to empathize with others. No doubt there were other ideas, like "every man for himself," but those did not lend themselves to long-term success for a society in the way the more compassionate philosophies and religions did.

Armstrong wants to bring us back to this philosophy of compassion and empathy. Here's a TED talk she did while writing The Great Transformation:




The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

1
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/06/to-read-is-to-become-stolen-child.html
2
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/03/on-disenchantment-of-world.html
3
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/02/blue-man-speaks-of-octopus-ink-and-all.html
4
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/05/bicameral-mind-and-strangeness-of-being.html
5
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/05/structure-of-thought-and-death-of.html
6
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/11/ane-how-will-our-minds-be-rewired-this.html
7
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/07/sex-death-and-selfish-meme.html
8
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/10/what-is-soul-of-man_10.html
9
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/11/stories-language-parasites-and-recent.html
10
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/god-language-and-structure-of-society.html
11
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/be-careful-who-you-are-more-on.html
12
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-strangeness-of-being-weird.html
13
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/night-of-unread-why-do-we-flee-from.html
 14
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/03/night-of-unread-do-we-need-ethnography.html
15
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/03/when-books-become-part-of-you.html
16
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/drunk-on-milk-of-paradise-spell-of.html
17
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-power-of-forbidden-words-and.html
18
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/so-like-filler-words-you-know-they-uh.html
19
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/by-john-macbeath-watkins-on-forum-i.html
20
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/07/spiritual-pluralism-and-fall-of-those.html
21
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/07/judging-book-by-its-author-fiction-is.html
22
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/09/what-to-do-when-gods-fall-silent-or.html
23
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/09/why-do-we-need-myths.html
24
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2010/03/love-belief-and-truth-we-know-alone.html
25
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2010/05/bohemians.html