Said and read – May 2018

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Like last month, I didn’t get as far this month as I’d have hoped. I was rushing to finish two school assignments to close out the term (and launch into the final thesis), which of course meant I was reading a lot of stuff about development/relief work while trying to come up with a plausible topic for a thesis. But there was some good reading during May, and here is the random collection of thoughts on that. In fact this really does not qualify as “thoughts” – it’s more of a list without any reflection (beyond what I did in my head).

You can also find out what I was liking, thinking, reading in April, March, February and January, if you’re curious.

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Thoughts on reading for May:

*FactfulnessHans Rosling et al

Ah, the late Hans Rosling gave us one last gift – this book that is so sorely needed in these times of factlessness. Some hope – the world is actually getting better. It’s just very hard to see. But the numbers, as much as they can be manipulated, do tell us a nicer story.

*The View From Flyover CountrySarah Kendzior

Sarah Kendzior has been one of the most “factful” and insightful voices of reason since the early days of Trump’s rise. For people who have no understand of middle America and how the Trump phenomenon came to be, Kendzior’s collection of essays puts it all into perspective

*Each Happiness Ringed by LionsJane Hirshfield

Poetry. Beautiful poetry.

*Skinned – Selected PoemsAntjie Krog

More poetry. I don’t think anyone who has ever read this blog imagines that I love anything more than I love poetry.

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Good – really good – but not necessarily great

*The Hummingbird’s DaughterLuis Alberto Urrea

When I started reading this one, I had no idea what to expect; it was a random library choice. It took a while to grow on me but I came to enjoy it a lot.

Without any connection to formal religion, I do feel bound to try for “the selfless practice of love, of good, of service” (as cited below). I am struck by those who claim to be “most religious” who have nothing but hatred and violence in their hearts, and have to dehumanize other groups of people to such a degree to be able to feel that way.

“For God,” she preached from her porch, “religions are nothing, signify nothing. Because positive religions are generally nothing more than words—words without feeling. Religions are practices that focus on the surface of things, that affect only the senses, but that fail to touch the soul, and fail to come from the soul. For that reason, these words and practices fail to reach our Father. What our Father wants from us is our emotions, our feelings. He demands pure love, and that love, that sentiment, is found only in the selfless practice of love, of good, of service.”

*Reporting Disasters: Famine, Aid, Politics and the Media  Suzanne Franks

Somewhat connected to my studies, I enjoyed reading about the way disasters and subsequent aid efforts are reported, what gets attention and what doesn’t and how mystifyingly complex it is.

“The configuration of aid, media pressure, NGOs and government policy today is still directly affected, and in some ways distorted, by what was—as this narrative reveals—also an inaccurate and misleading story. In popular memory the reporting of Ethiopia and the humanitarian intervention were a triumph of journalism and altruism. Yet alternative interpretations give a radically different picture: that the reporting was misleading and the resulting aid effort did more harm than good. This book explains the event within the wider context of international news broadcasting, especially by the BBC, and looks at the way it has influenced the reporting of humanitarian disasters in subsequent years.”

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Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*The CircleDave Eggers

This book made me sick – in that good way where you feel moved (whether in a positive or negative way). I was moved by that creepy, crawly disgust that comes over you when you’re sitting in a huge room full of brainwashed people. And you think, “My god, am I the only one who thinks we’re being indoctrinated into a cult?”

“There’s this new neediness—it pervades everything.”

“So many people who don’t want to be found but who will be. So many people who wanted no part of all this. That’s what’s new. There used to be the option of opting out. But now that’s over. Completion is the end. We’re closing the circle around everyone—it’s a totalitarian nightmare.”

*A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind – Siri Hustvedt

This was a difficult book to get through. Some of it was very engaging; some was difficult, but in the right frame of mind, it’s incredible. Perception and context, of course.

“Nevertheless, the larger point that may be extrapolated from Plassmann’s experiment and countless others, which often remains unsaid, is instructive: There is no pure sensation of anything, not in feeling pain, not in tasting wine, and not in looking at art. All of our perceptions are contextually coded, and that contextual coding does not remain outside us in the environment but becomes a psycho-physiological reality within us, which is why a famous name attached to a painting literally makes it look better.”

*The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual EconomyPeter Temin

A key analysis for our fraught times.

“A dual economy exists when there are two separate economic sectors within one country, divided by different levels of development, technology, and patterns of demand. This definition reflects the use of the Lewis model in the field of economic development, and I adapt it in this book to describe current conditions in the United States, the richest large country in the world. This is less paradoxical than it sounds because the political policies that grow out of our dual economy have made the United States appear more and more like a developing country.”

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Coincidences

*Eleanor Oliphant is Completely FineGail Honeyman

For the entire week before reading Eleanor, SD was overdosing on semi-recent episode of Law & Order: SVU because he wanted to watch one of his man-crushes (Raúl Esparza) in action. He was especially interested in finding out whether Esparza’s sartorially smart ADA Barba wore his vest (waistcoat in UK English parlance) properly, i.e. with the bottom button left unbuttoned). He was delighted to discover that the “sexy bastard” did indeed don his waistcoat exactly as prescribed.

One wouldn’t think that this kind of detail would surface again in the same week. But as it happens, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine was offered up to me after spending months on the library waiting list. I didn’t really have expectations and didn’t know what the book was about. It’s not exactly my normal reading fare, and I don’t have my finger on the beating pulse of contemporary popular fiction. I, in fact, knew nothing at all about it (except maybe that Reese Witherspoon had scooped up the film rights, which, yeah… tells me nothing about the book. Or maybe it does).

I started reading and almost immediately, the titular character echoes exactly the same things SD and I were just talking about:

But last night, I’d found the love of my life. When I saw him walk onstage, I just knew. He was wearing a very stylish hat, but that wasn’t what drew me in. No—I’m not that shallow. He was wearing a three-piece suit, with the bottom button of his waistcoat unfastened. A true gentleman leaves the bottom button unfastened, Mummy always said—it was one of the signs to look out for, signifying as it did a sophisticate, an elegant man of the appropriate class and social standing. His handsome face, his voice . . . here, at long last, was a man who could be described with some degree of certainty as ‘husband material.’

Indeed, a few pages later, one woman character called another “hen“, and I realized, to my surprise, that this book is Glaswegian through and through. SD is a Glaswegian (and I’m an ‘honorary’ one), and almost no one else (other than Scots in certain parts of Scotland) refers to women as “hen”.

SD and I stumbled across so many of these random coincidences – talking animatedly about some (often obscure) detail only to have it pop up again and again in the ensuing days. (Strangely, we had only the day before I read this discussed how Smirnoff vodka is not top-shelf stuff, and yet SD encountered a lot of customers when he worked in bars who turned their noses up at much nicer vodkas for some reason. And what happens in Eleanor? I had only intended to purchase two bottles of Glen’s, but the promotional offer on Smirnoff was remarkable. Oh, Mr. Tesco, I simply cannot resist your marvelous bargains. And that’s ultimately why I mention this book… the strange coincidences that overlap my own conversations and experiences. (The book, too, acknowledges the delight of such serendipities):

I shook my head, and was about to discard the newspaper when a small advertisement caught my eye. The Cuttings, it said, with a logo of a bullet train hurtling along a track. I noticed it because the answer to twelve across in yesterday’s crossword had been Shinkansen. Such small coincidences can pepper a life with interest.

But did I like the book? I love that its canvas is Glasgow without being painfully obvious like many books that make a show of being set in a specific place, going over the top with ‘local’ details, as though it’s necessary to prove the writer was there. I’m thinking here of Douglas Coupland‘s overreach for authenticity, for example, in Microserfs; some people find the level of detail engaging; locals reading his books will nod in agreement with the accuracy, but he always goes a little too far, right over the thin line of what is clever, coming across as artificial. In Coupland’s case, as in most cases, I find it smug. I feel a need for something more subtle – like Honeyman’s use of Glasgow).

The book, though… I have mixed feelings on the book itself and on how the character of Eleanor Oliphant comes across and develops. It’s not bad at all; perhaps it is just not quite my style. I can buy into the lack of self-awareness or lack of worldliness in which Eleanor has cocooned herself. But after spending more than half the book creating this well-meaning, but not pleasant and mostly deluded (or at best uninformed) character, I don’t quite understand how, seemingly suddenly about three-quarters of the way through the story, this awkward woman who plowed through the world following her own routines, saying everything that came into her mind and judging everyone harshly with little or no self-reflection, is questioning, self-aware, confronted by a moment of clarity about herself and her delusions.

I am not saying this is not possible, nor am I saying that there is not character development leading to this (Eleanor starts to change, slowly, seeing that the world is bigger and offers more possibilities than she had allowed herself to imagine. She becomes more social and starts to live, all the way through). But the suddenness of her being slapped in the face by reality does not feel earned or quite realistic. We might have gotten there at some point. But how does she go from blind and deluded certainty about something outlandish to instantly waking up to one’s complete disconnect from reality? Is the suddenness intentional? I don’t know.

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

Happily (!) I didn’t hate anything enough to include something in the ‘disappointment’ category.

Images by SD 2018

Frightening times: Tyranny

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“You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case.” -from On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder

“When anticipation of, and salivation over, the trickle of power sinks to the level of cruelty to helpless children, one is tempted to accept that all that is left to say is—nothing. The rest is silence. It is an admission that humanity has finally touched the peak of apprehension and the nadir of impotence.” -from Climate of Fear, Wole Soyinka

This is not the most coherent “essay” but I am overflowing with thoughts I don’t have the time or wherewithal to organize. I am thinking: What is terrorism? It is a form of tyranny – the uncertainty and fear created by unstable and unpredictable forces, among which, to my mind, the United States government/president can be counted at present. Anything that creates terror in or threatens a whole population or group.

Watching the new iteration of The Handmaid’s Tale, after having re-read the book a few weeks ago, I’m struck (as most people are) by the depiction of how easy it would be to end up with a society as extreme and dramatically transformed as that in the show/book. It would be not entirely different from what is happening in the US today. Make a few changes in society that anger people but don’t ultimately send a big enough alarm through the population – stage an attack, blame some false perpetrator, declare martial law and claim it’s only temporary. We’ve seen some version of this play out in countries we’ve widely regarded with dismay as “uncivilized” or “in need of American intervention”. Would Americans even be prepared, or would they, like in The Handmaid’s Tale, be meek, “Well, it’s only temporary…” and “Let’s wait and see…”? Incrementally it’s not so bad, it seems. After all, it’s only temporary, right? Surely someone else will do something about it. And by the time they felt the true violations of their individual sovereignty encroaching, it would already be too late. They’d try to protest but be met with violence against which they have no defense. Some would try to escape; many would wait too long and wonder why they had not gone sooner. Probably because these things never seem like they can happen. (Our real-life comparative equivalent being late 1930s/early 1940s Germany.)

As in The Handmaid’s Tale, a new order would soon exist, and people would wonder how they got there. Living in a bubble of ‘false safety’, as if nothing can go wrong, believing that democracy and its accompanying institutions are strong enough to withstand any onslaught, without guarding it closely, is how a society ends up here. As Yale professor Timothy Snyder writes in his recent book, On Tyranny:

“We tend to assume that institutions will automatically maintain themselves against even the most direct attacks.”

“The American abolitionist Wendell Phillips did in fact say that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” He added that “the manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten.””

Angling language

“Language is power. When you turn “torture” into “enhanced interrogation,” or murdered children into “collateral damage,” you break the power of language to convey meaning, to make us see, feel, and care. But it works both ways. You can use the power of words to bury meaning or to excavate it.” -from Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

“Be alert to the use of the words extremism and terrorism. Be alive to the fatal notions of emergency and exception. Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.” -from On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder

It is easy to make people believe what you want them to believe – especially if you are confirming their biases or existing suspicions, stoking their biggest fears. Someone like Donald Trump (and his proponents/adherents) can somehow play both sides of the same counterfeit coin: on one side, America is the greatest country in the world (it’s not); on the other, America is a hellscape of unemployment and ‘nothing good’ awaiting the historical inheritors of its greatness (hetero white men and, to some extent, women – who maybe in the minds of these people gain their ‘greatness’ by proxy through these men and the children to which they give birth). But you can’t honestly, fully believe both things at once: the country is the best but is also the worst? It’s not as simple as that, but it underlines the agenda of manipulating language to manipulate people. Especially people who aren’t generally all that analytical or looking at a broad range of sources for information. Seduced by hearing everything they’ve always wanted to hear, it doesn’t matter if it’s factual or honest. It makes them feel good/right/understood.

“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.” -from On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder

“The first mode is the open hostility to verifiable reality, which takes the form of presenting inventions and lies as if they were facts. The president does this at a high rate and at a fast pace. One attempt during the 2016 campaign to track his utterances found that 78 percent of his factual claims were false. This proportion is so high that it makes the correct assertions seem like unintended oversights on the path toward total fiction. Demeaning the world as it is begins the creation of a fictional counterworld. The second mode is shamanistic incantation.” -from On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder

Language of anger: Where we are now

Everyone is angry about something, and half of America, arguably, is angry about the way the most recent presidential election turned out. (Most of those, however, aren’t likely to react in a violent way, which is an interesting point.) Of course that is not all that is at stake. Essentially, the pervasive anger that marked the campaign, to which Trump and Bernie Sanders gave voice on either side of the aisle, is symptomatic of a populace that knows it lives under a completely broken system. The idea that either party or individual candidate could truly fix the ills of a fundamentally flawed system is also an illusion. I’d argue that this is what fuels the anger to the levels it has reached. Anger and fear, like that of an animal caught in a trap. The recent past has created a (false) sense of entitlement, envy and irrational hatred (ressentiment, as Pankaj Mishra writes about at length in his recent book, The Age of Anger).

“This bizarre indifference to a multifaceted past, the Cold War fixation with totalitarianism, and more West-versus-the-Rest thinking since 9/11 explains why our age of anger has provoked some absurdly extreme fear and bewilderment, summed up by the anonymous contributor to The New York Review of Books, who is convinced that the West cannot ‘ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS’. The malfunctioning of democratic institutions, economic crises, and the goading of aggrieved and fearful citizens into racist politics in Western Europe and America have now revealed how precarious and rare their post-1945 equilibrium was.” -from The Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra

The false sense of security – the cost of “freedom” – is never really calculated. Even if there were consensus as to what “freedom” actually means. It certainly means different things to different people.

But, as Tocqueville warned, ‘to live in freedom, one must grow used to a life full of agitation, change and danger’. Otherwise, one moves quickly from unlimited freedom to a craving for unlimited despotism. As he explained: When no authority exists in matters of religion, any more than in political matters, men soon become frightened in the face of unlimited independence. With everything in a perpetual state of agitation, they become anxious and fatigued. With the world of the intellect in universal flux, they want everything in the material realm, at least, to be firm and stable, and, unable to resume their former beliefs, they subject themselves to a master.” -from The Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra

Nothing new

“… ‘the tyranny of the quantifiable,’ of the way what can be measured almost always takes precedence over what cannot: private profit over public good; speed and efficiency over enjoyment and quality; the utilitarian over the mysteries and meanings that are of greater use to our survival and to more than our survival, to lives that have some purpose and value that survive beyond us to make a civilization worth having.” -from Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

“Rousseau understood ressentiment profoundly, even though he never used the word – Rousseau, the first outraged diagnostician of commercial society and of the wounds inflicted on human souls by the task of adjusting to its mimetic rivalries and tensions. Kierkegaard first used the term precisely in The Present Age (1846) to note that the nineteenth century was marked by a particular kind of envy, which is incited when people consider themselves as equals yet seek advantage over each other. He warned that unreflexive envy was ‘the negatively unifying principle’ of the new democratic ‘public’. Tocqueville had already noticed a surge in competition, envy and rivalry resulting from the democratic revolution of the United States. He worried that the New World’s ‘equality of conditions’, which concealed subtle forms of subjugation and unfreedom, would make for immoderate ambition, corrosive envy and chronic dissatisfaction. Too many people, he warned, were living a ‘sort of fancied equality’ despite the ‘actual inequality of their lives’. Having succumbed to an ‘erroneous notion’ that ‘an easy and unbounded career is open’ to their ambition, they were hedged in on all sides by pushy rivals. For the democratic revolutionaries, who had abolished ‘the privileges of some of their fellow-creatures which stood in their way’, had then plunged into ‘universal competition’.” -from The Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra

The future past

“We in ancient countries have our past—we obsess over the past. They, the Americans, have a dream: they feel nostalgia about the promise of the future.” –Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi

But this is not so now – there is a tug-of-war between those who are looking to the promise of the future (or at least trying to safeguard it beyond the foreseeable future) and those who want to greedily live in the now with an eye full of envy and nostalgia, on a past that probably never existed but which they nevertheless elevate. And it’s everywhere. As a woman I don’t go through the world imagining that every man sees me as an equal, but I usually don’t imagine that people like my own father, who constantly praised my brain and smarts when I was a child, telling me I could do whatever I wanted, or his friends are longing for some 1950s-era period where women would be forced to stay at home, pop out children and have dinner on the table. Or that they would sit around spewing hateful condemnations of all women, especially those who have achieved any kind of power or influence.

And yet, this is literally what I hear from them, and sometimes I hear this from (American) men my own age and younger. Like the hypocrite of hypocrites Donald Trump is, he applies one standard to his daughter and denigrates the rest of womankind. My father, too, thinks this is fine – expected even – that I would have an independent, professional life full of my own choices. But every other woman is a “stupid bitch” (from Hillary Clinton to Pramila Jayapal, from Theresa May to Ivanka Trump) who does not belong in public life.

As long as we have this kind of man and this kind of thinking, particularly in decision-making roles, there will still be people obsessing over a mostly illusory past and trying to force people, women and men both, into certain (outdated) roles. Will we have the fortitude or agency to stop this force?

Abandoning humanity

I highlight and personalize points about women in particular, largely because The Handmaid’s Tale focuses on women’s subjugation and objectification. But the real story is an anti-human story. What becomes of humanity when it is divided by systematic inequality, by ideological warfare, the inability to perceive propaganda or discern fact from fiction, manipulated by language and how it is used?

“Is the spiral of antihumanism now unstoppable? If so, where will it lead? Constantly immersed in the cumulative denigration of human sensibilities, only to have one’s most pessimistic predilections topped again and again by new acts—or revelations—of the limitless depth to which the human mind can sink in its negative designs, one is tempted to declare simply that the world has now entered an irreversible state of global anomie.” -from Climate of Fear, Wole Soyinka

 

the narrow path

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L’ignorant
Philippe Jaccottet
Plus je vieillis et plus je croîs en ignorance,
plus j’ai vécu, moins je possède et moins je règne.
Tout ce que j’ai, c’est un espace tour à tour
enneigé ou brillant, mais jamais habité.
Où est le donateur, le guide, le gardien ?
Je me tiens dans ma chambre et d’abord je me tais
(le silence entre en serviteur mettre un peu d’ordre),
et j’attends qu’un à un les mensonges s’écartent :
que reste-t-il ? que reste-t-il à ce mourant
qui l’empêche si bien de mourir ?
Quelle force
le fait encor parler entre ses quatre murs ?
Pourrais-je le savoir, moi l’ignare et l’inquiet ?
Mais je l’entends vraiment qui parle, et sa parole
pénètre avec le jour, encore que bien vague :
«Comme le feu, l’amour n’établit sa clarté
que sur la faute et la beauté des bois en cendres… »

Oh, I love this reading…

The more I read, the more ignorant I am. That is, the more aware of my ignorance I become. This awareness, which I have always had but gave little thought to, becomes daunting but challenging as I learn more each and every day. But it also makes me angrier about uninformed, willfully/proudly ignorant people who have strong opinions that they insist are valid or equal to facts, even though their opinions have no basis in fact at all. Like a merit badge, they loudly state these “alternative facts”.

I can only keep gorging my mind from the broadest of intellectual and multidisciplinary buffets, but what good will that do if so much of the rest of the world rests comfortably in, at best, mediocrity, blindness and anti-intellectualism? Probably none – not if, for example, climate deniers rule the day. But hell, maybe we won’t reach that point of destruction if the world continues on its current destructive trajectory (politically). Maybe we can all be wiped out much sooner. Or just be subjected to dubious leadership from people who are, as Mr Firewall put it, “a roll of tinfoil away from making a helmet”.

I am desperately and actively trying to seek new learning, new paths, new sources, new fields, new conversations, new debates, new perspectives, new disciplines, new ways to develop the mind and expand my thinking. I don’t mind being contradicted – or presented with other ideas – if they can be backed up with something.

I know and see how creativity dies, and in my case, how everything I do and write comes out completely flat when life’s path and focus narrows too much. I would like to believe, and have managed to bamboozle myself for some time, that I haven’t fallen into this trap. But I have. I might do spontaneous, random stuff with a fair amount of frequency, and stuff my brain with information and stimuli, but am I ever really stepping out of my comfort zone?

I was recently confronted by this reality – more than usual – not because anyone accused me of anything to the contrary, but because someone, in casually telling me bits about himself, unveiled glimpses of a selfless and grueling – but rewarding – set of quests and travails that make up the topography of his life. And as I marveled, unresponsive and awed, I eventually thought, ‘Wow. I’m a complete fucking wuss and only become more of one every day.’

Romney – Please learn to speak clear English in complete sentences

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I wish Romney were capable of completing his sentences, even though I do not necessarily want to hear whatever he is driving at. I also wish he could complement most of what he says not just with facts but with specifics and details. I think we are out of luck on both fronts.

I was struck most starkly by Obama mentioning a contextually appropriate story about a girl he met at Ground Zero. He was quite specific, knew the girl’s name and fit the story into the topic. Romney, on the other hand (as usual), jumped all over the map, straying way off topic, trying to throw in stories of “real people” – but was totally non-specific. He met a woman in Wisconsin (or something) but did not finish. What was the point of starting but not finishing that thought? He met unemployed people before. But he is not good at, because he is not sufficiently human, to weave individual-level stories into his shtick. He should steer away from it entirely.

Not surprised about the lack of specifics since he has never produced specifics at all. “Come on our website…” and you will see how we reduce the deficit. And if he does cite specifics (like his apparent “fewer ships than 1916” detail), they are so off-the-wall.

And that plastic face. Oh, god.