Said and read – May 2020

Standard

“Culture wasn’t just a set of rules or rituals, she realized. It could also be a set of chains that individuals dragged around with them after the prison wardens more or less fled the scene.”” Gods of Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth CenturyCharles King

Image by S Donaghy, April 2020

We’re heading into another month of a pandemic that more and more people choose to ignore as though it’s over, while tensions simmered and civil unrest exploded, like a pressure cooker. It occurs to me more clearly than ever that the problems, addictions, insanities, lack of control that defined people’s lives before the various levels of quarantine not only remain but become outsized, as though studied under a microscope. If you are an aggressive, angry person prone to lose your temper, all of this feels likelier to boil over in these pent-up conditions. If you are an addict, attempting to run from yourself and the pain and anxiety that ail you, there is no worse time than being trapped in your home, alone with your thoughts.

I suspect we’re in for many more months of uncertainty; people’s anger at having made sacrifices (particularly in the face of loss) while their ‘fearless leaders’ did not leads to deeper and more fractious divides. People’s anger at the ineptitude of a federal government and its refusal to act at all during a pandemic, coupled with increasing anger about the abundant inequalities of the criminal justice system (e.g., how many black people must be murdered by police before something changes?), has made clear the brokenness of the United States, long in the making, a catastrophic implosion precipitated … protests, riots, and … what more? We don’t yet know the outcome, but it hurts to say that I fear things will go on being exactly the same or worse.

So, I read. I read so much that I find it difficult to find time to catalog my thoughts on the previous month’s reading. But I try. Each month I only capture here the things that struck me in some way, but this is never a complete rendering of all the things I’ve read.

I’ve ended up finishing these ramblings so far into June that it’s already my birthday; therefore, I’ve lived to pulse ocho for another year.

Here’s what you missed in previous months and years: 2020 – April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for May:

Highly recommended

*The Subjection of WomenJohn Stuart Mill

“Some will object, that a comparison cannot fairly be made between the government of the male sex and the forms of unjust power which I have adduced in illustration of it, since these are arbitrary, and the effect of mere usurpation, while it on the contrary is natural. But was there ever any domination which did not appear natural to those who possessed it?” –The Subjection of WomenJohn Stuart Mill

I dreamt of writing something thoughtful about John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women. I found, however, that I become too frustrated and angry to properly formulate thoughts. The fact that this was written in 1869, followed by very slow change, almost immovable thinking, and a continued cultural conditioning about women’s inferiority, infuriates me. On reflection, there are material differences between what women could do in 1869 and now, but the underlying value assigned to women, their bodies, their experiences, their contributions continues to be underestimated, if considered at all. I urge careful reading and re-reading of this. And then reflect on the age-old arguments on nature and nurture. That is, recognizing the “eminently artificial” nature of women created by “forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others”, and the assertion that women, being physically weaker, are somehow unequal to men, and for it to be otherwise would be “unnatural”, although “unnatural generally means only uncustomary, and that everything which is usual appears natural. The subjection of women to men being a universal custom, any departure from it quite naturally appears unnatural.”

“If anything conclusive could be inferred from experience, without psychological analysis, it would be that the things which women are not allowed to do are the very ones for which they are peculiarly qualified; since their vocation for government has made its way, and become conspicuous, through the very few opportunities which have been given; while in the lines of distinction which apparently were freely open to them, they have by no means so eminently distinguished themselves. We know how small a number of reigning queens history presents, in comparison with that of kings. Of this smaller number a far larger proportion have shown talents for rule; though many of them have occupied the throne in difficult periods. It is remarkable, too, that they have, in a great number of instances, been distinguished by merits the most opposite to the imaginary and conventional character of women: they have been as much remarked for the firmness and vigour of their rule, as for its intelligence.”

*Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love ReligionDanya Ruttenberg

“My own lived experience was the guide here, and all I needed was a willingness to meet it, to allow myself to ask certain kinds of questions and be willing to hear the answers that might follow, no matter how disconcerting those answers might be. This, then, was the real test of faith—not whether I was willing to change my beliefs but, rather, whether I was willing to give language to that which I had already begun to experience as truth.” –Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love ReligionDanya Ruttenberg

Much like Ruttenberg as a young woman, I was never religious. I’ve never actively claimed to be an atheist, but because I don’t believe it’s possible to know (which is why we call it faith) for certain, religious and spiritual questions have rarely engaged me in more than a cursory and academic way. But faith and religion are powerful markers of identity and community, making them inspirational topics for thought and research, but also fascinating in grappling with the grittiest questions about oneself. I continue to come back to the big questions myself, particularly in terms of how I’ve lived and how I want to live, and this is tightly wound with ideas of community, isolation (self-imposed or societal), intention and compassion.

“What religion changes is not just our identity, our relationships, our politics, our sense of what the world is and how we move in it, but also, potentially, every small decision that we make. What religion changes, if we let it, is not just ourselves, not just our smaller home culture, but the world as a whole and the power structures that run it.”

Throughout my life, despite not being Jewish, I have been drawn time and again to progressive interpretations of Judaism and, for inexplicable reasons, I identify with this particular faith more than any other. Ruttenberg herself outlines succinctly exactly why it speaks to her, and it happens to apply just as well to me (and probably to many others who choose to be Jewish, whether they are actively embracing the faith into which they were born or adopt it much later as a conscious and conscientious choice):

“I can find a lot of different ways to explain why I was drawn to Judaism. There’s a strong ethical tradition, but also a tremendous awe for the transcendent. It’s a faith that is comfortable with debate and a diversity of opinion—of five thousand legal disagreements recorded in the Talmud, only fifty or so are settled on the page, leaving open the possibility that the “right” answer isn’t so obvious.”

This sense of needing to know about and experience Judaism has grown over time, and it has only been in the last few years that I have recommitted to exploring this feeling more seriously. I started this journey half-jokingly, half-curious in my youth, attending various courses at a Reform synagogue near where I grew up. But I didn’t take it further until recently, when I started studying psychology, then the psychology of religion, and then theology in the context of peace and conflict.

And while I frequently jest that I would like to become a rabbi, it would certainly help if I were first Jewish.

And before taking any conversion-related steps, I needed to dive deeply into the literature and truly understand what I feel and might want to be a part of. Happily, somewhere in this neverending journey, I stumbled across a lengthy reading list compiled by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, and I’ve been making my way through it. This particular book, her own, was on the list, and I found that the rabbi had undergone a spiritual transformation herself, during which she dabbled in atheism and studied philosophy, and voiced many of the same complaints I’ve always had about my own academic aspirations, e.g. “I found that I was perfectly capable of unpacking Hegel or Hobbes, but that it just wasn’t all that much fun once the big ideas became too abstract, too disconnected from human lives.”; “Religious studies, on the other hand, was philosophy and anthropology and literature and history all rolled up in one.” This is the kind of interdisciplinary thinking that has driven most of my scholarly and life choices. Where some might see a dilettante who can’t commit (and I do self-flagellate on this), I see someone whose curiosity cannot be contained. Where some might see a lack of willingness to dive deeply into the minutiae of one thing, I see someone who cares more about the human and person-centered roots of almost every discipline. It’s always about getting back to humanity.

When it comes to religious faith and practice, it can be deeply individual, particularly when its nascent and uncertain. And yet in some ways, at some point, it may become very public (if you begin to practice in a community). This can pose a barrier, but again, it is about getting in touch with humanity.

“Thomas Merton talks about the “tremendous, agonizing embarrassment and self-consciousness which [those new to religion] feel about praying publicly . . . The effort it takes to overcome all the strange imaginary fears that everyone is looking at you, and that they all think that you are crazy or ridiculous, is something that costs a tremendous effort.”

First you must decide whether your pursuit is satisfying a curiosity or is actually driven by something deeper. Then, should you decide that it’s deeper, you must overcome the idea that you’re an impostor, that you’re “doing it” or “believing” wrong. And finally when you can start to let down the walls, softening yourself to hear and accept answers you needed to hear — but only after doing the sometimes painful and arduous work of waking up truly.

“Years down the road, I would learn how hard it could be to follow my intuition, to feel whatever was buried deep within my fettered heart, to try to meet God without denial. But I would discover that fear and pain were a hundred thousand times better than this unconscious sleepwalking through parties and distraction—that even when it was harder, I would prefer to be awake, and alive. But that was all later.”

Perhaps most powerful here, and there were a lot of resonant ideas, was Ruttenberg’s call to action, which aligns with so much of what I’ve been reading (and writing about here): transformation and change, social justice, community, and the detached ways we live today. We can defy the way our culture aims to commoditize humanity, innoculating us against the idea that our community and true spirituality can feed us in ways that consumerism and individualism cannot.

“The dominant culture depends on our sense of isolation. As long as spirituality remains an individualized, personal experience, chances remain good that the inherently revolutionary potential of religious work will sit forever inert and untapped. That is to say, those who practice their spirituality without community are much less likely to demand change in and upheaval to the status quo, or feel that they have the power to do so.”

“More often than not, the places where it’s necessary to mobilize for transformation in religion reflect our contemporary understanding of morality and compassion.”

*Gods of Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth CenturyCharles King

“Real, evidence-driven analysis, they believed, would overturn one of modernity’s most deeply held principles: that science will tell us which individuals and groups are naturally smarter, abler, more upstanding, and fitter to rule. Their response was that science pointed in precisely the opposite direction, toward a theory of humanity that embraces all the many ways we humans have devised for living. The social categories into which we typically divide ourselves, including labels such as race and gender, are at base artificial—the products of human artifice, residing in the mental frameworks and unconscious habits of a given society.”

“…in order to live intelligently in the world, we should view the lives of others through an empathetic lens. We ought to suspend our judgment about other ways of seeing social reality until we really understand them, and in turn we should look at our own society with the same dispassion and skepticism with which we study far-flung peoples. Culture, as Boas and his students understood it, is the ultimate source for what we think constitutes common sense. It defines what is obvious or beyond question. It tells us how to raise a child, how to pick a leader, how to find good things to eat, how to marry well. Over time these things change, sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly. Yet there is no more fundamental reality in the social world than the one that humans themselves in some measure create.” –Gods of Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth CenturyCharles King

The development of anthropology as a discipline isn’t something I gave a great deal of thought to until I started studying communication for development, which focuses on the so-called “developing world” (and queries whether it should even be called “developing world”). Later my psychology and theology studies crossed into anthropological territory, but it still never occurred to me to look more carefully at its theoretical and historical origins.

An anthropological quest crosses multiple disciplines: linguistics, sociology, psychology, theology, among others, and like most fields of academic inquiry, its methodology, its merit, its subjects have shifted alongside the people within the field and the cultures to which they belong. At its core, according to its founding proponents, such as Franz Boas, cultural anthropology required acknowledging one’s own ignorance and one’s own worldview and preconceived ideas, placing oneself in unfamiliar surroundings and observing in as scientific and objective a way as possible. It provided, as anthropology pioneer Ruth Benedict put it, “illumination that comes of envisaging very different possible ways of handling invariable problems” and demanded the realization that nothing about culture is universal, i.e. cultural relativity.

“…no society, including our own, is the endpoint of human social evolution. We aren’t even a distinct stage in human development. History moves in loops and circles, not in straight lines, and toward no particular end. Our own vices and blind spots are as readily apparent as those of any society anywhere.”

I greatly enjoyed this book, and could endlessly ramble about it — but won’t. It’s worth reading, and in particular its discussion on Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological work shines a light on her journey as a folklorist and writer in a new context; she is the most fascinating among the book’s “characters” and, while not orthodox or organized in her methodology and data collection, she captured the most living, breathing, startling accounts and observations in her anthropological work, such as in Haiti, which ring true through American society today:

“FREDERICK DOUGLASS, WHO SERVED as the U.S. minister and consul-general in Haiti, once said that tracing the country’s history was like following a wounded man through a crowd: you just needed to follow the blood.”

“The key to understanding zombies, Hurston concluded, lay not in finding a secret potion or in debunking another people’s mythology. It was actually believing in them. Felix-Mentor wasn’t a person who was said to be a zombie. She wasn’t a make-believe one, like her fictional counterpart in a Hollywood film. She really was one. If you could twist your brain into seeing that fact, then you had taken a giant step toward seeing Haiti—and most important, its spirituality—from the inside.”

“A woman disappeared—conveniently, for her brother and her husband—and then reappeared and started causing trouble until she was put away in a mental institution, cowering, distraught, wordless, no longer herself, alive yet dead. Religions survive not because people love the faith of their fathers but because they help us navigate the world as we find it.”

“Magical thinking was as close to a human universal as you could imagine, and it existed in modern societies, too. Gambling, the stock market, even the concept of private property—the belief that I can expand my sense of self to include an inanimate object, the loss of which would induce deep displeasure and anxiety—all depend to a degree on magical belief systems. They are ways of summoning the unlikely and the invisible in order to control the tangible world.”

““Gods always behave like the people who make them,” Hurston wrote in her notes from Haiti. A boisterous spirit could say the thing a peasant couldn’t. A person mounted by a loa could curse a field boss or a pith-helmeted American. Possession by unseen forces, escaping into a kind of death, could be a way of being truly, deeply alive, especially in places where it was hard to speak the truth in any other way. That was the real story of Felicia Felix-Mentor. Put away, disregarded, institutionalized, forgotten, willed by others to be effectively dead—her condition was very much like that of many people Hurston knew, the black women and men she had met from Florida labor camps to whites-only universities. It was just that Haitians had invented a word for it.”

*The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost ImaginationSarah Schulman

“The gentrification mentality is rooted in the belief that obedience to consumer identity over recognition of lived experience is actually normal, neutral, and value free.” –The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost ImaginationSarah Schulman

I can’t explain why, but this book almost immediately had me in tears. I think it’s attributable in part, once more, to the inevitable dilution of historical events. Things that were intense, painful, sweeping — things I can’t even describe in words, such as the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 90s — have become anodyne footnotes accompanied by inoffensive elevator music. I was a child during this epidemic, but watching it unfold affected me at such a fundamental level that I still cry uncontrollably watching footage of protests juxtaposed with images of the march of slow, excruciating and senseless death. As I say, I was a child. I can’t begin to imagine what this period was like for people most affected by it, those like Schulman and her community in New York at the height of the crisis.

“Bizarrely, this very day is the twentieth anniversary of AIDS. Decontextualized by palm trees, I listen. The announcer is discussing events that I know intimately, organically, that have seared the emotional foundation of my adult life. And yet there is a strangely mellow tone to the story. It’s been slightly banalized, homogenized. This is the first time I’ve heard AIDS being historicized, and there is something clean-cut about this telling, something wrong. Something…gentrified. “At first America had trouble with People with AIDS,” the announcer says in that falsely conversational tone, intended to be reassuring about apocalyptic things. “But then, they came around.” I almost crash the car.”

Thus I comprehend her bewildered reaction: “But then, they came around“?!

What!?

When did “they” ever come around? Had, as Schulman pondered, her community – what remained of it – failed to show exactly how much they had suffered, how much they had lost? What the world, in fact, lost, to this epidemic that was “caused by governmental and familial neglect”?

Schulman’s book deals mostly with the gentrification process — but not just the material gentrification we can see in cities like New York, but rather a brainwashing of sorts: the gentrification of the culture, and the gentrification of the mind. It is woven into the institutionally sanctioned happiness-industry culture we are a part of in which we willingly become a part of a herd and ignore what we give up to be a part of that — both on an individual level and as a society. Individually we — this is truer for some than others — may, for example, as Schulman writes, come to expect that one’s “teacher does not remember them, even after intimate direct conversations in class about their lives and work” because somehow the individual is not important enough to remember, particularly if they have always been part of a marginalized group. Societally, we find ourselves acting against the community and its interests because we are encouraged and incentivized to participate in a culture that endlessly craves manufactured happiness and comfort — and the only way to achieve this, according to the rules of this society, is to compete or step on someone else, or in some cases, merely tolerate injustices that we see but don’t speak out against.

“Gentrified happiness is often available to us in return for collusion with injustice. We go along with it, usually, because of the privilege of dominance, which is the privilege not to notice how our way of living affects less powerful people. Sometimes we do know that certain happiness exists at the expense of other human beings, but because we’re not as smart as we think we are, we decide that this is the only way we can survive. Stupidity or cruelty become the choice, but it doesn’t always have to be that way. After all, people and institutions act on and transform each other. So, it’s not happiness at the expense of the weaker versus nothing, right? And yet we are led to feel this way.”

Schulman is writing from her own experience and taking back the narrative that homogenizes the AIDS struggle, but her theses are widely applicable in terms of discussing gentrification, privatization, privilege and — of course — the commodification of humanity and individual identities. Everything about this book commands attention and compels… action. Action toward empathy, compassion and intervention.

“Autobiographically, the AIDS experience may be where I came to understand that it is a fundamental of individual integrity to intervene to stop another person from being victimized, even if to do so is uncomfortable or frightening.”

“Gentrification culture makes it very hard for people to intervene on behalf of others. The Nasdaq value system is and was a brutal one. Being consumed by it and being shut out of it are both deadening and result in distorted thinking about private sectors, economic and emotional. Gentrification culture is rooted in the ideology that people needing help is a “private” matter, that it is nobody’s business. Taking their homes is called “cleaning up” the neighborhood. ACT UP was the most recent American social movement to succeed, and it did so because AIDS activist culture of the 1980s was the opposite of Gentrification culture.”

“Gentrification culture was a twentieth-century, fin de siècle rendition of bourgeois values. It defined truth telling as antisocial instead of as a requirement for decency. The action of making people accountable was decontextualized as inappropriate. When there is no context for justice, freedom-seeking behavior is seen as annoying. Or futile. Or a drag. Or oppressive. And dismissed and dismissed and dismissed and dismissed until that behavior is finally just not seen. Every historical moment passes.”

*Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary ImaginationToni Morrison

“A criticism that needs to insist that literature is not only “universal” but also “race-free” risks lobotomizing that literature, and diminishes both the art and the artist.” –Playing in the Dark : Whiteness and the Literary ImaginationToni Morrison

This is a unique moment to survey Morrison’s work on literary criticism and African-American literature. She calls out the “polite” color blindness of the dominant cultural system and exposes it as a thick layer of white paint that has for so long covered over necessary calls to consciousness, assessment and action. Today it is embodied in Black Lives Matter, and this must be named, seen, and understood by those who cannot understand it because the responsibility rests with them, i.e., the most dangerous being the white liberal self-proclaimed “ally” who nevertheless never questions and furthers systems of what Morrison refers to as “intellectual domination”.

“Above all I am interested in how agendas in criticism have disguised themselves and, in so doing, impoverished the literature it studies. Criticism as a form of knowledge is capable of robbing literature not only of its own implicit and explicit ideology but of its ideas as well; it can dismiss the difficult, arduous work writers do to make an art that becomes and remains part of and significant within a human landscape. It is important to see how inextricable Africanism is or ought to be from the deliberations of literary criticism and the wanton, elaborate strategies undertaken to erase its presence from view.”

“One likely reason for the paucity of critical material on this large and compelling subject is that, in matters of race, silence and evasion have historically ruled literary discourse.”

“It is further complicated by the fact that the habit of ignoring race is understood to be a graceful, even generous, liberal gesture. To notice is to recognize an already discredited difference. To enforce its invisibility through silence is to allow the black body a shadowless participation in the dominant cultural body.”

Violence against black bodies is the most immediate emergency, of course, but as a reflection of a comprehensively racist system, we must also dig into things as esoteric as literary criticism to understand the depth of the problem.

“Like thousands of avid but nonacademic readers, some powerful literary critics in the United States have never read, and are proud to say so, any African-American text. It seems to have done them no harm, presented them with no discernible limitations in the scope of their work or influence. I suspect, with much evidence to support the suspicion, that they will continue to flourish without any knowledge whatsoever of African-American literature. What is fascinating, however, is to observe how their lavish exploration of literature manages not to see meaning in the thunderous, theatrical presence of black surrogacy—an informing, stabilizing, and disturbing element—in the literature they do study. It is interesting, not surprising, that the arbiters of critical power in American literature seem to take pleasure in, indeed relish, their ignorance of African-American texts.”

*Pale Colors in a Tall Field: PoemsCarl Phillips

Poetry, of course.

*The FallD. Nurkse

More poetry. Always poetry.

*The Kingdom of Ordinary Time: PoemsMarie Howe

My life was a story, dry as pages. Seems like he should have known/enough to like them even lightly with his thumb/ But he didn’t. /And I have to admit I didn’t much like the idea/of telling him how.” –The Kingdom of Ordinary Time: PoemsMarie Howe

And yet more poetry. Every day is poetry.

Good – or better than expected

*Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of AddictionJudith Grisel

“The opposite of addiction, I have learned, is not sobriety but choice.” –Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of AddictionJudith Grisel

All I can say about Never Enough is that it balances the author’s own experience with addiction with the neuroscience behind addiction. It reinforces what much of science and social science instructs about addiction: addiction often escalates when faced with a lack of acceptance and community – seeing no alternatives or no possible way out – in a judgmental society that criminalizes addiction and in which some substance abuse (particularly alcohol) is second nature and not seen at all as abuse or troublesome (until it is). Grisel’s account states:

“Though there were several turning points in my trajectory, it seems profoundly significant that the material change began a few months after the ghost-in-the-mirror episode, when my father inexplicably changed course and took me out for my twenty-third birthday. Federal agents, friends’ deaths, expulsions and evictions, physical withdrawal, and myriad other tragedies weren’t enough to propel me to change; instead, it was human love and connection. My father’s willingness to be seen with me and to treat me with kindness split open my defensive shell of rationalizations and justifications. It broke open the lonely heart that neither of us knew I still had.”

She never claims that this turning point made her choice easy, but it was about choice — and it required connection and compassion to reach that stage. Having some meaning seems to be a deciding factor for many addicts, which is backed up by work from both Dr Gabor Maté and Dr Carl Hart, who also specialize in addiction. A unique part of the book is that it covers different categories of drug and in some cases proposes ways we might mitigate some of the pitfalls of use — that is, make alcohol-free spaces more common, find ways to cope with and treat pain, see others with compassion and look at what can be done rather than what cannot.

“So, who’s to blame for the epidemic of addiction? The truth is no one is to blame, but we are all responsible. Our collective shadow supports addiction because we must have a scapegoat even as we deny, or embrace, the many strategies of escape we employ ourselves. We support the tools of addiction, including pathological individualism that leads to alienation, widespread and enthusiastic endorsement of avoidance, and a smorgasbord of consumptive excess and self-medication. Though any search for a cause (or a cure) is bound to fall short, one source of this epidemic is our unwillingness to bear our own pain, along with our failure to look upon the suffering of others with compassion.”

*Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: or, How Capitalism Works – and How It FailsYanis Varoufakis

“The triumph of exchange values over experiential values changed the world both for the better and for the worse. On the one hand, with the commodification of goods, land, and labor came an end to the oppression, injustice, and wretchedness of serfdom. A new concept of freedom was born, along with the possibility of abolishing slavery and the technological capability to produce enough goods for all. On the other hand, it prompted unprecedented new forms of misery, poverty, and potential slavery.” –Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: or, How Capitalism Works – and How It FailsYanis Varoufakis

After reading Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-century Economist last month and continuing to think about the up-and-down waves of collapsing capitalism, Varoufakis’s simplified take on economics and capitalism would be a good addition to the basics, boiled down to the simple premise: ““My reason for writing it was the conviction that the economy is too important to leave to the economists.” This is much the same argument that guided the research and thinking behind Doughnut Economics.

“Today’s economic experts are not much different. Whenever they fail to predict properly some economic phenomenon, which is almost always, they account for their failure by appealing to the same mystical economic notions that failed them in the first place. Occasionally, new notions are created in order to account for the failure of the earlier ones.”

How far removed from human life and needs can economics — ostensibly the study of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services, which are produced, distributed and consumed by people — get?

“With time, I recognized something else, a delicious contradiction about my own profession that reinforced this belief: the more scientific our models of the economy become, the less relation they bear to the real, existing economy out there. This is precisely the opposite of what obtains in physics, engineering…”

Very much aligned with the questions I continue to ask myself as I make reading and study choices: what are my values, what are society’s collective values? And Varoufakis does the same, hitting the nail right on the head — we live in a time in which experience holds no value, and everything is commodified and assigned a market value. People fall right into this — from assigning a salary, fair or not, to their time and labor (which do, in fact, belong to them) to turning people themselves into products and market experiments (how can we influence consumers, how much can be extract from them either in the form of direct consumption or in the data they generate and unwittingly share with us)?

“Oscar Wilde wrote that a cynical person is someone who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. Our societies tend to make us all cynics. And no one is more cynical than the economist who sees exchange value as the only value, trivializing experiential value as unnecessary in a society where everything is judged according to the criteria of the market. But how exactly did exchange value manage this triumph over experiential value? The commodification of everything…”

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*What Gandhi SaysNorman Finkelstein

“If Gandhi despised one thing more than cowardice, it was cowardice wrapping itself in the mantle of nonviolence.” –What Gandhi SaysNorman Finkelstein

No stranger to controversy, Finkelstein provides analysis of the tenets for which Gandhi is best known globally… not diving too deeply into the more controversial and troubling aspects of Gandhi the man. Finkelstein focuses squarely on Gandhi’s words and their constant contradictions, emphasizing Gandhi’s predilection for action over consistency of expression. While other readings I’ve highlighted here suggest that inconsistent expression is a hallmark of the dictator, I doubt anyone would claim Gandhi had dictatorial aspirations, even if it seems he had a control-freak streak (and preoccupation with sex and attempting to control it). In fact, according to Finkelstein, Gandhi’s commitment to acting on non-violent resistance came from the need to throw off colonial chains and rulers, not to grab power for himself once these occupiers were successfully resisted.

“Gandhi devoted the whole of his adult life to organizing the powerless 99 percent against the greedy 1 percent. He aspired in the first place to end the British occupation of India, but he also recoiled at the prospect of a corrupt clique of native Indians replacing the foreign occupiers.”

“He was convinced not only that the old world could be extirpated and a new world be brought into being nonviolently, but also that unless it was done nonviolently, the new world would hardly differ from the old world it superseded.”

Finkelstein attempts to show that Gandhi was not passive, and did not advocate being passive. He in fact would advocate violence if and when there were no other alternative.

“The real Gandhi did loathe violence but he loathed cowardice more than violence. If his constituents could not find the inner wherewithal to resist nonviolently, then he exhorted them to find the courage to hit back those who assaulted or demeaned them.”

The unfortunate problem here is that one cannot rely on the judgment of an individual that there “was no alternative”. We can see, despite the very different conditions and circumstances, that a number of police officers in the United States justify murder because they claim to have had no other recourse, and felt that their own lives were threatened. Never mind that they are in positions of power, authority and are armed. I use this example only to illustrate the subjectivity of the perceived alternatives.

Finkelstein also explores the limitations and contradictions of Gandhi’s teachings, which makes this book a worthwhile endeavor.

*Wildhood: The Epic Journey from Adolescence to Adulthood in Humans and Other AnimalsBarbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers

“All animals need time, experiences, practice, and failure to become mature adults.” –Wildhood: The Epic Journey from Adolescence to Adulthood in Humans and Other AnimalsBarbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers

Oh, adolescence.

“It seems tragically counterintuitive that the most vulnerable and underprepared individuals would be thrown into the riskiest possible situations. But facing mortal danger while still maturing is a fact of life for adolescents and young adults across species.”

Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers explore the fraught period of human and other species adolescent period, which is fascinating overall but a few key points stand out, in particular the question of what happens to humans once old risks are eliminated, when there is capacity to manage more than just basic survival.

“What happens when brains and bodies that evolved in environments full of predators and other threats find those dangers removed? A similar question was posed thirty years ago by a British epidemiologist who noticed a rise in autoimmune diseases like lupus and Crohn’s. David Strachan wondered what happens to immune systems that evolved in environments with many varied pathogens when the world gets cleaner. The “hygiene hypothesis” suggested that human immune systems, unchallenged in overly clean environments, turn inward and begin to attack their own bodies, mistaking normal tissue for pathogens. Might a similar process be driving anxiety in modern adolescents and other individuals? Lars Svendsen, a Norwegian philosopher at the University of Bergen who studies fear, thinks yes. He believes that many modern humans have a “surplus of consciousness” that gets directed into imagining risks.”

“Safer than ever before, with more “brain space” to devote to thinking about risks that don’t pan out, we live in a state of what Svendsen calls “permanent fear.” Permanent fear, believes Svendsen, isolates individuals and creates anxious, lonely societies because “living a life of fear is incompatible with living a life of happiness.””

“Adolescents and adults who seem to have it all still get sad, sometimes even truly depressed. A human being’s internal self-perception can be very different from how others see them. Social experiences during adolescence shape individuals’ views of their status in ways that sometimes continue into adult life. The happiness that might come from success in adult life may be blunted by the enduring effects of social defeats during adolescence.”

Another key point, which seems obvious, but isn’t — based on how critically “sexual compliance” is handled in society. Overt threats are not required in a world that does not believe women, does not understand the subtlety of covert threats, and in which violence is glorified and some people feel entitled to “take”. That is, as Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers share:

“Sex between two animals that appears to be non-coerced, because physical force is not observed, may actually be coercive in a less visible way if the female has been harassed into submitting. Some males may persistently badger unreceptive females for sex, preventing them from foraging and feeding—a phenomenon documented in dolphins, sheep, quail, and coho salmon. Sexually harassed elephant seals, fallow bucks, and female tortoiseshell butterflies ultimately relent, submitting to sex simply so they can go about their lives. An uninformed observer, who sees no resistance or physical restraint, might not recognize these encounters as the coercive events they are. This is especially true because the intimidation and threats of violence may take place hours or even days before the sexual encounter.”

“Conventional wisdom of the time held that fertile female chimpanzees were choosing the mates they preferred. But Wrangham and Muller realized these females weren’t choosing; they were complying.”

*The Seven Good YearsEtgar Keret

“The timing of my new mustache—ten days after my wife miscarried, a week after I injured my back in a car crash, and two weeks after my father found out he had inoperable cancer—couldn’t have been better. Instead of talking about Dad’s chemo or my wife’s hospitalization, I could divert all small talk to the thick tuft of facial hair growing above my upper lip. And whenever anyone asked, “What’s with the mustache?” I had the perfect answer, and it was even mostly true: “It’s for the boy.” A mustache is not just a great distraction device; it’s also an excellent icebreaker. It’s amazing how many people who see a new mustache in the middle of a familiar face are happy to share their own private mustache stories.” –The Seven Good YearsEtgar Keret

I discovered Etgar Keret by accident – happy surprise, entertaining fiction, clear voice. That’s all.

“In the Middle East, people feel their mortality more than anywhere else on the planet, which causes most of the population to develop aggressive tendencies toward strangers who try to waste the little time they have left on earth.”

*Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last TalesOliver Sacks

“Much of this, remarkably, was envisaged by E. M. Forster in his 1909 short story “The Machine Stops,” in which he imagined a future where people live underground in isolated cells, never seeing one another and communicating only by audio and visual devices. In this world, original thought and direct observation are discouraged—“Beware of first-hand ideas!” people are told. Humanity has been overtaken by “the Machine,” which provides all comforts and meets all needs—except the need for human contact. One young man, Kuno, pleads with his mother via a Skype-like technology, “I want to see you not through the Machine. I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.”” –Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last TalesOliver Sacks

Most of what Sacks produced is worth reading, and while this was not his best collection, I was mostly struck by his references to how public everything is now. Privacy, as we all know, is dead. And now that we lead almost entirely public lives, we have created identities for others to consume, and we create data that makes us consumable. An endless cycle of (false?) identity creation followed by someone mining that false or aspirational identity data followed by someone trying to sell or selling us something based on that data followed by the consumption and use that lends credence and authority to the identity we created for public consumption, reinforcing the whole cycle repeatedly. Do we consider the trade-offs? It is too late to opt out. How do we want to be — whom do we want to be — in this world we’ve created and submitted to?

“Everything is public now, potentially: one’s thoughts, one’s photos, one’s movements, one’s purchases. There is no privacy and apparently little desire for it in a world devoted to nonstop use of social media. Every minute, every second, has to be spent with one’s device clutched in one’s hand. Those trapped in this virtual world are never alone, never able to concentrate and appreciate in their own way, silently. They have given up, to a great extent, the amenities and achievements of civilization: solitude and leisure, the sanction to be oneself, truly absorbed, whether in contemplating a work of art, a scientific theory, a sunset, or the face of one’s beloved.”

*The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good LifeMark Manson

“But when you stop and really think about it, conventional life advice—all the positive and happy self-help stuff we hear all the time—is actually fixating on what you lack. It lasers in on what you perceive your personal shortcomings and failures to already be, and then emphasizes them for you.” –The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good LifeMark Manson

While not surprising, and leaning a bit heavily on the mild shock value of its profanity-inspired title, this book more or less catalogs the complaint I, and many others, have had about the always-booming self-help industry. Not only does it create and inflate unrealistic expectations within the very population (usually vulnerable) that can least afford to sink a bunch of money and misguided hope into snake-oil in repetitive mantra form, it does, as Manson clearly broadcasts, project that “the desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience”. YES.

Sure, I know I’ve been chastised and criticized for my “negativity” pretty much all my life. But I don’t care because I’m content, I’m realistic, I’m pragmatic. I have enough, and I am not on an endless and probably fruitless quest for “happiness”, which has become entirely meaningless because being “happy” has been warped by BS ideas about consuming, having, owning and usurped by the constant need for more. Happiness is different from meaning derived from experience, where I see great value. Manson quotes Albert Camus and Charles Bukowski in an admonishment not to seek out happiness; equating happiness with conformity and need to succeed or perform according to society’s arbitrary standards is probably what Camus, Bukowski and Manson would refer to as “giving too many fucks”.

“Pain is an inextricable thread in the fabric of life, and to tear it out is not only impossible, but destructive: attempting to tear it out unravels everything else with it. To try to avoid pain is to give too many fucks about pain. In contrast, if you’re able to not give a fuck about the pain, you become unstoppable.”

Not giving a fuck is not about indifference; in fact, it is having the fortitude, maturity and strength of identity to be able to stand alone, to weather difficulties and to be comfortable with uncertainty and with being oneself, even if that means going against the rest of the herd (perhaps by trying, however futile it is, to opt out of the always-on public life).

*Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human CadaversMary Roach

“Life contains these things: leakage and wickage and discharge, pus and snot and slime and gleet. We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget.” –Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human CadaversMary Roach

An irreverent look at the body once it becomes…uninhabited. Unlike Bill Bryson’s book on the anatomy and functions of the human body, Roach dissects (not literally) the things that may happen to a human body after death.

Yes, irreverent.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with just lying around on your back. In its way, rotting is interesting too, as we will see. It’s just that there are other ways to spend your time as a cadaver. Get involved with science. Be an art exhibit. Become part of a tree. Some options for you to think about. Death. It doesn’t have to be boring.”

Yes, oddly filled with chicken-adjacent stories.

“The human head is of the same approximate size and weight as a roaster chicken. I have never before had occasion to make the comparison, for never before today have I seen a head in a roasting pan. But here are forty of them, one per pan, resting face-up on what looks to be a small pet-food bowl. The heads are for plastic surgeons, two per head, to practice on.

The heads have been put in roasting pans—which are of the disposable aluminum variety—for the same reason chickens are put in roasting pans: to catch the drippings.”

“Eventually the taxi pulled up outside a brightly lit fried chicken establishment, the sort of place that in the United States might proclaim “We Do Chicken Right!” but here proclaimed “Do Me Chicken!” The cabdriver turned to collect his fare. We shouted at each other for a while, and eventually he got out and walked over to a tiny, dim storefront next to the chicken place and pointed vigorously to a sign. Designated Foreign-Oriented Tourist Unit, it said. Well, do me chicken. The man was right.”

*Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindYuval Noah Harari

“Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.” –Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindYuval Noah Harari

As I ponder throughout this post, history is a moving target, and one experience is not representative of all, or universal, experience. This book manages somehow to be an example both of attempting to fit all of history into a single interpretation while also calling out how a multiplicity of experiences shelter under different umbrellas. After all, a book purporting to be a history of humankind will by necessity take a broad perspective. A dense and fascinating overview, it covers expansive ground, from money to religion, from the pace of change (the social order is in a state of “permanent flux”) to the accumulation of wealth and whether change and wealth have made us happier or more relaxed or “advanced”. It asks questions I wouldn’t (and Harari probably wouldn’t, based on the final words quoted below) expect of a book of this kind.

“But are we happier? Did the wealth humankind accumulated over the last five centuries translate into a new-found contentment? Did the discovery of inexhaustible energy resources open before us inexhaustible stores of bliss? Going further back, have the seventy or so turbulent millennia since the Cognitive Revolution made the world a better place to live? Was the late Neil Armstrong, whose footprint remains intact on the windless moon, happier than the nameless hunter-gatherer who 30,000 years ago left her handprint on a wall in Chauvet Cave? If not, what was the point of developing agriculture, cities, writing, coinage, empires, science and industry? Historians seldom ask such questions.”

Perhaps most appropriate and more specifically, Harari explores the always-controversial (although it should not be) debate (and it should not be one) about determining what is biological and what is “justified through biological myths”. An example here is the tendency to discuss concepts like race and gender in quite general, overarching terms while not completely making them reductive.

“How can we distinguish what is biologically determined from what people merely try to justify through biological myths? A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids.’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realise some possibilities while forbidding others. Biology enables women to have children – some cultures oblige women to realise this possibility. Biology enables men to enjoy sex with one another – some cultures forbid them to realise this possibility. Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition. No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesise, women to run faster than the speed of light, or negatively charged electrons to be attracted to each other. In truth, our concepts ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ are taken not from biology, but from Christian theology. The theological meaning of ‘natural’ is ‘in accordance with the intentions of the God who created nature’.”

“Different societies adopt different kinds of imagined hierarchies. Race is very important to modern Americans but was relatively insignificant to medieval Muslims. Caste was a matter of life and death in medieval India, whereas in modern Europe it is practically non-existent. One hierarchy, however, has been of supreme importance in all known human societies: the hierarchy of gender. People everywhere have divided themselves into men and women. And almost everywhere men have got the better deal, at least since the Agricultural Revolution.”

I took many points away from this book, but it’s this last point — about the gender hierarchy — that struck me most of all. I find myself getting angrier about gender inequality as I get older, and the historical record justifies this anger. There is no biological basis for relegating women to a position of inferiority, and yet, throughout societies the world over, that’s exactly where women exist.

“How did it happen that in the one species whose success depends above all on cooperation, individuals who are supposedly less cooperative (men) control individuals who are supposedly more cooperative (women)? At present, we have no good answer.”

*The Fracture ZoneSimon Winchester

“…and for years the Balkans faded into our collective memories. No one ever said: “Remember the man who filled up the car in Pec?” or, “Remember the field by that cement factory called General Jankovic?”—because the Balkans were peaceful in those times, and we had no compelling reason to think of them.” –The Fracture ZoneSimon Winchester

I didn’t love this book but tend to read everything about the former Yugoslavia, its breakup, and different “western” takes on “Balkan drama”. I don’t generally buy into a lot of the analysis, but I nevertheless feel compelled to be steeped in it, if only to have close-to-the-skin reminders of what it was like to be there (by “there” I mean Bosnia, not so much Kosovo, as Winchester does) in the post-war period: the “fixers” that would get hired to act as… well, fixers, drivers and interpreters, even though their real jobs were as engineers, students or farmers, the Turkish-style coffee, the mélange of foods (I lived on shopska salad myself), people, styles, a kind of clash of old and new world (a man driving his horse and buggy along the same road down which a cadre of Bosnian politicians gunned their motorcade of brand-new Audi A8s while making a campaign stop), the random marriage proposals from strangers who simply sought an easy exit, intermittent electricity, random security evacuation exercises, and civil sector bureaucracy.

Reading this and similar accounts of the end of Yugoslavia, I can’t help but feel my age, but much more acutely, I feel the squeeze of insignificance… how diluted historical events become with time. I wouldn’t claim that I knew a lot of people outside certain circles who felt concerned about the situation in former Yugoslavia even at the time, but now, with the war well outside the living memory of young adults, I meet many young people who have never heard of Yugoslavia at all and had nebulous notions, if any idea at all, that a war was fought in this place that they associate vaguely (again, if they have any associations whatsoever) with the filming locations for Game of Thrones (Croatia) and coastal holidays.

*Recollections of My NonexistenceRebecca Solnit

“Your credibility arises in part from how your society perceives people like you, and we have seen over and over again that no matter how credible some women are by supposedly objective standards reinforced by evidence and witnesses and well-documented patterns, they will not be believed by people committed to protecting men and their privileges. The very definition of women under patriarchy is designed to justify inequality, including inequality of credibility. Though patriarchy often claims a monopoly on rationality and reason, those committed to it will discount the most verifiable, coherent, ordinary story told by a woman and accept any fantastical account by a man, will pretend sexual violence is rare and false accusations common, and so forth. Why tell stories if they will only bring forth a new round of punishment or disparagement?” –Recollections of My NonexistenceRebecca Solnit

Referring again to the idea that some people (men, white) have unlimited space to tell stories and be believed, few voices chronicle the struggle to be taken seriously, to be heard and to be respected as well as Rebecca Solnit. The ways women’s experiences have been distorted by the collective voice of dominance insisting that women are “crazy” have enabled the control men continue to have over women — and society as a whole. We can read about (and feel) the injustice of this in all kinds of discourse — some even dating back more than 150 years (see The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill, listed above), and some much more recent, such as Sapiens, listed below, by Yuval Noah Harari.

“It was a kind of collective gaslighting. To live in a war that no one around me would acknowledge as a war—I am tempted to say that it made me crazy, but women are so often accused of being crazy, as a way of undermining their capacity to bear witness and the reality of what they testify to. Besides, in these cases, crazy is often a euphemism for unbearable suffering. So it didn’t make me crazy; it made me unbearably anxious, preoccupied, indignant, and exhausted. I was faced with either surrendering my freedom in advance or risking losing it in the worst ways imaginable. One thing that makes people crazy is being told that the experiences they have did not actually happen, that the circumstances that hem them in are imaginary, that the problems are all in their head, and that if they are distressed it is a sign of their failure, when success would be to shut up or to cease to know what they know.”

*Dictators: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth CenturyFrank Dikötter

“Tyrants trust no one, least of all their allies. Duvalier disposed of friends and foes alike, striking down anyone he thought was too ambitious or might develop a separate power base. No one was indispensable.” –Dictators: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth CenturyFrank Dikötter

We’re living through a time in which we are surrounded by a number of would-be dictators. For this reason alone, a chronicle of the lives of dictators in the 20th century is both timely and instructive. I could list off the present-day dictator wanna-be candidates, and I could list off their slogans. But we don’t need to amplify these names and their dictates further.

The takeaway here is confirmation of the many traits we can associate with and by which we can identify tyranny and tyrants: narcissism, penchant for performance/spectacle, ‘govern’ by slogans, practice and encourage inconsistency, personalize their power (“I alone can do…”), surround oneself with sycophants and ass-kissers and dismiss and discredit anyone who goes against you. The true believers will, like cult members, drink the Kool Aid, no matter what a tyrant does, and for everyone else, who sees the reality, a tyrant will “sow confusion, to destroy common sense, to enforce obedience, to isolate individuals and crush their dignity” to ensure that he isn’t credibly threatened by being removed.

Dikötter writes of Mussolini’s regime; sound familiar?:

“People had to self-censor, and in turn they monitored others, denouncing those who failed to appear sufficiently sincere in their professions of devotion to the leader. Underneath the appearance of widespread uniformity, there was a broad spectrum, ranging from those who genuinely idealised their leader – true believers, opportunists, thugs – to those who were indifferent, apathetic or even hostile.”

“For almost two decades Mussolini had encouraged the idea that he alone could be trusted and could do no wrong. He had used the cult of the leader to debase his competitors, ensuring every potential rival in the Fascist Party was edged out of the limelight. Those who remained were united in their devotion to the Duce, sycophants determined to outdo one another in praising his genius. They lied to him, much as he lied to them. But most of all, Mussolini lied to himself. He became enveloped in his own worldview, a ‘slave to his own myth’ in the words of his biographer Renzo de Felice. He knew that those around him were flatterers who withheld information that could provoke his ire. He trusted no one, having no true friends, no reliable companion to whom he could speak frankly. As the years passed Mussolini isolated himself from others, becoming a virtual prisoner within the walls of the Palazzo Venezia.”

*Transforming Glasgow: Beyond the Post-Industrial CityKeith Kintrea and Rebecca Madgin, editors

“Ours is a city which perhaps more than any other of our size, shaped the Industrial Revolution, along with all of the great positive and negative forces that it unleashed.”

I binge and gorge on all things Glasgow – even urban planning and its history. I don’t expect others to care for this in the way I did, so it’s not exactly a recommendation unless you’re obsessed with Glasgow and the post-industrial transformation of once-heavily-industrialized cities.

On the other hand, many works I read this month, and more generally, deal with impoverishment of the urban landscape, de-industrialization with nothing to replace it, meaning that poverty almost inevitably travels hand-in-hand with some of these economic upheavals. Glasgow was once the “Second City of the Empire“, but you’d never know it if you were to witness the parts of the city hammered hardest by poverty and dilapidation that came with de-industrialization and privatization. Photographer Raymond Depardon captured this side of Glasgow in 1980 (it’s worth looking at the photos). To some degree, Glasgow has experienced many of the growing pains and tragedies that other cities have and do – and much of it boils down to misguided attempts at “modernizing” (in Glasgow’s case, people were moved out of the city to live in giant, horrible tower blocks and manufactured “communities” – and in so doing, much of Glasgow’s storied architecture was lost, and more appallingly, communities were torn apart. I’d argue that while Glasgow has not been as deeply affected by the powers of gentrification (essentially a destructive force masquerading as progress) as cities like New York (which is dealt with in Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind above), it is nevertheless a factor in Glasgow’s drive to redefine and reshape itself.

*Where the Wild Cooks Go: Recipes from My Travels in Food and MusicCerys Matthews

Not much to say here except that this was an enjoyable mix of recipes and music from all over the world; a nice tonic for not being able to travel anywhere.

*Salt HousesHala Alyan

“Easier, she thinks, to remember nothing, to enter a world already changed, than have it transform before your eyes. In the palaces, the grandparents must sit in their extravagant rooms, remembering sand. Nostalgia is an affliction.”

A beautiful book – evoking the pain and suffering of human memory and nostalgia.

“Poor innocent things, he thinks. What is a life? A series of yeses and noes, photographs you shove in a drawer somewhere, loves you think will save you but that cannot. Continuing to move, enduring, not stopping even when there is pain. That’s all life is, he wants to tell her. It’s continuing.”

*I Will Never See the World Again: The Memoir of an Imprisoned WriterAhmet Altan

“Forgetting is the greatest source of freedom a person can have. The prison, the cell, the walls, the doors, the locks, the problems and the people – everything and everyone placing limits on my life and telling me “you cannot go beyond” is erased and gone.”

The pain of memory, the relief of erasure. A different kind of freedom.

“There is a cure for everything. Except longing.”

Turkish political prisoner and journalist Ahmet Altan writes of being imprisoned and the conditions within the country that enabled his imprisonment. Sometimes with humor, fearlessly, and sometimes sparking emotion — both sadness and anger.

“While the policemen searched the apartment, I put the kettle on. “Would you like some tea?” I asked. They said they would not. “It is not a bribe,” I said, imitating my late father, “you can drink some.” Exactly forty-five years ago, on a morning just like this one, they had raided our house and arrested my father. My father asked the police if they would like some coffee. When they declined, he laughed and said, “It is not a bribe, you can drink some.” What I was experiencing was not déjà vu. Reality was repeating itself. This country moves through history too slowly for time to go forward, so it folds back on itself instead. Forty-five years had passed and time had returned to the same morning. During the space of that morning which lasted forty-five years, my father had died and I had grown old, but the dawn and the raid were unchanged.”

*The Body: A Guide for OccupantsBill Bryson

“As with so much else, you experience the world that your brain allows you to experience.” –The Body: A Guide for OccupantsBill Bryson

I have never liked the self-satisfied and judgmental Bill Bryson, and some of his books betray these personality defects more than others. I include The Body here in spite of its writer, as I think the book simplified the human body in an engaging way — exploring anatomy through relatable language and analogies. Some interesting language and analogies, even if not new, included:

  • Color isn’t a fixed reality but a perception
  • “The upshot is that memory is not a fixed and permanent record, like a document in a filing cabinet. It is something much more hazy and mutable. As Elizabeth Loftus told an interviewer in 2013, “It’s a little more like a Wikipedia page. You can go in there and change it, and so can other people.””
  • “It will not have escaped your attention that the mouth is a moist and glistening vault.”
  • the antibiotic crisis is already here – it’s not a looming crisis
  • ““You can make a real mess of yourself, but you are very likely to survive. Killing yourself is actually difficult.”
  •  “A meta-analysis showed that for older people the risk of a heart attack was raised for up to three hours after sex, but it was similarly raised for shoveling snow, and sex is more fun than shoveling snow.”
  • “It’s remarkable that bad things don’t happen more often. According to one estimate reported by Ed Yong in The Atlantic, the number of viruses in birds and mammals that have the potential to leap the species barrier and infect us may be as high as 800,000. That is a lot of potential danger.” (We’re seeing this now, aren’t we?)
  • “When I met Washington University’s Michael Kinch in St. Louis, I asked him what he believed was the greatest disease risk to us now. “Flu,” he said without hesitation. “Flu is way more dangerous than people think. For a start, it kills a lot of people already—about thirty to forty thousand every year in the United States—and that’s in a so-called good year. But it also evolves very rapidly, and that’s what makes it especially dangerous.”
  • “Two things can be said with confidence about life expectancy in the world today. One is that it is really helpful to be rich. If you are middle-aged, exceptionally well-off, and from almost any high-income nation, the chances are excellent that you will live into your late eighties. The second thing that can be said with regard to life expectancy is that it is not a good idea to be an American. Compared with your peers in the rest of the industrialized world, even being well-off doesn’t help you here.”
  • Your lifestyle is the most likely thing to kill you, and many of the cultural and socioeconomic inequalities facing society now contribute to this. “IN 2011, AN interesting milestone in human history was passed. For the first time, more people globally died from non-communicable diseases like heart failure, stroke, and diabetes than from all infectious diseases combined. We live in an age in which we are killed, more often than not, by lifestyle. We are in effect choosing how we shall die, albeit without much reflection or insight.”
  • “It is an extraordinary fact that having good and loving relationships physically alters your DNA. Conversely, a 2010 U.S. study found, not having such relationships doubles your risk of dying from any cause.”

Coincidences

*Walking on the CeilingAyşegül Savaş

“M. sometimes referred to our shared memory palace, where the two of us had invented our own times of day (he always found a different way to bring up “The Invention of Midnight”). The rooms of this building, he said, which contained replicas of the most unremarkable sights, had turned into treasures.”

“This idea of a palace has stayed with me, even if I believe it is too neatly constructed to shed light on the devious ways of memory. Its innocent sleight of hand is only in the amplification of what is remembered, when the truth has so much more to do with hiding and forgetting.” –Walking on the CeilingAyşegül Savaş

In asking ourselves questions about who we are as individuals and in relation to others, and how we are woven into, or fraying at the edges of, the wider tapestry of our familial and social circles, and more broadly into society, we may neglect to look at a lot of factors because they seem far removed from our own daily realities. Depending on who we are, these factors could include socioeconomic class, race, gender, our relationship to faith or religion, geography, and our place in the culture in which we live, even if we feel that we are not included in it. These considerations generate deeper questions that, even if painful, begin to free us to find out who we really are – outside the rules of traditional economics, outside the boundaries of consumer culture, outside of our relationships with others.

While Walking on the Ceiling did not delve into any of these questions, its inclusion in this list comes as a kind of meeting point among the uniting themes of the other works that influenced me this month. We are examining and re-examining the stories we’ve told ourselves as cultures and nations, and there’s a reckoning underway: who has the voice and privilege to define and decide what these stories are? Who will re-contextualize incomplete, one-sided histories? Who creates and enforces collective memory and how? For example, as the nefarious US attorney general, Bill Barr, alarmingly stated not long ago, “History is written by the winners, so it largely depends on who is writing the history.” Or, as musician Sam Phillips wrote, “History is written to say, ‘It wasn’t our fault, wasn’t our fault…”, which inevitably means that someone is on the other side of that equation taking the blame.

For more than two centuries of US history at least, history has been created (yes, created, because it is an interpretation) by those with the loudest voices, ownership, most to protect/lose – power – and this has in many cases become a kind of brainwashing-induced mythology by which Americans define their identities and their so-called “freedom”. But this history is not every American’s story, not every American’s history. Perhaps this is changing now, as at least large swathes of the population begin to confront the ugliness of history and how it continues to pervade, influence and oppress other large swathes of the population who have been systematically disenfranchised, ignored or abused. Even if memory, which underpins what we call history, is perhaps challenging and deceptive, and susceptible to corruption, it still cannot be erased or debased en masse. There can always be a counterbalance to the dominant retelling of the story. If, as Savaş insists in Walking, “…people lived their whole lives telling stories, and by story he meant something like delusion. Everyone, he said, had a story of themselves. They told it again and again, at every chance they got”, we should always have multiple narratives and voices to help define the story – and history, Bill Barr and his ilk be damned.

As a side note, I highlighted this book in the first place as coincidental because it featured the “memory palace” (method of loci) concept that also came up in tv’s Dispatches from Elsewhere.

Biggest disappointment

*The Days of AbandonmentElena Ferrante

“What a mistake it had been to close off the meaning of my existence in the rites that Mario offered with cautious conjugal rapture. What a mistake it had been to entrust the sense of myself to his gratifications, his enthusiasms, to the ever more productive course of his life. What a mistake, above all, it had been to believe that I couldn’t live without him, when for a long time I had not been at all certain that I was alive with him.” –The Days of AbandonmentElena Ferrante

While I didn’t hate this book, my lack of appreciation probably represents a kind of fatigue after reading too much Ferrante in short succession. It’s not even that this book is bad – perhaps it is more my dislike for the shrill and shallow nature of the main character, who comes completely undone when her husband reveals he has been unfaithful and is leaving her. Over the course of the story more hurtful details emerge about the infidelity, and indeed cause the character near-breakdown-level grief.

I think what was remarkable about the book and its characterization this breakdown – filled with angst, regret, anger, jealousy and the whole gamut of (sometimes contradictory) emotions people feel when a relationship ends – is how well it describes what one must confront in the face of such a rupture. Over the course of a long relationship, one doesn’t see clearly how intertwined their life has become with that of the other. And sometimes, as was the case here – that life is not even combined or co-lived but is lost within and subsumed by the life and desires of the other.

When these realizations hit, it’s powerful, painful and starts an examination of the past, when the only way forward is to think instead of the future. While there’s not necessarily anything wrong with having merged two lives together, the loss of identity (which I recently highlighted as a theme from tv’s imaginative and unusual Dispatches from Elsewhere) is crushing, all the more because its erosion is so gradual one doesn’t realize it until reality is shaken. Infidelity, as explored by Esther Perel in The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, is complex: it violates not only the sense of self and security of the “betrayed” (“being chosen has taken on an importance it never had before. Monogamy is the sacred cow of the romantic ideal, for it confirms our specialness. Infidelity says, You’re not so special after all“), but can also reflect the fragmentation of the “betrayers” identity (“Sometimes, when we seek the gaze of another, it isn’t our partner we are turning away from, but the person we have become. We are not looking for another lover so much as another version of ourselves“). Coming to terms with what was thought to be reality versus what actually was can create deep estrangement from…everyone, including oneself, and create obstacles to moving forward.

I didn’t enjoy this book in a standard way, but appreciate that Ferrante has captured in visceral color what it feels like to go through this.

“No, I thought, squeezing the rag and struggling to get up: starting at a certain point, the future is only a need to live in the past. To immediately redo the grammatical tenses.” –The Days of AbandonmentElena Ferrante

*Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and PovertyDaron Acemoğlu

Interesting book – but not as interesting as I had hoped. Some interesting ideas here, for example citing Jared Diamond’s hypothesis that intercontinental inequality has more to do with plants, animals and agriculture than with culture. Culture, meanwhile, doesn’t explain everything.

“Is the culture hypothesis useful for understanding world inequality? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that social norms, which are related to culture, matter and can be hard to change, and they also sometimes support institutional differences, this book’s explanation for world inequality. But mostly no, because those aspects of culture often emphasized—religion, national ethics, African or Latin values—are just not important for understanding how we got here and why the inequalities in the world persist. Other aspects, such as the extent to which people trust each other or are able to cooperate, are important but they are mostly an outcome of institutions, not an independent cause.” –Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and PovertyDaron Acemoğlu

The changing workscape: Embracing negativity

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It’s not negativity, dummy – it’s reality. Listen to reality! Do not be held hostage to “groupidity”!

An ongoing frustration for people grounded in reality is the failure of the organizations they work in to listen to and act on the reality of a situation. Today I read in Business Week why negativity is an undervalued – and often completely dismissed and discouraged – aspect of the workplace. We have all worked with someone who constantly “disrupts” the seeming flow of the perfect plan with 100 questions about the real implementation of the plan. Everyone gets frustrated with this because it is almost always seen as negative, dragging the group down and not being positive about the plan. But the truth is – if a group could tap into even a fraction of the “negative doubts” being raised by that one “pain in the ass”, it is possible that a lot of pain could be saved down the line.

“Why did they try to shoot the messenger instead of listening to the message? One answer is that’s what organizations do—especially dysfunctional organizations. As a young IT consultant, I sat through more than one meeting where we, or someone, tried to stop a client from doing something obviously crazy. Usually, the result was that the client did something crazy, and that someone went looking for another job.

Doctor No, that grating in-house critic, can be your most valuable employee—if you can make yourself listen. That’s surprisingly hard to do. Organizations exist for the purpose of doing stuff. That’s what their staff is hired to do. The guy who says maybe we shouldn’t do that stuff—or the stuff we’re doing isn’t working—is not very popular. There’s a large body of literature on dissenters, and it mostly tells you what you already know if you’ve ever been to a project meeting: Nobody likes a Negative Nancy.”

Interestingly, the article cites the Challenger space shuttle launch decision and the systematic redefinition and reassessment of “risk” and risk parameters to justify the launch and ever-riskier decisions and behavior. Of note, back in the late 1990s when I was doing my MPA, the book the article refers to (The Challenger Launch Decision by Diane Vaughan) was a text we used as a case study to look at risk assessment in the public sector. It was fascinating.

“Investigations into the disaster showed NASA had fallen prey to what you might call “groupidity,” a special form of groupthink in which we collectively become willing to take risks we individually recognize as stupid—because everybody else in the room seems to think it’s fine. NASA had been noticing unexpected problems with the O-rings for a while. At meetings about that issue, they systematically redefined what they considered risky, and concerns about the O-rings were downplayed.”

Not all corporate decisions are life or death, as the fateful Challenger decision turned out to be, but can anyone afford to ignore the cold hard facts of reality?

An extension of stifling the “voice of reason” – particularly by maligning it as being a naysaying, nitpicking killjoy who likes to derail things just for the sake of negativity – is that people pay a high price for acting happy and inauthentic. I read an article (kind of a tangent but still came to mind for me) about employees forced to behave in a certain “happy” way in customer service roles, and I would argue that this extends to being forced or pressured to pretend that reality is other than it is (or being sidelined because no one wants to hear your reality), i.e. swallowing the “group truth” to go along with the happy sheep herd of “groupidity”.

“Surface acting is when front line service employees, the ones who interact directly with customers, have to appear cheerful and happy even when they’re not feeling it. This kind of faking is hard work—sociologists call it “emotional labor”—and research shows that it’s often experienced as stressful. It’s psychologically and even physically draining; it can lead to lowered motivation and engagement with work, and ultimately to job burnout.

Having to act in a way that’s at odds with how one really feels—eight hours a day, five days a week (or longer)—violates the human need for a sense of authenticity. We all want to feel that we’re the same person on the outside as we are on the inside, and when we can’t achieve that congruence, we feel alienated and depersonalized.”

This article discusses the customer-facing employee – but what about the employee facing and interacting with other employees within an organization? The “Negative Nancy” illustrated in the previous example article about the benefits of negativity? How is Negative Nancy, with her deep thinking, analysis and bad news supposed to face coming to work every day facing a room full of skeptics who think everything is okay? What kind of emotional labor is she facing?

And how do we handle this in an organization – particularly one that is dysfunctional or downplays/discourages dissent and may even ostracize those who are notoriously critical? (And where is the distinction between “negative” and “critical”!?)

For now, late on a Saturday night, try not to take it to heart, because, as Mark E Smith of The Fall  would advise in his mad genius wisdom, “Life just bounces/so don’t you get worried at all…”. Perhaps this is willfully ignoring reality and becoming a Pangloss (i.e., “everything will be fine in the end because it will turn out how it’s meant to turn out”).

Backbiting

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While perhaps I could be a willing proponent of literal back biting (haha), the whole concept of “backbiting”, as in badmouthing someone who is not present (or, as I define it here, complaining about something rather vague only to have someone with whom I was speaking create a drama about it and turn it into backbiting – even if there was no text or subtext to indicate that), is not my thing. I have suffered the consequences of, but not permanently learned a lesson from, confiding in all the wrong people – or just by being opinionated and unabashed about opening my mouth. The most understanding ear is often attached to the most treacherous snake. The problem comes when you realize it too late. I am not really in a situation like that although I suspect that some of my complaints are making the rounds (but not in a malicious, backbiting, drama-creating way), but I have not yet pinpointed who the “culprit” is, so still freely sharing my opinions and frustrations. (In such scenarios, images of the film Raise the Red Lantern spring immediately to mind.)

I don’t know why this train of thought makes me think of a teacher I had in junior high and high school. Maybe because we ended up making fun of her behind her back all the time? Maybe because, in the course of a fairly short span of time, people can change, and you (and they) want to preserve you exactly as you were when you met them. In this case, the teacher in question taught my pre-algebra class when I was about 12. She was an incredible teacher who made all manner of mathematical complexities seem simple, assigning everything very methodical approaches that were so grounding and solid that they carried me through algebra and various other mathematical pursuits long after that class had ended, and I was exposed to much less gifted math teachers. You know what they say about getting the basics right. She left the junior high to teach at the high school, and I relied completely on the fundamentals she had taught, but little by little, each step I made in math was a downhill step. By the time I hit geometry in 9th grade, I was lost and had no idea what was going on (not to mention that I have no ability to conceptual shapes and angles and could not begin to write a proof about how an angle as big as my fingernail was the same as some angle that was as big as a house).

This teacher had her quirks, of course (ultimately why we made fun of her), from the laminated posters of Neil Diamond plastered all over her classroom to the what I can only refer to as “whorehouse chandelier” earrings, to her love for expressions like, “Yowza!”. She was her own character. Her self-satisfied attitude and even the “I am cool” voice she adopted in her teaching was enough to sicken me. But you can’t really argue with a virtuoso, particularly when she clearly not only knew her stuff but knew how to convey that information in a neat and palatable way. (I still can’t quite erase the memory of her smug expression and tone when she would show you some easy way to solve an equation and say, “All you have to do is plug… (pause for effect) and chug.” My response: Ugh.

But people change. I am sure she was still a math-teaching whiz by the time I got to the high school and landed in algebra II/trigonometry. She just did not apply herself. It was in fact only because of her mastery and teaching skill that I could manage the more algebraic elements of trigonometry. But for me there was WAY too much geometry mixed into trig (just seeing a webpage about trig has me petrified), and I was completely derailed. And by this time, the once careful, methodical, albeit arrogant, teacher, had taken on all kinds of extracurricular duties, like coaching the track team and god knows what else. She created all kinds of barriers between herself and the students, such as insisting that during class, she would only accept two questions on the homework. As a result of all these limitations, I got more and more lost, and by the time I began failing exams, it was too late. She, reflecting on her memory of my identity as a “good math student” from our previous time in the same classroom, called me in for a one-on-one chat and basically asked, “What happened to you?” (She was also not impressed by my brief pseudo-goth appearance, which seemed to make her think I was on drugs.)

Frankly, I wanted to ask the same thing, so far was she from her teaching roots. “What happened to you?”

Ultimately we were, in those three short years, in completely different places in our lives. When she finally saw how much I was flailing about and bothered to ask me if something was wrong and whether she could dedicate any time to help me further – because suddenly she was more than willing to answer as many questions as I had – it was too late. I was so far gone that I did not even know how to ask questions about what I did not understand.