“Someone who’s on top of the world isn’t much of an observer: happy people are poor psychologists. But someone who’s troubled about something is on the alert. The perceived threat sharpens his senses—he takes in more than he usually does.” –The Post-Office Girl – Stefan Zweig
Image by S Donaghy
Another late book report. No good excuses other than… I kept reading more in July, not stopping to reflect too deeply on the things I read in June. I was also compiling a list of books on dealing with racist ignorance (a list that continues to evolve as I continue to educate myself).
Previous book reports: 2020 – May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.
Thoughts on reading for June:
“But if we use the wrong language, we cannot describe what we are seeing.” –Surviving Autocracy – Masha Gessen
A great book chronicling the history of socialist Red Clydeside in Glasgow. It’s a bit of a niche read, as most people don’t care about Glasgow, but a valuable history of a city defined by labor movements and fighting for workers’ rights amidst poverty, war and a period of exceptionally rapid and dramatic social and economic change.
“In a country where abortion has been a constitutional right for forty-five years, we should be able to move on to a richer conversation about ethics and morality. We should be able to acknowledge the complexity of private decisionmaking without threatening the right of private decisionmaking.“
I practically highlighted this entire book, which isn’t really helpful when trying to impart succinct ideas in a brief (haha) blog format. Although I wish everyone would read and try to understand it, I know it’s a difficult sell. Abortion is not a topic people are open to reading about, talking about or treating with any kind of nuance. The arguments are well-reasoned, persuasive and, most of all, important.
“One result of our public and private silence about the experience of abortion is that doctors and clinic managers have become the public face of abortion. Unlike other health issues, in which patients and families advocate for future patients and the doctors and institutions that helped them, in abortion we ask those who provide something millions of women and families want and need to also shoulder most of the burden of its defense. That doesn’t seem fair, and I don’t think it’s sustainable.”
“The “abortion is always a difficult decision” masterplot underscores the moral seriousness people making this decision are expected to have. But people who don’t struggle with an abortion decision are not necessarily less morally serious than those who do—they’re just less undecided. Someone who is clear about who she is, what she values, and what she wants is not casual. She is confident. Yet there are few examples of this type of counter-narrative. Bringing a child into the world is of great moral consequence, yet we don’t frame the decision to have a child as a difficult decision people always struggle with. So why wouldn’t some abortion decisions feel similarly obvious?“
But the public rhetoric about abortion treats it as less a personal medical issue and more a moral and religious one. And the mismatch between what is true (actions) versus what is said (ideas, beliefs) is stark. So many more people have abortions than will ever admit it.
“Dr. Willie Parker identifies a related masterplot—“Abortion is always a tragedy”—and in Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice, he offers his experience as an abortion provider as a counter-narrative. In doing so, he describes a large number of women whom I’d call confident. One of the cultural falsehoods that I most rail against is this: each and every abortion is a terrible tragedy and every woman who chooses to have an abortion is therefore a tragic figure. In this popular narrative, women are helpless victims—and not clear-eyed individuals making a sensible choice to benefit themselves and the people around them. I know, from seeing women every day, how far this is from being true. Most of the women I see are utterly matter-of-fact about what they’re doing. They’re on my table because they need to be. … It may be difficult in a misogynist culture to regard women who freely choose sex and who freely choose to have abortions when needed as free agents taking their lives into their own hands. But the alternative is to see them as less than fully human and requiring of paternalistic intervention.”
And once more… the language and words we use matter.
“How we think shapes how we talk, and how we talk shapes how we think. That’s why terminology is contested ground in the abortion conversation. But all of our under- and over-inclusive words for embryos and fetuses make me wonder: Is it really that helpful to have seventeen words for snow? Or is the point rather that when you talk about something complex and important you need a range of words to describe it, each of which captures an important element, because none of them can encompass it all?“
How could we effectively reframe the language and thinking about abortion to change the discussion and make people see it in different ways? Much of what I read this month comes back to language and how it is used to frame or reframe issues (see the coincidence/Lakoff points below).
“It observes that American adults are never required to sacrifice their bodies to save another person, and argues there’s no reason pregnant women should be held to a different standard. The most famous of these arguments was made by philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson in 1971. She posited a parallel universe in which you wake up to find an adult, who happens to be a violinist, is attached to your body. He needs to be plugged into your circulatory system in order to live, and if you disconnect him he will die. She argues that the adult violinist has a right to life, but that is different than having a right to life support from another person’s body. According to Jarvis Thomson, a right to life is a right not to be killed—so if the violinist was flourishing on his own, shooting him at his recital would violate his right to life. But the violinist’s right to life does not include a right to be kept alive—so if he needs your body to stay alive, it is not unethical for you to disconnect him. Sacrificing your body to keep someone alive makes you a Good Samaritan, but it’s not morally required. This leads Jarvis Thomson to reason that even if an embryo or fetus has the same moral value as an adult, abortion is morally permissible.“
“Organ donation is not called “the obligation of life.” It’s called “the gift of life” because American medical ethics and law both say that no person can be forced to give a piece of their body to another. Our commitment to bodily integrity is so strong that we respect your wishes even after you’re dead—your desire to be buried intact is valued more in our culture than another person’s desire to stay alive.“
“Pregnancy can be viewed as a form of organ donation. A woman undergoes significant physical changes that can range from uncomfortable to dangerous for months so another’s life can be sustained by her major organs. It occupies her uterus, her heart must pump extra blood to give it oxygen, her kidneys must process its urine, and so on. These similarities mean the choice to lend one’s body to a developing human should also be considered a gift, not a requirement. The American tradition and law of self-defense offers another real-world analogy. When a person breaks into your house, you’re allowed to kill him. (The legal standard usually requires imminent threat of serious harm.) This suggests a woman who experiences an unwelcome pregnancy as bodily break-in by a different type of intruder should be able to respond to the threat of physical harm to her body and irrevocable disruption of her life by taking lethal action.”
“The difficulty with absorbing the news lies, in part, in the words we use, which have a way of rendering the outrageous ordinary. The secretary of education was held in contempt, and this astounding event was narrated in normalizing newspaper prose: probably the strongest description called it an “exceedingly rare judicial rebuke of a Cabinet secretary.” This could not begin to describe the drama of a cabinet member remaining unrepentant for her agency’s seizure of assets from people whom it had been ordered by the courts to leave in peace—sixteen thousand people.”
“When some of the post-Soviet societies developed in unexpected ways, language impaired our ability to understand the process. We talked about whether they had a free press, for example, or free and fair elections. But noting that they did not, as Magyar has said, is akin to saying that the elephant cannot swim or fly: it doesn’t tell us much about what the elephant is. Now the same thing was happening in the United States; we were using the language of political disagreement, judicial procedure, or partisan discussion to describe something that was crushing the system that such terminology was invented to describe.”
I doubt that anyone needs more analysis or discussion of the (beyond) dysfunctional, shambolic presidency of Donald Trump. However, coming from Masha Gessen, a voice of authority on the signs of impending autocracy, this is a must-read. Or, in Bálint Magyar’s terminology, we should, through Gessen, examine “the concept of autocratic transformation, which proceeds in three stages: autocratic attempt, autocratic breakthrough, and autocratic consolidation.”
As with Katie Watson’s book listed above, I cannot emphasize enough how important this book is, how much I wish everyone would and could read it. I would end up copy-pasting the entire book here if I were not conscious of how useless that would be. Of course the people who need to understand what has been happening during and before Trump — the lead-up to and introduction of autocratic rule — will never read this or believe what they are reading.
“Both ways of framing the policy—whether by stressing that calling something a lie goes beyond fact and becomes opinion, or by focusing on internal, unknowable intent—place artificial limits on a journalist’s ability to observe reality. In order to assume that Trump was not aware that he was lying when he said that millions of immigrants had voted illegally, or that Obama had him wiretapped, or that his tax cut was the biggest in history, or that the economy was better than ever, or that he was building a wall and this wall would keep out drugs and crime, one had to ignore the very act of repetition. Trump repeats his false statements after they have been fact-checked by the media and, in many cases, contradicted by officials in his own administration—and it is this repetition that gives Trumpian lies much of their power.”
The people who need to read and understand that we are living in an autocracy will never see it, have bought into the lies, are blind to the outright “belief that political power should produce personal wealth” and have drunk the KoolAid. They are ready to die for (perhaps literally, thanks to Covid) this lying criminal alongside the endless churn of his lackeys and sycophants.
“The Reichstag Fire was used to create a “state of exception,” as Carl Schmitt, Hitler’s favorite legal scholar, called it. In Schmitt’s terms, a state of exception arises when an emergency, a singular event, shakes up the accepted order of things. This is when the sovereign steps forward and institutes new, extralegal rules. The emergency enables a quantum leap: Having amassed enough power to declare a state of exception, the sovereign then, by that declaration, acquires far greater, unchecked power.”
“A study of modern autocrats may show us that a Reichstag Fire is never quite the singular and signal event that changes the course of history, but it will also expose a truth behind the single-event narrative: autocrats declare their intentions early on. We disbelieve or ignore them at our peril.”
“We disbelieve or ignore them at our peril.” This is exactly what we have done. And now look at where we are. Trump has been telling us exactly who he is and what he wants to do for decades, and American belief in institutions and checks and balances — as well as a naive “presumption of good faith” — created an environment not dissimilar to that chronicled by Saul Friedländer (mentioned below) about the years leading up to the Holocaust. It’s not an exact parallel, but enough parallels can be drawn to show similarities: a complacent populace, civil unrest, economic uncertainty, the normalization of inflammatory and violent (often deranged) rhetoric, a failed attempt to impeach, and a continuing naivete assuming that all of this is benign, all of this will pass.
“Trump had campaigned on insulting the government, and he himself was an insult to the presidency. But could someone so absurd, so evidently incompetent, be a true danger? In the early months of the Trump presidency, the hope that Trump would become “presidential” was gradually replaced by the hope that he was too bad at the job to do true lasting damage. We could have imagined, but we could not have predicted, that a pandemic would render his arrogant ignorance lethal. We imagine the villains of history as masterminds of horror. This happens because we learn about them from history books, which weave narratives that retrospectively imbue events with logic, making them seem predetermined. Historians and their readers bring an unavoidable perception bias to the story: if a historical event caused shocking destruction, then the person behind this event must have been a correspondingly giant monster.”
Poetry, of course. I have always loved such collections. This one was a beautiful discovery when researching Central and South American women poets.
Another poetry research discovery.
Lovely poetry from Uruguay.
Each time I approach a Christian Wiman book of poetry, I imagine I won’t like it. I don’t know why because each time the collection is full of surprises.
“Indifferent and without desires before, now she’s beginning to realize what she’s been missing. This contact with the overpowering is her first encounter with travel’s disconcerting ability to strip the hard shell of habit from the heart, leaving only the bare, fertile kernel.”
Status and class and the process of becoming aware of that as well as the power wielded by appearances and class – and how easily it can all be derailed.
“There’s nothing more vindictive, nothing more underhanded, than a little world that would like to be a big one.”
“Fear is a distorting mirror in which anything can appear as a caricature of itself, stretched to terrible proportions; once inflamed, the imagination pursues the craziest and most unlikely possibilities. What is most absurd suddenly seems the most probable…”
This is what it is like to live in a capitalist, wealth-obsessed world and highly reflective of the world we live in now.
“He’d identified a flaw in the system that few seemed to recognize. The Endangered Species Act was not a conservation strategy—it was the emergency room. By the time a species was endangered, the whole system was failing. It was code blue; life support could be administered at great cost, but a full return to health was out of the question.“
This is really a book I had no expectations of, and didn’t imagine I’d enjoy as much as I did. Yet it was engrossing – the tale of a strange man, marching to his own beat, whose entire life becomes a mission to save the world’s wild salmon.
“I came to regard the fish swimming in our river as shape-shifters. The rainbow trout of the Deschutes could, under certain circumstances, transform their physiology and become anadromous: able to live in both fresh and salt water. They could leave the river as rainbow trout and come back as salmon. I still find it baffling that a creature can start life as one creature and end as another, like a dog going to the woods for a year and emerging as a wolf.“
Good – or better than expected
Writer Aidt writing a thoughtful and melancholy account of life after the death of her son.
“In Ísafjörður, the capital of Iceland’s remote Westfjords region, a Lutheran pastor compared eiderdown to cocaine. “I sometimes think that we are like the coca farmers in Colombia,” he said. “We [the down harvesters] get a fraction of the price when the product hits the streets of Tokyo. This is the finest down in the world and we are exporting it in black garbage bags.”
I am not sure why this book stuck with me. Most of it was not that fabulous, but it started by telling the tale of Iceland’s eiderdown harvests, and it was so fascinating and evocative — and filled me with a renewed homesickness for Iceland — that I was drawn in. Perhaps I’d recommend this book primarily for the opening chapter, although it tells the unusual and improbable stories of eiderdown, vicuña fiber, sea silk, vegetable ivory, civet coffee, guano, and edible birds’ nests… not exactly subjects about which most of us know… anything.
“What my uncle said made me think. I had resented America, too. But by reading their books, I saw the other side of them—their humanity. Somehow I was sure that if people were willing to read each other, and see the light of other cultures, there would be no war on earth.“
A story of a multigenerational Vietnamese family over the course of the 20th century. Beautifully written, bringing Vietnam itself to life in the prose, weaving the unwelcome conflicts of the 20th century, and the inevitable ensuing upheaval, into the lives of the characters.
“Man has continued to evolve by acts of disobedience. Not only was his spiritual development possible only because there were men who dared to say no to the powers that be in the name of their conscience or their faith, but also his intellectual development was dependent on the capacity for being disobedient—disobedient to authorities who tried to muzzle new thoughts and to the authority of long-established opinions which declared a change to be nonsense.“
We continue to exist in a world that tries to harness and control people — and disobedience remains a powerful force for change. It also exposes the hypocrisy of the dominant paradigm and powers that be. Just before writing this I was told of a heated exchange on a British talk show in which a middle-aged woman (Carole Malone) decried the removal of a statue, which was replaced by a statue of a Black Lives Matter activist. It was clear that the replacement statue was meant as a statement, an act of disobedience and resistance, but she wasn’t having any of it — this was wrong and clearly a form of vandalism. When asked whether she saw Banksy’s work the same way, she insisted that, no, this was not the same because Banksy is “making a statement”. How and in what world is the statue removal and replacement not making a statement? In this case it was probably less about disobedience and more about Malone’s unconscious racial bias. But still… disobedience and resistance makes news, draws attention to issues and, as Fromm makes clear, is required as an ingredient for freedom.
Freedom may take on different definitions, but a society that is not free to question and resist power, particularly where it’s corrupt, isn’t free.
“From socialist principles it follows not only that each member of society feels responsible for his fellow citizens, but for all citizens of the world. The injustice which lets two-thirds of the human race live in abysmal poverty must be removed by an effort far beyond the ones hitherto made by wealthy nations to help the underdeveloped nations to arrive at a humanly satisfactory economic level. Humanistic socialism stands for freedom. It stands for freedom from fear, want, oppression, and violence. But freedom is not only from, but also freedom to; freedom to participate actively and responsibly in all decisions concerning the citizen, freedom to develop the individual’s human potential to the fullest possible degree.“
“Longing is thorns.“
A novel based on the premise that one day all the Palestinians disappear from Israel — what happens then?
I went on an Ian McEwan “bender” during June… one book after another. Some were excellent, like this (which I’ve seen the film adaptation of), and others completely forgettable.
“Such faith in endless mutability, in remaking yourself as you came to understand more or changed your version, he had come to see as an aspect of her femininity. Where once he had believed, or thought he ought to believe, that men and women were, beyond all the obvious physical differences, essentially the same, he now suspected that one of their many distinguishing features was precisely their attitudes to change. Past a certain age, men froze into place; they tended to believe that, even in adversity, they were somehow at one with their fates. They were who they thought they were.“
Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof
I didn’t expect to enjoy this book, but it was actually quite informative. Obviously about presidents who ended up being presidents… by accident.
It’s been a long while since I read a Kurlansky book. I recall being stuck in the Halifax airport for the better part of a day, plowing my way through his book on the Basque people. Hard to believe that was already 20 years ago.
“At times soldiers were even paid in salt, which was the origin of the word salary and the expression “worth his salt” or “earning his salt.” In fact, the Latin word sal became the French word solde, meaning pay, which is the origin of the word, soldier.“
While there was nothing revolutionary here, it was still quite an interesting walk through the history of one of the world’s most common condiments.
“They also ate a great deal of salted herring, though they seem to have preferred lightly salted and smoked red herring, perhaps because of their limited salt supply. When these early settlers hunted, they would leave red herring along their trail because the strong smell would confuse wolves, which is the origin of the expression red herring, meaning “a false trail.””
“Our leaders responded to a financial collapse caused by a concentration of wealth and power by pushing even more wealth and power into the hands of the same people that caused it.“
Far from living in a decentralized age with competition and choice, we live in an era of monopolies and anti-competition the likes of which we’ve rarely seen before. And it poses a real danger to any semblance of democracy or control.
“Take a look around. You probably have a phone made by one of two companies. You likely bank at one of four giant banks, and fly on one of four big airlines. You connect with friends with either Facebook, WhatsApp, or Instagram, all of which are owned by one company. You get your internet through Comcast or AT&T. Data about your thoughts goes into a database owned by Google, what you buy into Amazon or Walmart, and what you owe into Experian or Equifax. You live in a world structured by concentrated corporate power.“
“Wright Patman was an optimist, but the rise of soft authoritarianism globally would not have surprised him. Dictatorship in politics is consistent with how the commercial sphere has developed since the 1970s. Americans are at the mercy of distant forces, our livelihoods dependent on the arbitrary whims of power. Patman once attacked chain stores as un-American, saying, “We, the American people, want no part of monopolistic dictatorship in… American business.” Having yielded to monopolies in business, we must now face the threat to democracy Patman warned they would sow.“
“Nobody would dispute such an obvious point; its significance derives from an essential fact. Not one social group, not one religious community, not one scholarly institution or professional association in Germany and throughout Europe declared its solidarity with the Jews (some of the Christian churches declared that converted Jews were part of the flock, up to a point); to the contrary, many social constituencies, many power groups were directly involved in the expropriation of the Jews and eager, be it out of greed, for their wholesale disappearance. Thus Nazi and related anti-Jewish policies could unfold to their most extreme levels without the interference of any major countervailing interests.“
An essential but difficult-to-read account of the persecution and killing of Europe’s Jews before and during World War II. It delves into the complex set of circumstances that set the stage for the mass-scale extermination that eventually ensued, including policy decisions, the willingness to obey orders, the blind belief in the rule of law (not considering that the law could be changed to suit the moment), the herd mentality, economic factors and scapegoating, and much more. It’s painstaking… and painful but more important the further away from this period of history we get.
“The chicken was a revelation; the result was poultry in motion.“
I read this on a lark, without having high hopes that it would be a great book. This is a lightweight and easy-to-read account of America’s fast-food history. It’s a straightforward and engaging story that eschews the “dark side” of fast food we’ve come to expect from exposé-style journalism and filmmaker (here I mean things like the Supersize Me documentary and other materials in the same vein).
Nothing here was very surprising, but it was put together in a way that made the ‘journey’ worth taking. For example, I read this quite soon after I’d read some other account of the life of KFC’s Colonel Sanders, so while Chandler reveals nothing new, he still brings the story to life. Even his treatment of the rise of the almighty cupholder came to life:
“By 2007, PricewaterhouseCoopers surveys had found that the number of cupholders had come to outstrip fuel efficiency as a priority for the American car buyer, though unprecedented hikes in gas prices in the late aughts would shuffle those priorities and hurt the sales of big cars. But by 2015, the mighty SUVs were booming again, along with a runaway number of cupholders. In late 2017, viral word of the features offered by a new-model Subaru SUV inspired euphoria and disbelief. The 2019 Ascent, pumped as “the biggest Subaru yet,” comes equipped with three passenger rows, 260 horsepower, and a staggering nineteen cupholders.“
Oddly, he makes a reference to “Buddy Garrity”, “Nearly fifty years later, Piazza is an impressive dead ringer for Buddy Garrity and is the owner of ten McDonald’s franchises”, and I had to wonder how many people reading it would be familiar enough with Buddy Garrity to get the reference.
I suspect that hearing is something we take very much for granted until we start to lose it. Right away I felt like I was reading retellings of stories I’ve heard from people so many times about how, having lived together for 30 years (or thereabouts), they realize that their partner is mumbling and angrily demanding, “Answer me!” even though the person has answered already. Hearing just begins to disappear, often in slow increments, and people don’t realize, stubbornly refusing to move to mitigate the damage.
“Hearing problems are often aggravated by the human tendency to do nothing and hope for the best, usually while pretending that everything is fine. This is the way we treat many health problems, although it’s not the way we typically treat threats to our other senses. People who need glasses almost always get them, and, as Lauren Dragan wrote on the website Wirecutter in 2018, “If someone told you that wearing certain jeans too often might trigger permanent leg numbness, or overuse of a hot sauce would cause you to lose your ability to taste sweets, you’d pay attention.” Yet people who notice trouble with their ears wait more than ten years, on average, before doing anything other than saying “Huh?,” turning up the TV, and asking other people to speak up. I heard a joke about a man who was worried his wife was going deaf. He told his doctor, who suggested a simple test. When the man got home, he stood at the door of the kitchen, where his wife was at the stove, and asked, “Honey, what’s for dinner?” She didn’t respond, so he moved closer and asked again. She still didn’t respond, so he stood directly behind her and asked one more time. She turned around and snapped, “For the third time, chicken!”“
“When you think you just lack words, what you really lack are ideas. Ideas come in the form of frames. When the frames are there, the words come readily.“
Earlier in this post I wrote about Katie Watson’s Scarlet A and Masha Gessen’s Surviving Autocracy, both of which describe the importance of language and how we must deliberately choose how we frame issues. Clearly the “coincidence” this month was that I managed to read books that cover a broad range of topics, but many of them come back to this very basic truth about language and how influential it is, and how it is fundamentally underpinned by metaphors and semantics and are backed by ideas that resonate deeply with the long-term concepts embedded deep within our cognitive function.
Lakoff has been writing from the linguist’s and progressive’s point of view, explaining how the conservative movement, particularly in the United States, have been so successful because of their command of framing their issues.
“Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions. In politics our frames shape our social policies and the institutions we form to carry out policies. To change our frames is to change all of this. Reframing is social change.”
Gessen writes about how the language we choose and use is instrumental in our understanding of the world, and in the case of Trump, the process of normalizing the exceedingly abnormal. Language and words carry real power. Progressives, democrats and those on “that side” of the line haven’t been as active or effective at deploying language and framing, which is something Lakoff tackles.
“The conservatives had set a trap: The words draw you into their worldview. That is what framing is about. Framing is about getting language that fits your worldview. It is not just language. The ideas are primary—and the language carries those ideas, evokes those ideas.“
“People think in frames. The strict father and nurturant parent frames each force a certain logic. To be accepted, the truth must fit people’s frames. If the facts do not fit a frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce off. Why? Neuroscience tells us that each of the concepts we have—the long-term concepts that structure how we think—is instantiated in the synapses of our brains. Concepts are not things that can be changed just by someone telling us a fact. We may be presented with facts, but for us to make sense of them, they have to fit what is already in the synapses of the brain. Otherwise facts go in and then they go right back out. They are not heard, or they are not accepted as facts, or they mystify us: Why would anyone have said that? Then we label the fact as irrational, crazy, or stupid. That’s what happens when progressives just “confront conservatives with the facts.” It has little or no effect, unless the conservatives have a frame that makes sense of the facts.”
Biggest disappointment (or disliked)
Nothing terribly disappointing to report, although there were plenty of things that were neither good nor bad.