Bloodlands: Book Review

In 1951 Claude Levi-Strauss, a French anthropologist, coined the pseudo-Latin term Reductio ad Hitlerum, which stood for making an argument, political or otherwise, that used Adolf Hitler as its substitute for logic, the classic example being, 1) Hitler is bad, 2) Hitler was a vegetarian, 3) Therefore vegetarianism is also bad.

Just a few months ago Gavriel Rosenfeld wrote in the Atlantic Monthly, “Adolf Hitler has been dead for more than 70 years, but he has gained immortality as a historical analogy.” Certainly this is the case. Hitler is invoked often, now just as much as then, as the worst of all possible political realizations, in either part or in whole. In high school we were taught the horrors of Auschwitz. One of the most popular video games of my childhood was called Medal of Honor, a game in which endless streams of Nazis poured forth from Normandy bunkers to be shot one after the other.

It’s also the case that American public policy and culture, up until this very moment and surely well beyond it, has been deeply influenced by a contentious relationship with the Soviet Union and now Russia. From the Cold War to Vietnam to wars in the Middle East to Donald Trump, America has defined itself as a global superpower committed to minimizing the influence of communism in its many forms but most often its Russian variant. And well before Donald Trump and the recent rise of global nationalism and populism each of these European specters, Nazism and Stalinism, haunted certain types of American political discourse, standing in as shorthand for our enemies on the left-right spectrum. Once upon a time “commie” used to be a popular insult for those on the left, which has evolved into “SJW.” Then and now we use versions of “fascist” and “Nazi” for those on the right.

Given how large Nazism and communism still loom in the public consciousness, I was surprised to find just how little I really knew about the Holocaust and Soviet atrocities during WWII after reading Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands.

The typical account learned by American students unsurprisingly focuses on America’s involvement in WWII and therefore misses much of what really happened and why it happened. For instance, I had always assumed Auschwitz was one of the larger Nazi death camps. It wasn’t. Camps like Treblinka, Sobibór, Belzec, and Chelmo killed far more and were designed for that purpose. I had also always assumed the Holocaust was primarily about German Jews. It wasn’t. German Jews were about 1% of victims. The majority of Jewish victims lived to the east of Germany in the Baltic States. And most of them were not killed in concentration camps but shot over death pits.

Bloodlands corrects many misunderstandings but most importantly it reframes the struggle for 20th century Europe around these atrocities. The title ‘bloodlands’ is meant to refer to the geographic locations in which these killings took place. Another surprise: there was much overlapping territory. But Snyder goes further. Not only was there overlapping geographic territory but overlapping justifications made by both Hitler and Stalin for killing huge numbers of ordinary citizens, including women and children.

I knew even less about the Soviet side of this coin because there were only very vague references to the Great Terror in school, maybe because it makes Americans (and FDR) look not-so-great foreign policy wise. The Great Terror (or “The Great Purge”) was carried out by Stalin in the 1930s, with the express goal of ridding the USSR of political dissent through terror and intimidation. The Great Purge was not carried out in concentration camps but through politically-enforced starvation, Gulags, and mass shootings. Snyder estimates 3.3 million Ukrainian peasants were killed.

Bloodlands is a well written and terribly depressing book; the story of how 14.4 million people were brutally tortured and killed using mechanized terror; a black hole around which much of our political imagination still orbits. Snyder takes the fuzzy details from American popularizations and sharpens them.

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A Good Thing Actually Happened on Twitter

Abdul Dremali is a photographer based in Boston, MA. His pictures are wonderful. Go follow him.

A few days ago Abdul posted an exchange he had with a, ahem, very hostile person on Twitter, prefacing the exchange with this tweet:

Image-1

Then it begins:

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Image-3.jpg

Now I don’t know about you but I would like to be more like Abdul in my online life. Personally, I get defensive at even very mild online criticism. Because, let’s face it, it’s scary to be criticized. Criticism can feel like death. Can make your stomach turn in knots. Not to mention an all out racist attack, which I would imagine results in much more than a sore stomach.

But what I really love here is how much compassion Abdul had to respond this way. Say what you will about what social media “incentivizes” people to do; this is rare in any case. Whether or not social media can or should be held responsible for our actions, and there is a lot of belly-aching about that nowadays, as though human frailty and inattention began in 2010, this kind of thing shows how far we can transcend how we are supposedly “incentivized” to behave.

Bravo, Abdul. May the rest of the internet follow your lead.

New Project

Hi all,

It’s been a while since I last posted. Reason being is that I’ve been involved in a new project that has taken up a good amount of creative bandwidth.

The new project can be found at cubecomics.net. Here’s our Instagram page.

It’s a comic called Tanner & Peebles, about two aliens that traverse the universe in a series of silly misadventures, prompted by a mysterious desire to leave home and to find purpose, wherever that may take them.

It’s really been a labor of love.

Anyway, I still intend to post on this blog. But a lot of creative energy will be going into these comics. So if you’d like to follow along the journey, check us out 🙂

And as always thank you all for your support.

Dan

The Unlikely Path to Literature

Nobody could have predicted that one of my greatest loves in life would be books. Not me and certainly not my parents or teachers. The most common theme that ran through my grade school, middle school and high school report cards was untapped potential, goofing off, and laziness. I got decent grades but my teachers could tell that I wasn’t applying myself, especially my teachers in English or, as we sometimes called it, Language Arts. Indeed, I was a mediocre student at best and harbored a special kind of animosity towards reading and books. To me, books were the clever invention of teachers to prevent little boys from playing outside. Summer reading lists were Hell’s itinerary, a way to burn perfectly good sunlight.

I cannot pinpoint any single event that made me a convert. The scales did not fall off my eyes in an instant. There wasn’t any single book or author. Rather it was the cumulative force of small endevours into literature. First dipping my toes into C.S. Lewis and Ernest Hemingway during lunch breaks as a lifeguard, and finding myself strangely moved in a way I had never before experienced, not even my favorite movies had made me feel this way, as though I was changed in a way that could not be reversed, seeing things in a way that could not be unseen. Then I happened on other good books. Sometimes I read a book because the idea came from somewhere on high that this was a very good and important book to read, canonical and so forth. That worked a few times. I loved (and still love) Charlotte Brontë, Shakespeare, and Richard Wright. But other times it didn’t work very well. I had to force myself to finish books by James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Jack Kerouac. But little by little, before I knew it, I was suddenly developing something resembling a literary taste that had characteristics indicating certain traditions. Traditions I had never heard of with academic names like Minimalism and High-Victorianism. Using these as guideposts I then found other authors who were part of the same clubs as my favorite authors but realized that these guideposts were rough at best, because literature of the highest level is an expression of unique personhood. So, for example, you might say that many of your friends have similar personality types but you probably have noticed they do not all act exactly the same. They might have generalizable characteristics but each is their own person. In the same way, developing a love for a certain type of literature (or of any art) is a process of self-discovery as much as anything else. You are learning about how you personally respond to certain styles. Now, the academic apparatus that produces access to those styles, genres, and groupings is not perfect. If you look for many years you will inevitably find artists who have been unjustly left out of the major canons to varying degrees of obscurity, i.e. “writer’s writers”—who are known only in specialist circles—like Samuel Beckett, Anne Carson, and Joy Williams; and the rabbit hole is about as deep as you are willing to go, to even more intense levels of geekdom and obscurity, i.e. “writer’s writer’s writers” like Robert Walser, Henry Green, and Pedro Páramo.

But, by the time I had gone this far down the rabbit hole, it was becoming apparent that my love of literature, my obsession, was going to be a lonely journey. Reading is already a solitary practice. You sit by yourself and apprehend words that were put to paper long before (sometimes very long before) they go into your brain. Now, in our time of digitization, reading is an ever more unlikely habit and therefore even more lonely. The data for book sales in the 21st century is not good. But even more than this, let me tell you dear reader, and you probably already know this, but I’ll say it anyway: it’s getting weirder and weirder, in the age of Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and Instagram, to be the person rummaging through stacks of used hardcovers as though it were a worthwhile thing to do.

I am not lamenting the slow death of books. Artforms come and go. As long as humans are humans (although, seriously, who knows how long before we all become robots?) creativity and art will find mediums of expression. But it is strange to have happened upon literature and to have been so impacted by it in its twilight years. Perhaps that is how a devotee of an artform proves their salt. By staying on the bandwagon regardless.

The weirdest part is how hard this all is to explain. I have tried many times and failed. Nothing anyone says can articulate the peculiar joy of reading. Until you happen to sit down with a book and it bites you in the right way, you cannot be preached or coaxed into it. And nothing can explain the sadness of watching your favorite art die a long and painless death as it sails away into a moonlit night to the country of the forgotten. You would like to somehow swim after the ship and bring her back to shore. But you can’t. She is too big, old, and rickety. And you are but one swimmer.

That’s kind of what it feels like.

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Pictures Worth a Thousand Kavanaughs

Today, September 28, 2018, at 1:30PM, the Senate will vote whether or not to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

This has obviously been a very large and newsy type issue with many think-pieces flying on all sides; some having gone so far as to declare the Kavanaugh hearings and impending nomination a watershed moment in American politics. At the very least current news events of this magnitude tend to take on a form that is larger than life. They are, dare I say, symbolic.

I spent a good deal of time watching the hearings yesterday. More time than I probably should have.

First, Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s accuser, came forward with allegations that when they were teenagers Kavanaugh drunkenly pinned her to a bed and attempted to rape her but was thwarted in his attempt by another boy, Mark Judge, a friend of Kavanaugh’s, who jokingly jumped on the two of them and toppled the group of them onto the floor, giving Ford time to escape the room, which had been locked.

Ford’s testimony was emotional and heartfelt—obviously symbolic for many women in America who have undergone similar experiences.

Then it was Kavanaugh’s turn. Kavanaugh had previously and unequivocally denied Ford’s allegations, plus those of two other women, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnik, each with their own stories of Kavanaugh’s behavior, but with less consensus in the media as to their credibility.

Since the hearing there seems to be more discussion of Kavanaugh’s testimony in the media, more disagreement as to its merits, as to what it symbolized, etc. Kavanaugh, a usually very mild-mannered person in his many years of public life, was, as you might expect, visibly shaken and angry—either because he was an innocent man wrongly accused of heinous acts or a guilty man rightly accused of heinous acts, on the grandest and most public stage imaginable.

Today the internet is a broiling cauldron of spicy hot-takes in re the Kavanaugh hearings. If you want to find an opinion out there on the internet that matches your own, surely you know where to find it. Or if you want to do some rage reading that calls out all the bleating zombie sheep on the other side, you know where to find that too.

I am not as interested in what the Kavanaugh hearings represent as I am in how the media talks about big events, and how the average viewer or reader’s access to these events is conditioned by the selective use of information or lack of information, and how the internet reinforces over and over the perpetuations of memes or story-lines which are marketed to us based on our taste for certain brands or flavors of media.

In 2014 Pew Research put out one of my favorite charts of all time. It’s a snapshot of the ideological makeup of some of the world’s largest and most influential media outlets:

pewpic
Pew Research

I decided to do a little experiment after the Kavanaugh hearings. Rather than pour through every article across the ideological spectrum and painstakingly piece together the logic of each position, usually with futile results, as is my usual wont, I decided to simply take the leading headlines and corresponding pictures of Kavanaugh, following the chart above, to see how each spot on the ideological spectrum was telling the story at a visual, gut level.

The results were… interesting.

  1. Breitbart
breitbart
Breitbart

2. The Blaze

theblaze
The Blaze

3. Drudge

drudge
The Drudge Report

4. Fox News

fox news
Fox News

5. The Wall Street Journal

wsj
The Wall Street Journal

6. NBC News

nbc news
NBC News

7. MSNBC

msnbc
MSNBC

8. New York Times

nyt
New York Times

9. Buzzfeed

buzzfeed
Buzzfeed

10. Slate

slate
Slate

11. The New Yorker

newyorker
The New Yorker

Is it just me or does Kavanaugh become more meek the further right you go and more menacing the further left you go?

I don’t know what the overall takeaway from this experiment is. Surely it adds little to the specifics in re the allegations against Kavanaugh, or his impending nomination.

But probably that’s up to you to decide.

Maybe it surprised you. Maybe it didn’t. In either case, it’s interesting to see how editorial decisions are made, how a public personae can be molded to fit a narrative through images so that, wherever we lie on the continuum, we can rest assured, thank goodness, that we have the one true gospel.

 

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Court Jesters, Norm MacDonald, & Imaginary Castles

   

1.

     In just about every time and place in human history, those who are in positions of power regard eccentric behavior with suspicion. Especially eccentric behavior that contravenes or even simply ignores the dictates of the ruling order. Of course not every society is totalitarian. Some are more lenient than others. But every civilization, from the tiniest groupings of tents to the largest empires, have standards by which they define themselves, which holds the group accountable. The question of who sets those standards is profound enough for an entire book and can hardly be addressed in a single blog post. But underneath just about every form of government is the premise that a productive and orderly society necessitates an imbalance of power. Sometimes through conquest and the propagation of a royal bloodline. Sometimes from a person who wins a majority of votes. But in any case once power is won, people tend to want to hold on to it.

Even very powerful and authoritarian rulers have in some cases hired court jesters. It was a common practice in medieval and Renaissance times for a jester to make crude and unflattering remarks towards the royal court and their assemblage. It has even become something of an archetype, the professional fool who acts as the safety valve, releasing tension with jokes.

There is one interesting anecdote from Barbara Tuchman’s book The Distant Mirror, in which the court jester was chosen to be the one to inform Philip VI of his defeat in battle:

No one dared tell the outcome of the battle to Philip VI until his jester was thrust forward and said, “Oh, the cowardly English, the cowardly English!” and on being asked why, replied, “They did not jump overboard like our brave Frenchmen.” The King evidently got the point. The fish drank so much French blood, it was said afterward, that if God had given them the power of speech they would have spoken in French.

And yet there are other examples where jesters were banished from their courts for going over the line. One famous example was the expulsion of one of the most famous jesters, Archibald Armstrong, for making a joke about the archbishop William Laud’s policies in Scotland. After a long and successful career, Charles I unceremoniously banished Armstrong on the spot.

     2.

     You might think we’ve come pretty far since medieval times. But have we?

The most famous example of a banished jester in modern times were the multiple arrests of comic legend Lenny Bruce, who was eventually charged with Obscenity, in 1964, in the United States of America, specifically for saying the word “cocksucker” and commenting that Eleanor Roosevelt had “nice tits.” Writers such as Norman Mailer and James Baldwin testified in Bruce’s defense, but he was convicted and sentenced to spend four months of labor in a workhouse. Bruce died of an overdose shortly before his case was overturned upon appeal.

Talk about an actual free speech issue.

While it is almost unthinkable for a comedian to have criminal charges brought against them today, the context of Lenny Bruce’s historic case is much more familiar to us than that of a court jester. We do not live in a world of kings but of petty oligarchs, lawyers, local politicians, powerful business executives, shareholders, media companies, and, for heaven’s sake, Congresspeople, all who weigh in on our collective culture with varying degrees of influence. Power dynasties may be harder to keep track of since there are so many cooks in the kitchen. But the egos of those in power are still fragile; some can abide court jesters and eccentric behavior more than others.

3.

     When I was a kid the most prominent critics of mainstream comedy were conservative Christians. Many of my own friends and family.

I remember the first time I ever saw South Park, luckily over at a friend’s house, feeling deeply scandalized as a statue of the Virgin Mary pooped blood all over the Pope. I never told my parents, but I thought it was hilarious. It was the first time I realized that it was possible to make light of deeply held convictions, some of my own deeply held convictions, and the world didn’t come to an end. Fire and brimstone did not rain down on me. In fact, it gave me an opportunity to laugh at myself and to see myself from another person’s perspective, someone who might not view me or my convictions in a completely positive light, and you know what, I survived.

Albeit, I was not a person with any power. I was just a kid. But Christianity was much more of a political force at that time, which was the heart of South Park’s critique.

Over the years South Park has put many different versions of hypocrisy within its crosshairs. Although nowadays it spends almost no time satirizing religion or conservatism—not that religious or conservative hypocrisy has disappeared. But instead Trey Parker and Matt Stone have shifted to critiquing what they see as the greater power in our time: performative wokeness, political correctness, a vague set of orthodoxies held in media culture and on ivy-league campuses, sometimes proclaimed in the name of very worthy causes but which are ultimately designed to weaponize and/or manufacture public grievance to boost ratings, or for the sake of personal prestige.

Not everybody has been happy with South Park’s shift in focus. Namely, journalists who consider themselves progressive activists. Which is, well, exactly what you’d expect. Many a think-piece has been written on South Park being “out of touch,” and/or “tone-deaf” to the present moment. Some have gone further, claiming SP has had a direct role in the rise of the alt-right.

It’s difficult to assess the validity of these claims, which are in any case impossible to prove, but the reaction does call to my mind the timelessness of powerful groups of people who cannot take a joke. We’ve come a long way from Lenny Bruce. Nobody talks about locking up comedians anymore. But as progressive values and wokeness have made great cultural headway since the Obama years, the question about how they will handle newfound power is still relatively open. The paradox which has yet to fully germinate is what happens when a cultural and political movement predicated on uplifting those without power gains power itself? Who then is the dog and who is the underdog?

     4.

     While the critiques of South Park have been relatively mild, due in part I think to it’s long-time influence and deftness at redirecting criticism into material for further joke-making, other comedians have been less-than-agile in their navigation of a changing media landscape. Many tenured comedians have had negative opinions on the changing tides; Mel Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, John Cleese, Ricky Gervais, and Stephen Fry have all been vocal opponents of the limitations that a new set of standards has imposed upon their creative processes. But last week the heat was on Norm MacDonald because of comments he made in a Hollywood Reporter interview critiquing what he considered certain overzealous strains of the #MeToo Movement.

Norm was promoting his new Netflix show Norm MacDonald Has a Show, a casual wide-ranging grab bag of what Norm usually does on his podcast and his comedy specials. If you aren’t familiar with Norm’s work here is an awesome video crash course in the bizarre world of Norm MacDonald:

Very quickly after the Hollywood Reporter interview in which Norm questioned whether or not the entertainment industry is being fair to Louis CK and Roseanne Barr, Jimmy Fallon canceled MacDonald’s appearance on The Tonight Show, saying that executive producers were in tears over his comments. Not wanting to hurt the show, MacDonald agreed and apologized in a tweet and on Howard Stern, and then had to apologize AGAIN on The View for his first apology on Stern when he said, “You’d have to have Down syndrome to not feel sorry for harassment victims.” On The View a contrite and sad-looking MacDonald called his own words unforgivable and meandered awkwardly through questions about whether or not Barr or CK should ever come back from exile, to which one host commented, “Are you worried to speak now because of the backlash that you’ve received this week? Now are you thinking twice before anything comes out of your mouth?” And in a weird and telling moment the host smiled at her own remark, and the audience applauded. By the end of the segment, after apologizing again and again, MacDonald looked down sheepishly and said, “Well, I hope I didn’t offend any of you guys today.”

     5.

     I’m not a betting man, but I’d wager almost nobody in the general public was offended by any of Norm’s comments. Maybe I’m wrong. But other celebrities and publications have had far edgier and more wide-ranging hot takes on the #MeToo Movement, with hardly as much controversy. Examples here, here, here, and here. One recent Vox survey showed that 95% of women have at least some level of concern about men being falsely accused of sexual assault. And a recent Pew poll shows similar results.

But the Norm MacDonald story was never meant to reflect the concerns of a wider culture, it was concocted from beginning to end by the media itself. Reporters asked him the questions and reporters wrote the op-eds criticizing his answers. And, at no point along that continuum, did any one of them canvas the country for opinion survey data, or polls such as Vox and Pew, to compare MacDonald’s take with those of the general population, or even the general population of women, to find out whether or not his opinion deviated from the, ahem, norm. The “backlash” is never from the general population. It’s almost always from the journalists themselves or a very vocal minority on Twitter, from whence the journalists are happy to draw ire and drama to fuel clicks.

Although, in the end, nobody forced Norm MacDonald to apologize for his comments. He may have been advised by his manager, or he might have felt pressure from various camps, or he may have felt he said something out of line and apologized of his own accord. But he wasn’t forced, his show wasn’t cancelled, he will hopefully continue working in largely the same manner as before, writing offbeat jokes, shooting from the hip, and hopefully not thinking twice before speaking.

6.

     Who holds the power in a democracy is not always a straightforward question. We live in an age of mini-kings and mini-queens; there are many castles with many functions. Some castles fight. Some are allies—

Now in a technocratic democracy no less, where media and social media warp every message through several lenses of emphasis, over-emphasis, under-emphasis, shareholder interests, etc, by the time the message gets to us, the mere peasantry, who knows what this once pristine piece of truth is now? It looks like a mutilated shard of pixels. Twisted and stretched beyond recognition to fit a pre-determined script. And these refracted shards are lobbed between castles like cannon balls while we are left to argue over the wreckage.

Whatever your opinion of #MeToo or any other socio-cultural phenomenon, comedians give us the opportunity, in our embattled time, to see our sacred cows from another person’s perspective. It doesn’t take a big person to shit on someone else’s sacred cow. Pretty much all of human history is the story of people shitting on other people’s cows. But it does take a big person to double-take their own cow and realize that it’s not the center of the universe. You may have a super valid cow. But if you never poke your cow you’ll never get to hear whether or not it makes funny noises.

There is only one test for a comedian—laughter. A comedian cannot fake audience laughter. They say laughter is medicine. That may be true. But laughter is also a window into yourself. Have you ever laughed at something you know you shouldn’t have laughed at? Maybe it was your own sacred cow. Did you ever stop to think which one was the real you—the you that laughed or the you that wanted to suppress the laughter?

Only a comedian, either amateur or professional, can give you the opportunity to see your divided self in this way. Because your laughter is undeniable. You can’t hide behind what you find funny. It speaks for itself. And yes, sometimes that’s scary. What you find funny may even surprise you.

7.

     You don’t have to like comedians or seek out other perspectives. But if you’re confused about what you think or feel, it might do some good to seek them out and do some reflecting or have a laugh. I’m rarely disappointed at an opportunity to do so. The worst that can happen is that a comedian isn’t funny or another perspective doesn’t reward investigation. It happens. You move on.

We would do better to direct our negative attention towards those who would rob us of this opportunity, rather than those who would grant it to us.

 

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Why Animal Farm is the Best Dystopian Novel

I recently watched an Intelligence Squared debate between two inimitable men of letters, Will Self and Adam Gopnik, on the motion entitled “Brave New World vs Nineteen Eighty Four.”

But the real purpose behind the debate, much more than a simple literary analysis of two great novels, became clear immediately with the moderator’s introduction. “Rarely can a debate [such as this] claim to be so urgently topical. And yet somehow with two novels, one written in 1931 and the other written between 1948 and 1949, you nevertheless have two works that speak to us in our own time with great urgency and topicality.”

Ah, yes. The great urgency and topicality, always, of dystopian fiction.

In one sense it’s a completely ridiculous statement to make. The world today is far from a dystopia; and, in fact, it’s becoming increasingly less like a dystopia. Consider just a few key metrics: Poverty, Literacy, Health, Freedom, Population, and Education. Max Rosner, economist at Oxford and the founder of Our World in Data, plots each one of these variables from 1820 to today, giving us a snapshot at how things have actually changed over time.

Over 90% of the world was living in extreme poverty before the year 1820. Only a very priviledged few lived on more than $1.90 per day (today’s dollars). The rest of the world eked out a hard existence as either subsistence farmers or laborers. But industrialization, economic growth, and technological advancement began to completely reshape our relationship to wealth and the resources it begets. This change was even occuring at the time Brave New World (76% in poverty) and Nineteen Eighty Four (72% in poverty) were being published. Slowly, more prosperous modes of trading goods and services were being made available to more people. This didn’t happen magically overnight and wasn’t achieved without serious challenges to overcome like child-labor, widespread pollution, and the many other burdens of industrialization. But to be born in today’s world means being born with a 90% chance (as opposed to 10%) of living a materially comfortable life. And if you enjoy such a life it may do well to seriously ponder your luck and its implications.

The numbers for Basic Education, Literacy, Democracy, Child-Mortality, Population, and Vaccination are all very similar.

In light of these facts there might be many reasons why a highly-educated, influential, and wealthy British man might stand on a stage and opine with a straight face that debating which dystopia our world most closely resembles “speaks to our time with great urgency.”

For one thing it’s true human life has improved incredibly but there’s no guarantee things will go on getting better indefinitely. Just because things have been going really well for the past 200 years doesn’t mean serious reversals are impossible. In fact, as things continue to get better we will by definitition also have more to lose. (This was pointed out to me by futureofreading in re my post Coffee Stains, ‘Nam, and Donald Trump, where I probably don’t emphasize this enough.)

Another reason is that with the economic/technological expansion of the 20th century also came bloody wars and genocide on a level heretofore unprecedented, with European totalitarianism playing no small part in the bloodshead; so, um, maybe some of the preoccupation with dystopian novels, especially on the part of European intellectuals, is partly understandable regardless of the current state of the world.

But something in me cannot help laughing at the image of three educated, highly literate men making the case that a primary lens through which to see our current situation should be a dystopian novel, not simply as a piece of entertainment but as serious social criticism.

I don’t know. It’s a feeling, man.

For what it’s worth I think the most instructive dystopian novel for our times is Orwell’s other dystopian novel, Animal Farm. A far better book than Nineteen Eighty Four, in my opinion.

The original subtitle of Animal Farm, which was dropped by all but one publisher, was “A Fairy Story.” This is instructive, and partly the reason why Animal Farm is a higher form of art than most dystopias. Most dystopias are either, scientific, political, or both. To take an example beyond the two above, The Handmaid’s Tale for instance is based entirely on politics and futuristic speculation, exaggerating certain elements for dramatic effect. Atwood has said she didn’t use anything in Handmaid’s Tale that hasn’t actually happened historically, but in order to make it a dystopia and not simply a history book the stakes must be raised. This is where the social criticism is always buried in a dystopic story. Wherever the writer exaggerates into the future is what they think is going wrong in the present. Nineteen Eighty Four can be said to be a critique militarism inherent in totalitarian states, while Brave New World is a critique of hedonism and consumer pleasures, and The Handmaid’s Tale is a critique of conservative politics.

But Animal Farm is different for a few reasons. Firstly, as we’ve said, it’s a fairy story, a fantasy. It doesn’t take place in the future or in some totalitarian world-state with carefully exaggerated elements for the purpose of social criticism. Animal Farm is a metaphor. In fact, many critics at the time faulted Orwell for the metaphor saying that it was too blatant a riff on the Russian Revolution, to which he replied, “Of course I intended it primarily as a satire on the Russian revolution. But I did mean it to have a wider application in so much that I meant that that kind of revolution (violent conspiratorial revolution, led by unconsciously power-hungry people) can only lead to a change of masters. I meant the moral to be that revolutions only effect a radical improvement when the masses are alert and know how to chuck out their leaders as soon as the latter have done their job.”

The story begins when a pig on the farm named Old Major has a dream that he wants to tell the other animals. In the dream the animals rise up and take over the farm from their human masters, running it more productively and equitably, living more peaceable and happy lives.

Well, the animals do just that. Old Major dies. They honor his memory and vision. Some of the younger pigs follow his lead and begin to organize—to quick and very climactic success. They have a battle with the humans. They kick the humans off the farm. They begin to produce crops of their own. The farm is renamed from Manor Farm to Animal Farm. At first everything is going great.

The job of the reader of Animal Farm is to determine where and when things go wrong after the animals take over the farm. Things progress slowly, almost imperceptibly, from happily ever after to very very bad. It’s in these details that Orwell outshines any other dystopian prognostication whose premise is political. Animal Farm is universal in that it describes how any well-meaning movement can turn into a power grab. It doesn’t discriminate, in that sense.

If you haven’t read Animal Farm, please, close this window and go read the book. You’re missing out on one of the most perfect novels in the English language.

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Wrong about Lamb Testicles

If you’re anything like me, everyday is a sort of information gauntlet. An audio book on the drive to work. At the desk a cup of coffee while checking morning headlines. Do morning work. More audio book at lunch. News breaks and more in-depth article reading interspersed throughout the afternoon. Do afternoon work. Audio book on drive home. Eat dinner. Spend time with family. After everyone goes to sleep I stay up and read. Sometimes fiction, sometimes non-fiction. Just finished Animal Farm.

Maybe this is atypical. I’m a culture freak.

But lately. Hm. How to say it?

Nothing can replace direct experience. It’s easy to forget that. Culture sometimes does such a good job at making us feel informed. But have you ever had the experience of seeing behind the curtain? Even just for a moment. Maybe you met a celebrity in person or emailed a longtime hero of yours. You can get a whiff sometimes, if you put your nose to the wind, of this manufactured quality. Smells like money. Tastes like shareholder interests.

I don’t know.

There’s this one story Mike Rowe told a while ago in his TedTalk about being on the show Dirty Jobs and working one day in particular at a farm castrating lambs. Rowe had checked with the Humane Society and the SPCA and PETA beforehand about the proper and approved technique, which is to tie a rubber band around the testicles until blood flow ceases and the testicles fall off. But the farmers Rowe was on the job with didn’t use the rubber band. Instead, Rowe watched warily as the farmer took out a long sharp knife, quickly sliced the scrotum, and bit off the testicles (yes, with his teeth).

Mike Rowe had to do something he’d never done before on Dirty Jobs. He stopped the cameras. He said, Stop. We need to do this the right way. We need to do this with the rubber bands.

Like the Humane Society? the farmer said.

Yes! Rowe said. Let’s do it so the lambs don’t squeal and bleed. We’re on Discovery Channel in like five continents, dude.

Okay, the farmer says.

They begin filming again.

The farmer takes out a box of rubber bands and puts one on the next lamb’s scrotum. The lamb walks, takes two steps, and falls to the ground. The lamb gets up again and walks to the corner, lays on the ground and begins quivering, in obvious distress.

How long will the lamb be like this? Rowe says to the farmer.

A day, the farmer says.

How long until the scrotum falls off? Rowe says.

A week, the farmer says.

Meanwhile Rowe looks over and sees the first lamb, the one the farmer did his original procedure on, prancing around and eating grass. The bleeding had already stopped.

Rowe says in his TedTalk: “I was just so blown away at how completely wrong I was, and reminded how wrong I am so much of the time.”

This anecdote has stuck with me for a while. I love it because it shows what you can learn from being wrong. Very few people talk about how great it is to be wrong. But those experiences, the ones that teach you a lesson—failure, trial and error, being confronted with your own limitations—are yours because you have to earn them. Nobody can take those away from you. You pay a real price for them. Being wrong earns you truths you cannot get by reading an article or book, someone else’s hogwash.

Which begs the question.

I often wonder how many lamb testicles I have rubber bands on, when I should be biting them off.

 

Coffee Stains, ‘Nam, and Donald Trump

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WHEN FORMING ANY VALUE judgement my goal is—although I rarely live up to my own standards—to condition said judgement with the right amount, or the right kind, of perspective.

For instance—

Let’s say I’m at work, quickly typing up some report, when all of the sudden I spill a piping hot cup of coffee on my lap.

The first reaction I will have to this will be instinctive, with an accompanied dose of curse words and negative emotion. More than likely this will be one of the most eventful happenings of the day. I will text my wife with frustrated emojis, OMG, of course these things always happen to ME. But after cleaning up, I might tell the story to a friend over a coffee break, recounting it with enthusiastic hand motions and displaying the brown spot on my pant leg with some good humor. And then, after work, my wife and I will have a good laugh about it at dinner.

There are probably very many complicated reasons why this is a normal way to process an inconvenience. We respond to events in real time with what our brain naturally intuits as the right or justified amount of any given emotion or thought—which sounds simple, but when you stop to think about life as a continuum and our experiences, every single one, assuming either large or small significance along that continuum, it then becomes very foggy just how our brains distinguish between something that is either very important or just medium-important, or not important at all, or just barely important, etc. Not to mention the subtle gradations that run along those axes, those pesky value judgements. Good, bad, etc.

Going back to perspective. What helps me during times of crises, at least on the emotional front, is thinking about what perspective I can assume to make the emotion better. So, the coffee example. If I am tempted to let the spilled coffee ruin my day, a zooming out of perspective will almost certainly help. This mess is only one moment out of the day, after all, and maybe a few minutes of cleaning up. I will most likely have some good moments during this day which will at least partly make up for my own stupidity. Also this is just one day I’ve lived out of many—thousands of days! I’ve spilled coffee on myself before. I got over it then. I’ll most likely get over it now.

This is a neat little trick you can do with almost anything.

A FEW MONTHS AGO my wife and I watched Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War, a new PBS documentary covering the entirety of the Vietnam War, complete with archived news reels, videos of combat, and extensive interviews with both American and Viet Cong, veterans and non-combatants alike.

The documentary is remarkably even-handed in its treatment of this embattled time in American society. A different film-maker who happened to be a highly motivated political idealouge, even a well-meaning one, would’ve been tempted to tamper with the effect it has on the audience because the sores and boils the Vietnam War dredged up have never really gone away. We are still playing essentially the same game of chess. The political lines that were drawn during that period of our history remain, not exactly the same, but true to their point of origination; I can’t think of a more relevant period in our history to survey in order to gain more perspective about the present moment.

A good piece of history-telling has the effect we were speaking about earlier, of zooming out our horizons to consider conditions beyond the bounds of our own lives. History can be therefore powerfully emotional in its impact because it allows us the chance to see our own lives for what they are—pretty small scale, bound up in tragic situations far beyond our own control, and ultimately mysterious.

One scene that touched me deeply was a series of late-stage student protests organized at airports to intercept veterans coming home, to taunt, humiliate, and even assault them so that the first thing these soldiers experienced on their return from fighting was an attitude not only of unwelcome, but open hostility.

This moment encapsulates Vietnam as a socio-political American tragedy (the Vietnamese have their own version of this).

The parts of the tragedy are as such:

1) Working class men are drafted into a war they don’t understand, which is spiraling out of control, quickly garnering mass public disapproval.

2) The war is handed off from Johnson to Nixon, who had promised to end the war, but it only grows worse. The draft threatens to balloon to include college-educated men, i.e. the middle class. Protests then reach fever pitch.

3) What motivates the protests? The instinct of self-preservation? Righteous indignation? Both?

4) In any case, middle-class hippies, basically correct in their critique of the war, direct their anger at those less fortunate than themselves, i.e. largely working class draftees.

5) Therefore those who have already suffered the most (from the American standpoint) suffer even more—as so often happens in tragedy—some having lost friends in combat, some maimed themselves, most unaware of the larger social and political implications of the Vietnam War and the dark shadow it would continue to cast over American life.

Two protesters who participated in this drama are then interviewed, one woman and one man, now in their mid to late sixties. Recalling her harassment of soldiers, the woman begins to cry and apologizes into the camera, to any veterans she may have hurt. She regrets her part in it and now considers the youthful vigor in those particular protests misdirected, although she doesn’t regret being against the war itself. The man, on the contrary, says that extreme measures had to be taken to send a message to Washington that under no circumstances would the public tolerate further aggression in Vietnam, the only option being a swift and direct pulling out of the war. And since tepid communications had not worked, the only option was something that would get people’s attention.

AS WE PROGRESS DOWN the tunnel of history in our own time, and events take on significance, both large and small, political and not, we are fooling ourselves if we think examining our own histories will not help us hang on to some semblance of sanity—even helping us to deal with the emotional side of politics and current events. Otherwise our perspectives will be conditioned only by the present moment, tricking us into thinking that very unimportant things are important, and vice versa. Again, a wide perspective, more information rather than less, can teach us just how similar we are to other time periods, just how beholden we are to the same human passions that have directed the winds of time since the beginning.

You may be forgiven for thinking that the elephant in the room behind all this pontification is Donald Trump or the so-called times of political polarization we live in. But it isn’t. Watching the Vietnam War documentary and reading more about the period helped me to realize that we are no more polarized now than we were then. We are being sold an old line dressed up for a new age, and people on all sides are guzzling it down like their life depends on it.

To me, I’m not sure Trump is a new coffee stain on our pants. I think Trump just reminds us of the stain we’ve had on our pants for a while now. This causes me to view him and his administration in a certain light, not a light amenable to any one side of the debate re: Russian Hacking, Border Policy, General Bombastic Attitude, etc. because both sides of the debate are conditioned by an apocalyptic absurdity with every action and re-action. And all of this is made worse by the usual suspects. Click-bait, social media.

To every journalist out there: before you write an article, read a history book, will you?

Our future depends on it.

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How Reading Walt Whitman Can Make You a Better Writer

There is something in the heart of American literature, and maybe in America experience itself, that lends itself to first person narration. Huckleberry Finn, Moby-Dick, The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye are all told, not from the lofty perch of a Dickensian all-knowing and impartial narrator, but by a character in the story itself, in the rough-and-tumble of subjective experience—Huck Finn, Ishmael, Nick Carraway, Holden Caulfield; these feel like old friends as much as books.

Marilynne Robinson said once in a lecture at the 92 ST Y that no writer in the English language, other than perhaps the Kings James translators of the Psalms, synthesizes human experience into the universal “I” or the universal first person better than Walt Whitman. What this means in layman’s terms is that, true to the American form, reading the poetry of Walt Whitman can be like coming into contact with a missing and yet very familiar part of yourself. Kind of like a friendly and slightly drunken cosmic comrade who at first seems to be overstepping his boundaries by putting his arm around your shoulder and then without asking begins telling his whole life story; but who then slowly begins winning you over with undeniable charm.

In his most famous poem Leaves of Grass, as Whitman describes himself and his observations, and because he so effectively does so in the first person, the listener is lulled into a kind of illusion that their own mind is the one producing the words.

The famous first stanza invites this kind of activity on the part of the reader:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

 

I loafe and invite my soul,

I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

 

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this

air,

Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their

parents the same,

I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,

Hoping to cease not till death.

 

Creeds and schools in abeyance,

Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,

I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,

Nature without check with original energy.

So much has been written on Whitman and Leaves of Grass, it would be silly to go into a full account of those analyses. But, for our purposes of understanding how Whitman’s writing works, notice the subtle dance he does at the beginning with the reader. What I think makes this poem feel so modern—it was published in 1855—is that it immediately builds a bridge to the reader. The first thing Whitman says is that he celebrates and sings himself, which is an odd thing to say and sounds prideful, self-centered, but then he immediately turns to the reader and assures us that we are to assume what he assumes and then states his reasoning: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

The invocation of the scientific “atom” also makes this poem feel modern.

Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded

with perfumes,

I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,

The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.

 

The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation,

it is odorless,

It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,

I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and

naked,

I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

The smoke of my own breath,

Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and

vine,

My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the pass-

ing of blood and air through my lungs,

The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and

dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,

The sound of the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the eddies

of the wind,

A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms,

The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs

wag,

The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields

and hill-sides,

The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from

bed and meeting the sun.

 

Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d

the earth much?

Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?

Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

 

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin

of all poems,

You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions

of suns left,)

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look

through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in

books,

You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,

You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

This second group of stanzas in many ways unpacks and expands the first. While Whitman’s poetry can often feel whimsical, as if it’s going from thing to thing without much effort or consideration, a closer reading reveals that he sticks to very consistent themes, images, and techniques. He talks of perfumes and air in this first stanza, alluding to his breath, and then to Nature, leaves and rocks and eddies… He is in contact with Nature and also indistinguishable from it.

And then comes the shift to the reader again.

Have you reckoned the earth much?

Have you practiced so long to learn to read?

The last stanza in our little selection here in many ways embodies Whitman’s approach to effective poetry. He earns this moment by forecasting his concern for the reader in the very first stanza, and the subsequent reflections on Nature, which he now unpacks as a challenge to the reader to interrogate their own reasons for reading literature. What did we hope to get from reading Whitman? He is telling us to remember, before we read, to first experience life in and of itself—the origin of all poems.

You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,

You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

Much of Whitman’s writing is this reminder. That literature is a tool of amplification and celebration, whose theme always is Life. This is easy for the book nerd to forget. Many of us put the cart before the horse. But without Life there can be no literature.

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