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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Traditional Masculinity is Awesome—Well, Parts of It

Yesterday the APA (American Psychological Association) released a widely covered set of guidelines for “Psychological Practices with Boys and Men.” Stephanie Pappas writes, “Thirteen years in the making, they draw on 40 years of research showing that traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful and that socializing boys to suppress their emotions causes damage that echoes both inwardly and outwardly.”

Let me briefly survey the, ahem, “research.”

One study from Rutgers showed that men with “the strongest beliefs about masculinity were only half as likely as men with moderate beliefs about masculinity to get preventative health care.”

Beliefs about a gender expression? Not sure how that works. And to do so ‘strongly’ versus only ‘moderately’? Ha. So men don’t like to go to the doctor. Be still my beating heart. Could have asked your grandpa about that one instead of letting a bunch of nerds spend taxpayer money writing questions about the difference between strong versus moderate beliefs in a gender.

Ex. Q. 1) Over the course of the past year, how many car transmissions have you changed?

Circle one:                      0-1                       2-3                        4-5                       5+

Ex. Q. 2) Now on a scale from 1-10 (10 being very enjoyable and 1 being very painful) what were your personal feelings about your last prostate exam?

Another study done at Boston College found that “the more men conformed to masculine norms, the more likely they were to consider as normal risky health behaviors such as heavy drinking, using tobacco and avoiding vegetables, and to engage in risky behaviors themselves.”

Well!

For those of us in the know, this reads awfully close to Grandma Nesbit’s Healthy Habits for a Productive Christian Life. I love you, grandma. But don’t tell me what to do.

But this last study is my favorite.

Research done by Omar Yousaf of the University of Bath suggests that “men who bought into traditional notions of masculinity were more negative about seeking mental health services than those with more flexible gender attitudes.”

Heaven forbid.

Here’s a hard math problem. If you’re a psychologist, how do you get more butts to sit on your leather sofa and pay you $200/hour? Do you think perhaps the answer has anything to do with problematizing (or pathologizing) as many behaviors as possible?

But I don’t want to go to therapy.

You know what your problem is? You need more therapy! Call 1-800-We’re-Certainly-Not-Incentivized-to-Prescribe-You-Things-We-Just-Do-It-Because-We-Care.

But I don’t want to go to therapy.

You’re a traditional man aren’t you? Fear not! You can be cured with a stylish handbag and… therapy!

Cured of what?

Toxic masculinity can be cured with therapy!

Toxic? But I just—

Therapy!

It may come as a surprise to some that there are still “traditional” males that read books. Yes I know that’s shocking. But here I am. I have learned how to change my own tires and am also a subscriber to the New Yorker. Yes, straight males who lift weights can also read and enjoy Jane Eyre. (Although I would not recommend doing those at the same time unless it’s an audio-book).

Hey man, what’cha jamming to?

Charlotte Brontë, dude. Can I get a spot?

The reason I bring this up is because I am one of these rare traditional males who knows what an adjective is. To slap words like “traditional” or “toxic” onto another word like masculinity is not making an argument using logic, but appealing to experience which may or may not be empirically supported.

For instance “traditional” is a pretty open-ended word. Something from the past? Like how long ago? Pre-2015? According to the APA, all men before the cutoff date for ‘traditional’ must have been broiling in a fiery hot cauldron of mental instability. Darla, get me my pills! I’m having another episode! Or, again, based on these findings, can you imagine the supposed scale of mental illness in 1850? 1750? Or what about BC times? Ancient Greece and Egypt? The whole world was apparently like an open-air psych ward until along came critical feminist theory and then we all became very sane.

Thanks Judith Butler.

I’m just one person. Maybe I am unique here, but many of the best people in my life have been so-called traditional men. Muscular men with beards who work a day job on the weekdays and go to church on the weekends. Anti-Harvey Weinsteins. I have met and been mentored by men whose tenderness isn’t for show or virtue signaling or to gain some prestige, but is real and heartfelt. They don’t necessarily air their problems, not because they are afraid to but because they don’t want to be a burden and would rather focus on others, their friends and family.

As an aspiring traditional male myself, and one who tries to use adjectives very carefully, I want to bring back two of my favorites. They sound simple but are difficult to use because they are straightforward. They are: good and bad.

Rather than generalizing about behaviors that are secondary to good and bad, such as “traditional”, I think we should return to the source of the river, so to speak. What do you we think is good? Plain and simple. Harder to answer than you might think. How can we aim for that, whatever our gender-expression? What do we think is bad? How can we avoid it?

Of course not all things about masculinity or tradition are good. Some things about each are bad. Some men (not the majority) can tend to be violent under certain circumstances. That’s not good. That has to stop. We should be doing whatever we can to stop violence of any kind. If it comes from men, that’s bad. If it comes from women, that’s also bad. Violence is bad because it’s bad, not because a man does it or a woman does it.

Real legitimate mental illness is also bad and should be treated with good therapy and medicine if need be. Being helped or cured of mental illness is a good thing. We should aim for that. We need good therapists and good science.

But since some of these scientists have taken liberty with parts of what constitute my identity, let me take perhaps a few liberties with parts of theirs as well.

I think a lot of things are bad, but there are two things I really hate. Generalizations (or a lack of precision in language) and elitism. Especially those who don’t even bother to disguise their contempt, and who make condescending sales pitches dressed up as research or entertainment.

This APA study on the whole is not necessarily elitist but it does flirt with the line in a few places.

“The main thrust of the subsequent research is that traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful.”

Okay, hold my beer.

  1. Stoicism is bad? Tell that to Epictetus. Oh, wait. He’s a dead man who was born well before 2015. Probably super sexist. Well, I’ll quote him anyway. “Virtue consists in a will that is in agreement with Nature—to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy.” Another just for kicks, “No man is free who is not master of himself.” Okay, okay, one more, “For as the material of the carpenter is wood, and that of statuary bronze, so the subject-matter of the art of living is each person’s own life.” This guy sounds like he is riddled with mental illness.
  2. Competition is bad? Oh, yeah, man watch out for sack races and ring toss. They could totally ruin your life. Unless everyone gets a trophy.
  3. Dominance is bad? Dominance in what, the accounting industry? In the NBA playoffs? Let me guess, whatever it is, it’s only bad if a man dominates. Otherwise it’s good. Right?
  4. It’s true that aggression is sometimes bad. When directed at another person with the express intent of harming them, then yes it’s bad. Otherwise it just means you’re doing something vigorously. Like vigorously typing a defense of masculinity on a computer built by nerds.

It’s like the APA took a list of my favorite things, shook them up in a bag, and correlated them all with depression. The only things missing are chicken wings and single malt scotch.

Guy wearing a sweater pokes his head in the room, holds up finger.

Actually there have been studies—

Shut up! I’m not depressed!

Wow, you sound angry and sexist. You should go to therapy.

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.

Book Review: In Our Time

I respectfully disagree with those who try to discredit Hemingway as a mediocre writer. I have talked with and read reviews by these people and I understand their criticisms, but in many cases their points could apply to any writer. Also, and maybe more importantly, they don’t like his false macho affectation. Okayyy. That’s fair. But to go so far as to argue that Hemingway shouldn’t be remembered as a great writer is just plain silly.

Have these people never had a tight-lipped uncle who liked to go fishing?

Or a brother who got into too many fist fights?

Apparently not.

OK, rant over.

In Our Time is one of Hemingway’s immortal books. It was his first, a collection of short stories that broke ground within the form. It’s hard to believe it was published in 1924, during the age of Sinclair Lewis and Edith Wharton.

These stories are like little gusts of Chekhovian sweetness. There are great moments of tenderness and tragedy that seem impossible to fit in the space Hemingway manages. Each one seems to be overflowing. I love stories of this type and that’s maybe why I am able to give Hemingway the benefit of the doubt overall. Insofar as he is an American Chekhov, I love his writing. And this was the golden age in Hemingway’s career for this sort of thing. At the time of its publication New York Times called “In Our Time,” fibrous and athletic, colloquial and fresh, hard and clean, his very prose seems to have an organic being of its own. I think they were right. Had he continued along this line, and avoided his later self-imitations and “sentimentality,” I think he would have been a far better writer, and much lesser known.

To me, the bottom line for what makes Hemingway a worthwhile read is that–although his attempts are not always perfect–he makes literature un-literary. “Literature” at its best is always fresh, coming back down to earth to see how things are going and how people are talking to one another, and then going back up for air. Literature that never comes down to earth, but stays suspended in academia, or in esoteric little hipster sanctuaries of trendiness and high-mindedness, never connects for me. I hate those books.

In college I once had a life-defining conversation with my girlfriend. We were debating whether or not everyone has the ability to have deep thoughts. She said no, not everyone has deep thoughts. I said yes, I think they do–many people just don’t know how to talk about them or they’d rather not talk about them. She said she didn’t think so. She said there are some people out there, beer-guzzling mouth-breathers, who, honest-to-goodness, just don’t produce a single profundity their entire lives. They just sit around and take up oxygen. I said I didn’t see it that way. The topic never came up again, and we broke up after only a few months of dating.

Fast forward two years.

Walking around campus one morning, I ran into her again. I hadn’t seen or talked to her for those entire two years. The conversation was awkward at first. We shifted our weight back and forth. She asked me what I was reading. I said Hemingway. She laughed. Now she was loosened up. She said isn’t his stuff pretty simple and macho? Yes, I said. But there’s a lot there if you’re willing to look for it. Well, she said she didn’t think she’d ever get around to reading him.

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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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