Sunday, February 19, 2017

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Source of book: Audiobook borrowed from my brother

Well, after two winters of historically unprecedented drought (that includes tree ring evidence too), California has now had two winters of rather crazier weather, enough to interfere with three different camping trips in the form of road closures. Two were last season, and the most recent was this weekend.

I kid you not, this storm was big enough to get a name (although I believe all significant storms get them, unlike hurricanes, nobody here uses them unless it is a giant storm.) And yes, this one got dubbed “Lucifer.” As a result of the storm, a big rig got blown over, and the major routes from Bakersfield to the ocean got closed. We had to go north an hour or so and drive a narrow road in the pouring rain. Perfect audiobook weather though. 



Anyway, Guards! Guards! is one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, the first of the City Watch series. It is a good bit shorter than the other Pratchett books we have listened to, roughly three hours long, rather than six to twelve. But it is definitely a good one.

Set in the impossibly corrupt and flawed city, Ankh-Morpork, the tale seems a bit appropriate for our own times. Pratchett is always spoofing modern problems in his medieval settings - perhaps the issues of bureaucracy and economics and corruption are timeless. The city is ruled by a “Patrician” who is king in all but name. (The system is described as “One Man, One Vote," in which the Patrician alone is the Man, and he has the Vote.”) The current Patrician isn’t much of a despot, however, modeled more on Machiavelli's ideal, but with a pragmatic tendency to leave things as they are as much as possible. Basically, his belief is that people hate change more than they hate annoyance. So unless it is really bad, just leave it alone.

However, not everyone is content with the usual incompetence and kludge. A secret society of (mostly) incompetent and not terribly intelligent men is plotting the overthrow of the government. In what sounds rather familiar, these are men who feel they have come down in society as of late, and that the old days were better, when the “right sort” of people were in charge. When men like them dominated and the “unworthy” were below them.

And so, like the neo-reactionaries of our time, they want to reinstate the monarchy. How to do that? Well, in the old days, there was a long lost heir to the throne who came and defeated a dragon and then revealed his identity. Which is impossible to disprove anyway, right? So, they find a dumb youth to be the puppet king, and set about summoning a dragon. Like I said, not the sharpest tools.

The problem with dragons, of course, is that once you summon them, they are hard to banish, and even harder to keep banished. And they have a tendency to go a little power-mad when they see or smell gold, and that never ends well.

Into all of this are thrust the City Guard, a once proud legion of policemen (in the best British tradition, apparently), who have been reduced to a mere three members, all of whom are drunk, corrupt, or incompetent. Or all three. Until Carrot joins them. Carrot is a foundling who was raised by dwarves, but was found to be all too human when he shot up to over six feet tall. However, he retained his upbringing which taught him to be loyal, upright, and amusingly literal and naive. Once he starts actually enforcing the laws of the city, things go right and wrong even before the dragon shows up. Ultimately, it is up to the Watch to straighten things out. At least they have the help of Sybil Ramkin, a Wagnerian woman who raises little swamp dragons as a hobby, and the head librarian, tragically changed into an Orangutan by an accident of magic, but still doing his duty at the library.   

All of this is handled with Pratchett’s characteristic humor and optimism. Indeed, perhaps that is Pratchett’s ongoing gift. Inasmuch as he had a keen eye for the evil in the hearts of men, and the risks of catastrophe, he believed in the power of ordinary good people to make a difference, and stand against those who seek power over others. And also a believer in the power of puns - this book has an excellent use of “throw the book at him” as a law enforcement technique.

***

Audiobook note: This book was narrated by Tony Robinson, who mostly did a fine job. My quibble is one I have mentioned before for a few other books: he has a little bit too much dynamic range, and the soft parts are a bit hard to hear while driving. A bit more compression might have helped a bit.

***

Other Terry Pratchett books we have listened to or read:

   Dodger

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

If You Prick Us, Do We Not Bleed? Black History and Dehumanization

I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.

Shylock (The Merchant of Venice, Act III, Scene 1)

Here is a good question to consider:
A large percentage of the population in the USA believe that there is a systemic racism throughout the country.
What would lead them to believe that?
Before you post your answer, see if it looks/sounds racist. For example,
"The media has led them to believe it." Well, why do 'they' believe it but 'we' do not? Are 'we' so much more wiser than 'they' are? Are 'they' gullible while 'we' are knowledgeable?
"A lack of education." Same thing as above...'they' are not educated, 'we' know better.
So, what would lead a large population of our culture to believe that this were true, while at the same time keeping another segment from believing it?
This may help define the problem, if there is one....


February is Black History Month, and in our present times, understanding our history and our present is more vital than ever. We have seen the reemergence of full-on White Supremacy and overt hatred toward non-whites on a scale that I have never seen in my 40 years. So I think this is a good time to write this post, which I have been mulling in my head for the last couple of years.

It has been nearly two years since I wrote a bit about the Ferguson protests, and more specifically about the Department of Justice report that found widespread bias and a system of fines and imprisonment that can only be described as systematic oppression of the poor. In the time since that, I have had some rather awkward conversations about race and racism with friends, family, and acquaintance, starting with a person who (without reading the Ferguson report) sent me an op-ed from a hard-right opinion site claiming that, well, African Americans were just so much more likely to be criminal and violent than everyone else, so this is all just a media creation.

Later, I had another conversation with a different individual who opined that Black Lives Matter is just a media creation, and that police brutality doesn’t really exist.

These are just a couple of the many. (The use of “media creation” makes me think it is a Fox News talking point.) And that is just people I actually know. If I expand to friends of friends who have been quick to jump on those of my friends who support Black Lives Matter to say just how fake they think the outrage is. I think the overall belief is clear:

A great many people think racism no longer exists, and that minorities should just shut up already.

Sadly, this includes not just those who, after the rise of The Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named, started feeling free to say obviously racist things. Most of those who I know with this opinion do not believe they are racist, and can probably honestly say they have never personally mistreated anyone of any race.

Let me be quick to add at this point that one of the people who has said these things has been me. Yep, I do confess it, and acknowledge that I have had to confront my own biases over the last few decades.  

There are two factors that particularly opened my eyes to the true level of racial hatred in this country over the last few years. First, the way President Obama was treated, the Trayvon Martin killing, and a myriad of police shootings have made it much harder to naively believe that bias - and outright racism - do not exist. The second factor was actually listening during the Ferguson protests. Listening to the protesters. Imagining I was in their shoes. Listening to my non-white friends tell of their own experiences with the police, with whites who feared and distrusted them. Listening to those of my white friends who have adopted non-white children tell of the differences they see in treatment.

I realized that the only way I could continue to believe that this wasn’t driven by racism was if I considered non-whites to be less human than I was.

You really only have two choices here. Either there is something lesser about non-whites - less intelligence, less intellect, less education, less judgment, less ability to resist manipulation; or, you have to grant that they were reacting just like any other humans would to their situation.

But instead, what I hear is this: “I understand your experience more than you do. You do not understand your experience as well as I do.” And along with this comes a healthy dose of telling people that their experiences aren’t really happening to them. Or that even if they were, their negative experiences were all their fault.

The arrogance of this is apparent. (Even if it wasn’t always apparent to me either.) “I can better interpret your experience (which I haven’t experienced myself) and explain it to you.” Ouch.

I can’t see how you come to this conclusion without believing that you are, in some way, superior.

If I believed that non-whites were fully and equally human to me, then I had to grant that they were assessing and responding to their circumstances and experiences the same way I would.

So, what would induce me to protest? What would make me brave enough to confront people armed with military weapons, driving armored vehicles, and generally able to kill me? What would lead me to calmly stand up to someone screaming “Bring it, you fucking animals, bring it!”?

Hmm. Let’s just say that seeing something on a news show probably wouldn’t do it. Not by half.

But if I genuinely felt that my family and community was in danger, I would. If I was suffering under injustice, I would. I might even protest to protect other families and communities. (And I may have to before this administration is over.)

Joe Holman, who I quoted above, is a missionary who has challenged me in my faith a lot over the last few years, by his continued insistence that we don’t just parrot our sources, but genuinely think through whether we sound like Christ, or just sound like Fox News or MSNBC (or whatever your flavor of choice is).

This particular post I thought captured the essence. Is there any way to say that the vast majority of African Americans (to say nothing of the white parents of adopted African Americans) are imagining a problem without making a racist assumption? I do not believe it is possible.

Shakespeare, in a play that is on the awkward edge of antisemitism (very much reflecting the prejudices in Europe for hundreds of years which would eventually lead to the Holocaust) nevertheless hits on a universal truth. The Jew, Shylock, makes this extraordinary statement that takes him beyond an otherwise unfortunate stereotype into a sympathetic character.

If you prick us, do we not bleed?

And, if you inflict injustice on us, will we not protest?

This is - or should be - Empathy 101. We cannot even begin a constructive conversation on racial issues until we grant full humanity to those who have suffered immense wrong over the last 400 years.

***



Praying for Peace:

I want to address one more thing here. Many a well meaning (and usually decent) person has expressed, whenever there is civil unrest and protests, a prayer that God’s peace would be given to the protesters.

And I know that most of the people who say this have the best of motives, and are genuinely nice and decent people, who, again, have probably never personally mistreated anyone. I am not trying to impugn your motives, which I assume are pure as the driven snow.

But really?

Seriously, this is like a pat on the head of someone who just got kicked.

Let me translate what this really means. Or at least how I suspect it sounds to those whose loved ones are dead.

“God, the scary black people are making me scared when they protest. Please give your peace to the scary black people so they stop being so scary and making me uncomfortable. Amen.”

You know, I have an 11 year old son. Tamir Rice was 12. My son is a good kid, but he is a kid. His judgment isn’t always spectacular, he doesn’t always pay attention, and I have no doubt if a cop pulled up and yelled at him, he probably would just say “What??” Because he’s a kid.

My son has two advantages over Tamir Rice. The first is that he is short like me. The second, though, is why I don’t worry that he will be murdered by a cop. He’s white.

Likewise, I have been pulled over for traffic violations. (Yeah, me and my lead foot…) I have never worried that I couldn’t reach for my wallet without ending up dead. But not so much for Philando Castile. Honestly, I cannot even imagine how his partner held it together and filmed his death. That’s a level of self control that I am not sure I could maintain.

Now let me say this, if my son were shot dead, or if my partner were shot dead, the cure isn’t “God’s peace” so that I will feel better about the murder of my loved one. The cure is justice. And the cure in the long term is significant societal change so that this stops happening.

To tell someone who has been wronged and is devastated that you wish God’s peace on them is incredibly insulting. It minimizes the harm to them, and puts a burden on them to stop being upset. Suddenly, if they don’t stop protesting, complaining, seeking change, then they are the bad people. They aren’t accepting the Peace of God™ you just sent their way.

So here are perhaps some more appropriate prayers:

“God, let those who set up a system of looting the poor in Ferguson be brought to justice, and may those who were harmed be compensated.”

“God, please convict the cop who screamed “Bring it, you fucking animals” at protesters of his evil racist heart, and let him repent and make recompense to those he harmed.”

“God, help us all to see that we need to make a more just and safe society for everyone, not just people of our race.”

“God, please make our elected officials see that they need to fix things. I pray that they see the need to address implicit bias and train police in deescalation.”

See how different that sounds.

But also, it suggests that what we really need here isn’t prayer. It’s action. We need to insist on reform. We need to work on our own attitudes of dismissal toward the outcry of those we oppress. (A very Old Testament Prophet sort of idea, actually…) We need to actually listen to others and seek solutions, not pray that they stop complaining.

It has been through listening that I have changed over the years. Listening to my friends and colleagues tell of their experiences of prejudice, police harassment, and racism. Listening to them talk of people showing overt (and unwarranted) fear of them. Listening to the condescension they have experienced, and their fears of accidentally saying or doing something that gets them killed.

And really, let’s stop praying that God would make them feel better about it all, and start working to change things.

***

Whether or not you have any non-white friends - the evidence suggests many American whites do not - you can at least use your local library or bookstore to find resources. Right now, one of the books I am reading is Remembering Jim Crow, a transcription of first hand oral accounts of life. It is incredibly powerful to hear ordinary people talk about the systemic injustice they faced. Things are better than they were, but not nearly where they should be. And remember, there are still many alive today who grew up during Segregation, including my parents generation. When I was born, the Civil Rights act was a mere 11 years old.

And there are many, many, more; reading them can help create a sense of empathy for the millions who were denied basic human decency. Furthermore, reading these histories make it possible to recognize that the rhetoric and slogans you see today are continuations of the same racist ideas which have plagued our nation (and much of the West) for hundreds of years. One that particularly stands out to me is the way that there has never been an “acceptable” form of protest. Every protest throughout history has been dismissed as having the wrong tone, not being polite or deferential enough, being based on emotion, being unnecessary or inappropriate. Those in power, and those who benefit from privilege have never enjoyed having that challenged.

This is precisely why Black History Month is necessary. We do not know our history. Our textbooks do most often gloss over the stories of the oppressed. We also tend to glorify a past that does not deserve it, and think that a return to those times would make us great again. We tend to assume that others are less human, and that their complaints are therefore unjustified. And we don’t want to hear things that cause us discomfort. 

***

One more for a future post, perhaps: Apply the same logic to immigrants. Why would people risk death and arrest to come to the United States when our laws forbid it? Is it stupidity? Media? Or are they, perhaps, reacting in a predictable human fashion? Just saying...

***

In advance, I should apologize for what I know will be my own bias in writing this. I am always awkward writing about race, and I am definitely a work in progress. If you want to understand some of my formative experiences, such as the Rodney King beating, this post is a good start. 

Before you comment: please read my Comment Policy.  
In particular, for this post, there will be a zero tolerance for racist statements. And yes, that includes use of stereotypes ("Blacks are just more criminal than whites.") If you wish to make an argument, it needs to start from the premise that others are as fully intelligent and human as you are. I also will probably delete raw assertions. While I don't like people just linking stuff, if you are going to cite a statistic, it had better be supported by evidence from a reputable source. (Brietbart doesn't count...) Also, if you comment on Ferguson and have not read the entire DOJ report, your comment will be deleted. Please do your research first.


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Too Far To Walk by John Hersey

Source of book: I own this.

First of all this: Hiroshima should be required reading for everyone, no exceptions. I intend that my kids read it, like I did, during high school. Regardless of your personal views of whether we should have used atomic weapons, it is important to understand the real life consequences to innocent civilians. I would say this is particularly crucial in an era when one of the two major political parties in the United States appears to consider the use of nuclear weapons to be acceptable. (Looking at you too, Ted “does sand glow?” Cruz…) Unlike, say, GPS guided precision munitions, the point of nukes is to slaughter civilians by the tens of thousands. We must never forget that when we talk of using them. By telling the stories of real people who lived through the blast, Hersey make the human cost palpable.

Anyway, all that to say that I very much like John Hersey. After Hiroshima, the next book I read (in my 20s, I believe) was Life Sketches, which is outstanding, and worth seeking out. Although Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories get the prize for first online review I did of a book (back on April 29, 2010, as a Facebook note), the first actual new review posted on my blog (on June 29, 2011) was Hersey’s novel, A Single Pebble



Hersey wrote in a variety of styles, both fiction and non-fiction, and this book is a complete departure from anything else of Hersey’s I have read. A Single Pebble was set in China, where Hersey grew up, and was set in an older era. Too Far To Walk is set in the modern (1960s) Ivy League, and feels very of its time in a lot of ways. But that is not to say that it has nothing universal.

I guess the best way to describe the idea of the book is that of a coming of age story combined with elements of the Faust legends. John Fist, a student at a fictitious Ivy League school, experiences ennui and boredom, and seeks to find a “breakthrough,” as he puts it. Some transcendent experience which will make him feel alive and know himself. It isn’t too hard to see why he feels this way. He has grown up in an upper middle class family which always assumed he would follow in his father’s footsteps. Dad was a man who always did what was expected, a favorite of the professors, and as square as possible. And yet, with all that promise, he ended up punching a clock in marketing at a widget company, making his paycheck, but never really having an interesting or challenging life. Mom rather wears that pants, and has invested much of her emotional energy into the kids, the elder of which was more, shall we say, compliant than John. The title of the book itself comes from the idea that John is finding it “too far to walk” to his philosophy class at the other end of the campus.

At the peak of this malaise, John is approached by Breed, another student, with a proposal. It turns out that Breed is the Mephistopheles of the story, a representative of the infernal regions. But things have changed a whole lot over the years. Sure, you still sign a contract in blood, but the contract is conditional: you can cancel if you are dissatisfied. And also, the whole thing about dragging a soul to hell after death is much too chancey. A modern contract requires you to do the devil’s work during the term of the contract instead.

And so, John Fist signs, and then waits. And waits, and hopes for his promised breakthrough. First, he goes out with Margaret, a nice “girl next door” sort. They eventually get a hotel for the night with the idea of consummating the relationship, but he is unsure how to proceed, and she falls asleep, and the whole night has the ring more of a comedy than a serious scene. John feels cheated, not by Margaret, but by Breed, who seems to be under delivering on his promise.

Next, Breed sets John up with a prostitute, Mona, who is one of the most interesting characters in the book. She has serviced a good number of the professors, and knows how they talk. She can buffalo her way through an impersonation of a college girl - or even a professor herself. On a whim, John takes her home to meet his parents, which sets up one of the most awkward and hilarious scenes in the book. The parents clearly know she is older and more experienced than she lets on (John introduces her as a student at a local junior college), yet their good manners prevent them from prying too deeply or being rude to her or John. But, awkward, awkward, awkward.

After this, Breeds sets John up for a bizarre burglary in a poor neighborhood which seems on the border between real life and a dream. In fact, one might even question if it really happened. Finally, Breed procures some LSD, and John goes on an extended trip (which takes up about a quarter of the book). This is not, shall we say, a particularly good trip. The images at first are interesting, and Hersey’s writing is, as usual, excellent. (For what it is worth, I have never had a drug stronger than Benadryl - which makes me seriously unfit to drive or function - but I can kind of sort of get the whole drug trip thing from a number of dream experiences, most of which were rather unpleasant.) It is at the end of the trip that things get really dark. John ends up at a witches’ sabbath, and kind of freaks out.

Ironically, while John never gets his “breakthrough,” he does have an epiphany of sorts. He realizes that his dream of somehow bypassing the hard work of finding his own identity and life is an illusion, and that he is just going to have to muddle through on his own.

It was kind of odd reading this book given my own personality. I am kind of a strange sort anyway, combining a natural tendency to be a square (the way my violin teacher once described me - and she is 40 years older…) and my inability to really fit the template. (Being a short and unathletic, violin playing, poetry loving, household skills expert, non-alpha male in a subculture that reveres gender stereotypes wasn’t exactly a recipe for fitting in.) On the one hand, I don’t really get John Fist’s boredom with study - I have loved most classes I have taken. But on the other, I also don’t understand his fishing for an identity. Sure, I had my insecurity and my frustration at trying to make my way in the world. But I also pretty well knew who I was. I was hopelessly square and nerdy - but I embraced it! So I guess this book was a bit of a cultural exchange.

A few lines that I really found interesting. One came in the hotel scene between Margaret and John, where they are discussing books - particularly the more racy modern literary fiction. John is made somewhat uncomfortable by Margaret’s casual - and even dismissive -  attitude toward sex in literature. Because of Hersey’s style (in this book) of writing dialogue without quotation marks and without a clear delineation between spoken words and John’s inner thoughts, I am not sure exactly if this was John’s thought or the author’s.  

She was post-liberated; she talked about these things as if they belonged to an older generation. Older people wrote those books for older people to read and throw up over. She was aware but untouched.

In some ways, hard to believe this was written 50 years ago, but so true today. I guess I really feel like a lot of the cultural panic, and the Culture Wars™ themselves are this way too. Fiction dreamed up by old people for themselves to titillate themselves over the imaginary sins of the young people, and reassure themselves that they weren’t this bad, that it really is all our fault. And meanwhile, we feel we are reading books by older people written for themselves that have little if anything to do with the world as we know it.

The other line that I really found interesting was the final exchange between Breed and John.

-- I’m not going to renew...
That short declaration drove the scorn from Breed’s face and voice, and now he spoke softly, solicitously:
-- Why not?
-- Because I can’t go on living in a world that’s on a knife-edge between hallucination and objective truth.
-- Sentimentality can never be truth.
-- Who said I wanted sentimentality?
-- That lousy experience you dreamed up yesterday with Margaret…
-- But that wasn’t an experience; you just said it yourself - that I dreamed it up. You haven’t given me experiences. I can’t live with frenzy, visions, stupor, hangovers - and finally a tremor, a dragging foot as I walk. You sold me a bill of goods. You sold me illusions. I prefer the real world, crummy as it is.
-- Who’s to say what’s real? Do you know what’s real?
-- I don’t know for sure, but I think reality has something to do with friction - in all senses - between human beings, and what you put me through a series of flights into myself, away from other people, the opposite of that friction.

In our own era of “alternative facts” and a denial of the humanity of others outside the tribe, there is a lot of truth in this. Reality requires that friction, that contact and empathy with other humans, that is a far cry from hallucination and slogans and the bill of goods promised.

Ultimately, Hersey’s resolution is uncomfortable, but satisfying. No, it isn’t too far to walk. We must take that walk, to learn, to explore, to be outside our tribe and comfort zone, if we are to grow. It will require discomfort, effort, and hard work to become.

***

Reading and writing about a Witches’ Sabbath brought to mind two works of music. (Big surprise there, right?)

To any young orchestral musician, Modest Mussorgsky’s Night On Bald Mountain is intimately familiar. But the end of high school, I had played this a couple of times. The familiar version is the one rewritten and orchestrated by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. (I have read through a more “authentic” version, and there is a reason that most of Mussorgsky's best known works were completed by other composers - he was just too undisciplined to polish works.)

Of all the times I have played this, my favorite was the concert I played while at Bakersfield College when we did a Halloween themed concert. In addition to this piece, we played Charles Ives’ Halloween, Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre (I got to play the detuned violin solo - good times), and Rachmaninoff's Isle of the Dead, which remains one of my all time favorite works.

In the familiar version, the Witches’ Sabbath reaches its frenzy when the sound of a church bell announces dawn, and the sun begins its creep over the horizon, and the orgy breaks up with everyone slinking off, as marvelously described in solos by the clarinet and flute.



Even more apropos to this review, however, is the final movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. I believe I have linked the fourth movement (which includes what may be the only known musical depiction of a decapitated head plopping into a basket), but I don’t believe I have ever linked the finale.

Symphonie Fantastique is perhaps the first musical work known to have been inspired by a drug trip - and thus the first psychedelic work. (Although I strongly suspect alcohol of being involved in more than a few compositions…) Of course, back then, they didn’t have LSD - only opium.

So, according to Berlioz, the symphony tells the story of a man obsessed with his beloved. Hey, maybe like Berlioz himself was obsessed with soprano Harriet Smithson. Anyway, in despair at his unrequited love, he overdoses on opium, but survives after having a crazy drug trip about her. He finds her everywhere, from a ball to the idyllic fields of nature. However, things get dark. He kills her, is marched to the scaffold and is shortened by the guillotine. In the finale, he finds himself in hell at a witches’ sabbath, and she is the head witch. The theme that represents her becomes grotesque and is mixed with the medieval chant of Dies Irae (the Day of Wrath, which is used in many a classical work - learn it and listen for it…) The great love has turned to terror and evil. This whole scene isn’t that far off from that of John Fist’s LSD trip, which is why I thought of this rather immediately.

I also must quote the great Leonard Bernstein on Symphonie Fantastique:

“Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral."

And here is Bernstein with the finale: