Wednesday, April 24, 2024

The Lathe of Heaven

 Source of book: Borrowed from my kid.


Three of my kids were in high school during the Covid pandemic, and each had different experiences and challenges. The one who seems able to thrive in any educational setting is my second kid, but she took issue with the fact that for one year, there were ZERO female authors among the books they had to read in depth. 


This did NOT make her happy, and as part of her protest, she chose to do her big paper on Ursula Le Guin, who was not only female, but strongly feminist. It was a badass paper (I read it), the result of my kid reading nearly everything Le Guin she could find, which included a few dozen novels that we inherited from a colleague when he downsized his library. (And yes, my kid pretty much appropriated the Le Guin collection…) She recommended I take this one on my recent flight to New York City as it is a small trade paperback. 


I have previously read three Le Guin books, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, and Gifts, which I listened to with the kids on one of our trips. The first two are set in the same universe, while the third is more fantasy than science fiction. 


In contrast to all of the others, The Lathe of Heaven is set on our own Earth, in an era that is a bit beyond ours, but still recognizable. Specifically, the events take place in Portland Oregon….or perhaps more accurately, on a few dozen possible future Portland Oregons. 


The title is derived from a mistranslation of the writings of Chuang Tzu - the lathe didn’t exist in China at the time, and the concept is better understood as “heavenly equilibrium.” But the title is still excellent, and the mistranslated passage (which is quoted at the beginning of chapter three) is thought provoking. 


Those whom heaven helps we call the sons of heaven. They do not learn this by learning. They do not work it by working. They do not reason it by using reason. To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven. 


The book, like so many of Le Guin’s works, is both a story and a philosophical argument. Her ability to imagine worlds built around ideas is amazing, because they are foreign yet incredibly believable and familiar in their own way. 


The premise of the book is that George Orr, a drug addict suffering from psychological problems, is involuntarily given psychiatric treatment. (The name may be a nod to George Orwell, or a play on the idea of “or” - the alternate realities in the book.) He is sent to be treated by William Haber, who he informs of the true problem behind his illness: he has “effective” dreams - dreams that change reality. His drug use is to try to prevent the dreams. 


Haber, who has good intentions, but few scruples, hooks Orr up to an “augmentor,” a device that allows Haber to control Orr’s dreams to a degree. He makes suggestions during hypnosis, then the machine immediately puts Orr into a dream cycle. 


It turns out that Orr isn’t crazy - his dreams really do change reality, but nobody notices because their memories are changed too. Only George can see it. And, it turns out, Haber. 


Haber decides to use George to change reality. For the better of course. Why not tackle overpopulation? How about racism? War? And, of course, climate change? (Yes, this book was written in 1971, and thinking people were well aware of the greenhouse effect and warned of continued pollution by fossil fuels. Le Guin gets so many of the details right about what we are now experiencing - fires, floods, extreme weather, drought - the whole thing.) 


The problem is, there are, shall we say, side effects. Changing the world isn’t simple or straightforward. So, overpopulation is cured by having a plague wipe out most of humanity. Racism is cured by making all humans the same color of grey, and food follows suit, losing color and flavor. War is ended by an alien invasion - common enemies make for common cause. 


And the more Haber tries to change things, the more messed up they get. 


Orr is horrified at what is going on, but he has no real choice - if he tries to escape, he will be arrested. What he does do is finds a lawyer, Heather, who is also able to see the world change, although she pretends not to have noticed when around Haber. 


From there, things spiral, and it is up to George to try to stop the meddling with reality. 


The ending of the book has been criticized for being either incoherent, unbelievable, or unintelligible. I didn’t find that to be the case. Le Guin had to end it somehow. She nods in the direction of the possibility that the universe could simply implode and everyone cease to exist, but instead pulls back to an ending that, while hardly the best case scenario, is better than the worst. I though it worked well, actually. 


At the core of the book is the question about some popular philosophies of our time. Haber is both a Utilitarianist (the most good for the most people) and a positivist (only knowledge from logic and reason through the senses is true.) Le Guin criticizes both. She also criticizes behaviorism, the reduction of human behavior to animal instinct. 


If she embraces anything, it is Taoism (see the title), but even that is embraced loosely. This is characteristic of Le Guin - every idea is examined and found imperfect in its own way. Her utopias are always flawed, and her dystopias always complicated. She embraces the idea that the human experience - perhaps even existence itself - cannot be reduced to a binary of good or bad, good and evil, happy or unhappy. It’s all complicated, and all interconnected. 


I am always pleasantly surprised at how nuanced Le Guin’s books are. There is a depth of thought that the best writers can attain that lesser lights fall short of. Long after the stories have played out on the page, I find myself mulling the ideas and the possible worlds. 


To be clear here, Le Guin isn’t arguing against working for social change. Indeed, her thought experiments are in the grand tradition of imagining what could be. But she is deeply skeptical about change imposed from without, of magical solutions. 


I love her use of this line from H. G. Wells (another science fiction writer who was incredibly thoughtful): 


“Nothing endures, nothing is precise and certain (except the mind of a pedant), perfection is the mere repudiation of that last ineluctable marginal inexactitude which is the mysterious inmost quality of Being.” 


I spent far too much of my life in a subculture that deeply believed in certainty, in attainable perfection, of solutions imposed on others in an appallingly pedantic way, and the denial of the inseparability of body and soul. What makes us human rather than mere machine is that degree of diversity, imperfection even, that resists reduction to mere naturalism. 


The idea of a formula that can “fix” people, typically imposed by those with privilege and power on those below them (think Prohibition, among other things…) has proven again and again to be a failure. And yet, they hold the attractiveness of avoiding the need to live in true community, to accept our interconnection with everyone else. This too was the attraction of the cult I was in. It promised that parents could impose the formula on their kids, and be guaranteed a magical result. That too was a lie, of course.


Another chapter has this quote from Lafcadio Hearn:


“It may remain for us to learn…that our task is only beginning, and that there will never be given to us even the ghost of any help, safe the help of unutterable and unthinkable Time. We may have to learn that the infinite whirl of death and birth, out of which we cannot escape, is of our own creation, of our own seeking; - that the forces integrating worlds are the errors of the Past; - that the eternal sorrow is but the eternal hunger of insatiable desire; - and that the burnt-out suns are rekindled only by the inextinguishable passions of vanished lives.” 


Something to ponder. 


One thing I loved about the book was the way that Orr’s character evolved. While things happen to him, he increasingly discovers both how to embrace what he cannot control and how to assert himself where he can. Along the way, he has some interesting and progressive epiphanies. 


“Did you ever happen to think, Dr. Haber, that there, there might be other people who dream the way I do? That reality’s being changed out from under us, replaced, renewed, all the time - only we don’t know it? Only the dreamer knows it, and those who know his dream. If that’s true, I guess we’re lucky not knowing it. This is confusing enough.”


Later, Orr finds himself even further along that line of thinking. He even goes so far as to wonder if the world had been destroyed in the post-nuclear-apocalypse that opens the book. Is everything a dream now? This gives him peace, unexpectedly for Haber.


He seemed to have no personal fear. But he must have. If Haber was afraid, of course Orr must be. He was suppressing fear. Or did he think, Haber suddenly wondered, that because he had dreamed the invasion, it was all just a dream?

What if it was



The problem for Haber is that he thinks in terms of the ends he seeks, and glosses over the means. 


The end justifies the means. But what if there never is an end? All we have is means. 


This, to me, is one of the deepest truths I have discovered in my journey away from Evangelicalism. There are no ends, in that sense. There are only means. Loving your neighbor isn’t done because it is the means to some greater good, but because the means are all we have. 


Orr continues to grow. 


“We’re in the world, not against it. It doesn’t work to try to stand outside things and run them, that way. It just doesn’t work, it goes against life. There is a way but you have to follow it. The world is, no matter how we think it ought to be. You have to be with it. You have to let it be.” 


Another epiphany comes to Orr as he surrenders his attempts to make sense of the changes in his world. I think there is a lot here that speaks to our present moment for the American Right. 


He was aware that in thus relegating to irreality a major portion of the only reality, the only existence, that he in fact did have, he was running exactly the same risk the insane mind runs: the loss of the sense of free will. He knew that in so far as one denies what is, one is possessed by what is not, the compulsions, the fantasies, the terrors that flock to fill the void. 


George is in a tough spot, and he knows it, which is why he never succumbs to the loss of free will entirely. 


But what struck me most about this passage is that when we deny what is, we become increasingly obsessed with the fears and terrors which are not real, the fear of what doesn’t exist. I am reminded of the way that the Right has gone down the path of fearing everything - immigrants, feminists, atheists, and especially LGBTQ people, inventing phantoms that do not in fact exist. I might also note the obsession with demons and the perils of music by black people and books with magic in them that the 1980s and 90s brought to Evangelicalism. Phantom fears every single one, but powerful when you are in denial of the actual world we live in, with greed and racism and misogyny and the other systems of this world that perpetuate injustice. It is easier to stare at the void and invent fears you can control. 


Orr eventually has to face what drives Haber. 


You have to help another person. But it’s not right to play God with masses of people. To be God you have to know what you are doing. And to do any good at all, just believing you’re right and your motives are good isn’t enough. You have to…be in touch. He isn’t in touch. No one else, no thing even, has an existence of its own for him; he sees the world only as a means to his end. 


I couldn’t help thinking of Bill Gothard and other cult leaders here, but also of the choices my parents made at that point. They played God with my life - denying me the higher education and career choice I should have had - and the purity of their motives do not make that good enough.


They were not in touch with me in the sense of connecting with my needs and emotions and desires, and haven’t been since. They believe they were and are right, and that is all that matters to them when it comes to me, unfortunately.


I became a means toward the end. The end both of Christian Nationalism as Gothard desired but also of fixing their discomfort with cultural change I was to be an arrow in the quiver to fight against the modern world, and that hasn’t really changed since. My value to them has not been inherent, but based on whether me (and my wife and kids too) validate their choices and their goals. When we ceased to do things their way, to be means toward their end, we were no longer valued, just as George was discarded once Haber could accomplish his ends without him.


I’ll end with a scene from one of the alternate realities, in which George and Heather are married. It captures something from my own experience of marriage, and also stands as a rebuke to this idea of using people as means to an end. 


In bed, they made love. Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; re-made all the time, made new. When it was made, they lay in each other’s arms, holding love, asleep. 


I think this encapsulates Le Guin’s view of how positive change comes. Love is made, organically, in connection. Change comes through working within the universe. Change comes through being in touch, in improvisation, in creation. 


For this reason, Le Guin’s worlds always feel plausible. She doesn’t need to change human nature - she works within it, imagining how the same raw materials could function differently given different systems and circumstances. 


The Lathe of Heaven is another example of her ability to imagine in this very concrete and interconnected manner. 


Monday, April 22, 2024

A Fever in the Heartland by Timothy Egan

Source of book: Borrowed from the library. 


This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. While this book wasn’t specifically on my list, it is the sort of book I would have eventually read, particularly because my wife started listening to it on audiobook before we selected it for our club. 

 Let’s start with this:


The Ku Klux Klan never went away. It has merely changed form. MAGA is the Klan of the 21st Century. Anti-Woke is the Klan of the 21st Century. Anti-CRT and Anti-DEI are the Klan of the 21st Century. If you didn’t understand that already, you will understand it after reading this book. 


Just as in our own time, a charismatic grifter once recognized that the combination of economic inequality, cultural change, and movement from rural to urban created a golden opportunity for a person devoid of morals or scruples to enrich himself and gain political power by, as a judge quoted in the book put it, “They paid ten dollars for the privilege of hating their neighbor, and they were determined to get their money’s worth.” Or, as writer Meredith Nicholson put it later, “Isn’t in strange that with all our educational advantages, Indiana citizens could be induced to pay $10 for the privilege of hating their neighbors and wearing a sheet?” 


As in our own time, this charlatan publicly stoked the fires of bigotry and hatred, fanned the flames of fear, and claimed that he was protecting white female innocence while he was privately raping and assaulting women with impunity. 


That man was D. C. Stephenson, and, while there are some differences, he was a 1920s version of Donald Trump. His KKK movement eventually captured the political system of the state of Indiana, and he had his eyes on the presidency. 


However, like many of his ilk, he started to believe his own press, and went too far even for his supporters. With a string of broken marriages behind him - he was abusive and violent and unfaithful to all of his ex-wives - he decided his next victim would be Madge Oberholzer, a young woman who was employed by the Indiana Department of Public Instruction. Since he controlled the budget, her fear of losing her position led her to try to go along with Stephenson despite her personal loathing of him. 


He kidnapped her, held her on his private train car, and raped and abused her. As with many creepy and violent men, he got off on hurting his women. He bit her on her breasts, back, neck, arms, legs and tongue hard enough to leave deep wounds. In fear and pain, she managed to visit a drug store while under guard, and bought mercury bichloride which she took in an attempt to commit suicide rather than endure further torture. 


When it became clear she was gravely ill, Stephenson refused to take her to a hospital, but finally dropped her off at her home. By this time, her kidneys were failing, and her bites badly infected. 


In an era prior to antibiotics, there was no cure for infection other than hope and time. A month after the assault, Oberholzer died, but not before dictating a statement to the police, a statement which would prove crucial in his eventual conviction for murder. 


As a result of the trial and conviction, the reputation of the KKK was badly damaged, and, despite the national leadership’s attempts to distance themselves, membership plummeted. Subsequent convictions of Klan politicians for corruption, and the eventual intervention of state, local, and federal government reduced the Klan to a shadow of its former self, and it has never again been able to attain the level of organization and popularity. 


While the Klan as its own entity has mostly faded away, the underlying hate and bigotry are still with us, which has allowed a new grifter to recycle the exact same rhetoric, fearmongering, and policies - and once again recruit a new group of followers who are more than willing to send him a few hundred bucks for the privilege of hating their neighbors. 


Sure, there are a few differences. The 1920s KKK targeted Catholics rather than Muslims; and Italians, Irish, and Greeks rather than Hispanics; but the rest is very much the same. 


On the personal side, Trump is a physical coward, so the likelihood of him brawling seems low. Trump also doesn’t drink, while Stephenson defied prohibition (hypocrite that he was, of course) and always had the best liquor available at his parties. And, perhaps one reason Trump has gotten away with his grift for so long, he always pays his women. (It is easier as a rich man to cheat one’s creditors and subcontractors, which has been Trump’s way of doing things for decades, but it isn’t as easy to hump and dump a woman without paying her.) 


There is no space in this post to get into all of the ways the MAGA movement is a new iteration of the Klan, but the book (without mentioning Trump or MAGA) is able to make it abundantly clear. 


Egan relies heavily on primary sources for his story, with direct quotes liberally woven through the narrative. These sources include transcripts from the trial itself, but also several barrels of Klan correspondence and documentation, which were originally kept (literally) buried for later use in blackmail. However, once Stephenson realized that he would not be pardoned as he expected - and indeed demanded - he decided to take “his” politicians down with him, and tipped off the media and law enforcement to their location. 


Contemporary journalism also provided source material, both about the way much of the mainstream media was in with the Klan and how the Klan retaliated against independent journalists who fought against it. Suffice it to say this is a book that tells a story that is thoroughly documented and supported by irrefutable evidence. Egan’s contribution is to weave the disparate and often dry originals into a compelling story, and tie it in with integrally related history and figures, from James Weldon Johnson to Malcolm X. 


I took a lot of notes, and could have taken even more. There is so much in this book that would make it a great starting point for the history of the 1920s and beyond. I do want to hit some highlights. 


One passage that particularly fascinated me is the one on how the Woman’s Suffrage movement intertwined with other threads of the time. In a lot of ways, this movement was hamstrung by its blind spots. For one thing, it was very white, and openly excluded black voices, which was a shift from the abolitionist era, when feminists and black activists made common cause. 


There were a few reasons for this. One was a wedge issue: it was easier to argue that it was unfair that black males could vote, while white females couldn’t. And, of course, the racism-fueled paranoia about the supposed hypersexuality of black people - those black men just waiting to rape white women, and those nymphomaniac black women out to steal your (white) man from you. 


This also got tied up with the Temperance movement. These days, it may seem odd for feminism to be deeply tied to Prohibition, but at the time, it made sense. As Rebecca Traister put it:


“There may be no greater testament to the suffocating power of marital expectation than the fact that, for a time, the banning of booze seemed a more practical recourse against spousal abuse than the reform of marriage law or redress of inequities within the home.”


But Prohibition too was tied up with other issues. It was racist in that fanned fears of intoxicated black men:


“The strongest argument in favor of prohibition is the imperative necessity of keeping whiskey out of the reckless colored element” a newspaper said. 


(Not in this book, but well documented, is the way that xenophobia linked alcohol to those horrid Catholic immigrants - vicious racist preacher Billy Sunday was one of those who claimed Italians and Greeks were drunkards; and also the desire of employers to prevent union organization, which often took place at pubs. Suddenly, Prohibition doesn’t look like it came from pure motives…) 


In any case, the Klan exploited this locus of fears, bringing in the feminist and temperance movements with its promise of restoring the purity of white middle-class culture. (Sound familiar?)


As Egan puts it about one feminist activist whose original inclusivism turned self-righteous and judgmental, leading to bigotry:


In public, the big heart that had once brimmed with benevolence for fallen humans had shriveled into a raisin of racial animus. 


It was striking to see the rhetoric from the 1920s - and how it is nearly word for word what we hear from the American Right these days. A few examples:


Referring to immigrants from southern and eastern Europe: “They are idiots, insane, diseased criminals!” (See Trump for a very similar statement. Or notorious Sodomite James Dobson.) 


Within a generation, she [“Mother” - a KKK woman leader] warned, white Protestants would be replaced by an inferior breed. The Jews were behind this plot.


Um, replacement theory anyone? 


World War One had also led to widespread prejudice against German-Americans. (My ancestors on both sides…) Egan notes that a certain Indiana family of German heritage who owned a hardware store were so afraid of the prejudice that they brought their son up “without acquainting me with the language or the literature or the music or the oral family histories which my ancestors had loved.” That child was Kurt Vonnegut


As the Klan grew, there was pushback. Not just from African-Americans (although they were a vibrant force) or Catholics (Notre Dame students literally fought the Klan, which is where the “Fighting Irish” nickname came from) or immigrants. This was more successful in some places than others. 


In Chicago, a lawyer, Patrick O’Donnell organized the American Unity League, and brought law enforcement, clergy, and Jewish and black community leaders in. They exposed the names of prominent Klan members, leading to prosecutions for corruption and eventually the disintegration of the Klan in Chicago. 


But Chicago was already a diverse city. For largely rural and overwhelmingly white Indiana, the attempt to shame Klansmen backfired, and the Klan grew as a result. 


What should have been shattering news - a Klansman dictating orders to elected officials and leaders of the dominant political party - barely caused a stir. This was O’Donnells worst fear: perhaps Indiana really wanted  a Klan republic. 


This was also my worst fear, which has come to pass: a LOT of people in the US want a Klan dictatorship, led by Trump. And for the same reason - they believe the US is a white man’s country, and should be run accordingly. 


Into this already volatile situation came Stephenson, a grifter seeing an opportunity. 


Unlike Trump, Stephenson wasn’t raised with his ass on a golden toilet. In fact, reconstructing his history wasn’t easy, because he carefully hid his impoverished upbringing. Like Trump, however, he was skilled at inventing his own mythology. As the author puts it, “He could talk a line of silk-spun bullshit.” Like Trump, ideology wasn’t really that important to him. He could praise socialism one day and condemn it the next - whatever it took to get in with the local powers and attract gullible women. 


And another parallel:


A trick of his was to grab a girl’s breast and fondle it in front of others. The shock effect gave him power, and revealed to him at a young age that he could get away with things as others could not - simply because he dared to cross a line. 


“Grab ‘em by the pussy. When you’re a star, you can get away with anything.” 


All this minor grifting was just a warmup, though. Stephenson found that the real money, the real power could be gained by feeding people’s fears and hate. He had no need for coherence of thought - all that was needed was the emotion. 


He had taken up the cause of racial purity by legislation with the confidence of a man whose convictions were shaped by the uncomplicated concision of crackpots. 


Again, reading lines from his speeches feels like reading the rhetoric of today’s Right Wing. Oh, and on occasion, it felt like hearing the voice of Bill Gothard. The Klan sponsored “Better Baby” contests at state fairs - infants would be judged like pigs or goats. 


Babies were judged on a scorecard, with points taken off for unusual ear size, the shape of a child’s head, or eyes that didn’t shine. The good-looking, glowing, exclusively white babies were awarded ribbons. Black babies and babies of immigrants were excluded from the competition.


Gothard sure talked a lot about the importance of “bright eyes.” That never sat well with me at the time, although it was years before I realized that it was a straight-up racist dog whistle. 


Note that these contests also correlate to rhetoric by open neo-Nazi Steve King, and his claim that the children of immigrants were “other people’s babies” unfit to “rebuild civilization.” It’s the same thing. 


Stephenson himself would say “This is a struggle to save America.” And what did he mean by that? The same thing people today mean by that: preserving the purity of the “white race of true Americans” from dilution by “those people.” 


Journalist and professor Robert Coughlan was a child in Kokomo Indiana during the height of the Klan - well over half of the population were members. He would later write about the experience. I thought his ideas were quite perceptive. He noted that “the deadly tedium of small-town life” was a factor. The Klan - just like MAGA - is a way to feel a part of something that matters. He also noted the effects of religious fundamentalism “hot with bigotry” - something I have noticed as well. 


For me, one of the greatest shocks and traumas of my life was discovering that the religious tradition I was raised in - the tradition I genuinely believed was about following Christ - turned out to be all about white supremacy, and that Jesus fellow was mostly an inconvenience. This applies as well to my parents and much of my extended family. When a better savior came along, Jesus was easily marginalized and ignored. 


Then, as now, the goal was political power, and the power to persecute their neighbors who were different. In Indiana, as during the Trump presidency, the KKK/MAGA members gave thanks to God for this. 


Nationwide, when members of the secretive society opened their daily newspapers they found that their prayers to a discriminatory God had been answered.


Alas, then and now, many of the Klan/MAGA policies have been enacted. The 1920s immigration laws were openly racist, and ended up contributing greatly to the Holocaust - Anne Frank’s family was denied asylum under that law, as were many other Jews fleeing the Nazis. It wasn’t until the 1960s that our immigration laws were loosened as to race. (Although they remain discriminatory and flawed in many ways.) 


Then, as now, fake-ass racist “christians” gave thanks to their bigoted deity for the harm they inflicted on their fellow humans. 


By 1924, it was shocking the degree to which the Klan had infiltrated both parties. The Republicans caved pretty quickly. (In that sense, it is unsurprising that it eventually became the Klan party, although the period of Eisenhower through Goldwater was one in which the future was still in balance.) The Democratic convention of 1924, however, devolved into a shouting match over the attempt to condemn the Klan. 


In what should surprise nobody, William Jennings Bryant (soon to argue against evolution in the Scopes Trial), was on the side of the Klan. Less predictable was that Will Rogers, who praised The Birth of a Nation, condemned the hypocrisy of enlisting religion in favor of the Klan. 


James Weldon Johnson, a man who every child should learn about, and not merely for his poetry, was then national secretary of the NAACP, led the first break of the black vote from the party of Lincoln. While the Democrats had failed (barely) to condemn the Klan, the GOP had gone all-in for it. 


In a badass statement, Johnson noted that the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) was being fully enforced by regular raids and prosecutions, the 15th Amendment (granting the right to vote regardless of race) was widely ignored. 


One could draw a parallel today with the vigorous policing of the War on Drugs, while the right of black Americans to vote is continually under attack. 


Once the Klan took over the government of Indiana, it pushed its legislative agenda. A lot of it sounds familiar today as well, even if the form is a bit different. 


The centerpiece was a eugenics law, allowing the involuntary sterilization of those deemed inferior. (Modern counterpart: involuntary sterilization of welfare recipients.)


Also on the agenda were the elimination of Catholic schools, criminalization of sex outside of marriage, banning of books and movies deemed “immoral”, and mandatory bible reading and prayer in schools (but only the KJV…) Any of this sound familiar? 


Later in the book, the author notes the political goals of the national Klan: outlaw alcohol, disenfranchise black voters, ban immigrants from most countries, and….ban the teaching of evolution. 


Interestingly, while one branch of evolutionary thinking was rather racist (white people were more evolved than other races), it eventually came to be seen as a threat, not merely to religion, but even more so to white supremacy. If humans all had a common origin, then there was no fundamental difference between black and white. Oh, and evolution was a Jewish conspiracy…


I’m not going to quote from the chapters on Madge’s murder. I will warn that they are seriously rough and horrifying. Trigger warnings apply. I also commend Madge for managing to tell her story thoroughly and without censorship, despite great embarrassment, even though things ended terribly for her. 


The trial was fascinating as well, and I love that Egan gets the legal details right. A key issue was the admissibility of the “deathbed confession” of Madge. Particularly in fiction, authors tend to get things like this wrong, but Egan went through the work of learning how criminal procedure works, and that attention to detail means that this book will give you a legally accurate account of the proceedings, and that makes me happy indeed. 


Stephenson was shocked when he was arrested, but he assumed that he would skate. After all, as he told Madge, “I am the law in this state.” 


Like Trump, he dismissed the charges against him as “a trivial matter, trumped up by a vindictive prosecutor.” Sound familiar? It’s all a witch hunt, right? In fact, Stephenson would literally call the trial a hoax and a witch hunt, a cry taken up by many of his friends in the Klan. After his conviction, he would compare himself to Jesus, a martyr to injustice, the trial was “the most appalling persecution to which man has been subjected to since the days that civilization abandoned the bludgeon.” 


Hey, that sure sounds like Trump, doesn’t it? 


And the fact that he was a Klansman was in his favor, not a hindrance. During the trial, an election was held in Indiana, and the Klan’s candidates swept their races. As the author puts it:


[B]eing a Klansman was no encumbrance in the great American midsection. When hate was on the ballot, especially in the guise of virtue, a majority of voters knew exactly what to do.


While “majority” doesn’t apply to the US these days, this is an accurate description of a number of red states. And more than anything, it applies to white Evangelicals, who line up to vote for hate in the guise of virtue. 


I found a kindred spirit in a number of real-life characters in this book. The prosecutors who took on Stephenson literally risked their lives, jobs, and reputations in order to do so. The same was true for the judge, who did the right thing despite his connections to the Klan. 


Perhaps most of all, though, I sympathize with William Stern, the last surviving Union Civil War veteran in Indiana, who continued to advocate for racial equality until the very end of his life. He may not have had a position of power, limited to writing for newspapers and arguing with his neighbors, but he helped win the war of the heart over the Klan, and lived to see the Indiana Klan dissolved. I love how Egan describes him in this sentence. 


He was outraged at this variant of Christianity that urged people to loathe their fellow man. His faith taught him that all God’s children were equal in the eyes of the Creator.


This is my belief as well, and my frustration with the fake-ass Christians who are polluting the name of Christ. 


But the thing is, the Klan was expressly Christian. It saw its battle as a literal battle against atheists and other non-believers. Again, so many parallels to today. 


I’ll also mention the words of W.E.B. Du Bois, quoted in this book. The question as to how so many people, who could have chosen to be decent, bought in so fully to hate is one that is hard to answer. Here is Du Bois’ thought. 


“[T]he yelling, cruel-eyed demons who break, destroy, maim, lynch, and burn at the stake is a knot, larger or small, of normal human beings, and these human beings at heart are desperately afraid of something.” 


That fear (which I think is at its heart existential) is all too easily redirected to fear of “the other.” Here is a quote from Hiram Evans, the national leader of the KKK, who unsuccessfully tried to distance himself from Stephenson. 


“We’ve passed this immigration bill and built a stone wall around the nation so deep, so strong, that the scum and riff-raff of the old world cannot get into our gates.” 


Build that wall, anyone? 


Or this, from a pro-Klan newspaper:


“It is strictly a white man’s organization - not to foster racial hatred or harm the Negro, but to preserve the purity of the white Caucasian blood, oppose the intermarriage of races, and maintain forever the doctrine of white supremacy.”


Immigrants are poisoning our blood, anyone? Trump pretty much reads from The Fiery Cross every time he opens his mouth. 


Interestingly, Stephenson’s case was just the first of several. Ellis Wilson, a dentist who led an Oregon chapter of the Klan, was convicted of manslaughter after killing his assistant during a botched abortion - she was pregnant with his child after he raped her. 


In Colorado, three Klansmen were convicted of child molestation. Another for kidnapping and rape. The pattern was becoming all too clear: those who professed their goal of protecting white womanhood were the greatest threat to their safety. (In our own time, in addition to politicians like Trump, don’t forget to add all of those pastors and priests whose child rapes were carefully covered up. When you hear someone talking about the need to protect women from “those people” whether immigrants or gays - know that they are the real threat. 


As Stephenson knew, these people and their followers are so easy to exploit. As the author puts it, he knew that he could make far more money from the renewable hate of everyday white people than he could ever make as an honest businessman or a member of Congress. Ditto for Trump today. 


Stephenson and Trump are at one level causes - they fanned the flames of hate and built movements based around that ideology. But they were also symptoms of a greater problem, the fundamental disease of the soul that feeds bigotry, fear, and hate. That hate was there for Stephenson to tap into, and it is there for Trump to tap into today. 


There is a fascinating epilogue to the book. The various villains in the book found various fates. Stephenson, after more than three decades in prison, was released, and promptly committed another sexual assault. After release from that term, as an old man, he died in ill health. I suspect that Trump would still be out their raping if it weren’t for the fact that he is very likely impotent at this point. 


Court Asher, the bodyguard and thug for Stephenson, went into anti-Semitism after the Klan disbanded, promoting the Nazis, and even trying to prove that Jesus wasn’t a Jew. 


Earl Gentry, thug number two, was killed in a murder-for-hire plot by his ex-lover. A fitting end for a man who watched as Stephenson raped Madge. 


And, perhaps most fitting of all, the Klan Imperial Palace in Atlanta was eventually sold….to the Catholic Church - it became part of a new cathedral. 


The book is also a cautionary tale. I’ll end with this passage, which resonates today. 


Democracy was a fragile thing, stable and steady until it was broken and trampled. A man who didn’t care about shattering every convention, and then found new ways to vandalize the contract that allowed free people to govern themselves, could do unthinkable damage. 


Just as the Indiana government owed its true loyalty to the Klan and to Stephenson, most of the GOP today owes its true allegiance to Donald Trump and MAGA, not to voters. Like Trump, Stephenson openly said that he intended to become a dictator. And then as now, many applauded. This isn’t going to be an easy fight. Preservation of our democracy will require not merely rejecting Trump, but rejecting MAGA - the KKK of our time. 


This can be done, as the book demonstrates, but it will require tremendous effort by those of us who still believe in basic human decency, and reject the values of white supremacy. 


There are two differences I see 100 years later, in our own Klan moment. First, demographics have indeed changed a lot. One of the reasons for panic by the MAGA sorts is that whites are no longer an overwhelming majority, despite the fact that Irish, Italians, Greeks and others who were targeted by the 1920s Klan are now considered “white.” 


The other is that I do not see the same homogeneity among white people as described in this book. Maybe in some places in the country, but fewer than you might think. One reason that we do not have an organized Klan (and no, the Trump personality cult isn’t the same thing - it exists for his benefit, and has proven to be incapable of governance) is that many of us white people - including many of the educated and professional sorts who formed the backbone of the 1920s - aren’t down with MAGA. 


I predict that when Trump dies - and he very likely will be dead within 10 years - you will see a giant crowd of MAGA voters who will now be denying that they ever voted for him. Already, he is increasingly looking incapable of even basic emotional regulation or executive function. But don’t worry. Me and many like me will still have our memories, and will be more than happy to remind MAGA people of who they chose to be. Consequences, yo. 


This book is an excellent read, if a difficult one because of the violence, hate, and evil behavior that went unpunished for so long. But it also is a reminder that resistance to evil is necessary and often bears fruit years or even decades later. The fight for equality and human decency will never be easy - evil has too many systemic advantages in our world and particularly in our religious systems. But humans of good will shall continue to fight for peace on earth for all.