06 May 2012

"The New Jim Crow," "Push," "Napoleon," "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ," "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality," "How to Write a Sentence," "The Post-American Presidency," and "The Overton Window."

The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander
Push, Sapphire
Napoleon, Paul Johnson
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Philip Pullman
Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, Eliezer Yudkowsky
How to Write a Sentence, Stanley Fish
The Post-American Presidency, Pamela Gellar
The Overton Window, Glenn Beck

The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander

The New Jim Crow sets out to demonstrate that the criminal justice system of America has replaced the racist system of stratification that preceded it, Jim Crow, as well as the system of formal slavery that came before them both.  Michelle Alexander cites statistics, anecdotal evidence, and - most persuasively- flawless argument to draw our attention to the fact that every facet of American law enforcement now helps to oppress African-Americans in particular and minorities in general.  Her quiet outrage and methodical prose is not like the beat of a drum: rather, its careful progression lets us hear the vicious beat that has long been in muffled existence.

Every honest American citizen must confront the basic truth that young black men are in jail in numbers wildly out of proportion with their portion of the population.  For some people, this is explained by culture and poor choices.  For others (including myself) it was a lingering effect of racism and the result of damning poverty.  But Alexander presents a solid case that the enormous percentage of young black men who are either in jail or on parole has developed - consciously and unconsciously - as a way to control them and maintain their place at the bottom of the social scale.  Despite my skepticism, and my continued efforts to examine her arguments critically, Alexander's proof built in an irrefutable way.  Intentional or not, institutional racism exists in America to a shocking degree.

Serious, measured, and grounded, The New Jim Crow rips the comfortable cover off of this issue.  Since I read it, I have been unable to stop thinking about it.  If you're okay with that result, you should take a look.

Push, Sapphire

Lizzie says that this book is most interesting because of its contradictions.  It's written in dialect, so it should be dated and annoying by now, but it's not.  It's very short and clipped and includes some lousy poetry, but it's still very powerful.  And most of all, it's a grim sad story, but in some strange way amazingly uplifting.  As usual, of course, Lizzie is quite right.

While this is the story of a poor, obese teen mother, Push is less a chronicle of her problems and more the tale of her dreams.  Despite a level of hardship that would crush anyone, young Precious struggles to learn and better herself.  What makes her journey tolerable and even inspiring, though, is not her resilience or her determination.  While those are excellent qualities and necessary for anyone enduring a life of woe, a focus on Precious' obdurate ability to resist harm would have shortly become depressing.  Such stories have been written before, and can be best called stories of survival.  Push is a story of aspiration.

This is an important distinction, and one I didn't realize immediately, but it's at the center of why the book succeeds.  Even before she conceives of the desire to read and grow, we see that Precious is dreaming of a better world.  The opening scenes, of her sitting impassively in math class, are filled with her fantasies about marrying her teacher and living a full life.  Later that day, we learn about her dreams of becoming a movie and music star, and of living up to the goals espoused by Louis Farrakhan.  This is what keeps the book in a positive tone, despite her horrific situation.  Push is uplifting, because it is the story of a girl trying to raise herself in the world, and she brings us with her.

I recommend this.

Napoleon, Paul Johnson

Were you aware that Napoleon Bonaparte was a porcine, thuggish, rather dull man, who rose to his position thanks solely to historical coincidence and a few minor gifts like courage and a facility for mathematics, but who ultimately was the first racist totalitarian to pave the way for Stalin and Hitler?  In fact, it seems there was almost nothing good or compelling about Napoleon, except for the few positive personal qualities that must be dragged out of Paul Johnson by a team of mules.

One of the most curious facts about this book is that it omits almost all serious discussion of Napoleon's battles, except for Waterloo.  This is presumably because Napoleon won many of his battles, but lost in Waterloo.  Astonishingly, even Austerlitz or the battles of the Hundred Days preceding Waterloo are not covered in any depth.  Warfare that is still studied as a model for brilliant battlefield maneuvers does not rate more than a few paragraphs in Johnson's thin tome.

On the other hand, close discussion of Napoleon's autopsy and death does seem to merit some pages, with quotes discussing his "feminized" body "covered in a layer of fat" and his "small genitals" - even the final resting place of Les Invalides is mentioned with contempt for what Johnson considers its "vulgar" appearance!

The Duke of Wellington, on the other hand, receives nothing but fawning adulation; he is described without mention of flaws, but with plenty of adoring anecdotes.  It's not hard to see what earns him this worship: he was Napoleon's great foe, after all, which seems to earn Johnson's unmitigated praise.

I could understand if this text was, as it claims to be, a "skeptical" look at Napoleon.  Certainly, the great Frenchman has a posthumous mystique and cult about him, and remains such a subject of fascination that it's easy to forget that he seized power and went on rampaging wars that brought death to hundreds of thousands.  But Johnson's Napoleon doesn't balance the history or engage in sober assessment: he tries to tear down Napoleon in such an obviously vicious way that it sometimes defies reason.

We are told that Napoleon was without serious ideology or any real beliefs, but pursued power for its own sake and for the thrill of it.  Further, we are told that Napoleon was the first person to assume totalitarian power when he seized it from Barras and the other men of the totalitarian Committee for Public Safety, which had wiped out all other power in the country.  His assumption of power, Johnson tells us, would set an example for Hitler and Stalin to rise as ideological dictators.  But this is incoherent!  Napoleon did not create the dictatorship or wipe out the church and nobility, so he cannot be held responsible for those actions - especially when he later created nobility and welcomed back the church!  And how can we compare Napoleon, the man "without ideology," to Hitler or Stalin, who rose and ruled by ideology?

Johnson's obvious dislike for Napoleon verges on the ridiculous, and taints this book irredeemably.  This is unfortunate, because a short and skeptical history of the great man would have been very valuable.  But a reader finishing Johnson's book will be in some ways less informed than before they began.  "How," they might wonder, "Did someone so pathetic and vile command his armies to such victories and so terrify a world?"  This vision of Napoleon just plain doesn't make sense.  Seek a better biography, elsewhere.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Philip Pullman

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ was a waste of my time, sad to say.  It's a shame, because it sounded very interesting.  Pullman is the author famous for a children's fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials, justly celebrated for its inventiveness and the epic scale of its plot.  Unfortunately, his attempt here to rewrite the Gospels fails, on balance.  There are some redemptive traits, but they are few, and not found in the book itself.

Jesus, a vigorous young preacher, walks around the country and gathers disciples by calling for forgiveness and love, and rejecting any notion of an established church or his own divinity.  This particular Jesus gets no answer to his prayers, and so he is secretly contemptuous of God and doubts in the deity's existence.  He says all of the agreeable things, such as the Beatitudes ("Blessed are the meek.") and the Pericope Adulterae ("He who is without sin cast the first stone.")  He also says an altered version of some of the more disagreeable things.  In his Parable of the Ten Virgins, some of the wise virgins do share their oil, and it is this mercy that is the true Kingdom of God.  And this Jesus never multiplies loaves, he only demonstrates to the masses that they need only share and they will find they already have sufficient food.  He is a thoroughly human figure.

This is one of the few aspects of the book that works: it prompts us to consider the sort of Jesus we might have wished to exist - or rather, the sort of Jesus that liberal atheists like myself and Pullman might have wished to exist.  This Jesus rejects the things we find distasteful and the concepts that lead to future horrors, but emphasizes the best of Jesus' teaching.  Love your neighbor and help him, judge not lest ye be judged, etc.  At the least, this book does invite us to consider how we might rewrite the most influential figure in history to better suit our tastes.  It never did sit right with me that when Jesus visited the house of Martha and Mary, he condemned Martha for being responsible and kind.

This isn't the first rewriting of the Bible by an author interested in making it fit their ideology.  Most notable is Thomas Jefferson's The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, which simply deletes all of the supernatural stories.  It's minimalist and wise, and probably bound to be the best.  Pullman's effort is better classed, though, with conservapedia.com's Conservative Bible Project, which "translates" the Bible into a form that better agrees with Republican orthodoxy.

Jesus is not alone, however, in The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.  There is also his twin brother, Christ, an intelligent and bookish boy given to visions and eager to reshape the world.  Christ follows his brother and becomes a historian, writing down and strategically altering Jesus' story.  He is the one who corrupts the message, recording the Jesus with which we are familiar.  At the hand of Christ, Jesus becomes the son of God, prophecies his own death, and speaks harshly when Christ deems it necessary.  And when Jesus dies, Christ "appears" to the disciples as proof of a resurrection.

This formula becomes tired very quickly, even in this short book.  Christ, the narrator, is the focus of most of our attention, and he doesn't merit it.  Even the book's cleverest moment, when the parable of the Prodigal Son is revealed to be based on a childhood experience of the brothers', can't make the overall pedestrian "twist" into something interesting.

At the core of it, we're talking about a plot that can be summarized thus: "What if Jesus was actually two people, one of whom agreed with me and the other who was weak and corrupted the message?"  It turns out that this thin premise can't bear even the light weight of Pullman's hundred pages.  Avoid this.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, Eliezer Yudkowsky

I don't read much fan-fiction any more.  Too often, it has ranged from terrible to mediocre, and I eventually gave up.  Yet Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is Harry Potter fanfiction, and it is good.

I was surprised, to be honest.  Fan-fiction usually falls prey to some of the many problems inherent in the genre.  Most significantly, it is almost impossible to find decent characterization since it generally relies on already-defined characters, lifted from another's work.  Thus, characterization requires some degree of successful imitation, a notoriously difficult task for a writer.  If you wish to write a new Captain Kirk story, your Kirk must believably sound like, or significantly depart from, the established character.

Because of this, the best fan-fiction seems to need some degree of distance between the original characters and the fan depictions.  This might be a distance of time, as with the successful Alan Moore depictions of Doctor Hyde and Alan Quartermaine in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  Or it might be a metaphorical distance.  This latter is used in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, with one significant change to J.K. Rowling's world producing a Harry Potter almost completely unlike Rowling's own.

In Yudkowsky's Potterverse, the terrible Uncle Vernon Dursley does not appear.  Aunt Petunia has instead married Professor Michael Verres-Evans.  After Lord Voledmort murders Petunia's sister and her husband, leaving an infant Harry behind, the boy is adopted and becomes Harry Potter-Verres-Evans.  He has a happy childhood, and is a prodigious prodigy in science, logic, mathematics, and philosophy.  He's also a bit of a self-righteous and anti-social tool.

This change in Petunia, and the resulting different Harry, ripples outward into an entirely different story.  Harry is sorted into Ravenclaw, never becomes friends with Ron, and proceeds to upend the entire magical world.

It's easy to see the genesis of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.  Yudkowsky, a rationalist and a bit of a pedant, read through the original series and was frustrated by a lot of strange elements and plot holes.  On his first day at Hogwart's, Harry Potter-Verres-Evans finds out about the existence of the Chamber of Secrets, and is shocked to think that anyone would ever think he might investigate it himself.  He rightly declares it to be not just reckless, but downright stupid - and of course, he's right.  Harry Potter himself caused or exacerbated many of the problems in the original series, and he frequently took idiotic actions that were prevented from disaster only because of the all-powerful Dumbledore.

The central question of this book, then, is this: what if Harry Potter was not just brave, but actually smart?

There's a bit of unfairness here, of course.  It's easy to plunk in a genius paragon, to mock the poor choices of his predecessor and scheme over the exchange rate of Sickles to Galleons.  But Yudkowsky also makes sure to include some genuine insights into each early chapter, as well as some lessons on the scientific method and fallacious thinking.  His analytic and meticulous consideration of the "natural laws" of magic and the Wizarding world combine with his strong skills of characterization to make the first half of this book a genuine delight.  And for the geeks among his readers, he also includes a wealth of references to the science fiction that both he and Harry Potter-Verres-Evans adore (most prominently Ender's Game).

The second half of the text (of what is written so far - it's unfinished) begins to drag, however.  Once Yudkowsky has run through his mental lists of "irrational things in the original" and "clever applications of thought to magic," he has to rely more on his own skills of creation.  These are a bit more limited.  One extended escape sequence, near the midpoint of the book, becomes truly unpleasant as it drags on and grinds on the reader as badly as any Dementor.

The preachiness of the book becomes more pronounced as it proceeds, which may or may not bother you.  Once the easy material is used up, such as the absurdity of using the Philosopher's Stone as bait for an evil wizard inside a school, Harry Potter-Verres-Evans turns his attentions to the archaic feudal world of noble houses and house elves, and the questionable ethics of torturing prisoners to death with monsters.  This actually parallels the original series' storyline of Hermione's obsession with the elves in an interesting way.  I admire and applaud the questioning seen in Yudkowsky's Harry and Rowling's Hermione, rather than the other characters' thoughtless acceptance of the order of things.  But at the same time, both crusades seem a little too shrill.

If you are an ardent Harry Potter fan or an ardent rationalist, I strongly recommend this book, though you might find some of the criticism a bit cutting.  I have high hopes it will recover from its downward slump when Yudkowsky finishes the last few chapters, but even if he doesn't, the first half is worth your time.  If you have not read Harry Potter, or read it only for escapism (not that there's anything wrong with that!), then you probably will just find this annoying, and should skip it.

How to Write a Sentence, Stanley Fish

I love Stanley Fish.  His books on literary criticism, Surprised by Sin and Is There a Text in This Class?, were central to how I began thinking about literature.  Just the other day, I wrote at length about how I would apply his ideas to my thesis.  My opinion is biased.  But even so, I loved this book.

Fish sets out here to try to communicate how sentences - and by extension, literature - works for the reader.  What makes some particular formulations of words powerful, witty, or funny?  He reviews such tools as opposition and coordination, touching only lightly on grammar in order to focus on analogy.  And after some discussion, he then elaborates on how the reader can create wonderful sentences of their own, before proceeding to a very close analysis of some of the most marvelous sentences one might ever find.

This book is written for novices of literature, those people who have never thought about why a sentiment sounds good or clever.  But don't be fooled into thinking this is a book of mechanics.  Instead, it is a work of passion: Stanley Fish adores good writing, and he pours his rapture straight onto the pages.  He admits to sounding precious, but his obvious enthusiasm overcomes his near-goofy words of praise, particularly when joined with his intelligent discussion of the workings behind the words.

How to Write a Sentence is very short, and so I recommend it for experienced readers, who will find some worthwhile contemplation and may enjoy the passion of it, and for novices, who might find their own enthusiasm kindled as they look behind the scenes of a good sentence.

The Post-American Presidency, Pamela Gellar

There are many ways to be wrong.  You might have incomplete information; you might have misunderstood your sources; you might have stumbled in your chain of logic; or you might just be dumb.  All of these have happened to me at one time or another.  But in The Post-American Presidency, Pamela Gellar manages to be wrong in all of these ways, simultaneously, in nearly every statement.  This book is a pulse-pounding exercise in malice, deceit, and foolishness.

You have to grow up in America to get America. Or you have to escape tyranny, oppression, and suppression and live the dream by emigrating to America. Obama is missing the DNA of the USA. It’s just not in him—through no fault of his own.
Gellar's intentions in the text, which was published in 2010, are to prove that President Barack Obama is evil.  She argues that he is pro-Islam and anti-Israel, pro-Africa and anti-America, pro-communism and anti-capitalism, pro-labor and anti-business and virtually every other breathless smear you might imagine.  It is the same sort of thing found ad nauseum on her blog, Atlas Shrugs - and indeed, the book reads like a blog, with chapters grouped around loose topics and discussed in seven-paragraph chunks, clunked under capitalized headlines: "GIVING UP AMERICAN SOVEREIGNTY FOR CLIMATE CHANGE?"

The most remarkable thing about Gellar's accusations, however, is not their mouth-foaming lunacy.  Instead, it is the fact that she doesn't even muster up any evidence at all to support them.  Each rant consists of a rough formula: she makes a broad declaration about Obama, quotes two or three sentences from one of his speeches out of context, and then brings in some analysis by former ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton or the American Enterprise Institute.  And that's the end of it, almost without exception.

Here's an example:

The displacement of the Jews from the second position after Christians in Obama’s listing had to be intentional. Then, just six days later, Obama restored the Jews to the second position, but after the Muslims: when the post-American president gave his first televised interview as president to Dubai’s Al-Arabiya News Channel, he made a point of calling America “a country of Muslims, Jews, Christians, non-believers.” In that order. The casual abandonment of the longtime workaday phrase “a Judeo-Christian nation” was portentous.
Let's look aside from the obvious rhetorical purpose of such a shift in language, and move on past the even more obvious point that items in a list are not necessarily in list of importance, and just focus on the fact that this is not evidence that Obama is attacking the Jews, or intends to attack the Jews, or anything like that.  This "evidence," which really is almost the whole of her "proof," is part of a sentence from a single speech.  It is almost impossible to use it to divine Obama's hidden agenda.  To try to do so would be stupid.  This book is stupid.  Quod erat demonstrandum.

When the book does present evidence, it is inevitably to prove a fallacious guilt by association:

And why was Obama’s mother taking Russian-language classes in 1960—the height of communist antagonism toward the West? Stanley Ann Dunham had no interest in becoming a diplomat.
The only conceivable use for this book is as a threat.  "Watch out, little Johnny, or you'll end up like Pamela Gellar."  If you see The Post-American Presidency on a bookshelf, back away slowly, and don't breathe in.  It might be communicable.

The Overton Window, Glenn Beck

Shocker: Glenn Beck is not a very good writer.  I will save myself some exasperation on this one, and be brief.

This book is sloppy, through and through.  It's evident in every way.  The plot, for example, is riddled with holes like a rotten stump:

“To put your busy mind at ease,” the old man said, “let me assure you that the trifling problem you brought us today is already put safely to bed. The story in the Post has been spiked, an eager team of computer sleuths is tracking down the source of your leak, and the memorandum itself is now being thoroughly and plausibly denied by its authors and blamed on an overzealous local bureaucracy somewhere in the barren Midwest. Who will be the culprit again, Noah?”
If the story has been spiked and quieted, then why do they need to thoroughly and plausibly deny it?

Even worse, there are basic errors of fact, often repeated by people on the far right (like Beck), but which don't stand up to scrutiny:

Social Security was the boldest Ponzi scheme in history until now.
Social Security, even now in its underfunded state, is projected to pay full benefits for the next 35 years, and 75% benefits thereafter.  It suffers from a shortfall, not a systemic error like a Ponzi scheme.

The writing is just as sloppy as the thinking  There's scarcely a metaphor in the book that isn't confused:

This had come as a welcome vindication for a young man who’d given up early on his own high ideals and drifted into the safe though stormy harbor of his father’s business.
It is generally accepted in oceanic metaphors that stormy is unsafe.

Often it's even worse, and the metaphor is so mixed as to be insensible:

In that author’s defense no arrangement of ink on a page could possibly hold a candle to the twists his actual day had taken, nor could any fiction likely lure his mind from this strange, beautiful character lying beside him, right there in real life.
How could ink hold a candle, no matter its arrangement on the page?

Sometimes the writing is so unclear that it requires a moment's parsing to even make sense:

If nothing else it would drive their critics on the left right up the wall.
"Left" as a metaphor for political direction, immediately followed by "right" as a metaphor for physical direction.  Splendid.

And the characterization... don't even get me started:

The big man looked up and seemed to take a bearing on a number of celestial bodies before ciphering a moment. “I’d say she’s nigh onto half-past four in the morning, give or take some.” 

Do not read this book.  It is not enjoyable as thriller, alternate history, or romance.  The only people who could find this dreck worthwhile are those who require a fictional universe to reassure them that their political beliefs are correct, no matter how badly-written that justification might be.

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