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A Dreadful Deceit

January 26, 2014 Leave a comment

dreadfuldeceit

In early December, I learned about Jacqueline Jones’ new book A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America from Robert Paul Wolff, who made brief but excited mention of it in a blog post.

I have this moment finished reading the Introduction. It is stunningly brilliant, managing to say with power and precision in nine pages what I tried in my feeble way to suggest in my one book-length effort to address the subject. I look forward with great excitement to reading the book, and I strongly recommend it to all of you.

On finishing two days ago, Wolff added that it’s “a brilliant book that anyone interested in questions of race and class in capitalist America should read.”

Jones is a professor at UT Austin and former recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and the Bancroft Prize for American History. The publisher’s webpage for the book has this description.

From a preeminent social historian, the stories of six African-Americans whose struggles reveal the strange evolution of the concept of race in America from the seventeenth century to the twentieth.

In 1656, a Maryland planter tortured and killed an enslaved man named Antonio, an Angolan who refused to work in the fields. Three hundred years later, Simon P. Owens battled soul-deadening technologies as well as the fiction of “race” that divided him from his co-workers in a Detroit auto-assembly plant. Separated by time and space, Antonio and Owens nevertheless shared a distinct kind of political vulnerability; they lacked rights and opportunities in societies that accorded marked privileges to people labeled “white.”

An American creation myth posits that these two black men were the victims of “racial” discrimination, a primal prejudice that the United States has haltingly but gradually repudiated over the course of many generations. In A Dreadful Deceit, award-winning historian Jacqueline Jones traces the lives of Antonio, Owens, and four other African Americans to illustrate the strange history of “race” in America. In truth, Jones shows, race does not exist, and the very factors that we think of as determining it— a person’s heritage or skin color—are mere pretexts for the brutalization of powerless people by the powerful. Jones shows that for decades, southern planters did not even bother to justify slavery by invoking the concept of race; only in the late eighteenth century did whites begin to rationalize the exploitation and marginalization of blacks through notions of “racial” difference. Indeed, race amounted to a political strategy calculated to defend overt forms of discrimination, as revealed in the stories of Boston King, a fugitive in Revolutionary South Carolina; Elleanor Eldridge, a savvy but ill-starred businesswoman in antebellum Providence, Rhode Island; Richard W. White, a Union veteran and Republican politician in post-Civil War Savannah; and William Holtzclaw, founder of an industrial school for blacks in Mississippi, where many whites opposed black schooling of any kind. These stories expose the fluid, contingent, and contradictory idea of race, and the disastrous effects it has had, both in the past and in our own supposedly post-racial society.

Expansive, visionary, and provocative, A Dreadful Deceit explodes the pernicious fiction that has shaped four centuries of American history.

Just a week ago, the WSJ made A Dreadful Deceit the subject of its daily book review. Thomas Chatterton Williams called the book

a moving and painstakingly researched, at times almost novelistic, group portrait of five black men and one woman from different eras that, taken together, lays bare the ideology buttressing the notion of race and the “peculiar institution” it justified.

I’m adding it to my list.

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Categories: Books, History

Tenth of December

January 26, 2014 Leave a comment

10th-December

I’ve been starting and stopping a series of books for the last couple of weeks, unable to settle on which one to read. One is Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD, which I wrote about in a post last March. This is the book about which Gary Wills concluded, in his review in the New York Review of Books, “Every page is full of information and argument, and savoring one’s way through the book is an education. It is a privilege to live in an age that could produce such a masterpiece of the historical literature.”

Another is George Saunders’ short story collection Tenth of December. When it came out a year ago, Gregory Cowles gave it a strong review in the Sunday NYT. I didn’t pay much attention, but I did when it was selected in December as one of the NYT’s ten best, with this short blurb:

Saunders’s wickedly entertaining stories veer from the deadpan to the flat-out demented: Prisoners are force-fed mood-altering drugs; ordinary saps cling to delusions of grandeur; third-world women, held aloft on surgical wire, become the latest in bourgeois lawn ornaments. Beneath the comedy, though, Saunders writes with profound empathy, and this impressive collection advances his abiding interest in questions of class, power and justice.

Still, I’m just not much of a short story reader.

A week ago, I gave it a try, reading the opening pages of the first story via Amazon, after which I downloaded the book. (The Kindle version is only $9.) And now the current issue of the NY Review has arrived with a review (behind the paywall) by Wyatt Mason that I have barely looked at, so as not to spoil the reading. I did read this bit, which I’m lifting without context:

The potential fluffiness of the sentiment is in part what makes Saunders remarkable as a story writer: he is a dedicated ironist, but one who manages to smuggle what some might dismiss were it emanating from a pulpit or Oprah into narratives that are embraced, not ridiculed, for their frankness of feeling—particularly their frankness surrounding death.

“Rehearse death,” Epicurus tells us, and Saunders’s fiction has been preoccupied with such rehearsals.

Mason includes a quote of Saunders from a year-old NYT Magazine profile. Here’s a larger excerpt:

Junot Díaz described the Saunders’s effect to me this way: “There’s no one who has a better eye for the absurd and dehumanizing parameters of our current culture of capital. But then the other side is how the cool rigor of his fiction is counterbalanced by this enormous compassion. Just how capacious his moral vision is sometimes gets lost, because few people cut as hard or deep as Saunders does.”

And “Tenth of December” is more moving and emotionally accessible than anything that has come before. “I want to be more expansive,” Saunders said. “If there are 10 readers out there, let’s assume I’m never going to reach two of them. They’ll never be interested. And let’s say I’ve already got three of them, maybe four. If there’s something in my work that’s making numbers five, six and seven turn off to it, I’d like to figure out what that is. I can’t change who I am and what I do, but maybe there’s a way to reach those good and dedicated readers that the first few books might not have appealed to. I’d like to make a basket big enough that it included them.”

It appears I’m in for some good reading, if I don’t get distracted by the other books I’ve been dipping into.

Categories: Books

Wild and Crazy WSJ

January 26, 2014 Leave a comment
A Jewish shop, the morning after Kristallnacht

A Jewish shop, the morning after Kristallnacht

[From Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority]

When I first saw Tom Perkins’ letter to the WSJ yesterday, I was sufficiently stunned that I intended to write a post about it immediately. But I didn’t get to it, and now, 36 hours later, Perkins’ letter is an internet sensation. If you haven’t read it yet, follow the link above and do so. In it, famed Silicon Valley investor Perkins calls

attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its “one percent,” namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the “rich.”

I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent. There is outraged public reaction to the Google buses carrying technology workers from the city to the peninsula high-tech companies which employ them. We have outrage over the rising real-estate prices which these “techno geeks” can pay. We have, for example, libelous and cruel attacks in the Chronicle on our number-one celebrity, the author Danielle Steel*, alleging that she is a “snob” despite the millions she has spent on our city’s homeless and mentally ill over the past decades.

This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht** was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendent “progressive” radicalism unthinkable now?

Wow! Absolute madness. The wonder isn’t that he wrote it, but that the WSJ published it. Perhaps his connection with Rupert Murdoch is relevant, as a long-time News Corp board member (until 2011). Perkins has had a storied career, going back to his role in the early days of Hewlett-Packard half a century ago. But he would seem to be losing it.

Along these lines, Atrios captured the essence of Perkins’ argument in the following tweet:

Those Google buses? It might be worth re-reading Rebecca Solnit’s piece in the London Review of Books a year ago. Her ending:

Sometimes the Google Bus just seems like one face of Janus-headed capitalism; it contains the people too valuable even to use public transport or drive themselves. In the same spaces wander homeless people undeserving of private space, or the minimum comfort and security; right by the Google bus stop on Cesar Chavez Street immigrant men from Latin America stand waiting for employers in the building trade to scoop them up, or to be arrested and deported by the government. Both sides of the divide are bleak, and the middle way is hard to find.

See also the discussion of the buses in a New Yorker blog post a few days ago by Lauren Smiley, recounting a possible resolution of the buses’ illegal use of public bus stops.

After years of complaints of the lumbering shuttles hogging San Francisco’s cramped streets—occasionally blocking public buses from making stops, double parking, or encroaching on bike lanes—the board of directors of the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency voted unanimously on Tuesday to begin regulating them. The eighteen-month-long pilot program, slated to begin in July, will require that the shuttle buses be registered and that they make stops only at two hundred designated public bus stops. Companies will pay a dollar each time one of their buses uses a stop, which would add up to a hundred thousand dollars a year for each of the big companies, the agency estimates.

City leaders say that state law requires them to charge only enough to recover the fees required to administer the program. Yet the amount wasn’t enough for the dozens of detractors who lined up to speak at the agency’s meeting on Tuesday, at City Hall. Speakers called the buses “conquistador transportation,” and derided the transit agency for allowing “tech barons” to get away with paying such a low fee to use the city infrastructure—a dollar less than the current commuter fare on public buses—when their shuttles had been idling at the bus stops illegally for years.

[snip]

Then, there’s the issue of fairness. “If you and I park in front of a bus stop, and you’re there long enough, you’re going to get a ticket that’s more than a dollar,” David Campos, a city supervisor, told a group of merchants in his district last week.

Having tech companies pay a modest fee for the use of public bus stops to which they have no right is not the second coming of Kristallnacht.

*Perkins’ ex-wife.

**The 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht was this past November. On November 9, 1938, dozens of Jews were killed, thousands arrested, synagogues and businesses were destroyed. It was a major shift in the Holocaust gears.

Categories: History, Journalism, Politics

I Knew It

January 20, 2014 Leave a comment

pearlsswinememory

[Pearls Before Swine, January 12, 2014]

I’ve suspected for some time that the reason names of people elude me, even as I picture the people and provide details of their lives, is that I know too much. Each year, I have to find room in my brain for more and more people: friends and acquaintances, athletes and actors, musicians and artists, authors and journalists. It never ends. I succeed, for the most part, but recovering their names on demand is one task too many.

It turns out there’s an explanation for this. Thanks to Mark Liberman at Language Log, I learned last week of a new paper by a group of linguists at Tübingen on “the myth of cognitive decline.” (Also thanks to Liberman, I saw the Pearls Before Swine comic that fortuitously appeared eight days ago, which I have reproduced above. I would happily subscribe to the depicted Brain Alert service.)

Michael Ramscar and his Tübingen colleagues bring good news:

Because it is believed that cognitive abilities wither over the course of adulthood, population aging is thought to pose a serious threat to the world’s economic well-being (Watkins et al., 2005): As the proportion of cognitively impaired adults in the population increases, it is feared they will impose an ever-larger burden on the ever-smaller proportion of society still in full command of its cognitive faculties. Given this uncertain scenario, understanding the way our minds age could be considered the most significant matter that the psychological and brain sciences address.

In what follows, we consider the question of whether one might reasonably expect that performance on any measure of cognitive performance could or should be expected to be age- or, more specifically, experience-invariant. We shall suggest that, since the answer to this question is no, many of the assumptions scientists currently make about “cognitive decline” are seriously flawed and, for the most part, formally invalid. We will show that the patterns of response change that are typically taken as evidence for (and measures of) cognitive decline arise out of basic principles of learning and emerge naturally in learning models as they acquire more knowledge. These models, which are supported by a wealth of psychological and neuroscientific evidence (for reviews see Schultz, 2006; Siegel & Allan, 1996; Ramscar, Dye, & Klein, 2013a), also correctly identify greater variation in the cognitive performance of older adults, and successfully predict that older adults will exhibit greater sensitivity to the fine-grained properties of test items than younger adults. Given that the models run (and can be rerun) on computers, the possibility that any differences in their performance are due to aging hardware can be eliminated; instead, their patterns of performance reflect the information-processing costs that must inevitably be incurred as knowledge is acquired. Once the cost of processing this extra information is controlled for in studies of human performance, findings that are usually taken to suggest declining cognitive capacities can be seen instead to support little more than the unsurprising idea that choosing between or recalling items becomes more difficult as their numbers increase.

Aha! See, I’m not declining cognitively. I just know too much, as a result of which I also have greater sensitivity to fine-grained properties than you do. Cool!

Categories: Cognition, Science

There’s Always Harlem

January 19, 2014 Leave a comment
The Upper West Side: the Majestic and the Dakota at center and right-center

The Upper West Side: the Majestic and the Dakota at center and right-center

In case you missed it, be sure to read the real estate article in today’s NYT on the couple who have been renting in the Upper East Side. When they’re ready to buy, they are unable to find a place in the neighborhood that fits their needs at the right price.

I understand their desire to stay. Who wouldn’t? My grandmother lived her final decades there (a long way from her childhood Odessa). During my childhood and young adulthood, I hung out there. Lincoln Center. The American Museum of Natural History. Fine and Schapiro.

Alas, our featured couple had to look elsewhere. Then they thought of Harlem.

They realized they simply couldn’t find a place on the Upper West Side suitable enough to justify the price, Mrs. Johnston said. “If we had a checklist of eight things and needed five, we would have only two or three.”

But they had always enjoyed exploring other neighborhoods, and Harlem was the obvious choice. There they could afford an entire brownstone.

“You have to totally change your perspective on what you want,” Mr. Johnston said. “It’s another world in terms of space, and our imagination ran wild.” He found that Harlem houses “had more square footage than the homes we grew up in.”

A paragraph later, on their visit to the house they would ultimately buy, a significant cultural difference comes to light.

The owner was in the kitchen when they visited.

In Harlem, “we saw more owners,” Mrs. Johnston said. “We would never see an owner on the Upper West Side.”

All ends well.

“I didn’t know I would love this neighborhood so much,” Mrs. Johnston said. “I thought, ‘You can’t beat the Upper West Side,’ which was the end-all, be-all, the best place on the planet.”

She has revised her opinion. The new neighborhood “feels like what New York used to be,” she said. “It is very diverse and multicultural. We are completely embraced by our neighbors.”

I can’t help but think that the story is focused a little narrowly, with an important detail omitted. What could it be?

Perhaps Harlem house prices of $1.8 million indicate something significant about life in Manhattan?

Categories: Journalism, Life

Same Old

January 19, 2014 Leave a comment

I’m old enough to have watched President Nixon deliver many a speech in which truth took a vacation, yet I was naive enough to imagine that it was still in residence. Well, I learned my lesson. Decades later, when a president makes a national address, I assume that its primary purpose isn’t to announce substantive change but to spin a story.

So it was on Friday when President Obama gave a speech on N.S.A. abuses. As reported by Mark Landler and Charlie Savage in the NYT,

President Obama, acknowledging that high-tech surveillance poses a threat to civil liberties, announced significant changes on Friday to the way the government collects and uses telephone records, but left in place many other pillars of the nation’s intelligence programs.

Responding to the clamor over sensational disclosures about the National Security Agency’s spying practices, Mr. Obama said he would restrict the ability of intelligence agencies to gain access to phone records, and would ultimately move that data out of the hands of the government.

But in a speech at the Justice Department that seemed more calculated to reassure audiences at home and abroad than to force radical change, Mr. Obama defended the need for the broad surveillance net assembled by the N.S.A. And he turned to Congress and the intelligence agencies themselves to work out the details of any changes.

David Rothkopf, writing in Foreign Policy (of which he is CEO), gets at the root of what most frustrates me about Obama: he has become just another “trust me” pol.

Few of the speeches President Barack Obama has delivered during his tenure in office illustrate his transformation from messiah to mediocrity, a middle of the pack president likely to fit in somewhere between Rutherford B. Hayes and Martin Van Buren, quite as well as his tepid, inadequate, and something-for-everyone but much-less-than-meets-the-eye speech on NSA reforms on Friday. At just the moment when the country needed the constitutional scholar who was bold enough to speak truth to power — the man who many of us thought we were electing in 2008 and then again in 2012 — we instead got the wobbly, vague, “trust me” of a run-of-the-mill pol.

The great flaw within the president’s remarks was not its inadequate details nor the issues it left unaddressed or punted off into an indefinite future. Nor was it the fact that he left the specifics of the implementation of many of the “reforms” to the judgment of many of the same folks who created the problem he was addressing. Rather the president, once again, sent the message that at least until he leaves office, he would like us to embrace the idea that personality is more important than principle in U.S. policymaking. In other words, he sought to reassure his supporters and critics (who are understandably worried about government overreach and the violation of civil liberties and wary of policies driven more by fear-mongering than prudent perspective), by more or less saying, “Don’t worry, I’m a good guy, I’ll make sure that all the big decisions that get made will be OK.”

Quite apart from the fact that wave upon wave of Snowden-fed revelation belies that argument, it ignores a central truth that the constitutional scholar should recognize. Our country was founded on clear limits being placed on the power of government because for all the generations of good and earnest leaders we may have or have had, our planet’s history and human nature tell us we must protect against those who might someday abuse their power.

[snip]

The weakness of the president’s arguments shone through most strongly when he sought to pour oil upon the waters with the assertion that we, the United States, are not Russia or China. Talk about setting a low bar for a country that views itself as being a light unto the nations of the world. We aren’t, the president said soothingly, as bad as two authoritarian societies founded on the ideas that individual rights and liberties take a back seat to the needs (and whims) of the state and its bosses.

That pretty well captures it.

But hey, at least Obama closed Guantanamo. Amirite?

rallnsa

[Ted Rall’s January 17, 2014, comic]

Categories: Politics, Security

Ruby and Charlee

January 16, 2014 Leave a comment

rubycharlee

It’s not my intent to turn Ron’s Blog into Our Cute Kitties. But really, how can I resist?

The eight-month-old sisters joined us twelve days ago. Under strict orders from Janice the adoption supervisor, we confined them initially to a small bathroom. Too small. After two days ago, we brought them upstairs to a bedroom/exercise room. Now they range beyond it to the adjacent bathroom.

Charlee—the girl with the black triangle nose—is full of energy, bouncing from room to room. Ruby is less comfortable with her surroundings. At least she now leaves the security of the carrier case. She’ll sit still when we enter their space rather than retreating. Charlee races away at the sight of us, then returns, maybe even sits on us (Gail anyway).

And now they’ve discovered the towel basket. I came upon the scene above on my return home tonight.

Categories: Cats