bloodygranuaile: (nosferatu)
It was not my intention, when I started the politics book club, to read trendy, recently published books that might not be as widely accessible as ones that had been out for a while. But it would appear that we just can't get enough Nazi-punching for as long as we've still got Nazis, and I for one have a sort of activist-crush on our friendly local antifa org (they wear all black and punch Nazis, what more could a socialist goth girl want), so we decided to give our monies to Mark Bray and check out Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, newly out from Melville House. Some of these monies also go to the International Anti-Fascist Defence Fund, which helps pay legal and medical expenses for folks who are injured or arrested in the course of fighting fascism, so we are actually helping fight fascism by sitting on our duffs reading about other people fighting fascism. Best sort of slacktivism ever!
 
The book is part history and part polemic, tracing the development of militant anti-fascism -- its successes and failures -- from the interwar period and the Spanish Civil War up through this May or so. He traces the development of various regions' antifa cultures out of the other political and cultural groups that they arose from: the Autonomen in Germany, the Greek anarchist movement, various strains of punk in the U.S. and the U.K., and there's even an interesting bit on the prevalence of fascism and anti-fascism within football hooliganism. I'll tell you one thing: It's deeply, deeply weird to see Gamergate mentioned in a book that start with the Spanish Civil War.
 
It's especially interesting for me to read about the development of neo- and anti-fascism as they move from street fighting in places like squats and punk shows and other places that are definitely too cool and radical for me (in addition to largely before my time) to the "alt-right," aka Extremely Online Nazis, because my experience with learning about the alt-right was that I was Extremely Online for years and then eventually Nazis started showing up. I first learned about the alt-right through their MRA wing when they would pop up in the comments of Amanda Marcotte's blog and talk about how the 19th Amendment was a mistake and rape should be legal. It actually took a while for me to realize they were also Nazis, although the stuff about how white women not having enough white babies makes us all race traitors was a pretty big tip-off. This was in, like, 2009, by the way. I was also pleased to see that Bray's coverage of the shutdowns of Milo Yabbadabbadoo's campus events included important but frequently forgotten information, like that he was planning to out undocumented students at Berkeley, that he had outed trans students at other events, that he had an online history of leading mob harassment campaigns (seriously, the number of pundits who thought he was just famous for having shitty opinions, like it's nearly as possible to get famous solely for shitty opinions online as it is on TV, was amazing), and that one of his violent Nazi fanboys shot an IWW street medic at an event three weeks prior to the Berkeley one. Yay for actual reporting! But, y'know, I already knew that stuff, and while it was good to see that it was being covered correctly, the more interesting content was the things I didn't already know.
 
The later parts of the book discuss things like the abysmal coverage of antifa by the mainstream punditry once it burst into the headlines this year; rebuttals to common liberal anti-antifa talking points; lessons and takeaways from history that anti-fascists have developed; a lengthy discussion of whether or not antifa is anti-free speech; discussions of the challenges of melding mass and militant anti-fascist mobilization; problems of machismo within militant anti-fascism and how to fight it; and a bunch of other thoughts and advice on common organizing problems. There are times when it gets a bit bloggy, which is not necessarily a bad thing, it just amused me highly to be reading it in a published book instead of somewhere on the internet, and a smol voice in the back of my head kept going "LOL, this dude is a Dartmouth lecturer," but probably only because I am jealous of Dartmouth students if the lectures sound anything like this. Cranky lefty writing is a genre of rantiness near and dear to my heart, provided it does not sacrifice intellectual honesty for cheap shots at political opponents, at which point I start quoting George Orwell and consider taking up smoking just so I can look world-wearier. I am pleased to report a complete lack of George Orwell quoting over the course of reading this book, which is good, especially because George Orwell was himself OG antifa and fought fascists in Spain.
 
I think this book lays out its cases pretty clearly, but I'm not sure how convincing it'll be to readers who are skeptical of antifa; I'd still recommend reading it just so you know what you're talking about though. I enjoyed it pretty uncomplicatedly because I am already pretty pro-antifa; I am useless in a fight and I feel better knowing that there's people who aren't who are ready to put their bodies on the line for the times when peaceful mass mobilization and "everyday anti-fascism" fail.
 
Oh, man, I knew I forgot something important. Bray talks a bit about what non-militant people can do to practice "everyday anti-fascism" so that we are not all doomed to being clueless useless liberals if we are not personally up for socking a Nazi in the face, which is good, because I wish to stand against fascism but am very bad at socking anyone in the face. Everyday anti-fascism consists of a bunch of things, from organizer broader left movements to address the alienation in modern life that fascism exploits, to raising the social cost of acting racist by not putting up with that shit in any of your social spaces. This is good book-writing praxis: ending with a call to action accessible to lay readers.
 
Anyway, support your local antifa, and don't be scared of the weirdos in black masks at protests--stay away from the Nazis and they'll leave you alone.
bloodygranuaile: (good morning)
Does anyone else get, like, sympathetic pain/other weird physical sensations when reading about medical stuff? I do, and reading Blitzed the other week basically made all the veins in my arms and legs feel fragile and empty, because I can only read about so many injections. It's an unpleasant feeling, so of course I decided to double down on it and be like "Next I'm going to read a book about RADIUM POISONING!"
 
I found Kate Moore's The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women basically by accident; I had gone to Porter Square Books on a Friday night to pick up two books I'd ordered (Peter Pomerantsev's Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia and Tariq Ali's The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution. I had decided to go on a Russia kick), and there was a joint author event with Kate Moore and Nathalia Holt, discussing this book and Holt's Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars. It was a great discussion; nothing makes me so glad to live in a city like Boston than being able to randomly wander into a surprise women's labor history night.
 
The Radium Girls is the history of the women who worked painting glow-in-the-dark numbers on watch faces with radium paint during the World War I and interwar era. There were major radium paint factories—or "studios," as they were called—in Orange, New Jersey; Waterbury, Connecticut; and Ottawa, Illinois. The dial-painters were mostly working-class girls in their late teens or early twenties, although some were older, or even as young as fourteen. The technique used to keep the brush tips nice and fine while painting the numbers was to moisten and point them with one's lips—a technique that meant the young women were constantly ingesting radium paint.
 
Radium, if you didn't know, is fantastically toxic, especially internally.
 
People back then didn't know, mostly. They knew that radium could treat cancer by burning out the cancer, and from this they largely concluded that it was therefore very healthy. There was a great craze for putting radium in everything, such as cosmetics and tonic water. Fortunately, radium was extremely expensive, so most products marketed with radium didn't actually have any radium in it. There were some exceptions, like one rich guy who drank radium tonic every day for years, and then eventually his jaw fell off.
 
The girls who worked at the dial-painting studios had landed one of the most prestigious, best-paid gigs available to working-class women at the time. It was a glamorous job, partly because of radium's mystique, and partly because the job got the girls covered in radium powder all the time, which then made them glow in the dark when they went out at night. The first big radium company whose workers we meet is the United States Radium Corporation in Orange, New Jersey—incidentally, about twenty minutes from where I grew up, midway along the commuter rail between my town and New York City, on the Morristown line—whose founder, Dr. von Sochocky,  had invented the radioluminescent paint they marketed as Undark. The men who worked in the labs used gloves and masks and aprons and all that normal (for the time) protective gear, since they handled radium in the sort of quantities that would burn skin--but they all thought that was basically just an annoyance. The dial-painters had no protection, since it was assumed that the radium in the pain was of such small quantity that there was no danger.
 
It was a few years before the first girls started to develop tooth problems, and if the teeth were pulled, the wounds refused to heal. The frustrated dentists thought that perhaps the girls had been exposed to phosphorus, since they were showing symptoms of what was ghoulishly known as "phossy jaw," or phosphorus poisoning. It took years before the various doctors, dentists, scientists, and other professionals, pushed along by lawyers, the New Jersey chapter of the National Consumer's League, and the girls themselves figured out that "phossy jaw" is just very similar to "radium jaw," or the hitherto unknown condition of radium necrosis. While doctors and lawyers fought with the company's doctors and lawyers to try to test the paint, to conduct medical tests on the remaining workers, to reexamine the scientific literature on radium and conduct further experiments on it, more and more girls were getting sick and dying. A constellation of symptoms appeared, many of which nobody initially suspected were related: while some girls had tooth issues, others developed arthritis-like conditions, with their legs shortening and joints stiffening. After a few more years, after the first lawsuits had been filed and the legal and scientific fighting was in full swing, the doctors started to see a new symptom—giant, fast-growing, lethal sarcomas, a type of bone cancer, that appeared on jaws or knees or elbows or wherever it wanted to show up. This is because radium is chemically similar to calcium, and when ingested, it does the same thing calcium does and settles into the bones.
 
The Radium Girls, and the tight social networks they had developed while working at the studio, weren't just victims here, although obviously holy God were they victims here; the book has pictures and they're pretty disturbing. But they also were extremely persistent about seeking and demanding help in order to cover their medical bills and let the world know what was happening. The girls and their lawyer worked the media wonderfully, giving lengthy interviews about all the ways the company had evaded responsibility and blamed the girls for their own health problems (the first girl to die of radium necrosis was posthumously said to have died of syphilis; part of the case involved exhuming her and testing her remains for both syphilis and radioactivity); they also gave the press periodic tearjerker updates about how they were doing and what they wanted from the case and for their own lives. When they gave testimony in court, the reporters covering the hearings reported that the girls were brave and stoic, but the reporters themselves cried. Ultimately, the New Jersey case was settled in 1928 for what at the time was many buckets of money, which helped the five women in the lawsuit--or their families, in the cases of the ones who had died over the course of the legal proceedings—pay their medical bills and provided them pensions since they could no longer work. In one of the most infuriating legal decisions I have ever read, the company managed to get it into the settlement terms of their payout to Mae Canfield that the Radium Girls' lawyer, Raymond Berry, could no longer take any action against the U.S. Radium Corporation.
 
This case, understandably, scared the crap out of the dial-painters in Ottawa when it got big enough to start making national newspaper headlines. The studio in Ottawa, run by the Radium Dial Company, assured the girls that they were fine, since the paint used in NJ had mesothelium in it and theirs didn't. Nevertheless, RDC started regularly giving medical tests to all its workers, although it never told them the results. When the girls began to fall sick, they demanded money from the company to cover their medical bills; the company refused to pay and fired several sick workers. The company had basically gone under by the time the workers were able to retain a lawyer who would take their case with the Illinois Industrial Commission; the judges repeatedly found for the women through a humiliating series of appeals, which seemed designed to run out the clock on the women in the hopes that they would die before the company had to pay out any money from the small pot of assets it had left (about $10,000). This case got even more dramatic than the New Jersey one, with one very sick Radium Girl, Katherine--now in her thirties, married with two children, and wasting away before everyone's eyes—giving testimony from the couch in her living room because she was too fragile to be brought into court.
 
The Radium Girls has everything as a drama—legal intrigue, unscrupulous businessmen, plucky underdog heroines, scientific hubris, body horror—it works perfectly as a cautionary fable against scientific hubris and the inhumane incentives of business. But it's all true. I cried on numerous occasions reading it, because I am a sappy old lady now; because I grew up so close to Orange and Newark; because I too almost died once in Waterbury, Connecticut; because my people were also working-class Irish and Italian immigrants crammed into the greater New York metro area around the time of the world wars; because I've had a lot of teeth pulled and had a lot of dreams about them falling out and my whole face splintering apart. Basically, it hit home in a lot of half-assed-but-unexpectedly-powerful-when-all-happening-at-the-same-time ways, and reading it made all the bones in my hands and feet and face hurt.
bloodygranuaile: (carmilla)
After last weekend's adventure in shutting down fascism I was reminded that I have a big old stack of World War II-related books on the TBR Shelf o' Doom, and after a bit of waffling about which one to pick up first, I decided on Norman Ohler's Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, which was translated into English earlier this year.
 
I knew sort of vaguely that modern militaries (and not-so-modern militaries) have a long and not-frequently-talked about history of experimenting with performance-enhancing substances for maximum soldiering, and that much of the 19th and earlier 20th centuries were awash in un- or under-regulated drugs that we now consider to be OMG VERY HARD DRUGS. The most recent episode of Sawbones, which discusses the opioid epidemic, talks about the development of various opiates and opioids, a shocking number of which were developed for the purpose of being less addictive ways to wean people off of the earlier drugs. It's fairly well known at this point that Freud was on ALL THE COCAINE and if you kick around in Weird History enough you've probably heard that Bayer got its start making aspirin, which you can still buy over-the-counter in any pharmacy, and heroin, which, not so much anymore.
 
Weimar Germany was known to be full of drugs of the recreational variety, because of the economy imploding and fun stuff like that, and Berlin in particular was known as a center of culture and decadently out-of-control nightlife. In response to all this decadence and what they saw as cultural decay and all that stuff, the Nazi regime set itself up as being very anti-drug. Hitler moralized at people about how he was a vegetarian and didn't smoke or drink coffee or alcohol. Basically, they were big on the idea of bodily purity, which should probably make people stop and think twice about any modern "health" fads that appear to be going on a bit too hard about bodily purity, even though the "Hitler was a vegetarian" thing is pretty much the go-to example for Godwin's Law.
 
But the Nazis weren't big on bodily purity so that everyone could sleep soundly eight hours a day and enjoy a leisurely and wholesome work-life balance. They wanted people to be able to PERFORM and to SHOW THE WORLD the UNPARALLELED VIGOR AND VITALITY OF THE ARYAN RACE and some other stuff that I can't help but imagine being only in all-caps from both its zealousness and from being in German. Also they were trying to take over half the world which is not a restful endeavor. To that end, while drugs were bad, medicine was clearly very important, as were vitamins and supplements and other things that basically mean "drugs, but healthy." Stop me if this sounds familiar at all.
 
Anyway, Five-Hour Energy hadn't been invented yet, but what had been invented was SEVENTEEN-HOUR ENERGY, otherwise known as Pervitin, otherwise known as methamphetamine. Pervitin was first synthesized in 1938 by the Temmler pharmaceutical company, which still exists (side note: It's really appalling how many brands you run across reading about Nazi Germany that still exist. Especially all the drug companies). After a few really half-assed medical experiments that showed that Pervitin use made medical students REALLY AWAKE for a long period of time but not any focused or smarter (and actually less focused), the doctor working on it had the bright idea that it'd be really good for soldiers, who have to keep going for a long time but don't need to be geniuses, I guess. Thus was Pervitin dispensed in massive quantities to the Wehrmacht, where it was apparently instrumental in keeping them up long enough to drive tanks through the supposedly impassable mountains in the Ardennes and invade France, and was supposedly also instrumental in helping them Blitz through France all the way to Dunkirk, whereupon they inexplicably stopped. As the war dragged on, the drugs got harder and the side effects got worse — Pervitin is apparently a bad thing to be on when you're trying to invade Russia in the snow (even considering that you're clearly not using your good-judgment faculties in the first place if you're even trying to do such a thing); by the very end of the war, the Nazis were doing things like drugging up 15-year-old Hitlerjugend fanatics on cocaine chewing gum, stuffing them in tiny submarines, and pointing them vaguely in the direction of the Thames. This did not work out well, and Ohler's descriptions of the fates awaiting these untrained submarine recruits constitutes the only time I've ever reacted to a report of violence against Nazis with anything other than uncomplicated glee. Stuffing drugged-up children into shoddily made submarines that they've got no idea how to navigate is some fucked-up Nazi bullshit even if the children in question are also Nazis.
 
Guess what else is fucked up? When the Navy was moving on from Pervitin and trying to develop even harder drugs — terrifying combinations of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and oxycodone — to find out what were the most effective combinations, they tested them out on concentration camp inmates on the shoe-walking track at Sachsenhausen.
 
A good third of Blitzed is given over to discussion of Hitler's personal drug regimen, developed and overseen by his sycophantic, greedy, and not especially medically ethical personal physician, Herr Doktor Theodor Morell. Morell was basically an opportunist quack who sold whatever was fashionable to fashionable people in Berlin, and wound up treating Hitler for some sort of stomach problem, and got him hooked on a whole experimental regimen of quack nonsense that ranged from benign stuff like chamomile, through a whole range of dodgy animal extracts and hormones and stuff, all the way through to methamphetamine injections. Toward the end, Morell got Hitler hooked on Eukodal, a type of oxycodone. Unsurprisingly, becoming a giant junkie did not do anything to make Hitler and less of a craptastic tactician, and the descriptions of him shooting up in a bunker while all his grand military plans go to shit around him and fighting with anyone who knows what they're talking about are kind of satisfying.
 
Overall, while the subject matter is fascinating, the book is organized a little weird — it feels more like several long articles smooshed together than one cohesive work — and it's certainly not a masterpiece of prose styling. I don't know how much of that has to do with the translation and what's because the author isn't a historian and sometimes creative writers trying to write history works really well (see: China Mieville's October) but sometimes it just means they try to get fancy when it doesn't need to be fancy. There are a lot of really bad drug puns that I want to like better than I do; perhaps they work better in German.
 
Like a lot of nonfiction books that take a specific angle or look at events through the lens of a highly specific topic, Blitzed runs the risk of overstating its case by virtue of it being the only case it's dedicated to stating. Ohler takes pains to point out that being a raging junkie does nothing to absolve Hitler of culpability for his actions, his horrific prejudices, and his inability to see other people as important or real. But it definitely gets a bit "THE THIRD REICH RAN ENTIRELY ON DRUGS" a bit at times and it was probably not as all-encompassing as it sounds. But it's definitely an interesting subject, and I'm sure it'll be an interesting load of information to have floating around in my brain when I read other stuff on Nazi Germany from now on. (I'm also really tempted to rewatch Downfall...)
 
In conclusion, drugs are bad and always punch Nazis, 'K?
bloodygranuaile: (wall wander)
 After the relentless epic that was Dark Money we decided we'd like to read something shorter and lighter for the next book club; however, because we are bad at not being morbid, we instead decided to read Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, which is shorter but really not any lighter, since it is about police brutality and America's multi-century history of vicious, violent racism.
 
Although this book was short—about 150 pages—it took me three days to read because I tried to read it slowly and carefully. It's not something to just zip through.
 
Between the World and Me reminded me of James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, and a quick look through the press the book has gotten makes it clear that this was likely intentional; the parallels are pretty clear. Coates' book takes the form of a series of letters to his teenage son, Samori, just as Baldwin's book was in the form of a letter to his nephew. Both are works of memoir, discussing their visceral, lived experiences of American racism and tying their life stories in closely with the philosophical, historical, and political dimensions of American racism. The parallels are even stronger in part because there are some broad-brush similarities in their life trajectories. Both grew up in poor, often violent urban areas--Baldwin in Depression-era Harlem; Coates in Baltimore in the '80s (i.e., during the crack epidemic)--and spent a lot of time in libraries; both are atheists; obviously, they both became highly influential writers--more specifically, they both became authoritative voices on racism in America and developed platforms within what is still a very white liberal literary establishment. But beyond that, the similarities between the two books come mostly from the depressing fact that racism in America hasn't actually changed nearly as much between 1962 and 2015 as we'd like to believe it has.
 
One of the motifs Coates uses a lot is the invocation of the body, often using terms like "my body" where most people would probably just say "me" or "black bodies" where most writers would use "black people," etc. Coates is pretty clear that he's an atheist and believes that our bodies are all we're made of and that consciousness is an emergent property of the body and all that materialist stuff, so his focus on the body is the opposite of how a lot of other writers, especially religiously inclined ones, use it, where the body is just a shell and what happens to it is not of ultimate importance; instead, Coates uses the unambiguous physical existence of bodies to break past the abstract tendencies of so much of Western discourse, to bring the realities of racism home from the vague philosophical plane that people take refuge in when talking about terrible things. (I'm perhaps being condescending here but it never ceases to amaze me what a widespread habit of thought this is and how hard it can be to break through it, on any subject, from parents telling kids to "just ignore" bullying because they assume all bullying is verbal and it doesn't occur to them that it's hard to ignore being shoved into a locker, to all the various people I've witnessed who know that Nazis are bad but who still had to be walked through the idea that Nazis do bad things--and were surprised.) Coates' continual invocation of the body makes it clear that "rights" are not abstract and "racism" being systemic is not the same thing as it being philosophical; that what's at stake here is not just intangible ideals about dignity or belonging, but actual fear of physical violence. He talks about the psychic toll of constant hyperawareness; the fear behind the harsh discipline that parents inflicted on their children in the neighborhood he grew up in; the threats from other boys in the neighborhood compensating for their lack of bodily security by engaging in their own violence and territorialism.
 
The other big motif in the book is the Dream, which is only superficially a lovely dream, but Coates uses it to mean comforting myths or self-delusions that people use to avoid learning about or facing up to the violence in American life and American history. the Dream, which is a false, stands in contrast to the body, which is real, and again is a noticeable departure from how these concepts are traditionally invoked in high-minded Western writing. You can see parallels between the Dream as it is dreamed by "people who believe they are white" and Baldwin's argument about "the innocence which constitutes the crime." Coates is pretty blunt about the level of longstanding delusion it requires to maintain the Dream, the "practiced habit of jabbing out one's eyes and forgetting the work of one's hands."
 
One of the early arguments Coates makes in the book is that racism isn't the result of race; race was basically invented to provide a justification for racism. Racism, of course, was invented for reasons of wealth and power; while I don't think Coates is an anti-capitalist writer, he's very well informed about the ways American wealth was built on the stolen labor, stolen wealth, and stolen bodies of black people--including that enslaved people were considered not a consumer good but a commodity, meaning that not only could they be bought, sold, and traded, but they could be underwritten, securitized, insured, and turned into all sorts of fancy Wall Street financial products. He discusses how difficult it is for black families to build wealth; in his famous The Case for Reparations piece in The Atlantic, he goes into more detail about redlining and other racist housing policies. But he also talks about the ways in which ascending into the middle class can afford some kinds of privilege and escape compared to how he grew up, but also the ways in which, in essence, middle-class blacks still can't buy their way out of being black, with all the danger that comes along with it in America. The last part of Between the World and Me relates the story of Coates' former classmate at Howard, Prince Jones, who was shot by the Prince George's County police in front of his fiancee's house. Jones was raised in a securely well-off household and was about as respectable as it's possible to get, and it didn't save him, which seems to have made a pretty big impression on Coates. At the end of the book he recounts a lengthy, powerful interview with Jones' mother.
 
Between the World and Me, while obviously heavy, is not completely bleak all the way through. Coates talks a lot about his time at Howard University, and its impact on his thinking about black history and identity. (This section left me with a long list of things to read, starting with The Autobiography of Malcolm X.) The love with which he writes about his school, which he refers to as The Mecca, and all the people he met there and all the things he learned from them, as well as his adventures in learning how learning about history works (i.e., it's messy and contradictory), is heartwarming.
 
One thing this book isn't, obviously, is an objective in-depth study of any of the topics it touches on. But that's OK, because it isn't intended to be, and there are many other good, heavily researched books you can read about police brutality, or black poverty, or the history of racial constructions in America, or race and capitalism, that you can pick up at the library if you want to learn more about these subjects, which we all should. But the book has a lot of moral and philosophical force, and it challenges those of us who are not Coates' kid to whom the book is explicitly addressed, but who are reading it anyway because it was published for mass access, to both think and feel deeply about the material and physical consequences of what it means to be black or to believe you are white in America.
bloodygranuaile: (plague)
 I'd been wanting to have the politics book group read Jane Mayer's Dark Money since I first started the group, and we finally had a big enough gap between meetings that it made sense to read it, since it's almost 500 pages long. A lot of folks opted out of reading it. Some of the people that are reading it have been unable to finish it due to the sheer unrelenting awfulness of its subject matter. In short, the reaction to this book works pretty well as a microcosm for how we ended up in the sort of shit we're in, because it turns out that most normal human brains are actually incapable of dealing with how bad things can be, leaving not enough people to deal with them.
 
This is a constant theme within the book as well, but we'll get to that in a bit.
 
Anyway. The book's full title is Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, and it is mostly about the Koch Brothers, but it is also about all their cartoon villain billionaire friends and the pieceashit grifter minions they dole out wingnut welfare to.
 
The first thing we learn about the Kochs is that they are deeply screwed-up people. Their nanny was a Nazi and their father was a John Birch Society conspiracy theorist who got rich building oil refineries for Stalin and Hitler. It is a mark of how much I already hate the Kochs even by page 34 that this information managed to lower my opinion of Stalin. In addition to being the second-most-genocidal leader of the 20th century, he gave Fred fuckin' Koch his first half-million dollars in the middle of the Great Depression. I hope Trotsky is torturing you with an ice pick forevermore in the afterlife, asshole. Fred Koch then built an oil refinery in Hamburg that the Nazis used to fuel their war machine, and he built some oil refineries in the U.S. that the government used to fuel the U.S. Air Force planes to bomb the Hamburg refinery, because being a war profiteering fossil fuel baron that sells to both sides is just the sort of person you need to be to wind up with kids like Charles and David Koch.
 
The Koch family's history of political organizing is an enlightening tour through the history of mid-twentieth-century racism,  conspiracy theories, and culty ancap scams. The Kochs thought Dwight Eisenhower was a Communist. (Is this because he built the interstate system? Which was actually the least Communist thing ever, because cars are consumerist and individualistic and lefties love mass transit, and also because it was for the purpose of easier movement of military trucks and tanks?) (Wait, some Communists love tanks. Thanks for the highways, Comrade Ike!) Charles Koch eventually decided the John Birch Society's conspiracy theories were a bit gauche and instead started taking "classes" at anarchocapitalist theorist Robert LeFevre's "Freedom School." He started recruiting all his friends whether they liked it or not, and successfully indoctrinated his younger brother David. David was actually only one of three other brothers; the other two Koch brothers are not quite as terrible, although still terrible. One of them seems almost not-terrible, like, useless but also mostly harmless, being mostly into restoring historic houses and art collecting and that sort of thing, so obviously the other brothers basically disowned him, accusing him of being gay (this is an accusation when you're a right-wing "libertarian") and cutting him out of the family business.
 
This is because the family business is being awful. Like, officially it's a fossil fuel refining business, which is pretty awful to start with, but they really do seem to be on an ongoing quest to top their humble beginnings of refining oil for genocidal dictators. The company repeatedly fell afoul of labor, workplace safety, and environmental regulations, fueling the brothers' belief that they are being unfairly persecuted by a socialist nanny state infringing upon their rights as superior humans to hemorrhage poisons into the air and blow up teenagers like Danielle Smalley and Jason Stone with leaking, corroded gas pipelines. They've also bought up a bunch of other companies that make ubiquitous cheap crap so that it's almost possible for an American citizen to not patronize them, and eventually they got into our lovely bloated financial services industry, probably since that's where all the money in the entire economy that they weren't personally sitting on already went.
 
After introducing us to the Kochs and their terrifying family history, Mayer dedicates a bunch of chapters to other important right-wing libertarian assbags who have used they money to buy politicians, fellowships, fake "grassroots" groups that put out agitprop, private detectives to harass their political opponents, and other shady shit. These cretins include Richard Mellon Scaife, the dude behind the Arkansas Project and the "vast right-wing conspiracy" that everyone laughed at Hillary Clinton for saying exists (Hillary Clinton's right-wing-conspiracy-identifying skills are pretty much inversely proportional to how helpful identifying them is, which is frustrating); John M. Olin, who spearheaded funding conservative research at otherwise respectable institutions to try to stop them from doing scary liberal things like care about black students and whose shady-ass foundation did shady-ass things like function as a bank for the CIA for almost a decade; and Lynde and Harry Bradley, whose Bradley Foundation continued to fund "research" by pseudointellectual cronies like Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, a noxious bit of warmed-over eugenics theory, who is most recently back in the headlines for getting overenthusiastically protested by a bunch of students who are tired of rich assholes deliberately funding racists showing up at their homes to tell them they're genetically inferior (the headlines mostly focus on how illiberal and Bad For Academic Freedom it is for the students to object, not for outside rich assholes to be able to seed colleges with intellectually bankrupt pseudoscience). Later in the book we also meet such delightful humans as Art Pope, they guy who spearheaded North Carolina's transformation into a gerrymandered-to-death clusterfuck (we'd already read a bit about North Carolina's issues with being a gerrymandered clusterfuck in Give Us the Ballot and in the Moral Mondays chapter of Necessary Trouble), and Betsy DeVos, now lamentably our Secretary of Education because we're living in the worst timeline.
 
It's difficult to get across without reading the book just to what extent all of the billionaires who fund the Kochtopus come off as not only dreadful political actors, but also as grossly nasty and un-self-aware people. While they are mostly driven by pure greed and clearly view all non-billionaires as lesser lifeforms akin to some type of moderately useful bugs, it turns out that many of these libertarian Ubermenschen are also pretty racist. They also are very invested in the idea that they are Private Citizens and therefore there is nothing shady about them secretly spending hundreds of millions of dollars to fake a political movement and completely thwart American democracy (the one thing the Kochs have failed to do thus far is make anyone actually like their political agenda). They get extremely butthurt whenever journalists dare do things like follow the No. 1 rule of journalism and start to follow the money. Then the Kochs hire private detectives to dig through their trash, a thing they also do to lawyers when, say, their employees' families sue them for wrongful deaths and stuff.
 
Where are the Democrats in all of this? Well, the Kochs may have dedicated themselves to only taking over the Republican party and thought that Obama was a radical Kenyan Muslim socialist (I wish) (#Ellison2020), but the rules the business class have gotten rewritten for their own benefit over the decades have certainly put the loyal opposition in a position of being dependent upon the goodwill of their perennially butthurt donor class, who just don't understand why the little people are mad at them just because the gambled the world economy away? It wasn't our fault, man, and we won't do it again, we don't need any adult supervision, stop being mean. An ongoing theme over the course of several decades is that the Democrats are never quite prepared for what's coming next and every new batch of fresh-faced young Democrats who come in thinking they're going to fix things ends up being shocked and just how much opposition they run into. Which, like, I can see how it's frustrating, but it's not surprising; this is why "Is our Democrats learning?" has been a joke on the netroots for like fifteen years now. But more than the candidates themselves, the good info here is about the donors and the strategists, so that the reader knows that, for example, while Neera Tanden is currently on some of the crankier economically progressive folks' shit list, she was in support of more progressive policies than smug garbage fire advisors like David Plouffe, who was more concerned with appearing centrist than with actual good policy and referred to more liberal people in the party as "bedwetters" whenever they had the goddamn sense to be worried that not enacting desperately needed Keynesian policies might negatively affect the party's electoral fortunes (turns out the bedwetters were right and the Democrats continue to be the Mozarts of losing). But as gratifying as it may be to read that, for example, Hillary Clinton was so upset by the "sequester" budget that she had to leave the room when it was unveiled, the fact remains that the Democrats on the whole have gotten caught napping way too many times in a row and have been woefully ineffective as a loyal opposition. We read about this in more depth in Give Us the Ballot; it pops up again here because initiatives like Citizens United, REDMAP, and the suit where the Supreme Court vacated the Voting Rights Act were all funded by various tentacles of the Kochtopus.
 
Perhaps the Democratic Party candidates and behind-the-scenes folks had the same problem that my reading group did: In addition to just only being able to take so much, they tend toward a liberal worldview that's rooted in the idea that people are fundamentally good and capable of rational thought. As a result, the horrors of actual reality don't integrate easily into their minds. Perhaps it's time for the Dems to invest in some crankier people, not even necessarily as a move further left policy-wise, but just so they can stop hope-and-faith-in-the-American-people-ing their way out of being able to even see what they're up against. Maybe the election of Trump, which took pieces of human garbage like Betsy Devos out of the shadows and into the spotlight, will finally help it sink in that the Republican party has, in fact, been fully taken over by a cancerous tentacly parasite that cannot be reasoned with, has no sense of the greater good, and will not stop until it has destroyed all of society so Charles Koch (or possibly his ghost, propped up by money) can sit upon the ashes and proclaim himself God-emperor of Kochland, at least until climate change kills us all.
 
...Oh, man, I didn't even get to talk about the climate change stuff. You all know that rich fossil fuel barons have Astroturfed the entire climate change denial movement, right? This is a thing that everyone knows is a fact and is not really up for interpretation or debate, it's just what happened? Good. Because that's what happened. And so far we've let it.
 
God help us all.
bloodygranuaile: (bitch please caligari)
 As a longtime pirate aficionado and an even more longtime women's history aficionado, I was pretty stoked to find a copy of Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers who Ruled the Seven Seas at Porter Square Books this summer. I'd missed the author event, which I was bummed to find out about after the fact, but the book was signed, so I happily shelled out for the slim little purple hardcover.
 
I had great hopes for learning a few new things when I brought this book to Maine last weekend, or at least to have some fun revisiting the things I already know. Fifteen years of on-and-off piratical reading means I'm already fairly familiar with the stories of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, of Grace O'Malley, and of Cheng Yisao, who are basically the Big Four of female pirates who occasionally get talked about.
 
In respect to the number of lady pirates whose stories are addressed, the book does not disappoint. The author, Laura Sook Duncombe, doesn't want to leave anybody out, and seems of the mind that more pirates are better than fewer, even if some are apocryphal, or outright fictional, or if they stretch the definition of "piracy" a little — for example, most of her ancient world examples are queens for whom raiding was considered a more or less legitimate form of warfare. This is fine and I think it was a good choice, since I also think more lady pirates is better reading than fewer lady pirates. As a result, I learned about a whole bunch of interesting women whose stories I hadn't previously heard of — Mary Wolverston, Lady Killigrew in Cornwall, whose entire family was engaged in piracy and fencing (not the swords kind) in the Elizabethan era; the New York river pirate called Sadie the Goat (a nickname that has only improved with age, as Sadie is indeed the #GOAT); Sayyida al-Hurra, a Barbary Coast pirate queen of the early 16th century; and many others.
 
What is disappointing about this book, though, is that there is still not enough lady pirate history, in that the amount of page space dedicated to actually telling the reader about lady pirate history is heavily diluted with a lot of editorializing, moralizing, and trying to guess at/manage the reader's impressions. This is bad enough when Duncombe's reactions to things align with my own, since there is far too much of it; when we disagree on stuff, it becomes wildly distracting. I found much of Duncombe's editorializing to be frankly quite condescending (albeit condescending in a different way than you'll be condescended to if you're reading books on maritime history by old white dude naval historians who address these figures).
 
The first example that really, really annoyed me was during the recounting of the "War of the Three Jeannes," a conflict in medieval Brittany that I'd inexcusably never heard of but is exactly the sort of vicious war of succession that is exactly what people read about medieval European history for. After her husband is killed, one of the Jeannes, Jeanne de Clisson, brings her sons to Nantes to show them that their father's head had been mounted on a pike for public display. To this, Duncombe says "To a modern reader it seems a bit puzzling, to say the least, that Jeanne would choose to expose her young sons to such violence."
 
Like... actually, lady, as a modern reader, I already got past the sentences where King Philip put the dude's head on a pike for public display, which would expose everyone in Nantes to it, and while I am not a medievalist, I have also not lived under a rock for my whole life and I am familiar with the general concept of the Middle Ages. So no, it's not puzzling to me at all that the nobility of 14th-century Brittany would raise their children under different standards than those used by middle-class 21st-century Americans who have access to knowledge from the field of child development psychology, a field that was established in the 1920s.
 
This is what I mean by condescending. I don't have a problem with Duncombe relating her own opinions — I'd never chastise a woman for expressing her opinion in a book about female pirates — but you come at me trying to feed me my own opinions, you'd better not miss and you'd REALLY better not miss THIS HARD. And frankly, you probably just shouldn't ever try to tell me my own opinions on stuff anyway even if you're correct, because I hate it.
 
But even more awkward than the assumption that the reader has never heard of the Middle Ages are Duncombe's attempts to spin the history of women engaging in piracy as something that is uncomplicatedly FEMINIST AND EMPOWERING AND YAY. There are certainly shades of this in why people are interested in stories about pirates and other outlaws and about why women would be interested in stories of women pirates particularly. But Duncombe has fallen victim to the romance of it too hard to write about historical piracy with any sort of credibility, because when you start writing about piracy as a real thing that has happened, you quickly run up against the complication that, while feminism is good, piracy is actually bad. Duncombe writes things like "The heart of piracy is freedom" and it's like, that word "heart" is doing a lot of work there, because the core concept of piracy is "using boats to steal stuff." Freedom and following your dreams and escaping the confines of society are associations we have with piracy that are a part of why regular people who would probably not enjoy being the victims of crimes are often nonetheless fascinated with stories about criminals, whether it's pirates, gangsters, Western outlaws (not the same thing as cowboys; cowboy is an entirely legal profession that involves herding cattle), bank robbers, or what have you.
 
The constant attempts to get inside historical figures' heads by randomly speculating and imputing high-minded values to them, such as "valuing freedom above all else" and the desire to do your own thing and what have you, are at best heavy-handed and annoying, like, it's OK to admit that they're criminals and that's what we find interesting about them; no need to try to pretend Anne Bonny is Mother Jones. It all comes off a bit "In 18th-century England, women weren't allowed to wear pants or to murder people and steal their stuff, maaan, think about it ::bong rip::". Duncombe seems to want to revel in stories of women transgressing the social boundaries of hundreds of years ago without having to deal with the bit where these women's careers are still transgressive of norms we have today, like that stealing people's boats isn't nice and neither is shooting them, with the result that it sort of ruins the actual transgressive thrill of reading about crime that is why I picked up a book about pirates in the first place and not one about, say, suffragettes or labor activists.
 
The worst offense here comes when Duncombe gets to the end of relating to us the deliciously macabre story of the apocryphal streetwalker-turned-pirate Maria Cobham, a tour de force of over-the-top Gothic brutality in which the young Maria discovers that she LOVES MURDER and is just SO GOOD AT MURDER and gets more and more into committing INCREASINGLY GRUESOME MURDERS, all while her pirate husband who got her into this life is starting to go off the whole murder thing. They eventually get away with all of it and pull off ONE LAST MAJOR HEIST and use the proceeds to settle down in the French countryside and thumb their nose at the entire world by integrating seamlessly into respectable society and never having to account for their deeds. IT IS A GREAT STORY, and if you like reading about wacky morbid criminal shenanigans, you will enjoy it thoroughly. Duncombe promptly laments that Cobham "hits a discordant note in the ballad of pirate women" because she is "hard to root for," what with having been "a vicious, ruthless woman who was not drawn to the freedom or adventure of piracy so much as the murder."
 
Girl. I say this with love, because you are clearly deeply committed to feminism and apparently friends with Jia Tolentino: YOU ARE WRITING THE WRONG BOOK HERE. You are raining on my Reading About Criminals parade with your moralizing, and if you want to put a spin of deep ideological commitment to freedom and liberty on stories of women doing crimes, I would suggest you find a way to get interested in any of the many female political activists and revolutionaries who engaged in violence and terrorism whose stories are also not told nearly enough, instead of dancing awkwardly around the entire idea of what piracy is. I'm sure there's a market for books about female political assassins just as much as there is for female pirates! 'Cause right now, you sound like this:
 
Cartoon children in pirate costumes hold a sign saying "A good pirate never takes another person's property!"
 
Probably the best thing about the whole book is that Duncombe does religiously cite her sources, so it's easy to find further reading on all the many and varied stories that are touched on so shallowly in the book itself. I now know of a lot more interesting female pirate(ish) characters who may or may not have existed, and I have an extensive Further Reading list for all of them, all in one handy bundle with a very attractive purple cover. So that's good to have on hand even if I know I will never read the actual body text of this again.
 
And I agree with the author and with probably every other lover of pirate stories that it's a shame none of these histories have been turned into decent movies. I think I'd love a souped-up costume drama TV series on the Killigrews of Cornwall, especially. Organized crime families make for some of the best TV series out there already; surely someone could pull it off without screwing it up.
bloodygranuaile: (plague)
 This year is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution — both of them; the one in February and the one in October. While I still have a hefty reading list backed up from last year's binge on Easter Rising-related stuff, I really can't let a good revolutionary centenary go to waste. So I was pretty stoked when Boston DSA — along with probably half the DSA chapters in the country — organized a reading group for China Miéville's October, his new nonfiction book from Verso Books that details months from the February to the October revolutions.
 
Miéville is better known as  "weird fiction" spec fic writer; the only other book of his I've read is The City and the City, a noir murder mystery detective kind of thing that is not at all about Northern Ireland, but looking through the rest of his oeuvre I think this is something I should fix, and possibly even prioritize fixing.
 
October is broken down month by month, with a prologue and a "before February 1917" chapter that do an impressive job of covering an enormous amount of ground in a short space while remaining quite accessible, and an "epilogue" that basically poses the question, "And then it all went to shit, but did it have to go to shit?" which is really the only question available to ask when you look at the mismatch between the empowering ideals of the revolutionaries and the brutally repressive police state that was actually built.
 
Miéville doesn't make anything up; all the dialogue in the book is things that have actually been recorded, with the result that there's not a whole lot of dialogue. What dialogue there is is exceptionally well chosen, however; even with the little bit of stiltedness that comes from being translated out of hundred-year-old Russian, the quotes that pop up manage to get bring people's personalities across the years and right up into your face. Some of them are also hilarious.
 
Because there's so much to cover and so many people involved, many of whom have multiple names, it's easy to get a bit lost in the enormous cast. To remedy this, there's an appendix of important figures in the back, which is exactly the kind of useful feature that I hate using. Even more complex is the rapidly shifting political alliances and the periodic realignments of what's considered left and what's considered right, so you wind up with factions being referred to as things like "left-left" and "right-left" and then I give up. I can't even follow all this splintery nonsense among leftist groups now. The upside of this is that it's hilariously familiar to anyone even a little involved in leftist organizing or who has been peripheral to and thus witnessed leftist organizing. Oh, leftists. Haven't changed in a hundred years. Even some of the fashions are coming 'round again.
 
What really does come through wonderfully, largely due to Miéville's novelistic touch and his willingness to ditch pretensions of academic objectivity and judge his characters ("Vladimor Nikolaivich Lvov — not to be confused with the ex-premier — was a dunderheaded Muscovite busybody, an ingenuous ruling-class Pooter" [p. 214]), is what an absurdly human endeavor the revolution was. We tend to think of revolutions as very serious things, which they are, and as either noble or terrifying or both (depending on how much we sympathize with the revolutionaries), which they are as well. But revolutions are committed by humans and humans are messy absurd creatures, prone to missteps and miscommunications and general egotism, and coming up with a new government from scratch is the sort of project management challenge from hell that seems to bring to the forefront every type of possible human dysfunction. A modern aspirational-class reader, raised under the cult of productivity that evaluates all leisure time by how it adds efficiency to non-leisure time and who judges other people primarily by how in one's way they are, just might spend most of the book getting exasperated with various historical figures for failing to get over themselves and do something useful. Yes, in a book with two revolutions. It's because the revolutions come about when the people in charge pass up every discernible chance to fix things and avoid them.
 
Patient Zero and the Platonic ideal of willfully denialist inefficiency is of course His Majesty Tsar Nicholas Romanov, a nice enough dude as long as you literally never need anything in the country to get done at all, which is, unfortunately, not really how countries work. He spends the first few chapters steadfastly refusing to acknowledge or try to solve any problems, even in the face of the aristocrats and bourgeois liberals in the Duma begging him to let them make real reforms, because things were bad enough that basically everyone except the tsar knew it. He is still in denial as the worker's soviets are taking over the government buildings in St. Petersburg; he is off on a train somewhere else, and reacts to the telegram he receives about the revolution by saying "That fat Rodzianko has written me some nonsense," and refusing to reply to it. Truly a brilliant move.
 
Once the tsar is dispatched, what follows is eight months of factions playing hot potato with power. Most of the socialist groups are religiously committed to a "stageist" version of Marxist theory where there has to be a bourgeois/capitalist/liberal democratic revolution before capitalism collapses and there's a socialist one; as such, the Council of Soviets spends a lot of time trying to push the Provisional Government, basically made up of what had been the Duma, to take power, as long as they don't use that power to do anything the soviets don't like; the Duma really doesn't want be responsible for whatever's going on and they certainly don't want to pretend to be responsible but have everything they decide vetoed by the Council of Soviets. Nobody's supposed to be in both bodies but an exception is made for a popular lawyer named Alexander Kerensky, who is basically a rock star, up until he isn't. Various compromises are almost reached, with wrenches being thrown into them at the last minute — first by Lenin swanning in on his train at the end of March/beginning of April and immediately haranguing all his comrades that they're doing it wrong and what's this crap they're publishing in Pravda and how dare they collaborate with parties that weren't getting them out of the war; later, in May, on the day the Second Provisional government was born, Trotsky shows up from his exile in Siberia and immediately excoriates its existence and calls for the transfer of all power to the Soviets; eventually, Lenin's party members get so sick of him sending in criticisms of everything they're doing from where he's hiding out in Finland that they start sitting on his writings for weeks until they're outdated before they publish them (I laughed and laughed, I admit). There's at least one street revolt that happens completely off-schedule, which is unsurprising since there's an ongoing comedy of errors in the middle of the book of the Bolshevik party trying to pretend it's keeping ahead of developments when really it's not. Lenin erroneously dismisses the existence of a right-wing conspiracy that fortunately failed because the right wing just failed at organizing, which seems ironic in hindsight because pretty much every revolutionary leader since has seen counterrevolution around every corner, and here there really was one and Lenin was playing the I'm Too Reasonable To Fall For That Conspiracy Crap game. The various weak provisional governments all fail to pull out of the war, which is going increasingly badly, allowing the Bolsheviks —  a pretty minor party when this all started —  to become the largest socialist party and eventually to just sort of walk in and take over the government, arresting what by that point was basically a handful of ministers huddled around the one working phone left in the palace and the guy they had elected Dictator Of This Room for a few hours.
 
The real stars of the show here, though, are Russian workers, whether they're doing awesome things like participating in nationwide sympathy strikes with a print shop in Moscow that wanted to be paid for punctuation and not just per letter (as an editor, I took outsize joy in this tidbit, because punctuation is important, and if Russian punctuation is anything like English punctuation, it's also a bitch to get right) or slightly less awesome things like engaging in random acts of street violence. All the endless meetings and writing of pamphlets are important, but the people are not always manipulated as easily and in as orderly a fashion as the various factions of organizers would have liked. The thing that really helped recruit for the Bolsheviks, in addition to their antiwar message, was that they advocated skipping over all this stageist crap and giving power directly to the workers who had just had a freakin' revolution to take it. This was both more straightforward and more satisfying to normal people who had jobs and a limited amount of time and energy to spend educating themselves on Marxist theory all day and just wanted to be in control of their own lives. There's some important lessons on political messaging in there, perhaps.
 
Reading this in discussion group with a bunch of socialists, many of whom are much better versed in Russian history than I am, was definitely a rewarding way to go about it, even though I wussed out of the May-June-July meeting due to feeling under the weather (which was, in addition, crappy that day). It's a pretty accessible book for newbies, but it was also fun to have all the random additional stuff filled in and more book recommendations given. I regret missing the session that I did miss, especially because so much fun stuff went down in July. But overall I recommend the book highly to folks that are interested in history but not necessarily interested in arguments over obscure points of Marxist theory that ineffectual Communist groupuscules with seventeen members are still mad about but nobody else is. The important thing is that someone should make a biopic of Maria Spiridonova, I mean, honestly, how is this not a thing already? (Don't answer that; I know full well it's because Hollywood hates awesome women.)
 
I definitely feel on more solid ground with this very short but important period in history now, so I will hopefully be less lost when (and if) I get around to reading all the other Russian Revolution-related things being published all year. That said, I could just as equally stand to read the thing a second time, since I'm pretty sure I've got a lot of things mixed up in my head due to my refusal to use the character directory or look at timelines. 
bloodygranuaile: (gashlycrumb clara)
Another museum weekend; another batch of books procured from museum gift shops. I have a problem, maybe.
 
After visiting several historical sights in Lexington this Saturday, Mom and I popped over to Concord to check out Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott and her family lived for twenty years. In addition to being shamed from beyond the grave for my own lack of creative output, the time at Orchard House reminded me that, while I've read most of Alcott's books for children, the only bit of her adult writing that I've read is A Long Fatal Love Chase, about a woman who marries the devil. (It's an excellent book.) So I picked up a copy of Hospital Sketches, which she'd written during her short and ill-fated time serving as a nurse in the Civil War, and I read it that afternoon. (It's very short.)
 
The first thing I really liked about my copy of Hospital Sketches is that it seems to be a facsimile edition of a very early printing, with the blocky old-fashioned text of a printing press and some slightly batty spacing and punctuation. These things amuse me much more than they probably ought.
 
The second thing I really liked about the book is that, thought it is mostly autobiographical and written in the first person, Alcott gives the viewpoint character's name as "Tribulation Periwinkle," which about the most perfect parody old-school New England name you can come up with. She is variously referred to by other characters as "Old Trib," "Nurse Trib," "Nurse P.," and other charming variants on the charming pseudonym.
 
Alcott's skill with observational humor, and especially her comic accounts of the absurdities and small frustrations of getting anything done properly in this mad old world, means that Hospital Sketches is a very comic little book in tone, although the subject matter is mostly about young people dying of horrible wounds as Nurse Trib overworks herself right into a bout of typhoid pneumonia. The first sketch details her travels down to DC from Massachusetts, and it contains all the things you want in a comic travelogue, such as amusingly mean descriptions of her fellow-travelers, some morbid fantasizing about all the ways traveling on public transit can go horribly wrong, and at least one adventure in getting embarrassingly lost. This last article takes place when she's trying to figure out how to get her free ticket to get from Boston to DC and involves her running around all over downtown Boston, which I personally enjoyed reading about as a resident of that badly planned and opaquely regulated little city.
 
The rest of the sketches are about her time at a facility she calls Hurly-burly House or the Hurly-burly Hotel, a chaotic, badly managed place where it seems like a miracle anyone actually got better at, especially with medicine being what it was in the 1860s. There's a lot of religious and patriotic beatification of various soldiers who die dreadfully, which could easily have been corny, especially considering the tone of arch social satire in so much of the rest of the book, but which do come off as quite touching, probably because Alcott's very earnest about what a tragic waste of human life it is to send a bunch of young people off to get blown up, no matter how glorious or necessary the cause.
 
The cause for the Union army in the case of the Civil War was certainly about as necessary as it gets, being rivaled in moral high ground only by the fight against the Nazis in World War II; however, the 1860s were still the 1860s, and it shows. The Alcott family were diehard abolitionists, and not in the "people ought to be as nice to their slaves as they are to their pets" way (honestly, some anti-slavery literature is mindboggling regressive). But all the terms for people of color that were the polite terms back in 1860 are not the polite terms anymore (the impolite terms are still impolite, only even more so), and the bits where Trib Models Interacting With Black People Nicely For The Benefit Of Readers are well-intentioned but really quite cringey from the vantage point of 150 years later. Fortunately, these bits are short, since the book is short and so all the bits are short.
 
The last sketch (except for a postscript) is an account of Nurse Periwinkle coming down with typhoid pneumonia; this bit is really the opposite of dated, and will ring true to the experience of anyone who has fallen deliriously sick, especially anyone who has fallen deliriously sick in the middle of a work shift. This last sketch also provides a more detailed account of the nurses' quarters, which makes living in a freshman dorm sound clean and orderly.
 
All in all, it's as delightful a look into the hell of Civil War-era medical care as you're going to find, and it's about as readable as contemporary accounts of the subject are going to be, so I definitely recommend it to anyone else who's interested in Alcott, even if you're mostly familiar with her as a children's writer.
bloodygranuaile: (plague)
 For my politics books club we decided on some light summer reading for June: Robert O. Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism, which explores the creation and expansion of different fascist movements for the purpose of arriving at a working sense of what fascism is based on how it has historically worked, rather than what its adherents said about it. 
 
As someone who got probably a pretty decent overview of both World Wars in high school by contemporary standards but has supplemented it with additional self-teaching in an extremely haphazard and piecemeal fashion (I like to read about very specific historical events like a single intelligence mission at a time), I felt like I had enough base-level knowledge to follow this without having to Google too many things, but it was also enormously helpful to have the subject set out in such an orderly manner. Paxton looks at different “stages” of fascism, of which only Mussolini’s and Hitler’s reigns both qualify as unambiguously fascist (rather than regular ol’ authoritarian) and went through all the stages he lists. 
 
I was expecting it to be a bit denser because some of the reviews I’d checked out said it was a bit dry, but while it doesn’t read in the novelesque way that some history books of more limited scope of subject manage to pull off these days, I really didn’t find it too dense or academic at all. It commits the occasional bit of academese, like “fascisms,” but it’s always quite clear what he’s getting at and overall I found it to be quite clear and straightforward. If you’re interested in the subject—which you should be, because otherwise why are you reading this book?—it should pull you along quite well; the prose style and the overall organization of the book just set everything out in a very plain and straightforward way. The content is terrifying without being either coy or gratuitously graphic. 
 
The book was written in 2004, and… well, I’d be quite interested in hearing Paxton’s take on current events. (ETA: I am a dumbass; he wrote an article about in in the May issue of Harper’s Magazine that I have just not gotten around to reading yet because I am a twit.) A lot of what he talks about regarding the early stages of fascism—it’s ideological incoherence, its poaching of grievances from the left, its roots in socialism and syndicalism even as it immediately became viciously anti-socialist, its alliances with conservative elites who thought they could use its energy for their own ends—sounds uneasily familiar to anyone following modern politics. But there are a lot of movements and regimes that are often called fascist and that may be sort of fascist in some ways but not in others. Paxton gives us a good rundown of unsuccessful fascist movements and of not-properly-fascist authoritarian regimes (I was perhaps inappropriately delighted at the section dedicated to the Perón regime in Argentina and the conclusion that it was not fascist, despite Perón’s ties to Mussolini. Musical theater is a helluva drug, apparently). 
 
This book doesn’t talk a huge amount about propaganda per se, which is something I would usually be disappointed with since propaganda is my favorite, but it does talk a lot about the appropriation of symbols, emotional manipulation, the slippery relationship between fascism and making any sort of coherent sense, and its anti-intellectualism, all of which is much fun, although it’s a bit terrifying to look at the legacy this kind of intellectual nihilism has left on mass politics in more recent years. It’s also terrifying when Paxton talks not about the internal properties of fascism itself but also about the political space that allows it to develop.
 
Though the book is short and is about 25% footnotes, I think we could end up having a very long book group discussion on this, especially if I come up with enough really good questions. It’s not for three weeks though so I’ll have to review it again when we get closer—and I’m really looking forward to doing so. 
 
Oh, and the book also contains a “bibliographic essay,” which basically is just a lifetime’s worth of book recommendations. Damn you, Paxton. Now I’ve got a TBR list I couldn’t hope to get through even if I turned into one of those doofy Stephanie Meyers vampires that never needs to sleep.
 
bloodygranuaile: (Default)
 For this month's political book club selection, we picked (at Andrea's suggestion -- thanks, Andrea!) Peter Pomerantsev's Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. Pomerantsev is a documentary filmmaker who worked in Russia for ten years in the aughts, where he worked for Russian TV outlets bringing the "reality TV" concept to Russia. 
 
While Pomerantsev's writing style can be a bit pat and the printing of the book I had was somewhat poorly proofread, this was made up for, for me, by the fact that the subject matter is absolute catnip to me. Media studies, and especially media studies in broad political contexts, is very much my bag, baby, and Pomerantsev's book is basically an extended exploration of how the Russian government uses propaganda -- both on TV and outside of it, but mostly on TV -- to consolidate and maintain control over the populace, carefully managing what sort of dissent is allowed and how much, flooding people with ever-shifting narratives of total nonsense that sedate or disorient the populace. 
 
This particular case study in propaganda includes many of my favorite reading topics: The economic fuckeries of high finance capitalism, mafias, goofy mafia movies, murder mysteries, heartwarming tales of social activism, architectural hymns to great world capital cities. All it needs is a couple of poker games and it'd be a book version of that bit in The BFG where he makes personalized dreams for people by throwing a bunch of 'em in a jar and shaking it around. And this is all even written before the Russians got into screwing around with other people's elections!
 
The most disturbing aspect of this book is how much all the surreal reality-manipulating stuff Pomerantsev talks about really doesn't feel all that foreign or unfamiliar -- a lot of it's the same old hypercapitalist, sensationalist, reality-TV fuckery we've got going on in the U.S., just turned up to 11. It's even worse if you're relatively well versed in the hypocrisies and not-so-much-hidden-as-ignored brutalities within the U.S., like that we send people to jails for stupid shit, too, and in many of them, the conditions are unconscionable and people die mysteriously. The richest and most prestigious Russians, the oligarchs and models, jet around the world to London and New York and Switzerland, where the wealthy are above the law and the models are exploited terribly, because that's how it works throughout the whole developed world. 
 
The book is structured episodically, roughly giving project-by-project accounts of the lives of Pomerantsev's documentary subjects, but also discussing what had to get cut from the "documentaries" and why. One section covers a mafioso who has since become a filmmaker and writer, making films about his own life as a mafioso in a remote town in Siberia that mostly exists to import cars from Japan. Another deeply creepy section investigates the suicide of model Ruslana Korshunova and her involvement in a creepy corporate training/life coaching organization called Rose of the World which is apparently a cult. It reads like something a disaffected corporate underling like myself would write as a satire of the absurdities of the self-care/self-empowerment trend (deconstructed wonderfully by Laurie Penny at The Baffler), except apparently it's real and it's driven multiple people to suicide. It's also, unsurprisingly, based on a U.S. self-improvement module that's also had its share of lawsuits alleging that it's a cult, including wrongful death suits. A slightly less depressing section of Nothing Is True follows the story of a businesswoman whose entirely legal and fully permitted business selling some industrial chemical becomes illegal overnight, which she learns about when she is unceremoniously arrested. She is able to win her case and set up a nonprofit helping other wrongfully arrested upstanding citizens, but there is reason to suspect that she's largely being allowed to do this -- and to have a carefully framed film made of her experience -- mostly to give people a feel-good and laughably false story that corruption in Russia is mostly low-level petty stuff that's being successfully rooted out. 
 
The overall result of all of this is mind-bending, which I think is the point, and is of course a feeling that Americans have become increasingly familiar with since... um... frankly, it's been a boiling frog situation since at least the Bush/Gore election, as far as I'm concerned, but it's definitely gotten worse in the past year. Everything's just a chaotic funhouse mirror of total nonsense run by dumb schmucks who nevertheless can mess with you because they have enough money to buy whatever reality they want for you, in addition to for themselves.
 
I think we're going to have a lot to talk about at book club, especially since so many of the people in the book club are writers who I don't think are likely to have the same general doubts about the power of propaganda that a lot of folks seem to have (it's disheartening how many Americans seem to think that we're accusing Putin of having diabolical brilliance and superpowers when people report that disinformation "hacked" the election. I think just there's a fundamental reluctance to admit that you don't actually need superpowers to brainwash millions of people, just a lot of resources -- namely, enough to hire people who have studied comm and PR -- and some basic competence at opportunism, unencumbered by scruple). We already did a book about how fucked our voting system is, so I don't think we're blinded by any false faith in the strength of American institutions as a group. Therefore... I think it'll be fun. I'll try to come up with some really good questions. 
 
bloodygranuaile: (sociability)
 The folks in my book group wanted something a little more action-oriented than Necessary Trouble, so for this month we read Srdja Popovic’s Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World.

Popovic was one of the founding members of Otpor!, the Serbian student resistance movement that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic in the late ‘90s, and since then has helped run CANVAS, the Centre for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies, which trains pro-democracy activists across the world. So it’s clear that he’s got a track record of success in the subject.

The book is short and clearly written to be as accessible and entertaining as possible, each chapter dedicated to a specific principle or strategy—stuff like “make oppression backfire” and “have a vision of tomorrow”—and illustrating it with a lot of anecdotes from either Otpor! or other resistance movements that Popovic has worked with. Case studies range from the Israeli cottage cheese boycott of 2011 to the overthrow of the dictator Gayoom in the Maldives in 2008. A number of these stories are surprisingly delightful—the Israeli cottage cheese boycott was just the most bonkers thing; I actually laughed out loud reading about it—and in several cases this is by design. Popovic is a great proponent of what he calls “laughtivism,” or what I would more likely call “TROLLING FOR REVOLUTION” or possibly “meme warfare.”

(Aside: I spent much of this book wondering what Popovic thinks of the current Nazi-punching meme; obviously literally punching Nazis is an act of violence, but setting the gif of Richard Spencer getting sucker-punched to music and spreading it around the Internet seems otherwise the exact sort of goofy, low-barrier-to-entry rejection of a self-serious bigot that he’s advocating. Anyone can make and post Nazi-punching memes. And Popovic explicitly says that his commitment to nonviolence is more about tactical efficacy than about morals, and he gives Nazis as the quintessential example of “Obviously these guys had to be fought.” But there’s also long histories of both violent and non-violent resistance to Nazis and fascists that I think really need to be gone over in actual detail by anyone seriously thinking about how to best fight Nazis, and this book isn’t really about Nazis.)

At times, Popovic’s “I was just a regular college asshole” everyman schtick gets a little annoying, probably because I had bad experiences with Regular College Assholes, but I tried to sit with and examine that feeling until I got used to it, because inevitably any sort of mass movement is going to consist largely of people who are at least sort of assholes because people are like that. Avoiding everyone who’s even a little bit of a dick is a great way to end up hiding in a hole on some obscure corner of the Internet shitposting about those splitters at the People’s Front of Judea instead of getting anything done. Getting people to not be assholes to the rest of the movement in the course of doing the work is important so resentments don’t build, but that’s a more specific issue.

Probably the biggest blind spot in the book, though, is the conflation of specific political goals with fundamental cultural change. The second is a lot harder and Popovic doesn’t really talk about it, but sometimes it leads him into stepping into bits of American history that he doesn’t seem to know more than a surface-level amount about. The worst offenses are when he’s talking about the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1960s, which he paints as being a huge success. It was successful if you consider it in terms of being a movement about legislative goals—ending the Jim Crow laws, passing the Voting Rights Act—and in that light, it was indeed a major victory. But the civil rights movement didn’t challenge a single unpopular figure with outsize power, like a dictator; ultimately, it was challenging a deeply rooted foundation of American culture, one with largely unexamined majority support. Any by that light, it only made very incremental progress. Popovic also ignores the role of Malcolm X and the more militant black power movement in framing Martin Luther King as a palatable, respectable alternative; nor does he discuss how the movement eventually devolved into riots in the early ‘70s. The message that can be fairly easily gleaned from what is and is not covered in this book is that cultural sea change is extremely hard; smaller, concrete policy goals are important to make sure you can claim yourself any wins at all. Most people don’t super enjoy living under murderous dictators in quite the same way that racists love living in a racist society, so the challenges are different.

The occasional foray into respectability politics aside, Popovic actually does do a pretty good job of presenting the case that the way a movement is presented and how it “sells” itself are pretty important. Symbols and storytelling are powerful tools; while some people certainly overestimate the importance of appearances over actually doing stuff, it’s also very true that people are emotional creatures, and they’ll respond to stuff better if it offers community, if it’s fun and exciting, if it feels cool and rebellious rather than strict and ideological, if it has a symbol and a narrative and all that good stuff. Otpor! also employed elements of what we’d now call gamification, such as giving out t-shirts for getting arrested, color-coded so that everyone could see what level of getting-arrested experience you’d earned.

The catalog of failed or partially failed resistance movements—Occupy Wall Street is a frequent case study—coalesces around one thesis: Learning from past movements doesn’t mean just looking at what they did and doing the same thing. It also means interrogating your own current situation and getting creative in figuring out the best way how to apply the principles of nonviolent resistance and when and in what way it will be effective to employ any given individual tactic. Occupying a space, Popovic stresses, is a tactic; it’s not a strategy or an identity. Activists need to be creative, perceptive, and flexible; striving to simply copy past successful movements makes you too predictable.  

Overall, I think it’s a charming, accessible little book that explains its basic principles well and would be an especially good thing to give to the sorts of people who ask dumb shit like “Why don’t they just protest peacefully?” as if a) graffiti is violent or something or b) there’s anything “just” about organizing large masses of people, because it will explain bog-standard concepts like “Maintaining peaceful control over a large crowd of upset people is in fact something you have to actively do, and it requires discipline and organizing, and it’s possible to fail at it” in much nicer and more persuasive ways than, say, shouting at them that they’re stupid and liberals are fucking useless, which is what I want to do every time I hear stuff like that. (If you don’t want to buy them a whole book, I also recommend this excellent Foreign Policy piece about political violence.)

I’ve probably got more to say, but book club is tomorrow and I should probably save at least some of it for that? And write up questions, because that’s my responsibility which I forgot about until right this second.

Anyway. Dictators hate it when you make fun of them, so go forth and troll for democracy.

 

Adventures of George Washington meme
bloodygranuaile: (ed wood)
A few weeks ago, at the ACES conference in St. Petersburg, I had the privilege of being in the audience at the very first reading for Kory Stamper's new book, Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. I'd followed Kory Stamper on Twitter for a while, even before Merriam-Webster became the unlikely voice of The Resistance. Reading her blog, Harmless Drudgery, had definitely turned me into one of those people for whom being a lexicographer sounds like the best job ever, although now that I've read the book, I must concede that it's entirely possible I wouldn't be very good at it if by some miracle I did land a lexicographer job, since I'm prone to burnout about stuff generally, and because apparently it's not really possible to tell if your sprachgefuhl is quite strong enough until you've put it to the test.

Anyway. The book.

I loved it.

Inasmuch as it has a narrative thread, it is Kory Stamper's memoirs, starting with her job interview and walking us through her training and the major lexicographical challenges and triumphs of her career, for the purpose of illustrating what making dictionaries requires and what kind of weirdos make them. Within this basic framework we take many detours -- into Kory's pre-lexicographical life, into the history of the Merriam-Webster dictionary and of dictionaries in general, into the histories and uses of a lot of weird words, and many other odd and interesting places.

This book contains many footnotes, many of which are in the form of definitions, which is quite cute, but they also have jokes and funny asides in them, like Terry Pratchett footnotes. (My favorite bit was the one I found an error in and then I felt smart.)

Stamper's general style is one I tentatively dub Internet Witty, a form of speech that is marked not necessarily by fancily formal sentences, but by a wide range of registers, references, tidbits, factoids, wordplay, and other things that word nerds have fun with. It shows off a wide-ranging rather than a narrowly specialized education and worldview on the part of the writer. It's the playfully nerdy style that was elevated to an art form on The Toast, basically, highbrow and lowbrow and middlebrow at the same time. It gives us phrases like memento moron: "remember you, too, will fuck up." It marks Stamper as one of the tribe of people who know a lot of obscure liberal arts things but who do so because obscure liberal arts things are hilarious -- i.e., my people. In short, it is very, very far from the dry, objective, personality-less style mandated by the dictionary itself. Squeezing all the color out of a dictionary definition is quite a process, and one which Stamper walks us through with self-deprecating and sometimes juvenile good humor.

If you love words, you'll love this book. If you're a bit of a snob about words, it will challenge a lot of your assumptions -- one of my favorite bits of the book is Kory's journey to becoming an "irregardless" apologist -- but if you like rolling around in them and banging them together and pulling them apart to see what's inside, then boy is this book for you.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Due to time constraints we picked a short book for our next book club, James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, and although I read it all in one evening I've been mulling over it for several days after before attempting to write a review, and will likely try to reread it before we meet. There's a lot packed into the 106 pages here. The pair of essays -- one short, at just a few pages, the other more than ninety pages long -- combines Baldwin's personal and family history, American history, sociological and cultural commentary, an unnerving dinner with Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammed, and a call for all of us to truly reckon with America's history and legacy of racism.

The first essay, addressed to Baldwin's nephew (also named James), is personal enough that some of it almost feels a little voyeuristic to read, but its main point -- that at the time it was written, on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, celebration was premature, and black Americans had not really been emancipated yet -- is of interest to any reader who is at all invested in America. This letter also introduces a theme Baldwin expounds upon later as well, which that white people, while not "devils" as some movements at the time concluded, were nevertheless not very smart, and that they were in charge of everything was no reason to accept their infantile framing that it was black people who needed to be accepted/assimilated into white society and to become more like white people, because the existing white power structure was dreadful and, within it, people became weird and stupid and dysfunctional (Baldwin writes this in more elegant terms than that, of course) -- in short, he tries to each his nephew to resist internalizing what we now call the white gaze.

The second essay is a mostly autobiographical set of musings about growing up and learning to face the world and all its absurdities and atrocities, and the many temptations and pitfalls and escapes that Baldwin either avoided or did not. He speaks of his terror of falling into a life of crime as he became closer in age to the criminals that haunted the streets of Harlem where he grew up, and of the somewhat self-aggrandizing refuge he found in the Church as a youth pastor -- and then, eventually, how he grew to find it hypocritical and leave it behind him. He writes about the Nation of Islam movement and about why it appealed to people, and he explains both why he thinks it's wrong and that he understands what it's an entirely understandable response to. There is a tendency in much of American liberalism, at least right now, to expend much more fury and moralizing denunciation upon the people supposedly on one's same "side" who are doing it wrong than against the actual forces of oppression, in order to show off that you are one of the reasonable ones and to try and keep your "side" in line. The results are usually a bad look. Baldwin here manages to avoid any sort of ostentatious pearl-clutching or unsightly scrambling to distance himself from the Nation of Islam movement; it is in part a testament to his great empathy and in part a testament to his skill as a writer that he instead portrays the movement and the dinner with a profound sadness and with a tension and feeling of uneasiness that makes this section of the essay especially unputdownable. He writes about the people who join the Nation of Islam in largely sociological terms, describing them as sort of getting entangled in hatred and its weird mythology the way other excellent writers have written about family members sinking into addiction or crime. Though he's understanding of the course of despair and frustration that leads to people joining what is essentially a cult, he doesn't gloss over the fact that it is a supremacist hate group, and that no amount of explanation actually makes that anything other than ugly.

Baldwin reserves some of his profound sadness for his insights into the psychology of white Americans, some of which still rings 100% true and some of which rings slightly less true until you remember he was writing in 1962 and you figure that if it's not completely true now it squares 100% with everything we know about the '50s. Sometimes I forget how weird the '50s must have been until I see, like, advertisements or TV footage or something like that from then, and it's just modern enough that the ways in which it is alien make me feel like I'm on bad drugs, with people smoking on airplanes and all the movies in eye-watering Technicolor. Baldwin describes us as "slightly mad victims of our own brainwashing," which is certainly true, and as being terrified of sensuality, which is something we have made some progress on in some spaces and pretended to make progress on in others, and made no progress on whatsoever in large swaths of American life. Some of the things Baldwin says about stress and psychotherapy, about the aridity of life under the sway of capitalism and its fantasies, have only become more true since the postwar boom ended and the economic deprivation that used to characterize Harlem has hollowed out the entire middle class (even as Harlem becomes gentrified out of existence, from what I hear).

For me personally, it was Baldwin's criticisms of Christianity that interested me the most. He talks about Christianity's history as an imperial power, allied with imperialist nations and foisted upon unwilling populations to "save" them, though the only thing they really needed saving from was the Christians. And he talks about the role of the black Church in ways that echo with criticisms I've read about the Irish Catholic Church, especially in pre-revolutionary Ireland, but the Church he is describing is also in other ways clearly very different, and not only because Catholic Mass tends to be a very stiff and formal affair. But I'm always very interested in people's stories of apostasy, especially people who were once very serious and therefore whose apostasy had to be very serious as well. Baldwin discusses the purposes that his Church serves, both in the community and in his life, purposes both good and bad, and how he came around to where the good parts had outlived their usefulness and stopped outweighing the various hypocrisies that tend to accumulate in religions once they've been around a while.

It is distressing how much of this essay is still relevant, even as the Nation of Islam has been largely reduced to a set of footnotes on the SPLC's hatewatch map. But America as a whole has still not really gotten around to doing much of the real reckoning with race that Baldwin requested of us, though more liberal sectors have started to do more in just the past couple years, as the elections of Barack Obama and the ensuing "whitelash" have brought racial issues front and center in a way we haven't seen in quite a while. We also put an idiot racist kleptocrat and a bunch of Nazis in the White House, though, which unfortunately is going to have a bigger immediate impact on a lot of people's lives than all the interesting new documentaries that are out recently, and I say that as someone who think these sorts of documentaries are really important. (Everyone should go see I Am Not Your Negro.) I'm looking forward to discussing this book with the book group and probably to reading a lot more Baldwin in the future.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
For reasons that definitely have nothing whatsoever to do with modern politics, I have lately become very interested in dictatorial regimes again, and especially World War II. I read a lot of Holocaust memoirs and stuff when I was younger, but not a lot of stuff on the military and political history end of things. I also remember reading a bit about Nazi propaganda as part of general study of propaganda both in history classes and in media classes, but not really in great depth. So I figured it was time to look more at the political situation around the rise and establishment of the Third Reich than I got in ninth grade history.

To that end was recommended to me In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson, who is best known for Devil in the White City, which I admit I have not read but which people seem to like. Garden of Beasts follows U.S. ambassador Charles Dodd and his daughter Martha as they establish themselves in Berlin in 1933, shortly after Hitler becomes Chancellor. Dodd is not a usual ambassador type, being that he's not a rich socialite; he is a history professor who just wants to work on his book about the Old South and finish it sometime before he dies. Martha is a 24-year-old boho type who falls in love with basically everybody, which is ordinarily something I would not necessarily judge her for, except that this doesn't stop when she goes to live among a bunch of Nazis, and I'm gonna judge anyone who dates multiple Nazis, I don't care that it was 1933 and you didn't realize. Dodd's wife and son are in Berlin too, but the book doesn't follow them as closely.

On the one hand, the book is a fascinating look into a historical time and place that I don't know all that much about, which is what I wanted, and it's exciting in that dreadful way that so much of the Weird History I like to read is. The surface pleasantries of 1933 Berlin, and discovering all the awful stuff going on just under its surface--police surveillance and basement prisons; the first concentration camps being built out in the countryside--is written in a brilliantly creepy way, peeling back layers of superficial urbanity with the mounting tension of a horror movie. The climax of the book, plotwise, is the Night of the Long Knives, an event I'd never heard of (I told you my early WWII political knowledge was lacking), although the Dodds stayed in Berlin for another three years before coming home and going on the lecture circuit, raising the alarm against the Nazis.

On the other hand, though, so much of this book was distressingly familiar. The various manifestations of liberal denialism--the it-can't-be-that-bad-ism, the it-can't-happen-here/now kind of thinking, the insistence that individual shocking events were isolated cases no matter how many of them cropped up, the assumption of rationality and earnestness where there was none just because people were in positions of power that are supposed to be occupied by respectable people, and above all, the constant refusal to believe the people who were pointing out what was going on, insisting that they must be overreacting--it's all so dreadfully, stupidly familiar, and it worries me, and it makes me think I should be doing more, now, before things get worse, although I still don't know quite what to be doing. Much like in Germany in 1933, the U.S. already has some of its infrastructure of horror built--our massive system of prisons, the ICE detention facilities where migrants wait for deportation for months, our terrifying surveillance and data-scraping capabilities, invasive security theater at airports--and many of our institutions are shockingly weak, but utterly resistant to doing the self-scrutiny that would allow them to strengthen themselves. At this time, the Holocaust hadn't started--Action T4 hadn't even been officially established--but Jews were losing their jobs, the concentration camp at Dachau had been built and was being used to warehouse political dissidents, and there were several secret torture basements around the city in use by the Gestapo. On the surface, people went to work and shopped and hung out in fancy restaurants in Berlin, all modern and normal.

So, basically, I did a lot of stopping to panic while reading this book. It hit home in a suffocating sort of way, giving me the sort of tilting feeling I sometimes get when I'm walking down the street in Allston and it's all perfectly normal and then I remember that there are other streets in the U.S. right now where unarmed people have been shot to death and left to die, or even when I go to a protest and it's the middle of the afternoon and the cops are quietly monitoring it all bored-looking and I remember that this is not what all protests are like and I've just been very lucky so far, or maybe lazy, that I've only attended preplanned marches, mostly in the daytime, that never got out of hand.

But I also learned a lot. I learned about all sorts of interesting characters with shocking life stories, Nazi and non-Nazi alike. I learned about the rivalries between the different arms of the Nazi brutality machine--the SA and the SS and the Gestapo and the regular army--and the intrigues that had Rudolf Diels fleeing the country on the regs and that eventually did in Ernst Rohm. I think the book did a good job of hitting that difficult balance of humanizing the Nazis, as in showing that they are, indeed, humans, but not soft-pedaling or excusing or minimizing any of the horrible stuff they did, the usual byproduct of "humanization," of the liberal instinct to study and explain butting up against the liberal belief that people are fundamentally good. The Nazis were fundamentally real humans, but they weren't fundamentally good. They were fucking Nazis. And apparently, living in Berlin by 1934 was like living with a bunch of pod people, as the surveillance increase and the state program of Gleichschaltung (coordination, i.e., normalization) sank deeper into the bones of the country.

Dodd and Martha seem idiotically naive at the beginning of the book, but Dodd quickly grew on me, being a very principled dude who never really buys into the whole Nazi thing, even though it takes him a distressingly long time to fully admit to himself just how bad it is. Martha is more actively irritating at the beginning since she's very taken in by all the uniforms and fit young dudes marching and stuff, but eventually grows disillusioned and, due to her love affair with a Russian diplomat named Boris, who is actually an intelligence operative, is eventually sort of half-assedly recruited as a Soviet asset. George Messersmith haunts the first half of the book like a longwinded Cassandra, warning a denialist State Department of just how "psychopathic" the Nazi leadership was. He and Dodd do not get along, and not long after Messersmith is transferred out of Germany, Dodd finds himself taking up mantle of giving long-winded warnings that go largely ignored by the U.S.

While the whole story has so much plot it's hard to believe it all really happened like this, the most important stuff in the book is its portrayal of how a bunch of utterly hateful, thuggish manbabies manage to take control of a country of nice, friendly people--the way they capitalize on the earnestness and disbelief of other people, their willingness to lie and dissemble, the feints toward moderation, the secrecy of the true extent of their plans and the visibility of the dysfunction that made their smarter, more rational opposition underestimate their danger. This is hardly unique to Garden of Beasts, though; the most important takeaway of any material about the Nazi's rise to power is always understanding of the tricks they use, and especially the pitfalls that educated, rational, nice, liberal, or otherwise "normal" folks fell into to allow it to happen. But Garden of Beasts illustrates some of them excellently, in a viscerally familiar way that feels like watching a car crash with that slow-motion affect that happens by itself when it's too late for you to do anything.

TL;DR This was an upsettingly excellent book and I recommend it highly.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
One of the many, many drivers of the outcome in the past clusterfuck of an election was the under-reported but extremely serious wave of voter suppression that GOP legislators have been enacting since the VRA was gutted in 2013. Ari Berman had been valiantly reporting on this issue at The Nation for most of the circus, so I knew that his book on the subject, Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America was going to be near the top of the list of books to read in the book club. (Side note: Anyone want to join my politics book club?)

I'm very much looking forward to discussing this one, as infuriating as it is, especially at the end.

The book begins with the Selma march where John Lewis got his head beat in, and vividly illustrates all the drama surrounding the passage and implementation of the Voting Rights Act. Sometimes it's hard to realize that it wasn't all that long ago--there's such a Wild West-y amount of shooting, firebombing, and random street beatings going on. Then I remember that it was only 50 years ago, and also I'm lucky to live in relatively safe areas that are not "gun country," so probably even some of these places aren't as different now as I'd have assumed.

Despite all the shooting and firebombing and stuff, the earlier part of the book is still the cheerful one, because Act One ends with the Voting Rights Act being passed and implemented. Act Two is basically Adventures in Vote Dilution, and Act Three, most depressingly, is the legal counterrevolution that led to the Act being gutted, starting with the sick fucks in the Reagan administration.

The most depressing part of whole thing, oddly, was the "unholy alliance" between the Congressional Black Caucus and the GOP to draw majority-minority heavily gerrymandered districts in order to ensure any kind of minority representation in Congress, even though it made districts less competitive and increased the number of GOP-stronghold districts in the South by basically getting rid of all the moderate white Democrats. This turns out to have been a bad move given the degree to which partisanship has increased as a force in American politics relative to literally anything else. Also, gerrymandering is bad; the more competitive districts are, the better for democracy. So that was a bummer; it read like the fatal flaw that leads to the hero's downfall in a Greek tragedy. Of course, the reality is much more complicated than that, but it seems like a thread the consequences of pulling on were farther-reaching than anticipated.

The real problem, of course, is the cadre of "neoconservative" lawyers brought into the White House during the Reagan and both Bush administrations, "neoconservative" being the bullshit euphemism for "authoritarian, burn-it-down-if-we-can't-control-it reactionaries" that we had before we came up with "alt-right" to push the backwardness into straight-up Nazism. Among other things, they utterly weaponized the Supreme Court, turning it into the anti-human clusterfuck it is today and that the Republicans are hellbent on keeping it. There are many new names on my list of People Who Haven't Been Punched Enough after reading this book, although I probably won't remember the names.

The book ends with a discussion of the Moral Monday marches and of North Carolina's descent from reasonable moderation into an unsterile petri dish of retrograde GOP democracy-fucking experiments. It's simultaneously heartening and depressing.

Voting rights are the single most important issue in our democracy right now outside of not actually killing off the entire human race via nuclear incompetence or the drastic acceleration of global warming. Voting rights are the only hope we have of taking ourselves off the road to fascism, and the power-hungry sociopaths of the GOP know that and are going to do their best to destroy it.

Let's not make it easy.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
After the election, I decided to start a book club.

The first meeting is in January, well before inauguration. For our first book, we picked Sarah Jaffe's Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt.

Necessary Trouble covers a bunch of the different protest/activist movements that have arisen in the U.S. since the financial crisis hit in 2008: Starting with the Tea Party, it moves on chapter by chapter to cover Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Our Homes, the Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter, Moral Mondays, and a number of climate actions. The section on climate actions, mostly the anti-fracking movement, are kept for the end of the book so that it ends on a maximally apocalyptic note: These are the people fighting government's attempts to literally burn the earth and poison people to make a buck.

Jaffe contextualizes each movement in terms of the events and policies that led up to it being born, often giving recap that go far back into the history of capitalism and of the United States. She ties that in with the stories of activists within each movement, providing in-depth interviews about how and why they got involved and what the movement means to them.

A couple key themes continually emerge. One is that many of these crises have been a long time coming and will not be easily solved. Another is a theme among the activists that so many of them found themselves ashamed of being in the sorts of situations that instigated these movements--of losing their jobs or retirement savings in the financial crash, of being foreclosed on, of holding student debt. Americans really, really want to be hard-working and self-sufficient, and this is part of what's allowed things to get as bad as they have: People will tell themselves that they should individually work harder to overcome whatever's being thrown at them instead of insisting upon being treated fairly, which we tend to believe sounds like petulant whining--that if someone's treating you unfairly, you should be awesome enough to make them treat you fairly, instead of complaining that they're not. The result of this is that the powers that be have been able to tilt the playing field ENORMOUSLY in their own favor before folks who see themselves as average hardworking Americans are willing to admit that they haven't been able to overcome the enormous structural disadvantages they've been put at and maybe you fuckers should just stop stacking the deck. Americans are highly prone to believing that there is still shame in losing even if the other guy was cheating, because you should have been awesome enough to stop the other guy from cheating you.

The book is very hopeful--hopeful that Americans are willing to learn and to organize and to come together in solidarity to get into "good trouble" and demand change. But it also warns of the temptations of the dark side of populism, the scapegoating, tribalist kind illustrated by Trump, who had not yet been, to our eternal shame and possibly to the end of our democracy, barely elected on a technicality with some help via cheating. (And yeah, in true American fashion, I'm pretty ashamed that the Clinton campaign couldn't still beat him even with the cheating, because he's the worst con man ever.) The hopefulness is alternately infectious--Americans have been organizing and fighting; we'll be able to do it more--and depressing. Frankly, the emotional whiplash is a little hard to take.

I learned a lot, though, even as someone who tried to follow these movements relatively closely on social media when they first happened. (For example, I didn't know that Lehman Brothers had gotten its start selling security bonds on slaves--honestly, and this is probably stupid of me, I hadn't realized you could create any sort of financial instruments with slaves as collateral, even though now that I think about it that's precisely what the "chattel" designation means. And I hadn't realized how much of what some of these banks got up to in the mortgage crisis was actually fraud--as in, already illegal--rather than just goddamn stupid.) And the book is so well-written that even though its subject matter is so heavy, it'll make you want to get out into the streets and crash your Congresscritter's next town hall. (My Congressman doesn't have a Town Hall scheduled so I called his office and asked him to have one. Le sigh.)

Highly recommended reading for the resistance. I can't wait to discuss it at book club.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I read and reviewed Alexander "Assassinato" Fitzgerald's new book The Myth of Poker Talent: Why Anyone Can Be a Great Poker Player over at the day job.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Somewhere in between my project to read poker strategy books in order to be better at poker and my project to read books on the history of poker and gaming so that I understand my current field better, there sat the decision to read David Sklansky’s The Theory of Poker.

The Theory of Poker is older than me, although it has since been updated a few times. I have read about it in a number of the other, more recent poker-related books I’ve gone through this year. I know it was still being used widely as a resource when the poker boom kicked off fifteen years ago or so; Kenny Hallaert mentioned it when I interviewed him earlier this fall, saying it might still be useful for beginner players.

One thing that’s instantly noticeable about this book is that it was clearly written before no-limit hold’em became the game of choice for everyone and everything. While this can get a bit confusing for a reader who really only knows NLHE at all (i.e. me), it does allow Sklansky to illustrate concepts in multiple different ways in different games. Since this book is light on math (by poker book standards, at least—obviously it’s got a bunch of stuff about pot odds and basics like that) and more about how to reason through various poker plays, such a setup is fairly useful for showing how the concepts work. There’s a lot that’s explained that I would now consider to be very basic information, but I’ve also been reading beginner-level poker books pretty much all year so I suppose it’s good that some of it’s starting to sink in.

It’s not the most enjoyably written poker book I’ve read, featuring neither the goofy jokes of Phil Gordon’s little books nor the sarcastic cracks of Alexander Fitzgerald’s Myth of Poker Talent, but it’s pretty straightforward and accessible, usually erring on the side of over-explaining rather than conciseness. It’s basically a textbook.

This is also the book that introduced the awkwardly lengthy but still very important Fundamental Theorem of Poker, which I already knew about because it’s been cited in at least five other books that I’ve read this year. The Theory of Poker explains many, if not most, of the hands illustrated within it by relating it back to this fundamental theorem, ensuring that you’ll never forget it no matter how un-pithily it’s worded.

Even though so much of what’s covered in here is also covered in subsequently written poker texts, I’m still glad to have taken the time to read this book itself. How much it will help me out remains to be seen; unfortunately, this is a library copy so I probably won’t be going over it multiple times with a pencil and highlighter like I’ve been doing with some of the other poker strategy books I’ve found. (Somebody who got this book from the library before me did go over it with a pencil, but some people have, like, no manners.) But I definitely have a better sense of what everyone else is talking about when they’re talking about this book, and that’s pretty important for getting the most out of everything I read.

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