General Non-fiction: 2013 to Present
Books by John R. Turner
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The Heart of Man
April 5, 2015

I suspect Erich Fromm wrote The Heart of Man fairly late in his career to counter charges that he naively accepted the basic goodness of humanity as a natural endowment. He had, after all, argued ten years earlier in The Sane Society that sanity, and therefore kindness and love, were defining features of humans, so long as environmental and social aspects had not twisted them away from those virtues. The subtitle of the later book is: Its Genius for Good and Evil, thus indicating that he recognized something at the core of humans which could lead them to very bad behavior.

Part of what intrigued me about the book was Fromm’s readiness to employ the term “evil.” I wanted to see what he meant by it, particularly since my own habit has been to say that there is no such thing as evil. I respect Fromm, so if I should find myself in basic disagreement with him that would be an occasion to examine my own thoughts with a critical eye. I discovered in this case, though, that the seeming difference lay in definition rather than in any significant opposition.

I have assumed that when people speak of evil they are referring to an emanation from some transcendental force, in Western culture most often called Satan or the Devil. I think that’s the way the term is used most commonly in conversation. But since that’s not the way Fromm used it, my suspected quarrel with him disappeared. I should have anticipated, since his thought is grounded in psychoanalytic theory, that any evil he would credit would have to flow from some psychological dysfunction. And that is, indeed, the case.

He sees humans as bound in a tension between progress and regression, and his concept of evil involves giving way to the basic impulses of the latter. Full-fledged evil in his view is like a stool resting on three legs, and when all three props are present to an intense degree, then evil action becomes inevitable.

All the elements of evil are regressive because each, in its way, tries to push people back to a state of non-existence, as least so far as acting in, and engaging, the world is concerned. The first is necrophilia, or outright love of death. Some people are so fascinated by death it’s virtually all they think about when their emotions are highly activated. Any kind of heroic or noble behavior in their minds involves killing something. Consequently, they have to surround themselves with enemies in order to have material to satisfy their desires. Necrophilia forms the heart of aggressive national policy, militarism, and eagerness to resort to war in order to solve social problems.

The second leg Fromm called malign narcissism. He is quick to note that narcissism to some degree is necessary for survival. We have to concentrate on ourselves in order to maintain health and to build necessary skills. But if that concentration should rise to the level of dismissing any interest in the outside world, then anything separate from the self is degraded to material whose only function is to serve the individual ego. It’s not hard to see that persons with such a fixation would be willing to do anything to other people necessary to gratify their own desires.

The third leg -- and to me the most interesting -- is called “incestuous symbiosis.” It is derived from the small child’s fascination with its mother (or mother figure). Shortly before and at the moment of birth she is so much an enveloping element of the child’s environment she cannot be perceived as in any way separate from the self. A key feature of healthy maturation is to achieve separation, so that the mother can come to be seen as a person in her own right, one to be loved, but not one to serve as the only source of meaning. Unfortunately, people can become so obsessed with being mothered that when the actual mother recedes to mere humanity a substitute has to be found, a substitute which most commonly takes the form of a group, a religion or a nation. When this kind of transformation occurs, then the individual person loses his basis for freedom. He cannot have thoughts separate from the mother-substitute’s thoughts; he cannot act independently of the group’s, or the religion’s, or the nation’s directives. He is one with them. They go together so completely he cannot imagine any sort of distinction between them.

When all three of these characteristics are present in a person to a high degree, he has fallen into the syndrome of decay “which prompts men to destroy for the sake of destruction, and to hate for the sake of hate.”   In short, such a person has become evil because destroying just because one likes it and hating because one is addicted to it is as accurate a concept of evil as Fromm can devise. I have to admit, it’s not a bad definition.

Fromm offers up Hitler -- poor Adolf -- as the best example history provides us of these three characteristics co-mingled in a single person. As Fromm works through the manifestations of each of the three in Hitler’s career, a reader pretty well has to admit that a convincing merger of history and theory has been found.

If one is to go along completely with Fromm’s analysis he has to buy into the proposition that every human being is confronted with the choice between progress and regression. There is no way to escape making it. A person can, of course, fall in between the two extremes, but all the fundamental decisions of his life will move him in one direction or the other. Whether this is the ontological spectrum humanity finds itself on, I can’t be perfectly sure.  It’s the sort of theory that demands a lot of thought.  But at the moment, I find myself drawn to it, and respectful of it. Yet it may not be in my nature to be a perfect disciple. Whether that’s progressive or regressive I’m not sure I will ever answer.

Anatomy of an Epidemic
April 2, 2015

One thing you have to give Robert Whitaker credit for: his book, Anatomy of an Epidemic, set off quite a stir after it was published in 2010. And it hasn’t settled down yet.

It deals with the use of psychotropic drugs -- why they have been prescribed in the first place, and what their long-term effects are. These are both sharply significant questions. I happen to think the first is even more important than the second, but I’m in the minority about that.

With respect to the first, Whitaker argues -- persuasively I think -- that the profession of psychiatry decided in the 1960s that it had to “medicalize” itself. This meant stepping away from both talk therapy and helping patients find supportive environments, in favor of concentrating on medication. The reasoning was that providing medicines is what “real’ doctors do -- at least in the mind of the public. So if the profession were to survive, and thrive, it had to shift its reputation towards treating mental illness just as other doctors approached the maladies they tried to alleviate. In practical terms, psychiatrists had to become doctors of the brain in the same manner as cardiologists were doctors of the heart. The problem with that strategy was that other physicians had means to discover what was wrong with the parts of the body they were trying to work on. Psychiatrists did not. They had only symptoms; they did not have solid scientific evidence about causes.

Psychiatrists did, however, have more potent allies than other doctors did. The big drug companies were ready to direct a seemingly limitless flow of funds to establish the idea that mental disorders could be treated effectively with pills.  Needless to say, it’s unlikely that their prime motive was to provide the best care for those suffering with mental debilities.

The other main boost the psychiatrists received, shortly after the decision about the pills, was a radical expansion of the number of difficulties that could be officially designated as mental disorders. The so-called bible of the psychiatric profession, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, was up for revision. Robert Spitzer of Columbia University was chosen to head the task force that would carry out the task. And Spitzer left no doubts about his motives. The new book, he said, would serve as “a defense of the medical model as applied to psychiatric problems.” When it was published, it added 73 new specific disorders, an increase of 40% over the previous edition. Obviously, this broadening of the range of disorders provided the opportunity for an increased number of medications for treating them. More patients became eligible for mind-altering drugs.

Here’s how Whitaker described the effect of Spitzer’s efforts:

With the publication of DSM-III, psychiatry had publicly donned a white coat. The
Freudians had been vanquished, the concept of neurosis basically tossed into the
trash bin, and everyone in the profession was now expected to embrace the medical
model. “It is time to state forcefully that the identity crisis is over,” Sabshin said
(Melvin Sabshin was Medical Director of the American Psychiatric Association from
1974 to 1997).  Indeed, the American Journal of Psychiatry urged its members to
“speak with a united voice, not only to secure support, but to buttress psychiatry’s
position against the numerous other mental health professionals seeking patients
and prestige.” The medical model and DSM-III, observed University of Tennessee
psychiatrist Ben Bursten in 1981, had been used to “rally the thwart the
attackers and to rout the enemy within.”

The alliance between the psychiatrists and the drug makers had become pretty nearly complete, and what followed was not pretty. The doctors became the main salesmen for what has come to be known as “Big Pharma” and they were rewarded munificently. Whitaker provides explicit information about how the drug companies paid the physicians, including who got paid and how much. Some of these transfers were clearly corrupt and led to psychiatrists being removed from positions in their universities. But regardless of legal consequences, it’s obvious that when physicians are plied with money by drug companies, the number of prescriptions will increase, and not solely for legitimate medical reasons.

That’s all I can say here about the first question -- why there has been a big rise in psychotropic prescriptions. The second question -- what the effects of these prescriptions have been on patients -- is even more complicated, and well beyond the scope of a essay like this. I’ll do what I can to summarize.

Treating symptoms rather than causes results in a trial and error process. The doctor gives the patient a medicine and then sees how it works. The impulse is to say that if there is a decrease in the symptom the medicine is working. But when there’s no scientific evidence for why it’s working, you can’t know what the long-term effects are going to be. The history of one of the most financially successful drugs, Eli Lilly’s Prozac, demonstrates the danger of this process dramatically.

Prozac is one of SSRIs -- that is selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. It was prescribed on the theory that persons suffering from depression had a chemical imbalance in their brains, a deficiency of serotonin. So a drug that would increase the serotonin would presumably alleviate the symptoms. And it did help with depression for a short while after a patient started taking it. But then, the effects would wear off and the depression would return. Also, SSRIs have quite a few side effects, among them agitation, diarrhea, dizziness, drowsiness, dry mouth, headaches, insomnia, nausea and vomiting, reduced libido, and weight gain. So, to shorten the story, many people who took Prozac, got, in return for brief relief, a thoroughly messed up life.

Whitaker’s summary of the Prozac deception is telling:

Today the fraudulent nature of the story told by Eli Lilly and psychiatry about Prozac
when it came to market is fairly well known, having been documented by Peter Breggin,
David Healy, and Joseph Glenmullen, among others. Breggin and Healy wrote their
accounts after gaining access to Eli Lilly files while serving as expert witnesses in
civil lawsuits, which allowed them to see the data and internal memorandums that
belied what the public had been told about the drug. At the risk of going over familiar
ground, we need to revisit that story briefly, for it will help us see, with considerable
clarity, how our societal delusions about the merits of “second generation” psychiatric
drugs were formed. Eli Lilly’s marketing of Prozac proved to be a model that other
companies followed as they brought their drugs to market, and it involved telling a
false story in the scientific literature, hyping that story even more to the media, and
hiding risks that could lead to disability and death for those who used the drugs.

Prozac is just one example of many, many drugs that were marketed on the basis of phony science, and, in particular, on the notion that people suffering from mental problems had chemical imbalances in the brain. There was never sound evidence for these imbalances. The model has never been proven. In fact, Robert Pies, former editor of The Psychiatric Times, asserted that chemical imbalance was nothing but an urban legend.

Whitaker’s title encapsulates his thesis succinctly. The drugs caused much of the mental debility they were supposed to cure, so much so that they became the source of the epidemic. His book is filled with reports of carefully conducted studies and comments by respected scientists who back him up. That’s not to say he doesn’t remain controversial. Some have charged that he has been responsible for keeping drugs away from people who really need them. But Whitaker has never said drugs should be banned. He is simply making the case that they have been irresponsibly overused, and that they have damaged the lives of thousands and thousands of people in the United States.

I view Anatomy of an Epidemic as an important and competent book, written by someone who is willing to listen to all sides of an issue, but also one who is not fearful of confronting bad behavior. Those who are thinking of taking psychotropic drugs, or who are considering recommending them to a family member, would be well-advised to read it before they make their final decision.

March 28, 2015

I have launched myself on the herculean and heroic task of reading Michael Holroyd’s biography of Bernard Shaw, by completing the first volume of the work, titled The Search for Love, a book of a mere 465 pages. I had known before, of course, that Shaw was an unusual person but just how unusual I hadn’t grasped. The first volume takes Shaw to his 42nd year and to his marriage, an event he had vowed would never occur.

Shaw was not a person lofted easily into success, at least as the world defines such a condition. The compositions he completed before he got much recognition at all surpassed the amount most writers manage to turn out in their entire careers. But the curious thing about Shaw is that though he felt some disappointment over being rejected by editors and theatre managers, he never took it so personally as to wither his image of himself. He just kept on striving to erect the phenomenon he came to think of as GBS, as if that were a directive of the universe. He was one of those rare creatures who perceived that to construct himself was the most significant thing he could ever hope to do. He seems never to have wanted to emulate anyone else, in any degree. Envy was not in his repertoire of emotions.

How such an entity as Shaw comes into existence is hard to say. Though Holroyd lays out his early life in about as great detail as any biographer could, and manages to tell us who his subject was, he can’t really tell us how he came to be.

I’m not interested today in writing a review of this biography. It would take me a long time and would probably be dreary. So I’m not going to do it. I will, though, jot down a few words about having one’s being transformed into an English adjective. There are few persons who manage to do that, and perhaps none did it as completely as Shaw. We speak of things being in some way “Shakespearian,” or “Johnsonian,” but those terms are linked more directly to the lives of the men to whom they refer than “Shavian” is the actual existence of George Bernard Shaw, the Irish-born man who lived from 1856 to 1950. “Shavian” has broken free from its progenitor and lives now as a fairly independent word, though one that is difficult to define. It hasn’t reached the state of “Platonic,” which actually has little to do with the life of Plato, but it is a real word, on its own -- at least among those who care anything about literature.

I guess if I were required to offer a quick and dirty definition of “Shavian,” I’d say that it refers to the attempt to cut oneself off from the sentimentalities which comfort and degrade the lives of the great majority of humans -- and maybe almost all of them. Perhaps the thing he said which best approaches that goal is this comment:

Most of us have drugged ourselves in order to live in hell. We fear change-for-the-better
as something that may deprive us of those sweet drugs that make our hell voluptuous,
so we resist to the point of suicide almost any serious attempt at improvement, even for
our children.

Shaw claimed that his most important literary discovery was finding that being so droll as to tell the simple truth came across to the average English playgoer as hilarious. He was generally deprecating of himself, asserting throughout the 1880s that he had no talent to engage either readers or theatre patrons, even when he was trying to sell his books and plays. Unfortunately, those he was soliciting generally believed him. But that was a part of creating the Shavian personality. When he did begin to achieve some small successes, he wrote them off to a kind of deception:

It has taken me nearly twenty years of studied self-restraint, aided by the natural decay
of my faculties, to make myself dull enough to be accepted as a serious person by the
British public; and I am not sure that I am not still regarded as a suspicious character in
some quarters.

Where Shaw differed most starkly from the literary world was in his conviction that good literature ought to serve a political purpose. He announced early in his career that “all art at the fountainhead is didactic, and that nothing can produce art except the necessity of being didactic.”

That may, ultimately, be true, but it is not in accord with how most artists wish to see themselves.

He believed in mind far more than was -- or is -- fashionable. He announced that important works of fiction are victories of mind over imagination and declared that:

The only aim that is peculiar to me is my disregard of warm feelings. They are quite
well able to take care of themselves. What I want is a race of men who can be kind in
cold blood. Anybody can be kind in emotional moments.

These hints may give you tentative grasp of what “Shavian” is. If you want to get closer to a full understanding it will take some labor, probably more than most of you will wish to expend. But if you did, it wouldn’t be wasted effort, that is unless warm feelings are all you care about.

The Organized Mind
October 27, 2014

I have to confess at the beginning of this piece that I’m incapable of writing a book review. It’s not that I don’t know what a book review is, nor is it that my mind is technically unsuited to the task. Rather, it’s that if I set out to write a proper review I would feel I was doing something I shouldn’t be doing and would end up frustrated with myself, so much so I would have a very hard time completing it.

I can, however, write essays about the experience of reading a book, and those essays might have features that would ordinarily be included in book reviews. But in the end the point wouldn’t be, mainly, to tell anyone what the book said, or to rate the book. There would be another point.

I’ve just completed the reading of Daniel Levitin’s The Organized Mind, published just this past August, and widely and favorably reviewed. If you want to read reviews, I recommend, where there are hundreds of them.

Now that I’ve finished it, I’m glad I read The Organized Mind, but I can’t say I always enjoyed the process of doing it. I felt it was sometimes tedious, a judgment I found several reviewers making. But the feature that annoyed me most were several underlying messages that struck me as mostly false. The book is ostensibly about organizing the experiences of everyday life. But you can’t write about everyday life without implying something about life itself, its meaning, its purpose, its virtues and vices.

Levitin employs three letters -- HSP -- as a word or acronym to help identify the practices he most approves. These are the habits and techniques he associates with “highly successful persons” or HSPs. The problem with this usage, though, is that it praises persons for little more than becoming well known, or climbing up economic ladders. Donald Trump, for example, is a HSP in Levitin’s view. That’s he’s also a vulgar creep doesn’t figure. Obviously, it’s possible to be well organized in the interest of something despicable, that is if you’re willing to use “well organized” in a narrow and somewhat cheap way. You could say, using this standard, that Adolph Hitler was a HSP --at least for a while. But the problem with Levitin’s practice is the implication that behavior can be completely separated from the world in which it occurs and evaluated for itself alone. Tobacco executives, who lied both about the addictive quality of nicotine and the damage smoking does to the lungs, but who nonetheless piled up heaps of money and managed to stay out of jail, would count as HSPs in Levitin’s scheme of things, or, at least, in the scheme of things he presents in this book.

You wouldn’t know from reading this book that corporations regularly engage in deceptive and rapacious practices. One could argue that exposing the vices of corporate culture was not Levitin’s purpose. But could you argue that implying the opposite was perfectly all right? There’s no doubt that Levin does imply the opposite. Throughout The Organized Mind the captains of the American economy are presented not only as successful but as figures to be admired. Levitin might say that wasn’t his intent, but when a person does something he doesn’t intend it’s hard to accept him as a guru of the well structured mind.

Levitin is also an egregious practitioner of false equivalence. In one sentence he presents Ann Coulter and Rachel Maddow as persons you wouldn’t want to consult for a balanced view. But in juxtaposing them as he does, he again implies something he might deny he intends, i.e., that Coulter and Maddow deceive, and twist the truth, to the same degree.

His evisceration of Wikipedia has been seen by some as devastating. But he’s never completely clear about what he’s comparing the online encyclopedia to. He’s very much distraught about the ability of an eleven-year-old smart aleck ignorantly to distort an article in the online work. But he never mentions that studies comparing Wikipedia to general-reader reference works, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica, don’t find that the new mass-produced reference is less accurate, or that in many instances it corrects errors that maintain themselves persistently in the older “referenced” authorities.

He goes to considerable lengths to distinguish “hard” categories” from “fuzzy” categories, which I admit is a useful distinction. But he does almost nothing to point out that many categories which are presented as hard --“free” countries, for example -- are about as fuzzy as any category could get.

I said at the beginning that I was glad I read this book, and I stand by that valuation because there’s a lot of useful information in it. I was glad to learn, for example, that elevated cortisol levels can suppress the body’s immune system. This is an example of the most valuable teaching in the book, that what goes on in the brain has direct and dramatic effects on the other parts of the body. We need stronger understanding that mental dysfunctions have serious consequences for the health of the entire physical system, and that medical diagnosis should be more attuned to this truth.

It’s a good, but flawed book. There’s a juvenile quality, almost, to the way the material is presented. The author is an “expert.” He’s always quick to apprise the reader of that. But there seems to be insufficient awareness that being captivated by one’s own expertise often produces a naiveté which screens out essential thoughts. And this is surprising, in a way, because Levitin gives us quite a few examples of other “experts” making mistakes for precisely this reason.

Levitin appears not to have grasped that if one is going to write about topics which are inherently political, as “organization” obviously is, he needs to be aware of the the political implications he is advancing. We are left with the sense that Levitin would be happy to help anyone get “organized” regardless of what the organization would be used for, even if it would be employed to accelerate chaos. He needs to get organized enough to recognize more fully what he is implying.

The Price of Civilization
June 23, 2014

Over the past several days I’ve read Jeffrey Sachs’s The Price of Civilization. Mr. Sachs is considered by many to be the most well-balanced economist writing today. The Price of Civilization, which was published three years ago, is certainly a book well worth reading, if for no other reason than it offers us an accessible vocabulary for talking about the economic difficulties assaulting America now. I have thought for some time that our most pressing problem is the lack of adequate words in public discourse to help us understand what we’re actually talking about. If we would pay attention to Sachs’s description of our economic ills we would be closer to finding ways to cure them.

Sachs describes himself as a person who has forged a path to clinical economics. He means by that simply that he has figured out how to diagnose our economic dysfunctions. And all in all I’d say he has a pretty good claim to the title of clinician. If all citizens understood the breakdown of the economy as thoroughly as Sachs does, we would be on the way to a healthier society. His underlying analysis is that the economy is out of balance, that the market elements of it have overwhelmed and distorted the needed government functions. The imbalance has grown sharply worse since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, with his childish dictum that government was not the solution but rather the problem. Sachs is appropriately disdainful of such mindless talking points.

Why does the electorate fall for empty rhetoric? Sacks offers a possible explanation early in the book: “Perhaps we’ve become inured to hucksterism through a lifetime of watching the phony claims of advertisements, campaign commercials, and official military statements on Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.” He’s pointing out that hucksterism is churned out volubly, incessantly, in the interest of private wealth, whereas public wealth remains pretty much outside serious political discourse. The latter is being neglected in the United States as perhaps never before, and if we continue on this course, private wealth will eventually be sabotaged by the penury of public support structures. But the wealthy, for the most part, are so blinded by greed they can’t see even what they’re doing to themselves.

The federal government continues on a harmful course, says Sachs, partially because of four gigantic lobbying complexes: Military Industrial, Wall Street, Big Oil, and Healthcare. These four, in effect, own the U.S. government. But why are they allowed to own it? Here’s Sachs’s answer: “Yes, the politicians and the corporate interests typically strive to keep the public in the dark, but much of the public allows this to happen by not working hard enough to stay informed.”

In other words, beneath the corruption of the corporatocracy lies the ignorance and the indifference of the American people. No reforms can actually take place unless the people wake up. Sachs argues that they are waking up, not so much because anyone is learning anything but because older Americans, who are stupid and intolerant, are being replaced by younger Americans who are more open-minded and less obsessed by hatred. It’s almost as if Sachs is saying the main thing we have to do is wait. In twenty years, the Millennial Generation, those now between the ages of twenty and thirty-two, will be moving into decision-making positions in government and in society, and they will turn away from the hideous decisions made by the Reagan worshippers.

We can hope, I suppose, but this strikes me as a fairly thin reed and as the weakest element in Sachs’s thesis. He is saying, in effect, that the younger people will be more attentive and will refuse to be bought as the older people have up till now. I don’t see much evidence that the younger people are more attentive, or less ignorant. They may well have more tolerant attitudes on social problems, and that’s encouraging. But that they will be able to deconstruct the false arguments the lobbyists are shooting at us with all the power money can buy seems much less probable.

Right at the beginning of his book Sachs tells us that Americans, generally, are broadminded, moderate and generous. But right in the midst of this argument he asserts that “the ferocity of the quest for wealth throughout society has left Americans exhausted and deprived of the benefits of social trust, honesty, and compassion.” How does being deprived of honesty and compassion cause people to be broadminded and generous? As far as I can tell, Sachs doesn’t answer that question.

I said that The Price of Civilization is worth reading, and I stand by that recommendation. Sachs analyzes the faults of the economy succinctly and he gives us much good language to describe this misbehavior. When he tells us, for example, that free markets fail when producers cause adverse “spillovers” like water and air pollution, which they are avid to avoid taking any responsibility for, he gives us arguments that need to be hammered in political debate. But he’s not good in telling us how we will get people to hammer them, particularly when most citizens are too ignorant to know the dimensions of the actual spillovers.

Maybe all Sachs thinks we can do is to continue laying out these truths in the hopes that, someday, a majority will begin to take them into account.

A book like this pushes one to ask: what are the forces that work against knowledge and the intelligent application of knowledge? Obviously there are greed and intellectual laziness, but I suspect there is something even more potent than those two, which are more than potent enough to cause considerable misery. If there is something bigger, more powerful, more destructive, it has to be deeply-seated in the American psyche.

I wish someone with Sachs’s breadth of knowledge would push his analysis towards that deeper rottenness because I suspect without facing it, we aren’t likely to counter the current political and economic decay. But perhaps that’s being unfair to him. He’s done quite a bit with The Price of Civilization. It’s up to others to push beyond it.

October 12, 2013

Derrick Jensen, prolific writer of books on how modern life is a death machine, is a fanatic. For me, normally, that would be enough of a flaw to vaporize attention. But I have to admit that Jensen is a different sort of fanatic than I’ve encountered before. For one thing, he has a sense of humor, which isn’t usually a trait of fanatics. For another, he writes extremely well. But his most significant feature is that in the midst of fanatical prescriptions that aren’t going to work he tells truths most writers are afraid to approach, truths that need to be put into general circulation. He’s right about so many things that his wrongness fades into background annoyance.

Why do I say he’s a fanatic? In perhaps his best known work, Endgame: The Problem of Civilization, he begins with a set of twenty premises, and the first one is quite simple: “Civilization is not and never can be sustainable. This is especially true for industrial civilization.” In other words, civilization has to go if humanity is to survive.

What does he mean by civilization? He’s referring to a system in which groups of people live on a land base that won’t support them, that is, in cities. In order for cities to exist, the people who inhabit them have to acquire materials from somewhere outside, and that process Jensen regards as theft. Phoenix, for example, occupies land that will support about a hundred and fifty people. As you know, quite a few more than that live there. So how do they get the stuff they need to survive? They have to take it from somewhere else, and that operation, in some way or another, always involves violence.

Jensen says humanity needs to go back to living as people lived before civilization arose. He’s not forthcoming about what that would mean for daily human life, though he does imply strongly that it would be a better and more pleasing existence than what we have now because it would be in balance with nature. But the main thing is it would allow for more fish, and more birds, and more non-human mammals than industrial civilization permits. You can’t understand Jensen unless you grasp that he cares as much about non-human life as he does about humans. The latter have their place, and their right to exist. But they shouldn’t be privileged. Most people, if they could imagine such a thing being said, would regard it as fanatical.

There’s an inconsistency in Jensen because although he wants humans to be seen as ordinary animals, he doesn’t want them to behave as ordinary animals do, that is, to seek their own advantage regardless of its effect on any other species. Nature, you see, provides a system for most animals, in most conditions, to live in balance with one another. Lions kill and eat antelopes, but normally they don’t kill so many that antelopes can’t continue to exist. Nature, though, doesn’t seem to have as good a system for regulating humans as it does for regulating lions, unless, over the long run, the natural system is simply to take care of humans by letting them destroy themselves.

All this is to say no more than that Jensen’s thought isn’t perfectly comprehensive. But, then, neither is anyone else’s. His value comes from reminding us, in detailed and convincing argument, that the way we’re living now is insane. We are destroying the means for continuing human life, and we’re doing it at a rate that will produce a radical cataclysm probably within the lives of people who have already been born. Yet most of us tootle along unaware or uncaring. As Jensen says, insanity can be defined as having lost functional connection with physical reality. That is exactly what almost all so-called human leaders have done. It’s not too much to conclude that, at the moment, we’re in the hands of loons.

And why is it that we continue to let them control things? “From birth on the civilized are systematically lied to, until in time we systematically lie to ourselves.” Nothing will get you in more trouble with respectable people than to speak the truth. Nothing will destroy a career faster. As a consequence, not only do we go along, we cheer the process that is killing us. “We have internalized the perspective of the abusers, and done so against the combined weight of history and common sense.”

The processes we embrace transform us into the epitome of pathos. Jensen is sufficiently blunt to inform the exceptional citizens of this exceptional country what they are: “Most Americans don’t care about anything other than being left alone to numb themselves with alcohol, cheap consumables, and television.” Or, in other words, with the American dream.

We do, of course, have our religion to console us, and to keep us safe in the corral until somebody with the keys to the gate comes along to make use of us: “A purpose of Christianity is and always has been to rationalize submission to those in power.”

He tells a bleak tale and yet, somehow, it’s not dispiriting. And that’s curious because he doesn’t actually offer much of a plan to get us out of the mess we’re in. He tells us that the system has to be taken down, that we have to blow up dams and stuff like that. But he also reminds people that if they do blow up dams, the powers that be will catch, torture, and imprison them. He says he thinks every day about giving up writing and starting to blow up dams, or, at least, cell phone towers. But so far he hasn’t done it. Part of the reason is that he’s afraid. Another part is that he doesn’t, at the moment, know how to blow up a dam, and he doesn’t think that learning would be as much fun as writing. He’s refreshingly willing to admit his flaws.

Ultimately what he says is, do something. You decide. Be radical, be caustic, be whatever you want. And if somebody does decide to blow up a dam, and you know who he is, don’t turn him in to the cops. It’s better to act than to cower on the couch and wait for the next beating from your masters, even if what you do has little chance of victory.

That’s a cheering thought, and worth writing a book to get it across.

In the Garden of Beasts
October 4, 2013

Off the thrift shelf of the library in Center Moriches, New York, for seventy cents, I picked up what seemed like a new copy of Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts (2011). I often acquire books this way, and it’s common for me to glance at them for a few minutes and then put them away. But Larson’s book held me from the start. So I read it right through. It’s curious how the books that affect us most are often encountered by accident.

In the Garden of Beasts tells the story of William Dodd’s first year as U.S. ambassador to Germany. The aging history professor was appointed by Franklin Roosevelt, and arrived in Berlin in July 1933, just a few months after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor.

Dodd had no firm preconceptions about the new regime. He had read things about Hitler that troubled him, but he was determined to approach his duties with an open mind, and to convey, as the president had requested, American values to both the German people and the National Socialist government.

He knew the German people felt mistreated by the aftermath of the First World War and that many of them saw Hitler as force for extricating themselves from a tyranny the rest of Europe wanted to impose on them. And he had some sympathy for that desire. He hoped it could be accomplished alongside a moderation of the extreme measures already instituted by the incoming administration. He had enough confidence in himself and the American principles he represented to think he could help that moderation along.

After a single year, all his hopes were dashed. He came to the conclusion that Hitler and his principal associates -- Goering, Himmler, Goebbels -- were insane more quickly than the leaders of the State Department in Washington did, and his developing views alienated him from many of his superiors at home. They came to see him as a naive college professor who simply wasn’t up to the rigors and realities of foreign affairs.

The evidence for the brutal insanity at the core of the German government was overwhelming. It could be resisted only by people who refused to look at it. But that unfortunately was the condition of a majority in isolationist America, and certainly a majority in Cordell Hull’s State Department.

The tensions between Dodd and his government at home take up a considerable part of Larson’s account. They are interesting, but they aren’t what give the book its riveting character. Rather, the fascination arises from recounting the day-by-day experiences of the Dodd household, and their developing understanding that they were in the midst of a metastasizing horror. A gracious, charming European capital was being transformed into a totalitarian hellhole right before their eyes.

One of the first things Dodd noticed was the black, white and red banners everywhere, with the crooked cross that was not yet commonly called a swastika. Another was the requirement to greet all public events with the new raised-arm salute. And the worst were the gangs of thugs in brown shirts, organized into a kind of militia, who had assumed the right to terrorize virtually anybody, anywhere, with no concern about being restrained by the police.

Here, I’ll admit something I should, perhaps, be more cautious about. The book took on an added quality of creepiness for me because I was reading it in the midst of the oncoming “shutdown” of the American government, brought on by a group of Congressional thugs intent on holding the nation hostage through lies and preposterous charges.

There is, of course, a thug element in every society. Generally they inhabit the shadows and sulk over their beer in out-of-the-way places. But if they can be organized politically they become something worse than a stain and an annoyance. It was Hitler’s genius -- if it can be called that -- to organize Germany’s thugs to propel him into prominence, and then, having attained a preponderant position, to entice the respectable elements, who are never able to resist the allure of power. 

Historical events separated by eighty years are never identical, but there is sufficient similarity between Germany in 1933 and the United States now to give one pause.

We can’t say for sure what would have happened if the American government and the American people had listened more attentively to Ambassador Dodd’s warnings. I think we can say, though, that measures could have been taken in 1933 that were not possible six years later, measures that didn’t require massive military force and gigantic slaughter. I still wish the world had been wise enough to try them. We continue to celebrate the Second World War, but I find it difficult to be truly celebratory about events that killed nearly sixty million people.

It’s always best to know what’s happening as soon as possible. A government in the hands of men who have abandoned whatever sanity they may once have possessed is both dangerous and disgusting. There is no folly too absurd for it. All one needed to recognize that Germany was in that condition was observing the daily habits of Goering, Himmler, Goebbels and Hitler, and listening to their words. If you try to rationalize that sort of stuff away, which is what most of the world tried to do for quite a number of years, you are simply building trouble for yourself. We know of course that politics always involves quite a bit of lying. But there are degrees. And when obviously absurd falsehood becomes the norm of political discourse, and attempts to push aside all other discussion are regularly employed, bad times are on the way.

That was true in 1933, and it’s just as true now.

The Whites of Their Eyes
July 28, 2013

Jill Lepore, in The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History, manages to address a surprising number of important issues in a small space. She has assembled a telling assortment of incidents to show the disconnect between what happened in the past and the use modern political movements try to make of them and, in addition, has made what I think is a convincing argument about why good historical scholarship is required for political health.

In America we have a particularly vexing problem in that when we celebrate the arguments made by the so-called founders of the nation we also get caught up in celebrating a good deal of falsehood. They were politicians making an argument in favor of certain developments, and we would do well to remember that when politicians set off on such a course, truth is not their primary goal.

Tales told during 4th of July celebrations are not accurate history. That might be all right if they were no more than excuses to set off fireworks, eat hot dogs and to feel happy about ourselves. But they get taken up by both unscrupulous and ignorant people and used as arguments for returning to a time that never was. As Ms. Lepore shows over and again, the late 18th century in America had features that no one should wish to reclaim. The idea that the leaders of the American Revolution held ideas we should wish to establish as permanent moral guideposts she calls historical fundamentalism, that is, the antithesis of genuine history.

Historical fundamentalism is the program of the modern Tea Party movement, most of whose members have no idea what the issues were that led a group of men to destroy a great amount of tea by throwing it into Boston Harbor in 1773. Most modern Americans seem to think the event in 1773, which was not called “the Boston Tea Party,” until a half-century after it occurred, was about the imposition of higher taxes, when it was really about tax relief. But if you were to try to explain that to the modern Tea Partiers, you would get nowhere. For them, history is simply something to be mythologized and then used for their own purposes; the truth of it is of no consequence.

The debate about the separation of the thirteen colonies from the British government was not a slam-dunk, nor was the rightness or wrongness of either side obvious. It was a genuine debate, with men of good minds and decent impulse on both sides. If you examine it dispassionately today, it is not easy to tell which side had the better argument. You can tell what happened, of course, and you can celebrate what happened as the right thing, if you wish. But if you take that position then you find yourself led toward saying that what happens is always right and what doesn’t happen is always wrong.

It would be good for us if Americas would read Samuel Johnson’s essay of 1775, titled “Taxation No Tyranny,” and see what they think of the arguments. At the very least, if they read honestly, they would realize that Johnson’s positions parallel many of the stances of supposedly patriotic American politicians today. And there would be few who could convincingly refute Johnson’s most famous paragraph from that essay:

We are told, that the subjection of Americans may tend to the diminution of our
own liberties; an event, which none but very perspicacious politicians are able to
foresee. If slavery be thus fatally contagious, how is it that we hear the loudest
yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?

I have to remind myself, though, that the idea many Americans would, or could, read Johnson’s essay is chimerical in the extreme.

By making saints of all the leaders of the Revolutionary movement, we certainly don’t follow the lead of those leaders themselves. Ms. Lepore shows that many of them hated each other heartily. Here, for example, is how John Adams described that great trumpet of revolution, Thomas Paine: “a poor, ignorant, Malicious, short-sighted, Crapuous Mass.”

What, one might ask, is the profit in thinking of the leaders of the past as simply people, struggling with the problems they faced in the mode of the times in which they lived, rather than seeing them as demi-gods? The answer, Ms. Lepore thinks, is obvious. In the first place it reminds us that time is real and that it inevitably brings change. We can’t freeze it. We ought not to tell ourselves that the solutions of one time can be applied directly to our own quite different conditions. No documents written in the 18th century can serve as a guidebook for our behavior today.

We can learn from the 18th century. But we can’t reproduce it. To think we can is silly, which is the way Ms. Lepore perceives modern day Tea Party advocates like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. The only reason for following them is intellectual laziness. It is to tell ourselves that we don’t need to think because figures of the past -- persons far more perfect than we -- have already done all the thinking for us. One reason -- perhaps the most important -- for studying the past is to remind ourselves that hagiography is not the same thing as intellectual integrity and is, therefore, not the method for finding our way forward.

The people of the 1760s and 1770s are worth our attention. There were able, intelligent voices on both sides of the debate about the American Revolution. We should try to take into account what they all said, and try to understand why they said it. That’s the faith of a real historian, which Jill Lepore lays out here very ably.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
May 13, 2013

Last Thursday I drove up to the Fairfax Library in northern Vermont to discuss Dave Eggers’s memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I had met with members of this reading group earlier in the year and so had a sense they would not be enthralled by the book. And it turned out I was right.

Most people who attend Humanities Council book discussion are avid readers but, generally, they have traditional tastes and, consequently, aren’t eager to encounter new styles or the wildly ironic modes of modernity. They have trouble understanding a desire to undermine old ways. I have a fairly strong devotion to tradition myself. I certainly haven’t encountered any new writers I think are going to put Jane Austen into a permanent shade. But, on the other hand, as a book discussion moderator, I feel a responsibility to point out the interesting features of works that take new turns. And most of the time I’m able to make at least modest headway towards that goal.

Eggers’s first book made quite a splash when it was published twelve years ago. I don’t suppose it established a cult, but it did have some effects in that direction. The first thing was the title. What was one to make of it? Was it intended to be purely self-mocking or did it reflect some sort of prideful sincerity? The truth is that it had both aims. And in its dualism it pointed to the fundamental nature of the book itself.

The plot is not particularly innovative. It’s the story of what happened to the four children of a couple who died at a fairly young age, within about five weeks of one another, both from cancer. Three of the offspring were in their early twenties, and the fourth, a late arrival, was only eight years old. What were they to do?

Well, they quickly liquidated all the parents’ property and moved from the outskirts of Chicago to California, where they set out to make a new life. The author, the youngest of the three grown children, became the primary caretaker of the little boy. The text is essentially an account of what went on in his mind as he took up his radically altered situation.

The feature that gives the book its vivacity is that Eggers tries to tell us everything he thought in the language he thought it. It was a technique which caused my discussants in Fairfax to say that he needed a good editor, or that the book would have worked better as a short story. In saying so, they showed that they were missing what he was trying to do. The point was precisely that the text was not to be edited. In order to be what was needed, it had to be raw, spontaneous, at times completely discordant. That’s how thought works. It’s not measured; it’s not shaped; it’s not artful. It’s simply spins out.

Here, for example, is a passage explaining that any young woman who wishes to maintain a romantic connection with the author has to be mindful of his responsibility to his little brother:

Toph-wise, if, as we paw each other on the couch in the burgundy living room after
Toph has gone to sleep, she wants to stay the night, and does not understand why
she cannot, does not understand why Toph must not wake up to see random people
sleeping in his brother’s bed, she is too young and unthoughtful and does not
appreciate the importance of creating for Toph as simple a childhood as possible,
and so she is not seen again.... unless, of course, she is extraordinarily good-looking,
in which case it doesn’t matter what the little dickhead says.

Most of the spun-out meditations of  the book have this self-contradictory character, because the author is giving us a twenty-two year old in an anomalous situation who doesn’t know what he really thinks, or rather he knows that every time he thinks something he is almost immediately driven to think its opposite. He wants to be responsible to his little brother. He wants to have a good time. He wants them both at the same time, and simultaneously he knows they don’t go together. Is this the human condition? And if it is, then what?

Furthermore, he’s telling us that he is part of a new generation who doesn’t see the world as previous generations saw it, even though he is still in thrall to some of the dictates of earlier times. My audience in Fairfax pointed out that this is nothing new, that younger generations have always been in rebellion against their forebears. That may, or may not, but true. But it’s not pertinent to this book. Eggers doesn’t think he’s in rebellion the way youth has always been in rebellion. He sees himself as resisting in a different way, a way that has not been seen before, a way that arose for the first time in the final decade of the twentieth century.

That may well be a farfetched notion. But if one wishes to read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius so as to get at what's being said, he or she has to suspend what is generally thought to be common sense and entertain, if only a for a bit, the idea that something actually new may be in the early stages of birth. And if that could possibly be true, then the text that points it out to us is, indeed, a work of genius.

I don’t know if it’s a work of genius or not. But I have no irresistible need to dismiss the thought that it might be.

©John R. Turner

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