Monday, March 31, 2014

This week at the library: the South and the search for meaning

Dear readers:

Spring is finally here, and with it, April.  As is my custom, I'll be doing a special set of readings relating to English history or culture as we near St. George's Day on the 26th.  While nothing is finalized, I'm planning on two history books and two historical novels.  The past few weeks have been taken up with the South, what with Redneck Manifesto, I'll Take my Stand, and Confederates in the Attic. (I finished that just this morning, so look for a review later in the week.)  I anticipate that trend continuing somewhat as April marks the big Civil War reenactment. A growing interest in appreciating the South's history and culture is dangerously closed to reigniting my high school obsession with the Civil War.  (I don't say 'obsession' lightly; I used to go to sleep to Civil War music and had an AIM profile as done by a member of the "Coffee Rangers", an old Alabama regiment, complete with appropriate away messages and sounds pulled from my much-played copy of Sid Meier's Gettysburg.)  Speaking of wars, I've not yet decided on my Great War book for April, though there are a couple I am leaning toward.

Obsessions aside, the month won't just be taken up with the South, England, and the Great War (as themes collide...) I also wanted to do a few books on trade, commerce, and the like, including Why We Buy.  It's going to be a good month, I think. Happy reading!

Recent reviews:

An Ice Cream War

An Ice Cream War
© 1982 William Boyd
408 pages

Although most of the action of the Great War took place in Europe, it spread throughout the world wherever Europe's nations had allies or colonies. An Ice Cream War is a novel of the first world war set in southern Africa, with the battles between British and German colonial forces serving as background for all of the plot threads, and the active component of many. Its principle characters include an English farmer who is displaced and ruined by his German next-door neighbor, for whom the war becomes a personal vendetta, as well as two brothers who come of age as a result of the war and its human cost.  Its title not withstanding, An Ice Cream War is a tragedy with some comic elements.  Both the comedy and tragedy stem from the same root source, the vagaries of fate. Life is unpredictable enough without the chaos of war, but amid it the characters can only respond in absurd ways. The bewildered mirth is overrun by sorrow and horror later in the book, as it waxes depressing. An Ice Cream War can be considered an anti-war book, given that a main character is an ardent pacifist until he joins the Army to flee heartbreak, but only meets more sorrow as he realizes that the war is just a pointless and obscene in fact as he long held it in theory.  An Ice Cream War features an interesting and extravagantly detailed setting, but is definitely on the despairing side by the end.

A reading from "Confederates in the Attic"

Awakening the next morning in a $27 room at Salisbury's EconLodge, I recognized the appeal of dwelling on the South's past rather than its present. Stepping from my room into the motel parking lot, I gazed out a low-slung horseshoe of ferroconcrete called Towne Mall, a metal-and-cement forest of humming electricity pylons, a Kmart, a garish yellow Waffle House, a pink-striped Dunkin' Donuts, plus Taco Bell, Bojangles, Burger King, the Golden Arches of McDonald's and the equally gaudy signs for Exxon, BP and Shell hoisted like battle flags above the melee of competing brands. A few exhaust-choked bushes poked up from the greasy asphalt. 
I'd gone to bed reading about the Confederate general Albert Sidney Johnston, who urged his men into battle at Shiloh by declaring 'Remember the fair, broad, abounding land, the happy homes and ties that would be desolated by your defeat!'. I wondered sleepily what Johnston would make of the view of the EconoLodge.  
Over coffee at the Waffle House, I also began wondering about the crowd I'd met the night before. It had included not only the doctor and pastor, but also a textile worker, a rose grower, a gun-shop owner, a state bureaucrat, and several farmers in overalls. Apart from sports, I couldn't think of many interests that comfortably bridged such a wide range of people. I was curious to know more of what drew them together. 

p. 27, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War Tony Horowitz.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

I'll Take My Stand

I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition
© 1930 various authors.
410 pages
 "There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called The Old South...Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow...Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their ladies fair, of Master and of Slave.Look for it only in books for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind.

For most the Roaring Twenties were a celebration of the triumph of progress. The Great War in Europe was over, and its conclusion saw many of the old empires and forces of conservatism defeated by the liberal-democratic allies (or in Russia’s case, by soviet revolutionaries). In America, business was booming; the cities were swelling with people streaming in from the impoverished countryside, going to work in factories and celebrating American triumphs in war and peace by purchasing as many of the new gadgets that filled the stores as they could, and using credit to acquire those they couldn’t afford. But in the late 1920s, on the precipice of the Great Depression, twelve men of letters looked to the future and saw a vision of despair: the Old South’s final defeat by the forces of modernity, and with it the loss of genuine civilization.  I’ll Take My Stand collects essays defending both the South as an entity apart from the rest of the American nation, and the agrarian system of life that for so long was its defining characteristic. Nearly 85 years after its release, their  fears have been realized. Southrons are just as removed from farming as any other Americans, and the interstates  and cookie-cutter subdivisions have reduced the southern aesthetic into the same bland sprawl that plagues the rest of the nation.  Their call to arms urges a defense for a way of life that is now passed. I'll Take My Stand remains of value to modern readers, however, in offering  both an appreciation of the Old South's culture beyond stereotypes and a critique of the automatic cheering-on of anything called progress.

I first heard of the 'Southern Agrarians', the symposium gathered here, in Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind, and the books are of like temperament in promoting an measured conservative response to cultural change.  Both look for inspiration in tradition, both the rich intellectual, moral, and artistic traditions of the west, but are averse of the modern embrace of the conservative label with the forces of big business.  The gentlemen gathered here are most certainly not fans of business;  they are 'men of letters', intellectuals and artists, who share the old gentry's contempt for the naked materialism of business. A farm is a place to grow corn, not make money, one writes. The authors and those who they look to for inspiration, men like John C. Calhoun, believed in a 'graceful' life;  one supported by work, of course, but devoted not to profit but to the pleasures of a good life;  time with family, living out old traditions;  the art of conversation; music,  and art.  Where Kirk and the Agrarians differ is emphasis on farming;  the southerners see the South's agricultural basis as vital to maintaining civilization, which draws wisdom from the seasons to realize there are limits to everything, and a time and place for everything under the sun.  The north, with its towns and factories, long abandoned the settled wisdom of Europe, which then lived on in the South, wrote the authors; they were given way to madness, to pursuing phantasms.

All this sounds rather lovely, but  the appeal of their Southern Civilization is itself limited; although they look with fear and contempt upon the centralization of wealth in the north, they defend it in their own massive plantations. Farms function better at that large scale, one writes. The virtue of economics vanishes, however, when it threatens them, and the fact that a factory can produce goods more efficiently  than a homestead is dismissed as being beside the point.  That's not to say the agrarians are hypocrites; another praises the Gracchus brothers, the classical heroes of the left, who wanted to break up Rome's great plantations and restore the land to the common man. They are twelve individual authors of varying sentiments and approaches; most write conventional essays, but two tell stories that illustrate the points they intend to make. On the whole, however, they lean toward  'elitism'; this is not just implied given their praise of a life of culture and leisure practiced by very few (yeoman farmers given passing mention, but), but in their disdain for the masses.  One dismisses the people as superstitiously religious Anglo-Saxons who need guidance, as if the southern gentry were Norman lord. If they have that level of disdain for the Saxons, woe betide the Scots-Irish working poor! There's also the matter of race and slavery. Slavery is not quite defended, but blows against it are certainly cushioned as the institution is described as obscene more in theory rather in fact.

I'll Take my Stand is a difficult book, not so much for its writing (some pieces lean toward the abstruse, but not most)  or its arguments, but for those old biases. These are not twelve members of the gentry writing, but intellectuals, and even though some of them rose to culture from farming stock,  their vision of the past is more idealistic than an argument for restorative action can be based on. It's intellectual and cultural history with a little too much romance, rather like the opening of Gone with the Wind which is quoted at the lead.That farming has become the province of industrial corporations is a severe loss for the American people; that our cultural links to the past, in the form of tradition, has been shredded is likewise a tragedy;  we live in an age where home skills like sewing and canning are taught not by family elders, but by government bureaucracies. Yet these arguments will not take root in the modern readers' mind, accompanied as they are by noxious weeds like elitism.  It's a shame, too, because many of the ideas expressed here ought to be considered, especially the notion of a simple life versus one of acquisitive materialism. Given that such ideas are argued in other books, by less impeachable authors,  I'll Take My Stand's greatest enduring appeal is in the area of intellectual history, of understanding the southern mind as it attempted to find the best response to industrialism pushing its way under the Mason-Dixon  line.



Friday, March 28, 2014

Bookshelf Organization

Yesterday Daisy  at the Broke and the Bookish asked about bookshelf organization.  Aside from two large collections, all of my books are organized by  general subject. This is perfectly sensible for the most part;  no one is surprised to find my science books together, or those on politics.  If a given subject has a lot of books in it (like my two European shelves), I organize by subcategories, so that my books on France are together, as are my books on Germany and the like. There are odd instances, I suppose; I put my books on the German language in with German history/culture, and ditto for my book on the French language.   I suppose I could have a language section, but for me it makes as much sense to put French with France, and German with Germany.  Fiction and nonfiction are interwoven at the moment;  Robert Harris' Pompeii is in with my Roman history books. The only exception to this sorting-by-general-subject is that I have two special collections; my Isaac Asimov collection, which is in a case of its own and encompasses everything from science fiction to history; and my Star Trek collection, which also has a case of its own albeit a smaller one.

There is of course another exception, and that is the great giant box of books that hasn't been sorted because I am out of shelf space. I do have a bookcase waiting to be put up, though...

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Long Loneliness

The Long Loneliness
© 1952 Dorothy Day
288 pages (Harper Collins, 2009(

            Dorothy Day came of age amid the Great War, a child of struggling parents whose labors to make ends meet stayed with her even after they had achieved some success. Caught up by the social upheaval of the early 20th century, Dorothy moved among the ranks of Communists, anarchists, and draft-resisters. Her determination to fight for the poor changed directions after she joined the Roman Catholic Church, however, and in The Long Loneliness she recounts the efforts of her comrades, both radical and Catholic, as they worked to create a better world for the impoverished. Day’s autobiography is a beautifully written response to the early 20th century’s social turmoil, the story of a hell-raiser on the verge of sainthood. 

            Although overtly pious as a child, Day recounts here falling away from religion as she aged;  what did faith have to offer the poor, she thought, except meaningless promises of a happier afterlife?  Why should the impoverished and oppressed remain meek and serene when they could throw off their chains? Dismissing religion as the opiate of the people, Day recounts how she threw herself into the struggle for social justice. Her faith in inexorable progress was tested, however, during repeated periods of imprisonment, periods which she worsened by engaging in hunger strikes. In the despair of those hours she turned again to the God of her childhood, and when she was finally set free,  her Christian faith would be reborn and strengthened. Ultimately,  her yearning for comfort and  order led her to the Catholic church, and so strong was her desire for inner peace that she converted despite knowing it would mean leaving her common-law husband, who refused to submit to a church marriage. 

            The Long Loneliness is by no means a comprehensive biography; even if Day were blessed with total recall, constructing a narrative means leaving some facts behind to focus on others.  From this account she seems to have accepted the Church on its own terms, rather than being able to embrace it after learning about its social doctrine, which is by no means passive concerning poverty. I suspected the social doctrine might be the  draw for her, but she gives it scant mention and indeed passes over a discussion of Distributism. Instead, she mentions its similarity to the Southern Agrarians and similar movements as her own. The distributist ideal is hers, “a world where it is easy for people to be good”, where people are not destroyed by their work but ennobled by it. There is no escaping poverty in The Long Loneliness, either material or spiritual; it is to escape spiritual poverty that Day finds herself almost revering the material. She and her great ally, Peter Maurin, both emphasize voluntary simplicity as a means of not only focusing on what really matters, but in saving money to create self-reliance. “Self” is misleading, however:   The Long Loneliness is often a book about creating community.  Her rich collections of her neighbors, regardless of where she moved,  and the emphasis she and Maurin both place on experience life communally – through group discussions on philosophy, or establishing cooperatives and charity houses – demonstrate how  vital being with and working with others was to her life, to her worldview.  Day’s journey here ends on a farm, where she, Maurin, and other staffers of The Catholic Worker would be self-sustainable, she writes, if they did not give so much food away.  

            What a fascinating work this is, quoting from church fathers and personalities like Emma Goldman in the same breathe; what a life she lived,  as a journalist and nurse and agitator during a most interesting period of the 20th century, when workers were brawling in the streets with the forces of  establishment and winning victories even as they were imprisoned and beaten en masse. Many of the  laws they fought for, Day writes, are now on the books.  At the time of this writing she was no doubt by what had been achieved, not by her but by the people she served, the people who took the ideas of The Catholic Worker – pacifism and libertarianism among them --  and spread them across the world.  Hers is a dream still unrealized, but a life such as hers is a testament as to what is possible. 


  • A Life of Her Own, Emile Carles. Also the biography of a driven young woman whose response to seeing her village and its boys swallowed up by the national government during the Great War is to become increasingly sympathetic toward anarchism and the libertarian left. 
  • The Story of my Experiments with Truth, Mohandas Gandhi, which also ends in a newsletter staff being run from a communal farm. Pacifism and self-reliance are also common motifs, though Day is more sensual.
  • Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers, Shane Claiborne, whose 'new monasticism' brings Day to mind..
  • I’ll Take my Stand, various authors. She frequently mentions the southern agrarians who penned their defense of a culture rooted in the land.
  • Red Emma Speaks, Emma Goldman

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Body Electric

Star Trek Cold Equations, Book Three: The Body Electric
© 2013 David Mack
352 pages

Bad news. There's a planet-sized machine with a companion black hole ominously named "Abaddon" using artificial wormholes to suck entire star systems into its maw.  Worse news: the machine is a Borg-like collective of artificial intelligence systems with a serious attitude problem regarding organic lifeforms. To wit, it wants us all dead, and when it collides itself with the supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way, dead we shall be. It's up to Captain Jean-Luc Picard to somehow find a way to save the galaxy, with a little help from his once-dead-now-resurrected-android-friend, Data.  The Body Electric concludes David Mack's Cold Equations series, which started out as a political spy-thriller but ends in a bittersweet triumph for the now-returned Data.

Although the third and final piece of a trilogy,  The Body Electric leaves behind what I thought to be the primary story of the Cold Equations trilogy, the latest chapter in the Cold War in Space series of books. Instead, the 'other' story in the two previous novels,  the return of Data,  rises to dominance, with the positronic commander taking a starring role in the Enterprise's  efforts to stop the Machine's subspace-shattering kaboom.  Wesley Crusher's rare fans will be gratified at his role in the story; it is he who learns of the threat, but he's powerless to combat it..The Body Electric is easily more on the side of 'soft' science fiction, being more about its characters - - Data and the ever lively T'Ryessa Chen, for instance --  than science, but many of the characters put the spotlight on the future of artificial intelligence, being as they are droids. There's even a little philosophy of the soul throne in as the AIs debate the merits of joining or fighting The Machine, which is a larger, meaner version of V'Ger from The Motion Picture.  Although the-Enterprise-saves-the-galaxy plots border on ludicrous after so many movies, David Mack executes it well, especially in building tension.  Readers will find it most interesting for the continuing evolution of Data, who has grown quite beyond his old limitations.

Monday, March 24, 2014

This week at the library: astronauts, cities, and very serious business

Dear readers:

On last Sunday I raided my university library and got lost on a hike (sometimes the fork less traveled by takes you to an 18-hole golf course where you wander lost for hours until emerging in a subdivision), but came home with my usual bag of books. This month's takings:

  • The Long Loneliness, the autobiography of Dorothy Day
  • The Call of the Mall: The Geography of Shopping, Paco Underhill.
  • The Fatal Conceit, F.A. Hayek
  • I'll Take My Stand:  The South and the Agrarian Tradition, various authors
  • Deke! , Deke Slayton   The story of the original Mercury Seven astronaut who had to wait until the very last flight of Apollo to see space.
  • The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacobs. A follow-up to her utterly brilliant The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which I've read twice yet somehow never reviewed.. This is actually the wrong book: I intended to get Cities and the Wealth of Nations
  • We Seven,  a joint memoir by the Mercury Seven. (There's really no such thing as too many astronaut memoirs, is there?) Published in 1962, it only covers the beginning of the Mercury program.
  • Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness,  Matt Wray.  

I recently finished The Metropolitan Revolution, a look at city-led political change, and am currently taken up with I'll Take my Stand.  I'd expected the 'southern symposium' to be ponderous, but it's been easy enough going so far. I'm two-thirds through, and taking breaks from it with the final book in a Star Trek trilogy I last read from in July.  This month's collection as a whole is on the dense side, but next month should bring lighter fare. Since it's April I'll be doing a series of works relating to England. I haven't settled on any books yet, but Sharpe's Waterloo may well be among them, with at least one history work.

Happy reading to you on this first week of spring!

...which will bring freezing temperatures later this week. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Simple Living Guide

The Simple Living Guide: A Sourcebook for Less Stressful, More Joyful Living
© 1997 Janet Luhrs
444 pages

Life distracts easily and passes by without being noticed. The Simple Living Guide is written as an antidote, one which both prompts people to think more deeply about their lives -- how the ordinary can take on meaning --  and which provides resources for living an engaged life. After an initial section on inner simplicity, separate sections concern personal finance, food,  health and exercise,  homes, travel, gardening, entertainment,  and so on, with a special section near the end devoted to clearing out clutter. Though distinct, the chapters link together. Each section is laced with real-life examples and book summaries drawn far and wide, and ends with a larger testimonial and list of resources.  The only fly in the ointment, and it is a truly minuscule fly, is the book's datedness: written in 1997, it reminds readers that cell phones are useful, but unnecessary given the widespread availability of phone booths. Ah, but time marches on. The majority of her advice rings as true today as it would been back in those halcyon days, but  a work written this century would have included the revolutionary impact of ubiquitous wireless connections and 'smart' electronics;  her multitude of pages on cheap car-renting strategies is practically moot considering car-sharing services. Luhrs' sections on inner simplicity and personal finance are exceptional, however.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Call of the Mall

Call of the Mall: the Geography of Shopping
© 2005 Paco Underbill
240 pages

Paco Underhill wants to take a little walk with you through the local mall, to see it with his eyes- the eyes of  a "retail anthropologist" and marketing strategist who scrutinizes malls as the environments they were built to be: shopping arenas.  Born amid the automobile-guided infrastructure buildout of the 1950s, shopping malls have been the crown jewel of American consumerism, dedicated spaces of recreational consumption of goods.  The walk, which begins in the parking lot and travels through the cavernous mall's innards, going even down the twisty hallways into the hidden bathrooms, takes reader on a guided tour of the territory, where even toilets don't escape scrutiny. The Call of the Mall is a little business history, a little social musing, and a little advertising/marketing examination.  Written more for consumers than business students, it's an entertaining account that offers most another perspective on shopping malls.

Although Underbill spends most of his working life walking around malls, his feelings regarding them are mixed. He seems to enjoy them -- the long stretches of flat marble or tile, air-conditioned walks down channels filled with eye-catching displays and even more eye-catching people --  but his job requires being both appreciative and critical. Throughout the mall tour, Underhill's perspective reveals that for all their flashiness, malls do a lot things badly.  Music stores, for instance, have gone downhill since records gave way to CDs, because record sleeves could be used as eye-catching displays. CD covers are as useful for displays seen at a distance as postage stamps.  Underhill is also surprised that no store has ever considered using the mall restrooms as a display area for its own equipment (but considering how much volume mall toilets get, would any retailer want to chance his toilet being associated with badly-maintained restrooms?).  There are greater problems, too, unavoidable consequences of the malls' status as artifacts of suburbia.  Malls are in fact very artificial environments, little island awash in a sea of pavements. A lot of their foot traffic is from teenagers who are there because they have nothing else to do;  suburban teens have no place outside of home and school to go to.  Underhill makes the point repeatedly that malls are limited by their environment.

In revealing what malls don't do well, Underhill also points out their strengths, and explains to readers, uniitated shoppers, why they might work the way they do.  He points out, for instance, that the spaces near entrances and exits are consigned as low rent.  One would think otherwise considering they receive greater traffic than the interior of the mall, but Underhill comments that as people are entering a store, they need space to adjust, to adapt to their new environment. As they are making the transition, their mind ignores the first few stores they pass. He also elaborates on some of the strategies that the real estate giants who own the malls employ when deciding who rents what space;  different stores have different markets, and there are dynamics to be taken into consideration. A low-end and a high-end jewelry store side by side can enhance one another's business.  Underhill goes into several stores to scrutinize their specific practices; he comments on the high-end jewelry store's physical additions, for instance, how they use a black brick facade to minimize window space, sending a clear message of exclusivity to hoi-polloi outside who can't afford $80,000 necklaces.

Shopping malls are a mixed bag, an experiment  in retailing that may change as time passes, or may fail entirely. Demographics are changing, writes Underbill, as is technology; online stores are giving brick-and-mortar (or in suburban cases, plywood and concrete)  an increasingly hard time,  and this work was penned ten years ago, before Amazon Prime and similar services.  The Call of the Mall will probably frustrate marketing students looking for a catalog of tricks of the trade, because while Underbill offers general suggestions and reveals a few practices,  he's not going to give away the farm considering he makes a living as a consultant helping businesses  organize their physical space. For the ordinary person on the street -- or in the aisles -- The Call of the Mall is an entertaining look into the workings of places we might spend a lot of our time in.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Sycamore Row

Sycamore Row
© 2013 John Grisham
464 pages

 I have been less than impressed with John Grisham’s books in recent years; The Racketeer made me suspect Grisham or his publishers were merely milking the success of his name.  Sycamore Row, however, is a return to the Grisham of yore; set in his fictional Clanton, Mississippi, the site of many of his better novels.  A direct sequel to his first novel, and building off many others, Sycamore Row is good work, a legal thriller and a story of restoration and forgiveness.

Sycamore Row picks up only two years after the climax of A Time to Kill, in which Jake Brigance defended a black father who meted out shotgun justice to two white hooligans who beat and raped his young daughter. No one expected Brigance to triumph, not in a town like Clanton where racial tensions ran deep. But he did,  and the storied reputation he earned as  a progressive lawyer of integrity earned him the job that begins in Sycamore Road. On a fine Sunday morning, a local businessman, Seth Hubbard, is found hanging from a tree on his property; the next day, Brigance receives a letter from the man appointing him the executor of his will, a handwritten document that cuts out the man's family and leaves his enormous fortune to...the maid.  The black maid.  Once again Jake is thrown into a controversial trial that some want badly to turn into a good ol' race war. Jake  has no interest in that kind of legal battle;  the Hailey trial saw his house and dog perish in flames set by the Ku Klux Klan.

Although the premise sounds a bit much like The Testament -- where another rich old man left a handwritten will that disinherited his family and dumped the fortune on someone who no one had ever heard of, namely a missionary in South America --  the legal battle turns into a historical mystery that comes into light only late in the novel. The legal question of whether Hubbard was sane enough to produce a legally valid will is resolved not by trial arguments, but by historical fact as the characters struggle to discover what Seth Hubbard knew. The characters include not only Jake, but other Clanton favorites like Harry Rex Vonner, a cranky if wise divorce lawyer, and Lucien Wilbanks, who is the last of a noble clan of gentry, a disbarred southern scion with a taste for sour mash and a proud member of the NAACP -- just to rile folks up.  Sycamore Row's  enmeshment with the other Clanton novels will make this work especially attractive for Grisham readers, especially those like myself who've been disappointed by works like The Associate and The Racketeer.   The presiding judge is Reuben V. Atlee, whose own will will cause a stir in  The Summons which it neglects to mention $3 million sitting around in boxes in his basement. Even Willie Traynor, who owned the newspaper whose story was told in The Last Juror, makes a few steady appearances.

For those not enamored of the greater Clanton story, Sycamore Row is still superior to many Grisham works because it's not idle entertainment.  Grisham develops a theme of forgiveness throughout, and the final resolution is magnificent. There's no preachiness, no lectures from the main characters nor wisdom dispersed from a town savant; forgiveness and restoration are written into the character's very actions.  I was spellbound, and hope Grisham returns to Clanton again.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Redneck Manifesto

The Redneck Manifesto: How Hicks, Hillbillies, and White Trash Became Amerca's Scapegoats
© 1998 Jim Goad
272 pages

Rednecks of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your bills.   Jim Goad's The Redneck Manifesto is a raucous mixture of southern pride and Marx-esque social criticism which examines the plight of working whites. Although few would take seriously the concept of white plight,  in Goad's eyes 'privilege whites' constitute a minority of American whites;  most are working-class slobs like himself who have been treated as miserably throughout American history as any minority,  even slaves.  His aim is to expose anti-prole bigotry, by shock therapy if need be, and demonstrate that America's big problems are rooted in class, not ethnic tension.

His history might echo A People's History if Howard Zinn had focused on working whites and were give nto telling the reader to "f*** off".  It is a history rooted in class conflict: since time immemorial, a wealthy few have kept most of the power in their hands, and America is no different. Though our national legend involves Pilgrims seeking liberty, in the fact of the matter is that most whites who immigrated came against their wills; they were the poor pushed off the fields, scraped off the streets, and shanghaied across the Atlantic to toil as indentured servants.  Volunteering or conscripting in the Revolution, they died to help create a Constitution which had no place for them, and the centuries of progress that followed brought only more of the same. The Civil War destroyed the economy of the south, but did little to displace the power-elite; industrialism proved even more lethal than the killing fields of Europe's Great War, at least for Americans,  as thousands died every year from factory and mining accidents. The rest of the century was no better;  homes were blown apart as companies tried to crack open the Appalachian mountains like a walnut, with no mind given to the people who lived there, and free trade agreements saw the disappearance of jobs which remained.  To add insult to injury, institutions that persecuted blacks, like slavery and Jim Crow laws, were somehow blamed on the impoverished working class, despite it being just as disenfranchised by local elites. (Documents like the 1901 Alabama Constitution remain equal-opportunity oppressors of the working poor.)  While the 20th century saw various populations gain media shielding and political protection, the white working class remained a common horse to beat on,  a pleasure shared by both formerly-marginalized minorities and the elite.

Against all this, Goad doesn't call for sensitivity; no self-respecting working man would whine. What he does want is for everyone to leave rednecks the hell alone. Making fun of his kin on TV is one thing; everybody likes their scapegoats. What he has his sights on is excessive tax burdens; let the government be paid for by people who receive the services, or the propertied --  and the United States' foreign policy, which typically involves sending the sons and daughters of the poor to fight  to fulfill the elite's ambitions.  War is the harvester of the home, and nothing else.  In addition to calling for an end to death and taxes, Goad celebrates the culture of the white working family,  with chapters given over to "Playing Hard" and  even to "Praying Hard", despite Goad's firm belief that religion and politics are both full of it.

The Redneck Manifesto may have a serious intent, but it's hard to take the delivery as such. Goad is deliberately and enthusiastically vulgar, employing racial slurs throughout to goad the reader, hopefully forcing them to see 'redneck' and 'hillbilly' as pejoratives on the level as  kike, Chink, and yea, even the dreaded "N-word".  That's artistic license,  but his seemingly schizophrenic style --  alternating between informal if serious analysis and seemingly insane ranting,  throwing in nicknames for personalities and employing colloquial spelling randomly  --  can easily throw a reader off. It's surely deliberate; Goad's whole purpose in writing the  book is defy conventional attitudes.

The Redneck Manifesto is a fascinating if problematic book; it's not a perspective I'm used to hearing. Class is a taboo topic now, relegated only to Marxists -- and few working men would give Marx's conflict theory of society a moment's consideration after a half-century of being assured by the TV that in America we're all one big happy middle-class family.  Good luck, too, finding the self-described Marxist who would go anywhere near ethnic consciousness if they are white. As a product of the white working class with a sympathy for Marxist social critique, I had a ball reading this -- even while wading through the eccentric treatment of the English tongue. It's funny, cringingly inappropriate, and yet thoughtful at the same time; a tirade with a point. There's tremendous value in looking at an often ignored segment of the impoverished population, but considering the abuse Goad hurls out, readers other than southerners looking for a sympathetic voice -- of which Goad's is surely one -- might put it down early.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England

Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England
© 2008 Sally Crawford
224 pages

            Who were the Anglo-Saxons? For a people conquered in 1066, their culture seems strangely dominant;  the land the Normans conquered remains England, not Greater Normandy, and Norman French is only an influence on the more native English, never having displaced the old language.   Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England examines the earthy details of the Anglo-Saxons’ lives; the construction of their homes, the styles of dress, the culture they practiced at home and in community with one another. Separate chapters address both the material, like tools and towns, and cultural (religion and governance).  While some sections are based on physical artifacts, other evidence is documentary, taken from older histories like Bede’s, or inferred from miscellaneous documents.  The assertion that the Anglo-Saxons valued family care is drawn both from the presence of an adult skeleton who was born missing an arm and various descriptions of personalities in histories and graves as doting kinsmen and the like.   The book has a somewhat slow start (save for readers who are utterly fascinated by the difference between sunken-earth homes and free-standing  houses as archaeological sites), but on the whole is quite engaging.  The main point of the author’s writing is to rescue the Saxons from the perception that they were filthy peasants, knuckle-dragging their way around mud huts until the arrival of Christianity and the Norman French.  Her survey of their social life certainly illustrates how rich a life their culture possessed, and how sympathetic they can be even to modern readers.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

On Desire

On Desire: Why We Want What We Want
© 2007 William Irvine
337 pages

Why do we want what we want? William Irvine’s On Desire examines the nature of desire, exploring first how profoundly it affects our lives, then surveying psychological inquiries into its basis before at last turning to consider how religions, philosophies, and odd ducks have attempted to grapple with it.  Irvine is author previously of A Guide to the Good Life,  a manual on the practice of Stoicism, and the two works have a common subject and a likely audience.  On Desire  is one part science and another philosophy,  thorough but concise. 

We are not merely what we think deliberately;  anyone can realize their mind has a life of its own with a simple experiment: simply shut your eyes and attempt to count slowly to ten.  The count will not even reach five before thoughts start floating up and competing for attention. Where do these distractions come from?  After a brief introductory section in which Irvine comments on how profoundly our life can be changed by desires beyond our control --  falling in love, for instance --   the second part of the book offers that desires are ultimately the result of our instincts, a kind of biological incentive system that’s had a cobbled-together evolutionary history. 

That our minds are driven by evolutionary forces is natural, but not ideal;  following every desire is not the road to happiness. Indeed, even if the desires didn't lead to our immediate destruction (like the urge to pet a sleeping lion), heeding every impulse leaves a person constantly in need of stimulation. That in mind, it is no accident that virtually every religion, and most moral philosophies, have addressed the matter of desire, and in the third section of the work Irvine examines Abrahamic, Greek, and Buddhist approaches. While the Abrahamic religions typically couch mastery of desire so that people can attain heaven and everlasting bliss,  the Greek schools (Stoicism and Epicureanism) and Buddhism have a more this-worldy approach:  desire is countered to achieve tranquility or to maximize enjoyment.   After surveying the advice given to students by such luminaries as Augustine,  Seneca, and Henry David Thoreau,  Baxter notes that despite the variety of contradictions, there are some common lessons that can be distilled.

The foundational observation is that desires should not be trusted. If we practice mindfulness, we will immediately realize their impermanence;  like a child blowing bubbles,  one desire will be a phantasm among dozens, constantly moving, eventually fading. Desires compete with one another, and so thick are they that our intellect is crowded out; it plays 'second fiddle'. The most potent desires are the ones we have the least control over, but no desire is really insatiable.   Even though they cannot be fulfilled, they can be resisted; our biological incentive system may try to punish us, but it's not the end the world. Ultimately, the only way to truly fight desires is to change ourselves to learn to appreciate -- through philosophy, religion, etc -- what we have, to  use techniques both ancient and modern to strengthen our minds against the distractions of the moment.  Irvine covers a lot of varied practices within the text for those who develop an interest.

On Desire is a superb work,  quite attractive to anyone with an interest in mindfulness. My own Stoic leanings predispose me to enjoy it, of course, but I think it laudable also for demonstrating how our evolutionary history has consequences in our present life; although we'd like to think that natural history is history, a closed book, in truth we are driven by the same instincts today that wrote that book. The thoughtfulness of a work such as this gives us the ability to avoid much of the suffering that nature's book is replete with.  

Irvine's own The Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, any book in Stoicism