North American Indians vs Whites

If you are interested in lists of atrocities, massacres, thefts committed by the US / Canadian governments, Christians, police, etc. against the Natives (Indians/Aboriginals/First Nation people), then The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King (Anchor, 2012) is the book for you. The concrete instances of outrageous mistreatments are the backbone of the historical relationships Indians have had with institutions and individuals and there is no doubt that a serious knowledge of this must be included in the world-view of all North Americans. This history is made personal by the author, who explains in the introductory chapter that the book depicts long-standing conversations and arguments with himself and others. Two ideas guide his account:

  1. The relations and attitudes between the Natives and non-Natives is still the same as it was 300 years ago, i.e. nothing has changed for the Indian.
  2. The Indians are resilient and do not want to assimilate.

What follows is not concerned with these notions, but with the assumed concepts and cognitive underpinnings of King’s reasoning which have a bearing on the forms of Indian – non-Indian relations.

Terminological vagueness          

As is usual in naïve treatments of history, non-academics assume that history is about famous men and celebrated events, and King struggles with this, as he obviously wants the reader to come to know important Indian individuals and groups, give them names and dates, and describe some of their exploits. He also assumes that historians must be objective (a notion which is surprising from a person who is a university instructor and public intellectual): critical theories have long shown that this is not possible. Nevertheless, the deepest pit that the author falls into and can’t get out of is the gross generalizations possible using deceptively simple concepts.  He’s aware of this pit, and yet falls right into it:

…I’m not much concerned with designing a strict vocabulary as I am with crafting a coherent and readable narrative. (p. xiv)

And yet, if the narrative uses a vocabulary of generic terms, it loses on its significance, power, and evocative expressiveness. Let’s take the term “Whites” (and all the synonyms that he uses for what can be called the enemies of Indians), and the term “we”.

Whites

For him, “Whites” is a “perfectly serviceable term” (p. xiv). And yet, a deeper knowledge of history clearly  shows that it can never be. Just like he claims that “Indians” is not a workable term, especially if put into a context, for ex., of a question: “What do Indians want?” so “Whites” is also an unworkable notion, if put into a context. In this instance, a question like “What do Whites want?” is nonsensical, for the same reason as he gives for the erroneousness of the question “What do Indians want?”:

The Indians of this question are “the Indian” that Canada and United States have created for themselves. (p. 215)To put this matter into the opposite perspective, the Whites in his account are “the White” that he has created for himself with the help of centuries of “us vs them”.  And unless the guilty “White” parties are  identified in more than general terms, there can never be normal relations between the two groups. All the more when he says that in the confines of this book, the term [Indian] is neutral and refers to a general group of people as diverse and indefinable as “Indians” (p. xiv). In the confines of his book “White” is never a neutral term however much it obviously must refer to diverse and indefinable groups and individuals. The matter is complicated since he identifies the enemies using other general terms, too, such as  Europeans (a Polish peasant? A Spanish noble? A Greek billionaire? – he does not say who), Christians,  corporations,  North America. It is more than easy to identify the guilty party if using simple general terms.

                To be fair, he adumbrates the notion that is at the heart of the problems faced by Indians: capitalism, greed, military-industrial complex. But capitalism is unfair to the “99%” as well, regardless of color. From this perspective, it is obvious that Indians are strategically placed by history to offer solutions for the evils that beset humanity now, on account of their knowledge and experience spanning thousands of years, but he does not take a real hold of the possibility to elaborate on this topic.   

We

It is not at all clear who he identifies with when he uses the term “we”: sometimes it is the Indians, many times  it is North Americans as gobblers of what the media feed them (p. 12), sometimes humanity in general (p. 14: we don’t need the truth. We have the legend., or  p. 7: I simply have difficulty with how we choose which stories become the pulse of history, etc.). It must be said that, outside of the confines of the book, this both inclusive and exclusive “we” haunts all those who are or feel outside of the system but somehow want to be a part of it: ethnic groups in the United States, the unemployed, the poor, etc. Using the term “we” he loses the chance to extricate himself from the complexities of assimilation vs resilience to it.  For example, does he or doesn’t he want a picture of Indians to appear on paper money? Or having a star on the walk of fame? He does not state the significance of these instances.

Of course, the term  “we” acquires more complexities as he gives various definitions of Indian, specifically: dead, alive, legal; authentic.

In conclusion, and there are a lot of ideas left out of the above, such as the fact that everyone who is on the governmental payroll is inconvenient to the government (such as the elderly) – but that’s a discussion for other time. However, what the book does not say is that the Indians in North America could be trailblazers in starting to create a more just and environmentally sane world. Their knowledge and experience, which obviously relies on their not assimilating, offers a wealth of solutions. If they join forces with other like-minded groups and individuals, they could be at the forefront of marginalizing capitalist aims. But that would mean working hard on what he calls the “air and water of culture”.

Advertisements

Ah, good old Russell!

For a number of reasons, it is very rarely that I dare to suggest that everyone read a specific book. In this case, even though the writing and publishing happened more than 80 years ago, it would be a worthwhile endeavour for those individuals who still believe in the value of reading to muse on Bertrand Russell’s In praise of Idleness and other essays (Routledge, 1935, 2007). By chance, the format of the book- 15 short essays – is most suited to our fast, fluid, fragile daily life. And, if readers are in a great hurry, then the one that should be read is “In praise of idleness”, now available also freely on the web.  Overall, Russell’s style is clear without being obnoxious.

A society that promotes, above all, entrepreneurship, profit, money, as well as navel-gazing, needs some counter-balance which used to belong to the universities and colleges, but they abandoned this purpose along with their dignity some years back. This book may restore some of the balance, even if the suggestions Russell gives may have to be re-thought and brought up to date. What follows is only a smidgen of the ideas that were striking, either because of the timeliness and modernity of their reach, or because of their appalling nature. Therefore, this book review is very different from the others found on our Reading rascal blog.

In the essay “ ‘Useless’ Knowledge”, Russell writes a very timely description of our times, and he gives some proposals as to what would constitute a better life:

The world at present is full of angry self-centered groups, each incapable of viewing human life as a whole, each willing to destroy civilization rather than yield an inch. To this narrowness no amount of technical instruction will provide an antidote. The antidote, in so far as it is a matter of individual  psychology,  is to be found in history, biology, astronomy, and all those studies which, without destroying self-respect, enable the individual to see himself in his proper perspective. What is needed is not this or that specific piece of information, but such  knowledge as inspires a conception of the end of human life as a whole: art and history, acquaintance with the lives of heroic individuals, and some understanding of the strangely accidental and ephemeral position of man in the cosmos – all this touched with an emotion of pride in what is distinctively human, the power to see and to know, to feel magnanimously and to think with understanding. It is from large perceptions combined with impersonal emotion that wisdom most readily springs. (pp. 26-27)

I let some of the ideas expressed by Russell in his 15 short essays speak for themselves.

In praise of idleness 1932

‘Useless’ Knowledge

22 Better economic organisation, allowing mankind to benefit by the productivity of machines, should lead to a very great increase of leisure, and much leisure is apt to be tedious except to those who have considerable intelligent activities and interest. If a leisured population is to be happy, it must be an educated population, and must be educated with a view to mental enjoyment as well as to the direct usefulness of technical knowledge.

23 the narrowly utilitarian conception of education ignores the necessity of training a man’s purposes as well as his skill.

Architecture and social questions

Women to work would be useful; having communal kitchens where cooks who know about cooking would cook rather than the unskilled mothers who feed kids who knows what

The modern Midas

After the first world war, Germany to pay the winning forces products that the winning forces were producing

52 One of the impediments to successful democracy in our age is the complexity of the modern world, which makes it increasingly difficult for ordinary men and women to form an intelligent opinion on political questions, or even to decide whose expert judgement deserves the most respect. The cure for this trouble is to improve education, and to find ways of explaining the structure of society which are easier to understand than those  at present in vogue. Every believer in effective democracy must be in favour of this reform. But perhaps there are no believers in democracy left except in Siam and the remoter parts of Mongolia.

56-7 I think that what we mean in practice by reason can be defined by three characteristics. In the first place, it relies upon persuasion rather than force; in the second place, it seeks to persuade by means of arguments which the man who uses them believes to be completely valid; and in the third place, in forming opinions, it uses observation and induction as much as possible and intuition as little as possible. The first of these rules out the Inquisition; the second rules out such methods as those of British war propaganda, which Hitler praises on the ground that propaganda ‘must sink its mental elevation deeper in proportion to the numbers of the mass whom it has to grip’; the third forbids the use of such a major premise as that of President Andrew Jackson apropos of the Mississippi, ‘the God of the Universe intended this great valley to belong to one nation,’ which was self-evident to him and his hearers, but not easily demonstrated to one who questioned it.

The Ancestry of Fascism

Scylla and Charybdis, or Communism and Fascism

He is against both

79 Preoccupation with machines has produced what may be called the manipulator’s fallacy, which consists in treating individuals and societies as if they were inanimate, and manipulators as if they were divine beings.

The case for socialism

Western civilization

108 …the degree of forethought involved in any act is measured by three factors: present pain, future pleasure, and the length of the interval between them.

109 We may define civilisation as: A manner of life due to the combination of knowledge and forethought.

110 The one prominent distinctive contribution of the Greeks  to civilisation was deductive reasoning and pure mathematics.

110 The Romans seem to have invented the virtue of devotion to the impersonal State as opposed to loyalty to the person of the ruler. …The Roman conception of devotion to the State has been as essential element in the production of stable government in the West.

111 When Rome fell, the Church preserved in a singular synthesis what had proved most vital in the civilization of the Jews, the Greeks, and the Romans. From Jewish moral fervour came the ethical precepts of Christianity; from the Greek love of deductive reasoning came theology; from the example of Roman imperialism and jurisprudence came the centralised government of the Church and the body of Canon Law.

113-4  Science itself does not offer us any moral ideas, and it is doubtful what moral ideas are going to replace those that we owe to tradition. Tradition changes slowly, and our moral ideas are still in the main those that were appropriate to a pre-industrial regime; but it cannot be expected that this will continue to be the case. Gradually men will come to have thoughts that will be in conformity with their physical habits, and ideas not inconsistent with their industrial technique.  …  It is a curious fact that the new ideas of modern times have almost all been technical or scientific. Science has only lately begun to foster growth of new moral ideas, through the liberation of benevolence from the shackles of superstitious ethical beliefs. Wherever a conventional code prescribes the infliction of suffering (e.g. in the prohibition of birth control), a kindlier ethic  is thought to be immoral; consequently those who allow knowledge to influence their ethics are held by the apostles of ignorance to be wicked. It is, however, very doubtful whether a civilisation so dependent upon science as ours is can, in the long run, successfully prohibit forms of knowledge which are capable of greatly increasing human happiness.

115 It seems not improbable that the movement towards individual liberty which characterised the whole period from the renaissance to nineteenth-century liberalism may be brought to a stop by the increased organisation due to industrialism. The pressure of society upon the individual may, in a new form, become so great as in barbarous communities, and nations may com increasingly to pride themselves upon collective rather than individual achievements. This is already the case in the United States: men are proud of skyscrapers, railway stations, and bridges, rather than of poets, artists, or men of science. The same attitude pervades the philosophy of the Soviet government. It is true that in both countries, a desire for individual heroes persists: in Russia, personal distinction belongs to Lenin; in America, to athletes, pugilists, and movie stars. But in both cases the heroes are either dead or trivial, and the serious work of the present is not thus associated with the names of eminent individuals.

118 The distinctive note of Western civilization is rather to be found in Plutarch’s account of the defence of Syracuse by mechanical contrivances invented by Archimedes.

119 It was the conversion of Constantine to Christianity that first gave occasion for the full expression of those persecuting impulses by which Europe has distinguished itself from Asia. During the last hundred and fifty years, it is true, there has been a brief interval of liberalism, but now the white races are reverting to the theological bigotry which the Christians took over from the Jews. The Jews first invented  the notion that only one religion could be true, but they had no wish to convert all the world to it, and therefore only persecuted other Jews. The Christians, retaining the Judaic belief in a special revelation, added to it the Roman desire for worldwide dominion and the Greek taste for metaphysical subtleties. The combination produced the most fiercely persecuting religion that the world has yet known. In Japan and china, Buddhism was peaceably accepted and allowed to exist along with Shinto and Confucianism; in the Mohammedan world, Christians and Jews were not molested so long as they paid the tribute; but throughout the Christendom death was the usual penalty for even the smallest deviation from orthodoxy.

On youthful cynicism

123 Let us first take some of the old ideals one by one and see why they no longer inspire the old loyalties. We may enumerate among such ideals: religion, country, progress, beauty, truth. What is wrong with these in the eyes of the young?

Religion – Even believers are concerned much more with the effects of religion in this world than with that other world that they profess to believe in; they are not nearly so sure that this world was created for the glory of God as they are that God is a useful hypothesis for improving this world. By subordinating God to the needs of this sublunary life, they case suspicion upon the genuineness of their faith.

124 country – patriotism in the Western nations is still immensely powerful: it controls politics, public expenditure, military preparations, and so on. But the intelligent youth are unable to accept it as an adequate ideal; they perceive that it is all very well for oppressed nations, but as soon as an oppressed nation achieves freedom, the nationalism which was formerly heroic becomes oppressive.

125 progress – Measurable progress is necessarily in unimportant things, such as the number of motor-cars made, or the number of peanuts consumed. The really important things are not measurable and are therefore not suitable for the methods of the booster. Moreover, many modern inventions tend to make people silly. I might instance the radio, the talkies, and poison gas. Shakespeare measured the excellence of an age by its style in poetry (see Sonnet XXXII), but this mode of measurement is out of date.

125 beauty – There is something that sounds old-fashioned about beauty, though it is hard to say why. A modern painter would be indignant if he were accused of seeking beauty. Most artists nowadays appear to be inspired by some kind of rage against the world so that they wish rather to give significant pain than to afford serene satisfaction. Moreover many kinds of beauty require that a man should take himself more seriously than is possible for an intelligent modern. A prominent citizen of Athens or  Florence could feel himself important, Aeschylus or Dante could take their own joys or sorrow seriously. They “could feel that the emotions of the individual matter, and that tragic occurrences deserve to be celebrated in immortal verse. But the modern man, when misfortune assails him, is conscious of himself as a unit in a statistical total; the past and the future stretch before him in a dready procession of trivial defeats.

126 truth – In the old days, truth was absolute, eternal and superhuman….But a whole host of enemies have arisen to slay truth: pragmatism, behaviourism, psychologism, relativity-physics.  … it is difficult to worship a merely human and relative truth.

126-7-8 So far we have been considering modern cynicism in a rationalistics manner, as something that has intellectual causes. Belief, however, as modern psychologists are never weary of telling us, is seldom determined by rational motives, and the same is true of disbelief, though sceptics often overlook this fact. The causes of any widespread scepticism are likely to be sociological rather than intellectual. The main cause always is comfort without power. Until the advent of education, democracy, and mass production, intellectuals had everywhere a considerable influence upon the march of affairs, which was by no means diminished if their heads were cut off. The modern intellectual finds himself in a quite different situation. It is by no means difficult for him to obtain a fat job and a good income provided he is willing to sell his services to the stupid rich either as propagandist or as Court Jester.  … But if a man’s education has been literary, as is still too often the case, he finds himself at the age of twenty-two with a considerable skill that he cannot exercise in any manner that appears important to himself. Men of science are not cynical even in the West, because they can exercise their best brains with the full approval of the community; but in this they are exceptionally fortunate among modern intellectual.

128 cynicism cannot be cured by the existing education, it “will have to be an education taking some account of real cultural values and not only of the utilitarian desire to produce so many goods that nobody has time to enjoy them. A man is not allowed to practise medicine unless he knows something of the human body, but a financier is allowed to operate freely without any knowledge at all of the multifarious effects of his activities, with the sole exception of the effect upon his bank account. How pleasant a world would be in which no man was allowed to operate on the Stock Exchange unless he could pass an examination in economics and Greek poetry, and in which politicians were obliged to have a competent knowledge of history and modern novels! …Causation in the modern world is more complex and remote in its ramifications than it ever was before, owing to the increase of large organisations; but those who control these organisations are ignorant men who do not know the hundredth part of the consequences of their actions. The rulers of the world have always been stupid, but have not in the past been so powerful as they are now. It is therefore more important than it used to be to find some way of securing that they shall be intelligent. Is this problem insoluble? I do not think so, but I should be the last to maintain that it is easy.

Modern homogeneity

131 I have seen orange groves in Sicily and orange groves in California; the contrast represents a period of about two thousand years. Orange groves in Sicily are remote from trains and ships; the trees are old and gnarled and beautiful; the methods are those of classical antiquity. The men are ignorant and semisavage, mongrel descendants of Roman slaves and Arab invaders; what they lack in intelligence toward trees they make up for by cruelty to animals. With moral degradation and economic incompetence goes an instinctive sense of beauty which is perpetually reminding one of Theocritus and the myth about the garden of the Hesprides. In a Californian orange grove the garden of the Hesperides seems very remote. The trees are all exactly alike, carefully tended and at the right distance apart. The oranges, it is true, are not all exactly of the same size, but careful machinery sorts them so that automatically all those in one box are exactly similar. They travel along with suitable things being done to them by suitable machines at suitable points until they enter a suitable refrigerator car in which they travel to a suitable market. –man is the master of his environment-

132 people in America are the same. When one considers the difference between a Norwegian and a Sicilian, and compares it with the lack of difference between a man from (say) North Dakota and a man from southern California, one realises the immense revolution in human affairs which has been brought about by man’s becoming the master instead of the slave of his physical environment. Norway and Sicily both have ancient traditions; they had pre-Christian religions embodying men’s reactions to the climate, and when Christianity came it inevitably took very different forms in the two countries. The Norwegian feared  ice and snow; the Sicilian feared lava and earthquakes. Hell was invented in a southern climate; if it had been invented in Norway, it would have been cold. But neither in North Dakota nor in Southern California is Hell a climatic condition: in both it is a stringency on the money market. This illustrates the unimportance of climate in modern life.

134 It must not be supposed that the tendency towards uniformity is either wholly good or wholly bad. It has great advantages and also great disadvantages: its chief advantage is, of course, that is produces a population capable of peaceable co-operation; its great disadvantage is that is produces a population prone to persecution of minorities. This latter deficit is probably temporary, since it may be assumed that before long there will be no minorities. A great deal depends, of course, on how the uniformity is achieved. Take, for example, what the schools do to southern Italians, Southern Italians have been distinguished throughout history for murder, graft, and aesthetic sensibility. The Public Schools effectively cure them of the last of these three, and to that extent assimilate them to the native American population, but in regard to the other two distinctive qualities, I gather that  the success of the schools is less marked. This illustrates one of the dangers of uniformity as an aim: good qualities are easier to destroy than bad ones, and therefore uniformity is most easily achieved by lowering all standards. It is, of course, clear that a country with a large foreign population must endeavour, through its schools, to assimilate children of immigrants, and therefore a certain degree of Americanization is inevitable. It is, however, unfortunate that such a large part of this process should be effected by means of a somewhat blatant nationalism. America is already the strongest country in the world, and inspires fear in Europe, and the fear is increasinged by everything suggesting militant nationalism. It may be the destiny of America to teach political good sense to Europe, but I am afraid that the pupil is sure to prove refractory.

                With the tendency towards uniformity in America there goes, as it seems to me, a mistaken conception of democracy. It seems to be generally held in the United States that democracy requires all men to be alike, and that, if a man is in any way different from another, he is ‘setting himself up’ as superior to that other. France is quite as democratic as America, and yet this idea does not exist in France. The doctor, the lawer, the priest, the public official are all different types in France; each profession has its own traditions and its own standards, although it does not set up to be superior to other professions. In America all professional men are assimilated in type to the business man. It is as though one should decree that an orchestra should consis only of violins. There does not seem to be an adequate understanding of the fact that society should be a pattern or an organism, in which different organs play different parts. Imagine the eye and the ear 136 quarrelling as to whether it is better to see or hear, and deciding that each would do neither since neither could do both. This, it seems to me, would be democracy as understood in America. There is a strange envy of any kind of excellence which cannot be universal, except, of course, in the sphere of athletics and sport, where aristocracy is enthusiastically acclaimed. It seems that the average American is more capable of humility in regard to his muscles than in regard to his brains; perhaps this is because his admiration for muscle is more profound and genuine than his admiration for brains. The flood of popular scientific books in America is inspired partly, though of course not wholly, by the unwillingness to admit that there is anything is science which only experts can understand. The idea that a special training may be necessary to understand, let say, the theory of relativity, causes a sport of irritation, although nobody is irritated by the fact that a special training is necessary in order to be a first-rate football player.

                Achieved eminence is perhaps more admired in America than in any other country, and yet the road to certain kinds of eminence is made very difficult for the young, because people are intolerant of any eccentricity or anything that could be called ‘setting one’s self up’, provided the person concerned is not already labelled ‘eminent’.  …

                Standardisation, though it may have disadvantages for the exceptional individual, probably increases the happiness of the average man, since he can utter his thoughts with certainty that they will be thoughts of his hearer. Moreover  it promotes national cohesion, and makes politics less bitter and violent than 137 where more marked differences exist. I do not think it possible to strike a balance of gains and losses, but I think the standardisation which now exists in America is likely to exist throughout Europe as the world becomes more mechanised. Europeans, therefore, who find fault with America on this account should realise that they are finding fault with the future of their own countries, and are setting themselves against an inevitable and universal trend in civilisation. Undoubtedly  internationalism  will become easier as the differences between nations diminish, and if once internationalism were established, social cohesion would become of enormous importance for preserving internal peace. There is a certain risk, which cannot be denied, of an immobility analogous to that of the later Roman Empire. But as against this, we may set  the revolutionary forces fo modern science and modern technique. Short of a universal intellectual decay, these forces, which are a new feature in the modern world, will make immobility impossible, and prevent that kind of stagnation which has overtaken great empires in the past. Arguments from history are dangerous to apply to the present and the future, because of the complete change that science has introduced. I see therefore no reason for undue pessimism, however standardisation may offend tastes of those who are unaccustomed to it.

Men versus insects

140 So long as war continues, all scientific knowledge is double-edged. (nitrogen – process invented to fix nitrogen in soil, but used to manufacture explosives) … The more we know, the more harm we can do each other. If human beings in their rage against each other, invite the aid of insects and micro-organisms, as they certainly will  do if there is another big war, it is by no means unlikely that the insects will remain the sole ultimate victors. Perhaps, from a cosmic point of view, this is not to be regretted; but as a human being I cannot help heaving a sigh over my own species.

Education and discipline

141  The conception which I should substitute as the purpose of education is civilisation, a term which, as I mean it, has a definition which is partly individual, partly social. It consists, in the individual, of both  intellectual and moral qualities: intellectually, a certain minimum of general knowledge, technical skill in one’s own progression, and a habit of forming opinions on evidence; morally, of impartiality, kindliness, and a modicum of self-control. I should add a quality which is neither moral nor intellectual, but perhaps physiological: zest and joy of  142 life. In communities, civilisation demands respect for law, justice as between man and man, purposes not involving permanent injury to any section of the human race, and intelligent adaptation of means to ends.

(what can be done to realise this purpose of education)

142 On the question of freedom in education there are at present three main schools of thought, deriving partly from differences as to the ends and partly from differences in psychological theory. There are those who say that children should be completely free, however bad they may be; there are those who say they should be completely subject to authority, however good they may be; and there are those who say they should be free, but in spite of freedom they should always be good.This last party is larger than it has any logical right to be; children, like adults, will not all be virtuous  if they are all free. The belief that liberty will ensure moral perfection is a relic of Rousseausim, and would not survive a study of animals and babies. Those who hold this belief think that education would have no positive purpose, but should merely offer an environment suitable for spontaneous development. I cannot agree with this school, which seems to me too individualistic, and unduly indifferent to the importance of knowledge. We live in communities which require co-operation, and it would be utopian to expect all the necessary co-operation to result from spontaneous impulse. The existence of a large population on a limited area is only possible owing to science and technique; education must, therefore, hand on the necessary minimum of these.

Stoicism and mental health (1928)

On comets

What is the soul? (1928)

Class, not race

The memoir Born in Crime: Stories from a South African childhood by Trevor Noah (Doubleday, 2016) traces the author’s childhood in South Africa through the rough times of political and social upheaval that accompanied the fall of the apartheid regime.

Being the son of an African mother and a Swiss father, his experiences show the senseless racism from people of both “colors”: this liminal place, both black and white,  situated him on a special, but lonely, observation platform and made his experiences unique. The book is supposedly funny, but the only time I laughed was when I was reading the bit about sitting on the toiled and shitting.

Although the narration is a clear account of the utter stupidity of racism, violence,  gender discrimination, and other ills which people heap on each other, race takes the primary position:

Andrew showed me how important it is to empower the dispossessed and the disenfranchised in the wake of oppression. Andrew was white. His family had access to education, resources, computers. For generations, while his people were preparing to go to university, my people were crowded into thatched huts. (p. 190) 

The author is guilty of the usual overgeneralization by using terms such as “the West”, “white”, “his people”, “my people”, “empower”, “culture”. It is more than evident that not all “white” people live in “the West”, and not all of them are privileged. History shows that many ethnicities were and are subject to awful repression and discrimination either from their own kind or from outsiders or both (Slovaks suffered immense exploitation under the Hungarians for 1000 (!) years, and almost 60 years under the Soviets).

And yet, the author is aware that race by itself is not the cause of most troubles:

Working with Andrew was the first time in my life I realized you need someone from the privileged world to come to you and say, “Okay, here’s what you need, and here’s how it works.” (p. 190)

Clearly, the notion of “privileged” assumes, in Trevor Noah’s account, the connotation of “white”. However, privilege does not have colour or gender. It is “social class” that underpins all human relationships. Nowadays, however, the term “class” is almost meaningless, as “working class” has been renamed “the 99%”.

The book underlines the fact that the type of familial and social upbringing and formal education one receives has an immediate effect on the individuals’ behaviour as well as world-view:

The parties [in Alexandra] don’t end until someone gets shot or a bottle gets broken on someone’s face. (p. 191)

And, saying that fucking air is an expression of our culture (p. 194) is surely not elevating other, more important contributions to human life in general “his people” can make.

Mixing history and personal experiences, describing the  atrocities that individuals perpetrate on each other are, however, not the only backbones of the book. The strength of Trevor Hoah’s mother (one could almost say reckless rash choices, especially the conscious decision to have a baby with a “white” man), the resiliency of Trevor himself to keep on living, his personal strength to see the less tragic sides of every story make this book a very good read indeed.

The origin of language according to Tom Wolfe

wolfe

 

Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech (Little, Brown and Company, 2016, 185 pages) is a most frustrating book. When, up to page 162, the reader thinks “finally, there is someone who can shed a smidgen of more light on the question of the origin of language”, the author stops short, and, in fact, destroys the whole edifice he has so carefully constructed in the preceding pages. Paralleling the conceptual developments and social acceptance of the ideas of the pairs Darwin- Wallace, and Chomsky- Everett, Wolfe traces an outline of intellectual vicissitudes of ideas regarding the “science” of language, especially as they involve the origin of language. These developments demonstrate the power of the academia which tends to overlook solitary researchers outside of the university halls who have no chance to promote their ideas to the world, especially to the “learned” world, and have them stamped with academic approval.

Mentalist claims have expanded our vision about language but have not received the hard evidence to support them. The origin of language is inextricably connected not only to the picture we have of human evolution in general, but more specifically, to the answer to the following two questions:  Is language biologically encoded in homo sapiens sapiens, i.e. is it an organ? Or is language a cultural artifact like the bow and arrow? Wolfe chides Chomsky and leaps beyond Everett in stating that speech was the first artifact: sounds formed codes, i.e. words (p. 163). Then he proceeds to state obvious commonplaces: without speech, the human beast is unable to make plans, to enjoy an accurate memory (and to preserve it, he writes – he surely means written language, not speech!), to make use of mathematics, to have power over the animal kingdom.

Wolfe equates words with speech, a common mistake made by linguistically untrained speakers and writers. He mentions six extraordinary cases of individuals who changed history through language: Jesus, Muhammad, John Calvin, Marx, Freud, and Darwin, but he does not elaborate on their verbal contribution. He prophesies that “soon, speech will be recognized as the Fourth Kingdom” (i.e.,  regnum animalia, vegetabile, lapideum, and, loquax, the last one inhabited solely by homo loquax, making up the universum loquax  “spoken” universe – he possibly meant to say “talking universe”, but what he says is “talkative/loquacious  universe”! Most probably, he was grasping for the form  locutum, the past participle of loquor, loqui “to speak”), or better, yet, loquentem, the present participle, i.e. “speaking” (p. 168). Clearly, Latin for an English speaker is a well-used point of origin of some interesting new meanings, but in this case, the author’s description of the universe as loquax invokes irony rather than awe. Unless Wolfe wants to underscore the fact that today everyone is loquacious, especially on social media…And this is the crux of the matter: speech and language are devalued to such an extent that even bestselling authors do not check their verbal  creations. And Wolfe, being an author of verbal creations, clearly opts for the definition of language as the “author’s tool”, which does not add anything to our understanding of the origin of language.

The final paragraph of the slim booklet contains the following:

  To say that animals evolved into men is like saying that Carrara marble evolved in to  [sic] Michelangelo’s David. Speech is what man pays homage to in every moment he can imagine.

Leaving aside the sexist language, and unclear syntax, Wolfe does not elaborate on his theory of  evolution/creation of “men”. In what way is “creation”, i.e., “sculpting” the same as “evolution”?

Yet again, as happens quite often in my posts which contain book reviews, my conclusion has to do with the publishing business of today: was this book in its manuscript form ever edited, read by a representative of the publishing house, discussed by the publishers? If yes, they would have noticed at least the following problems:

  1. The title: If speaking metaphorically, where is this “kingdom of speech”? Who is its king (for surely there is no queen in sight)? If the term is used for taxonomic purposes, then there is no need for so many regna: two are sufficient: regnum loquentem and regnum non loquentem.
  2. The question about whose ideas are promoted and why is one of the two crucial points of the whole book (the second one being the answer to the question of the origin of language).  The promotion and reception of ideas are extremely topical themes especially these days, when false news and fake news are being constantly banded about. The book seems to endorse the underdog (i.e., the non-academic researcher), without, however, making a concerted effort to analyze this deeply.
  3. It is clear that in the era of multimedia products, verbal creations need a defender. What is more, language needs to be supported, cultivated, elaborated, in the individual as well as in society. This book could have contributed to this defense.
  4. The answer to the question of the origin of language cannot be delivered by one individual-it needs collaboration among scores of researchers.

It’s all well to throw some crumbs (ideas) on the road, but it is a far cry from a well-developed theory, or at least, a well-developed analysis: hence my frustration with the book.

A new, different human

buddha

That the Buddha has become  part and parcel of some indefinite general cultural awareness is obvious from the fact that statues supposedly representing him are now found in home decor stores. Aside from the fact that he would probably be surprised, shocked and annoyed by this development, what is it about him that draws us to him? Is it his iconoclasticism? Is it his human search for a new humanity? Is it his steadfast belief in the power and possibility of human mind and body to overcome suffering? And, therefore, asking about him as a person is natural: What was he like? What exactly happened to him? How did he live? How did he achieve his goal? These and other questions are answered in Karen Armstrong’s Buddha (Penguin Books, 2004). The author makes it clear that the Buddha’s biography can only be partial and full of conjectures, since not only more than 2 and a half millennia intervene between him and us, but also facts about his life are found in writing which appeared more than hundred years after his death (for ex., the Pāli scriptures). This book is therefore threading a difficult and complex ground of centuries of added facts, fantasies, myths about who must have been a charismatic sage. So completing his life story is no mean feat.

The book’s content, after the Introduction,  is divided into sections, more or less following the generally accepted divisions of the Buddha’s philosophical development: Renunciation, Quest, Enlightenment, Dhamma*, Mission, Parinibbāna. The Introduction explains the various sources for the biographical details used, and gives an overview of the complexities of teasing out those which are more plausible than others.  She states that “The Buddha always insisted that his teaching was based entirely on his own experience. He had not studied other people’s views or developed an abstract theory” (xx).  This is an unfortunate statement, since it is contradicted by his constant pre-enlightenment search for teachers and ideas about suffering, explained later in the book (p. 35 and following). The Buddha’s appeal to “our own Western culture” is explained by his “scrupulous empiricism” and also because “He  confined his researches to his own human nature and always insisted that his experiences – even the supreme Truth of Nibbāṇa – were entirely natural to humanity” (xxvi).

In the chapter on Renunciation, Armstrong follows Gotama**’s  route taken commonly by sages, ascetics, forest-monks of his era: in order to cut loose from one’s attachment to people and things which causes pain and suffering, one must abandon the familial lifestyle and search for a way out of suffering outside of the confines of the usual social, economic, political circles. Throughout the book, the author makes connections to “our” (read: modern “Western”) beliefs and attitudes. For example, in this chapter, she writes:

Everything in the mundane world had, it was thought, its  more powerful, positive replica in the divine realm. All that we experienced here below was modeled on an archetype in the celestial sphere; the world of the gods was the original pattern of which human realities were only a pale shadow. This perception informed the mythology, ritual and social organizations of most of the cultures of antiquity and continues to influence more traditional societies in our own day. It is a perspective that is difficult for us to appreciate in the modern world, because it cannot be proved empirically and lacks the rational underpinning which we regard as essential to truth. But the myth does express our inchoate sense  that life is incomplete and that this cannot be all there is: there must  be something better, fuller and more satisfying elsewhere. (p. 5)

At this stage of his life, Gotama is very much conscious of the teachings of his day: reincarnation happens, the soul comes back and is given life according to the actions of the previous host/body/person. What bothers him, and many others, is the ineluctability of the soul returning to yet another life of suffering. According to the author, this resulted in a malaise, common to three parts of the world quasi contemporaneously:

An increasing number[of people] had come to feel that the spiritual practices of their ancestors no longer worked for them, and an impressive array of prophetic and philosophical geniuses made supreme efforts to find a solution. Some historians call this period (which extended from about 800 to 200 B.C.E.) the “Axial Age” because it proved pivotal to humanity. The ethos forged during this era has continues to nourish men and women to the present day. Gotama would become one of the most important and most typical of the luminaries of the Axial Age, alongside the great Hebrew prophets of the eight, seventh and sixth centuries;  Confucius and Lao Tzu, who reformed the religious traditions of China in the sixth and fifth centuries; the sixth century Iranian sage Zoroaster; and Socrates and Plato (c. 427-327).  (p. 10-11)

The chapter entitled Quest deals with Gotama’s delving into various explanations offered by tradition and different teachers as to the cause of suffering: is it ignorance? (Upanisads: lack of understanding of the true Self); is it desire?  (monks of the east Gangetic plains: cravings that make us say “I want”, i.e. egotism). Furthermore, the means to achieve understanding and transcendence included various paths:  meditation (mental exercises), yoga (physical exercises), extreme punitive regimes, self-indulgence.

Gotama’s Enlightenment moment was the result not of his mastering the existing techniques, but of his resolve to “work with human nature not fight against it – amplifying states of  mind that were conducive to enlightenment and turning his back on anything that would stunt his potential. He was developing what he called a “Middle Way” (p. 71). Legend has it that “after the night of meditation, he gained insight about the Four Noble Truths: Noble truth of suffering (dukkha) that informs the whole of human life, Cause of this suffering that was desire (tanhā), Nibbāṇa exists as a way out of this predicament. He discovered the path that leads from suffering and pain to its cessation in the state of Nibbāṇa” (p. 81). And he came up with the Noble Eightfold Path as a way to enlightenment. The Path includes Morality (right speech, action,  livelihood), Meditation (yoga, mindfulness, concentration), and Wisdom (right understanding and resolve). Interestingly, “He had not made this up; it was not a new creation or an invention of his own. He insisted that he had simply discovered  ‘a path of great antiquity, an ancient trail, traveled by human beings in a far-off, distant era’. …this ancient knowledge had faded over the years and had been entirely forgotten” (p. 82).

The chapter on Dhamma underscores specific points of the Buddha’s teaching, specifically, the fact that one should not accept a doctrine on somebody else’s authority  because this could not lead to enlightenment:  it was an abdication of personal responsibility (p. 101). “Letting go” of useless desires, realizing that change is permanent, bring the disciples closer to Nibbāṇa. Furthermore, and this is truly revolutionary (although not original, see the Materialist Ajita’s teachings), “The Buddha always denied the existence of any absolute principle or Supreme Being, since this could be another thing to cling to, another fetter and impediment to enlightenment.” (p. 115) After his enlightenment, the Buddha was also called Tathāgata = one who has gone (after the enlightenment).  “The scriptures say that the Buddha attained Nibbāṇa in late April or early May, but do not reveal the year in which this important event took place. The conventional date 528 BCE, some modern scholarship puts it in 450 BCE” (p. 123).

What was the upshot of the Buddha’s enlightenment? Chapter 5, Mission, describes the blossoming of his followers, despite his vehement repetition that people should follow their own minds. His  sermons reached everyone, and the throngs were substantial. The number of his disciples grew steadily, although slowly at first. Later, donations from kings made  places of quiet seclusion for the monks who followed him (sangha=monastic assembly), but close enough for those townsfolk who needed to come and consult with them. The various understandings of his preaching sharpened into two views, led by two of the most gifted disciples: Sāriputta and Moggallāna. Their understanding

became the inspiration for the two main schools of Buddhism that developed some 200 to 300 years after the Buddha’s death. The more austere and monastically inclined Theravāda regard Sāriputa as a second founder. He was of an analytical cast of  mind and could express the Dhamma in a way that was easy to memorize. But his piety was too dry for the more populist Mahāyāna school, whose version of Buddhism is more democratic and emphasizes the importance of compassion. (p. 130)

This stage of the Buddha’s life also brings into full focus the contradictions of some of his views, for ex.,

  1. although compassionate, the Buddha showed loving kindness to everyone but not to women (and once admitted, their provisions were stricter than for men);
  2. although believing in everyone’s ability to achieve enlightenment, only the disciples were able to learn skillful techniques of meditation (the Noble Truths were not for the laymen);
  3. although he aimed at forging a new way of being human and reform human consciousness, he avoided (consciously?) a close working relationship with kings and rulers, preferring to concentrate not on political and social reform, but on individual enlightenment. Through this, a better society was possible, as life in his sangha demonstrated that contentment without egotism is possible and is in fact pleasurable.

The final chapter on Parinibbāna deals with death and its aftermath. Interestingly enough, the Buddha was aware that not all people believed in reincarnation; his sermons were specifically tailored to his audience. Thus, in the sermon to the Kālāmans, he suggested “they should avoid greed, hatred and delusion, but also cultivate benevolence, kindness and generosity, try to acquire a sound understanding of life, leading to more happiness.  … The Buddha did not impose the doctrine of reincarnation upon the Kalamans, who may not have been familiar with it. If there was another life to come, then this good kamma might get them reborn as gods in heaven next time, but if there was no other world, then this considerate and genial lifestyle might encourage others to behave in like manner towards themselves” (p. 146).***

In the Introduction, Armstrong makes it clear that “The Buddha was trying to find a new way of being human” (xxv). This new way is still new, in a sense that modern life – secular or religious – still clings (!) to the wrong things. This Buddha’s biographer is to be commended for her delicate treatment of the sage’s life. She succeeds in honoring the Buddha’s desire not to look at him, but at his dharma (teaching). Moreover, she puts his life in the context of his era, and makes connections to current cultural practices and beliefs, thus enriching the possibilities of thinking differently about life. All in all, though, the Buddha remains not of this world.

________________________

*The author prefers using Pāli rather than Sanskrit terminology; i.e. dharma.

**Gotama is the Pāli equivalent of the Sanskrit Gautama Buddha’s name.

***This is why it is not surprising that aspects of Buddhist thought can flourish without the necessity of belief in transcendence. See, for ex., Rick Heller, Secular Meditation. A Guide from the Humanist community at Harvard. 32 Practices for Cultivating Inner Peace, Compassion, and Joy. (New World Library, 2015).

 

 

Controlling Mothers

yaya

It’s almost a cliché now to say that the hardships women had to endure (and often still endure) is sometimes beyond description. Rebecca Wells’ novel, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (Harper Perennial, 1996), illustrates a wealth of these hardships brought on by capitalist culture, Louisiana traditions, alcohol abuse, Catholic church, men’s myopia, and family cruelty. But all can be generally borne on the woman’s shoulders on account of the fact that women have each other – in this case, a sisterhood of four strong, resourceful and imaginative ladies.

The narration forms an intriguing, rich in detail, female American novel. The 40-year old Siddalee Walker attempts to come to terms with her deeply troubled, but loving as well as abusive mother. The actions span the era between the 1930s and 1990s; Louisiana is the prime setting, although New York and Seattle’s environments have a role too.  Sidda’s mother, Vivi Abbott, finds solace, audience, and a confessional in her three bosom friends (the real ones, not like Facebook ‘friends’). They do everything together and they can count on each other unconditionally without hesitation, hence the name “The ya-ya sisterhood”. There is an abyss between Sidda and her mother, exasperated after Sidda, a well-received theatre director, reveals some intimate details about her mother’s not-so-flattering behaviour to a journalist who published the interview in the New York Times. Vivi is appalled and does not want to have anything to do with her daughter. What brings them back together is a box of memorabilia which Vivi collected: photos, letters, cards, newspaper clippings, etc. of events connected in any way with Vivi and  with the ya-ya sisterhood. Sidda requested to see the box and Vivi sends it to her. These mementos reveal as well as hide many aspects of Vivi’s life. The biggest tragic event, the moment of a violent child abuse by Vivi, although perhaps perpetrated in her family for generations, is brought  on by medication, alcohol, and horribly ignorant indoctrination by a Catholic priest. Needless to say, the novel’s happy ending brings mother and daughter ever close together, although Sidda admits that she will never know her mother fully.

The narration provides a rich panorama of Louisiana climate, food, traditions, social conventions, which are both an attraction for Sidda and a source of trepidation. The reader can almost feel the humid heat, the aromas of gumbo  and julip, and the warmth of human interaction. The novel alternates voices (omniscient narrator, Vivi, Sidda, letters, newspapers clippings, etc.), a technique which adds to the wealth of images.

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood describes in clear detail how mothers’ behaviour is controlled by societal traditions (be they religious, economic, or social), geographical locations which underpin people’s conduct, and by the extent to which husbands/fathers are involved in raising the family. On the other hand, mothers also control their children and husbands. The femaleness of the novel underscores the network of female relationships women were and are often relegated to for the sake of their sanity. This sisterhood, however, does not remove the psychological problems Vivi faces alone – in a reform school, hotel, sanatorium. It is only thanks to her resourcefulness and stamina that Vivi lives through the traumatic moments in her life. These, nonetheless, bring repercussions for the manner in which she raises her children, especially her first-born Sidda. The paradox is, however, that Sidda wouldn’t be what she is (a successful, thinking, albeit insecure person), if it weren’t for her mother; above all, theatre director and author.

 

Beyond a thriller

Harris

 

According to Wikipedia, “Thrillers are characterized and defined by the moods they elicit, giving viewers heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation and anxiety.” All of these are present in the reader’s reaction to the novel Conclave. The power of God, the ambition of men by Robert Harris (Random House, 2016).

How exactly is a Pope elected? Should he be Italian or not, white or not, traditionalist or progressive? What are the traditions and rules the cardinals have to adhere to? What politicking goes on while in conclave (i.e. locked behind closed doors)? What is the balance between God’s will and the cardinals’ intentions? What are the unpredictable elements in such a closed environment? These are the questions answered in this fast-paced, well-researched fictional narrative. The setting is the Sistine Chapel and surrounding buildings in the Vatican, the characters are mostly the cardinals entrusted in the election of the pope, the plot revolves around the actual voting, but there are twists and turns which have to do with the personal characteristics of the cardinals (those most predicted to become the Pope, as well as those least suspected). Political context (manifestations, terrorist bombings) frame the narrative. The time in which the actions take place is perhaps near to our future, maybe just past the current papacy of Pope Francis or the one after him. The omniscient narrator offers his descriptions of the action through the character of Cardinal Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals: a slow, slightly infirm, but intelligent and honest man who has been in the Vatican for a long time and is quick to avoid scandals and steer the media (in southern Italian dialects, meli  means “honey”).

Clearly, there is suspense and excitement when the election of a new Pope is happening,  by virtue of the expectations, desires, prayers of all Christians and not, and by the weight of the decision put on the shoulders of the 118 men who have to come to a majority agreement. The anxiety is evident in the initial vote cast where any cardinal’s name can be put on the ballot. These common and expected elements could make an interesting thriller. But Harris goes beyond the regular plot. At least two surprising elements turn up which make for a definitely interesting, though-provoking, and above- average narration, because they allow for  flight of the imagination outside of the confines of the conclave thriller.

1) The first surprise element deals with a blemish on the character of a very strong papacy candidate, the Nigerian Cardinal Joshua Adeyemi. While very young, and while already in the clergy, he fathered a son. This news comes as a complete bombshell, brought about by the seemingly chance visit from the mother, a Nigerian nun, a sister with the Daughters of the Charity of St. Vincent De Paul.   Lomeli has to deal with it. Of course, the affair is hushed but Adeyemi has no chance of winning through skillful re-direction of votes. Thus, the chance of the first black pope is lost.

However, the bigger question is whether absolutely no one human being is beyond reproach. And, conversely, if one  is a sinner, one cannot be a great, admired, idolized musician/ politician/ journalist/ actor/ instructor/ etc. etc. etc., and of course, pope. It seems that especially nowadays “sins” such as sexual predation, rape, violence against women and men, lying, cheating, and other illegal behaviours do not constitute grounds for firing presidents, politicians, actors, etc., nor these “fallible” people fall from grace of the general public. Are cardinals then different than other humans?

2) The second surprise has to do with the gender and sex of the pope. While there is the myth of Joanna, seemingly the only female pope in history, clearly the sex and gender of the pope are not matters of choice or discussion. The pope is a male and is a man. And yet, Harris suggests that a woman can rise to the top of the Catholic hierarchy. But there is a physiological circumstance: she has to have a medical condition, a deformity (fusion of the labia majora and minora), and therefore she is not a real, complete woman. The pope then can be a person who is less than a woman. It also helps that Benites (she) is a Philippino, therefore the long-awaited Third World pope.

The novel’s content, with its focus on the election of the pope, has the opportunity to touch upon other topics as well, such as the question of wealth and economic dealings of the Catholic church, the sexual misconduct of its clergy, losing faith in the Church, the “hand of God” in human affairs. Harris also uses striking similes and metaphors to bring the reader into what it must feel like being sequestered from the world. For ex., “…the reporters and photographers started calling out to the cardinals, like tourists at a zoo trying to persuade the animals to come closer” (p. 20); “Behind the thick bulletproof glass, priests and security men moved silently in the yellowish glow like creatures in an aquarium”  (p. 47), “We are an Ark, he thought, surrounded by a rising flood of discord.” (p. 34), etc. Memorable are also depictions of some characters: “Cardinal Goffredo Tedesco was the least clerical-looking cleric Lomeli had ever seen. If you showed a picture to someone who didn’t know him, they would say he was a retired butcher, perhaps, or a bus driver” (p. 45);  a Canadian, Cardinal Tremblay, “looked like a cleric in some Hollywood romantic movie: Spencer Tracy came to mind.” (p. 140).

In conclusion, Harris has created a fast-paced, suspenseful drama, peopled with quirky and interesting characters, unpredictable events, and Catholic pomp and circumstance. He has also highlighted two timely topics with which society is still grappling, giving them, however, still slightly traditional answers. A worth-while read.