Hudson University

I have mentioned before that I have something of a soft-spot for (often) ridiculous television dramas. Some I legitimately like, others feed bad habits without demanding anything of me in return, including not requiring money. The latest addition to my routine has been Blindspot, an FBI, spy mystery that revolves around deciphering tattoos on Jane Doe’s body and, by extension, figuring out who she is and why she came to the attention of the FBI. Usually I wish they would do more with this sort of character story rather than using the same hook for a new semi-procedural of discovering and then resolving corruption throughout the city. This week’s episode traipsed into a cliche that sits on my list of pet-peeves: the college campus.

One tattoo is revealed to contain significant digits for Hudson University’s highly lucrative football program national championships and seem to point to NCAA scholarship violations, so the agents wander to campus to speak to a coach who denies any knowledge and, on their way out, stumble across a school shooting. It turns out that the shooting is perpetrated by former (and current?) players who have rigged many several doors in a (student center?) building next to the football field with explosives and are now marching through the building with assault rifles in order to kill the coach because he molested them as children; the scholarship violations were hush-money to keep the scandal under wraps. The story is a clumsy retelling of the Jerry Sandusky saga at Penn State garnished with the school-shooting epidemic.

There is a lot that could be unpacked about the inconsistencies of the story. The shooters insist they are only after the coach, but nevertheless rigged doors in a student building with explosives. The coach evidently goes into the building a lot, but this sort of hand-wavy treatment of the college campus is frustrating. The student center of this fictional school contains a) cafeterias, b) classrooms, c) an auditorium, d) labs, and the whole thing is set particularly close to athletics facilities. At a small school this could certainly happen, but at a school large enough to have a nationally-competitive football program it is highly improbable. Instead of offering any sort of specificity, the writers offer vague snapshots of “college” and expect the viewer to be able to fill in the gaps. This is not particular to Blindspot, and Hudson University is a common setting for a large number of television shows when they need a stock-college.

At some level, though, this is a function of the medium. College is still a fairly ubiquitous experience for most people in America and that school is a convenient setting for a story rather than the point of the show, so vague snapshots suffice. Nevertheless, the preponderance of these snapshots help perpetuate stereotypes about the academy. (Perhaps office shows perpetuate stereotypes about offices, etc, but these shows seem to dally with the academy in a way similar only to entertainment industries.)

I don’t like how colleges are portrayed on TV, but have only one, tangentially related suggestion. Even if none of these other stereotypes are resolved, can we at least move them to a more believable location? The last time a New York school with a football program won a national championship was Army, in 1946. The show wants to be set in New York for a variety of reasons, but also to tap into the national obsession with football–two things that hardly go together.

The Struggle for Sea Power, Sam Willis

I have said in the past that if I was not studying ancient Greece there is a short list of other subjects that I would study. One of those is 18th and 19th century naval history. I have a print of a watercolor rendition of the USS Constitution on my wall and used to eat up stories about Horatio Nelson, of whom I own a two-volume biography, Stephen Decatur at Tripoli, and many, many more. I did eventually move away from simple fascination with adventure stories and became more interested in the social and economic aspects of naval powers and a personal favorite in my library is the history of the British Navy by N.A.M. Rodgers, volume two, The Command of the Ocean. Two weeks ago I saw that the library received a copy of a brand new history of the American Revolution, The Struggle for Sea Power by Sam Willis.

Willis’ central claim, that the conflict known as the American Revolution was fundamentally determined by and ultimately about maritime power, is aptly shown. Here is a presented a catholic definition of naval power to include the rivers, lakes, and bays of America in addition to the seas from the Caribbean to India and Willis notes that the success of most major land campaigns were determined by the abilities of sailors accompanying the fleet. Similarly, from his perspective, nearly all British campaigns during the war were a projection of naval power from a handful of port cities along the American east coast. But the war in America was just one part of a larger conflict that drew in The Netherlands, Morocco, Spain, France, Russia, and the Indian Sultan Hyder Ali. For Americans, sea power was a means to receive supplies and impede the British ability to persecute the war, but Willis shows that there was a broader concern among the other powers, namely whether it would be possible to wrest control of the seas from Britain for their own use.

Covering such a broad sweep, Willis frequently boils success and failure of operations to clashes of personality. The inability of commanders, whether between political parties, between nations, or between land and sea, to work in concert frequently determines the course of the action, perhaps even to too great an extent. Other than the individual merits of the commanders, Willis is keenly aware of the perils of sailing, including the deterioration of ship, the need for local guides, and dangerous storms, all of which appear. Willis draws together a wide range of specialized studies, on the navies of the different colonies, on the European navies, and more, and is thus able to weave in issues of naval funding, nutrition, and technology. The last is particularly notable in that the ironic twist to this story is that the American Revolution was a defeat for the British, but the innovation and mobilization meant that they emerged from the conflict in an even stronger position on the seas.

Even being predisposed to liking this topic, I enjoyed The Struggle for Sea Power, though its language was at times overly casual for my taste. To give one example, there were several examples of people being “shot in the balls.” I also wanted to know more about some of the more picayune aspects of technological development and the like, but I can’t hold those against Willis since the point of the book is how those played out during the American Revolution, which is adequately discussed.

Next up, I am still reading (and enjoying) Palace Walk, but recent events have caused my reading to slow. I am also irrationally excited for the arrival of my newest book order, which includes an Indonesian novel Man Tiger and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Plato would have run a SuperPAC?

In The Republic, Plato warned of the dangers of unchecked democracy, in that it can open the door to chaos, tyrants and demagogues.

It is an apt warning in the midst of one of the muddiest campaign cycles in American history.

Plato’s caution was that democracy is vulnerable to the manipulation of those who care more for personal power than public good.

USA Today ran an op-ed this week arguing, nominally in the name of Plato’s Republic, that campaigns financed by small donors are bad for democracy because they encourage a turn to base demagoguery in order to bring in the big bucks. Of course, as Charlie Pierce points out, “Plato didn’t say fck-all about campaign finance.” Pierce nicely mocks the central argument of the op-ed, namely that the grassroots campaigns of Obama and Sanders lead directly to the media circus that is the Trump campaign (with or without small donors), but I want to add a few words about Plato.

I am not an expert on Plato or his political philosophy; in fact, one of my biases is that I dislike Plato. However, I do know something about politics in the ancient world. The editorialist is not wrong that Plato was not fond of democracy as a form of government, and he even provides a link to a website that has the citation to the Republic that, by and large, offers an accurate representation of the perils of democracy. Nor is Plato alone in this, with the cycle of constitutions (Monarchy-Oligarchy-Democracy-Monarchy) appearing in the work of Aristotle and elsewhere. It reaches a particularly full form in the start of Polybius’ Book 6, where he argues that there are six varieties of constitutions, each form having a higher and lower variation and the cycle going from one viable type and degenerating into a corrupted type. The solution for Polybius, anyway, is a mixed constitution that will be stable. Plato has a less practical solution to provide stability by reordering society.

The contention made in the editorial about SuperPACs is that the large donors can hold a candidate accountable for his or her actions—-going so far as to say that:

if a campaign is wasting money on frivolous expenses, they can object. If a candidate says something overly hateful or extreme, they can walk. They often serve as an executive board of sorts, challenging campaigns to act worthy of their investment.

Without explicitly saying so, the author offers SuperPAC donors as the Guardians of Plato’s city. He admits that this is not a popular argument, but it is blatantly in favor of oligarchy. If one were to take Plato’s utopian society where everyone is treated according to his or her capabilities and serves the proper purpose, including the absolute impeccability of the guardians this might be viable. As it stands, not so much.

The editorial is designed to be anti-Trump, arguing that there needs to be a check on demagoguery. Fine, though Trump certainly benefits from the bottom line of cable companies that give him oodles of free airtime, too. What this piece misses is the underlying assumptions of ancient political thought. The fact that Trump is not accountable to donors would have been considered one of his greatest strengths. Trump might be the best demagogue of the current crop and therefore resembles Cleon, supposedly the bloodiest man in Athens, but the problem elites had with Cleon was that he used public funds to effectively purchase the support of the masses, not the other way around. In a similar vein, the problem with oligarchs is that they create laws that support oligarchs and have a tendency to punish citizens who stand in their way. If one is to look to Plato, it may be appropriate to look a bit more widely. Plato came from a wealthy aristocratic family and his relative Critias was the most vicious of the Thirty Tyrants, the oligarchic board that ruled Athens in the immediate aftermath of the Peloponnesian War.

So would Plato have favored SuperPACs? Quite possibly, in all likelihood, but because they would have benefited him as a political being, not because they ensured high-minded election cycles,

Mephisto – Klaus Mann

…hidden in every real German isn’t there a little of Mephistopheles, a bit of the rascal and the ruffian? If we had nothing but the soul of Faust, what would become of us? It would be a pushover for our many enemies! No, no—-Mephisto, too, is a German national hero. But it’s better not to go around telling people that.

Hendrick (neé Heinz) Höfgen is an actor in Hamburg, a provincial star who dreams of stardom in Vienna or Berlin and lords over his local cast. He rebuffs the advances of “little” Angelika and Hedda, who has intimacy but no relationship, he torments the young National Socialist Miklas, and he perpetually puts off the opening of the “revolutionary theater” planned by his communist friend Otto. The year is 1930. The directors lament that Hendrick is overpaid, but he remains the star and they tolerate his moods and eccentricities. Hendrick draws his energy from his “dancing lessons” with Princess Tebab, his black Venus, and waits.

His patience pays off, his fame builds, and he manages to convince the daughter of a privy counsellor, his “good angel” to marry him. But things really take off when Hendrick excels in the part of Mephistopheles during a performance of Goethe’s Faust and catches the eye of the Prime Minister. (The person is Hermann Göring, but just like with Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler, the three prominent Nazis to appear in the book, Mann never mentions them by name, a point I will come back to below.) With this patronage, Hendrick rises to the top of society and is able to reject his past associations with revolutionary communism, his marriage to a political dissident of “questionable” lineage, and his African mistress—-even over the objections of the Propaganda Minister. However, while Mann portrays Hendrick as complicit because of his obsession with ascending the ranks as an actor, he also shows that Hendrick must still face the moral consequences of his actions; he is a consummate actor and hardly consistent, but seems to have had legitimate political sympathies and affections for people now deemed impure and thus with fame becomes ever more tortured.

Loosely based on the career of the author’s brother-in-law, Klaus Mann’s Mephisto is an interesting mixture of surreal beauty, insightful analysis of the rise of Nazi Germany, and rote polemic. It is not that Mann offers this as a hackneyed retrospective, since it was originally published in 1936, but many of the critiques have since become commonplace.

What Mann did particularly well in Mephisto was to give a panorama of the rise of the Nazi state and the subsequent fallout. For instance, both Hendrick’s friend Otto and his nemesis Hans Miklas come to unfortunate ends, Otto (twice) for dedicating himself to fighting against the Nazis and Miklas for being a true-believer betrayed by the system that still manages to reward Hendrick. Similarly, Mann accounts for the trajectories of Jewish actresses, dissident ex-wives, and deported mistresses to show how Hendrick’s rise and the system that enabled it affected those around him. I also appreciated the depiction of the top Nazi officials, who Mann described as demigods of the underworld who extended their benevolence to mortals.

In this portrayal, it is of little surprise that Hendrick so fully embodied Mephistopheles, who he characterized as “a tragic clown,” a “rascal,” who “knows mankind.” Hendrick is Mephisto. Mephisto is Hendrick. More independent than evil, ever ingratiating, and more than a little lucky. In this case, however, he is also torn by powers stronger than he, torn asunder by the very lack of willingness to stand for anything other than himself. This is not the banality of evil, but something in the same vicinity where personal ambitions of even a person with a conscience can cause him to betray almost everything in his life, whether he believes in those things or not.

I liked Mephisto, though not as much as Klaus’ father, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, which was published more than ten years after this book. It has been too long since reading the latter to really compare the two, but perhaps if I reread it this summer I will have to think about this more deeply. That said, I am not in a hurry to jump into that project since I am once more feeling burnt-out on depictions of totalitarianism in Europe.

Next up: I am currently reading Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz and still working on The Struggle for Sea Power by Sam Willis.

Tun-Huang – Yasushi Inoue

What can set in motion a chain of events that will, in hundreds of years, lead to a remarkable archeological find? More concretely, what can set in motion events that will cause a man to bury hundreds of pages of buddhist scripture in isolated caves?

This is the question that Yasushi Inoue answers with his work of historical imagination, Tun-Huang, so named for the caves where the monk Chao Hsing-te will end up burying the scrolls. The story opens hundreds of miles away. Hsing-te comes from a bureaucratic family and studied for years to take the civil service exam except, after cruising through the first two rounds of testing, he falls asleep in the waiting area and sleeps through the final round of testing. Faced with the prospect of waiting years for the next round of testing and being devastated, Hsing-te wanders through the market and chances into a merchant selling a Hsi-Hsia woman, one body part at a time. Moved by the spectacle, Hsing-te her freedom, and then sets out to see her homeland. Along the way he becomes a warrior, falls in love with a princess, becomes associated with a dangerous and violent merchant and a Hsing-te officer of Chinese origin with a near-suicidal mania for throwing himself into battle. All of these events are formative, but, ultimately, the most important development is that Hsing-te converts to Buddhism and dedicates his living to saving the documents before the flames of war consume them.

Tun-Huang is a book on which I am torn. The text forms the backbone of an epic story, and Inoue mimics the form of historical narrative from a detached vantage point. It is an epic in two hundred pages. Hsing-te’s transition is a worthy subject, and the Chinese soldier Wang Li, the merchant Kuang, and the Uigher princess are viable, if somewhat shallow, supporting characters. The book moves, and I agree with one review I read that compares the story to the form and style to that of the movie Western, but I still found myself dissatisfied. My problem was the sense of predestination in that, while not in form, the story is built to start with the end and then builds back the events that led up to it. As a result, individual scenes were moving–the sacrifice of the princess, the greedy merchant pawing through the ground for riches–but in part because I found the characters hard to connect with, I suspect because of the style, the overall the story lacked sufficient drama for my taste.

Next up I am currently reading Klaus Mann’s Mephisto about actors and theater in Nazi Germany and The Struggle for Sea Power, a global naval history of the American Revolution.

The Dispossessed- Ursula K. Le Guin

Now, you man from a world I cannot even imagine, you who see my Paradise as Hell, will you ask what my world must be like?

The winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, The Dispossessed has its faults, but is a revelation nonetheless. The novel, subtitled “an ambiguous utopia,” follows Shevek, a physicist across two timelines, brilliantly interweaving the themes and events of the two toward the seminal events of the story, a departure and an un-narrated return. This is a narrative technique I have a fondness for and Le Guin executes it well, but the brilliance lies in that the technique mirrors Shevek’s research on Sequency and Simultaneity. Content and form are matched, but I am getting ahead of myself.

At its heart, The Dispossessed is a story of exploration. Shevek is raised on the “anarchic” moon/world Anarres where, a hundred and fifty years before the story, the most fervent followers of the revolutionary preacher Odo fled to found a new society. Their language is constructed to do away with prejudices and superstitions, their names assigned by a computer, and their society based on the principles of individualism and equality. Society is governed by economic “syndicates” that are voluntary associations for people to pursue vocations. While everyone is free to do as they wish, the behavior is regulated by community and traditional pressures. Everyone pursues what is best for them and their community and everyone makes sacrifices. Shevek finds out that there may not be a hierarchy, but some people are able to exert power over others as he is repeatedly thwarted in his scientific pursuits by a petty, conservative scientist. Even beyond influentially located opponents, he comes to realize how much power the entrenched bureaucracy has. This may not be problematic for the individual who can seamlessly integrate into society as needed, but is devastating for one whose social fabric requires being knotted with a particular set of people.

When Shevek tries to live the revolution, he learns that there are social consequences–particularly when he decides that his purpose includes becoming the first person in nearly 200 years to go back to the land of the “profiteers,” Urras, whence their ancestors fled all those years ago. Yet, once he manages to make this journey, Shevek finds that his study of temporal physics is easier, but also that there is gross inequality and that there are as many or more limits on his personal freedoms.

The Dispossessed is bursting with ideas. In the Anarres timeline, there are questions of love, family, and intimacy in a society based on extreme socialization, the problem of communal subsistence and sacrifice in times of hardship, power and influence in a society formally without hierarchy or religion. In the Urres timeline, there is an issue of gender equality, inequalities based on wealth, and money. Spanning the two are the ultimate issues of freedom and happiness, combined with the way in which language governs how people interact with the world around them. Framing all of these, as well as the story as a whole is the very basic idea of walls. The story begins:

There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of a boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.

Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.

Looked at from one side, the wall enclosed a barren sixty-acre field called the port of Anarres…It was in fact a quarantine…It enclosed the universe, leaving Anarres outside, free.

Looked at from the other side, the wall enclosed Anarres: the whole planet was inside it, a great prison camp, cut off from other worlds and other men, in quarantine.

Though he never addresses it directly, Shevek seems to hate the wall, but nevertheless must decide which side he wants to be on.

I have owned this book for a while now, but had it independently talked up by several people whose literary opinions I respect, so I moved it up my list and was immensely rewarded. I was swept away by The Dispossessed, which quickly became one of my favorite science fiction novels. That said, there were times that I found Urras, the Earth-analog, to be a little bit too on the nose with its Cold War parallels (the novel was first published in 1974). Le Guin does transcend this in the end, and notably manages to tell the story from the point of view of an outsider plopped down into the middle of the conflict, while also positing a different sort of stalemate between the two worlds, both of which sometimes refer to the other world as their “moon.” Shevek has his preferences between the two, but both may be considered an “ambiguous utopia.”


Next up, I am about halfway through Yasushi Inoue’s Tun-Huang, which is fine, but not nearly as exceptional as a lot of what I’ve read this year thus far. My expectations might be high at this point, but it is disappointing me nonetheless.