1984 Is Here

#1984ishere is trending on Twitter this morning, started by a group of people operating under the delusion that Twitter and its decision to permanently ban Donald Trump’s account constitute the arrival of the totalitarian state imagined in George Orwell’s classic novel. A cursory glance at the tag shows users who superimpose the Twitter logo with the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union or one image of the names of social media companies on the arms of the swastika on the Nazi flag. More frequently, people bemoan that this is yet another sign of “censorship” from those who can’t tolerate divergent opinions. However, even setting aside the various incitement and imminent danger tests for first amendment protections that the events of this week make a reasonable case for, these claims ignore that these are private companies who now deem the banned accounts in violation of their terms of service.

(See also: Simon and Schuster deciding that Josh Hawley’s role in the attempted coup merited cancelling his book contract. This is not cancel culture; actions have consequences.)

1984 does have some commentary about speech, both in the Sapir-Whorf-esque effects of Newspeak and the fear of retaliation and reeducation. After all, Big Brother is watching you. But there’s the rub. Private social media companies like Twitter and Facebook and prominent publishers like Simon and Schuster may seem like they control the marketplace of ideas, but this is not the same thing as absolute state control of the sort that Orwell described. If anything, the former group show the need for more government regulation given their data collection and lack of accountability, and conflating this with totalitarianism demonstrates a facile reading of the book.

(I know, I’m giving people too much credit: most likely know about these things as buzzwords magnified through the very media echo chambers that they’re using the terms to attack.)

Private companies making business decisions about their platforms is not Orwellian, particularly when the social media companies seem to be acting at least in part to lay the groundwork for arguing in front of congress against regulation. Nor is any government regulation you object to automatically Orwellian—at any time, let alone during a pandemic.

1984 is a harrowing book. Doublethink, Big Brother, and the Thought Police sound sinister and are easy topics to latch onto, but they are also easy to misappropriate. More relevant to the present moment are other aspects of the book. Its setting is Oceania, a nation locked in a forever war with one or the other of the global powers (Eurasia and Eastasia) and with the power to absolutely revise history as to who is the enemy. In fact, Winston Smith getting an indication that Big Brother has been deceiving people serves as the inciting incident of the novel. Big Brother himself is a present-yet-distant charismatic leader who serves as a focal point for adoration. It is at his direction that reality is disseminated to his people: only Big Brother can protect you.

Sound familiar? Try this, excerpted from a scene in 1984 about the ritual Two Minutes of Hate:

In its second minute the Hate rose to a frenzy. People were leaping up and down in their places and shouting at the tops of their voices in an effort to drown the maddening bleating from the screen. The little sandy-haired woman had turned bright pink, and her mouth was opening and shutting like that of a landed fish. Even O’Brien’s heavy face was flushed. He was sitting very straight in his chair, his powerful chest swelling and quivering as though he was standing up to the assault of a wave. The dark-haired girl behind Winston had begun crying out, “Swine! Swine! Swine!” and suddenly she picked up a heavy Newspeak dictionary and flung it at the screen. It struck Goldstein’s nose and bounced off; the voice continued inexorably. In a lucid moment Winston found that he was shouting with the others and kicking his heel violently against the rung of his chair. The horrible thing about the Two Minutes of Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one subject to another like the flame of a blowlamp.

Then the face of Big Brother faded away again, and instead the three slogans of the Party stood out in bold capitals:

WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

But the face of Big Brother seemed to persist for several seconds on the screen, as though the impact that it had made on everyone’s eyeballs were too vivid to wear off immediately. The little sandy-haired woman had flung herself forward over the back of the chair in front of her. With a tremulous murmur that sounded like “My Savior!” she extended her arms toward the screen. Then she buried her face in her hands. It was apparent that she was uttering a prayer.

Now try Five Years of Hate.

Parable of the Sower

Human beings are good at creating hells for themselves even out of richness.

The year is 2024. Climate change has parched and torched the American Southwest and what is left of the United States is, functionally, a failed state. The president Christopher Charles Morpeth Donner believes that all Americans really need to get back to work, which means cutting back on needless regulation. We enter into this dystopian landscape through the journal of Lauren Olamina: author, prophet of Earthseed, teen-aged girl.

When we first meet Lauren she lives in Robledo with her father (a priest and professor), step-mother, and siblings. Robledo is nothing special: a poor community just outside Los Angeles, gated, if barely. Inside the walls is a community. There are families. They grow food. Lauren’s stepmother teaches the kids how to read. That is not to say things are perfect, but it is an island of stability. Outside the walls lies danger: drug users, roving bands, packs of wild dogs. For Lauren, the stability offered by Robledo is of particular importance because of her particular condition. She is an empath who feels the pain and joy of other people, which is a particular danger in such a violent world.

Although Parable of the Sower unfolds over four years, the story is actually divided in two parts: in Robledo and on the road. About halfway through the book, the bubble of stability suddenly implodes and Lauren suddenly finds herself cast onto the road. With just two survivors from Robledo, Zahra Moss, the youngest wife in a polygamous family, and Harry Balter, a white teenager her own age, Lauren resolves to head north to find a better land where she can build a new community based on her new religion: Earthseed. Food is scarce, water expensive, and every person in the vast human tide moving north is a potential thief or worse. And yet, there is also safety in numbers, so they find themselves accumulating traveling companions, whether in the form of Allie and Jill Gilchrist, runaway sisters whose father became their pimp, or a small family of runaway slaves Travis and Natividad Douglas with their infant child. An exception to the apparent strays that Lauren accumulates is Bankole, an aging black man who is just a little bit too prepared and a little bit too competent and starts by conspicuously traveling alongside the group rather than with it. Each new addition to the group gets the same message:

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

Although Butler wrote Parable of the Sower in 1994, a world in which the American southwest is on fire, presidents call for deregulation, and people desperate for work take jobs in ever-worse conditions while the core problems are left unaddressed is an eerily plausible setting. And the imminent arrival of the year 2024 makes it seem all the more prescient. This is a world built on the bones of American social institutions going back to the time of slavery, but imagined in the context of the very real social and environmental problems of the twenty-first century.

As a near-future history of a failing United States Parable of the Sower falls into the same genre as Omar El Akkad’s American War, which envisions a future where the Civil War reignites over the issue of fossil fuels, splitting the country and allowing him to invert the paradigms of the American “War on Terror” as applied to the American south. I really liked American War and thought its project was a clever one, but, in a lot of ways, what Butler does in Parable of the Sower strikes closer to home. For one, Butler is significantly more insightful about the race-based schisms that linger in the United States and the gradual erosion of social order because of environmental change seems a bit more plausible than the neat resurrection of the Confederacy. Similarly, the 2019 documentary American Factory won an Academy Award for its look at the working conditions at a Chinese-owned factory in Moraine Ohio. The conditions in the Ohio factory were not as extreme as those imagined in Parable of the Sower, but it is easy to hear an echo of the same processes at work, particularly since American companies have created comparable conditions by sending their production overseas. From there it is a short leap to the reintroduction of outright slavery.

“You might be able to get a job as a driver,” she said. “They like white men to be drivers. If you can read and write, and if you’d do the work, you might get hired.”

“I don’t know how to drive, but I could learn,” Harry said. “You mean driving those big armored trucks, don’t you?”

Emery looked confused. “Trucks? No, I mean driving people. Making them work. Pushing them to work faster. Making them do…whatever the owners say.”

In short, I loved Parable of the Sower. This is my first exposure to Butler’s writing, but I was blown away by how vivid and specific it was, both in imagining the world and in painting the characters and relationships. For instance, I’m not one to usually cast books as I read them, but I could not stop imagining Bankole as Idris Elba as I read it. The book’s format as both the diary and gospel of a precocious teenaged girl is deceptively easy to read, even as the world itself is unrelenting. I can imagine a complaint that Lauren is too precocious, but this actually becomes a plot point and the format is a perfect vehicle for capturing Lauren’s empathy, which, in turn, puts both the pain and joy of the world on display. This book is incisive, painful, and optimistic by turns, and entirely worth reading.

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I reached a point of the semester where I struggled to read anything except science fiction and fantasy novels. Most recently I read N.K. Jemisin’s latest work, the excellent novel The City We Became and before that Alix Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January (about which I was more mixed). Next up, I’m reading Jeffery Pilcher’s Planet Taco, a global history of Mexican food.

To Make Men Free

2020 is a curious time to be thinking about the history of the Republican Party. For the past few years this has been the party of Donald Trump, with all of the baggage that comes with that label. This year, the party’s machinations have gone to ever greater lengths to overturn election results and line the pockets of the wealthy few.

This was not always the case.

In To Make Men Free, Heather Cox Richardson, argues that the soul of the Republican Party has swung on a pendulum between the two extremes.

One vertex was the ideal of economic opportunity that lay behind the formation of the Republican Party. This was the party of Lincoln, in her telling, which opposed the institution of slavery because it had created an oligarchy. The men who owned the most slaves also usually owned the most land, squeezing out people like Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather, and they pulled on the levers of power to protect their position in society. Thus opposing slavery was synonymous with ensuring economic opportunity for all people. Moreover, they maintained, it was the place of government to step in and level the playing field.

The other vertex also existed almost from the start, with Republican supporters becoming very wealthy from government contracts during the Civil War. For those who espoused this position, economic opportunity was of secondary importance to the constitutional protections of property. They might not have endorsed slavery—and certainly they would be the first to point out that Democrats were the party of traitors—but neither would they support handouts to the “mudsills” of society since that way lay socialism.

Richardson takes readers into the smokey back rooms where the deals were made to trace the oscillation between these two extremes. Lincoln and the so-called “radical” Republicans gave way to business-oriented Republicans in the late 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. Teddy Roosevelt briefly wrenched control of the party again with a platform that demanded government regulation of big business, only to see those gains given back by the Republican administrations of the 1920s where Coolidge maintained that “the chief business of the American people is business.” Many Republicans might have opposed the New Deal, but it also functionally established a new political norm that informed the policies of Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s that expanded educational opportunity, the interstate highway system, and a high marginal tax rate. However, it was also the 1950s that saw the birth of so-called “Movement Conservatism”: hard-line, activist conservatism of William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater that captured the Republican party in the 1970s and has not let go.

Before I became a historian, I thought I might want to work in politics. One of my favorite books a professor assigned in college was Stephen Skowronek’s The Politics Presidents Make, which looked at how presidents were able to realign political coalitions in ways that shaped the political trajectory of the United States. Broadly speaking, To Make Men Free offers a comparable look at just the Republican Party. I am sure that there are people who would quibble with some of the specific characterizations of figures in this book, but as an evaluation of the larger trends and currents, this book rang true and had receipts to show each of the changes.

Richardson neatly (sometimes almost too neatly) sketches how the outward policies of the Republican Party were the result of long-standing intra-party fights. This was a compelling read, filled with fascinating anecdotes like how early Republican legislators were issuing dire warning about socialism and moments like how “In 1938, in a speech the New York Times reprinted, Luccock warned that when fascism came to America it would be called ‘Americanism'” (207).

But there were two particular facets of this book that stood out to me reading it in the age of Trump. The first was how deeply many current Republican talking points have a deep history in the party’s consciousness. When Republican legislators railed that it was impossible for some Democrat to have won an election in the late 1800s on the grounds that their party was composed of illegitimate traitors who were also determined to bring socialist values to America, one could almost hear the same words coming out of any number of present-day Republican commentators. That position was more understandable coming from a Republican who had fought in the Civil War, but it was also a bitter echo given the current political climate.

The second facet was Richardson’s treatment of Movement conservatism, of which she declares: “Buckley might have called his ideas conservative, but they were actually the very radicalism true conservatives opposed” (249). Ultimately, this is the Republican party we have today, and unyielding and uncompromising political ideology that ironically, as Richardson points out, built its membership through small group meetings rather like the Communists they despised. Much like the rest of the book, Richardson doesn’t linger, but offers a sweeping overview of Movement Conservatism summarizing it as:

In the years after Reagan, Movement Conservatives lashed the Republican Party to an ideology that was based on image rather than reality … [They] claimed to be trying to cut government down to an acceptable size. But in truth they were destroying the New Deal government, which they saw as socialism, and replacing it with an even bigger government that served the ideals of Movement Conservatism: promoting big business, religion, and the military.

Naturally, this last section would be the hardest part of the book to write since it takes the reader roughly through the present. Richardson ends To Make Men Free with a conclusion that aptly identifies Barack Obama as the embodiment of the values of Lincoln’s Republican party and a figure so anathema to Movement Conservatives who latched onto the rhetoric of the antebellum Democratic political James Henry Hammond that they “could no longer engage with the reality of actual governance” (341). To Make Men Free came out in a time before the presidency of Donald Trump, but I suspect that the intervening years would not change this specific conclusion. What it might change are the two pages after that where Richardson speculates that the changing demographics and distance from the Cold War might allow for leaders in the Republican Party to “stay committed to the ideals of its founders.” And yet, after the past four years of further polarization it is hard to imagine who it is in the Republican Party who is actually willing—let alone able—to make that push.

Answers in the Form of Questions

We have had routine in this house. Jeopardy! airs at 4 PM, so I record the episodes. Whenever we get around to having dinner, we turn on that recording and lose ourselves in half an hour of answers and questions. Sometimes we watch other shows, too, but if there is an available Jeopardy episode, we watch that first and loosely compete with each other. My partner is better at it than I am, in part because she reads the questions while I tend to just let Alex read them to me, but there are certain categories where her reaction is often to just turn and look at me. We judge the contestants—wager too little on a daily double and you’re a coward, but the greater sin is being slow to pick a question, which will lead them not to clear the board—and root for who we want to see tomorrow. Occasionally, I’ll throw a fit about the phrasing of a question.

All of this is to say that while I don’t aspire to being on Jeopardy!, I am among the show’s legion of fans and was greatly saddened at the news of Trebek’s death earlier this year. Claire McNear’s recent book Answers in the Form of Questions was therefore a welcome read.

The best synopsis of Answers in the Form of Questions appears in Ken Jennings’ forward:

Jeopardy! is a magic trick.

In this book, you’re about to see how the trick is done.”

McNear, a staff-writer at The Ringer where Jeopardy! was one of her beats, takes the reader on a journey through past and present of the show. This means, simultaneously, she explores Jeopardy!‘s iterations and development and the mechanics for host and contestants in its current edition.

Jeopardy!‘s first version with host Art Fleming debuted in the aftermath of the game show scandals of the 1950s where the studios rigged the outcome of the matches in order to drum up viewer interest. The most famous, as dramatized in the 1994 film Quiz Show, involved Charles Van Doren effectively receiving the answers in advance of the matches and ended with the FBI investigating the industry. Eventually, congress passed a law that made it illegal to fix a contest of intellectual knowledge. Jeopardy!‘s unique—or even eccentric—style was thus a deliberate rebuttal to these actions: if they simply gave the answers to all contestants and asked them to come up with the question, then they couldn’t be accused of giving the question to any one person.

However, Answers in the Form of Questions largely focuses on the second iteration of the show hosted by Alex Trebek, which, as Jennings put it, is a magic trick. And McNear does aptly show how the trick is done, from the mechanics of the podiums to put everyone on roughly the same elevation (as much for smooth camera operation as for visual symmetry) to noting how the quiz show is done live but much of the fanfare of the show as seen on TV are recorded separately (announcer Johnny Gilbert is 96, after all). Trebek comes off pretty well, even as a rather distant figure for most contestants, as McNear writes about how he used to take the contestant quiz at least once a year and works hard to master the clues—even when the writers delivered him a category called “When the Aztecs Spoke Welsh”…on April Fool’s Day.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this book, though, is how much of it does not take place on a soundstage. For as much time as McNear spend talking about what the studio does behind the scenes, she also explores what it is like behind the scenes for contestants, following some from their hotel to the studio and then from the studio to a Los Angeles-area pub trivia frequented by Jeopardy! alumni. This means both looking at how contestants prepare for their 23-minutes of fame and (usually) limited-payout and interviewing former contestants of both the regular Jeopardy! and celebrity specials.

This approach also allows McNear to pull back and survey the wider cultural impact of Jeopardy!. She obviously discusses the various cameos like SNL’s Celebrity Jeopardy! and Black Jeopardy! skits, but also bring in the original screenplay for The Bucketlist. In that movie, directed by Rob Reiner, Morgan Freeman’s character was supposed to die in an appearance on Jeopardy!, and this connection allows McNear to transition to an adorable anecdote about how the late Carl Reiner would get together every weeknight to eat dinner and watch Jeopardy! together—even transitioning to watching together by phone after the Coronavirus disrupted their routine.

I greatly enjoyed Answers in the Form of Questions even though it is synoptic rather than comprehensive in its look at Jeopardy! and its impact. There is not, for instance, any attempt to grapple with David Foster Wallace’s Little Expressionless Animals (originally in the Paris Review in 1988, republished in The Girl With Curious Hair). This deeply weird short story is about a young woman named Julie Smith for whom the producers bend the then-extant 5-game limit for contestants because she’s popular, only to see her go on a multi-year run so dominant that it begins to tank the show’s popularity. Answers in the Form of Questions is such a paean to the magic of Jeopardy! that I was really curious how McNear would tackle the story, which warps that magic in ways that swing wildly from funny (“Alex Trebek goes around the Jeopardy! studio wearing a button that says PAT SAJAK LOOKS LIKE A BADGER.”) to bizarre (“‘My favorite word,’ says Alex Trebek, ‘is moist. It is my favorite word, especially when used in combination with my second-favorite word, which is loincloth.'”). I don’t meant this as a criticism of McNear—LEA is a strange story even by Wallace’s standards and it does not fit with the tone of Answers in the Form of Questions—but rather to point out that Jeopardy!‘s reach goes even further than what she writes about here.

Alex Trebek suffered from and eventually succumbed to pancreatic cancer, passing away earlier this year. He hosted Jeopardy! effectively to the end, which has given us a season filled with moving tributes, such as on the November 5 episode when champion Burt Thakur told Alex that he learned to speak English sitting on his grandfather’s lap watching Jeopardy!. The next permanent host of the show is as-yet unknown (my dream candidate is LeVar Burton, but could also see going with someone with sports play-by-play experience), but I can think of no better tribute to Alex Trebek than this look at a deeply niche game show that he helped grow into an iconic cultural phenomenon. I have been watching this season differently since reading Answers in the Form of Questions, particularly in thinking about the changes they made in order to create the show safely during a pandemic, and just hope that whoever follows in Alex’s enormous shadow can retain Jeopardy‘s charm.

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I have fallen off from writing about books recently and hope to change this a bit now that the semester is over. I am currently reading Octavia Butler’s The Pararable of the Sower, which is an enthralling near-future dystopian novel set in United States that is all-but collapsed because of climate change.

What is Making Me Happy: Brandon Sanderson’ Cosmere

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a regular Friday/Saturday feature, except that the end of the semester crunch for most of my classes broke this schedule before it even began.

This week: Brandon’s Sanderson’s Cosmere.

Brandon Sanderson’s latest novel drops next week. Rhythm of War is the fourth book in the Stormlight Archive, the cornerstone epic second-world fantasy to his larger authorial project. What makes this project, the Cosmere so impressive is that it consists of multiple different series, each set on a different second-world and with a different feel, but also contributing to a larger story that is just starting to be made clear.

Ordinarily, I vary my reading, rotating between authors and genres, but my ability to focus on books rapidly diminishes through the fall semester, often going into hibernation sometimes in mid-October. Despite my present exhaustion, I have mostly managed to avoid that fate this year by just letting myself get absorbed in the escapism of epic fantasy, starting with many of the Cosmere books that I had not yet read.

There are three things in particular that make me happy about Sanderson’s work.

First, I appreciate the ambitious scope of these novels. I have now read or am reading thirteen novels and novellas in this universe and, while I can pick up on many of the easter eggs between the stories, the larger story is just now starting to take shape. Seriously. Sanderson currently plans 35 novels for this universe. Some of these books don’t work as well for me as others do, whether because the characters don’t land or the world doesn’t quite work, but I love the sheer variety of these books.

Second, in a recent Writing Excuses podcast episode on Fantasy World-building, Patrick Rothfuss expounded on how some fantasy systems tend toward the numinous, perhaps with defined rules, but playing on a sense of wonder wherein ‘magic’ breaks the defined rules of the universe (effectively, a soft magic system). On the other end of the spectrum, he posited, are scientific (hard) systems where characters treat ‘magic’ as the world as it is and thus studying them are little different from any other scientific pursuit. Sanderson’s magic systems are decidedly scientific. Each series explores a different aspect of a common system that becomes increasingly complex as it iterates. Thus, discussion of the Cosmere often comes back to trying to figure out what the characters can do based on an analysis of the known laws of the universe rather than wondering what new abilities a character might manifest.

Third, and perhaps my favorite thing about reading so many of Sanderson’s books, is watching an author mature and develop. Sanderson’s early books are exceedingly competent, which I often chalk up to his formal education in and teaching of English. As much as I love some of the characters in his early novels, I also sometimes found the prose itself to be mechanical, workmanlike. His focus was on the worlds and the plots, which made for deeply satisfying stories that didn’t always have the most polished prose. I have noticed that starting to change in his more recent novels, where he’s started to wed prettier prose to his technical excellence. Sanderson is still stronger at world-building and the technical side of writing, which allows him to publish at a prodigious rate, but raising the level of his prose has made some of the scenes in his recent novels particularly powerful.

Watching this sort of development in the line-to-line excellence of their prose, which I have noted in authors as esteemed as Ernest Hemingway always makes me happy, if for no other reason than it gives me hope for my own writing.

I suspect I’ll keep reading mostly genre fiction for the rest of this year since I’ll likely remain tired and I have on my shelf Alex Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, Yoon Ha Lee’s Raven Stratagem, and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, but this week what is making me happy is Sanderson’s Cosmere.

Say Nothing

In all of the issues around Brexit, one of the most pressing was the border between the Republic of Ireland and the UK country of Northern Ireland. With the UK and Ireland both in the European Union the border between the two countries was soft, but Brexit threatened to harden the border and thereby increase tensions. I am by no means an expert on these issues and am vastly oversimplifying them, but while the Good Friday Agreement largely ended the violence of the Troubles, it is hardly a forgotten issue. It was with this background that I brought into Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing, which the subtitle describes as A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland.

Say Nothing, which draws its title from imperative motto of Provisional IRA operatives, builds its narrative around perhaps the most famous case of a “disappeared” person in Belfast. One night in December 1972, the 38 year old Jean McConville, widowed mother of ten, was abducted from her home in the low-income housing unit of Divis Flats allegedly for having passed information to the British soldiers. She was never seen alive again.

Over the years, the McConville case garnered international attention as one of the most prominent unsolved murders from this period, but hers was just one of some 17 disappeared persons whose abductions were blamed on units within the Provisional IRA, a Republican militia group.

Radden Keefe spends the first parts of Say Nothing pulling back from the disappearances in order to explore the operations of the “Provos,” introducing readers to operatives such as Dolours and Marian Price, two radical sisters in a group called the Unknowns, and leadership figures in the organization like Brendan Hughes and Gerry Adam. He asks important questions, such as how did the Provos become radicalized such that the violence accelerated with money and weapons from the US, most notably the Armalite—the same company that makes the AR-15—and how the conflict developed when prominent Provos ended up in prisons staging hunger strikes.

One of the core tensions in this portion of Say Nothing is the fundamental differences of interpretation in how the Provos and the British authorities saw the conflict. For the Provos, this was a war and they used this justification as an excuse for when they killed civilians. The British responded with the tactics and techniques learned in suppressing rebellions in their colonies. This meant draconian incarcerations and largely looking the other way at retributive violence committed by loyalist militias. The result was tragedy.

Where roughly the first half of Say Nothing is a harrowing, propulsive narrative of events, filled with the youthful fire of its protagonists, the second half is slower, messier, and perhaps more significant investigation into the memory of the conflict.

This happens in two ways. First, the protagonists age. Gerry Adams gains a measure of respectability as a mainstream politician, which his former comrades-in-arms saw as a betrayal of everything they fought for. The others emerged prematurely aged, broken by their time behind bars, and often struggling with alcohol and drug dependencies. They aren’t remorseful, though some expressed regrets about specific actions, but they appear much more subdued.

The second development in this part of the book is reportage on The Belfast Project, a secret project hosted by Boston College where ex-paramilitary members allowed themselves to be recorded on tape discussing their activities during the Troubles. In other words, after years of silence, they said something.

These tapes were to be kept in the US and embargoed until after the deaths of the participants in order to prevent prosecution for crimes committed and thereby get the participants to speak openly and thereby create an oral history archive. Despite this intent, the project turned out to be a mess. Once the existence of the tapes became known, the Atlantic Ocean (and the poorly-written confidentiality agreement) proved a flimsy shield against legal action.

Radden Keefe makes it clear from the outset that he is not a historian. In this sense, he has written a compelling book in which nobody comes off well. This is a story with only villains and victims. Gerry Adams appears sociopathic, for instance, and the Price sisters unrepentant. The through-line is the McConville murder and how the body came to light in part because of the Belfast Project, is a perfect entryway for an exploration into not only the Troubles, but also just how shallowly the Troubles were buried.

At the same time, his particular source-base and choice of subject sometimes leads this to being a one-sided story focused on the Provos and their quixotic war against the British. The British authorities necessarily appear as the antagonist, but since many of their records remain sealed, that side of the conflict is largely absent. The other missing character in all of this were the Loyalist paramilitaries who Radden Keefe mentions, but rarely explores.

I also might have liked further discussion of the historical development of the Troubles given that this was clearly not an isolated incident. Nevertheless, Say Nothing is worth reading, both because it is a propulsive story and because it is an object lesson in how memory and rhetoric form an explosive mixture that can lead to tragedy, particularly during times of economic crisis and when the authorities are not interested in the even application of the law.

Oh, wait…

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With the semester in full swing, my reading time has diminished. Right now, I’m slowly making my way through I.J. Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi, a generational family history set in the Polish town of Lodz and originally written in Yiddish.

Radical Hope

“Even in the liberal arts, we defend the value of our disciplines largely by talking about how a liberal arts education imparts the types of skills employers value. You’ll be a capitalist cog, but a thoughtful one! So how can we fault students for seeing higher education in largely instrumental, transactional terms if those are the only terms in which they’ve had it presented to them?”

“My teaching career is littered with episodes of maladroit practice that still cause me to cringe years later; sometimes, self-assessment and self-correction suck. But this kind of reflection shouldn’t be simply an exercise in self-flagellation; we should be generous with ourselves in the same ways we are with students when the occasion calls for it.”

Historian and Twitter personality Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope is a self-professed teaching manifesto built on his decades of teaching experience. Over ten chapters, Gannon lays out a philosophy of teaching that is built on principles of generosity, compassion, and inclusion.

The proposals in Radical Hope are, in short, pedagogical best practices that are also found in other books of the genre. To my mind, they are radical only in how thoroughly they are woven into the praxis envisioned in this book. For instance, Radical Hope points out how the genre of writing that is the college syllabus generates the lament that students don’t read the syllabus by creating a document that more resembles a legal contract than an invitation to the course. This is not a novel observation among books of this sort, even as new COVID language bloats the syllabus further. Similarly, pedagogy books offer tips for how to get students to engage or to combat distraction. Gannon is no different, though, rather than being proscriptive, he endeavors to diagnose the problem from a place of understanding. For instance:

Our task is to create a learning space that can help compensate for the gaps in student confidence, and encourage at least an attempt at the learning activity.

and:

We’ve always had distracted students, whether that distraction involved staring out the window at the quad on a beautiful spring afternoon or sitting in the lecture hall’s back row and updating their fantasy football lineup. (It’s worth noting that the same holds true for most faculty meetings I’ve attended in my career.) The question we should be asking ourselves is what accounts for these distractions? Is it the mere presence of a laptop?

Radical Hope is not a how-to manual, almost to the point of frustration. Each chapter has numerous examples from Gannon’s own career and concludes with a short “into practice” section, but tends not to foreground a deep bibliography of pedagogical research. And yet, Gannon’s language struck home. My most resolutely distracted student, in a class maybe eight or nine years ago, was a young woman with a ball cap pulled down who sat next to the window and stared out into the quad in every class she came to. She may have been hungover (that class met at 8 AM on Friday), but without a phone or laptop in sight she almost never spoke for an entire semester. I was a particularly inexperienced teacher at the time and while that class met in a room with any number of impediments to teaching well, I would do a lot of things differently now.

In many ways, this is the message of Radical Hope: developing a reflective pedagogical praxis. At several points Gannon states that if it seems overwhelming to incorporate every “best” practice in a given semester, pick one to implement. Then pick another next semester. And overhaul your readings the following semester (easier to do when you’re in a stable position, admittedly).

The Platonic ideal of a perfect course, let alone the perfect teacher, does not exist. None of the participants live in a vacuum, so there will be issues. People (certainly students, but also many professors) are in a state of financial insecurity, will show up to class unprepared, were conditioned to respond in particular ways given their educational backgrounds, have personality issues, or are having their meat-sacks acting up on a given day for any number of reasons. Oh, and there is a global pandemic.

This is where I saw the most radical hope. You can’t be a good teacher without, at some level, asserting your “faith in a better future,” as Gannon puts it. Radical Hope largely avoids wading into debates over lectures or whether a classroom ought to be flipped, all of which have merit but often depend as much on the type of class and the style of a given teacher than in any single method.

There is one primary exception to this rule. Gannon at several points suggests that teachers ought to embrace the idea of modeling behavior for students. This means, for instance, encouraging students to use computers to look up answers to questions rather than leaning on what a recent essay called “cop shit” to police technology. Speaking from experience, it can be terrifying to admit before a class of expectant eyes that you don’t know something and it is tempting to try pulling together an answer out of thin air—or somewhere less savory. It can also be extremely disorienting to be called out for saying something wrong, like when I the time last spring when I was talking to students about flood stories and had a student raise her hand to ask me if I meant Noah, because I kept saying Moses. However, if the goal in teaching is to develop minds and to give students skills, then these “inadequacies” are opportunities to model best practices of your discipline. Using them as chances to assert your authority or prove your intellect make the class about the teacher to the detriment of the students.

There is a lot to like about Radical Hope, but isn’t necessarily the place I would start with on a pedagogy reading list. David Gooblar’s The Missing Course I thought offered more practical advice, for instance. But if you’re looking for reinforcement that a pedagogy based on empathy and compassion for everyone involved is possible, this is a perfect read. Given the current state of the world, I would say that this is a timely message. Just don’t get put off by chapter one, “Classrooms of Death;” the title isn’t meant literally.

Shades of Magic

Back in January I wrote generally favorably about the first book in V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy, A Darker Shade of Magic. Since then, I had the chance to blow through the two remaining books, A Gathering of Shadows and A Conjuring of Light, finding them to be equally compelling reads.

A Gathering of Shadows picks up several months after the events in A Darker Shade of Magic. On the one side, Kell Maresh chafes against the restrictions imposed after the events of the previous book that drive home that he is a tool of the throne rather than a member of the family. On the other, Delilah Bard enjoys her dream career, that of pirate on the high seas of the Red World. However, she is not the captain of her own ship, but a thief in the employ of an exiled Arnesian nobleman named Alucard Emery. Despite grumbling that he should have had her killed Alucard takes a liking to Lila and helps fan the flames of her nascent magical talent.

Kell and Lila are not destined to remain apart for long. The centerpiece of this novel is the Essen Tasch, a competition that brings together the best elemental magicians from the three empires—Arnes, Faro, and Vesk—to compete for the title of champion. The home country to the previous year’s competition also earns the right to host the next event, so Rhy Maresh is busy making arrangements. A gifted magician in his own right, Alucard has it in mind to enter the competition, much as Rhy arranges things so that Kell can enter the competition anonymously. Of course, Lila doesn’t want to be left out, either.

While the games proceed in Red London, though, a threat is brewing in White London. Holland, who Kell believes dead and locked away in Black London, has struck a deal with a powerful piece of sentient magic known as Osaron who promises that he can breathe life into White London in return for freedom.

Where the first novel in the series could stand alone, these two are of a piece. A Conjuring of Light picks up almost immediately from the end of the Essen Tasch, setting the our heroes on a race to defeat Osaron before he entirely consumes the world.

The primary difference between the two novels is the number of characters it follows. Holland, for instance, takes a more central role than in either of the previous two books, and the thriller-paced plot is interspersed with flashbacks into his life and upbringing that aim to strip away his icy, unfeeling exterior and offer him as a tragic idealist in love with his home in a way that leaves sad overtones to the novel as a whole. But A Conjuring of Light also introduces the point of view of characters such as Maxim and Emira Maresh, the King and Queen of Arnes, which both serves to offer depth and history to a story that had otherwise felt very present to me and serves to foreground the personal conflicts that had previously only been hinted at. Where hostility between Kell and Alucard over a relationship between Alucard and Rhy was introduced in the previous book, here we learn what happened, and Emira Maresh’s story explores Kell’s conflicted position in the royal family.

Overall, the development of this series worked. I found it compulsively readable and the individual characters fun, while the subsequent books answered some of my modest issues with the world-building. Schwab also generally does a nice job building the development of character in each subsequent book from hints laid out earlier in the series, unlike, say, the Sword of Truth series where subsequent books often felt like Goodkind kept inventing new powers for his characters. For instance, the revelation that Lila is also an Antari, that is someone with one black eye who can use all four elements and blood magic, should not have come as a surprise to anyone who noted that she was introduced to use as a character with a false eye. Developments to how being an Antari works came only from things that were external to them as Antari.

And yet, for all of its propulsive plots, something about the Shades of Magic series left me mildly unsatisfied. The explanation, I think, is that I found most of the people outside of our main characters superficial. This lack of depth gives the sensation that you’re ripping through the world alongside your heroes and avoids the criticism of, say, George RR Martin where he built minor characters into fixtures in ways that bloat the series. However, it also results in a variety of flat characters whose notes are either to be sympathetic such that we mourn with the heroes when they die or villainous such that we shake our fists when they turn on us. These characters fit the needs of the plots well enough, but being able to frequently predict which minor characters are all-but doomed to die undercuts the effect. What’s more, this flatness also prevented them from becoming the memorable minor characters that populate my favorite fantasy series and deepen those worlds in ways that make me want to keep coming back to them.

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I have fallen far behind on writing about books for a whole host of reasons, but keep meaning to get back to doing this. I have a stack of recent reads next to me, including Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine and Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos, two noirs that I recently read and hope to write about together, as well as Mark Kurlansky’s Salt, a detailed commodity history without a clear through-line that I could identify, and Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, a novel about art and counter-culture that I simultaneously understood the critical praise for and left me wondering whether I’m simply not a sophisticated enough reader to fully-appreciate. I am now about halfway through Robert Massie’s Dreadnought, which I had, perhaps naively, hoped would contain more, well, ships.

The Sympathizer

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.

So begins The Sympathizer, the confession of a prisoner. Although Nguyen withholds the context of the interrogation until the end of the novel, we quickly learn that the narrator received CIA training as the aide to a general in charge of the South Vietnamese secret police, all the while working as a mole for North Vietnam.

The novel’s plot quickly kicks into high gear as the narrator arranges, sometimes at gunpoint, for the general, his family, and staff to flee Saigon as the North Vietnamese army approached. This access also allows him to secure a seat on the plane for one of his two sworn brothers, Bon, whose fervor in fighting for South Vietnam promises him a future of hard labor. The other, Man, is his handler.

The first stop from Saigon is a camp on Guam and then on to Los Angeles where the refugees try to pick up the pieces in America. Some adjust. The narrator secures work at the school where he studied as an exchange student, builds relationships with women, and even picks up work as a consultant on a blockbuster Hollywood film about the war, based on Apocalypse Now. Others do not. With neither family nor country, Bon descends to alcoholism and the general opens a liquor store that he uses as a front to raise money, plot a return to Vietnam, and eliminate anyone who threatens his cause. Of course, the narrator continues to report on these movements with letters relayed through Man’s aunt in Paris, at least until the General organizes his return to Vietnam.

The Sympathizer is in many ways an inversion of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, which similarly explores issues of identity and colonialism. Where Greene’s novel follows the story of Alden Pyle, an American CIA agent working against communism in Vietnam, Nguyen’s narrator works from the opposite direction, while holding an ambiguous position between the two. The illegitimate son of a Vietnamese woman and a French priest, the narrator literally straddles the line between east and west, and he declares as a point of pride that he can pass for American over the phone even as Americans talk down to him. From this heart, the theme radiates from him like an aura, extending to his two blood brothers who are equally balanced to either side and the General’s concern that his oldest daughter is becoming too Americanized with her singing career to find a proper Vietnamese husband.

However, this core theme works by offering several different types of conflict and preventing it from striking just one note. The narrator has both types of expected conflict as a refugee double agent, trying to fit in in the new country while not getting caught, but his sexual relationship with the Japanese-American secretary at Occidental College and a competitive one with a Vietnamese reporter he knew when they studied there introduce issues of representation of Asian Americans and rivalry. Similarly, his parentage offers a recurring conflict because while he is a useful asset he is neither sufficiently dedicated to the cause to be integrated into the Communist society nor a proper-enough Vietnamese man to warrant a good marriage.

I found The Sympathizer a good, but somewhat unspectacular novel for most of its length. There are excellent individual scenes, including the sheer terror of trying to escape Saigon, but, on its own, this close focus on the narrator’s reflection of his own identity struck me as somewhat prone to navel-gazing. Where Nguyen earned all of his plaudits was in the final section of this novel. The final seventy-odd pages of The Sympathizer pull back to reveal the circumstances under which the narrator is writing, which, in turns adds layers of depth and meaning to the 306-page confession of a man without a country.

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I have fallen behind on writing about books I’ve finished, in equal parts because of other writing commitments, complacency of summer, and not being inspired enough to write speedy reviews. I have been reading, though, blowing through Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay We Should All be Feminists, dragging myself through Rachel Kushner’s The Firestarters, and working through Mark Kurlansky’s Salt at a pace somewhere between those two. I still hope to write about some of my backlog, but given that my guiding principle on this site is to write what and when I am inspired to say something, we’ll see what I actually do.

I am now most of the way through Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos, the first of his Marseille Trilogy.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

David Epstein, Range

My academic research focuses on ancient Greece, but I genuinely enjoy teaching beyond my specialty because my interests are broad an eclectic. I sometimes joke to my partner (who I met in graduate school) that the three areas I considered pursuing for graduate work in history were Ancient Greece, 18th-century naval warfare, and 20th century US diplomatic history. Recently I’ve wandered down rabbit holes into food history and have particularly been enjoying East and South Asian history. The idea of studying just one thing for the rest of my life sounds unbearably tedious and teaching a wide range of classes (or at least varying how I teach World History) is a convenient excuse to read more widely.

I don’t know that my eclectic reading habits or historical interests has particularly improved my scholarship, but it has certainly improved my teaching and writing, and caused the basic tenets of David Epstein’s Range to resonate with me.

Epstein opens with the comparison of Tiger and Roger, two accomplished athletes, one of whom was laser focused from infancy on his sport, the other who played everything except his sport for most of his childhood. Both excelled, but Epstein asks which success was more probable. Despite the intuitive expectation that the person who specialized his entire life (let’s call him Tiger) followed the “better” path, Epstein argues, Roger is a better model to follow. Where Tigers are very good at solving problems within a narrow field with predictable parameters, Rogers can catch up quickly and are are frequently more creative when adjusting to new environments or when facing fields without clearly defined rules.

In short, Epstein makes the case that in a world where an increasing number of well-defined tasks are automated and economic and social pressures push people toward specialization, we should actually be encouraging generalization.

I picked up range after listening to an interview with Epstein where he mostly talked about the value of cross-training, but while there are lessons there, I was a surprised how little discussion of sports there was in the book. Rather, Range is a broad manifesto that talks about everything from scientists and musicians to charity CEOs and game designers. As with many books of its ilk, Range uses concrete examples to offer concrete advice on leadership—promoting diversity, emphasizing communication over hierarchy, empowering employees—as well as useful life advice that taking the time to find your fit rather than locking in early produces better results all around.

In my opinion, though, both the strongest and weakest aspects of the book came down to what it said about education. Granted, as someone in the education field, everything starts to look that way. In addition to several explicit sections on teaching itself, Epstein swipes obliquely supposed outcomes of the education system throughout the book, taking aim at the suggestion that graduates need to specialize early and highlighting the perils of teaching to the test. I agreed in principle with everything Epstein highlights: test performance does not equal learning, efficiency is not a universal good, there is value in struggling to learn something. There are absolutely valuable lessons in terms of how we teach, but I nevertheless came away extremely frustrated with the presentation of education.

For instance, Epstein uses a personal anecdote from his MA thesis at Columbia where he says “I had committed statistical malpractice” because “I had a big database and hit a computer button to run a common statistical malpractice, never having been taught to think deeply (or at all) about how that statistical analysis even worked.” He follows up by quoting a statistician who says that the rush to produce research prohibits metacognition. In short, the specialization and speed interferes with the quality of the work, despite metacognition gaining increased traction in education circles. Similarly, he offers another anecdote about a primary school teacher asking students leading questions when they struggled to come up with the answers. Both of these anecdotes, and another about a professor critical of colleagues who only care about the interesting facts learned from years of increasingly narrow study (albeit while talking about Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Marx, and Nietzsche, which shows a certain…range), offer insight into the education system, but, to my mind, not quite what Epstein is going for.

The focus of Epstein’s critique is on the practitioners, rather than on the bad practices encouraged by the culture of credentialism and testing. When the a system requires teachers to prepare students for a standardized test or to publish in academic journals and funnel students into career tracks from early on in college, then the system creates the exact problem that Epstein rightly identifies. Moreover, Epstein makes the case that generalization is good for everyone, but it has the greatest utility for young people because it helps foster creativity, critical thinking, and allows them to find fields that fit their skills.

For as much as aspects of the presentation bothered me, Range is a compelling read. Epstein isn’t against specialization, but makes an important critique of dominant cultural trends that prioritize efficiency and specialization over taking the time to think and reflect across different fields.

ΔΔΔ

I had hoped to finish Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer this weekend, but that was before protests against police violence and institutional racism erupted across the United States and then predictably escalated, often as the result of police action. I spent most of the weekend following local news from across the country.