Thursday, November 24, 2022

Review: War and Peace by Tolstoy

My most controversial book opinion might be that I actually liked the second part of the epilogue of this book.

In War & Peace, Tolstoy lays out his criticism of historians, particularly those who subscribe to great man theory, or those who take halfhearted measures and try to play both sides. Tolstoy's philosophy here has clear roots in mid-19th century thinking, in which clashes between idealism and materialism were fierce, and discoveries like evolution signalled the death of intelligent creation (of man by god, of wars by genius generals).

In many passages, Tolstoy seems on the cusp of discovering or otherwise exploring historical materialism (first laid out a couple decades earlier by Engels and Marx, but not arriving in Russia until rather after War and Peace was written). However, he fails to see (or perhaps underestimates) the material conditions that differentiate the peasants and the nobility. He also, in his efforts at countering great man theory, downplays the importance of strategic thinking and seizing opportune moments. As a result, his view of history is one where the actions are a tidy mathematical sum of interchangeable men acting as they wish, the total of their personalities clattering like dice thrown on a gambling table. This then devolves into a rather uninteresting musing on the existence or illusion of free will.

Tolstoy called Anna Karenina his first real novel, and having now read War and Peace, I understand this assertion. This first work of fiction is perhaps a quarter philosophy and history, and feels not quite evenly stitched together. The blueprints of ideas that become well-developed in Anna Karenina are visible in War and Peace. Between the two, I liked the former better, but this philosophical treatise woven with angsty young people trying to find their way in the world was still a fascinating read, particularly for understanding the development of thought in the nineteenth century, and in this period of time in Russia.

Review: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

The passage of time is both ever-present and inconsistent or non-linear. There are watches and clock towers and specific dates and times for many events. On the other hand, events far into the future ("many years later, as he faced the firing squad") or events from long ago are often woven into the narrative, characters live to be 150 years old, it rains for nearly five years straight (four years, eleven months and two days to be precise). The Buendia family, and their house, don't really seem to progress with time as much as their events fold back on top of themselves. Family members fall into the habit of taking things apart just to be able to put things back together. They repeat the patterns of their ancestors.

The story is incredibly beautifully told
I loved the repeated refrain of solitude but found the characters rather unintrospective and not particularly interesting.

In the end, the final descendant decodes the old manuscripts written in Sanskrit by the traveling alchemist, and discovers it was a foretelling of the events of the family, ending with him. Is this why time felt fluid, because it was trying to conform to the foretelling? Is this why the characters fell into their ruts, repeated patterns? Is everything predetermined? Or is it a broader critique of how we are all products of our past and our traumas? A little bleak, not quite my style of theme.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Review: Machiavelli and the Orders of Violence by Yves Winter

One should reproach a man who is violent in order to ruin things, not one who is so in order to set them aright.
Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy

I, and I think this is common to most of us in the West, feel a sort of knee-jerk reaction to the concept of violence. “Violence is bad! I won’t condone it!” I feel I need to yell in my own defense, when spotted reading this book. “Instead, we must fix the unequal socioeconomic conditions of our society by…..” And here, I falter.

While elite actors can frequently mobilize significant forces to pursue their objectives, popular actors must rely on numbers and on tactics that specifically target elite properties: their privileges, wealth, reputation, and social standing.

How do you target the privileges, wealth, reputation and social standing of the elite? It’s either shame or violence, isn’t it?

Machiavelli’s writings on violence are portrayed, in Winter’s reading, as a necessary antidote to liberal perspectives on violence. Necessary, because the threat of violence is one of the few tools popular (plebeian, proletariat) forces have at their disposal to achieve their objectives against the elite. In the liberal world, violence has been depoliticized primarily through four methods:

  1. Marginalization: Violence is either a fundamentally human weakness, a remnant of our bestial, pre-civilization roots; or, an inhuman or pathological urge. In either case, violence is not a political tool because it is not something wielded by thoughtful, strategic, justified humans.
  2. Technicization: a favorite of the political realists, violence is a mechanical tool, that can be precisely dialed in impact and scope to achieve the desired ends, so obviously necessary for enforcement of law that it is trivial to discuss in its particulars. As it is obviously required, fully controllable and transparently applied, it is not a political tool.
  3. Moralization: Violence is evil — but when is it justified? Philosophers invent a slew of thought experiments for when it is morally justified. Because in these hypotheticals, violence is abstracted away from the power structures and historical context in which violence is actually deployed, this violence is no longer a political tool. (Often accompanied with portrayals of violence as an apolitical acid that eats away at the foundations of functioning political systems).
  4. Ontologization: Violence is transcendental, mystical. According to Derrida, even naming something can be violence. Violence can be anything, which makes it not a political tool.

Winter’s Machiavelli instead views violence as a political tool, and as inherent to a social structure with class inequality (the populi and the grandi):

Those serious, though natural enmities, which occur between the popular classes and the nobility, arising from the desire of the latter to command, and the disinclination of the former to obey, are the [origin of] all the other evils which disturb republics (Machiavelli, 1532)

Unlike in Weber’s construction of violence, in which violence is a coercive force between an object/subject pair, Machiavelli views violence as tryadic: object, subject, and audience. From this key insight emerges most of the rest; how violence is perceived becomes the key question (violence as cruelty, violence as spectacle, violence as catharsis, violence as justified).

Machiavelli considers there to be four political emotions: hate, love, hope, fear. Hope is relegated to foreign policy and conquest, for reasons that Winter didn’t really make clear to me. The relationship between hate and fear, and the way violence mediates this switch was of particular interest to Machiavelli, because it is crucial to strategy both for Princes and for the masses.

Politically, the power of fear lies in its capacity to isolate individuals. We hate collectively but we fear individually. (...) Unlike fear, which tends to individualize, hatred produces the possibility of unifying a multitude. (..) From the point of view of the prince, this yields the problem of how to deploy violence without generating hatred. (...) From the point of view of the rebellion, it yields the opposite problem: how to nurture collective hatred and avoid fear, especially in the face of repression.

This switch between hate and fear poses one limit on violence. The other limit is long-term stability and succession. For this, laws are necessary. Political systems are continuous – even in times of turmoil – and the violence of founding a state sets the stage for the laws that develop over time.

I learned far more about civil unrest in Florence in the late 14th and early 15th century than I thought I would. It was a fascinating time, with the beginnings of a proletariat class, and Marx’ and Engel’s axiom, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”, was brought to the foreground of Winter’s presentation of Machiavelli’s analysis of the times. 

Applying Machiavelli’s perspectives on violence beyond the 15th century is left as an exercise for the reader.

Review: The Shame Machine by Cathy O'Neil

 I loved O'Neil's Weapons of Math Destruction, and went into this one hoping for something more of the same, but maybe with a narrower focus. The Shame Machine veers a little more into the self-help realm than I anticipated: understanding shame so you can handle your own shames better, so you can be more empathetic. There's less about Silicon Valley and how it harnesses shame in its algorithms than I was hoping for. There's a lot more about the author's own journey coming to terms with being fat than I expected. A lot of the pop sociology and pop psychology described in the book was familiar to me, although it was clearly expressed and an easy read.

A concept O'Neil develops throughout the book is the concept of "good shame"; shame is a tool for encouraging behaviour that leads to a better society. She highlights the need for interperson-shaming to be within a community (and ideally in person, not online) for it to not be toxic. She also argues that "good shame" requires "punching up" and not "punching down".

In summary, good shame requires: (1) choice (the behavior being shamed must be elective), (2) change to be possible (does the shame target have the tools to make a different choice in response to shame), and (3) assessing if the shame is necessary (versus virtue signaling; is changing the behavior the goal of your shaming?).

I liked the chapter where she developed how "punching up" shame can also be used by people against institutions to elicit change. She used examples of how facebook was shamed into better handling misinformation and how Gandhi's movement shamed the British government into ceding rights to the people. I wish she'd gone a little more in depth in this topic.

A thought I had while reading this book is that there are essentially two "negative" tools at your disposal for enforcing a certain behavior: violence and shame. Violence requires an imbalance of power (some have defined the State as being the entity with a monopoly on violence; physical power or weaponry would be the analog in a person-to-person situation rather than state-to-person). Shame requires a voice. If you have a voice but no power, then shame is likely the only tool at your disposal.

I think shame is important to understand. Our culture, from our humour to our fashions, is strongly shaped by shame. To use "good shame" is itself a little shamed, but it's a powerful tool.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Review: Jane Austen, The Secret Radical by Helena Kelley

Some people believe you should judge and interpret the works of a writer in isolation, without consideration at all about the life, beliefs and times of the author. Helena Kelley, to her credit, is not one such person. Jane Austen, The Secret Radical is exhaustively researched, and presents a wealth of details about how Jane discussed her life and her opinions in her correspondence, what current events were shaping popular opinion at the time Austen was writing, and what literature Austen was likely reading and could expect her readers to have read. For this reason, I think the book is a worthwhile read for fans of Austen’s work, or people who teach Austen. 

But what of the thesis, that Austen was a secret radical? 

I share the author’s frustration with those who dismiss Austen as love stories. But I think it would take a fairly undiscerning reader to not interpret Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice as critiques at the very least of inheritance laws, the lack of financial independence allowed to women, and other oppressive social institutions aimed at women. The depiction of the (moral and financial) decay of the aristocracy and the rise of the bourgeoisie is even more palpable in Persuasion. In Mansfield Park, there is an overt, critical, if brief reference to the slave trade that funds the lives of the main characters, and frequent discussion about the role of the church and the clergy in society. The satire in Emma and Northanger Abbey is aimed more towards manners and literature and the relationships between the wealthy and the less wealthy within the gentry, but both books are far from simple romances (indeed I’ve argued Emma is instead secretly a romance story about a girl named Jane).

However, the author’s assertion that Austen was secretly a far more radical than most readings of her rest either on innuendo and/or on some rather toothless definitions of radical:

We’ve seen [Austen] criticise primogeniture and suggest that change, voluntarily undertaken, may be the only safeguard against revolution.

[Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet] is, fundamentally, a radical. She knows her own mind; she reserves the right to decide questions for herself. There are plenty of kinds of authority that she doesn’t recognize, or tolerates only as far as it suits her.
This isn’t the same definition of radical that I use. However, let’s work on Kelley’s frame of reference, and take ‘radical’ to mean ‘critical of the status quo.’ 

Kelley argues that many of the sharpest, most progressive of Austen’s critiques are hidden in literature references, and that these were so dated by the time Austen’s early books were published (i.e., some 20-40 years after their being written) that they went entirely unnoticed by Austen’s contemporaries. Imagine making a Harry Potter reference or a Jaws reference in 2022; no one would get it. Other examples of hidden radicalism were naming the characters in Persuasion after members of the Stuart line of succession, supposedly a critique of the royal Georges that followed them. 

I found her argument that Mansfield Park met nothing but silence in literary circles to be more persuasive evidence of radical politics; this stony quiet could very well be related to the one impertinent question Fanny asks her uncle about his business in the slave trade. It could also be related to Fanny being a bit of a limp heroine in general. However, as Kelley notes in chapter 7, by Austen’s death and for the decades after, Mansfield Park was thought of as Austen’s second or third best novel (after Pride and Prejudice, and maybe Emma). Regardless, her argument about the transgressive narrative of Mansfield Park felt diluted and not bolstered by the tenuous lines she draws between the novel and radical contemporary poetry and by the exegesis on peach tree varietals.

What of the secrecy of it all? Why not be more overt? Kelley argues Austen wrote in direct allusion to Mary Wallencroft and her 1792 A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and the anti-slavery poetry of William Cowper. These works (and many others) were published, popular, and more clearly radical than Austen’s works on the same topics. Austen was writing anonymously. Was her secret radical style from concern that her brother may not act as her publishing intermediary? Or did she simply enjoy being so cryptically critical that not even her contemporaries remarked on how radical she was?

Speaking, briefly, of radicals, Kelley dislikes Marxists. Since Marxists view class based on their relationship to production, Elizabeth Bennet and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, both of whom survive based on the rents of their [fathers’, husbands’] lands, are members of the same class. She views the Marxist lens of critiquing Austen (e.g., Raymond Williams) to be too blunt. To truly appreciate the secret, radical Austen, you need to use the British Aristocracy’s conception of class – the one that produces a near insurmountable difference between a Baron and a Baronet. Through this lens, Kelley is able to declare that a soldier and an unmarried woman with lawyer relatives making fun of a pompous Lady is “a revolutionary moment.”

The Marxist critique of Austen has a solid case in that Austen’s class critique is limited by the perspectives she chooses to center. As Williams writes, “where only one class is seen, no classes are seen.” Austen rarely, as Kelley concedes, shows members of the working class. Northanger Abbey has not a single named servant. The most prominent servant in Pride and Prejudice exists mostly to extol the physical and moral virtues of her master, Mr Darcy. However, I was swayed by Kelley’s argument that this changed throughout Austen’s life. She provided many compelling examples of three-dimensional and compassionately sketched servant characters in Emma (although they were all minor, uncentered characters).

For all this, I think Kelley’s close read of Austen does have value (if only she could have made her point about Persuasion being about the decline of the gentry (what a hot take) without seven pages about a fossil salesman), and changed my perspective of several books. I’m excited to reread some of them, particularly Emma. Here are some of her arguments I like the most:

  1. Northanger Abbey: Jane was concerned about the lack of autonomy women had when it came to choosing when and how often to give birth. Pregnancy was particularly dangerous. The mysterious illness that took the life of Mrs Tilney could have been related to pregnancy, which would mean that in a sense, General Tilney would indeed have been (partially) responsible for the death of his wife, as Catherine fears. I also liked Kelley’s observation that the privacy of a married couple’s bedroom is a very strong western cultural practice (such that one feels trepidation at crossing the threshold of someone’s room), and that this novel alone of Austen’s featured an unusually high number of bedroom scenes. If I reread this book, I think I might skim Udolpho, the novel that so inspires Catherine, first.
  2. Sense & Sensibility: Kelley points out that many sentences that seem to praise particular individuals instead equivocate. Edward “appeared to be amiable” and “gave every indication of an open and affectionate heart” (emphasis added). Kelley notes that we shouldn’t take either Edward nor Colonel Brandon – who mathematically could be the biological father of his adopted daughter – at their words. An additional stain against Brandon: even in Austen’s time, the mention of the British Navy’s exploits in India would have been seen as violent (by the radicals in society only, presumably…).
  3. Pride & Prejudice: I usually forget that for so much of Austen’s life, England was at war. Kelley brings the violence and fear of soldiers and militias to the center. I liked also her description of 1890s fashion and how Ms Bingley was making fun not only of the mud on Elizabeth’s skirt but also of its dated style; her description of the contemporary meaning of the word “prejudice”: “tradition, ‘inbred sentiments’, unquestioned cultural assumptions”; and her historical content on the nuances of introductions. 
  4. Mansfield Park: I now feel reasonably convinced that Fanny accepting her marriage to Edmund, as his second choice, was a bit of a selling out of her own morals. This, unfortunately, doesn’t make me like her more.
  5. Emma: Kelley’s description of enclosures was fantastic background information – even for those with more of an interest in the economic trajectory of Britain in the 19th century than in Austen. Her highlighting of Austen’s portrayals of poverty (Romani people, parishioners, thieves) was also excellent.
  6. Persuasion: perhaps because it was Austen’s most overtly political book, but Kelley finds nothing particular secret to point out here other than that people fall a lot, much like the gentry is tumbling down in power and wealth and social stature.

If you have bad politics, it comes through in your writing (see Ender’s Game, Anna Karenina). If you have good politics, it also shines through. I liked that view of Jane Austen – that of a perceptive and thoughtful critic of her times – much better than one of some smug women weaving her stories with obscure peach tree varieties and gothic novel references to make a point like a petty Dungeon Master with too much time on their hands.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

Review: The Little Prince / El Principito by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I read this in English and in French as a child, and now I've read it in Spanish as an adult. As a first book to read in a foreign language, I think it was a pretty good pick. There are some more unusual words and some poetic phrases, but the words and phrases often repeat themselves, which makes for good practice.

When I read it as a child, I think I hadn't quite grasped that the prince committed suicide (or, elective snake-assisted dying, I suppose). Or perhaps it is that now I am an adult, and I see drawings as hats and not as snakes that have eaten elephants.

The childlike perspective of the world and of adult concepts are pretty, as is the prose. It's a rather bleak view of the world, in the end. The world is filled with men who try to own the stars and are so busy counting them and trying to enrich themselves with them that they don't enjoy them. People are narcissistic, relish power but do nothing with in, enslave themselves to useless rules, rush around busily and without taking joy from the roses around them. Even the little drawing of a lamb, which seemed so charming in the first few pages, now seems a little dark. Why was it kept in a box? Why did it need a muzzle?

I like the parable of the fox. That, to form a bond with someone makes them special to you, and that you have a responsibility towards them. But even the bonds the prince forms with the fox and with the pilot aren't quite enough to keep him alive.

The last words of the book are, ironically, "¡no me dejen tan triste!"

It did indeed leave me sad.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Review: Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington

 I think this one is a must-read for anyone conducting biomedical research.

Some parts —
particularly the first third, dealing with the slavery and reconstruction era of US history — I'd read before in books like Angela Davis' Race, Women and Class. A few parts felt like rather long deviations that I didn't feel added all that much to the central thesis — for example, the chapter on display of Black people at zoos and freak shows, the part on apartheid South Africa's bioterrorism against its own citizens (the US, as Washington clearly demonstrated, has done plenty such terrorism and testing against its own citizens).

Some parts I thought I knew well — the Tuskegee syphilis trials, for example — but I was surprised there were still shady details to learn (for example, the time pressure on the ad hoc Tuskegee investigative committee, the shameful political maneuvering by its chair to soften the language of the report).

The book was written in 2006, and in the intervening 15 years, I think the big new issue we need to grapple with is the role Big Data plays in healthcare. Non-interventional anonymized healthcare data is sold and re-sold so companies can better target their marketing efforts or assess the potential ROI of a pharmaceutical intervention. These companies have data on some 300 million Americans (of 330 million people). This type of use of medical records has minimal benefit to the people whose records are being sold and analyzed, and I think few people know their information is used this way. I don't think it should be tolerated.