Sunday, October 1, 2023

Review: Lenin Rediscovered by Lars Lih

Lih takes as his target western marxists that wish to exonerate Marx from his association with Lenin. This so-called “textbook interpretation” of Lenin’s 1901 What Is to Be Done?, favoured by academics and Trotskyist, takes a couple passages out of context and uses these passages to argue Lenin was dismissive of the intelligence and abilities of workers and that this pamphlet is a founding document of a party of a new type, one distinct from the socialism that sprung from Marx’s milieu and one that is more authoritarian. Although this interpretation requires dismissing thousands of pages of Lenin’s other writings, including passages from within the same text, it nevertheless predominated at the time of Lih’s writing of this book (2005).

Lih’s approach is to demonstrate the continuity between German Social Democracy and Russian Social Democracy in the last half of the 19th century, elevating particularly the role Karl Kaustky played in shaping social democracy. Lih supports his argument by quoting extensively from Kautsky and contemporaries to explain the “merger theory”, a concept that would have been very familiar to socialists across Europe during this era. Briefly, the scientific analysis of capitalism and proposals for a better socioeconomic order become apparent to socialists, who study the system carefully. However, they are few in numbers and cannot effect change on their own. Workers also become aware also of the flaws of the capitalist system through their experience as labourers, but without the ability to study the system in its entirety (due to the oppression of capitalism clawing away as many hours of their life as it can) are capable only of militant fights for economic and labour rights, but not for universal political change — i.e., they are limited to trade unionist politics. The merger theory describes the meeting of these two parties that need each other: the socialists with the workers, each mutually instructing each other on what is to be done. Far from dismissing the intelligence and abilities of the workers, the merger theory (and Lenin’s dogged defense of it in What Is to be Done?) hinges on the workers being rational, curious, coordinated, powerful. After reading Lih’s background, I realized how foundational this concept was to writing of the late 19th and early 20th century — much like how a modern television show wouldn’t bother explaining how the internet works, the existence of the merger theory is assumed knowledge rather than explained.

In bringing Lenin closer to Kautsky (I remain unconvinced that Lenin is uniquely passionate about Kautsky, rather than taking him as just one of many valuable instructors), Lih tries to distance Lenin from the Russian revolutionary tradition: Chernyshevsky, Herzen, Pisarev. This is a factual error: Lenin refers to these authors extensively in his writing — indeed also in this very book — and (according to his wife, Krupskaya, Chernyshevsky and Lenin) elevated them as inspiration to the level of Marx and Engels. It is also an error for those wishing to understand the course of history: 1917 was an anti-imperialist revolution, which necessitates a strong, shared vision of national identity.

Though I gnashed my teeth through large swathes of this book, I also found it to be very useful. Reading What Is To Be Done? without the intellectual history and historical context Lih provides would likely have been a far less productive experience. This book is too eurocentric and too overly long to recommend broadly. I wish there was a modern accompaniment to What Is To Be Done? that spent a little less time on Kautsky and a little more time looking forward to the ripples of this book and the debates featured within it. Still, for the reader eager to learn about movement building and hoping to turn to theoretical works from 120 years ago to do so, it’s an excellent read.

Review: Into the Riverlands by Nghi Vo

All of Nghi Vo’s works center around the same theme: the relationship between reality and the stories we tell, and how this relationship is modified by who tells the story. In The Empress of Salt and Fortune, we re-learn the story of a famous empress through the eyes of her maid servant, and in this way learn about the untold sacrifice of the commoner that makes this noble woman’s heroic tale possible. In When The Tiger Came Down The Mountain, we learn humans and tigerfolk have told the same folklore tale from different angles, such that a tale of torture and escape becomes one of love and betrayal. This theme continues also in Vo’s novels outside of this series of novellas: in The Chosen and the Beautiful, we rediscover The Great Gatsby through the eyes of Daisy Buchanan’s best friend, and Daisy becomes a more understandable yet tragic character; in Siren Queen, the racism and queerphobia of Hollywood impacts what stories get told, and these stories in turn shape how people from these groups see themselves. 

Into The Riverlands continues this theme, raising questions like: when should old stories be abandoned and replaced with something new? What makes for a satisfying end to a story? Why are all women in stories either ugly or beautiful? How do figures of history influence how stories are told about them? Can you keep your story to yourself, refuse to have it be told? But I don’t feel like these questions had satisfying answers and I think the reason is the story structure. 

The previous novellas in the Singing Hills Cycle series featured cleric Chi journeying to discover stories to take back home to their monastery, encountering a group or an individual on the way and hearing out their story. This frame story would interrupt the folktale story often, giving commentary, context, and discussing how the folk story conflicted with other versions of the tale. In Into The Riverlands, there is no one inner story, but several brief folktales, just a few pages each. Instead, the “frame story” was the main story. Part of my difficulty with this novella was expecting the formula to continue through this volume — enjoying the cozy setting and pretty prose, I kept waiting for the “main story” and it wasn’t until the 80% mark before I realized, oh, this is it! 

Another challenge here is that now Chi is the main character; suitably, for someone dedicated to telling stories, the questions raised are largely to do with how to turn real events into a story. The cohesion to all these questions about story-telling is granted by Chi's sudden change in relationship with the stories told to them. Chi is thrust into the position of not scribe but witness to Water Margin-like adventures of bandits and fighters. It will be up to them to turn the events into a story — but we don’t see them grapple or reckon with what this means to them in the context of their vocation. The novella reads like perhaps it is setting Chi up for a more active role in storytelling, leaving the conclusion of the character arc open for a subsequent installment in the series. Which I will absolutely read, despite my disappointment in this book.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Review: This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

I’m partial to an epistolary tale — if Jane Austen’s Lady Susan is not in my top 3 Jane Austens it is because the competition is very good. Letters provide a window into the soul of the character, but always shaped by how that character wishes to show themselves to the addressee of their letter. It's a fun device.

The letters in this novel are wonderfully written. The characters’ observations about what it feels like to be in love feel both particular to the characters (as any love is particular to the two people it binds) as well as recognizable (“I have built a you within me, or you have. I wonder what of me there is in you.”). If the characters appear to tip too suddenly from respected adversary to romantic love, I think it is because love is perhaps like that — you hold yourself back, uncertain until all of a sudden it can’t be denied.

While the romance arc itself is straightforward, the world it is set in is convoluted and for all its flashy weirdness doesn’t contribute much to the relationship developed between the two characters. Our lovebirds, Red and Blue, are time-traveling non-human (or bioengineered beyond typical human biological impulses) secret agents on two opposite sides of a conflict that is waged across all the timelines of the universe towards no clear end. What principles and values do Red and Blue fight for? What are the final objectives of the war? How did the conflict start? Unclear — except for the two sides being irreconcilable and alien to each other. Towards the end of the novella, Red nearly begins to grapple with what it means to love someone not from her own people but from the opposite side of the war, but because the political differences between the two sides are so unexplored, it feels a little empty. (Blue’s team is more organic, while hers is… bionic?) One rather wonders why the authors picked this setting to tell this love story.

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Review: Maladies of Empire by Jim Downs

Maladies of Empire tells the usually-untold story of how epidemiological and medical advances were made directly as a result of the institutional aspects of colonialism. The “told” story usually includes Onesimus, an enslaved man who told his master, an 18th century New England priest by the name of Cotton Mather, about the practice of inoculation against smallpox using exposure to a small quantity of the virus to prevent a more severe, systemic infection. Mather tested this process on some 250 enslaved people and eventually his own son, convincing the aggressively skeptical medical establishment of the validity of this Black “folk” wisdom. Good discussion of this episode in history is usually limited to the ethicality of experimentation on enslaved people (see Medical Apartheid). But there’s sort of a comforting aspect to this narrative too: Onesimus was a relatively well-treated slave, and that his master listened to him and learned from his cultural traditions plays into the story the Anglo empire likes to tell that cultural mixing was beneficial for itself and all the civilizations it conquered.

Where Maladies of Empire goes beyond this is to document how the very processes through which the British Empire colonized much of the world also enabled the medical field to understand the spread of diseases. The story starts with slave ships:market forces drove slavers to keep costs down as much as possible without hurting the sale price of their human wares. This captive population was carefully documented and experimented upon, and from here, the medical establishment learned about the minimum fruit or vegetable intake required to stave off scurvy.

The mechanisms of the spread of infectious disease, however, necessitated the aggregation of records from across the world. Who was living where? Where did these ship passengers come from? Where did they go? After how many days did symptoms start? The meticulous records through which the British Empire tracked their ships and military and subjects allowed medical doctors to track the spread of yellow fever and cholera. For the first time, scientists were analyzing data that others had collected, possibly from the other side of the globe. 

The birth of epidemiology is therefore also, in a sense, the birth of data science, and the dark sides of data science were present from the start. The individual names and stories of the people who contributed the data — often racialized or institutionalized or poor — are lost to the sands of time, while the knowledge gleaned from their data goes on to benefit the wealthy and white. Downs’ story-telling is up for a challenge: how do you bear witness to these lost narratives and humanize the individual subjects whose suffering taught us how to cure or prevent disease, without getting mired in details? I don’t think the result is fully successful — there were some episodes where I felt the main themes became a little lost in the weeds of names and locations. But the work is excellent for understanding how intimately linked the development of science was with imperialism.

We see similar beats today: the bureaucracy of institutionalized people supports medical advances. For example, the link between the Epstein-Barr virus and Multiple Sclerosis was shown quite definitively only because of the mandatory monitoring and testing of American military recruits (themselves an imperializing force).

Downs contrasts the racism of the British Empire in the 19th century with that of the United States. In general, the British were certainly white supremacist, but more accepting of belief systems that allowed for similarities between races. For example, see Florence Nightingale and some of her peers’ views of racial differences in disease susceptibility:

Although Florence Nightingale believed in racial difference, regarding the English as the finest race on the planet, she did not use race as an explanation for the spread of cholera or other infectious diseases. Even after germ theory became widely accepted, she insisted that unsanitary environments led to disease. She did not believe that the source of disease transmission could be found in innate characteristics of the patient (...). Similarly, while Gavin Milroy and other doctors working in the Caribbean certainly harboured racist beliefs, they too searched for the cause of disease in the natural and built environment. Milroy condemned Black people’s living conditions and blamed their high rate of illness on their failure to maintain clean homes, but he did not focus on racial difference as the cause of disease spread.

Because their economic system depended on enslavement (and later, subjugation and segregation) of the Black race, American doctors approached medicine quite differently, and sought to reify the impact of race in health. The answer to “why is disease more prevalent in slaves?” could not be that they were oppressed, and forced into terrible living conditions, since that was a threat to the social order:

Many doctors in other parts of the world were turning to the physical world and the built environment to understand how disease spread; they observed symptoms in a patient and then turned outward to housing, sewers, drainage, and crowded conditions to understand why patients were sick. USSC surgeons did the opposite. They turned inward to the patient, trying to find the answer to the illness within or on their body. While they considered the natural or built environment, they emphasized racial identity as the cause. 

This approach had a long-lasting impact on the medical establishment: while slavery ended with the Civil War, “the USSC resurrected slave-holding ideologies to amplify racial difference and to contribute to medical knowledge.” These were not the first scientists to seek to justify their pre-existing beliefs with “evidence” and refuse to consider alternative explanations, and they were certainly not the last.

A challenge with books of this sort is where they stop. The British Empire is no more, but the world is still scarred by imperialism. Science has developed into a far more robust practice, but is still often racist, and the fruits of its research are unequally distributed. The author set out to tackle this topic for a reason, and I would imagine it is because he saw similarities between this part of history and our world today. If so, I agree, and I have highlighted some of these themes above. But Downs never goes so far as to explicitly draw out the link, to comment on practices of the twentieth century and beyond. I suppose it is the careful conservative nature of most academics, who don’t dare step outside their field of expertise — but that just leaves me, with my considerably smaller extent of expertise, to apply what I’ve learned on my own.

Monday, September 11, 2023

Review: Inventing Human Rights by Lynn Hunt

I think of invention as a long, arduous process of trial and error, where, if you know where to look, it’s easy to see the bolts connecting previous pieces of technology and the design choices made due to historical conditions or material limitations. This book does not operate under the same definition of invention, and its handling of the invention of human rights is much the worse for it.

The picture that Hunt paints of human rights is one where humanity somewhat suddenly (over the 1750s-1790s) realized human rights were a crucial concept, and then somewhat bumpily implemented them, compelled by this contagious consciousness. Briefly, the narrative goes something like this: over the 17th century, the rise of the novel (particularly in France and England) led people to empathize across class and gender boundaries and recognize others to also be humans with their own inner worlds. Society then needed to change to reflect this new understanding of the individuality and equality of humans. Once these rights were declared (particularly in France and the USA), and one group got the individuality and equality they asked for, it was extended from on high to other groups:

The logic of the process determined that as soon as a highly conceivable group came up for discussion (propertied males, Protestants), those in the same kind of category but located lower on the conceivability scale (propertyless males, Jews) would inevitably appear on the agenda. (p150) 

It’s a very western-centric view of the “invention” of human rights. I think Hunt is correct to trace (at least some of) the emotional impetus for European bourgeois propertied male demands for individual rights and equality through the novel, but we should then see mirroring phenomena for other classes (or, to use her language, groups or categories of people). It seems unlikely to me that the slaves in Saint Domingue were inspired to demand their freedom because they were reading Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela or were enthused about the positive example of the Parisian’s right to freedom of religion. That the decree emancipating the slaves quotes the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen is not sufficient to convince me it was a demand cascading from the French Declaration rather than a more spontaneous understanding that slavery really sucks, the negation of which was justified to the world with the hypocritical words used by its French oppressors. 

I think the root of my disagreement with Hunt about what human rights are is evident from this passage:

Human rights require three interlocking qualities: rights must be natural (inherent in human beings); equal (the same for everyone); and universal (applicable everywhere). For rights to be human rights, all humans everywhere in the world must possess them equally and only because of their status as human beings. It turned out to be easier to accept the natural quality of rights than their equality of universality. (p20)

While the equality and universality of human rights form the backbone of the remainder of Hunt's narrative, the issue of the naturalness of human rights is discussed only once, when summarizing the critique by Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism: 

Bentham objected to the idea that natural law was innate in the person and discoverable by reason. He therefore basically rejected the entire natural law tradition and with it natural rights. (p125)

This critique is not engaged with — his dismissal of human rights seems to be enough to stamp him as someone to ignore — and I’m left puzzled as to why it is so obvious that human rights are natural. After all, (paraphrasing Bentham) there is no gene that encodes the right to freedom of religion. If human rights are natural, then why is the book called Inventing Human Rights, rather than Discovering Human Rights

The title of the book is, ironically, an excellent way to frame this part of human history: human rights are indeed constructed. They are the product of the society that formulates them and enforces them, and they bear the marks of this process. This is a more useful lens: instead of a static, fully identified set of rules that society embarrassingly fails at applying sufficiently universally and equally, rights are the product of the battles and the concerns of the era.

Why was the era of capitalism the one that gave rise to demands for individual freedoms (the right to political representation, the right to freedom of religion), granted equally to all from birth? Those suddenly in power were no longer only men of noble birth. Their wealth came from the markets, and not from the pleasure of the King. Unlike the king, this new middle class had no need for the legitimation granted by the church, and so its authority too was weakened. Why were economic rights (the right to food and shelter, the right to work and to rest) added to the UN Declaration of Human Rights by the first ever Worker’s State? Those in power were concerned not only with political freedoms, which better enable the accumulation and enjoyment of wealth, but also with the economic freedoms, which enable the enjoyment of a fulfilling life without such wealth.

Because Hunt’s breezy overview of rights (excluding appendices, it is just 214 pages) emphasizes the slow stumbling process of recognizing the universality and equality of rights (rights in the abstract), the content of these rights and the specific relationships between these rights and the concerns and challenges of the people that demanded them is lost. It makes the invention of rights seem finished — in 1948 we declared there were 30 of them, and now we have only to implement them properly for a change. Why aren’t we adding to them to reflect our new understanding of what every member of society deserves, say, the right to a planet with an inhabitable environment?

Monday, August 28, 2023

Review: The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka

This was a unique, creative and weird book. A gay Sri Lankan photographer and fixer with a sex and gambling addiction dies, and tries to deal with the bureaucracy of the afterlife. He has no memory of his death, and has seven days (as a ghost!) to get his lover and his straight best friend who is in love with him to publish photos that could save his country from political corruption and repression before his soul needs to either move on or be swallowed by Mahakali. The prose is dense and colourful, the narrative is told in the unusual second-person omniscient voice. 

It’s an incredible number of ideas to tackle in about 400 pages, and it feels a little overwhelming at times. For someone without any knowledge of Sri Lankan history — particularly the 1983 anti-Tamil progrom and its fallout — the different political parties felt difficult to keep track of. Despite feeling painfully unaware of a few gaps in my knowledge, the backdrop of class and race relations in Sri Lanka, with the gravitational force of the US Empire felt from afar, felt fun and fresh. Disappointingly, the political clashes just boiled down to “all sides are bad” and “violence begets more violence, but non-violence doesn’t work either.” It’s rather bleak, and the reader is left with little optimism for a better world, nor much insight into what can be done. More interesting is the philosophical questions of the role of the afterlife; the author makes a compelling case that focusing too much on life after death dampens one’s desire to make change in the here and now. In the end, ironically, it is not political strife that takes Maali’s life, but a personal conflict based on simple, brutish, prejudice.

Overall, the book packs in a plethora of questions and themes (Is mercy-killing permissible? Do animals have souls? How does internalized homophobia impact one’s ability to love? How do NGOs contribute to neocolonialism? Too many to list.), explores them from a novel angel, and often (but not always) arrives at rather flat or obvious conclusions. The various climaxes of love, personal growth, political clashes, and philosophical understanding land disjointedly; the book seemed to end three or four times before its actual last passage. Still, I appreciated its vibrancy and its ability to be both serious and playful.

Saturday, August 5, 2023

Review: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

This book does a couple things well, but has a lot of infuriating ticks and bad philosophies. Let's start with the things I hated, and end on a pleasant note. And let’s do internet-friendly numbered lists, because why not: 4 Things I Hated and 3 Things I Loved about A Man Called Ove:

  1. The book is grossly fatphobic. The overweight character Jimmy cannot complete an action without Ove remarking on how his “blubber” moves or how his weight causes his Saab to sway. It can’t be chalked up to the worldview of the narrator, Ove (unless Ove hallucinates): the character is constantly asking for something to eat.
  2. The book strictly observes gender roles. The amount of emotional labour the women of this book contribute is unreal. While the book explores positive masculinity versus toxic masculinity, it is the women — neighbour Parveneh and wife Sonja — who patiently coax Ove out of his rut, help him find purpose in life, and rescue him from suicide. Over the book, Ove comes to accept that men who don’t know what to do with joists are still valid people, but he still doesn’t take on basic “social glue” tasks like remembering people’s names.
  3. The book distrusts institutions, who never do anything good. The narrative gives good reason for Ove to be skeptical of some social workers, who suggested he might want to divorce his wife and/or put her in a home after she is left paraplegic. But his crusade against “men in white shirts” is always righteous, or at worst, tedious but principled. Although the overall message of the book is the importance of community, the bounds of community are limited to one’s neighbourhood. There’s not a single instance of the positive benefits of state coordination of tasks — although presumably this is how the train system on which Ove fell in love with his wife came into being. The ideal world appears to be one where there is no government intervention save for the administration of driver’s licenses (the one sole positively portrayed government function), and groups of people manage their needs via homeowner associations (even if HOAs are plagued by petty squabbles over snow blowers and heating systems).
  4. The humour is unfunny. This arises naturally from the three points above: the fat jokes, the jokes about women having too many coats, the jokes about how you can’t do anything these days without men in white shirts telling you no, they’re tiresome and unending. There’s a lot of angry violence played for humour — which is odd in a book that seeks to understand toxic aspects of masculinity.

The book is a long 337 pages, and I think if all the above (plus a few scenes played just for jokes) was cut out, it could have been a really tight 150-page novela. It writes some things skillfully:

  1. Ove’s backstory is revealed fantastically. We hear about his tasks for the day, which include installing a hook in the ceiling. Throughout the day, he thinks about what he should tell his wife. He does things like check the radiators to make sure his wife hasn’t sneakily increased the temperature. Perhaps a quarter through the book, not until after we get to know Ove and his relationship with his wife, do we learn that his wife has been dead for six months, and he is installing a hook to hang himself. Similarly, asides and observations, like tire marks on the living room floor, presage the discovery that his wife used a wheelchair. These mysteries kept me wanting to read more.
  2. Ove is an odd sort, but so is everyone else. Ove has many flaws. A worse comedy could leave it at that, have its characters act as straight men to Ove’s grumpy particularity while Ove softens up. However, we learn that Ove isn’t so strange at all: his quirks are shared by others. Parveneh in particular matches him in force of will, but other neighbours mirror him in how they hide their pain, or their joy in new machines (cars for him, an iPad for Parveneh’s daughter), or their fastidious expertise in tools (cables for Jimmy, and less electric tools for Ove). Nobody is a normie.
  3. The portrayal of love and loss is excellent. Ove is curmudgeonly, but not unloveable. His wife is wonderful — it was a pleasure to discover such a vibrant woman through Ove’s adoring eyes. Through this seemingly odd pair, we see how wonderful it is to be understood, appreciated, loved by someone else. We learn how seamlessly the two people fit together, and it’s heartbreaking to then see Ove try to struggle through on his own after her death. These passages are sincere and very emotional.