Fiction v. History

by James Wallace Harris, 9/25/22

Ken Burns’s new documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust, punched me in the soul. No documentary has ever moved me as much, and I’ve seen a lot of them. And it’s not because it’s about the Holocaust. I’ve even read about most of the painful facts it presents before. No, the gestalt of this film, which is well over six hours, is to set off an epiphany about our relationship with history.

At the highest level, the documentary asks: What did Americans know about the treatment of the Jews under the Nazis from 1932 to 1945 and when and how did they learn it? But to answer that question Ken Burns and company have to describe what Americans were like during those years. The U.S. and the Holocaust give a different history of America for those years from any I’ve ever encountered from people, in school, reading, at the movies, or on television.

Maybe the best way I can describe it is to say: Everything that has horrified me about living through the years 2016 to 2022 existed in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. The documentary cements a theory that I’ve been developing in recent decades – that people don’t change and even the percentages of the population that hold specific opinions don’t really change either.

The documentary set off this existential conundrum: Why didn’t I already know what the documentary revealed? Or did I just filter it out? Republicans are in an uproar over Critical Race Theory and other curricula that they’re afraid will upset their children. I imagine they will be just as upset at The U.S. and the Holocaust. I knew about the wide popularity of the KKK and eugenics in the 1920s. I knew Americans were mostly isolationists and anti-immigration in the late 1930s. But the documentary gives us a different take on history than what I was taught.

I have to wonder since FDR was president from 1932-1935, have we always gotten the Democratic party’s view of that history? I wonder if Ken Burns has rounded out the historical period by adding the Republican party’s take on those years? I do know the documentary feels very synergistic with today’s politics.

I love old movies from the 1930s and 1940s, and none of the hundreds of movies I’ve seen from that era convey what I learned from The U.S. and the Holocaust. My grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles, all lived through those years, and none of them ever described the mood of the country revealed in the documentary. I’m a bookworm that has read countless works of both fiction and nonfiction about America in those decades, giving me some of the details from in the documentary, but not in the same gestalt. Two books that come to mind are One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson and In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson.

After I watched the Ken Burns documentary I read The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. It’s a kind of science fiction novel, an alternative history where Charles Lindbergh wins the 1938 presidential election and for many of the reasons described in the documentary. Roth was born in 1933, and he makes himself the point-of-view character in his novel. Young Phil is only 8 when it begins and 10 when it ends, but his viewpoint is mature. It’s about the anti-Semitism of those years.

I thought The Plot Against America was a well-told story about Jewish life in Newark, New Jersey 1938-1942. I thought Roth’s alternate history speculation was well done, deriving from the kind of knowledge I got watching The U.S. and the Holocaust. But the story is mainly a personal one, and its gestalt is different from the documentary.

Last night Susan and I watched Radio Days for the umpteenth time. It’s Woody Allen’s nostalgic look back at those same years. It completely ignores all the political history of The U.S. and the Holocaust. Radio Days is like both movies from that period and later films that worked to recall that era. They all filter out the nastiness of racism and xenophobia that existed in America back then. Although some of it came through in the film The Way We Were, and the book version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

And just before I watched the three episodes of The U.S. and the Holocaust I read Revolt in 2100 which contains a 1940 short novel by Robert A. Heinlein called “If This Goes On….” Heinlein imagined America would go through decades of The Crazy Years, before undergoing a second American revolution that created an American theocracy. I was disappointed that Heinlein didn’t do more world-building for his novel, but after seeing the Ken Burns documentary I understand his inspiration for writing it. It’s obvious that many Americans back then wanted a Protestant theocracy. Consisting of only white people from England, Germany, and some Scandanavian countries.

I think it’s important to distinguish fascism as a political philosophy from the Nazis, who were also fascists. What many Americans wanted then and now is basic fascism, and the Philip Roth novel shows how America could have turned fascist.

The other day I saw a quote on Facebook that went something like this: If you get warm and fuzzy feelings reading history then you’re not studying history. I’m on the third volume of world history by Susan Wise Bauer, and it’s brutal. Most people want to romanticize history, which is what we get from novels and movies. The Republicans don’t want CRT taught because they want their kids to feel all warm and fuzzy studying American History. The new Ken Burns documentary will not leave you feeling warm and fuzzy.

My current theory is humans can’t handle reality. That we develop all kinds of psychological delusions to filter reality out. We prefer our fantasies. And popular history along with pop culture gives us nice takes on the past that allows us to cope. It’s also why most people’s theory of how reality works is no more complex than a comic book. It’s why we’ve always clung to religion. It’s why I have a life-long love of science fiction.

We just can’t handle complexity. There are plenty of real history books that document the reality of the times they cover, but they aren’t widely read. Maybe the Republicans are right, and history is too brutal for children. But maybe we keep repeating history because we’re all too wimpy to handle history.

I’m getting so I can’t stomach the historical lies of Hollywood, but I don’t know if I can handle all that much real history either. I used to think that maybe four percent of the population was mentally ill. In recent years, I’ve upped that to forty percent. But lately, I’m thinking there’s an entry for all of us in the DSM-5.

JWH

What If I Didn’t Come Back From The Dead?

by James Wallace Harris, 9/3/22

Last Monday I had hernia surgery and was under general anesthesia for over two hours. Being anesthetized is maybe the closest thing to being dead. Our conscious self is turned off so completely that it feels like we’re gone for good.

Interestingly, my book club book this month is Being You by Anil Seth and he introduces the study of consciousness with the discussion of general anesthesia. This was the fifth time I was put under so beforehand I was contemplating being gone. And I kept asking myself: “What if I don’t come back?” I thought it was philosophical fun to imagine nonexistence.

Mostly I thought about people I would miss but if I didn’t exist I wouldn’t feel anything. I think of death being like how things felt before I was born. I feel the only existence we know is this one. But my atheist beliefs could be wrong. I wondered how it would feel if I came to, but in another existence. I’ve always hoped if that happened I would be given all the answers to my questions about this existence.

My hunch is this existence is our only one. That reality is filled with many infinities but infinite existence isn’t one of them. Mostly I thought if I wasn’t coming back I should do a lot of paperwork before I might die to help Susan out. But I didn’t do that for two reasons. First, I assumed I was coming back. Second, because I’m lazy.

Still, it felt very weird and fascinating trying to imagine not existing.

Before my surgery, I had a long talk with my surgeon and he agreed to do everything I wanted. I was worried about two things. I was afraid lying on the surgical table for hours would inflame my spinal stenosis. I worried that I couldn’t hold my pee for that length of time because of my overactive bladder. I told him of these fears weeks before the surgery. He said he would try to arrange my back on the table like I needed and would give me a catheter but I would have to wear it for a few days at home. So I practiced lying flat each day before the surgery. Then on the day of the surgery, I told him to not worry about positioning me for my back but do whatever was best for his work. I also asked for the catheter to be removed before I came to and if I couldn’t pee on my own in recovery they could put it back in.

He seemed glad I practiced lying flat and agreed to my method with the catheter. This made me very happy and cleared all my worries. My surgeon then said he wanted to pray for me. I said sure. I’m not the kind of atheist that’s against religion or religious rituals. I am actually grateful for any prayers I receive.

I was impressed by the length of his prayer. He carefully went over all my problems and concerns and then covered all his goals in great detail while asking God for help. It was reassuring on several levels. First, it let me know how closely he listened to me, and second, it carefully laid out his working plans. But it fits in with my contemplations on nonexistence. And his prayer set the right mood for the occasion.

I felt that we each used a different language for understanding our shared existence. I use the word Reality for what he calls God. He believes in a personal relationship with God whereas I think I’m interacting with infinity and randomness. What he calls God’s will I call the unfolding of evolving randomness. Prayer assumes we can ask for blessings. I assume I will get what will be but I’m on one long lucky anti-entropic run of fabulous luck. The big difference is my surgeon believes there’s an existence after this one and I think death is oblivion. I’ve always been exceedingly grateful for this existence.

Well, I did come back. I’m writing this on my iPhone with one finger. The surgery went very well but it was more involved than my surgeon expected. I had no back pain after the surgery. And for 24 hours my back felt limber and young. Even after the drugs wore off it hasn’t been bad at all. And I peed right away when they rolled me back to my room after recovery. And in the days since I haven’t had much pain. I did without drugs except for a couple Tylenol and later, a couple of ibuprofen. However, I am suffering from a swollen scrotum which is typical of this operation and why I’m not sitting at the computer.

I’m quite glad to be back but I’ve learned that God’s will or reality wasn’t finished with me regarding this surgery. We never get what we picture, and my surgeon’s prayer didn’t cover post surgical complications. I thought going under inspired a lot of philosophical musings, but it turns out dealing with an expanding scrotum, generates even more existential thoughts.

One side effect of this experience is to feel sorry for women and their boobs. I imagine my affliction feels somewhat like getting a breast implant. My package is so much bigger it’s freaking me out. Having a sensitive globular appendage is not convenient. It gets in the way, making sitting and walking weird. So I imagine having two would be more than twice as inconvenient. And the size of my burden is still smaller that what most women have to deal with. I now regret every time I ever wished a woman had bigger breasts.

Yes, I came back, but to something I never imagined. But then, the future has always been what I never imagined.

If there is a God and he/she/they willed these big balls on me then I hope it’s God’s sense of humor and not punishment. So I will close with a prayer: “Dear God, please make my scrotum normal again. And if you intended a philosophical lesson help me learn it quickly. Amen.”

JWH

Just Who Slept With the Pods?

by James Wallace Harris, 5/14/22

In the 1956 film, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dr. Miles Bennel (Kevin McCarthy) realizes his friends and neighbors are changing. One by one they all start thinking alike and that worries him. If you haven’t seen this famous film about the pod people you should. It’s based on a 1954 Collier’s serial by Jack Finney called The Body Snatchers, which was then published as a book in 1955.

The story is about an invasion of pods from outer space that transform people if they sleep in the same room with one. Back in the 1950s, the story was seen as an allegory about communism. Finney has said he didn’t target communism specifically when he wrote the book, but most readers and moviegoers did back then.

In 1951, Robert Heinlein had published a similarly themed novel called The Puppet Masters. In that story, flying saucers land with creatures that attach to our backs, and take over our bodies and minds. Heinlein was an arch anti-communist, and his story was intended to imply the evils of a commie takeover.

In 1953 Robert Sheckley’s story, “Keep Your Shape” reflected a liberal’s paranoia. It appeared in the November issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. Sheckley rewrote the story for his collection Untouched by Human Hands and gave the story a much more elegant ending and a different title, “Shape.” It’s a humorous story told from the aliens’ point of view, about how they invaded the Earth twenty-something times and always failed. The aliens come from a rigid society of shape-shifting creatures whose God dictates that everyone has to maintain a certain shape. On Earth, the aliens are corrupted by our freedom when they see that we take so many different shapes. Sheckley’s story was anti-establishment and anti-conforming.

My point in mentioning all these stories is I feel like the conservatives have been sleeping with pods or have an alien riding on their backs. I feel this because they all seem to speak the same way. It’s kind of creepy to see political ads for Republicans because they all claim to toe the party line better than any other Republican. They all claim to hold the same beliefs. And their followers all repeat the same soundbites. I’m sure conservatives feel the same way about us liberals.

A couple days ago The New York Times ran a book review called “Where Have All the Liberals Gone?” The conservatives have made the term liberal such a dirty word that liberals are now calling themselves progressives. Conservatives have aligned themselves so tightly with Donald Trump that it reminds me of the fanatics who follow Putin and everything he says.

It makes me feel like the Kevin McCarthy character wondering when I will fall asleep and wake up a pod person. I no longer think of communism when I watch Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I think of everyone following one leader, one strong man’s view. If you look at history, the dangerous horrors of the past didn’t come from ideologies, but from single men pushing their view of reality onto everyone else.

I no longer understand what conservative or liberal philosophies means, even if they ever had a consistent description of their goals. I’m now thinking it’s always been individual men pushing their own philosophy onto other people. (I use the word men because I can’t think of any women dictators in history. I hope women won’t mind me being sexist in this instance.) That’s why Trump is so popular – people resonate and relate to him. He is their political philosophy, no matter how you label it.

I want a true democracy. But I don’t think it will ever work when winning is defined as a 50% majority. I think it needs to be at least 60%, and better yet, a winning majority should be defined at 75%. I want to live in a society where we work to compromise and create laws that attempt to make 100% of the population happy. It will always fail to reach 100% agreement, but if we could work out compromises where 60-75% of the population come to some kind of agreement, then I think we could escape our never-ending political polarization.

Right now we vote for our self-interests. And we vote for candidates that come closest to those self-interests. I have to accept that Trump is a beacon shining on what a lot of people want. But as long as half the country wants something different we’re going to have a miserable society.

When 50% is the finish line for any political agenda, we’re going to be ruled by pod people. I think real democracy begins when 75% of the population hammers out good compromises. I don’t think one politician with one point of view could ever find that many followers. Maybe we should move away from politicians and have referendums on everything. If we can’t find ways to get three-fourths of us to agree, then we should do anything.

It doesn’t matter which side of the political spectrum you live on, if we have minority rule, or even 50% majority rule, half the country will always feel they are living with pod people.

JWH

2022 Book #4 – The Horse The Wheel and Language by David W. Anthony

by James Wallace Harris, 1/26/22

Reading about the past is calming my anxieties about the future. The Horse The Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony is not a book I recommend to the casual reader. I expected it to be a popular science book about archaeology, but it turned out to be something much heavier. It’s a scientific work, probably used as a supplemental textbook. I found listening and reading the book to be rewarding and inspiring but it’s not fun. However, it has caused me to do a lot of philosophical pondering.

I won’t try to describe the book, Wikipedia has done an extremely detailed job with hyperlinks. If you want to know what the book is like, here is Anthony giving a lecture. This is exactly like listening to the audiobook.

I bought this book years ago and never read it and gave it to the library book sale. Then I read a popular article about linguistic anthology and decided I wanted to try it again and found a used copy. Still, I didn’t read it. Finally, I found an audiobook version that made it more accessible. I’m glad I had the physical book to refer to, because of its many complex charts and illustrations. This was a rewarding read, but I just want people to know it’s real science, not even popular science, and the going is tough. It took me weeks to listen to it all. Mainly, I want to talk about how I reacted to the book.

For years I’ve been troubled, even disturbed that our species lack real effort to combat climate change. For almost thirty years I’ve been waiting for governments and citizens to change their ways. I now realize that was naive of me. People don’t change. Not that I’ve given up complete hope, but all the evidence tells me our global civilization will never do anything significant about climate change.

That has inspired some existential insights. I expected humanity to grab control of reality and do everything it could to freeze the environment to its 1850-1950 weather patterns and maintain that as a steady-state forever. Once I started studying archaeology I realized that weather has always been changing over our species lifetime, and even for the whole lifetime of the Earth. Humans have always adapted to new weather patterns. It’s probably too fantastic to think we’ll control the weather.

Reading The Horse The Wheel and Language showed that humans have never stayed the same either. We’re constantly changing. Civilizations come and go all the time. Reading and watching documentaries about history and archaeology is teaching me that change is constant. That old saying, “the only thing constant is death and taxes” is true.

On its own specific subject The Horse The Wheel and Language is fascinating, but like I said, I not going to recommend you run out and buy it. Most of it is one giant infodump describing several societies around the Russian Steppes from about 4000-1200 BCE. The most interesting chapters were the early ones about the Indo-European languages and how linguists infer what the Proto-Indo-European language was like, and more specifically to this book, where in the world did the speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language lived.

Anthony claims by looking at the array of words in an ancient language and comparing it to the array of objects that archeologists have unearthed, we might pinpoint where those people could have lived. For example, if a language has the word for a wagon, but no wagons are ever found, it’s a not likely match. Or if a language has a lot of words for raising sheep, and lots of sheep bones were found, we might be getting warm. Of course, it’s much more complicated than that. For example, linguists can show how words from adjacent civilizations have passed into a language. I found all this fascinating, but overwhelming.

This is why the words Horse and Wheel are in the title. Only certain early civilizations had horses and wheels. For a long time, horses were only hunted for food. Then they were domesticated for food. Then came riding horses, and finally using horses to pull carts, then wagons. This made me think about how we’ll adapt to climate change. We’ll invent housing, clothing, lifestyles, jobs, political parties, etc. to adapt.

One thing I was amazed to learn was just how many different groups of people existed in a small area in prehistory that we know about. Most people when they think of ancient civilizations think of Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, and a few others. To me, the Russian Steppes and nearby lands sounded like North America before Columbus with countless tribes of nomadic and agrarian peoples.

For a while when reading the book I thought of making a timeline/list of civilizations to memorize but I soon realized that could become a lifetime project. I’ve ordered an archaeology textbook to help me get a bigger picture, but I’m not sure how big of a picture I can manage. Reading this book also made me crave maps, so I ordered a couple of atlases.

Many of these early civilizations lasted hundreds or even thousands of years. That made me think about how often world maps have changed in my lifetime. If the United States of America doesn’t make it to its 300th birthday it won’t be alone. All the descriptions of past changes of civilizations due to climate change, war, technology, disease, etc., make me wonder about what America might be like in the 22nd century. I now understand we can’t keep the weather of the 1950s forever, or the politics of the 1790s, or the technology of the 2020s.

About 85 million people died in the decade before I was born due to WWII, or about 3% of the world’s population. We’ve already put enough CO2 in the atmosphere to kill that many or more by the end of this century. Since we’re not going to stop adding CO2 anytime soon, billions will probably die in the 22nd century. Percentage-wise, civilizations have seen that kind of population reduction before.

I believe conservatives wanted to preserve the social climate of the 1950s, while liberals wanted to keep the weather environment of the 1950s. Neither will get what they want. All the demographics on Americans and America will be so much different in the 22nd century that we wouldn’t recognize either.

I need to stop speculating or worrying so about the future. Studying the past is philosophical liberating for me, but I’m not sure how much I should pursue it either, but I will. Living in the now is what’s important. And that’s why most people don’t worry about the future. I doubt for most of humanity’s existence the future was even a concept. I also assume the reason why so many people embrace various forms of denial is they don’t want to know the future because deep down they fear change. But change is coming. We can’t stop it.

JWH

2022 Book #2 – Bewilderment by Richard Powers

by James Wallace Harris, 1/16/21

I often wonder how young people today feel about the future. The only way to have hope is through massive acts of denial. Susan and I never had children, so I don’t know what it’s like to answer their questions as they grow up. Do you lie? Do you hide the news? What do you tell them about the metal detectors in the schools? How do you explain our handling of pandemics or climate change? What do you teach your kids about race relations and the politics of hate? What do you tell your kids about the thousands of failures we are facing as a society?

This is the core of the new novel by Richard Powers. Bewilderment is about raising a nine-year-old kid with emotional problems. He’s probably on the autism spectrum but is very high functioning. He probably has other learning disorders, but nothing is definite. He has trouble in school and his teachers want to medicate him with powerful psychoactive drugs. He has hair-trigger tantrums. His mother has died. How would you cope with such a kid? To make matters worse, the setting is the near future where things have gotten even worse than today. Imagine what the U.S. would be like if Trump was on his third term.

Bewilderment is not marketed as science fiction, but it’s set slightly into the future and talks about technology that might be possible soon. The story often references science fiction and uses its techniques, so I do consider it a science fiction novel. It’s the most gut-wrenching science fiction novel since Flowers for Algernon. If that novel wrecked you emotionally, you might not want to read this one. I found this one even more emotionally devastating.

Theo Byrne is the widower father of Robin (Robbie), a nine-year-old boy who is smart enough to know that humanity is on an insane self-destructive path and he can’t stop asking why. Robbie relentlessly wonders why his father, his teachers, or any of the adults he meets don’t act rationally. Robbie acts out, sometimes violently, sometimes in tantrums, demanding truth and honesty. Robbie is the one sighted person in the land of the blind. Robbie is the person we should all be. And Theo is constantly at his wit’s end trying to help his son.

Teachers want to control Robbie with psychoactive meds, and Theo is looking for any solution but that. Theo is a great dad. He constantly tries to engage Robin in insightful learning. Theo has two tools for calming Robbie. One, he calls on his memory of reading 2,000 paperback science fiction novels for engaging stories to divert Robbie from his meltdowns. Second, Theo is a scientist developing simulations of exoplanets for the day a new space telescope will be launched. He gets Robbie involved in these possible worlds that could be discovered soon. The basis of Theo’s work is to develop as many simulations as he can, so when the telescope detects certain conditions with an exoplanet they can match it to the simulations and quickly understand what we might be seeing.

Theo uses his simulations to visualize being on other planets to engage Robbie’s attention. This works at times, but often it only fuels Robbie’s awareness of what we’re doing to the planet Earth. For a nine-year-old, Robin can extrapolate brilliantly. His bullshit detector never fails.

Bewilderment progresses through one year of Theo’s and Robin’s life. Robbie is obsessed with memories of his dead mother, who was a lawyer for all the save-the-world causes. It’s through learning about his mother that Robbie finds some hope of controlling his emotions.

Like I said, most people will not consider Bewilderment a real science fiction novel. Bewilderment doesn’t have spaceships, galactic empires, time travel, robots, or dystopias — well, other than our own. The reason I like to think of Bewilderment as a science fiction novel is it uses all the sense of wonder I grew up with to give us hope for the real future we’re about to enter.

Unfortunately, Bewilderment shows our science fiction dreams are going to fail us. Or more exactly, we are going to fail them. The rap sheet for our species is long. The list of what we’re destroying grows every day. One of the things Richard Powers believes we’re destroying is our positive science fiction dreams. That like me, he worries about what hopes young people can still find in science fiction.

Science fiction has always been about hopes and fears regarding the future. What happens when science fiction only has fears to work with?

JWH

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