An Overwhelming Amount of History

by James Wallace Harris, 11/21/22

I’m not going to try and review Susan Wise Bauer’s three-volume history of the world. It’s just too much. I’m just going to give you my impression of what they are like and let you decide if you want to read them. I got all three audiobooks on sale at Audible and at least one of the Kindle editions on sale, maybe two. So if you want to try one, wait for a sale. Although, I sort of wish I had gotten the hardback editions too. I find I actually read more if I listen to audiobook editions or read Kindle editions, but the hardbacks would let me just dip back into them from time to time.

Here are their titles. Their subtitles are more accurate than the main titles. Links are to the Kindle edition.

  1. The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome
  2. The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade
  3. The History of the Renaissance World: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Conquest of Constantinople

First off, I knew very little of the history that Bauer presents. However, and this is a huge warning, it’s nearly all about wars, conquests, rulers, and reigns. If you like history with a story or interpretation, these books aren’t for you. It’s just the facts mam. And it’s relentless. It took me most of 2022 to get through seventy hours of audiobook listening because I could only handle it in spurts. All three volumes equal the length of some audiobook versions of the King James version of the Bible.

On the other hand, I was very impressed with Bauer’s writing. It’s concise and fascinating. She often refers to period sources, which I liked a lot. And she would reference later art and literature that looks back on history. I was impressed by how much poets and artists from the 18th and 19th centuries knew about history. We just aren’t the classical scholars people used to be.

Here is a sample from The History of the Renaissance World to give you an idea of Bauer’s prose and focus.

If you’ve ever been curious about all those Kings of England and France, then these books are for you. Another reason why I like Bauer’s history books is she covers more than the Western world. She jumps to the East and the New World too. Here are two timelines for a sample of how she jumps around. If you note the years, you’ll see that she almost goes year by year. These cover just a few chapters in the Renaissance book.

And each mention on the timelines mostly leads to a short game-of-thrones-like conflict. Human history is amazingly like HBO’s Game of Thrones. However, the TV show is much less violent and evil compared to history. And that’s the main takeaway I got from reading these three volumes of history. Most of humanity throughout history has suffered from the ambitions of a few. The people of history that have led us have nearly always led us into suffering. There are no “Great” leaders in history even if they have been bestowed that title.

I know there is a movement among conservatives to fight what’s called Critical Race Theory being taught in schools. Conservatives don’t want their children to feel bad about themselves. Well, they shouldn’t read any history then. Anyone who idolizes any leader from the past, or glorifies any era is deluding themselves. Anyone who gets easily depressed should not read these books or any history books that cover history honestly.

That’s another lesson from reading these books. We glamorize history. If you compare the movies made about the Crusades or the Middle Ages to what really happen, you realize we’re lying to ourselves. Knights and crusaders were not nice people and were definitely not chivalrous. Heroes are not what we think. Joseph Campbell was full of bullshit when he described the mythology by the hero. So was Tolkien. If you feel romantic about any story dealing with aristocracy then you are fooling yourself.

We have whitewashed history so thoroughly that many people long for the past. The whole heroic fantasy industry is just childish make-believe. Even dark violent fantasies like Game of Thrones are clean and nice in comparison to history. If Hollywood made films based on Bauer’s history books and filmed things as they happened I doubt few people could psychologically handle them.

I can’t say I recommend Bauer’s History of the World series. I’m glad I read them. I might even read them again. Many have recommended we study history so we won’t repeat it. After reading these books I’m now confident we can’t break out of the loop.

When I was a kid I wanted to know the truth. Obviously, we can’t handle the truth. I keep trying. Studying history is like pistol-whipping myself to handle a little more truth. I face reality in tiny bits and then run back to escapist hiding, but I always poke my head out once in a while for a little bit more of reality.

Now that I’ve read these books I’m going to go hide for a while.

JWH

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

When Will Women Have a Constitutional Right to an Abortion?

by James Wallace Harris, 6/25/22

Predicting the future is impossible, but we can speculate. The Supreme Court just changed its mind about how it interprets the Constitution regarding a woman’s right to an abortion, so can we expect it will change its mind again? Congress could pass a law giving women a right to an abortion but the Supreme Court could knock it down. The most lasting solution would be ratifying an amendment to the Constitution. That probably won’t happen anytime soon. But when might it be possible?

Anti-abortionists fought to reverse Roe v. Wade for half a century, will it take that long for the political pendulum to swing back? Polls show that a majority of Americans want abortion to be a legal right for women, so how did anti-abortion voters win? The common answer is they joined forces with the conservatives. The conservatives have also worked for decades to get what they want, and are succeeding because they have formed a tight coalition among several special interest groups.

I would assume feminists would have to join several other special interest groups and work with the Democrats to get what they want. Is that possible? What alignment of special interests would beat the alignment of specialist interests the Republicans have formed?

We must admire the conservatives for their dedication, focus, and work to get what they want. Are liberals willing to make an equal effort? Will liberals make a more significant effort to join school boards, get elected in city and state governments, work to influence law school curriculums, and do everything else the conservatives have done since the 1970s?

I have read many books about how conservatives have achieved their political goals over the last fifty years. Many of their tactics have not been honest or ethical. Will liberals go to such extremes? We are currently watching the conservatives subvert democracy to game the system. They have been sowing doubt on all the tools liberals would use to get what they want, especially science, education, medicine, journalism, and common sense.

Liberals have always relied on intellectual proof to fight for what they want, and conservatives have completely undermined intellectualism. Liberals can’t rely on logic to get what they want. They will need to build a coalition of passionate wants. Conservatives have won what they wanted with well-managed minority interests. Can liberals find enough minority interest groups to create a larger coalition than the conservative groups? They have the feminists, LGBTQ+, some minorities, environmentalists, and anti-gun, but who else? They used to have labor, but that’s not so anymore.

It would be great if the liberals could claim the scientists, but scientists are often people first and scientists second. The Republicans have done well with certain religious groups, are there other believers that would passionately support the liberals?

Are there interests that liberals could take back from the conservatives? The core driving force of conservatives has been anti-taxes. Greed is the most powerful political interest of all. If the Democrats could find ways to solve social problems by spending less money it would be a huge factor. If Democrats could find ways to improve the financial health of families and individuals without increasing taxes it would also help. Voters want security, stability, and law and order. Republicans have always been able to capitalize on that more than Democrats. If liberals want to swing the pendulum back their way, they need to change that.

I doubt I’ll live long enough to see the political pendulum swing back to the liberal side. The conservatives are still gaining momentum. I’ve seen a lot of change in my life, and if I live another ten or twenty years I expect to see a lot more. I never imagined that Roe v. Wade would be overturned. But then, the future has always been everything I never imagined.

JWH

How Game of Thrones Reflects History Like Two Opposing Mirrors

by James Wallace Harris, 6/15/22

My friends Linda, Connell, and I are rewatching HBO’s Game of Thrones, and this time around I can’t help but compare it to current politics and the books on ancient history I’m reading. When I saw the series years ago I only thought of it as an epic fantasy. This time I feel George R. R. Martin distilled millennia of human history into one fictional story.

I’ve lost count of the times a real game of thrones has played out in my study of history. By now I’ve read dozens and dozens of accounts of power plays for a throne. One example from ancient Egypt deals with an assassination attempt on Rameses III from The History of the Ancient World by Susan Wise Baurer:

THE FAULT LINE running through Egypt, temporarily plastered over by victory reliefs and building projects, was still liable to crack open at any point. Rameses III held the throne by right of his father’s coup, and he was not immune to power plays.

Towards the end of his reign, one of his lesser wives hatched a plot to assassinate the king by mob violence. Scribes who recorded the affair during the reign of Rameses’s successor say that she began a campaign to “stir up the people and incite enmity, in order to make rebellion against their lord.”10 Apparently she hoped that the mob would not only remove Rameses III, but also his appointed successor—his son by another wife—so that her own son would become king.

A harem plot to kill the pharaoh was hardly unknown, but this one was remarkable for the number of people involved. The court recorder lists, among others, the two royal standard-bearers, the butler, and the chief scribe. The overseer of the herds was accused of making wax figures of the king, apparently for use in an Egyptian form of voodoo;11 the chief steward was convicted of spreading dissension. The conspiracy apparently stretched all the way down into Nubia: “Benemwese, formerly captain of archers in Nubia…was brought in because of the letter which his sister, who was in the harem, had written to him, saying, ‘Incite the people to hostility!’”12

The records of the conspiratorial accusations end, in monotonous regularity, with either “He took his own life” or “The punishments of death were executed upon him.” The exceptions were three conspirators who merely had their noses and ears cut off, and a single acquittal: a standard-bearer named Hori, who undoubtedly lived the rest of his years in disbelief that he alone had survived the purge.13

By the time the trials dragged to a close, the intended victim was offstage. Rameses III himself had died of old age.

That trial reminds me of the current Jan 6th hearings. I wonder how people will study January 6th in future history books?

Donald Trump’s campaigns to stay in political power remind me of Game of Thrones too. Trump wants the 2024 presidency like the Game of Throne characters wants the Iron Throne. I imagine Trump pictures himself as Tywin Lannister, rich and powerful, but he’s actually more like Robert Baratheon, a leader in name only who shirks his kingly duties to wench and hunt. All of Trump’s would-be advisors remind me of the treacherous advisors in King’s Landing. People like Steve Bannon obviously want to be a puppetmaster to the powerful in the same way Littlefinger and Varys pulled the strings on those who would rule Westeros.

This year I’m on my fourth book about ancient history and there is one obvious lesson that stands out above all others: Beware of rulers. There are always people, usually men, who believe they should rule, and they think nothing of getting thousands or even millions of innocent people killed to fulfill their ambitions.

The alpha humans always want more. The betas connive to be alphas. And the rest of humanity, the omegas, are the pawns in the game of thrones. To the ruthless, the 99.99% of humanity are the Star Trek red shirts in their personal fantasies. We see that with Putin in Ukraine right now. I’ve started another book, Bloodlands by Timothy Synder, that focuses on Hitler and Stalin’s roles in killing 14 million people from 1933 to 1945. Why do we let our rulers have so much power?

Until humanity can rule itself without ambitious psychopaths we’re going to repeat the same loop forever. In the history books, there have only been a couple of minor incidents where the ordinary citizens protested their role as cannon fodder. Most of history is about one ruler after another waging war. When will this infinitely repeated story horrify us enough to break free of the cycle? Since Game of Thrones was such a huge hit, maybe we love things just the way they are?

Eight seasons of Game of Thrones is about endless warring and the remembrances of wars. The story ends and we think there will be peace, but history tells us that won’t be true. Why don’t we get other stories in history and literature? Why not the stories of those people who built the beautiful cities we see in Westeros and Essos? Why is it always conflict and destruction?

Why do we mainly remember the monsters of history and literature? None of the major characters in Game of Thrones are good people. Is this why Trump and Putin are so well-loved in their respective countries? Are the rest of us just fans, taking sides while watching the game play out? Is that our only role, to pick a team to follow? Go Starks! Go Lannisters! Go Trump! Go Putin!

Below is one of my favorite and telling passages in The History of the Ancient World. In chapter 52, history intersects with the Old Testament and 19th-century literature. It’s not that I endorse what’s being reported, but I think it reveals something deeply psychological in the human race, especially when you compare these events of almost three thousand years ago to today. This passage reminds me of the destruction of cities in Ukraine and King’s Landing in season eight.

JWH

Why Do We Keep Repeating History When We Know We’re Repeating History?

by James Wallace Harris, 5/16/22

I’m listening to and reading Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World by Philip Maryazak. It’s a quick overview of 40 civilizations of early history beginning with the Akkadians and ending with the Hephthalites. To be honest, I had only heard of less than half of these civilizations, mostly because of references in the Bible or from Greek and Roman history.

I’ve never studied ancient history much but I’ve recently gotten hooked on it, especially after reading The Horse The Wheel and Language by David W. Anthony, The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow, and The Writing of the Gods by Edward Dolnick. The first two were a slog to get through but I still admired them. The Writing of the Gods was sheer fun and would probably appeal to many readers. Forgotten People of the Ancient World is a breezy summary, which I’m thoroughly enjoying, but it doesn’t go too deep. Perfect for me right now, but I’ll want to know more later. Actually, the entries on Wikipedia cover more for each civilization than Matyszak’s chapters, but his book integrates a digestible narrative with inspiring photos and maps making it easier to read.

When you read/listen to one summary of a civilization after another, it’s pretty damn obvious that humankind is on repeat mode. Humanity is Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, but we never learn how to break the cycle. You’d think with all this history we’d figure it out the secret.

Some cycles are obvious, like the rise of powerful leaders. Why do we call Alexander III of Macedon the Great? Sure, he conquered a lot of territories but he also killed, destroyed, and plundered. We hate Putin today for what he’s doing in Ukraine, but how was Alexander III of Macedon any different? We really should call Alexander, Napoleon, Hitler, Putin, and every other empire builder the monsters of history.

That’s the number one cycle we keep doing over and over, which is to allow egomaniacs to become rulers. We’ve tried to avoid that by creating democracy, but as you can see from recent times that doesn’t always succeed at controlling men who want more. And even then democracies sometimes go around and destroy other countries too, just like would-be emperors. Humans have this thing about destroying their enemies and expanding their territory. Like Rodney King, I must ask, “Can’t we all just get along?”

A less obvious cycle we repeat is the reverberation between big government and small government. All the successful civilizations grew, needing central control to keep things organized. The central government of the Akkadians had to build vast irrigation systems which required taxes and governmental infrastructure. There are always people who resent that. They rebel and undermine the central government and civilization erodes and eventually collapses. Why can’t we find a balance between secure political structures and personal freedoms?

We fail to be good stewards of the Earth and overtax Mother Nature with our endless growth and consumption. Nor do we save for the future to withstand random destructive acts of nature. Humanity is no Boy Scout, it’s never prepared.

Another hit on the Top Repeat list is ignoring reality. We feed our hatreds and greed with crazy ideas and justifications. We’re always our own worst enemy.

I feel like we’re living in end-of-civilization times. Reading about history is somewhat soothing but for a strange reason. It promotes stoical thinking.

Here’s a neat video on YouTube about how chaos theory predictions patterns of disorder in ordered systems. We live with entropy, and civilization is anti-entropic. It helps to understand both chaos and complexity theory. It won’t help the world to know this, but at least it explains some things.

JWH

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