Retelling Space History in 1080i

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 9, 2019

50th anniversaries are big deals. This month is the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s trip to the Moon. I started following NASA’s space program on May 5, 1961, when my 4th-grade class listened to Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight broadcast over the classroom speaker. I was living Hollywood, Florida, just down the coast from Cape Canaveral. After that, I convinced my parents to let me stay home from school whenever there was a space launch so I could watch it on TV. I watched all the Project Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo launches with Walter Cronkite – except for Apollo 8. That I got to see live.

Over the years and decades, I have read countless books and watched countless documentaries about the space program, and the history of rocketry. Last night, PBS began a 3-part series commemorating the first moon landing called Chasing the Moon. I almost didn’t watch it because I figured I had seen and heard everything. But, boy am I glad I did tune in.

PBS has dug up films and facts I hadn’t seen or heard. And it was spectacular seeing these old film clips on my 65″ Sony high definition TV. I know the Apollo 11 event was filmed by dozens of news outlets, so why shouldn’t they have different films to show? But I could swear the take-off of Apollo 11 from the NASA’s cameras seemed new to me. I’m sure they had cameras from every angle possible, so why shouldn’t there be a unique one for the 50th anniversary? However, I wondered if the launch shot was from a later Saturn 5.

Chasing the Book - bookI also wonder if after 50 years I’ve just forgotten most of what I once saw? And maybe seeing the launch sequence in 1080i on a 65″ HDTV made it look different from all the small CRT screens I used over most of those years.

There were also some facts presented that I don’t remember ever knowing before either. For instance, NASA had trained a black astronaut, Ed Dwight Jr. at the request of the JFK White House, but for political reasons was left out of the second cohort of astronauts, the one that included Neil Armstrong. Dwight was sent to be trained by Chuck Yeager as a test pilot, but Yaeger told all the other pilots to give him the cold shoulder.

Another surprising story was the JFK tried twice to get Nikita Khrushchev to make the space race a joint expedition to the Moon. I knew that Kennedy wasn’t interested in space and only promoted the idea to compete with the Russians, but I don’t remember ever reading about him trying to reduce the cost of the mission by co-opting the Russians. Wouldn’t history have been amazingly different if Nikita had agreed?

Chasing the Moon covers all the history I remember, but with slightly different details and film clips. It starts with Werner von Braun and Sputnik. However, the book that goes with the documentary starts back in 1903 and covers earlier rocket pioneers and the influence of science fiction. I wished the documentary had started there too.

Be sure and tune in tonight for part two. Many stations will be repeating part one, so fire up your DVRs. And the PBS streaming app should have it too. Wednesday, NOVA will be about the future of Moon exploration and colonization.

There is another reason to watch these 50th-anniversary celebrations. I’m starting to see the shaping of history. Sure it was great to be a 17-year-old kid watching the first Moon landing, but it’s also been great to see its history unfold over fifty years. I realize so much has been left out of the story. We always get the gung-ho glamor version, but the PBS documentary hints at much more. Besides covering the lost story of a black astronaut, they show clips of African Americans at the launch protesting. They came there on a mule-drawn wagon. The documentary also hints at the dirty pork-barrelling politics behind the scenes or how hard we worked to cover up the fact that our space program originated with Nazis. I didn’t know this, but the Russians eventually sent all their captured Nazis back to Germany. Of course, I knew about von Braun, since I have read biographies about him, but even those I expect were cleaned up.

There are still two parts to go and I wonder if they will try to answer the really big question that we always avoid. If going to the Moon was so great, why didn’t we keep going, why didn’t we go to Mars? We went to the Moon in nine years, but we haven’t gone beyond low Earth’s orbit since 1972. That 50th anniversary is only three years away. Was the final frontier just a cold-war political stunt? Are the plans to return to the Moon just another political keeping up with the Jones?

JWH

60 Years – From Treasure Island to Black Sails

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, June 22, 2019

Sixty years ago, back in 1959, I read my first book, Treasure Island. Actually, my mother read it with me. I was seven and in the third grade. It was around Halloween because I went to a costume party dressed as Long John Silver. I’m not sure, but my faulty memory tells me I picked Treasure Island to read because I had seen the 1934 movie version on television, the one with Wallace Beery as Long John Silver. I have reread the book and seen the old movie many times since. They are burned into my memory.

Sixty years later, in 2019 I’m watching a TV series called Black Sails (2014-2017) that features several characters that share names with characters in Treasure IslandLong John Silver, Captain Flint, Billy Bones, and Ben Gunn. The producers of the show consider it a prequel to the novel. If you haven’t read the book or seen one of the many filmed versions of Treasure Island it hardly matters, but if you have, knowing the character’s future adds to the fun of watching the show. To make the show even more delicious, many of the other characters are based on historical people from the Golden Age of Pirates.

Black Sails is not your typical pirate movie (well an extended TV series of 4 seasons with a total of 38 episodes). Black Sails spends most of its time developing characters and a complicated plot arc. Sure, it has sea battles, sword fights, treasure chests, and waving skull and crossbones, but it’s mostly about business. Pirate captains are elected. They keep their leadership only as long as their bookkeeper keeps them in the black. Pirates steal on the high seas but fence their booty in Nassau which is resold in the American colonies. Everyone is concerned with their own bottom line. Nassau belongs to England but its colonial governors are always corrupted. The main theme of the story is how some pirates and some Englishmen want to make Nassau legit like the other colonies.

Captain Flint and Long John Silver

Black Sails does feature a great deal of sex and violence, including plenty of full-frontal nudity, swearing, and gore, so it’s not for children like the original Treasure Island. But it’s also been modernized with several significant roles for women. None of the women characters are from Treasure Island and only one is from history (Anne Bonny).

In Treasure Island, Long John Silver is dishonest, violent, and likable. That’s true of the John Silver character in Black Sails. Captain Flint is a vastly complex character in the show, even its main character, but Captain Flint was just alluded to in Stevenson’s novel, and generally for his monstrous reputation. Black Sails spends much of its time giving Captain Flint a backstory. Billy Bones was not very likable in the book but is very likable in the television show.

Charles Vane, Jack Rackham, Edward Teach, and Benjamin Hornigold were real pirates, and it’s worth following their links to read about them at Wikipedia. It’s also worth reading about the Republic of Pirates that the show builds upon that worked out of Nassau, and the pirate code of conduct. These six links will provide a significant history needed to truly appreciate what the show succeeds at doing.

Over my lifetime I’ve become acquainted with many fictional characters that have been legendary or mythic, ones which are constantly recreated and enlarged – Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Peter Pan, Jo Marsh, Elizabeth Bennet – so that Black Sails is giving more life to Long John Silver. I like that. Maybe because he’s the character I’ve known the longest.

JWH

Archiving the Past for the Future

Are you throwing away history? How you perceive yourself is determined by what you remember. How society remembers itself is through histories. Histories are written based on the evidence the past leaves for the future.

If our eyes and ears were a video camera, each day we take in several terabytes of information, yet we remember very little. Our brains decide to throw away most of our sensory input. How many commutes to work or school can you remember? There are many theories as to how we select what to save, but I don’t science has found a consensus yet. We can’t recall the past with TiVo-like utility. Our memories are vague impressions squirreled away inside our heads. Most people don’t have photographic memories, much less video-graphic. This is also true of historians, they only have tiny incomplete fragments of the past.

Now that we’re entering into the Marie Kondo phase of our lives, many of us are throwing away the physical evidence of what we’ve done at the same time many of us have become interested genealogy. If you’ve ever watched Finding Your Roots you know how important physical records are for reconstructing the past. What’s true for individuals is even truer for society.

My father died when I was 18, and I’ve often wished I had more evidence of his life to figure out who he was. I don’t have that evidence, but I wonder if it exists elsewhere. I’ve also wanted more evidence of my own life to remember who I was. I’ve spent a good deal of time reading about world history, trying to put together a consistent memory of our past. Too much of history is opinion because we don’t have enough hard evidence.

The current decluttering mania teaches us to categorize our discards into three piles: Keep, Give Away or Sell, or Throw Away. I believe we should keep an eye out for a fourth category – Save for History. When we hold an object and ask ourselves, “Does it bring me joy?” we should also ask, “Could future historians use this?” The trouble is, what is of historical value, and who do we give it to?

Any document that connects people to events might be valuable. Of course, ticket stubs to a Bob Dylan concert might only help you remember where you were on a night in 1978. But what about a schedule of speeches for a conference? Or an old menu saved for sentimental reasons? Or a video of a family reunion? Or a catalog from an art exhibit? Anything that might help other people remember might be worthy to save.

We need to think about how we remember who we are as a society and what artifacts to save? I’m currently reading Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson and I’m amazed by how much information we have about people who lived over five hundred years ago. Few of us have that kind of information even if we wanted to write our own autobiographies. Evidently, people who get into genealogy learn what’s important to identify people connections. And anyone who has written up an event or documented a house for sale knows about the importance of supporting facts.

What evidence should we save today about our past to help people in the future understand us? I’ve acquired a new hobby of scanning old magazines and fanzines. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of people digitizing popular culture and uploading it into libraries, and sites on the internet like Internet Archive. However, like our own minds, we have to decide what tiny bit is worth saving, and what massive amount of junk is not. We’re actually Marie Kondoising our culture every day.

The next time you have a box of junk to throw out, don’t just ask if each item gives you joy, but would it give a future historian joy too.

One kind of evidence I ache to have for my own personal history are photographs. I wish I had pictures of all my schools and classmates since kindergarten. I also wish I had photos of all the houses I’ve lived in, their yards, and of each room. My father was in the Air Force and we moved around so much that I can’t remember all the houses I lived in or the schools I attended. I wish I had evidence to recreate that knowledge. In other words, I wish I had documentation to support my memory. There’s a chance that other people photographed what I wanted. It’s a shame we don’t have a photograph database, especially one controlled by artificial intelligence with machine learning.

PBS - Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.Most of us do not have evidence that will matter to historians, but you never know. And even if we did, how do we pass it on? If you’re a famous person you can donate your papers to a library. One thing us ordinary folks can do is to share photographs with relatives, or anyone who is pictured in the photographs. I have some old school yearbooks that I’m going to scan and upload to the Internet Archive. Yearbooks are starting to show up there. I keep hoping yearbooks from schools I went to that I don’t have will show up. Classmates.com has yearbooks for a fee, and I use it, but I think this information should be public. Eventually, items in the Internet Archive, which hopes to save everything digitally, will be churned through by AI and data miners, and there’s no telling what kind of results will turn up. I highly recommend watching the PBS show Finding Your Roots to see how sleuthing personal histories work.

I’m also scanning and uploading old fanzines to Internet Archive. It’s a skill that takes a little work to acquire, but I like rescuing these old documents. I worked in a library while going to college, and one of my jobs was finding missing issues to make whole volumes to bind. I’d send snail mail requests around the world to track down lost/stolen issues. Now, I get on eBay to look for missing issues to scan.

I haven’t gotten into genealogy yet, but I’ve thought about getting into that hobby just learn what kinds of things people save. I’m just getting into this idea of what to save for history. I know I don’t have items for big history, but I wonder if I have little clues that other people want for their small histories.

JWH

Science Fiction in Prehistory

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, November 2, 2018

It is my belief that Homo sapiens have been cognitively the same for the entire lifetime of our species. Sure, cavemen could not pass an ACT test today, but then we couldn’t pass a hunting and gathering IQ test if we traveled back to their time. I need to make that assumption because I want to also assume our cognitive tool for speculation that we call science fiction today has always existed in us.

Think of fiction as a spectrum with pure fantasy to the left and absolute realism to the right. When ancient storytellers narrated their tales sometimes they wanted their audience to believe exactly what they’re saying, sticking close to remembered details as possible. Other times, they make everything up and the audience knew it was all supposed to be make-believe. Science fiction lies in the middle of the spectrum, where the storyteller is making things up, but also wanting their audience to consider some ideas possible. They were speculating that something could happen or be discovered. They used known quantities to suggest other things are possible even though the idea is currently fantasy.

Noahs Ark

One of the best examples that go back into prehistory is building an ark to survive the great flood. Humans knew about floods. It’s my contention that the first storyteller to suggest building an ark to protect people and animals from a flood was using their cognitive abilities for creating science fiction. The story of Noah’s ark is how the story has survived prehistory, but we know it existed in earlier ages. It’s a fantastic idea for a story. It involves super-technology and the apocalypse, two major themes of modern science fiction. Plus, it shows humans trying to outwit fate, a kind of hubris against nature. Even the more modern version of Noah’s ark adds the helping hand of a superior being not from Earth. How does that story differ from modern science fiction that imagines aliens from space coming to save humans from a world-destroying disaster?

What I’m claiming is humans have always had this capacity to imagine wild possibilities they hoped to avoid or make to come true. We call it science fiction today, but this ability to speculate is an innate quality that’s always existed in the species. The trouble is science fiction speculation from prehistory has come down as accepted belief, and not theory. People forgot the original idea was a “What if?” proposal and not fact. Imagine if after our civilization collapses and thousands of years into the future people believe stories about invaders from Mars or time travelers from our times were true and H. G. Wells is deemed a prophet.

I’m quite sure early humans asked, “What if there are unseen beings that do things we can’t.” We can do things that animals can’t, so it’s not much of an extrapolation to imagine there are beings that can do things we can’t. Plus, early humans could do things that animals couldn’t perceive us doing, like set traps. Speculating about gods, fairies, ghosts, angels, demons, God, etc., are a kind of science fiction. Religious people consider them dogma now, and scientific thinkers dismiss them completely, but at one time such beings were part of speculative fiction, just theoretical brainstorming, the kind of hypothesizing that science fiction does today.

 

Trojan horse 2

Prehistory humans used this ability for all kinds of inventions. Think of the Trojan Horse. Another example of applied imagined technology. It’s a killer gimmick for an ancient story plot. It’s doubtful that such feat of trickery was ever built. It’s hard to believe Trojans would have been fooled. But it’s a great idea, and one people would love to believe is possible. And it’s exactly the kind of plot solution a science fiction writer would use.

The problem with prehistory is in its very definition. Prehistory is history before writing, but from a time we can only speculate about from physical artifacts, archeology, anthopology, DNA, pattern analysis of languages, studying the existing hunting and gathering cultures, and assuming the earliest stories at the beginning of history came down from oral prehistory. If we read enough origin stories from all over the world, we begin to see patterns in how people thought about explaining reality with speculative thinking. Science fiction uses the current models of science and technology to imagine possibilities that science and technology haven’t discovered or invented. I think it’s easy to see we’ve always done that. At the dawn of science, philosophers and science fiction writers compared the universe to clocks. Later writers compare the workings of nature to steam engines. We compare them to computers. Is it such a stretch to think citizens of prehistory lack the same ability to speculate?

JWH

 

The Rise and Fall of Astounding Science-Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 26, 2018

AstoundingOn October 23, 2018, the magazine Astounding Science-Fiction was remembered in two ways. First, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series came in at #49 on the PBS Great American Read, and second, Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee was published.

For a subgroup of the G.I., Silent and Baby Boomer generations, the Golden Age of Science Fiction was from 1939 to 1950, and mostly due to one magazine, Astounding Science-Fiction under the editorship of John W. Campbell, Jr. There was one other book in the PBS Great American Read where Campbell was the first editor to buy – that was Dune by Frank Herbert, which came in at #35. So, Campbell had two books in the top 50, not a bad legacy. Dune appeared in his magazine just after the name changed to Analog Science Fact & Fiction.

Alec Nevala-Lee’s new book, Astounding, isn’t the first history of the magazine, and I doubt it will be the last. As I listened to the audiobook edition I thought about all the ways writers have tried to tell the story of Astounding and the golden age of science fiction. Alva Rogers in Requiem for Astounding did an issue by issue overview. Arthur C. Clarke wrote a memoir about how the magazine shaped his youth in Astounding Days. And Alexei and Cory Panshin focused heavily on Astounding, Campbell, Heinlein, Asimov, and van Vogt in their Hugo winning book, The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence. All those books focused on the stories. Nevala-Lee focuses on Campbell, Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard, giving us the biographical background to the editor and his three most famous writers.

There’s been plenty written about Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard, but other than tributes and collections of letters, I’m not sure how much has been written about John W. Campbell, and he is the real focus of Nevala-Lee’s book. However, his story is so intertwined with the magazine and his famous writers that Astounding is a history of the magazine and a biography of four men.

Reading Astounding was both rewarding and depressing. It’s depressing because we endure the painful deaths of all four subjects, but even worse than that, they all fall from grace. I’m not sure if I should reveal what they become. If I did, some would call it spoilers, but others might call them trigger-warnings. Let’s just say this is a tell-all biography where Nevala-Lee gives us the best and worst on each man. All four men were autodidactic know-it-alls. All four men were egomaniacs. Three, maybe four, had severe delusions of grandeur. All four were hard on wives and women, and at least two of them would have thrown out of pop culture if they lived during #MeToo times. One turns out to be white-supremacist and another started a religion and has been defied by his followers, even though Nevala-Lee makes it abundantly clear he was a pathological liar, and his church is often vilified and has a reputation of being a paranoid cult.

Despite all of this, Astounding is a valuable history book on an important era of science fiction. By combining the four biographies, Nevala-Lee shows us the wizards behind the curtain. Yes, in many ways, they were all humbugs, but in many other ways, they were genuine magicians. Campbell and all the writers of Astounding Science-Fiction created art that inspired a generation. Astounding Science-Fiction was essential to the evolution of the art form we know today as science fiction.

There has always been a problem calling 1939-1950 the golden age of science fiction because for many people it wasn’t. I’ve been systematically reading The Great SF Stories volumes 1-25 (1939-1964) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. I’ve finished the first seven volumes, and I’ve got to say, many of the stories are forgettable. Nearly all the stories come from Campbell’s two magazines, Astounding Science-Fiction and Unknown. I’m sure these stories were mind-blowing back in the 1940’s, but there’s been much better science fiction written since using the same ideas and themes. In 1957 Peter Graham said in a fanzine called Void, that “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve.” That deeply perceptive observation has been accepted as truth ever since. I turned 12 in late 1963, and the science fiction I discovered was published in the 1950’s. Some of it was reprints from Astounding in the 1940’s, and others were stories that appeared in F&SF, Galaxy, and IF, the Young Turks that usurped Astounding’s reign in the 1950’s, as well as original science fiction books that began being published that decade. Today, I generally think of the 1950’s as the golden age of science fiction, and I’m sure people younger than I feel the same way about the decade they first read when discovering science fiction.

This alternate view of the golden age of science fiction will probably limit the audience to Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee, but it’s already the #1 book in Amazon’s Science Fiction and Fantasy section. Today it is quite common for young people, especially women and minorities, to dismiss older science fiction as being too white-male dominated from an unenlightened era. Nevala-Lee’s book will only reinforce those beliefs. However, I think it’s important to read this book. It does capture the ambitiousness of science fiction’s most ambitious proponents.

Science fiction changed dramatically in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and again this century. I routinely read science fiction stories from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Surprisingly, the ideas and themes remain consistent, but not the storytelling and characters. Science fiction authors have become much more sophisticated writers creating deeper and diverse characters. I see Nevala-Lee’s book as one piece in a very large puzzle. If you look for them, you’ll find plenty of books being written today on the history of science fiction. Most remain obscure and little read. I’m surprised that Astounding is getting all the attention it’s getting. Does it represent a tip of an iceberg of science fiction fans hungering to know more about the evolution of their favorite genre? Or, has all the science fiction fans from my generation suddenly become nostalgic for Astounding again?

I worry if younger science fiction fans read Astounding they may be turned off to 1940’s and 1950’s science fiction. All four men in Nevala-Lee’s book eventually come across as emotionally flawed, delusional, egomaniacal, and if not diagnosable with several DSM disorders, at least very nutty. Until the genre label “science fiction” emerged in the 1950’s, people would call it “that crazy Buck Rogers stuff.” I’m afraid the history in Astounding will only reinforce the crackpot reputation of science fiction.

This isn’t a criticism of the book, Nevala-Lee is just telling it like it was. But I believe readers need more context. I’m not sure people today have any idea what the psychological fallout the first atomic bombs, ICBMs, and Sputnik did to the citizens of the 1940’s and 1950’s. They all were looking desperately for answers to monumental existential threats. The stress was tremendous. Many thought the world was coming to an end. Psychiatry almost became a fad in the 1950’s, including experimental use of LSD under psychiatric supervision.

I’m not depressed that Nevala-Lee reveals how science fiction went nuts, but I wished he would have put its breakdown in the context of how everyone was going nutty back then. We look back with embarrassment to Campbell’s embrace of psychic powers, but a large segment of the country was doing the same thing.

I was born in 1951, so I grew up with the 1950’s. I remember my uncles raving about the psychic powers of Edgar Cayce and Jean Dixon, believing in the past lives of Bridie Murphy, excited by the multiple personalities of Eve, and dedicated followers the UFO nut, George Adamski. Nevala-Lee doesn’t mention how crazy America was in the 1950’s, so it seems Campbell is a standout nutter. He wasn’t. He was the mansplainer to mansplainers. He would pontificate to experts in their fields on their own subjects, telling them where they were ignoramuses.

I’ve also read other biographies of Heinlein as well as several biographies of Philip K. Dick, along with many interviews with SF writers of this era. It’s very hard to capture the crazy times from Hiroshima to Woodstock. And if you compare those times to our times, you’ll see that most people believed a lot of crazy crap by then. Of, sure, we still believe a lot of crazy crapola today, but those true believers in weirdness are far fewer now. And it is a fact that back then almost everyone had horrible prejudices and were unenlightened to equality. I’d like to believe society has evolved, and the percentage of crazy and prejudice people are down from those times. Of course, recent events suggest they were only hiding.

My one criticism of Astounding is by focusing on the biographies of Campbell, Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard Nevala-Lee didn’t convey the tremendous excitement and variety of the science fiction stories that Campbell published. And that probably wasn’t his goal. To most fans, Astounding Science-Fiction magazine was by far the best science fiction magazine of the times because of the stories. They didn’t care about the lives of the editors and writers. I hope future historians of this era include the other magazines like Amazing Stories, Thrilling Wonder, Startling Stories, Planet Stories, and Astonishing Science Fiction. I’m not sure Astounding deserves all of the attention and credit.

Alec Nevala-Lee’s book is one of a coalescing history. It is valuable because of its biographical slant. I wished he could have included more biographies of Campbell’s writers in his book, especially A. E. van Vogt, C. L. Moore, Clifford Simak, Hal Clement, Lester del Rey, Theodore Sturgeon, Ross Rocklynne, L. Sprague de Camp, and many more. Here is a list of all the stories that appeared in Astounding from July 1939 to September 1960.

Nevala-Lee’s book reminds me of the Beats. They were a literary subculture from the 1950’s that biographers can’t let go of. The Beat library keeps growing. I think the subculture of science fiction is attracting interest in the same way, and Alec Nevala-Lee is helping it by promoting the cult of the character. Heinlein, Asimov, Hubbard, and Campbell remind me of Kerouac, Cassidy, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. Over time, I believe the science fiction generation of the 1940’s and 1950’s will be remembered in biographies like The Transcendentalists, The Lost Generation, and The Beats.

Finally, I would like to also recommend The World Beyond the Hill by Alexei and Cory Panshin. It is coming to the Kindle next month and is currently just $3.99 for pre-ordering. And if you’d like to actually read copies of old Astoundings, click here.

JWH

Educated by Tara Westover

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Educated by Tara Westover is remarkable book that many friends have read and a popular selection for their book clubs. Westover was raised by Morman parents in rural Idaho. They fear the government and shunned doctors and hospitals. As a girl, Tara never attended a K-12 school. Yet, she wasn’t homeschooled either. Westover overcame this lack of education and eventually got a PhD at Cambridge. On the surface, her book is about her remarkable self-education, but is really about surviving a brutal childhood of mental and physical suffering. Like the political right denying Christine Blasey Ford’s assault account, Westover’s parents deny Tara’s testimony of assaults.

Educated by Tara Westover

Educated is so riviting, so compelling, so fascinating because of Westover’s 27-year long escape from her Ruby-Ridge-like upbringing. Her father is a conspiracy theory nutcase and her mother a spiritual healer true believer. Her oldest brother is a psychopath who thrills on physically and mentally humiliating Tara, her siblings, and his girlfriends. Westover’s parents always sides with the brother, always demanding proof of his crimes, like Republicans at the Kavanaugh heearings, refusing any testimony as he said-she said unbelievable.

This denial her view of reality deeply warped Westover psychologically. Without the experience of going to school and seeing normal life, Westover grew up brainwashed by a father who saw our America destroyed by socialism. He taught his children that going to school meant being reprogrammed to accept false beliefs contrary to true Mormon theology and the original Founding Fathers. Westover’s mind was so deeply programmed by her father’s paranoia that she struggled to keep her own identify alive.

Educated works on many levels, and is beautiful written. It’s hard to imagine Westover ever recovering from her upbringing, much less getting a Cambridge doctorate or writing this book. It makes you wonder if all kids shouldn’t skip K-12 classes and we should instead torture them with brutal child labor until they hunger for knowledge on their own.

Educated is the perfect book to read for our times. It carefully documents the kind of freedom the radical right wants revealing how their patriarchical freedom oppresses women. Tara Westover grew up with a family that rejected both history and science. Her father is a survivalist Mormon and her mother is a rural healer/midwife that could have been pulled out of the 19th-century by a time machine.

Educated is a relentless book. I couldn’t stop listening to it. Normally, I fall asleep if I try to listen to an audiobook while sitting. I could listen to Educated for hours at a time while reclined in my La-Z-Boy with perfect alertness.

JWH

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates Part 1

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, September 25, 2018

After writing “Analog Reading in a Digital Age” last week, I decided to try harder to get deeper into what I read. I’m tired of consuming so much knowledge but retaining so little. I have a two-person book club with my friend Linda where we read a nonfiction book together and discuss it a section at a time over the phone. Currently, we’re reading We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is a collection of eight essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The first essay comes from May 2008, “This is How We Lost to the White Man.” It is subtitled “The audacity of Bill Cosby’s black conservatism.” Writing about race is not something I normally do because it’s very easy to saying something wrong. I know I can’t speak for black people, but in truth, I can’t speak for white people either. I am an introverted person that has always been disturbed by emotionally charged people. Racists scare me with their inflamed ugly feelings. Discussing race in America often sets people off, so I avoid such talks. But I believe all nonwhite people are unfairly treated in our country and it’s a subject everyone needs to know.

What Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about in this essay is very hard for me to comprehend. It is easy to understand the unfairness of racism but difficult to evaluate solutions. The idea of black conservatism is new to me, at least in the way Coates used the term. Usually, I see racism discussed as a philosophical/spiritual/moral problem for white people, and a legal/ethical problem for governments. “This is How We Lost to the White Man,” asks what black people can do to solve the problem. That immediately puts me out of the discussion. However, I don’t think it should stop any white person from reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, and it makes me want to know more about how other African-American writers feel about what he has to say. Coates summarizes and rejects past efforts, and that history is very informative.

This essay does remind me of something else I’m studying. I’m watching “Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature” by The Great Courses and taught by Professor Pamela Bedore, Ph.D. In the first lectures, Bedore describes how utopian visionaries struggled for hundreds of years to create the blueprint for a perfect society. As an aside, she said she believed our Founding Fathers were inspired by utopian writing, but they ignored Native Americans, African-Americans, and women in their design.

Their failure to consider everyone for the American dream is why we suffer so many forms of injustice and inequality today. Bedore didn’t mention it, but Nancy Isenberg in her book White Trash: The 400-Year History of Class in America suggests the Founding Fathers also intentionally ignored the poor white and landless, and their utopian visions were only for successful white males. Despite hundreds of years of social unrest and amendments to the Constitution, our system still favors the same elites. In fact, the rich have rigged our laws making our system into a plutocracy.

What we need is a complete rewrite of our society’s design. To me, conservatives are those people seeking to maintain the status quo because it rewards their fraction of the population. Liberals are people seeking a system of total equality. I would think all minorities would be liberal, so it’s interesting that Coates calls Bill Cosby a black conservative. It is extra hard to read a ten-year-old essay about Bill Cosby on the day he’s to be sentenced for rape. Coates fairly covers Cosby’s successes and contributions to society but faults Cosby on his outdated approach. Coates calls Cosby conservative because his solutions co-opt the white establishment.

The self-reliant solutions offered by Cosby, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Louis Farrakhan seemed like positive solutions to me, but then Coates says white people will agree with them. Coates calls them conservative approaches. Okay, I can see that. But, what is the liberal approach? This is where the essay gets tough for me to understand.

As a liberal I want our system to be equal and just for all, but I’m not against self-reliant people who want to work hard to improve themselves. I am against a system where the successful game the laws to benefit only the successful. I’ve often wondered if Republicans aren’t closeted disciples of Darwin. (I also wonder how they can reconcile Christian philosophy with Conservative philosophy when they are so diametrically opposed.)

Part of Coates attack on Cosby is because Cosby attacks modern black pop culture. Cosby has old-fashion values and thinks the young are amoral, undisciplined, and an embarrassment to older morality. But don’t a lot of older folks of all races think that about the young?

The trouble is, as Coates knows, is no matter how minorities act in America they aren’t being accepted and justly treated as equals. Nor does it look like they can do anything to correct the system. What makes it particularly worse today is the Republicans leaders in Congress are starting to act like Donald Trump by using whatever methods to take what they want. This administration has clearly proved the system is rigged. Trump followers all want to feel they could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it because they feel completely self-righteous in their beliefs. Why should they change the system?

To most people living in America, the Founding Fathers created a Dystopia. Of course, those who benefit from its inequality revere its ideals and rationalize its faults.

My real takeaway from Coates essay is how do we redesign the system? How can we amend or rewrite the Constitution, so it creates a society that is equal and just for all? Coates is right, the black conservative solution won’t work, it’s only an appeasement to white conservatives.

I have no idea how to design a utopian society. The conventional wisdom is they are impossible, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. My theory is any system that benefits only a fraction of the population is doomed to fail. A successful utopia doesn’t mean everyone must succeed, but it should absolutely allow all citizens the same chances of succeeding or failing.

In my plans to write about what I read I intended to use a lot of quotes. “This is How We Lost to the White Man” doesn’t allow that because of Bill Cosby current issues. Documenting Coates eight-year-old case against Cosby would be like beating a dead horse. It’s tragic that a man who worked so hard to be publicly good turned out to be so privately bad. I should have picked an easier essay to start my new reading program. I had planned to start with the nine essays in Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit, the last book Linda and I read together, but she was ready to begin the new book. Still another dangerous topic for a white male to discuss, but if I’m going to read great essays they will probably cover controversial topics.

The key to understanding our problems is imagining ourselves being other people.

Reading both books vividly illustrates how unjust our system is to minorities and women. Because the top news story for many days has been Brett Kavanaugh it shows Solnit’s older essays are also just as valid now. Reading Solnit and Coates together is heavy on my soul. I picked these essays because they do require deeper reading. It is a challenge to grasp the subtleties of their messages because I am neither female or black. I am not even sure I should write about solutions to their problems. Sometimes I think us old white guys should just step aside and let others have a turn designing society. Sometimes I feel I should retreat into writing fiction.

JWH