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

How Could We Maximize Democracy?

by James Wallace Harris, 9/15/22

What if we had the perfect voting machine – how would it change politics?

What would make the perfect voting machine?

  • It would only allow one vote by each registered voter
  • It would block any illegal votes
  • It would block tampering
  • It would be trusted by all
  • It would make vote tallying easy
  • It would allow for easy recounts
  • It would be easy to use
  • It would be easy to access

Let’s imagine a perfect machine. Let’s imagine its impact like we were plotting a science fiction story about the future.

What if the government issued every registered voter a tablet that had limited internet access and could only be used for one function: voting. The tablet would be configured:

  • Fingerprint recognition
  • Faceprint recognition
  • Voiceprint recognition
  • Eyeprint recognition
  • Had a unique physical ID number in a chip
  • It will only work with the .gov domain

To register to vote and get one of these machines you’d have to prove your identity to the government. It would link your machine ID and identity to the voter registration system. It would register your encrypted biometric data. You will be given a voter registration card with your name and machine ID.

When you vote it would only accept one vote from your machine’s ID and only if your machine has validated your biometrics in four ways. This is far more secure than any online banking system or financial investment system. No one but yourself should be able to use this tablet. If it was stolen it would be useless.

Whenever a vote is taken the results should be tabulated nearly instantly and the results put online. Anyone could validate their vote by looking up their machine ID in the voting results. It’s not likely anyone will know this number unless you tell them. If you think your vote was changed you can register a protest.

This method would allow any individual to conduct a vote recount. The data file from a national election would be large, but probably smaller than a downloaded song. Voters could be given software that would allow them to drill into the data and analyze the results. Everyone should get the same totals. If needed, a vote could be retaken to validate the process. And countless checks can be added to the system to automatically look for fraud.

Right now we have a representative democracy. We vote for people we want to vote for us. With this system, we could vote directly. Our elective representative would prepare possible laws but everyone would vote on them. Of course, not everyone would vote on each issue, but the numbers would be huge. Far greater than any valid statistical sample. This would eliminate more forms of current corruption.

To make this system even more effective, we should set the winning majority higher than 50%. This could solve our current political polarization. We should aim to make more people happy with our government and laws. We should aim for a two-thirds majority or 66%.

That would push out the extremes of the political spectrum and create a purple party in the middle. Our representatives would have to work up laws based on compromises that would appeal to a wider majority.

Right now we’re getting minority rule and citizens are becoming unhappy. There’s talk of civil war. Extremists on the left and right want things that the majority of Americans don’t. Our political system is corrupted by political parties and their shenanigans. If we maximized democracy it would eliminate the need for political parties. Everyone would vote for their own unique platform. But to achieve a two-thirds majority would require voting with the aim of making the most people happy rather than just ourselves.

I doubt this will ever happen, but it’s a kind of science fictional speculation of how we could change things if we tried. Human nature pushes us to keep doing the same thing until everything breaks and we’re forced to start over. Some people are advocating starting over now, but that will only make even a smaller percentage of people happy.

If we had such a maximized voting system it would be important to elect politicians that tried to make the majority happy rather than just special interest groups.

JWH

What Books Do You Speak?

by James Wallace Harris, 8/8/22

Most of our ideas are borrowed since few people have original thoughts. The other day I was wondering why conservatives and liberals think so differently. I decided one reason is that they read different books. Of course, not everyone reads books. Ideas are also passed around from person to person, or by newspapers, magazines, journals, advertisements, political rallies, television shows, the internet, etc. We dwell in a sea of ideas.

Ideas do originate with original thinkers, and often they are first published in books. Journalism and other forms of mass media then propagate those ideas, which in turn are spread by word of mouth. So, for now, let’s think of the basic unit for storing and spreading ideas are books.

My theory is conservatives and liberals think differently because the foundation of their beliefs comes from different books. I’m not suggesting that all conservatives and liberals read the same set of books, but the ideas for their thoughts and speech originated in a subset of books.

I was thinking along these lines because I wondered if conservatives and liberals each had a core set of twenty books, what would happen if the conservatives read the liberal’s books, and the liberals read the conservative’s books? Would our polarized political opinions begin to homogenize?

Then I wondered about fundamentalist religious people who put their faith in one book. What would happen if all the fundamentalists around the world all read each other’s holy book?

Thinking about that brought up an obvious stumbling block. Most people’s beliefs are based on what they first learned as children. If you are raised Christian and conservative you’re most likely to stay Christian and conservative. That suggests ideas acquired in youth are stickier than ideas acquired later in life. For my test, we’d have to raise children with The Bible, The Quran, The Tanakh, The Talmud, The Vedas, The Upanishads, The Tipitaka, The Tao Te Ching, The Yasna, etc.

We know minds are open and plastic at birth. If you took a child from a Christian family and gave it to a Muslim family to raise, it will grow up Muslim. But for some reason, after a certain age, minds close and lose their plasticity.

On the other hand, fads arise and spread ideas/memes all the time. Adults will embrace new ideas. Fox News, the Internet, to Tik-Tok can spread new ideas like a California forest fire. This suggests that people can acquire new ideas that they put on top of the foundational ideas that were programmed in their youth.

And ideas don’t have to come from nonfiction books. If all you read are romance novels and watch romance TV shows and movies, your ideas about relationships will be different than if you only consumed mysteries.

I’m in a book club that was reading Developmental Politics by Steve McIntosh, a book about our polarized politics. McIntosh hoped his insights would help solve that problem but most of the readers in the book club doubted it. One of our members did believe in McIntosh’s ideas and thought they could work. I felt McIntosh’s ideas were insightful but figured for them to be persuasive, would require everyone to read many other books first. McIntosh’s book was complex enough to require reading dozens of other books to fully understand it.

That’s when I realized we speak in books. When we express ourselves, we pass on fragments of books, but we don’t pass on enough information to let other people fully understand the foundation of the original ideas. Generally, we pass on tiny fragments of the original idea that are barely impressions. And we seldom communicate ideas but express ourselves emotionally.

If you want to understand a person, you have to consume the same books they did, or at least the same secondary sources. If a friend is passionate about a belief you’ll never understand your friend until you understand the foundations of their beliefs.

Few people understand the sources of their beliefs. Few people can point to a set of books and say here’s where my ideas originated. The origin of a classical education came from the study of foundational books, but that idea broke down in modern times when we were overwhelmed with significant books.

Yet, even when there was only one book for most people, The Bible, Christianity spent centuries arguing over its meaning. If you study all the people who claim to be Christian today you’d find very little commonality. The Bible is too big and too diverse. If we took The U. S. Constitution instead, which is tiny in comparison, we still get endless disagreement.

Ideas are slippery and inexact. Even if we read the same books and speak about the same ideas we don’t interpret them in the same way. Humans aren’t computers. We filter ideas through our emotions. Books might sow ideas but they don’t plant them evenly, and they grow inconsistently.

It appears that humans latch onto vague concepts and use them for ammunition to get what they emotionally want. Even if we read the same books we’ll still be a long way from finding agreements.

What we have here is a failure to communicate. What we need is a better approach to understanding each other’s wants. It might start with reading the same books, but it would only be a start. We’d also need to start studying each other’s emotions, and emotions are even harder to communicate than ideas. That’s what McIntosh was getting into with Developmental Politics, building on developmental psychology.

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

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