Fiction v. History

by James Wallace Harris, 9/25/22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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

by James Wallace Harris, 9/3/22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

Once Upon a Time the Future was So Bright We Had to Wear Shades

by James Wallace Harris

Between Camelot and Reaganomics existed the counterculture. For a very short while we thought we were entering the Age of Aquarius. Of course, it was a childish utopian dream, but a very positive hope. What happened to that dream? Reading The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America by Don Lattin reminded me of those hopes and dreams. Lattin explains what happened to four of the people who sold us some of that hope. Of course, those four weren’t the only ones. Back then, there was an entire army of John the Baptists promising heaven on Earth if we only believed.

In the sixties many of us thought by the 21st-century we’d have conquered war, disease, poverty, injustice, prejudice, inequality, and be living in a society where everyone had equal opportunity to achieve both spiritual and material wealth. We expected to create a world civilization that would make Jesus, Buddha, and all the past prophets and philosophers proud. We expected science to answer all our questions, and for technology to build ecological sustainable lifeboat Earth before we launched our spiritually-wise selves across the galaxy. Some of us called this anticipated transformation the Age of Aquarius, then The New Age, while hoping for the age of The Final Frontier.

Space travel never went beyond low Earth orbit after 1972. After three days of love, peace, and happiness it’s been Altamont every day since. And the doors of perception only led to tragedy and heartache. All our planned communities failed.

Just look at us now. You’d think the second coming had happened and no one was chosen, and we’re begun a thousand year streak of doom. There are damn few Pollyannas left on Earth that can see rays of hope for the future. Unlike Christians who have waited two thousand years without giving up their faith, the counterculture gave up theirs rather quickly. I read where psychedelic drugs are trying to make a comeback. And there are embers of spirituality still trying to rekindle the world but never do. What made us dream such big dreams in the sixties?

Before the dawning of the Age of Aquarius I was a straight-lace kid. I was gullible and believed what I was told. The U.S. Air Force guided my father and the Southern Baptist Church guided my mother. They had expectations for what I should believe, and I had no objections to those expectations. Well, not until 1963 or 1964. During my 12th and 13th year I changed. Looking back I could say it was merely puberty, but the whole country began changing at the same time.

Reading The Harvard Psychedelic Club got me to thinking about those years and changes. Changes that had began much sooner than 1969 or 1970 when I first tried psilocybin and LSD. The making of my counterculture had begun before the drugs, with rock and roll and science fiction. Reading The Harvard Psychedelic Club referenced many books I had read back then that shaped my thoughts. I began wondering about all the influences that had reprogrammed me during the sixties and seventies that gave me utopian ideals.

I remember in 11th grade sometime after the 1967 protest at the Pentagon, when a group of us kids waiting for the school bus discussed the coming revolution as if it was a certainty. Even as a dumbass high school kid I thought it weird that we expected such a huge social transformation. But those hopes kept building. Then in 1968 and 1969 Hair and its music was all the rage and people began talking about The Age of Aquarius. The hope became more than a political transformation, the counterculture began to expect a whole new age, which became the focus of the 1970s. I think all our foolish fantasies ended when Reagan was elected in 1980. By then I was married and working at the job I’d stay at until I retired.

My transformation was really an intersection of countless ideas that came from books, magazines, newspapers, television, movies, songs. We think everything comes from the internet today, but before the world wide web we had plenty of informational input. Reading The Harvard Psychedelic Club reminded me of those books and other information sources, and all the prophets behind those words. For example, I don’t know if people today have any idea of the impact The Beatles and Bob Dylan had on their fans. Rock music was our gospel.

In 1962, when I was eleven, I got hooked rock and roll and science fiction. In 1963 I began rejecting religion when I started noticing that the people at church did not follow what was preached. A Joycean year of doubt ended in 1964 when I realized I was an atheist. I was just 13. My mother still tried to make me go to church but I felt like I was a spy, a pretender, a fraud. I didn’t have a new philosophy yet, but I was open, and about to try many.

Then in 1965 I read Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein and got into Bob Dylan because of “Like a Rolling Stone.” I was still very straight-laced. I remember watching anti-drug and anti-smoking films at school and I was positive I’d never be stupid enough to do drugs or smoke cigarettes.

But only two years later, in early 1967, I read an article in Popular Science about LSD. Instead of sensationalizing the drug with fear and loathing like the news did on TV, the article described LSD as a tool for medical research and exploring the mind. That sounded science fiction. That sounded like something for me.

I can’t remember when I first heard about Timothy Leary. I’m pretty sure I heard about LSD well before I heard about Leary and his famous “Tune In, Turn On, and Drop Out” saying. In late 1968, or maybe early 1969, I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. That book didn’t turn me onto Timothy Leary either, but The Beats. I knew about Leary in the sixties, but he always seemed like some kind of media clown. Around this same time I began reading The Rolling Stone magazine. It became my main source of counterculture propaganda.

But remember, I was also mass consuming science fiction, which was changing too with its own New Wave revolution. I remember Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner had a huge impact on me, as did Ellison’s anthology Dangerous Visions.

I wish I knew when I first bought Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog. It was probably the early 1970s, but it might have been sooner. The 1970s brought a flood of influential books and magazines. Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke had made me aware of overpopulation in the mid-1960s, but by the late 1960s and early 1970s, the environmental movement was giving us plenty of reasons to change our ways.

By the mid-1970s I became open to trying religion again, but mainly Eastern religions. Be Here Now by Ram Das (Richard Albert), books by Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, and Herman Hesse, and New Age Magazine made me think that spiritualism and mysticism had some answers.

I wasn’t stupid, I knew the dreams were doomed. Books like The Population Bomb, The Limits of Growth, and Future Shock, among many others like them, kept me grounded. Plus, the science fiction books I was reading became more realistic and pessimistic about the future.

Still, we had a great deal of hope about the future. We thought we could solve all our problems. We had the knowledge, we had the technology, we knew the solutions, it was only a matter of getting everyone to work together. That’s when the dream ended. We never could work together. We all separated into our own personal trips. No matter how much visionaries preached, we never could agree.

Reading The Harvard Psychedelic Club also covered the decades of falling apart. Alpert, Weil, and Smith were able to rebuild their lives and become constructive, but not Leary. Their lives parallelled my life and I’m sure all other counterculture true believers. We found ways to be here now. To make do with reality. To give up on our utopian fantasies.

Looking back I also remember what life was like when we were chasing those dreams in the 1960s and 1970s. Things were bleak. The war, the riots, the prejudices, the inequalities, the crime, the bombings, the protests, the generation gap, the oil crisis, the burning rivers, the pollution, the urban decay.

Drug taking and believing in utopian futures were symptoms of the disease, not cures. Much like similar symptoms today. The right-wing countercultures of today have their parallels with the left-wing countercultures of the 1960s and 1970s. But there’s one big difference. We no longer need to wear shades when looking towards the future. That’s rather sad. No, that’s depressingly tragic.

JWH

Will We Reach Herd Intelligence Before We Crash Our Civilization?

by James Wallace Harris, 4/19/21

  • Collapsed: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
  • Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by Bill McKibben
  • Seaspiracy – a documentary on Netflix

All indicators point to the collapse of civilization sometimes this century. Despite all the press about this perfect storm of self destruction, few people are willing to worry, and even fewer willing to do anything. Must the conclusion be that failure is our only option?

Most of humanity is either preoccupied with personal problems, or if they contemplate the future at all, assume our species will muddle through as it always has in the past. All the evidence suggests otherwise, that the biosphere cannot absorb the impacts of Homo sapiens without a significant destabilization of its system, which in turn will alter the course of civilization.

Civilizations have always come and gone, and so have species. Nothing lasts forever, not even the Earth or the Sun. It’s rather disheartening to consider what we could have become. We almost had the intelligence to create a global civilization that could have lasted thousands, if not millions of years. Theoretically, we still have a chance, but few people who think about such things give that chance much hope. It would have required everyone pulling together towards a common cause, and we’re just not that kind of species.

However, don’t worry, don’t get depressed or do anything irrational. No need to become a prepper assuming an Armageddon is just around every corner. The collapse of civilization will probably be so slow you might not even notice it. Humans are very adaptable to hard times and excellent at rationalizing things aren’t what they seem. Just take every day one day at a time and enjoy the passing parade of history.

As an individual who reads many books and watch many documentaries like the ones above, I keep thinking we should be doing something. But I realize there’s a problem with that assumption. First, we all need to be doing the same thing, and second, we should all stop what we’ve been doing our whole lives. Now is that going to happen? Is humanity a ship that can be steered or a bullet on a trajectory? It really comes down to the Serenity Prayer,

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
and Wisdom to know the difference.

It’s the last line that’s so hard to achieve. What can we change, and what can’t we change? Theoretically we could change everything in society if we could just change ourselves. Is it Pollyannaish to think we could, and fatalistic to think we can’t? I wonder if people have always believed in God just to redirect that burden of responsibility?

If you read the above books maybe you will also ask who is smart enough to understand and solve these problems? If we built giant AI minds that could think their way through these immense challenges, would we take their advice? Aren’t we too egotistical to listen? Or even if a God spoke directly to the world would we obey? I’m not sure that’s in our nature either.

Maybe the only path an individual can take and stay sane is learning to accept and endure. But that doesn’t seem to be the way either because too many people today are angry. Anger means still trying to control. If you watch the news pay attention to anger. Too many hate what’s happening to them. And it’s on both sides of the political spectrum. All the people who fight for freedom and all the people who want rules and regulations are motivated by anger. That’s what I dread about the collapse of civilization, living with all these angry people. And the only solution to that is find a place away from them, but that’s not really possible either, is it?

This is a strange book review. But I find it’s getting harder and harder to review books like these by talking about the issues they cover. I’m down to evaluating their emotional impact. The penultimate question is: Can we do anything? The answer is yes. The ultimate question is: Will we? I used to hope that was a yes too, but my faith is fading.

JWH

Imagine Living Only in the Real World and Rejecting All Screens

by James Wallace Harris, 3/18/21

I grew up in the 1950s with the television screen. In the 1980s I became addicted to the computer screen. In the 2010s I started looking at the smartphone screen all the time. After having someone impersonate me with a fake Instagram account on Facebook last night I got disgusted with the internet I wondered if I shouldn’t abandon the online world. Then I thought, what would it be like to live just in the real world, without any screens, not even the TV screen? Much of what I find disturbing about the world comes through screens.

That’s a scary thought, giving up screens. I spend hours every day staring at them. My favorite past time right now is discussing science fiction short stories with folks on Facebook. If I didn’t use screens I could still read books but I couldn’t connect with the other people who love to read the same kind of things I do. Of course, what if we considered book pages to be like screens and abandoned them too?

Before screens there were books, newspapers, and magazines. I can imagine giving up screens, even giving up watching television, but I can’t imagine giving up the printed page. Isn’t that weird?

I’m trying to imagine life without screens or pages. It kind of blows my mind. My world would get very small. I’d probably keep up the house and yard way better than I do now. I’d probably get into gardening, cooking, and making things. I’d want to spend more time with people face-to-face. I assume life would slow way down. I guess I’d crave hearing about the world beyond my little place in it by talking to people and listening to their stories about events beyond my sight.

Without pages from books, magazines, and newspapers I’d be a lot more ignorant. Pages and screens inform us, connect us to the wider world. I can see now thinking about this, that screens really are an extension of pages. Screens add movement to the static type, illustrations and photos in printed matter.

When I watch YouTube videos created by amateurs I realize they are sending a highly constructed recorded speech with visuals which is more evolved than the printed essay, and an essay is more evolved than a lecture, and a lecture is more evolved than conversation.

The real world is nature. Plants and animals, earth and sky. Pages and screens are our way of communicating about nature. But hasn’t the abstraction of our communication moved us away from nature?

As much as I find nature beautiful and fascinating, I’m far more wrapped up in pages and screens, which if you think about it, is our way of reacting to nature. So what if we gave up abstraction and just dwelled in the natural world? (It might feel like living in a Ursula K. Le Guin novel. Even her futuristic human societies dwelling on far away worlds seem like medieval times on Earth.)

To be honest, it’s too late for me. I’m far too addicted to abstraction. I much prefer the fantasy of fiction on the page or screen to living actively in the real world. I much prefer the abstraction of nonfiction, news programs, and documentaries to studying reality first hand.

Should I feel guilty about that?

JWH

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