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General Discussion / Book Note: Martin Luther King's Gospel of Freedom (updated)
« Last post by Phil Ebersole on November 01, 2017, 11:34:53 AM »
Today the Rev, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a revered figure who is criticized by virtually no-one. We forget how radical, controversial and even hated he was during his lifetime.

Liberal white people in the North approved of his non-violent struggle in the South, because they regarded the South as like a foreign country, like South Africa.

It was a different matter when he started campaigning in segregated neighborhoods in Chicago, when he applied his message of peace and nonviolence to the Vietnam War, or when he started to question the justice of the whole American economic system.

He lived with constant fear of being killed, many of his comrades were killed and he himself was killed in the end—in a conspiracy which has never been fully investigated.

Yet he and his followers brought about fundamental changes that had been thought to be impossible.

Few if any social or political movements have accomplished so much good with so little harm.

Dr. King’s philosophy was outlined in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which he wrote while in prison in April, 1963, It was aimed at two sets of readers:
• Moderates, most, but not all of them, white, who thought he was pushing too hard and too fast, and wanted him to go slower.
• Militants, most, but not all of them, black, who thought his belief in love and nonviolence was weak, and wanted him to strike harder

My friend Richmond Dyes did a presentation on “Letter from Birmingham Jail” for the Rochester Russell Forum on Oct. 12, which prompted me to read Jonathan Rieder’s GOSPEL OF FREEDOM: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle that Changed a Nation (2013), a report on the background and context of the Letter and an analysis of its text.

It was written in response to eight prominent white Alabama clergymen, including six Protestants, a Catholic and a Jew, who had written a public letter entitled “A Call for Unity”.

They condemned Dr. King’s protests and lawbreaking, and called on “both our white and Negro citizens to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”

The eight had been part of a group of 11 clergyman who seven months before signed “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense,” that urged obedience to court decisions that ordered desegregation. For this they had received death threats, and no doubt thought of themselves as the good guys in this struggle.

Dr. King attacked the false equivalence of black people struggling nonviolently for justice and equality, and white racists engaging in murder and terrorism to perpetuate oppression.

Members of the Birmingham Ku Klux Klan, on a whim, castrated a random black pedestrian, Edward Aarons, and then told him to send a message to the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, leader of the civil rights movement in Birmingham, that the same was in short for him.

The Klansman who was charged with attacking Aarons was pardoned by Gov. George Wallace.

Another civil rights leader, the Rev. Charles Billings, was kidnaped, blindfolded, beaten with chains, tied to a tree and branded with the letters KKK.

Klansmen attacked the black singer, Nat “King” Cole, when he was giving a concert to a segregated all-white audience.\

Nor was the Klan a marginal group. Bull Connor, the commissioner of public safety for Birmingham, was in contact with the Klan. Asa Earl Carter, a Klan leader in Birmingham, was speechwriter for Gov. Wallace.

The Klansman who was charged with attacking Aarons was pardoned by Wallace.

And Wallace was an important national political figure. He ran for president in the Democratic primary in 1964, winning nearly 30 percent of the vote in Indiana, a third in Wisconsin and 40 percent in Maryland. He carried five Southern states as a third-party candidate in 1968 and five states, including Florida and Michigan, in the Democratic primary in 1972.

Among those who were urging Dr. King to go slow were John and Robert Kennedy. Liberal Republicans Nelson Rockefeller and Jacob Javits were then more forthright supporters of Dr. King than the Kennedys, although the Kennedys views changed over time.

Rieder wrote that Dr. King was protective of his movement’s pubic image in the eyes of white liberals. Yet, Rieder said, he and his followers had little confidence in white people in general, which is why they praised such whites as sincerely embraced their cause.

Dr. King never said, “God damn America,” like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. But he thought that the United States was only potentially, but not yet actually, the land of the free and the home of the brave.

His faith was based on the Bible—the message of justice of the Hebrew prophets combined with Jesus’ teaching of love and peace.

Rieder obtained rare audiotapes of Dr. King’s preaching in black churches, which showed the power of his Christian message to his Christian audience.

Leaders of the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam called his message and tactics weak. Yet Dr. King was able to bend governors and presidents to his will, which his supposedly militant critics were never able to do.

The only black militant who was equal in stature to Dr. King was Malcolm X, and Malcolm X was struck down before he reached his full potential—also in a conspiracy that was never fully investigated.

Like Dr. King, Malcolm X was still evolving in his thinking when he was killed, and there’s no telling what he might have done. But the fact is that he spent his life mainly in conflict with other black people, while Dr. King was changing the world.

Rieder told how the Rev. James Bevel went into “the dives” to talk to tough young black men who ridiculed non-violence. He’d asked them, “How many people have you killed? How many white boys have you beaten up?” Then he’d call them cowards. Then he’d tell them how to fight effectively.

Soon after Dr. King was released from prison, his followers organized what Rieder called the “children’s crusade”—mass demonstrations by students, including young school children. King had misgivings about sending children into danger, but did not veto it.

Newspaper and TV pictures of children being attacked with high-velocity fire hoses, powerful enough to strip bark from trees, and by police dogs changed public opinion.

It affected President Kennedy. His speech on June 11 for the first time defined civil rights as a moral issue—not just as a duty to obey court decisions whether you agree with them or not, but as a moral issue.  It’s still a moral issue.

If Dr. King had a rival, it wasn't another black leader.  It was the anonymous black rioters in large American cities from 1964 through 1972.   I don't approve of vandalism, arson and looting as a vehicle for social change.   The victims are seldom if ever the ones who are the cause of the problem.

But it is a fact that the urban riots brought about a response by political and business leaders .   Here in Rochester, N.Y., it is a fact that the urban riots of 1964 made the local political and business establishment take notice of the community's black minority—with the help of Saul Alinsky, who used non-violent tactics, but did not advocate Christian love.

Without the riots, it would have been many more years before Eastman Kodak Co. and other large employers started hiring black people for non-menial jobs.

You could argue that Dr. King would not have been so effective if the potential for violence had not been in the background.   But the argument can be turned around.   The goodwill that made a positive response possible in places such as Rochester would not have existed except for Dr. King.

General Discussion / Book Notes: Stories of Past and Future
« Last post by Phil Ebersole on November 01, 2017, 11:11:19 AM »
LAMENTATION: a Shardlake novel by C.J. Sansom (2014)

This is the sixth of a series of detective novels, set in 16th century England..   

In 1546, the protagonist, the hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake, is tasked with recovering a confessional essay, Lamentation of a Sinner, by Henry VIII’s devout Protestant sixth wife, Queen Catherine Parr.

It has mysteriously disappeared from the Queen’s bedroom, and the only clue is the title page, found clutched in the hand of a murdered London printer.

Henry VIII is dying, and Protestants, Catholics and factions within the Anglican church are jockeying to be in positions of power after he dies.  The Queen’s Lamentation could be used by any faction to justify themselves or embarrass the monarchy—in either case, putting her and her supporters in peril.

Like the other novels in the series, Lamentation is a good mystery novel and a good historical novel.  I followed Shardlake and his friends as they followed clues toward an apparent solution, then was surprised as the truth was revealed at the end.

Sansom does a good job of bringing the era to life, not just the sights and sounds of 1546 London, but what it was like to live in an era in which beliefs about religious doctrine could get you tortured and killed.

I am grateful to Donna Morrison-Reed for suggesting this series.


This is one of the most engrossing and memorable novels I’ve read in a long time, maybe years.  The word “fingerpost” was used by Francis Bacon to mean an indicator of the truth.

Like C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels, it is a mystery story set in the past—in this case, England in 1663, a few years after King Charles II has been restored to his throne following the dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell.

Like Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy, it is a portrait of an age when the wars of religion were fading away and the age of science was just beginning.   Characters include Robert Boyle, the founder of the science of chemistry; the philosopher John Locke; and John Thurloe, chief of espionage under Oliver Cromwell, who has made his peace with King Charles II.

Sansom’s novels were interesting and enjoyable, and Stephenson’s even more so.  Iain Pears’ novel has all these merits to a higher degree.   Pears is a much more erudite scholar and much better able to get into the mindset of an earlier era.

The science, not to mention the religion, politics, customs and daily lives, of that age were very different from today’s.  More than any of Sansom’s or Stephenson’s books, Iain Pears’ The Instance of the Fingerpost shows the alienness of that past world..

It’s a world in which men think they have a right and duty to beat women, children and servants to keep them obedient.  It is a world in which a traveler who is out of sorts stops by a barbershop for “a bleed” and a scholar explains why the existence of unicorns is scientific fact, but the existence of fire-breathing dragons is not.

There are two interlocking mysteries.  One is the poisoning of an Oxrford don, which is blamed on a servant girl, Sarah Blundy.   The other is the nature and whereabouts of a bundle of documents incriminating high-level government figures.

The story is told through four narrators—at least one of which is lying and one of which is psychotic.
• A visiting Venetian scholar, who is experimenting with the radical technique of blood transfusion.
• A young nobleman, who is trying to clear his father’s name of the guilt of treason.
• An Oxford don, cryptographer and espionage agent, who is trying to foil a plot against the throne.
• A naive but honest young scholar, who is trying to save Sarah Blundy.

Like C.J. Sansom, Iain Pears provides clues so that readers more astute than I am could have figured out the solutions to the mysteries before he reveals them.

What makes An Instance of the Fingerpost most memorable is his portrait of the extraordinary young woman Sarah Blundy.   Pears’ depiction of her character and fate touched my heart.  I will remember this for years.

URINETOWN by Greg Kotts and Mark Hollman (1998, 2001)

I read this highly enjoyable musical comedy as part of a play-reading group organized by my friend Walter Uhrman. 

The joyous music is like one of the great Broadway hits, and the cynical witty lyrics are worthy of a Bertolt Bracht.  The combination is what makes the play so good.

Greg Kotts got the idea for the musical after being stuck in Paris, where all the toilets are pay toilets, and trying to stretch a limited income to meet his needs.
Urinetown is set in a future in which a private firm, the Urine Good Company, monopolizes access to toilets, and urinating in public is punishable by death.

The public rises up, overthrows the regime and makes the right to pee a basic human right—only to bring on ecological disaster.

As with many writings, enjoyment of the play requires not looking too hard at the underlying message—in this case, that privatization is the only way to conserve natural resources.


This strange novel was the inspiration for the 1982 move “Blade Runner.”  I re-read it prior to going to see “Blade Runner 2049.”

It is set in the year 2021, following the destruction of most of the human race and also most livestock and wildlife by means of ever-present radioactive dust. which was released during World War Terminus.

The physical, governmental and corporate infrastructure remain, but cities such as San Francisco are like ghost towns, with giant apartment buildings inhabited by only a few squatters.

The few surviving animals are much prized as pets and status symbols, but bounty hunter Rick Deckard is only able to afford an electric sheep.  HIs ambition is to earn enough in bounties to make a down payment on a live goat.

Much of the human race has emigrated to Mars, but emigrants must pass IQ tests and guarantee their sperm or eggs are undamaged by radiation, which is why many men wear lead codpieces.

The Rosen Corporation, which has operations in the USA, the USSR and Mars, builds androids, which resemble human beings but live only a few years.  Their defining characteristic is supposedly lack of empathy.

Six rogue androids are loose in the San Francisco area, including impersonators of a Soviet Russian police official, a German opera singer and an American police chief.  We follow Deckard in his search, and also the outcast J.M. Isidore who befriends the three other androids out of loneliness.

Deckard and his wife Iran have “mood organs,” which they can set to control their moods when at home and within range of the devices.  When he leaves for work at the opening of the novel, he sets his wife’s mood to “pleased acknowledgment of her husband’s superior wisdom,” but as soon as he leaves she changes the setting to “clinical depression.”

One element of the story is a religious cult called Mercerism, whose followers achieve shared consciousness through use of “empathy boxes”.  Mercerism’s ambiguous motto is, “Only kill the killers.” 

Another is an addictive and continuously running TV news and talk show called Buster Friendly and His Friendly Friends, whose performers and guests appear to have no existence outside the show itself.

I give Dick credit for originality and for his ability to evoke alienation and paranoia,   For all that, I wasn’t particularly interested in his characters or their stories.   Enjoyment of science fiction or fantasy requires, as has been said, a willing suspension of disbelief.  I wasn’t able to suspend disbelief of this story.

RSS in general:

RSS with Thunderbird:

This makes following the BRS Forum much easier!!!

You need to use the RSS on the bottom line of the Forum page.
DARING DEMOCRACY: Igniting Power, Meaning and Connection for the America We Want by Francis Moore Lappé and Adam Eichen (2017)

Democracy means rule of the people. The Gilens-Page study of 1779 legislative initiatives in 1981-2002 showed that chances of success were strongly correlated with the desires of the affluent, but not at all with average citizens.

For example, polls show z majority of Americans want Wall Street banks to be brought under control, according to Martin Gillens, a co-author of the city.  They want a higher minimum wage, better unemployment benefits and more spending on education.  On the other hand, they are less supportive of abortion rights and gay marriage than the economic elite.   But the political system follows the economic elite, not them.

In other words, the United States is a democracy in that we have freedom of speech and contested elections, but in terms of outcomes, we are an oligarchy, ruled by the rich.

This is not an accident, a matter of how things happen to play out. It is the result of a deliberate campaign that has been going on for decades.   It is not something that began with Donald Trump and it will not end when he is out of office.

The anti-democratic movement has three elements:
• Use the power of money to dominate political discourse.
• Use the power of money to dominate politics and government
• Restrict the right to vote and other democratic rights..

I recently read a good book, DARING DEMOCRACY by Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet, and a young friend, Adam Eichen, that ties all this together.

I do have a few reservations about it, particularly the fact that they let Democrats off too nightly, which I’ll get to at the end.  But I’ll first summarize their main contentions.


The famous Powell Memo—written in1971 by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—called on U.S. business to mobilize to counteract anti-business sentiment in the news media and the educational system.

Right-wing billionaires responded by funding the Heritage Foundation and other right-wing think tanks.

They of course have a perfect right to present their point of view.  The problem was that these organizations are dedicated to political warfare, and get to be treated as equivalent to groups who, whatever their unconscious biases, are serious scholars and researchers..

When I was a newspaper reporter, and had to write about something I didn’t know much about, the first thing I’d do was phone experts on various sides of the issue.

When I phoned the Brookings Institution, the person I’d reach would give me a carefully worded opinion, quoting sources and taking into account arguments on both sides.

When I phoned the Heritage Foundation, I’d talk to some young guy who had talking points down pat, but couldn’t back them up. Yet by the rules of my game, I had to treat them as equal authorities.

The Cato Institute, funded by the Koch brothers, consisted of sincere libertarians, who sometimes came down on the side of peace and civil liberties. But when their views closed with corporate interests, the Koch brothers purged the staff.

You have a parallel situation with the news media. Most of the so-called mainstream newspapers and broadcasters, whatever their biases, accept the status quo and have some minimal standard of professionalism.

The right-wing media—I’m thinking especially of Breitbart News—regard themselves as combatants in an ideological war.

Repeal of the Fairness Doctrine means broadcasters don’t have to give both sides of an argument. Back in the 1950s, when Edward R. Murrow broadcast his famous attack on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, CBS gave McCarthy equal time to reply. There’s no such safeguard now.

The idea was that the Fairness Doctrine was unnecessary, because diversity of ownership would allow conflicting opinions to be heard. But there’s no cap on the number of broadcasting stations a single company can own, so you have outfits such as Sinclair Broadcasting

Then there is the American Legislative Exchange Council, which writes pro-corporate draft laws to be introduced by right-wing state legislators under their own names, and the Federalist Society, which has been working for decades for appointment of conservative and pro-corporate judges


In any capitalist democracy, there are two sources of power - money power and people power. Most politicians depend on corporate donors to finance their companies. Court decisions such as Citizens United have negated legal limits on campaign spending.

The result, as Lappé and Eichen point out, is that:
> Those without corporate support are screened out.
> The debate is limited to issues acceptable to corporate donors.
> Legislative focus is more on pleasing the donors than pleasing the public.
> Since this is never discussed, the public is kept in the dark about the reality of politics.
> Americans become increasingly disillusioned with democratic politics.

Lobbying meanwhile has increased enormously. In 1971, the year of the Powell memo; there were 173 companies with lobbyists in Washington; there were 2,445 by 1982.

Corporate spending on lobbyists increased from $! billion in 1998 to $2 billion in 2010, adjusted for inflation; in 2016, corporations spent more than $3 billion on lobbying.

Side-by-side with the political parties are the corporatist political organizations. The Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity is a bigger operation than the Republican National Committee. Staff members more back and forth between jobs in the two organizations.

In the 1990s, Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay formed what he called the K-Street Project. The deal was that congressional Republicans would work with business lobbyists to craft legislation, and the congressional representatives and their staff would be given jobs with the lobbyists after they left office.

Lappé and Eichen report that about half of members of Congress who retired in 2012 joined lobbying firms. The figure in the 1970s was 3 percent.

Staff members of regulatory agencies also commonly wind up working for the industries they once regulated.

It is easy to see understand why the concerns of the average person with average income do not register.


Along with the increase in money power comes a deliberate attempt to restrict people power.

The Republican State Leadership Committee in 2010 waged a campaign called RED-MAP that gave them control of both houses of state legislatures in 25 states.

They used this power to redraw state legislative and congressional districts so as to lock in their power, and it worked.

In 2012, Democrats got a majority of votes cast for congressional representatives in Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but Republicans won a majority of the contested seats.

Republicans in state legislatures also moved to restrict the franchise.  One technique was to require voter ID, and then create obstacles to getting ID.  Mississippi, according to the authors, requires a cp[u pf a birth certificate in order to issue a voter ID, and requires a voter ID in order to issue a copy of a birth certificate.

Voting rights are suspended for arbitrary and bogus reasons.  You can lose your right to vote if you are a convicted felon, which isn't new.   You also can lose your vote if you happen to have the same name as a convicted felon in another state, or just the same name as an out-of-state resident, which is new.

The infamous CrossCheck system (not mentioned in the book) is based on the assumption that if you have the same name as someone in another state, this is evidence that you vote in two different states in the same election.  You lose your vote.   The number of Wisconsin voters who were stricken from the rolls under this system was larger than Donald Trump's margin of victory.

State legislatures are increasingly preempting local laws—overriding local minimum wage laws, for example, or bans on hydraulic fracking.

In Michigan, local governments with financial problems are put under state-appointed emergency managers, who cut public services and raise taxes. That’s what happened in Flint. Residents drank untreated toxic water because the emergency manager refused to pay for treated water.


Lappé and Eichen think public financing of elections would help a lot. They say experience shows these benefits:
> Candidates are motivated to meet with constituents
> More diversity among candidates and elected officials
> More citizens feel like “players” in the field of poetic
> More campaigns are fueled by small-money donations
 > The number of people running for office increases

They want financial disclosure of political activity, elimination of the government-lobbyist revolving door and an end to gerrymandering.   hey see the solution in grass-roots political activity, such as the Rev. William J. Barber's Moral Monday movement, the Movement for Black Lives and their own Democracy Initiative, as well as many independent local efforts.

The situation for American democracy is not hopeless.   Human action brought about the situation we now are in.   Human action can create a new situation.


I think what they have written is true and important.   And I recognize that it isn't possible to cover everything in just one short book.   But they do leave out some significant things.

Lappé and Eichen focus on the sins of the Republican Party, which are great, and let the Democrats off too lightly.   Republican leaders may have been the instigators, but Democratic leaders were certainly enablers.

Wall Street financiers played as big a part in the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama administrations as in the George W. Bush and Donald Trump administrations.

It was House Speaker Newt Gingrich who initiated the “pay to play” system, in which committee assignments were based on the amount of money raised for the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did the same thing for the Democrats, and she put “posted prices” on the committee chair appointments.

Lappé and Eichen ignore foreign policy.  As I said, you can’t write about everything in one book. But if democracy is your main concern, you can’t ignore the fact that the country is on a permanent war footing.


I have a version of his on my web log with links to sources of information.
General Discussion / Re: Google influencing elections?
« Last post by Dennis Darland on October 09, 2017, 09:22:27 PM »
Remember this?
General Discussion / Re: "Where was the Reader?"
« Last post by Nikolay Milkov on October 07, 2017, 10:45:55 AM »
Thank you, Jack.  Cook Wilson considered himself a sort of philosophical logician—which explains why he was against introducing symbols in philosophy.

General Discussion / Re: "Where was the Reader?"
« Last post by Jack Clontz on October 05, 2017, 12:36:46 PM »
Consider the following:
N. 36 (p. 42):
“In commenting on Russell’s paradox, in correspondence with Bosanquet in 1903, Cook Wilson had written: ‘I am obliged to think that a man is conceited as well as silly to think such puerilities are worthy to be put in print: and it is simply exasperating to think he finds a publisher (where was the publisher’s reader?), and that in this way such contemptible stuff can even find its way into examinations’ (1926, II, p. 739).  As Ayer later put it, ‘Cook Wilson had sat like Canute rebuking the advancing tide of mathematical logic’ (1977, p. 77).”

--The Oxford Handbook of the History of Analytic Philosophy, edited by Michael Beaney (2013)

This will allow finding the original source.

I was surprised that it was Cook Wilson.  I first thought it was H. H. Joachim.  I did not consider Bosanquet because he was actually rather sympathetic with at least some phases of BR’s thought, especially the later work, The Problems of Philosophy.  I knew that F. H. Bradley did not directly address BR on logical questions and so he was ruled out.  I then thought of Collingwood, but Collingwood was much too young at this point.  Next I considered Stout, inasmuch as Stout was very dubious of some of BR’s closely connected work.  I did not consider Ward. I did not consider any of the Continental figures.

Incidentally, in at least one case, Ray Monk has made several important and highly defensible points.  First, he says that Collingwood’s An Autobiography is one of the ten great philosophy works of the twentieth century, a judgment with which I concur.  Secondly, he says that Collingwood’s greatness as a thinker has been shamefully overlooked,, a point with which I concur, but with the recent decade of a huge amount of work on Collingwood and the publication of reliable texts, not to speak of Nachlass, this is no longer the case except for fundamentalists of other philosophical persuasions.

However, Monk overlooks the closeness of BR on “knowledge by acquaintance” and Collingwood’s theory of “re-enactment” (though the importance of Dilthey and Italian Idealism in this connection are equally important influences, as well as, perhaps, Georg Simmel and some French writers on historiography--cf. Marc Bloch) as applied to the history of thought, archaeology, and history itself. There is no connection with Heidegger’s notion of “Wiederholung” in Sein und Zeit.

In my view, this remains the case in spite of some of Collingwood’s criticism of BR’s epistemology in his work on metaphysics and philosophical methodology. In some of his political attitudes in the early 1940s Collingwood was close to BR’s attitudes even if much more sympathetic to Marxism—it is a myth that all Marxists have been or even need be materialists, whether ontologically or epistemologically (cf. some of
 the Austro-Marxists)—much to the chagrin of most of his Oxford colleagues who also simultaneously looked askance at Collingwood’s private life.

Regards, Jack Clontz in Bangkok, the Kingdom of Thailand
General Discussion / An Epilog to Ibsen's An Enemy of the People
« Last post by Phil Ebersole on October 01, 2017, 07:19:45 PM »
This is from my old friend Dave Van Arsdale

Enemy of the People
By Henrick Ibsen

An Epilog

Captain Hoster’s former ship sailed for America under her new skipper. She foundered off Newfoundland.

The school principle who fired Petra was found having an affair with a student.

During the rioting at Dr Stockman’s, the mayor’s son was cut by flying glass. It became infected and he died.

The mayor became depressed and did not stand for reelection.

The business block which included the People’s Messenger burned to the ground.

Dr Stockman and his family hid in their house until dawn when they escaped and fled to a new town across the country.

The university professor who had analyzed Dr Stockman’s samples set his graduate students in Environmental Forensics to work on the Municipal Baths and the river which supplied them.

When stockholders learned that government regulators were about to close the tannery, the Badger’s fortune was wiped out and he resigned in disgrace.

General Discussion / Book Notes: John Le Carre, Chris Hedges, Henrik Ibsen
« Last post by Phil Ebersole on September 30, 2017, 03:04:11 PM »

A LEGACY OF SPIES by John Le Carré (2017)
John Le Carré made his reputation as a writer of spy fiction with a series of Cold War novels, starting with A Murder of Quality (1962) and ending with Smiley’s People (1979).   They make readers feel they know what espionage is really like.

The series included a continuing cast of characters, including the mastermind George Smiley, who fought bravely, but also fought dirty, against their ruthless East German and Soviet opponents.

After 1979, Le Carré went on to write stand-alone novels about espionage and international intrigue.  But in A Legacy of Spies, he brings the characters of the Smiley novels back.

Peter Guillam, Smiley’s right-hand man, now in his 80s, is called out of retirement to help Smiley’s successors respond to a parliamentary inquiry and possible lawsuit concerning the events in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.  In that novel, the spy Alec Leamas and an innocent young woman were sacrificed to protect the identity of a double agent high up in the East German Stasi.

Le Carré tells two parallel stories.   One is a back story to the events of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, including an exciting hairbreadth escape from East German, which is reveals through documents and Guillam’s memories.

The other story is Guillam’s struggle to avoid having himself or his old colleagues being offered up as scapegoats.  He is threatened not only the investigators, but by Leamas’ thuggish bastard half-German son.   

In the end, the present-day dangers just evaporate without Guillam doing anything special.

I think this novel will appeal to fans who miss George Smiley.  I liked tit all right, but I don’t think it measures up to Le Carré’s best and I am not hungry for more Smiley prequels. 

The question raised by Le Carré’s novels is whether the Cold War struggle was worth it—whether both the heroism and the treachery were worth it.   During the Cold War itself, when the novels came out, the answer seemed (to me) to be “yes”.   The answer today, as given by Le Carré’s  characters, is “What standing have you, living today, to judge what we had to do back then?”


The liberal class, according to Chris Hedges, consists of those American intellectuals and reformers who stand between the power elite and the discontented masses.  Their function is to persuade the elite to appease the masses and allow sufficient reform to enable the system to survive.

Members of this class are different from labor organizers, civil rights protestors and other populist leaders.   Rather they are people in positions of influence who respond to the populist demands in an enlightened way.

The liberal class were responsible for the legislation of the Progressive era, the New Deal and the civil rights era.

But this class has proven itself susceptible to being co-opted by the power elite, especially in times of war.  It was liberals who created the propaganda that persuaded an unwilling American public to go to war against Germany during World War One.

They played the same role in World War Two (which Hedges doesn’t emphasize, probably because he, like me, thinks war propaganda in this case was a good thing) and in the Cold War.

Since the Reagan administration, the liberal class has failed to fulfill its function, Hedges wrote.  They have become apologists for perpetual war and pro-corporate economic policy.

He wrote this in the second year of the Obama administration, which he regarded as an example of liberal failure.  Nothing that he wrote about has changed for the better since then.

I didn’t read it when it first came out, but picked it up a couple of weeks ago   
AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE by Henrik Ibsen (1882)

This famous play tells the story of Dr. Tomas Stockman, a physician in a small Norwegian town, who discovers the the town’s public mineral baths, its principal source of income, are contaminated and should be shut down to prevent the spread of infectious disease.

He expects acclaim for his discovery, but all the various factions of the town turn against him, and a public meeting resolves that he is “an enemy of the people.”

In that era, the germ theory of disease had been discovered only 20 years before, and the people are unwilling to make sacrifices based on what they regard as an unproven theory.   

I am reminded of the reaction of much of today’s public toward warnings by climate scientists of global climate change.

I read the play as part of a monthly play-reading group organized and hosted by my friend Walter Uhrman.  Despite the distance of 125 years, it is highly readable and watchable, full witty observations about human hypocrisy which still hold true today.

However, I do not go along with Ibsen’s theory of human progress.  Dr. Stockman, presumably speaking for Ibsen, says all human progress is due to a few superior people who discern truths that are unknown to the ignorant masses.   By the time the ignorant masses catch up, life as moved on, and there are new truths they don’t get.

So he abandons efforts to warn the townspeople about their peril, and starts on a new quest to raise human thinking to a new level.   He plans to recruit street urchins for a new school, presumably because they are not infected with new ways of thinking.

The problem with this is that the new is not always good, the old is not always bad and no small group has a monopoly on wisdom and knowledge.  Ibsen’s philosophy is a few steps away from Bolshevism and fascism, in one direction, and from Ayn Rand’s Objectivism in another.
General Discussion / Book Note: Without You There Is No Us by Suki Kim
« Last post by Phil Ebersole on September 23, 2017, 06:30:10 PM »

When I was young, I was haunted by the specter of totalitarianism—the idea of an all-powerful state that not only could regulate its subjects' every action, but get inside their minds and convince them this was normal.

As a college student, I read Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism, Erich Fromm's Escape from Freedom, Eric Hoffer's The True Believer, Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon and George Orwell's 1984 and most of his essays.

I thought the future held three great perils: (1) the collapse of civilization due to overpopulation and resource exhaustion, (2) the destruction of civilization through nuclear war and (3) the triumph of totalitarianism, as manifested in Hitler's Germany, Stalin's USSR and Mao's China.

None of these fears came true, although the first two are still very much with us.   As for totalitarianism, there are many cruel and bloody governments in the world, but they are not, in the strict definition of the word, totalitarian.   Totalitarianism exists in only one place—North Korea—where it has endured for 70 years.

I got an inside view of North Korea by reading WITHOUT YOU THERE IS NO US: My Time With the Sons of North Korea's Elite by Suki Kim.   She is an American of Korean heritage who taught English for six months in 2011 at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUSH).

The title of the book is taken from an anthem the students sang at different times each day.    The "you" was Kim Jong-il, then the ruler of North Korea, and the "us" is everyone else in North Korea.

Suki Kim said the whole idea of individual thinking was alien to her students.   For example, they found it incredibly difficult to write a five-paragraph essay, because this involved stating an argument and then presenting evidence in support of the argument.   What they were accustomed to writing was unstructured praise of their country, their leaders and the official Juche ideology.

PUSH was founded and financed by evangelical Christians, many of Korean extraction, who agreed to build and staff a university at no cost to the North Korean government, and to refrain from proselytizing.   Presumably their hope was that they could subtly plant the seeds of Christianity and that they would be on the scene when and if North Korea ever granted religious freedom.

The students were the children of North Korea's elite.   They lived in Pyongyang which had electricity, running water and heat in the winter (most of the time) and where people had enough to eat, unlike in most of the country.

Although PUSH was in theory the North Korean MIT, the students had no idea of modern science.   They thought  North Korean scientists had invented a way to change Type A blood to Type B.   One student claimed to have cloned a rabbit while in fifth grade.  They had no idea what the Internet was; they thought it was the same thing as the North Korean intranet.

They thought Kim Jong-il was one of the world's most revered leaders, Pyongyang one of its greatest cities and the Korean dish kimche the world's favorite cuisine.

They were more fortunate than the vast majority of North Koreans, but their lives were completely regimented.   They never had vacations; they never had unstructured time, although they were allowed at certain times of the day to play soccer, basketball or volleyball without supervision.

Students were assigned buddies, who were supposed to watch each others' behavior.   They could get into serious trouble for saying the wrong thing.   They were not allowed to leave the campus, which was fenced in and had a guard-house, like a prison   During semester breaks, students were either assigned extra study or sent to work on construction sites.

The faculty's mail and e-mail was censored.   The faculty had counterparts who reviewed every lesson plan and course material weeks in advance.   They could not travel without special passes, and then only to specified destinations, such as a museum devoted to the gifts supposedly given Kim Jong-il by the world's peoples.

Ordinary North Koreans also were unable to travel in their own land without special passes, and there were checkpoints to make sure every traveler had a pass to be where they were.    Suki Kim never had any chance to talk to any ordinary person.   She could only guess, from their emaciated appearance, how hard their lives must be.

Suki Kim had to walk a fine ethical line in her teaching.   She wrote that giving her students forbidden knowledge or arousing curiosity about forbidden questions could literally get them killed.   But she couldn't resist doing it, mainly in the form of answering questions about her personal life.   She said later, at the end of a TED talk, that she hopes they would not take her lessons to heart, but will conform and survive.

She liked her students and, by her account, they liked her—in spite of being indoctrinated with the idea that South Koreans, which she was by birth, and Americans, which she was by citizenship, are the enemy.   They were in many ways very childlike, and responded to affection.

North Korea's ruling ideology is called Juche, whose principles are national independence, economic self-sufficiency and military self-defense.   It is ideology of a nation under siege.

Its founders were guerrilla fighters against ruthless Japanese occupiers.   North Koreans survived the killing of thousands and maybe millions of their people during the Korean War of 1950-53 and a famine in 1994-1998 without abandoning that ideology or their independence.  Now they are threatened by the world's leading nuclear weapons power.   So long as the nation remains under siege, it is unlikely they would abandon that ideology.

What makes the North Korean government a threat to peace is the possibility that it will try to unify the Korean peninsula by force, as it did during the Korean War and in acts of terrorism in the years after.   That's what the outside world has to persuade them to change.

Suki Kim in her TED talk said there is no possibility of North Korea changing from within.   There is no chance of rebellion, she said; any hint of independent thought is quickly stamped out.  So it is up to outside powers to bring about change.

But how could that be done?  She wasn't sure.   She thought making known the truth about "the gulag posing as a nation" is a good first step, which is true.

If North and South Korea could agree not to go to war, then North Korea would be open to some extent to the influence of the outside world.   Even its ruler, Kim Jong-un, is fascinated by American basketball and other aspects of our culture, good and bad.

In time, this could lead to change.   I agree this is a vague hope.   But threatening the country's survival will do no good.    The past 70 years of history shows this will only make their regime more like it is.


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