Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Nanjing Requiem

Posted by nliakos on November 18, 2017

by Ha Jin (Pantheon, 2011)

The publication of The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang (1997) put the brutal Japanese occupation of China’s “Southern Capital” on my radar. I don’t believe I knew about it prior to that time. Reading the reviews of the book, I was appalled at the cruelty of the atrocities described. I couldn’t bring myself to read the book itself. But the events of 1937 and after stayed in my mind, like the genocides of Rwanda and Cambodia, as something I ought to educate myself about. When I saw Ha Jin’s novel about these events on the library shelf last week, I decided I would try a fictional account as a way to learn more. Fiction can be more difficult to digest than factual prose, since it puts the reader into the mind(s) of the characters as they struggle to survive against seemingly impossible odds, so I was cautious as I began to read the story of Minnie Vautrin, principal of Jinling (Ginling) College, and her heroic fight to protect the thousands of women and children who took refuge on the college campus in 1937, narrated by the (presumably) fictional Anling Gao. But I was not swept up in the story of men and women fighting against insurmountable odds. I felt like I did when I read the reviews of Iris Chang’s book: appalled, but not personally involved.

The novel reads like a diary. (Indeed, Ha Jin used diaries kept at the time as some of his sources.) Horrific events, like murder and rape, are relayed in the same dry tone as what everyone had for dinner. It’s terrible, but you don’t want to cry. Anling’s voice is cool and calm, whether she is describing the campus ponds polluted with dead bodies or meeting her half-Japanese grandson for the first and only time. The reader has to infer her pain; Jin does none of this work for you.

I also noted Jin’s odd use of American and English idioms, which also seemed awkward to me in Waiting and War Trash, two other Jin novels which I have read. The idioms often don’t seem to fit into the context he uses them in. I suppose he is trying to convey the use of colloquial Chinese expressions in at least some cases, but the expressions just don’t seem natural in his prose. They seem more like the tortured sentences my students used to write when told to use an idiom in a sentence–or when they tried to pack as many idioms into one sentence as possible, as in this instance from page 276: If they got on my nerves, I didn’t hesitate to give them a piece of my mind to let off some steam. I knew they would bad-mouth me behind my back, . . . . There is nothing actually wrong about these sentences, but for some reason, they seem more like a language learning exercise than natural prose. They stand out in a way that seems awkward. That said, Ha Jin is on a short list of major authors writing in a second language (others that come to mind being Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov), and I have enormous respect for his ability to do it at all.

In conclusion, I guess I am going to have to read The Rape of Nanking after all.


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America’s Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System

Posted by nliakos on October 7, 2017

by Steven Brill (Random House 2015)

Did you think I had given up books because I had not posted in a while? Actually, I was slogging through this 455-page look at the Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare–how it came into being, the fight to pass the bill, the disastrous launch, and all the pros and cons. It wasn’t an easy read by any means, but I came away with a better understanding of some basic truths.

First, America got off on the wrong foot with healthcare  in the 1940s, when the National War Labor Board’s ruling that benefits (including health insurance) were not subject to wage controls encouraged employers to offer workers health insurance, letting the government off the hook for either insuring or providing healthcare to its citizens. The fact that health benefits were not taxed exacerbated the effect of this ruling, which “would forever change the course of healthcare in the United States.”

Second, the ACA became law only because people made a lot of compromises that included giving up some of the most crucial aspects of the original plan, like including a public option. Some of these sacrificed items constituted broken promises to people, companies and industries that gave their support to reform.

Third, random events like Democratic candidate Martha Coakley’s vacation, which ostensibly cost her the election (for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat), jeopardized the passage of the bill and necessitated still more compromises to appease reluctant Members of Congress and induce them to vote for it. Much of what transpired was due to pure chance.

Fourth, the ACA was designed to expand coverage to the uninsured, not to improve coverage for the majority who already had it. The framers of the ACA made a conscious decision not to tackle the obscene cost of healthcare in the United States compared with other developed countries. Their bill purported only to solve the problem of the millions of Americans who had no health insurance; it did not address the related problem of soaring costs. In this (increasing coverage) it has been fairly successful, but because costs continue to skyrocket, premiums are bound to reflect that. Provisions within the ACA ensured that billions of dollars in new business would accrue to the hospital industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and the medical devices industry. Meanwhile, doctors and insurance companies (yes! because they, like the patients, have to pay the bills) were squeezed.

Fifth, the disastrous launch of the ACA, following years of delay writing the regulations needed to implement the law, could have been averted if the administration had managed the website build better, by making one person responsible for its success, by hiring more competent professionals to build it, and by thoroughly testing it prior to the actual launch (duh)–as the state of Kentucky did with its kynect exchange, which worked as expected because the extensive testing had uncovered the glitches before the launch, leaving time to fix them. As it was, when a group of Silicon Valley stars was brought in to rescue the federal exchange, they had to correct almost every detail of the website. It was embarrassing to read about how incompetent everyone else was.

In the final chapter, Brill proposes a way to fix the mess we are in by encouraging giant hospital chains to become insurers (or giant insurers to buy hospital chains). He points out that what at first glance seems like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse would actually work better because doctors and hospitals would be motivated to keep patients healthy, and not to over-treat them or order needless expensive tests. In fact, this was exactly why I loved Kaiser Permanente so much when I was a member. I trusted them to do the right thing because it was in their interest to do the right thing. This was especially true when I was pregnant, at a time when C-sections were becoming almost routine. I didn’t want a C-section, and I felt confident that my Kaiser doctor wouldn’t advise me to have one unless there was really no good alternative. Kaiser didn’t have its own hospital in the Washington, D.C. region (as it does in northern California, and as  does the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center [UPMC], which insures its own patients–this was the example Brill provides of how his suggestion might play out), but as everyone probably knows, Kaiser doctors and nurse practitioners provide the vast majority of care that its members receive outside of a true hospital setting, in Kaiser centers around the region.

I think Brill’s view of the ACA is pretty balanced. He describes the good, the bad, and the ugly (and there is a lot of bad and ugly) objectively and fairly. The reader who makes it through to the end will come away with a much better understanding of how we got into this mess in the first place and why the ACA has met with such resistance. It’s a pretty depressing read, but it’s an important topic that we should all understand better.

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Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

Posted by nliakos on August 11, 2017

by Margot Lee Shetterly (HarperCollins 2016, in various editions)

Like many others, I suppose, I was inspired to read this story of the women of color who worked for NASA , formerly NACA (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), as human computers, beginning during World War II and continuing though the era of space flight until NASA’s mission and budget were curtailed by shifting priorities  and goals in the 1970s.  The film of the same name, which also dates from 2016, focused on the stories of three of these women: Dorothy “Dot” Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson. The book also follows these women (although their close camaraderie may have been an invention of the film’s director), but it provides details about many others as well: Dorothy Hoover, Christine Darden, and others too numerous to mention. Unfortunately, no photographs were included, leading me to try to imagine the women as the actors who portrayed them in the film. Photographs surely exist (If I remember correctly, some were shown at the end of the film.) and would have been helpful in keeping the many characters straight in my mind.

But the book is so much more than the stories of the women of West Computing, the segregated pool where most of them began their careers as human calculators. It is also a history of NACA/NASA, a history of the Civil Rights Movement, and to some extent a history of the women’s rights movement. Shetterly also weaves in events from general American history to help us situate the events in the book in time.

The book helped me to learn about the extensive black middle class–the doctors, teachers, and other professionals who earned college and graduate degrees but who were shut out of professional careers around the country because of their race. They took the jobs that were available to them, staffing the nation’s segregated black colleges with some of the finest minds of the 20th century. Reading about this in an era when historically black colleges are struggling to survive, I am reminded of the double-edged sword of inclusion that has dealt a death blow to our women’s colleges, too. Plenty of leadership opportunities and other paths to academic and professional excellence were available to students of color in historically black colleges and to women in historically female ones. When they found themselves in integrated or co-ed settings, however, forced to compete with white males for those same opportunities, women sometimes found themselves taking a back seat to the men,  while black students sometimes found themselves criticized as trying to act white if they prioritized studying over sports or social life (which can happen to white students too, but that is another story.).  Once the rock stars of black academia (such as William Waldron Schieffelin Claytor, the brilliant math professor who mentored Katherine Johnson when she was in college)  began to be wooed by traditionally white institutions, the black colleges could not compete, and they suffered a brain drain that impacted the quality of the instruction they could offer, making them less attractive to students of any color. Integration: a good thing, but with some negative consequences too. (Think also: the now-defunct Negro baseball league.)

I liked the book (though it was not as satisfying as the film, being about real life and historical facts and not designed to keep a reader on the edge of her seat), but I found some of the writing kind of overdone and pretentious.

Agonizingly typed and retyped on my Samsung tablet.  This keyboard drives me bonkers! I think I might be able to fix some of its problems in settings, but am not sure how. I type a word (say, ‘not’) and it auto-corrects to some non-existent word (e.g., ”nother”). Or it inserts spaces or letters willy-nilly, sentences into gobbledy-gook. Example in the previous sentence: I wrote “turning sentences…”. Why did it make up some crazy email address???

One thing I really miss about home is my laptop. Can’t wait to return to normal typing!

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The Soul of the First Amendment

Posted by nliakos on August 2, 2017

By Floyd Abrams (Yale University Press, 2017)

The complete text of the First Amendment to the US Constitution is as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” But Floyd Abrams focuses his little book on the second part only–“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.” This, to Abrams, is the “soul” of the amendment.

Reading the book definitely helped me to understand what the first amendment does and does not do. It concerns what the government, specifically the Congress,  can and cannot do. It does not prevent private companies or citizens from repressing speech.

Abrams gives the reader some history–which framer advocated for what, and why. Some of them did not think it was necessary to explicitly prevent the government from infringing on free speech. Others disagreed. In the end, the reference to free speech and a free press were included; they might just as easily have been left out, and we would be a different country today. Yet for the first couple of hundred years of the republic, nobody paid much attention to the amendment, and freedom of expression was routinely curtailed and censored. It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that case law began to develop based on the rights set down in this amendment. I had no idea that that was so, and I think probably few people do. (N.B., The history part was pretty dense and tough going for me; it isn’t written in legalese, but it’s challenging.)

Then there is a lengthy comparison of how freedom of expression and a free press are viewed by Americans and according to American law, as opposed to how they are viewed in Europe and in other democratic societies (very different). In other societies, other rights may take precedence over free speech, such as Europe’s right to be forgotten, which allows people to request that articles written about them be suppressed if they are no longer relevant, whatever that means, and the control over hate speech. It’s instructive to consider what happens when two or more essential human rights are in conflict with each other.

He nearly lost me in the final chapter, which deals with the infamous Citizens United decision, the one that opened the door to treating corporations as people who have the right to express themselves politically by donating enormous sums of money to political causes and candidates. Liberals such as I am have a kind of knee-jerk negative reaction to this Supreme Court decision, but Abrams argues the case that prevailed (he was actually one of the attorneys who argued it before the Supreme Court), and I admit that at times he was very convincing. It’s useful to consider the arguments on both sides.

(Painfully typed on my tablet in Karpenisi,  Evrytania, Greece)

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All the Light We Cannot See

Posted by nliakos on June 14, 2017

by Anthony Doerr (Scribner 2014)

This novel won the Pulitzer Prize, and deservedly so. I practically inhaled it over several days. I was completely caught up in the story of Marie-Laure LeBlanc, the blind French girl, and Werner Pfennig, the gifted German boy, set before, during, and after the Second World War. All of the characters, including Marie-Laure’s father and her great-uncle Etienne, who suffered from extreme anxiety or agoraphobia; Madame Manec, who worked for Etienne and cared for Marie-Laure as long as she could; Werner’s sister Jutta, who always knew what was right; Frau Elena, the kind and courageous director of the orphanage where Werner and Jutta grew up; Frank Volkheimer, the giant boy-man from the Hitler Youth School who served with Werner; even Von Rumpel, the German officer desperately seeking the legendary diamond known as the Sea of Flames, which he believes will save him from the cancer that has riddled his body–all of them are memorable and believable.

The chapters, arranged in fourteen sections, are extremely short, some as short as a page, few longer than three. They alternate among the characters, primarily Marie-Laure and Werner, but some of the others as well, from time to time. The time frame lurches back and forth: August 7, 1944; 1934;  November 1939; August 8, 1944; June 1940; back to August 8, 1944; and so on, ending in 1974 and then 2014 as we learn what happened to these characters whom we have bonded with. With Werner and Marie-Laure, we suffer through the Allied bombing of Saint-Malo. Sometimes you have to destroy something to liberate it.

Through it all, the cursed diamond holds the story of all these diverse characters, times, and places together, like a character in and of itself. A terrific read!


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How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World

Posted by nliakos on June 2, 2017

by Steven Johnson (Riverhead Books 2014)

This is the companion book to the PBS/BBC collaborative series of the same name. I missed that back in 2014, but I’m inspired to watch it now, because the book was really interesting. It shows, for example, how the discovery of the special properties of silicon dioxide led to the invention of window glass, eyeglasses, mirrors, microscopes, telescopes, fiberglass, even the World Wide Web. Johnson writes that when we snap a selfie and upload it to the Internet, we usually don’t think of “the way glass supports this entire network: we take pictures with glass lenses, store and manipulate them on circuit boards made of fiberglass, transmit them around the world via glass cables, and enjoy them on screens made of glass. It’s silicon dioxide all the way down the chain.”

And that’s just Chapter 1! In addition to Glass, Johnson has chapters dedicated to Cold, Sound, Clean, Time, and Light.  In each chapter, he follows the development of concepts and technologies related to the theme. He explains how most new technologies are invented by several people working at similar times (“in clusters of simultaneous discovery”), and that inventions are developed on the backs of previous ones.  He discusses the concept of the adjacent possible, a kind of discovery zone of possibilities that is normally present when an innovation is being incubated; without it, the innovation would be unthinkable. And he connects the dots to show us how each innovation clears the way for further innovations, like how solving the problems of waste disposal and clean water made possible the existence of mega-cities (which are not necessarily a good thing, but that’s another issue).

In the final chapter, “The Time Travelers”, Johnson introduces us to some exceptions to the ideas of simultaneous inventions and the adjacent possible: Charles Babbage, who essentially invented the computer in the 19th century, and his younger friend Ada Lovelace, who saw in Babbage’s invention the possibility of its uses beyond mathematics. Johnson writes in awe, “To have this imaginative leap in the middle of the nineteenth century is almost beyond comprehension. It was hard enough to wrap one’s mind around the idea of programmable computers–almost all of Babbage’s contemporaries failed to grasp what he had invented–but somehow, Ada was able to take the concept one step further, to the idea that this machine might also conjure up language and art. That one footnote opened up a conceptual space that would eventually be occupied by so much of early twenty-first-century culture: Google queries, electronic music, iTunes, hypertext. The computer would not just be an unusually flexible calculator; it would be an expressive, representational, even aesthetic machine.” Then he points out that when the time was finally ripe for this to actually happen, no one would remember either Babbage’s Analytical Engine or Lovelace’s vision of how it might be used, and they had to be re-invented by others.

A fascinating book for both science and history buffs! I am looking forward to watching the series.

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Into the Abyss: An Extraordinary True Story

Posted by nliakos on May 6, 2017

by Carol Shaben (Grand Central Publishing 2012)

In 1984, Carol Shaben’s father Larry, a Canadian legislator and provincial government minister, was one of four survivors of a deadly plane crash in northern Alberta. Carol Shaben, a journalist, painstakingly researched the crash, interviewing the four survivors as well as others who knew them or who were familiar with the event, to create a four-way narrative of the events leading up to the crash; the crash itself and the freezing night that followed for the four survivors, three of whom were severely injured; and the impact that the tragedy had on the lives of the four men.

In addition to Larry Shaben, the survivors included Erik Vogel, the young pilot whose exhaustion, stress, and errors led to the tragedy; Scott Deschamps, a RCMP officer; and Paul Archambault, the Mountie’s prisoner, who was being taken to stand trial for a minor crime. Shaben eventually left Alberta politics and spent years searching for a way to use the years he had been given to do good; eventually, he found this way in his faith community. Vogel wrestled with guilt and depression for many years after the crash. He came in for a fair amount of blame, and the continuing investigations prevented him from putting the tragedy behind him. Deschamps felt reborn but struggled to make the life changes he felt he needed, as he methodically checked things off the “bucket list” he created during the long night following the crash when he believed he was dying. Archambault, whose injuries were only superficial, became the hero who enabled the others’ survival, but it was not enough to prevent his death  at the age of only thirty-three, presumably due to homelessness and poverty.

Shaben focuses on the risks involved in the small-plane travel industry in Canada, where “bush pilots” provide transportation for large numbers of people living far from the major population centers. She examines how intense competition, lack of effective government oversight, flight paths over wild country inaccessible by road, and other factors combine with harsh Canadian winters to create the conditions that lead to many accidents, of which this particular crash is only one example.

The book is carefully researched and well-written. I learned about Canadian government and the small-plane flying industry as I followed the fate of these four people whose lives were intertwined by a tragic accident.

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I, Who Did Not Die: A Sweeping Story of Loss, Redemption, and Fate

Posted by nliakos on April 17, 2017

by Zahed Haftlang and Najah Aboud, with Meredith May (Regan Arts, 2017)

I, who very rarely buy books and almost never buy them before I have read them (or have at least read an extremely positive review of them), stumbled on this one on a table of new releases at my local Barnes & Noble. The extraordinary coincidences that the narrative is built on are so compelling that I couldn’t resist it. Zahed Haftlang, one of the thousands of Iranian “child soldiers”, and Najah Aboud, a 29-year-old Iraqi soldier, tell their stories in alternate chapters. Thirteen-year-old Zahed, fleeing an abusive home, becomes a medic at the front and witnesses unspeakable horrors. Najah, unhappy to be called up again for the army just when his falafel restaurant is starting to do well and he has just fallen in love, barely sees any action before he is grievously wounded in the battle of Khorramshahr. He comes face to face with Zahed, who is searching the battlefield for wounded Iranians. Miraculously, instead of finishing Najah off, something inspires Zahed to spare him. He then hides him, stabilizes him, and protects him from harm as long as he can, and finally gets him to a hospital. After that, he keeps the strange encounter in his mind for a long time; he prays that the Iraqi will survive his wounds and be able to return to his family.

Najah survives, but he spends seventeen long years in various Iranian POW camps, long past the end of the war. Meanwhile, Zahed spends some time back in his home town, falls in love with a young nurse and plans to marry her, but loses everything when her home is bombed on the day of their engagement party and she is killed along with her entire family. Crazed with grief, Zahed re-enlists and spends several years as a sniper, trying hopelessly to avenge his loss by killing every Iraqi he can. He is captured just before the war ends in 1988, and he spends a couple of years in an Iraqi POW camp, where he is treated brutally by a sadistic commander. But he too survives, returns home, gets married, and starts a family.

Improbably, both men end up in Vancouver, Canada, where they meet again, and Najah is able to pay his debt to Zahed by saving him from his own self-loathing and depression. At the end of the book, each man sums up the impact that their experience had on them. Zahed writes, “Najah, you are the other half of my heart. . . . We saved each other not once but many times over, . . . Your smile turns a light on inside me, and I thought of you often during my captivity to help me survive.”  Najah writes, “Some force beyond human comprehension drove Zahed and me to be in the same place at the same time during the war. It is the greatest and most humbling mystery of my life. Zahed, I thank you in my heart every day for removing your finger from the trigger. You may not be my brother by blood, but you are my brother in humanity, which is indestructible.”

Seven hundred thousand lives were lost during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. Through a twist of fate, these two enemies were destined not only to survive the war but to save each other’s lives and to love each other as brothers. A miracle?

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On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century

Posted by nliakos on April 12, 2017

by Timothy Snyder (Tim Duggan Books 2017)

For twenty days during March and April, I posted my thoughts on all twenty lessons in Timothy Snyder’s little book, one per day, in FaceBook. They are copied below:

Lesson 1: Do not obey in advance. (March 21)

When citizens adapt to authoritarianism without being forced to, they are teaching those in power what they can get away with. Snyder calls this “anticipatory obedience” and considers it “a political tragedy.” He supports his claim with the example of Hitler and Austria, blaming the fate of Austrian Jews on the anticipatory obedience of the Austrian people, who looked the other way when Austrian Nazis captured and mistreated Jews. He also cites psychologist Stanley Milgram, whose research into human behavior showed that people “are surprisingly willing to harm and kill others in the service of some new purpose if they are so instructed by a new authority.” (Milgram’s research was carried out on Americans because he could not get permission to do it in Germany, showing that the Germans did not have a special propensity for evil.)

Lesson 2: Defend institutions. (March 22)

Snyder advises us to defend the institutions that we care about, because if we do not, they will not survive the assault of people bent on their destruction. He gives the example of German Jews who believed that the Nazis would never dare to take away their constitutional rights, shut them up in ghettos, or encourage mob violence against them because European powers did not do such things.

Some of the institutions I hold most dear are the U.S. Constitution, in particular Amendments 1 and 4 (against unreasonable searches and seizures, which has already been eviscerated in the age of mass incarceration) and 13-15 (abolishing slavery and granted citizenship and suffrage to all; and the free media, in particular PBS, NPR (both under financial attack by the Trump administration), the New York Times, and the Washington Post; and the Separation of Powers of our government, set out in the Constitution but under attack at various times in our history, such as during the Nixon Administration and obviously, now when our President disrespects and denigrates judges for doing their jobs and Republican legislators bow and scrape before the president even when he insults them.

I am wondering how best to defend these institutions that make me proud to be an American. What do you think?

Lesson 3: Beware the one-party state. (March 23)

Snyder reminds us that “any election can be the last, or at least the last in the lifetime of the person who is casting the vote.” He means the last free and fair election, where candidates from more than one party have a real shot at winning. We’ve all heard about the “elections” in authoritarian states where voter turnout is 100% and everyone votes for the dictator, because they have to. This could be us, if we are not vigilant. Before this election, it looked like the Republican Party was in a death spiral. On Election Day, the death spiral party turned out to be the Democratic Party, which lost the presidency, the House, and the Senate, and is now in real danger of losing its impact on the Judiciary branch as Trump hurries to fill positions Pres. Obama was prevented from filling (not to mention Supreme Court seats) with conservative Republican judges.

Either way, a viable opposition is a crucial aspect of a true democracy, and we need to make sure our elections are safe from tampering, free and fair. Snyder calls for paper ballots, which “cannot be tampered with remotely and can always be recounted.” He warns that the 2018 elections (“assuming they take place”–gave me a chill down my spine) will be a real test of the system we were so proud of and confident about such a short time ago.

This lesson also reminds me that right now, our electoral system is rigged against urban voters (rural states, with their relatively small populations, can influence the Electoral College vote), and with corporations given the same “free speech” right as individuals to donate to political candidates and campaigns (due to the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision), individual voters are finding themselves at a severe disadvantage when they try to oust the GOP from its position of power.

Lesson 4: Take responsibility for the face of the world. (March 24)
What is “the face of the world”? Snyder is talking about symbols here, like a Nazi swastika or a hammer and sickle, which represent tyranny and hate. Snyder explains that symbols become shortcuts to freedom from oppressors, like a business which displays a “Workers of the World, Unite!” sign, hoping to avoid drawing negative attention from the authorities (Vaclav Havel, The Power of the Powerless). Havel suggests that if the businessman refuses to play the game–if all people refuse to play the game–the game cannot exist.
In our Internet age, memes are added to signs and symbols. All of these contribute to negative stereotyping and make oppression possible. Remember the Star of David controversy during the 2016 campaign?
Snyder enjoins us not to look away from, and not to become accustomed to, symbols of hate and otherness. He advises, “Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.”
This reminds me of Martin Niemöller’s little story that ends “Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.” And that reminded me of some signs I saw at the rally against Trump’s first Muslim ban: (Some versions were more vulgar, but you get the idea.)
Lesson 5: Remember professional ethics. (March 25)
Hitler could not have committed the atrocities he committed without the cooperation of lawyers, businessmen, doctors, and civil servants who overlooked their professional ethics in order to murder, torture, steal, and enslave. Had these people felt more of an obligation to their peers and their professions, they would not have done the terrible things that they did.
Of course, I always imagine that refusing to cooperate with the Nazis would probably have resulted in imprisonment or death. I have always marveled that doctors, who take an oath to “first, do no harm” could have been convinced to carry out the “ghastly medical experiments”. (I am not forgetting the American doctors in Tuskegee AL who watched their patients with untreated syphilis die.) Those who did resist were considered traitors to the Reich and treated as such, so it would have taken a great deal of courage to say “No”. I don’t know if I would have the courage to say “No” under these circumstances, and I hope my courage will not be tested.
Lesson 6: Be wary of paramilitaries. (March 26)
In this chapter, Snyder explains that “the quiet business of government” (democratic elections, trials, making and implementing laws and regulations…) can be done only if the government has a monopoly on force. Once non-governmental groups have begun to use violence to achieve their ends, government as we wish it to be cannot function. Snyder lists many World War II and Cold War examples of paramilitary groups that terrorized people (the Romanian Iron Guard, the Hungarian Arrow Cross, the German SA and SS) and points out that the U.S. use of mercenaries in warfare and corporate prisons means that in America, the use of force is “already highly privatized”, which should give us pause. He adds that Donald Trump’s unusual use of a personal security force to expel opponents from his rallies during the presidential campaign echoes Hitler’s use of Nazi storm troopers to “clear the halls of Hitler’s opponents during his rallies.”
When “emotions of rallies and the ideology of exclusion. . . [are] incorporated into the training of armed guards. . . .[, they] first challenge. . ., then penetrate . . ., and finally transform the police and military.”
(I am reminded also of the crackpots who invaded the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Described as “armed militants”, they advocated that federal land be ceded to private ranchers. See The insistence on “Second Amendment rights” to stockpile and carry around weapons, including those designed for use by the military in warfare, just feeds into this mania for paramilitary activity. I believe that we are not safer when citizens go around armed with deadly weapons; on the contrary, we are much less safe.
The entire text of On Tyranny will be printed on posters to be displayed next week in London:
Lesson 7: Be reflective if you must be armed. (March 27)
This chapter concerns police and military personnel who carry weapons because of their jobs. Snyder urges these people to be ready to say no if asked to do anything “irregular”. Authoritarian regimes routinely use special riot police to prevent citizens from protesting the regime and secret police who spy on, detain, torture, and murder dissenters. These special units depend on regular police and soldiers to carry out their evil missions. Regular police were subordinate to the NKVD during the Soviet Union’s Great Terror of 1937-1938, and the biggest Nazi massacres (33,000 near Kiev, 28,000 near Riga) were carried out by regular German police. Snyder says, “In the rare cases when they refused these orders to murder Jews, policemen were not punished. Some killed from murderous conviction. But many others who killed were just afraid to stand out.” In other words, the urge to conform was responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people.
Lesson 8: Stand out. (March 29)
In this chapter, Snyder reminds us that in the years leading up to the Second World War, most Europeans and Americans did not actively oppose Hitler and his Nazi movement. Those who did were considered “exceptional, eccentric, or even insane”. Many European nations had right-wing authoritarian governments (Italy, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria). When Hitler annexed Austria and divided up Czechoslovakia in 1938, and invaded Poland in 1939, the great European powers looked on and did nothing to stop him. When Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940, England was at war with Germany because it had a treaty with Poland, but Snyder points out that Churchill could easily have chosen to accommodate Hitler as Chamberlain had done in 1938. Instead, he chose resistance, helping “the British to define themselves as a proud people who would calmly resist evil.” In so doing, Churchill forced Hitler to change course, attacking the Soviet Union before removing all Western resistance. The USSR became a British ally, and after Pearl Harbor, the US entered the war, thus forming “a grand and irresistible coalition” that won the war–but if Churchill had accommodated Germany in 1940, it would never have happened. Today, we look back on Churchill’s decision to resist as inevitable, but at the time, it was anything but inevitable. “At the time, he had to stand out.”
In addition to the Churchill example, Snyder tells the story of Teresa Prekerowa, a young Polish woman who refused to sit by and watch as Polish Jews were rounded up and forced to live in ghettos. She visited the Warsaw ghetto many times to help Jews (some that she knew, and others she didn’t know), eventually helping one family to escape the ghetto and certain death at Treblinka. Again, she stood out among those who acquiesced to evil.
It takes real courage to stand out and be seen as different, as swimming against the tide. If it comes to that, I hope I will have the courage of Winston Churchill, Teresa Prekerowa, Antonina Zabinska (The Zookeeper’s Wife), Raoul Wallenberg and others.
This lesson reminds me of a short (3 minutes) 2010 TED talk by Derek Sivers, How to start a movement. It is not necessary to be the first person to stand out; in fact, it is the second person who actually gets the ball rolling.
Lesson 9: Be kind to our language. (March 30)
Snyder advises us not to let others select the words that we use, and he cautions us that if we substitute images and screens for books, we will not have the words that we need to make sense of the world we live in. “When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media,” he warns, “we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading.” He recommends “any good novel” and proposes several, and he includes a reading list of books about history and politics as well. Finally, he recommends that Christians read the Bible (“the foundational book”), reminding the reader about the camel and the rich man; what will happen to “whosoever shall exalt himself”; and what the truth shall make him who knows it.
Snyder also draws parallels between the way Hitler used language and the way Donald Trump uses it. Donald Trump’s use of language has been variously compared to that of a third-grader (Jack Shafer, Politico), a fourth-grader (John Prager, Addicting Info), less than a sixth-grader (Justin Wm. Moyer, The Washington Post), and a middle-schooler (Word Counter). Of course, what they are analyzing is Trump’s spoken language, not his reading level. Most people (if not all) use simpler language when they speak than when they write, or than what they are capable of reading. But what seems apparent is that to a lot of people, a president who speaks with the vocabulary and syntax of a child is more appealing than one who speaks like a lawyer (Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama). America has a history of despising intellectuals,to our shame.
I am nevertheless reminded of The Alphabet Vs. the Goddess (by Leonard Shlain), in which the triumph of books over images results in the loss of women’s rights and prestige within a society. I must confess that the opposite seems to be happening here.
Lesson 10: Believe in truth. (March 31)
“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”
Snyder cites Victor Klemperer, author of The Language of the Third Reich: The attack on truth takes four forms: (1) open hostility to reality (think: how often Trump’s statements are outright lies); (2) shamanistic incantation, such as the repeating of nicknames and other phrases over and over (think: Lock her up! Crooked Hillary; Little Marco); (3) magical thinking (think: universal healthcare plus tax cuts for all); and (4) misplaced faith (think: “I alone can solve these problems”).
Snyder says that what we are witnessing today (“post-truth”) is nothing new. George Orwell called it “doublethink”. Klemperer and Ionesco would recognize it as “the fascist attitude to truth”. Like the Trumpists of today, the fascists of the 20th century “despised the small truths of daily existence, loved slogans that resonated like a new religion, and preferred creative myths. . . to history or journalism. They used new media. . . to create a drumbeat of propaganda that aroused feelings before people had time to ascertain facts. And now, as then, many people confused faith in a hugely flawed leader with the truth about the world we all share. Post-truth is pre-fascism.”
Scary indeed.
Lesson 11: Investigate. (April 2)
Snyder urges us to educate ourselves about the issues. It’s easy these days to believe what we see and hear from our chosen sources of information (people, media, websites). We assume that they are telling us the truth and that the people/media/websites on the other side are lying. I get a slew of emails every day from progressive organizations with subject headings like “Trump destroyed!”, so I know they aren’t all being truthful (it’s just wishful thinking, and of course they are trying to get my attention).
Snyder says we need to read more in-depth books and articles and “take responsibility for what [we] communicate to others.” He thinks we should spend less time on the “two-dimensional” internet and more time reading or listening to serious thinkers and writers who can help us to gain insight into what is happening. Reading about issues is different from watching them unfold on a screen, ever ready for the next scandal to take over because “actual journalism . . . is edgy and difficult”, requiring as it does “traveling, interviewing, maintaining relationships with sources, researching in written records, verifying everything, writing and rewriting drafts. . . . The work of people who adhere to journalistic ethics is of a different quality than the work of those who do not.” As with plumbing and auto repair, Snyder reminds us, we get what we pay for, and we should not expect to get information for free; he advocates subscribing to print media as a form of subsidy. (I am happy to say I am a subscriber to The Washington Post and a supporter of public TV and radio.) When we have identified trustworthy sources, he says, we can share what we learn from them. But we need to verify in order to “avoid doing violence to the minds of unseen others on the internet.”
So researching with Google may be easy, but we have to remember to verify what we find. All sources of information are not created equal.
Lesson 12: Make eye contact and small talk. (April 3)
This is the shortest lesson so far: one page. Snyder says that looking people in the eye and acknowledging their humanity is one way that we (and they) can figure out who can be trusted. In the cultures of denunciation that existed in Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and other places in the 20th century, survival meant having people you could trust. Ordinary gestures of friendship, such as a handshake or a smile, become very important in such cultures, and if we reach out in a friendly way to everyone we encounter, we will be acting to lesson the fear and alienation felt by at least some of those people.
In our country today, there are many who are feeling threatened: immigrants (the undocumented, green card holders, and citizens alike) and those who look like immigrants to white supremacists; gays, lesbians, and transgender, bisexual and queer people; African Americans and other people whose skin is darker than Northern Europeans’; atheists and agnostics; Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus. . . . The list goes on.
This is something easy to add to our daily routines. A smile, a kind word, a handshake when appropriate, a brief conversation about the weather or whatever, is all it takes to present yourself as a fellow human being who is not out to do harm to anyone.
Lesson 13: Practice corporeal politics. (April 4)
“Nothing is real that does not end on the streets.” Snyder is saying that it is not enough to sign online petitions, to rant on social media, even to donate to the right causes. We have to get off our butts and march! He recommends going to unfamiliar places and making new friends. (I am happy to say I have been following this advice! I have demonstrated at the White House, visited senatorial offices, and huddled with neighbors I had never met despite living in this neighborhood for over 30 years. I’m looking forward to more marches, meetings, huddles, and new friends in the coming months and years.)
Snyder’s example for this lesson is the Solidarity movement in Poland (1980-81). People from different walks of life and of different political persuasions came together to support striking workers. Although it took almost a decade, in the end the free labor union that they created was responsible for the elections of 1989, which Snyder calls “the beginning of the end of communism in Poland, eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union”.
More recently, we can reflect on the demonstrations of the Arab Spring, most of which did not achieve their desired ends; the worst possible outcome, the civil war in Syria, continues to shock us daily with new stories and images of atrocities visited upon the Syrian people by their so-called government and its allies. Only today, there was a horrific chemical attack on the village of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib Province, reminding us that in many countries, political protests are met with cruelty and violence on the part of the state. At least in America, we have not yet reached this point. So we must march, and we must protest, because we can. While we can.
Snyder ends the lesson with an enigmatic paragraph, which perhaps someone can help me understand: he writes, “The choice to be in public depends on the ability to maintain a private sphere of life. We are free only when it is we ourselves who draw the line between when we are seen and when we are not seen.” Is he warning us that once we have lost our privacy, we can no longer choose to take to the streets? Or simply that once Big Brother (Google, Facebook, the FBI, the NSA…) is watching us, we are no longer free? In which case, how does that relate to today’s lesson?
Lesson 14: Establish a private life. (April 5)
In this lesson, Snyder takes on the slippage of personal privacy that we have come to accept along with the conveniences of the Internet. He reminds us of how strategically released “bombs” of hacked emails distracted both the media and the public from the real issues of the 2016 campaign. Although we should know that emailed communications are inherently not private, we should also acknowledge that the “theft, discussion, or publication” of someone’s emails “destroys a basic foundation of our rights. . . . Whoever can pierce your privacy can humiliate you and disrupt your relationships at will.” We are all vulnerable to this, yet we are drawn to the exposure of others’ secrets like bees to nectar. And the belief in conspiracies that is engendered by the exposure of communications that were meant to be private (and were written at another time and in another situation) works to distort political reality even when the emails reveal nothing incriminating (think: John Podesta’s emails). Snyder writes, “When we take an active interest in matters of doubtful relevance at moments that are chosen by tyrants and spooks, we participate in the demolition of our own political order”; we become part of the “mob”.
To avoid demolishing our political order, and to protect what little privacy we have left, Snyder suggests regular deletion of malware from your computer; using the internet less and communicating face-to-face more; resolving any legal problems in your past;and supporting human rights organizations. “Tyrants seek the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have hooks.”
Lesson 15: Contribute to good causes. (April 6)
In this lesson, we learn that being able to choose those we associate with is a key element of freedom that is curtailed in totalitarian societies, which prefer to use charities and NGOs as instruments to control the people. Dictators are suspicious of people who gather in groups, despite their benign goals.
Snyder encourages us to support not only political organizations but any organization which engages in work that we enjoy or want to see accomplished. He calls this “a free choice that supports civil society and helps others to do good”.
Every day, my email inbox is crammed with thirty or more emails imploring me to “chip in” $1 or $3 or $5 to this or that cause or campaign. Obviously, I can’t donate every time I am asked, and I don’t always feel comfortable with the methods of online payment. I’ve started a Google sheet to keep track of my contributions (which I don’t itemize on my taxes because up until now, I never gave enough to make it worthwhile) so that I won’t inadvertently give twice. And I’m considering just donating to the DNC, DCCC, and DSCC, rather than to the campaigns of individual politicians, in the hope that these political committees will send my dollars where they can do the most good. I’d welcome your input on whether you think this is a good strategy.

Lesson 16: Learn from peers in other countries. (April 7)

Snyder recounts how the Russians tried to influence the Ukrainian election with fake news, and how Ukrainians immediately recognized what was happened and fought back, unlike us Americans, who thought it couldn’t happen here (until it did). Snyder urges us to travel and observe what is happening abroad and to make and maintain relationships with people from other countries, because they have much to teach us, if we are only open to learning from them.

I am thinking of my Venezuelan friends, Evelyn Izquierdo and Miguel Mendoza, who warned that Americans should act before it was too late–before a tyrant came to power. We can learn from the Venezuelan experience, even as we hope that our institutions are stronger than theirs and will save us from their fate. (See also Lesson Two: Defend institutions.)

Lesson 17: Listen for dangerous words. (April 8)
Snyder focuses on the words ‘extremism’, ‘terrorism’, ’emergency’, and ‘exception’ in this lesson. These are words which tyrants use to convince free people to exchange their liberty for what they believe is security. He points out that we need not sacrifice liberty in order to be safe, and that “People who assure you that you can only gain security at the price of liberty usually want to deny you both.” He reminds us that the government’s responsibility is to increase both freedom and security. Voting for a fascist is like entering an abusive relationship, where we agree to sacrifice both freedom and safety. But we can choose to leave the relationship, and we can choose to leave the country (if another country will admit us).
For a tyrant, an ‘extremist’ is just someone outside the mainstream. This language permits the tyrant to persecute the person that disagrees with him. In truth, it is tyranny that is actually extremism.
Snyder also warns us against “the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary” (“Make America great again”?).
Lesson 18: Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. (April 9)
For me, this lesson is the most shocking of the 18 lessons I have read so far; this is because it explains certain historical events (the Reichstag fire of 1933, the terrorist attack on a Moscow theater in 2002, the siege of a Russian school in 2004) in a way that I have never heard before. He also includes events I was totally unaware of, like the takeover of a French TV station by Russian hackers pretending to be ISIS in 2015 and the false accusation of the rape of a Russian girl living in Germany by Muslim refugees in 2016. (I should verify these events before posting, I know! Lesson 11, Investigate: “Take responsibility for what you communicate to others.”)
Modern tyrants are terror managers, he says, and terror management is “the exploitation of real, dubious, and simulated terror attacks to bring down democracy.”
The essence of this lesson is to protect our institutions even in times of terror and grief. Do not let a would-be tyrant destroy our system of checks and balances or take away our fundamental rights in the name of “homeland security”. Courage, he says, “does not mean not fearing, or not grieving. It does mean recognizing the resisting terror management right away, from the moment of the attack, precisely when it seems most difficult to do so.
I feel in my gut that this is the most essential lesson of all, and it must be promulgated now, before it is needed–because when “the unthinkable arrives”, it will be too late.
Lesson 19: Be a patriot. (April 10)
This lesson consists mainly of a long diatribe about what does NOT constitute patriotism: essentially, things that Donald Trump stands accused of doing (e.g., not paying his taxes, admiring foreign dictators, asking Russia to hack Clinton’s emails…). Snyder calls Trump a nationalist, not a patriot. Nationalists obsess about power, winning, losing, and taking revenge but are uninterested in actual events. Their only truth is the resentment that they feel. Patriots, on the other hand, love their country and want to continually make it better. Their values are universal, and they are concerned with reality. “A nationalist will say that ‘it can’t happen here,’ which is the first step toward disaster. A patriot says that it could happen here, but that we will stop it.” Snyder calls on us to be role models for future generations.
I love my country, but there are many things about it that I do not love or even like, and there are things we have done as a country that I feel very ashamed of. Still, there is much to love and be proud of, and as Snyder says, a true patriot is always striving to make his/her nation better. Thanks to Donald Trump, I am receiving a crash course in activism and good citizenship this year. I hope I will continue to raise my voice against what is wrong and for what is right and good.
Lesson 20: be as courageous as you can. (April 11)
There is no lesson in this lesson, only one sentence: “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.”
This is followed by an Epilogue, in which Snyder considers how we have arrived at a point where a book such as this seems necessary after Americans had come to believe that our democracy was so secure that we need not execute the responsibilities of citizens (how many of us are too busy to inform ourselves or to vote!). “We lowered our defenses, constrained our imagination, and opened the way for precisely the kinds of regimes we told ourselves could never return.”
The Politics of Inevitability: At the end of the Cold War, when the Communists’ teleology of “an inevitable socialist utopia” came crashing down, we continued to believe in our own teleology of “expanding globalization, deepening reason, and growing prosperity.” We thought we were different, special, and right; after all, we had won. We believed that our vision of the future was inevitable. This belief resulted in a cessation of debate and a binary system in which one side defended the status quo while the other totally negated it, calling for “disruption”. This concept “assumes that after the teenagers make a mess, the adults will come and clean it up. But there are no adults. We own this mess.” Snyder calls this “A naive and flawed sort of democratic republic” and compares it to being comatose.
The Politics of Eternity: National populists practice the politics of eternity. They are nostalgic for moments in a misunderstood or misconstrued past. They imagine enemies that attacked the nation’s purity. Today’s national populists yearn for the decade of the 1930s, when Fascism was on the rise and democracies had failed or were struggling. The British who wanted the U.K. to leave the E.U. forget that the U.K. was not just an independent U.K. before the European Union; it had an empire. Similarly, France “has never existed without either an empire or a European project.” Fantasizing about a mythical past means we cannot contemplate what might actually happen in the future. Politics “becomes a discussion of good and evil rather than a discussion of possible solutions to real problems.” Trump is quoted as saying that “when the economy crashes, when the country goes to total hell and everything is a disaster” will solve our problems. (I do not remember this quote, but according to, he said this back in 2014. ) Snyder calls this “a confused and cynical sort of fascist oligarchy” and compares it to being hypnotized.
Snyder suggests that the study of history allows us to understand and evaluate what is happening–“to be responsible. . . for something.” He puts his faith in young people, who must begin to make history or the “politicians of eternity and inevitability will destroy it.” But in order to make history, they will need to learn about history.

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The Birds Fall Down

Posted by nliakos on March 8, 2017

by Rebecca West (Viking 1966)

This was one of my mother’s books, many of which I rescued from her house in Hackensack, NJ before we sold it in 1984. It’s also the first Rebecca West I have read. She wrote not only novels (six up to and including this one), but also history, biography, criticism, and short stories.

Actually, I found The Birds Fall Down rather hard to get through. It tells a story of intrigue and betrayal among Russian expatriates and revolutionaries in the early part of the twentieth century, before the Russian Revolution. Eighteen-year-old Laura Rowan, English on her father’s side and aristocratic Russian on her mother’s, goes with her mother to visit her grandparents, Nikolai Nikolaievich and Sofia Andreievna Diakonov, who are living in Paris after Nikolai was framed and exiled by the Tsar. Leaving her mother and her ailing grandmother behind, Laura and Nikolai begin a journey by train to a place called Mures-sur-Mer. On the way, they are joined in their car by a former friend of Nikolai’s, now a revolutionary, Chubinov. Most of the novel is consumed by an endless “conversation” between Count Diakonov and Chubinov on the train, as Chubinov attempts to convince the Count that he wants to help him. (I put the word conversation in quotes because it is more a succession of interminable monologs than a real conversation. And that was the part that was the most arduous to read. It seemed to go on forever!)

Spoiler Alert! Eventually, Chubinov and Nikolai realize that they have both been betrayed by a double agent in the Count’s retinue, and the shock kills Nikolai. Laura is left to handle the situation on her own until her father arrives from London, which takes several days. Although she has been depending on her father to save her from the double agent, Laura realizes that she cannot trust him to protect. Ultimately, she relies on Chubinov to save her, but until the last moments, neither Laura nor the reader is really sure who the villain is.

Laura is not really important for the story, but she is the thread that holds it together, and we see the other characters and the action (such as it is) from her point of view. But I did not find her to be a very convincing character. She seemed too mature for an eighteen-year-old, and her reactions to some of the events in the novel seemed wooden to me. I couldn’t identify with her, and she didn’t seem like a real person to me.

The Birds Fall Down has some things in common with the great Russian novels: lots of characters who are known by several different names and a twisted plot. I found it rather tiresome to read, but I did finish it and (sort of) followed the plot! Dame Rebecca West notes in the Prologue that she based the story on an actual historical event, but Google was unable to help me find exactly what that could have been.

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