Sunday, April 20, 2014

Re-learning to Read

In recent months I've been teaching myself to read - or perhaps, re-teaching, since I used to know but forgot. By reading I don't mean the technical ability to recognize letters and the sounds they represent, and thereby to construct conversations, ideas, or whatever nonsense people write. That ability I never lost. The one I did, however, was the ability to take a book and sit and read it, page after page, perhaps even hour after hour. That art I lost sometime during the past decade or two, as I put all my reading abilities into reading stuff on glass screens, and then reading shorter stuff on smaller glass screens, and then skimming over stuff on other glass screens.

Blogs, say. Or Tweets. At least I never started using Facebook.

So it hasn't been easy, re-learning what I used to know. Back in the Old Times I used to read all the time, everywhere. I'd take two books onto an airplane, and six or eight of them to the first week of reserve duty. I would stand in lines in official ministries, reading. Buses? Reading. banks? Reading. I often read three or four books simultaneously. And then I lost the ability, and for a while didn't even notice. Then I did notice but brushed it aside. Until eventually I realized that reading from glass screens - unless perhaps it be Kindle type screens which I never tried - was a form of making oneself dumb. True, just about everyone else was doing the same, but that didn't mean I wasn't getting dumber, even if it was a communal project.

So I tried to reverse the tide. It wasn't easy. For a while it was a physical effort. But eventually the effort began paying dividends, as efforts often do. Recently it has even been getting easier, and of course, worthier.

So here's a quick list of some books I've read recently:

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I don't read enough literature to do literary criticism, but this book about a girl in Nazi Germany wasn't what I'd expected. It was, however, a fine read, and I sort of didn't put it down until I'd finished it.

Paul Preston's The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution, and Revenge (Revised and Expanded Edition) was recommended to me by my son who is currently working in Spain for an international technology company. I hadn't actually ever read a systematic description of the Spanish Civil War, and this book taught me that it had been much worse than I had been led to think ("the pilot project of WW2), and Franco was considerably more ghastly than I'd thought, in spite of the fact that during WW2 he enabled safe haven to many of the Jews who managed to cross over from France.

Bill Bryson actually convinced me that my secret aspiration to walk the Appalachian Trail from end to end is probably not worth the considerable effort (compounded by the fact that I live more than 6,000 miles away). Though I do hope to do additional sections of it to the few I've already done. Another really fun book: A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.

Then I read Paul Berman's Power and the Idealists: Or, The Passion of Joschka Fischer, and its Aftermath. This is the third or fourth of Berman's books I've read. His shtick is that he's an old 68er who has grown up, but is still attached to the idealism that fuelled his young political passions. It's an interesting and worthy perspective, especially the grown up parts of it, though I admit that I weary, slowly, of his built-in and underlying assumption that one needs those roots in the Left to be a compassionate person.

And then I read Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West - but that's a book which deserves its own post. Someday.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Freedom isn't Free: A Sad Rumination on the Eve of Pessach

In the 1950s the CIA put a pile of time and money into disseminating Boris Pasternak's novel Dr. Zhivago in the Soviet Union. The assumption apparently was that words can be a powerful weapon, if used well - and, of course, if deployed as one weapon among many against the enemy. Of course, in those days the concept of enemy was different than it is today.

A common meaning of the word "enemy" today is anything that causes distress to nice folks like us. We haven't yet reached the middle of April this year, and here's a collection of people who've been silenced since the beginning of the month for fear their words might hurt someone:

76-year-old Barbara Driver used an unfortunate phrase while making a political point in her local municipal council, which ended her career.

Cambridge University Press, an august institution which has been disseminating ideas for centuries, nixed the publication of a book which might have offended Vladimir Putin. (Honestly).

Mozila, the company which produces the web-browser you may be using as you read this, fired its CEO because back in 2008 he donated money to a political campaign in California which went on to win, but which has since been overturned by a court; the hapless CEO had the temerity to hold on to his belief that same-sex marriage is not a good thing. (To his credit, same-sex activist Andrew Sullivan castigated the lunacy of the decision).

Brandeis University disinvited Ayaan Hisi Aly from speaking on campus because it was expected her appearance might offend some folks who disagree with her politics. (An abridged version of her talk is online here, and any decent person should read it no-matter what their political opinion, simply to demonstrate their decency).

I have no doubt there are other recent examples I've missed. Sadly, Voltaire's sentiment about dying in defense of opinions he disagreed with to ensure freedom of expression is long since done with. In the liberal democracies which would never have been invented were it not for his ideas, it is hardly conceivable that citizens would die for anything; freedom of expression and thus freedom of thought has been canceled so as not to hurt anyone's feelings, should their thoughts turn out to be hurtful to someone. Hurt feelings, we are to accept, are the worst thing that can happen to a person.

(Voltaire, by the way, was a committed hater of Jews; he used his distaste to castigate the powerful Church of his day in the roundabout manner of bashing the Jews. Had he lived in the 21st century he would have been drummed out of town. Fortunately, he lived in 18th-century France, so that worked out). (Then again, hurting the feeling of Jews is actually rather acceptable, even in 2014: an exception to the rule).

Steven Pinker writes about this onslaught of gentleness in his magisterial The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  He puts it into the context of the end of violence, so that while it's a bit silly, it's also basically a fine thing. The problem is, of course, that the world isn't that gentle a place yet, nor are large swathes of it obviously on their way. This was the gist of my review of Pinker's book. The murderers in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, CAR, Nigeria and so on, don't live in a world where anyone cares a whit about anyone's feelings.

Nor does Putin. Or Khamenai and his sidekicks. Assad. Nor any of their henchmen and, truth be told, any of their enemies. None of them would recognize a hurtful sentiment if they saw it in full daylight, nor are any of them likely to fathom the sentiment. Voltaire would recognize their world, though.

The problem with ending free speech so as not to offend is that it portends the end of fee thought. Having lived for decades in an imaginary world where people forbid themselves hurtful thoughts, they have now lost the ability to see the world as others do, to recognize real enemies, and to deploy weapons that might impress those enemies. And so, having trained themselves not to be hurtful, the intellectual leaders of the free world and the political ones too have lost the concept of enemy. Sadly, their enemies haven't.

Back in the 1950s the CIA - even the CIA - knew the importance of freedom of thought.