Sunday, December 22, 2013

"Virginia Slave Narratives": a notebook of interviews with former slaves taken in the 1930's, sold at Bacon's Castle

Last Sunday I bought an unusual workbook at Bacon’s Castle, a historical attraction in southern Virginia described on my Issues Blog, Dec. 16.

The booklet is “Virginia Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in Virginia from Interviews with Former Slaves”, from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1938 (now sponsored by the Library of Congress), published by Applewood Books in Bedford, MA.  The ISBN is 1-55705-025-4.

The book comprises photocopies of typewritten (and sometimes cursive) manuscripts of interviews with former slaves (called “informants”).  There are 55 numbered pages, and then 29 pages of appendix, including a glossary of slang terms.

The earliest excerpt describes a little of Nat Turner’s Slave Revolt at Jerusalem (now Courtland), in which slaves actually killed white owners (see the same blog posting).
The postings described the drudgery of slave life, in almost unintelligible English, with no hope of change.  One slave describes an owner who was kindler, and allowed Sundays off and sometimes dinner in the mansion.  Slaves describe having to ask for permission to marry.   

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Ernest Jude Navy's "The Truth at Half Staff": yes, I've wondered about these interpretations of history and morality

Author: Ernest Jude Navy

Title: “The Truth at Half Staff

Publication: Xlibris, 2003, ISBN 1-4010-9147-4, 48 chapters, 303 pages, softcover, with some black-and-white photo illustrations throughout.
Amazon link is here. Note the variability of the reviews.
I ordered this book from Amazon in order to get a feel for what an XLibris self-published book would be like, since I am self-publishing my own “Do Ask, Do Tell III” book with the same company (discussed Dec. 12 here).  I wanted to find a non-fiction book that takes up some of the same issues that I do, and where the author seems to process the issues the same way I did.  This book does fit the mold, even if it is now ten years old.

The book comprises 48 (by my count) unnumbered short chapters (numbering would have been in order).  This comprises a few poems and collections of sayings at the end, making up a kind if appendix. Most chapters have their own endnotes.  I did wonder why the page size is a little narrower than for most paperbacks of this nature.  These little chapters remind me of my own “sidebars” on my old “do ask do tell” website.

Navy takes up the popular conceptions about many historical events and social issues and debunks popular “conservative” notions about how great America is. (His very first chapter is on Cuba’s Fidel Castro.)  I found he shared my concerns about karma and moral underpinnings of our way of life.  However, he usually keeps his observations to the “group” level and does not take it down to what should be expected of the individual today.
His overall message is that America, by accurate reading of history, has been a very racist place, and that many positions (especially of so-called conservatives, most of all when connected to religion) are predicated on the idea that “my race is better than yours” and “my faith” or “my social group” is inherently superior.  Navy does state in one place that he is African-American himself and describes bus background.

For example, he traces the history of anti-drug laws and ties them to a desire to keep people of color down. He argues that Lincoln was racist, and reminds us that the Emancipation Proclamation applied only to “rebel” states.  I think I recall that point from “Virginia and US History” in high school and that the teacher asked an essay question on this point on the final exam (at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, VA) in June, 1960. 

He gives an interesting explanation for Pearl Harbor, going back to an obscure incident in 1853 when the United States forced unfair treaties on Japan.
His explanation for the Vietnam war caught my attention. Historians disagree on whether Kennedy would have pursued Vietnam the way LBJ did, but Kennedy once said in an interview that he did agree with the “domino theory”.  Navy presents the Ho Chi Minh as wanting only self-rule for all of Vietnam, and says that the Eisenhower administration partitioned Vietnam, in his view, illegally.  Vietnam was not like Korea, in this author’s view.  We all know that some of the later history is questionable, like LBJ’s manipulation of the Gulf of Tonkin.  We also know the explanation of Robert McNamara in his book “In Retrospect” and in the Frakenheimer HBO movie “Path to War” (movies blog, Oct. 17, 2013).  The war was supported by a draft and a student deferment system that definitely worked against minorities. I’m surprised I don’t see more explicit discussion of race with respect to the “cannon fodder” aspect of the draft then.  I finally got drafted, but used my education to “get out of” going to Nam altogether. Was the whole moral debate over deferments based on a historical fallacy?  I remember writing to pastors of my own church in the 1960’s when I was in graduate school (before I was drafted, note), and got back a response that we had to trust our political leaders!

Navy gives his own spin on affirmative action and then the OJ verdict.  I won’t say I agree completely with his reasoning, but I see where he is coming from. (I do have prosecutor Marcia Clark’s book “Without a Doubt”.)

Navy also shows that American racism (he would have supported Gode Davis’s film project “American Lynching”) extending to the treatment of native Americans, which would seem to call into question the moral basis of most individual American “real property rights”. (Bacon’s Rebellion, as well as Nat Turner’s Slave Revolt, which I discussed on my Issues blog Dec. 16, would fit into his analysis.)

However, Navy also writes that scientifically, there is no such thing as "race', that it is really a meaningless concept biologically.  There are traits that affect appearance that are favored in different parts of the world, particularly as affected by distance from the equator.

Navy's comments on the public v. private school debate emphasizes that public schools must accept all students, and the reason for poorer performance by minorities is the breakdown of the family, and absence of fathers in the home -- which he blames largely on exploitation by greedy capitalism, not on personal morals.  He shows that people today do not have looser mores than those in the past.

Navy’s interpretation on “gay rights” is relatively simple.  He sees anti-gay prejudice as simply dislike of those who are “different”.  In my own writings, I have taken up the idea that anti-gay prejudice has a lot to do with gay men, in particular, wanting to ‘get out of full responsibility” for raising kids (the tide is turning on that with the developments in gay marriage and gay parents) and on making straight men uncomfortable by kibitzing on the question as to which males are most fit. That sort of observation drove the early debate on gays in the military and “don’t ask, don’t tell”/  Navy never goes near that.  I should add that I am gay myself, but also white.
The most provocative chapter of all may be one near the beginning, “Capitalism / Christianity”, p. 22,  There is a sub-sidebar “Individualism / Collectivism” followed by another, “Competition” and then “Taxes”.  Grover Norquist, beware!  Navy argues that the “ideology” of Christianity and the teachings in the Gospels require self-sacrifice and an orientation toward behaving for the common good and for others.  That certainly seems the case to me, and it has always seemed the parables in the Gospels (like “The Rich Young Ruler” and the “Talents”) have a lot do with the fact that a lot of personal outcome, however much we want to preach about “personal responsibility”, comes down to fortune and luck and the unseen sacrifices of others (an issue which the forgotten military draft underscores). 
I’ll pass along Navy’s YouTube video “You Did Not Build that Alone” and his criticism of “rugged individualism” of the Ayn Rand sort.
In my mindset, what matters is not just group outcomes and collective remedies, which (like affirmative action) can result in isolated temporary injustices to individuals.  It’s more about how the individual should behave, how he or she should balance his own goals with meeting the needs of others.  There is a general impression that healthful socialization means learning to provide for and take care of others who are less cognitively “competent” (that often means children, the elderly, or disabled) within one’s own extended family or community, and only then moving out into the larger world.  I find it very hard to become “involved” in meeting the adaptive or “real” needs of others when I don’t communicate with them and I seem to live in a different space, and when I would have been unwelcome in the past (even if I am solicited now).  How is one to behave if one decides that the aims of one’s family or group are based on an untenable moral foundation?  Why even “go to Heaven” then?  I’m not to that point in my own thinking, but Navy’s book takes me closer to it. A related question would be is the individual responsible for giving back more (even interpersonally) because of the "exploitation" committed by his ancestors?  That bears on the affirmative action and even reparations issues. 
Pictures are mine.  

Friday, December 13, 2013

Hedrick Smith's "Who Stole the American Dream?" explains "Inequality for All"

Author: Hedrick Smith

Title:Who Stole the American Dream?

Publication: 2012, Random House Trade, ISBN 978-0-8129-8205-3, 6 Parts, 22 Chapters, 580 pages, paper.
Amazon link 
The title of this book reminds me of the little short story “Who Stole the Mona Lisa?” that I wrote in ninth grade English class.  The author (“The Russians”) takes the view that middle class America has been snatched or robbed, and that it was all too simple for the rich to do.
The shift in policies toward big business accelerated in the late 1970s, under a Democratic president, Jimmy Carter.  This all happened after the oil shocks and then Watergate – but on some economic issues Nixon had turned out to be a “liberal”.  Remember the wage and price controls? 
Smith’s theory is rather like that of Robert Reich in his film “Inequality for All” (Movies, June 24, 2013).  The “Virtuous Circle” broke down as “extreme capitalism” set in, with its excessive focus on short-term profits for stakeholders, distorting the markets.  This all help set up 2008.
I remember the mood of the late 1980s, as hostile takeover artists swept down on stable companies, and employees saw the good old days as numbered.  The business games had a moral rationalization. If only individual people took on more personal responsibility, they would be OK.
We see how that all played out, with the weakening of pensions (partly because of longer life spans) and the switch to “employee responsibility” with 401(k) plans.  Manufacturing and even some systems and customer support jobs got offshored, and people took to hucksterism.  But salesmanship started to fail, too, as people wanted to be left alone and not be inundated with solicitations.  The Internet made it easier for you to “do it yourself”, right?
One could take a libertarian spin on all this, and say the most capable people did well in this globalized environment.  Indeed, some did.  But the divide between the rich and the poor grew, to the point that it god personal.  Indeed, as some left wing observers like Noam Chomsky have said, violent street crime (or even computer crime) has become a kind of class warfare, and it could become impossible to contain.  The causes for terrorism can be personal as well as global and religious.
So, social conservatism, harking back to the “Moral Majority” of the 1980s, can put on its own spin. If people have to contain their psyche, sexuality and emotional life within the confines of marriage and family, there is a leveling effect that makes economic inequality for tolerable.  Perhaps there’s something to this.  Moreover, it isn’t the responsibility of government to provide for the poor, it’s up to the caring of individuals, moving out from the family structure.  That’s the conservative rationalization.
The last chapter calls for “armies of volunteers” to execute social activism (maybe the Occupy movements) as well as caregiving and charity.  Indeed, his prescription reminds me of libertarian writer Charles Murray’s concern for loss of social capital in his book “Coming Apart” (March 14, 2012).  I’m not a joiner.  I don’t like to be recruited for other people’s agendas.  Is that part of the problem?

I bought the book on display at Kammerbooks in Washington DC. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Final "DADT III" version to be published; has interim release now

I have made a small interim printing of my “final” version of “Do Ask, Do Tell: Free Speech Is a Fundamental Right, Being ‘Listened To” Is a Privilege”.   Yes, I could call it “Do Ask, Do Tell III”, as if it were like a movie franchise.

The book has also been submitted for formal publication through a formal POD publisher (Xlibris, of Author Solutions).  The plan is that all e-commerce will be outsourced to the POS publisher with normal channels on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and the like. Hardcopy, paperback, and e-reader (Kindle) will be available.

I discussed the earlier interim “release” here on Oct. 1, 2011, and I described the plans for additional content here on June 27, 2013 and Aug. 20, 2013. One concern was to update some proposals that I had made back in the 1997 book that history has outrun, particularly with respect to DOMA and COPA.  Another was to add three fiction segments, as a “Part 2”, which develop the ideas of the non-fiction “Part 1”.

The non-fiction chapters have been further expanded, with more factual detail, and particularly, in the "Foreword" and later "Epilogue", more material on "why I write" and on why I seem aloof from emotions that others expect. 
The last two of the stories, in form, are, as road trips, rather like parallels of one another, set forty years apart.  In the “Expedition”  story I appear at age 28, and in the “Ocelot” story I am at current age.  The outcomes are different, although they deal with similar issues.  The first of the stories is set in strip-mining country and could play on the mountaintop removal issue, which was actually going on in 1972.  But all of “Bill’s” private kind of activism maps into a personal outcome involving others.  The “Ocelot” story is set when the country is braced for a possible solar storm (which actually would have nothing to do with climate change but has everything to do with “addiction to technology”), and has a personal outcome which will sound darker.  “Bill” may “get what he wants” but he then has to do what others want, finally.  The end slams the door.

It’s possible to imagine a two-part movie of these two stories, with flashbacks showing what has happened in the intervening decades, and what had happened before, particularly Bill’s military service, which may play on his previous college expulsion in the old “don’t ask, don’t tell” world that prevailed in civilian life too, but which, disturbingly, paints him as a bit of a physical and even emotional coward.  The hypothetical film sounds, quite literally, filled with “Roadside Attractions”.    


Friday, December 06, 2013

Law journal article ("book") from 2009 on Section 230 immunity looks important now, given recent proposals to weaken it

It may be a little unfair to call this a “book”, but I thought I would discuss briefly a detailed article by Katy Noeth at the Indiana University Mauer School of Law, published in the “Federal Communications Law Journal”, Vol. 1, Iss 3, Article 9, 2009 (20 pages), with the recommended link here
The paper can be purchased on Amazon, but can be found online free.
The author takes the general position that the legal climate in the United States is not adequate to protect minors in practice from criminal behavior on the Internet, particularly the possibility of trafficking. 
She says quickly that Section 230 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act (the “Communications Decency Act”, the censorship portions of which were overturned by the Supreme Court in 1997) may the public from being able to expect supposedly deep-pocketed service providers from taking precautions to protect vulnerable children, especially those of less well-informed parents.  The general reason for this exemption is that service providers cannot reasonably review all user content before posting for possible legal problems.  In this sense, service providers are like utilities rather than publishers or commercial distributors.  But she quickly points out that there already is an “exception”, when it comes to enforcing United States Code in criminal matters (like child pornography).  But usually liability occurs only when the provider knows that the law is being broken in the normal course of business. 
Recently there has been a proposal from the Association of State Attorneys General to extend the Section 230 exemption to state law.
Noeth traces the immediate aftermath of Section 230, in the case of Zeran v. America Online.  Zeran had claimed that AOL had a duty to screen all material for defamatory content, but the Fourth Circuit disagreed (in 1997) because of Section 230.
A more testing case occurred on Yahoo! In 2006 with the “Candyman” case, where the author notes that Yahoo! apparently knew or strongly suspected that minors could exploited by a particular customer.  Later there would be a case called “Doe v. MySpace” where apparently the litigation did not even try to claim that MySpace was a “publisher”.
Noeth recommends several seemingly moderate solutions to the problem.  She thinks that the criminal exemptions could be more specific (like my mentioning child pornography or trafficking), and that Congress should draw a distinction in the law between child exploitation and defamation (which is much broader).  She specifically says that such a specific provision would not cause service providers to have to “police” content generators and account holders. She also says that it would not lead to abusive litigation. 

One point that Noeth stresses is a “knowing” standard.  ISP’s or service providers (or bloggers hosting comments or large forums) would not be responsible for items they did not know about  -- I suppose there could be a question as to whether a moderator of a large forum could read every posting and know what is going on.  AOL’s forums back in the 1990s were very large.    

Monday, December 02, 2013

Thomas Carlyle's "Sartor Resartus" was a "new kind of book", in the 19th Century and maybe still today

In the spring of 1962 I started over in college at The George Washington University (while “living at home”) after the catastrophe at William and Mary (discussed often elsewhere on these blogs).  As a freshman, I somehow placed out of English 1, basic composition. At GWU, you took a year of literature before taking the second composition course (English 4) where you “learned how” to write a term paper.  You could write about anything you wanted, and I think I rehashed a high school paper on Mahler’s influence on modern composers.  We read Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain aka Samuel Clemens) in that class, and I recall an odd passage in Chapter 8 where Jim Tells Huck (in modern English), “If you’ve got hairy arms and a hairy chest, it’s a sign you’re going to be rich”.  Nobody dared to say anything when the passage was read aloud in class (in spring 1963, probably in the original text), but I thought then that the passage was a euphemism for racism in pre Civil War American History. Spark Notes offers the passage here
But back in 1962, I had to start out with “English 52B”, which comprised the second half of English Literature, starting in the late 18th Century.  We had a gray anthology textbook called “British Poetry and Prose”, and typically were assigned about 50 pages to read, a lot of it poetry, for each 75-minute class, taught by a Mr. Rutledge, in a dusky first-floor classroom in Monroe Hall, with a good view of G Street in Washington’s Foggy Bottom, with the old dive “Quigley’s” barely in sight.  (Wordsworth appeared early in the course, with discussions of why poetry gives “pleasure”, and suitable recognition of the film “Splendor in the Grass”, which had played into my lost fall semester at William and Mary). 
Mr. Rutledge liked to give “card quizzes”.  They counted one fourth of your grade (so you came to class, but he would drop the lowest two); there would be a midterm and a final.  And sometime around March 20 or so, he gave us a card quiz on an excerpt from Thomas Carlyle’s odd (and blatantly self-indulgent) novel “Sartor Resartus: The Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdrockh”. The Latin lead means “the tailor re-tailored” and the protagonist’s name means “god-born devil dung”. 
Every student failed this pop quiz, including me.  The professor had to throw it out.  No one understood the point of the writing from just reading at home.  The book is an example of a poioumenon, which is a work of “metafiction” where the author layers the inner story inside a “presentation” layer where the author can address the reader.  Among writers’ groups, it’s considered taboo in modern “writing to sell” as stuck up, but movie narratives do this kind of thing all the time.  Many modern books and films consider the relationship between the narrative story and the presenter or reader itself a subject to be written about.  Think about “Inception”, “Cloud Atlas”, and the gay sci-fi hit “Judas Kiss”.
In the inner story, the protagonist wanders rural England or Europe and is spurned in heterosexual love life, and is taken back when he sees his beloved with another nobleman.  He turns to nihilism, wanting to pretend that he doesn’t exist (hide inside that museum clam) until he finds a new purpose for living in his own head.  It sounds dangerous.  And he does find a different woman.  But do people feel disappointed when they have to take “someone else”, and think, “I should have done better than this”?  That was how people thought about relationships, especially in the gay male community, back in the late 1970’s in the days before AIDS.
The outer layer of the book has an “Editor” account for his own experience with dealing with the book, getting around to telling the inner existential (or transcendental) story when he feels like it.
The professor asked an essay question about the concept of the book (asking for comparisons to other authors’ works or even films) on the final exam.  He thought that students should understand this approach to writing,
The book is available on Gutenberg in various formats here.  And “it’s free”.  I tried to download it “free” onto Kindle (like many classics, it’s also a free download for Amazon Prime subcribers) and found that the touchpad for typing on my little device didn’t work, don’t know why.  Battery problems?  But the html version works fine, and downloads OK even on a smart phone, and is perfectly readable.  In fact, “Chapter II” in Book I caught my eye with its title, “Editorial Difficulties”, and says that man is a “proselytizing creature” (even if not a Mormon missionary) and speaks of the Philosophy of Clothes.   The latter would be called “sartorial taste” and was very much a matter in the office in the 1970s and ‘80s, as companies (other than IBM and EDS) gradually relaxed their dress codes, making the choices of flared pants, colored shirts and wide ties very much a modem of pre-Internet self-expression.

I don't see any evidence that Carlyle's novel has ever become a film.  It would make an interesting indie experiment, at least in Britain.   Let the BBC, Film 4 and the UK Lottery have a stab at it. 


I got the Kindle download from Amazon to go.  It just needed to be fully charged back up before it would work.  The Kindle version doesn;t show the three inner "books", somewhat corresponding to various layers of narration by the Editor.

Update:  Feb. 11. 2017

Mencius Goldbug writes about Thomas Carlye and "reactionaries" here in 2009.  Suddenly this matters, when considering authoritarianism and Donald Trump.