Saturday, September 26, 2020

"The Tyranny of Merit": (Michael Sandel), the dark side of meritocracy


Smersonish, this morning on CNN, interviewed author Michael Sandel, from Harvard as professor at Government Theory, his new book “The Tyranny of Merit: What Becomes of the Common Good?”, from Farrar, Straus and Girroux, September 15, 2020, 288 pages. 


Meritocracy has a dark side, in that it tends to create a view of people as winners and losers, with success as always their own doing, a measure of worthiness.

The opposite of this idea would seem to be critical theory, especially critical race theory.

In a personal sense, it leads to a desire to avoid people who fail personally as being less morally “worthy”.  If applied by everybody this would wind up with fascism.

This becomes important in socialization of some edgy people, like me, who may not find a point in joining in with (other) people who claim to be “oppressed”.

Friday, September 25, 2020

"White Awareness: A Handbook for Anti-Racism Training" caused a controversy for the Smithsonian


There is an old handbook a 1978 paperback, now expensive and a collector’s item, “White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-Racism Training”, by Judith H. Katz, from the University of Oklahoma Press. The existence of the book reminds us that the theory of anti-racism (and even critical race theory) have been around before, and I recall them occasionally from the early 1970s.  As an author myself, I have a bit or revulsion over the idea of spoonfeeding people in handbooks. 

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture admitted that it had used a “whiteness” chart that seems to emphasize individualism (deferred gratification, logical thinking, etc) but as an example of “ideology”, according to a Washington Post article by Peggy McGlone July 17. Newsweek had a similar story by Marina Watts.

The Smithsonian periodical has several articles with a flavor of anti-racism, such as “How to Talk about Race, Racism and Racial Identity”, by Allison Keyes.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Wall Street Journal Series, "The COVID Storm"


The Wall Street Journal offers a series called “The COVID Storm”.  I’ll link to the most recent one, Sept. 7, by Robert Lee Holtz and Natasha Khan, “’Really Diabolical’:Inside the Coronavirus that Outsmarted Science” (paywall).   The master page will link to “A Deadly Coronavirus Was Inevitable.  Why Was No One Ready?”  by Betsy McKay and Phred Dvorak, Aug. 13.

The current essay explains how the virus can attack almost every organ system because it can use several receptors (the most important is ACE2) to get inside cells.

It developed this seemingly improbable multiplicity of ways to damage humans by incubating in bats, whose high metabolism and body temperature forces it to evolve more to survive in them.

Particularly scary are the findings that sometimes the virus has been found in spinal fluid and brain.

I have thought of measles as a reasonable comparison to a multi system disease, but COVID19 does seem unprecedented in the variety of damage a highly contagious respiratory disease can do, because it evolved in an unusual mammal.  The development inside bats probably explains most of the unusual properties sometimes attributed to labs (including a recent rumor on Tucker Carlson).

Friday, September 18, 2020

New York Review of Books: "It Can Happen Here", the imposition of fascism

The New York Review of Books, in an article by Cass R, Sunstein (June 28, 2018), argues “It can happen here” with the byline “Many accounts of the Nazi period depict a barely imagineable set of events, a nation gone mad. That makes it easy to take comfort in the thought it can’t happen again.”

Sustein discsses three books on the lives of ordinary Gentile citizens in Nazi Germany.

One is Milton Mayer, “They Thought They Were Free”, 1955.

But in 1939 Sebastian Haffner (real name Raimund Pretzel) had written “Defying Hitler”.

And Konrad Jarausch had written “Broken Lives”. 

The main point seems to be that ordinary Lutheran or Catholic Germans probably had the best times of their lives economically.  The government entertained and indulged them and kept “speech” at bay, of course.  Many barely grasped what was going on or, or knew enough to care. 

Monday, September 14, 2020

Internet Archive in legal battle with book publishers over too-lenient lending of e-books during pandemic


Maria Bustillos has a story about a lawsuit against the Internet Archive by some major book publishers for being overly generous with rental e-copies of books to students during the pandemic, link. 

That’s ironic in that publishers normally have strong relationships with public libraries (although I haven’t gotten far with that with my own books).

The article discusses the “rentier” behavior of both publishers and digital libraries. 

Internet archive rental periods are supposed to expire but have been relaxed during the pandemic.

The article also implies a concern with what makes digital books “sell”.  It has become popular, even sometimes expected, to see books on social justice address the reader and instruct them (even provide worksheets), as opposed to more abstract, literary style of writing which is now seen by many people as gratuitous and abusive, a curious change in values.

YouTubers who recommend books (like John Fish and Nate O’Brien) ought to look at this.

Picture: San Francisco, 2018

Saturday, September 12, 2020

"The 1619 Project" of the New York Times Magazine

I need to create an entry on this blog for the New York Times Magazine "1619 Project", which started in 2019.

The major photoessay documenting many forgotten locations of the slave trade, where they auctioned human beings as property,  is here

Matthew Desmond has an essay showing how American capitalism originated in the slave trade.

Jake Silverstein has an update in March 2020     There is controversy over whether slavery affected the beliefs of most of the colonists before the American Revolution or “only” some of them.

The reader should understand that there are many criticisms of the Project online.

Picture: Jamestown, my visit, Dec 30, 2018 

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Bob Woodward's "Rage" reports Trump understood the COVID risk to Americans by late January


OK, now we are hearing a lot about Bob Woodward’s new book, “Rage”, from Simon and Schuster, 466 pages, due out Sept. 15, comprising 18 interviews with Trump.

There is a lot being said in media today about Bob Woodward’s reporting a conversation he had with Trump on Tuesday, Jan. 29, where Trump realized that the novel coronavirus would be deadly and could be easily passed through the air.  But Trump didn’t want to cause “panic”.  He later understood if could affect younger people and could become a grave national security threat.

Now I written elsewhere that the US cases as reported rose only very slowly in February, partly because of a flawed CDC test, but also because there really weren’t any “superspreader” indoor events in the US until probably late in February.  It doesn’t seem that surfaces or brief personal encounters was spreading the virus much.

It’s arguable that by late February (based on what was happening in Italy and the certainty people had flown here with the virus from Europe as well as China) that a soft “stay at home” could have prevented much of the run up of cases we saw in NYC and then other locations starting in mid March.

Had Trump acted by late February, I might have recovered the $3500 or so that I lost with a trip that I self-canceled out of exploding concern about the virus from my own info.

Robert Costa and Philip Rucker report in the Washington Post, here

Trump could give a knee-jerk reaction to all this criticism in coming weeks.

They also report that the book covers Trump’s evasion of the issue of structural racism (or critical race theory), which I personally have a lot of problems with (it isn’t the right way to look at personal social creditworthiness).

It also covers some of the actions and exchanges with Kim Jong Un (as with Jim Sciutto’s book).  

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Revisiting Deborah Watts, "101 Ways to Know You're 'Black' in Corporate America", in light of today's anti-racism corporate traning


Back in 1998 I reviewed a self-published book by Deborah Watts, “101 Ways to Know You’re ‘Black’ in Corporate America”.  It was published by Watts-Five in Minneapolis.

I did a pretty thorough review here on a legacy site.  I wanted to mention the book, with video here, because of the recent controversies of corporate and governmental employment training, somewhat compulsory, in critical race theory and “anti-racism”.

I was employed by ING-Reliastar at the time, actually just ReliaStar then (to become ING in 2000 and Voya some years later).  ReliaStar offered a forum where she came and spoke, I think during a box lunch, in the main building on Washington and Marquette sts, across from the Churchill Apartments, where I lived at the time.

The event was quite welcome and was not controversial.  It was not coercive.  It was surprising to me that an accomplished black female would report these problems still in the late 1990s.

Later, there would be more attention to LGBT issues after publicity from Matthew Shepard’s murder in October 1998, in Wyoming.  That’s on the other side of the upper Midwest, but the idea that something like that would happen was especially shocking regionally.

Saturday, September 05, 2020

Vanity Fair piece by novelist Jesmyn Ward about her husband's death suggests the coronavirus was already in the US before the end of 2019


American black novelist Jesmyn Ward has an important piece in Vanity Fair, Sept. 1, 2020, “On Witness and Respair: A Personal Tragedy Followed by a Pandemic”, link. 

The writer has authored several books, the most recent a novel “Sing, Unburied, Sing” (2017, Scribner).

She teaches at Tulane in New Orleans and lives on the Mississippi Gulf Coast near Bay St Louis, which I visited in Feb. 2006. 

Her husband, whom she says functioned as a house-husband, died Jan. 9, 2020, and the circumstances in the article make it sound like he died of COVID-19.

The family got sick right after New Years (well before the maligned Mardi Gras parties that made the news).

Her piece in the periodical is quite passionate.

But if a male only 33 died of COVID this soon in the US and indeed acquired it in the community in the US (Mississippi or maybe New Orleans), that shows that the virus was already here before the end of 2019.

It should not be surprising.  What may have happened is that incidences of transmission (contact with people who had flown in for China or maybe Europe) simply dead-ended, but there could have been some of them.

It seems like the exponential spread, with hospitalizations and deaths (first in nursing homes but then everywhere) took off after a few superspreader events, first on the West Coast (especially near Seattle) and then in the East (near NYC) and possibly the South.

International air travel would have had to be almost completely shut off by Jan. 1 (with quarantines) to prevent the pandemic in the US. 

Friday, September 04, 2020

Atlantic: Trump calls wounded military veterans "losers"


The Atlantic has called attention to reports that President Trump has called people (mostly young men, often of color) who die or are maimed or disfigured for life in military combat “losers”.  An intermediate article by Jeffrey Goldberg lays out the concerns.  It is titled, “Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and “Suckers’”.   There is a tagline, “The president has repeatedly disparaged the intelligence of service members, and asked that wounded veterans be kept out of military parades, multiple sources tell The Atlantic”.

One of the most telling comments is that the president doesn’t get.  One comment is “He can’t fathom the idea of doing something for someone other than himself” or of volunteering for some kind of possibly personally risky service.  Other comments suggest he can’t understand doing things other than for measurable monetary gain, which is a double-edged idea indeed.  

I’ve told the story of my own experience with the draft (1968) and how I leveraged it to make unusual arguments for lifting the ban on gays in the military in my first book (1997) in many posts. I remember that in my first platoon at Ft. Jackson, the squad leader was a charismatic black man who had been a pre-med student but not enough money to stay in school. 

Since I was “behind” other boys physically growing up, I felt particularly sensitive to the idea of male sacrifice, particularly around the time of seventh grade (1955).  I experienced this feeling in relation to the idea of having more to lose proportionately than other boys.  It is easier to be generous in the way you deploy yourself around others if you “have” more physical assets in the first place.  It’s when “it costs you something” that sacrifice is transformative.  It was somewhat common, like in grad school before the draft, to hear young men say, if they were badly wounded in combat they did not want to come back. 

Furthermore, given my inclination for “upward affiliation” in relations with others, becoming disfigured by combat would mean that I could never feel attraction for the person, or, conversely, if that happened to me I could never expect a relationship.  This idea was a very big deal in those NIH days. 

Yet we have a nation built on unseen sacrifices of others that we take for granted.  You could start with slavery.  The military draft and student deferment system that we had until 1969 implied that “smart people’s lives” mattered more than others. 

Without getting too far into this, it’s easy to see that the idea of sacrifice comes up again any time there is social unrest as now, or a pandemic (and the idea of “survival of the fittest”).

The Washington Post has some more background on this (Teo Armus).   

Update: Sept 8

Kait Wyatt, widow of a Marine, weighed in on Trump's behavior and his lack of understanding of submission to goals greater than the self. CNN story

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Should authors be discouraged from writing outside their "identity group"? The self-cancellation of "A Place for Wolves"


There have been some incidents where authors have been prodded to withdraw books because “the Left” (so to speak) saw it as unsuitable that the author should be the person speaking about the topic. This issue seems to have surfaced particularly in the young adult market. 

Kosoko Jackson withdrew the book “A Place for Wolves” in the spring of 2019, after criticism of his setting a novel in war-torn Kosovo which he has not experienced.  The author is black and gay and non-Muslim, but somehow the concept of the novel was seen as offensive, in a way not very clearly explained.  Vulture has a story by Katie Rothstein, and a reviewer in Goodreads seemed offended by (cis male) “fetishization” in the face of genocide (in the 1990s Balkans) that is said to be misrepresented.

Suzanne Nossel even mentions this “fiasco” on p. 37 of her new book “Dare to Speak” (Aug. 24 preview) which I will soon review on Wordpress, in a chapter called “Duty to Care”.   The publisher (Sourcebooks Fire) destroyed 55000 print copies, and now Amazon offers only high-prices “collectors items”.  Jackson had previously tweeted himself that stories about PoC gay men should be written by members of those groups.

Likewise author Amelie Wen Zhao “self-canceled” Blood Heir, according to the article.

There is a belief that books with minority lead characters should only be written by members of those identity groups.  But that idea falls apart when you think about movie and television adaptation of stories where casting diversity is important.  Furthermore, in larger novels many “groups” appear and stronger characters are more than their groups (although they are not always interchangeable).  (It is true, I would not have tried to write “Black Panther’ however.)