Review- Ghosh, “The Glass Palace”

Amitav Ghosh, “The Glass Palace” (2000) – I haven’t looked far enough to say anything too definitive about it, but from where I sit, Indian writer Amitav Ghosh runs somewhere near the lead of the pack of contemporary literary writers in terms of talent and relevance. I’ve only read his historical fiction, but my understanding is he has also written nonfiction about climate change, which could be interesting and would certainly be a credit to his relevance, given how lackadaisical the literary response to climate change has been thus far. His historical fiction is quite good. The Ibex Trilogy, dealing with the period surrounding the Opium Wars, topped my best-of-fiction-reading list a few years ago. A lot of writers (well, a lot of publishers on behalf of a lot of writers) claim to tackle the interconnectedness that goes under the name “globalization,” but Ghosh actually does it, with verve, historical understanding, and a lack of pretense.

Among other things, Ghosh’s historical vision helps show us a basic fact about “globalization” that it seems younger people grasp more intuitively than those of us who remember the nineteen-nineties: that there’s nothing all that new about it. Global patterns of trade, migration, war, imperialism, communication, etc. have been critical to how life is lived at the very least since the circumnavigation of the globe five centuries ago, if not well before, depending on your definition of “global.” So, in the Ibex trilogy, we see globalization, nineteenth-century style, at the hands of capitalists and the British Empire destroying whole populations to make money off the opium trade. In “The Glass Palace,” we get a broader sweep of South Asian history, from the British invasion of Burma in the 1880s to World War II to a coda near the time Ghosh was writing.

That broad sweep means you don’t get the sort of finely-grained character work that characterizes much of literary fiction, but Ghosh gets his points across about most of his characters. We begin with Rajkumar, a Bengali boy who flees plague and washes up in Burma. He works and builds a fortune in the teak wood trade, a tough business involving elephants and transporting two-ton logs down rapid jungle rivers. He’s fixated on Dolly, a servant to the Burmese royal family, which was deposed when the British decided they wanted that teak trade all for themselves and added Burma to the empire. The British exile the royal family to a small town in India, but after Raj makes his fortune, he dresses up all nice, heads to India, and courts Dolly. At first she’s like “this is weird” but various characters interfere and she winds up returning to Burma with him, just as Raj expands into the rubber business, where there’s some real damn money.

Reviewers focus a lot on the Raj-Dolly relationship, and I think that’s because we get to know them before the deluge of other characters come in. Various relatives and children marry people and while most of them “make sense” there’s still a lot to keep track of as they make their way through Asia’s late nineteenth/early twentieth century. Raj makes a shit ton of money in rubber and establishes sons and in-laws in plantations in Malaya. Burma and Malaya both had an odd ethnicized division of labor, encouraged by the British playing their usual divide-and-conquer games. Indians, like most of the characters in the book, do most of the interfacing with imperial-backed capitalism. This means both that a few Indians like Raj make a lot of money, and many Indians toil in the plantations. “Natives” — Burmans, Malays, the assorted smaller ethnic groups those two used to lord it over before the a British came along — basically sit on the sidelines of capitalism. I get the impression this is because the British liked them doing their “traditional” thing and thought they were ill-suited for industrial labor (and plantations might be outdoors, but they involve producing commodities on industrial scale, with industrial labor discipline).

This inevitably leads the characters into the politics of the era in Asia. In typical depressing human fashion, the Burmans blame their downfall not on the British, who orchestrated it, but on the Indians, who the British employed as instruments in it. Meanwhile, more and more Indians are wondering why they play the roles the British scripted for them, and what an independent future might look like. These questions cause tensions and blow-ups in the extended clan. Raj just wants to make money, chill with Dolly, and secure his sons in business, and doesn’t take kindly when Dolly’s friend Uma starts asking tough questions about imperialism (and Raj’s questionable lord-of-the-manor pleasures). Uma charts a path across the Indian independence movement, from the militant (indeed, soldier-based, on the idea that they needed to convert the British-controlled Indian Army to make progress) Ghadar to the nonviolent Congress. Raj’s… nephew? I think? Arjun, meanwhile, joins that Indian Army in the thirties, as part of the first set of Indian commissioned officers. He’s proud at first, and takes well to British-style regimental life (bacon, beef, and all!).

But one cool thing about Ghosh- he doesn’t stint from portraying the ways things completely outside of anyone’s control direct people’s lives. Sometimes that uncontrollable love or whatever, so far, so literary, but more often, it’s economic and political forces. Two things spell doom for this rich clan’s various arrangements: the price of rubber, and Japanese imperialism. They’re almost entirely off-scene, but their power directs the action of the second half of the book. When rubber prices collapse during the Depression, the family’s fortunes tumble with them, and all those lovingly-described classic cars with maker names I never heard of seem like white elephants, even as they roll along on plantation rubber. Meanwhile, the Japanese smash the pretenses of British rule in Asia, seizing “impregnable” Singapore et al. Ghosh, and most of his characters, are under no illusions about the nature of Japanese conquest — one character shoots herself rather than be taken alive, and the Indians who abandon the British army for militancy become rapidly alienated with their Japanese patrons — but I couldn’t help but enjoy the British get theirs. Of course, again, it’s mostly Indians who suffer- even bluff Arjun has to think about what an Indian nation without an outside overlord might look like. He doesn’t know. Do any of us?

This is a pretty great book. That’s not to say it’s flawless. One flaw is personal for me- stories of “I was in love since childhood and made that love mine” weird me right the fuck out. I’m not talking high school sweethearts getting married, I’m talking like “we were destined to be together since pre-pubescence.” Admittedly, Raj and Dolly are roughly the same age, and Raj doesn’t consummate the relationship until they’re in their twenties, but still. Like I said, the characters sometimes get hard to keep track of, and I think it would’ve been better if Ghosh had ended the story with WWII, and not had a coda that hailed Aung San Suu Kyi as savior of Burma. Admittedly, it was 2000, and old Aung looked a lot better then, before she got into office and showed her clay feet, in the Rohingya crisis and elsewhere (not that I support the generals locking her up again). A work doesn’t need to be flawless to be great though, or worth reading for anyone interested in what literature can look like right now. ****’

Review- Ghosh, “The Glass Palace”

Review- Hongoltz-Hetling, “A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear”

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, “A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears)” (2020) (narrated by Kevin Stilwell) – Why did I let you fucking jabronis talk me into beach reading? This fucking sucked. Jia Tolentino better be better or there’s gonna be hell to pay!

In all seriousness: if there’s a group of people who deserve to be spoken of (and to) smugly, it’s libertarian ideologues. I don’t mean guys who just like being left alone to enjoy drugs, guns, and fireworks, and haven’t developed a class analysis. I’m sympathetic to that position (but consider developing a class analysis, guys). I mean the people who really think they’ve figured something out when they decide “government” is the problem and “free” markets are the solution. Especially at this late date, as most of the smarter libertarians become liberals and the meaner ones becomes Nazis, there’s such an unconsidered, Panglossian quality to the whole thing, such a satisfaction with received ideas whilst spinning their wheels frantically to convince themselves they’re free-thinkers, that it’s hard to avoid smugness. Hell, they’re hardly strangers to smugness themselves.

But smugness doesn’t make for a readable work of extended prose. There might be a few prose masters who can pull it off, but it’s a hard sell, and Hongoltz-Hetling is no master. To be fair, he doesn’t seem like he’d claim to be one. He seems like an affable, agreeable sort, a New Hampshire-based journalist. His writing style would be totally appropriate to crafting articles on quirky local stories with some poignant, lightly humorous sentiment at the end. The problem is, he wrote a book that is basically that article-ending sentiment, and a more pressing problem is, I listened to the whole thing.

“A Libertarian Walked Into A Bear” is the story of the little town of Grafton, New Hampshire, primarily in the first two decades of the twenty-first century but ranging to the town’s founding near the time of the American Revolution and the decades in between as well. Grafton is way the hell out there in the woods, at least as far as the east coast of the US is concerned. There are bears. At first, the white settlers hunted the bears and sold their pelts, clearing land so as to farm the rocky bullshit soil of New England. When it turned out that northern New England was in fact a blind alley in continental settler expansion, Grafton began a long slow decline in population and wealth. Bears came back. There weren’t and aren’t resources to do anything about it, or about the town’s other problems. It sucks pretty hardcore for Grafton.

Exacerbating the issues and forming the center of this book was the Free Town Project, an effort by Internet-borne libertarians to settle in Grafton and make it a model libertarian burg. I don’t recall if Hongoltz-Hetling made the numbers clear, but somewhere between a few dozen and a few hundred libertarians answered the call in those halcyon Bush years, when libertarianism could pose as a viable path forward, before the financial meltdown and Black Lives Matter. Predictably, a great many pedants all moving to an isolated rural town didn’t make friends right away, despite newcomers and old hands agreeing that taxes suck (Grafton always hated taxes, as the author takes pains to point out, while smugly dissing the eighteenth century pioneer tax resistors’ bad spelling). As it turns out, New Hampshirites aren’t the native libertarians, just waiting for a spark from outside to ignore a bonfire of liberty. They’re mostly flinty Yankees who chose to live out of the way because they like living with people they always lived with and don’t like outsiders or change. Even when change means fewer taxes, a lot of people were resistant, especially when it was suggested by outsiders with a lot of other funny ideas.

Among other problems with this book, Hongoltz-Hetling does that annoying liberal thing where he accepts the libertarian “government versus liberty” framework, and expects to win the day by pointing out that “government” does good things and absence of it often causes problems. This is, in certain respects, “why don’t you move to Somalia if you hate government so much?” the book. It’s not like I like libertarians. I just hate shitty arguments, that don’t even have any juice to them anymore — I’ve never seen that line hurt a libertarian’s feelings — and especially hate them when they’re presented in a smug, “get a load of these freaks who hate the government!” tone.

There’s two related issues that compound these basic problems above and beyond the basic mediocrity of liberal political journalism. The first is that these freaks really aren’t that freaky. Hongoltz-Hetling puts a lot of weight on one founder of the project who turned out to be a pedophile… who was thrown out of the project before it really got underway (though more for optics reasons than anything else). The rest of the libertarians involved seem like fairly normal, if often pedantic and sometimes pretty gormless, white New Englanders of their generation. Some of them, like a guy who tries to create a church/free space but gets tripped up by taxes (and his refusal to apply for an IRS religious exemption), are even pretty sympathetic. Hongoltz-Hetling seems to be a canny enough writer to get that that guy and a few others are sympathetic, especially after church guy literally dies in a fire in said church. But that doesn’t change the fact that Hongoltz-Hetling looks down his nose at them, and expects us to do the same, from the extraordinarily short horse of contemporary liberalism.

The other problem is this- he does not make the case that libertarianism did that much to accelerate Grafton’s decline or exacerbate its bear problems. Grafton was declining when the libertarians got there. As the author took pains to point out, the locals always resisted the sort of taxation that might have made possible more public amenities that might induce people to move and/or remain there. The root problem really doesn’t seem to be ideology. The root problem seems to be economic marginality. The global economy doesn’t need anything Grafton produces, other than, perhaps, rural isolation for weirdos. Maybe if they had their shit together, the Graftonites could have plugged themselves better into an information/service economy, but that’s not entirely their fault. In their situation, considering what state and federal government generally does — tax their already poor farms, send their sons to war, and send money to develop towns on the opposite end of the country, like the booming Southwest (or research dollars to Dartmouth in nearby Hanover, NH) — you probably wouldn’t like government either. You don’t need to be a libertarian ideologue or servile to the rich to feel that way. The joke about libertarians moving to Somalia isn’t funny (to the extent it ever was) when you realize how badly imperialism and the Cold War screwed over that country, making the sort of “good government” American liberals take for granted impossible.

Of course, that’s not to say people can’t make bad situations worse. The closest thing to a real smoking gun Hongoltz-Hetling puts in the hands of the Free Town Project people (beside from insinuating that the church guy didn’t follow fire codes, without proving it) is that the libertarians encouraged a laissez-faire attitude towards trash disposal and the feeding of wild animals, thereby encouraging bears to become bolder. He lingers on the case of “Donut Lady,” a lady who fed bears donuts every day. The problem is, Donut Lady is a local, not a libertarian settler. Bears were already escalating, attacking pets, before the libertarians came. Moreover, the state, as Hongoltz-Hetling points out, does a shitty job of managing bears anyway, bound by muddled romantic notions of what wildlife “should be,” bureaucratic inertia, and funding issues. When locals take matters into their own hands and cull the bear population, Hongoltz-Hetling treats it like a war crime, when in other parts of the books he acts as though human-acclimated bears are in fact are war with us, and the Graftonite’s inability to do something about it shows their lack of civic virtue!

On top of that, Hongoltz-Hetling speculates that brain parasites from living around animals, especially cats (some prominent Graftonites in the book have cats), might be driving the madness he sees around him (but never conveys as being really mad- more just sad). I’ve literally heard altright guys make the same arguments about liberals and feminists (the trope of the crazy feminist cat lady). I’ve always said, frustrate a liberal long enough and he’ll break out the calipers and start doing biological determinism, but I’ve never seen them do it in response to a tiny group of hapless libertarians before. See something new every day, I guess.

Basically, this is some Daily Show-style profoundly inconsistent and incoherent slop, except not funny. “But the bears!” I can hear you say. “What about the bears, can’t they save the book?!” Well, reader, I give the book an extra half star, less for bear content — the author sees no or few bears and only intermittently passes on bear stories from his informants in a compelling fashion — than for llama content. He does tell one bravura anecdote about a woman’s pet llama rinsing a bear who wanders into her yard. That was cool. But otherwise, this was a shot at one of the fattest targets conceivable that lands flat on its face. **

Review- Hongoltz-Hetling, “A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear”

Review- Hayek, “The Constitution of Liberty”

Friedrich von Hayek, “The Constitution of Liberty” (1960) – It’s honestly getting to be like Charlie Brown and the football, me and these right-wing intellectuals. I mean it when I say I expect more from these people (as it happens, I did encounter a genuinely interesting — and genuinely batshit — reactionary work of genre fiction recently but did not review it because it was for Birthday Lecture research- you shall see). I didn’t expect the world from Hayek. I know how much a “Nobel” in economics is worth. “The Road to Serfdom” might be the single most ludicrously inaccurate prediction of the future taken seriously by “serious” people in recorded history. But I at least expected something more than the sententious performance of intellect, slathered over a fundamental lack of insight or even curiosity, that I got in “The Constitution of Liberty.”

The list of terms in “The Constitution of Liberty” that either aren’t defined or are defined in ways that beg further definition by anyone with a half-awake critical faculty encompass every important concept Hayek uses to make his argument, from “freedom” to “coercion” to my favorite, “civilization.” “Civilization” requires this, this, and that, mostly the unfettered right of people to dispose of their property, at least in the various ways that people near the “height of civilization” as far as Hayek was concerned— basically, his boyhood in pre-WWI bourgeois Europe— were used to doing.. A lot of syllogisms between underdefined concepts, like so many venture capital promises or poorly-laid invasion plans.

I don’t read these books because I think I’ll like them (though I never foreclose the possibility in advance). I read them for various types of insight, both those into “the enemy” and those that are more broadly applicable. There wasn’t a lot of the latter, here. I actually do think there’s some merit — at least enough to consider, if not to adopt whole hog — to the notion that rational planning isn’t an end-all-be-all and that there needs to be room for experimentation in economic processes, and other processes as well… though it is worth noting the idea we simply can’t process the information well or quickly enough has taken some knocks in the “Information Age.” Maybe Hayek’s work on economics would make the point with less baggage (though as a rational economic actor, I wouldn’t bet on it).

I probably should not have made that “rational actor” crack, because the main thing of value to be taken from this book is that it is a mistake to associate libertarianism or “classical liberalism” with rationalism, in any sense of the word. Hayek neither believes people to be rational actors nor that rational economic behavior is necessary to an economic system, and often eschews “rationalism” as the philosophy of top-down planners who think they can make everything anew. I had some inkling of this from reading scholars of the right like Corey Robin and Quinn Slobodian, but it is good to see it on the page. Among other things, this implies much more of an embrace of established rules and hierarchies than we often associate with “free-wheeling” libertarianism (and causes one to raise an eyebrow at how often, including in this book, Hayek averred he was no conservative). Once you open that door — that what we’ve got, from constitutions to borders to religious beliefs, is likely a good inheritance for freedom unless it can be “proven false” (to whose satisfaction, exactly?) was imposed by “central planners” — the walkway to anarcho-capitalists waving the yellow and black to support ICE is clear. So too, more seriously, is neoliberal embrace of the state (and in some but not all cases the nation or even the empire), precisely to enforce the creation and nurturing of markets. States and markets aren’t opposites, as a strain of libertarian thought contends- they necessitate and in some ways constitute each other.

All in all, this was worth reading to “catch the scent” of this particular ingredient in the stew of the modern right. Capitalist ideologues have been trying for a long time to find a figure isomorphic to Marx, but for their side. Sometimes they enlist Adam Smith, who died before Marx was born, has numerous negative things to say about capitalism and rich people, and whose most inspired reader probably was Karl Marx. Hayek is a close second in the sweepstakes as a potential capitalist system-builder (a fervent cult insists on Ayn Rand as the capitalist Marx but that’s just stupid), but try as they might, you can’t really map his powers, his influence, or even his meme-ability anywhere near that to the grumpy old Rhenish grouch. But they tried hard enough that aspects of Hayek’s thought have permeated modern right-wing thinking, even if relatively few of his influencees can say exactly how, beyond mumbling something about price signals. That Hayek’s main influence is actually non-rational, in contrast to how libertarians like to posture, is ironic. That Hayek helped ensconce a shallow performance of intellectual virtuosity shellacked over a curious lack of real critical curiosity… well, that’s hardly unique to the right. That’s ubiquitous, alas. *’

Review- Hayek, “The Constitution of Liberty”

Review- Jacobs, “Rogue Diplomats”

Seth Jacobs, “Rogue Diplomats: The Proud Tradition of Disobedience in American Foreign Policy” (2020) – My advisor wrote this! Seth is a good guy and was a good advisor to me during my time at Boston College. He’s also a good diplomatic historian and writer. I remember when he started this project- after years of teaching US Foreign Policy courses, he noticed how often American foreign policy seemed to pivot on American diplomats saying “yolo” and defying instructions from Washington… and most of the time, making better (in an American nationalist realpolitik sense) deals than if they hadn’t.

The story starts early, when communications took a long time, enabling diplomats to get away with more than they might. At the negotiations that ended the American Revolutionary War, John Jay (the least “sexy” of the writers of the Federalist Papers) decided to blow off provisions that American negotiators stick closely to the positions of their French patrons. He saw he could play the British and the French off each other. He got a lot more out of Britain than a nascent ex-colony that only barely beat its mother country in a protracted war could have expected, most importantly a western border that went out to the Mississippi River. The French only wanted their American buddy to go to the Alleghenies, but were faced with a fait accompli.

Similarly, wordy political appointee Nicholas Trist accompanied the American army conquering Mexico when the US jumped that country in the 1840s. He got a lot of confused messages from back home- President Polk, another creature of hacky politics, was trying and failing to balance various factions and their demands to variously seize part of Mexico, seize all of Mexico, or seize none of Mexico. Trist, on site and seeing just how unstable the wartime Mexican government was, and how intransigent the Mexican people would become if more of them were occupied, wrote and signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, taking Texas, California etc but not dismembering Mexico to such an extent that the US would be forced, with its relatively small and unprofessional army, to occupy the whole country. Everyone congratulated him but Polk, an asshole in more ways than one, still ruined Trist’s career for his disobedience.

But it’s not all comms troubles making for ambassadorial disobedience, though, Jacobs persuasively insists. Even when something like modern communications technologies come on line, American diplomats still disobeyed. I will say, though, I noticed the disobedience became more “elided orders and went off-message” than straight-up “signed a treaty against orders” disobedience. Walter Hines Page, US ambassador to Britain under the Wilson administration, went whole-hog on US support for Britain during WWI in ways that could be understood as compromising US neutrality. On the other side of the coin, Joseph Kennedy emphasized American neutrality in the lead up to its entry into WWII above and beyond what FDR had in mind while he held “Embassy London,” descending into out and out apology for Nazi Germany. It looks like Henry Cabot Lodge probably didn’t have direct orders to greenlight South Vietnamese dictator Ngo Dinh Diem (and his family) when he did in 1963, to clear the way for a more competent (and compliant) ruler- he just interpreted vague documents about encouraging Ngo to go away, made contact with the generals, and the rest was history.

All of these stories are told in engaging style, and I read enough diplomatic history under Seth’s direction to know you can’t take that for granted. More than anecdotes, Jacobs points out the ways in which this record of disobedience at key points illuminates a uniquely American style of politics. The US didn’t have a formal civil service for decades after most important European countries adopted one. It was routine for American presidents to give away ambassador posts as patronage appointments (and still is). Important posts might get somebody more competent… or might just get a higher bidder. Among other effects, this guaranteed that many American diplomats in important spots were independently wealthy, not reliant on a civil service salary (among other things, that didn’t — still doesn’t — cover the budget for all the socializing you’re meant to do as a diplomat, which is wild to me). They were self-assured men, often “aristocrats” (Joe Kennedy was an arriviste, even if he probably had more cash than all the others combined), confident of their ability to make independent judgments in matters of state independent of “superiors,” no matter said superiors ability to win elections. Sometimes, it paid off.

Jacobs also depicts all of these rogue diplomats as winners, for American policy aims if not in their personal lives, with the exception of Joe Kennedy. I’m ambivalent about this. Seth understood my politics were more radical than his and never dinged me for it- he’s a fair, broad-minded guy. I get that from a realpolitik perspective, stealing a third of Mexico probably “made sense.” I get from both that perspective and from a more liberal, “let’s try to ameliorate things” perspective, stopping Mexico from collapsing completely after we dismembered it was probably a “good” thing for Nicholas Trist to do. But it still leaves a weird taste in my mouth, praising anyone involved with the American side of the Mexican war.

As far as American involvement in WWI goes… that’s a weird one, even from a realpolitik perspective, and it’s made foggier by the fact that the American historical profession as we know it in many respects emerged out an act of parricide- routing old-school “progressive” historians, many of whom were as suspicious of the American founding fathers as they were of America going “over there” in 1917 (or abolitionism, or, as in the case of at least one prominent historian from that cohort, the Holocaust- skepticism can become a disease), from the profession and trashing their legacy in grad seminars across the land. Jacobs follows that rebuke and agrees that America should have intervened in WWI. You all know me, revolutionary defeatism and all that, but just taking the “American perspective,” I guess I’m on the fence, but come down to sort-of agreeing in an attenuated way. I think German brutality in WWI was inexcusable, but also circumstantial, not an essential part of the Kaiserine regime (above and beyond the “normal” cruelty of imperialist powers). British were no strangers to brutality, as their effort to starve Germany shoes, and I think the big surprise was that the Germans were willing to directly kill (as opposed to genteelly starve) “civilian” white people, Belgians and ocean liner passengers. I’m not sure Germany was a direct threat to America, beyond its shipping, at the time. What it was, especially after years of terrible war making everyone involved more extreme, was a threat to an Anglo-centric world order America was set to inherit from the British. Who the hell knows what would have happened if the Germans had won? Whereas we know what happens if the British won- by and by, we’d inherit more and more of their mantle. Duck soup- in that way, Page knew what he was doing.

Lastly, Vietnam… well, from both an American realpolitik and a revolutionary perspective, we never should have been there. Jacobs argues, against some historians (and many counterinsurgency boosters- a lot of latter day counterinsurgents like Ngo, an opinion not shared by contemporary counterinsurgents like Roger Hillman), that getting rid of Ngo extended America’s play in Vietnam. Maybe, but is that a good thing, for anyone? I guess according to Lodge and his bosses in the Kennedy White House, it would be, unless we buy the Oliver Stone theory that JFK was looking to get out (he wasn’t).

Anyway! This was a fun and interesting book with good insights into American diplomatic history. I’d recommend it even to people to whom the phrase “diplomatic history” doesn’t seem to promise good times, because of the quality of the writing and the intrigue of the stories. I like to think I’d say that even if I didn’t like and respect Seth Jacobs as a teacher, scholar, and all around good guy. ****’

Review- Jacobs, “Rogue Diplomats”

Review- McBride, “The Good Lord Bird”

James McBride, “The Good Lord Bird” (2013) (narrated by Michael Boatman) – People don’t really know what to make of John Brown. I can’t claim to be a John Brown scholar but I have read a fair amount about him and people really don’t know how to paint a full, communicable picture, and sometimes it seems that the closer a given writer gets, the more the real man and his real story eludes them. It also sometimes seems that writers contemporary with Brown, both enemies and friends, maybe get somewhat closer. That’s not linear- writers in the late nineteenth century seem just as lost as writers in the late twentieth. It seems to me that whatever sets of filters come down to make Brown opaque came down not that long after his death, and stayed there (or got thicker). I’m tempted to place the date at 1877, the year the US abandoned Reconstruction and well into the decades-long global freakout about revolution that came about as a result of the Paris Commune, but that’s not really something I can prove at present.

In any event, the combination of factors that go into John Brown’s story — race, slavery, militancy, strategy, psychology, religion, to say nothing of the chasm of the years and the many succeeding historiographical paradigms between now and 1859 — make it hard, really hard, to tell his story in a way that feels adequate. And each angle of his story, every aspect that makes it relevant today, also provides opportunities for people, honestly or not, to drive the story into one or another pitfall, slot it nearly somewhere it doesn’t belong but which pleases the teller. The guy who first got me into John Brown in a serious way is a crank, an anti-masker libertarian (opinion varies on the question of whether he was always that absurd or if he got worse over the years). He’s a somewhat more needlessly ideologically elaborate version of the Republicans who try to claim Brown as theirs. That’s a straightforward misprision- they only get weirder and more tedious from there.

I don’t say this often, but arguably, the contemporary American leftist attitude towards John Brown — admiration, of a type rarely extended to white men of his time, and not looking at him too hard — might actually be a decent default setting for contemporary people with things to do. Especially because this lack of digging usually means that said leftists won’t slavishly follow Brown’s failures; he’s a symbol, not the man with the plan ala Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, etc. The reasonings behind the attitude of the contemporary left towards John Brown might range from the respectable (they admire Brown’s courage) to the eye-roll worthy (he’s someone a variety of black figures, including Malcolm X, have given white people “permission” to admire- he has yet to be “canceled” in any meaningful sense), but there it is.

Still and all- people will look closer, and I’d say it’s a good thing to do so. This review is part of that. And novelists have taken a crack at it, too, not just historians. I tried reading Russell Banks’s “Cloudsplitter” and didn’t like it. Too much modern psychologizing, too slow. Even then, near the beginning of my historical education, I could see there was something just “off” about trying to wedge John Brown into contemporary standards. I don’t think we should abandon our standards while looking into the past, excuse slavers and tyrants and fuck-ups with “well, they were men of their times.” But the opposite doesn’t work either. As per usual, we are forced to think more, think better (or, you know, find another hobby).

“The Good Lord Bird,” by novelist and memoirist James McBride, takes a novel approach to John Brown, at least novel as far as I know in “serious letters”: violent slapstick comedy. This is the story of a boy known variously as Henry, Henrietta, and perhaps most often in the story, Onion. Enslaved in Kansas Territory and working in a tavern with his drunken slave father (his mother isn’t in the picture, and it’s implied that she’s white- McBride first came on the literary scene writing about his own mixed background, son of a black father and a white Jewish mother), Onion gets swept up in the fighting in “Bleeding Kansas” and freed/kidnapped by none other than John Brown. Somehow, Brown gets the impression that Onion is a girl, and for a variety of silly reasons, Onion keeps up the charade for most of the book.

The story is narrated by Onion many decades after John Brown’s death, with a “found footage” backstory to the manuscript I rather like. You’re never sure how truthful he is, and I’m uncertain whether McBride has everyone — Onion, Brown, Brown’s men, Frederick Douglass, JEB Stuart — speak in the same informal English because that’s how Onion would have recounted it, or under the idea everyone would have spoken like that (maybe they would have- I don’t know nineteenth century speech patterns).

In any event, Onion gets brought into John Brown’s band of antislavery militants and has to survive the maelstrom of Bleeding Kansas. Bleeding Kansas compounds our John Brown confusions, because Americans, historically, haven’t been great at looking at the realities of “unconventional”/“informal”/“irregular”/guerrilla/insurgency (the profusion of terms isn’t a good sign for clarity) war in the face. Bleeding Kansas looked more like Syria during its civil war than what we think of when we think of the American Civil War, with its uniformed armies fighting each other in open battle. Bleeding Kansas was ambush, massacre, pillaging, avoiding battle and striking at enemy civilians. It’s one possibility of what the whole north-south border could have looked like if the South had come closer to winning the Civil War… McBride’s tone, both comic and horrified, actually works pretty well for the situation. Onion keeps trying to get back (what he has to get back to — he was enslaved, and his father died in the raid that freed him — is questionable, but he’s twelve and far from home) and keeps getting into situations with angry, armed, often drunk (except John Brown- no booze for him) white people, scared and confused and trigger happy.

The relationship between Onion and John Brown makes up the emotional core of the book, and was the thing that gave me the most ups and downs in terms of what I thought of the whole project as I read it. There’s a section where Onion is separated from Brown and his band, lives as a slave for a hotelier, witnesses an abortive slave rising, etc., but that part felt almost wedged in to make the timeline work- it was the time between the Pottawatomie massacre and Brown’s decision to make his final raid. Onion’s time with Brown both gives him the chance to be eyewitness to history and to develop the relationship. As you can imagine, writing the relationship between a white historical figure and a young black boy (dressing up as a girl), set in the mid-nineteenth century, in the second decade of the twenty-first with all the weirdness about representation and literal-mindedness in literature that time entails, makes this a charged endeavor.

This is my own peculiar perspective, but as I came to listen to the book, I came to see Onion as, essentially, a contemporary subject, looking at and trying to grasp a profoundly non-contemporary subject, John Brown. That is to say, Onion is a lot like us, and like McBride, in terms of where we stand next to the figure of Brown. Onion is interested in the sort of things that we today often assume most people are interested in, as a baseline that people might somewhat deviate from but usually not abandon entirely: Onion wants fun, generally understood as relaxed and luxurious living with plenty of booze, he wants sex and love (confused, as it often is, especially in the minds of adolescents), he wants freedom for himself, and, relevant but generally less important than the other things, he wants to belong. That last does the most to propel him into action and keeps him around Brown, but his fecklessness and cowardice continually screw the pooch (and arguably alter history). The narrator is quite open about his fecklessness with the advantage of years, and Onion is only somewhat less open about it on the ground.

I’ll go out on a limb: this is the contemporary subject, as understood as the reader of contemporary literary novels. Feckless, cowardly, self-aware, looking for something bigger and better but unsure where to find it and skeptical of all comers. John Brown… is not. He was none of those things and is not the contemporary subject. In many ways, the admiration the left has for him is admiration for the qualities that render him alien, that, when we look a little deeper than “a white guy who actually meant it” — and he did, far more than Lincoln or Grant or any of the others — cause us to reach for terms like “religious fanatic” or “clinically insane.” And McBride dwells on both- John Brown’s praying spells, his evidently being off his rocker in numerous ways. Onion sees “the old man” as crazy and often wants to get away from him. He doesn’t, but often wants to. I would further put it to the reader that our construction of the “human” and the “normal” are as restrictive, if not more so, than many previous regimes, and surely more opaque, this despite the inclusiveness we all pat ourselves on the back for.

The worst moments of the book, for me, are the moments when I think McBride will take an easy way out. I’m actually continually surprised that John Brown hasn’t been “cancelled” as a “white savior.” It really wouldn’t fit — among other things, unlike Lincoln, Brown really did believe in social equality, lived with black people, gave them real positions of authority in his militia based on merit — but when has that ever stopped anyone? McBride, or anyway his narrator, depicts Brown, for much of the book, as blind- blind to Onion’s real identity as a boy, blind to the problems with his plan, blind to the realities of race. That’s in keeping with the slapstick/satire thing McBride is doing. I came to think, at certain points in the book, that maybe he wasn’t trying to “cancel” Brown — Onion never once doubts Brown’s sincerity — but that he was trying to deflate Brown. Just another guy with ideas, the classic foil of the feckless individual subject. Among other things, McBride does seem bound and determined to deflate Frederick Douglass, who he depicts as a lech and a hypocrite. My understanding is that Douglass didn’t actually treat women that well. But it seemed a bit much, and worse, a signal of intent towards Brown. “Weren’t those people in the past stupid? Isn’t greatness a joke?”

But it wasn’t that way, and I’m glad I stuck with “The Good Lord Bird” until the end, with its depiction of the Harper’s Ferry raid. It doesn’t get sloppy or sentimental. John Brown doesn’t suddenly become what a contemporary subject could see as a hero- flawless, a deus ex machina. In a lot of ways, that would have been worse than just deflating him. I am uninterested in uncomplicated, unearned heroism. Let’s put it this way- both Brown and Onion become tragic in intertwined ways, and in Brown’s case, it leads to something like apotheosis. Maybe Brown didn’t want to die, maybe he thought his plan could work (McBride presents it as obviously foolish- I’m not sure it was, but it’s also worth noting that calculuses of success and failure, and the tools used to pursue them, were radically different at the time). But he accepts his death- interestingly, accepts it at the moment when Douglass backs out of the plan. When he does, the truth — including the truth that Brown isn’t blind, that he sees a lot more than young Onion gave him credit for — emerges. Brown and his men are there to die and by dying, kill slavery, not all at once, but to set the events in motion. Even Onion’s failures — and one of the reasons Brown fails and dies, in this telling, is Onion’s fecklessness — ultimately contribute to this apotheosis.

Death is unavoidable, and the use of death as a solvent for truth is a deep and old enough trope that it finds its way even into our trite pop culture. In some ways, the idea that Brown died for what he believed in is what unites him with the contemporary subject- the latter can still admire the former, even if he can’t follow (Onion, after all, lives to tell the tale as an old man). Arguably, McBride didn’t understand Brown better than anyone else for most of the book. Among other things, comedy is a great excuse-maker- “I’m just trying to be funny, not trying to interrogate the way our present construction of sanity and, indeed, the human subject itself, impedes our understanding of John Brown and of the nineteenth century more generally!” And it is funny, and in the end, McBride does touch something outside of the cyclical self with with we all appear stuck. That’s something. ****’

Review- McBride, “The Good Lord Bird”

Review- Lewis, “Public Entrepreneurship”

Eugene Lewis, “Public Entrepreneurship: Toward a Theory of Bureaucratic Political Power” (1980) – I have a feeling the Citizenry (become a Citizen of my newsletter, it is rad) voted for me to read this book out of two motivations: a minority are genuinely interested in how bureaucracy works, and a majority who thought it would be funny to make me read and review something with a title that sounds this boring. Joke’s on them! I love this shit. I tracked down this book and bought the cheapest but still rather dear copy I could find with some stimmy money. I had known about it for at least a decade, after seeing it in some “works cited” of interesting books.

I probably would not have noticed this in “works cited” were it not for the second subtitle (I basically refuse to have second subtitles in the headlines of my reviews, nonfiction authors should count themselves lucky to have subtitles, let alone fiction writers getting subtitles!): “The Organizational Lives of Hyman Rickover, J. Edgar Hoover, and Robert Moses.” What a trio! Hard charging bureaucrats who gave precisely no fucks and ran important parts of American state power at roughly the same time, Rickover was the “father of the nuclear navy,” Hoover ran the closest thing to a nationwide secret police force America ever saw, and Moses was “master builder” of New York, basically in charge of the city and state’s public infrastructure for decades. They weren’t the gray, colorless figures we associate with master bureaucrats. They weren’t exactly flamboyant like the politicians they coexisted with, like Roosevelt or Johnson, either. They were their own thing- the titular public entrepreneur.

This book belongs to what you’d call “historical sociology,” that odd by-blow of two fields you’d figure would maybe have more in common but reached a real nadir of mutual misunderstanding not long after this work was published. I’ve read some good historical sociology (like this book) but it’s not a good way to rocket up the field in either history or sociology, specializing in it. Essentially, what Eugene Lewis (a political scientist, according to his short, eccentric, one suspects self-written Wikipedia page) tries to do here is use historical examples to prove a social scientific point. He doesn’t do primary research (a big history no-no) and he doesn’t do anything quantitative or any fieldwork (a substantial social sciences no-no). Mostly, he talks about the careers of the three men, based on secondary sources (including Robert Caro’s legendary biography of Moses, “The Power Broker”), and fits them into a definition of public entrepreneurship. Public entrepreneurs both fit (uncomfortably) into their organizational molds and break them wide open, they expand their domains, they present a face of apolitical technical competence, they get old and stumble on new political realities, etc etc.

I shouldn’t give such short shrift to Lewis’s theory here, but A. it’s not why I read the book and B. it didn’t go anywhere. My understanding is that “Public Entrepreneurship” is respected in its field but that field isn’t huge and this didn’t spark a big, long-lasting conversation. It also came at an interesting time- 1980, just as neoliberalism was coming down the pike and bureaucracy went from being seen as a necessary evil to… well, here the story is funny. Neoliberalism is a famously slippery term, and people tend to associate it with a rebellion against bureaucracy and rules-bound organizations in favor for “thriving on chaos” in the marketplace, but recent research and arguments have gotten across the point that neoliberalism in fact thrives on, proliferates, rules and bureaucracy. But in any event, those bureaucracies wouldn’t look that much like those of the heyday of the mid-twentieth century. A “theory of bureaucratic power” that made a Weber-inflected take on those bureaucracies in 1980… that’s just bad timing.

But really, I mostly just found the descriptions and comparisons of how the three principals worked interesting and written in quite lively style, remarkable for social science. All three were tough- interestingly, the one from the actual military, Rickover, while a hardass when it came to his agenda, was probably the least of a son of a bitch of the three (then again, he probably wouldn’t have hesitated to flip that nuclear switch if the order came down, so…). Moses routinely destroyed neighborhoods to build highways, and Hoover, arguably, would be the one man to erase from American history if you only got one (I’m aware other people did worse stuff- but most of them would have been replaced by equally bad, roughly equally competent people, not the case with Hoover in my opinion). While Lewis makes notes of things like the lives destroyed during the red scare, he is ultimately more interested in bureaucratic form, how the three men managed new technologies and techniques and played politics, all while appearing apolitical. In many ways, that is the most appropriate portrait of these three men and others of their type, and I’d argue the type is worth understanding. The siren call of “just getting shit done”… not always enough to get an elected politician over the line, but it can provide a basis for power that slips the bonds of what is usually associated with bureaucracy (i.e. the notional source of the apolitical nature of the bureaucratic entrepreneur). Lewis admits his book is more of a jumping off point than a set of definitive answers- alas, I don’t know what jumped off from it.

One thing I found myself wondering- is this sort of power exclusive to liberal capitalist states? Would other bureaucratic setups nurture similar people under similar dynamics? It would seem they could- surely clever people played communist and fascist bureaucracies pretty well. I guess I’m wondering A. would such power dynamics inevitably exist in any system with bureaucracy, and could (should?) they be prevented and B. could you have, if not socialist, then social democratic public entrepreneurs within a capitalist system? Frankly, I have my doubts, though I have fewer doubts about the technical feasibility — some AOC devotee landing in charge of Head Start or something and cancelling their opponents on Twitter until they ran all of the country’s pre-K or some such — then whether it’d actually be helpful to socialism. I don’t hate bureaucracy but it’s not my preferred way to play the game. In this case, I very much am asking for some friends who I could see seizing upon such an arrangement were it possible… people love some sewer socialism… maybe my navy-man alter-ego in a work of fiction (who would no doubt greatly admire Rickover!)… anyway. An interesting and evocative book. ****’

Review- Lewis, “Public Entrepreneurship”

Extramural Writing: Beyond Belief Amongst the Millennials

I wrote a piece for Full Stop, which is rapidly becoming my favorite outlet for which to write. It started as a review of Tara Isabella Burton’s new book on millennial spirituality and religious practice, “Strange Rites.” It’s a provocative book, well worth reading, and summoned strange thoughts in me when juxtaposed with some of the other stuff I study, especially the contemporary right. Put it all together and you get this piece. Enjoy.

Extramural Writing: Beyond Belief Amongst the Millennials

Review- Corey, “Cibola Burn”

James S.A. Corey, “Cibola Burn” (2014) (narrated by Jefferson Mays) – Back to the Expanse! This time the drama takes place on a planet on the other side of an ancient alien wormhole. But humanity doesn’t leave the cynical maneuverings that characterize the Coreys’ (its two guys, James Corey is a nom de plume) gritty workaday space solar system as established in the previous four volumes. Some squatters, survivor of the collapse of a colony on Ganymede that we saw a book or two back, went through the wormhole first and settled a seemingly earth-like planet. Alas, according to the rules, an Earth-based megacorp has dibs. They can’t even agree what to call it! The megacorp wants to call it New Terra, the squatters call it Ilus. In any event, they start fighting. Who’s called in to mediate but Jim Holden, space-dad and classic perspective-dullard, the protagonist who has less character than all the others but whose dogged insistence on heroic goals drives the story forward?

This one is pretty fun, taking as its motto the old writing workshop advice, “chase your characters up a tree, and once they’re there, throw rocks at them.” The corporate security people and the settlers do tit-for-tat terror on each other. The settlers are desperate for a place to live, and the leader of the corporate team is depicted as a kind of Colonel Kurtz psychopath, except speaking in corporate tough talk rather than whatever Brando was doing, so Holden can’t get them to knock it off. In the midst of all this, the planet turns out to be less a planet and more a planet-sized factory made by the same long-dead intergalactic alien civilization that made the wormholes… complete with defensive systems. These systems go off one by one, creating additional headaches for Holden et al at an agreeably frantic pace.

The other perspective characters include Elvi, a naive corporate scientist with a big-girl crush on Holden, Havelock, a corporate security guy, and Basia, an accidental (he only wanted to do property damage!) settler terrorist. I guess talking about them is as good a place as any to talk about this book and colonialism. Various people have told me the show is a good, “subversive” take on the difficulties of colonialism. I haven’t seen the show — I want to get through the books first — but that’s not really how I see this book. The actual issues of colonialism aren’t really here, because there is no indigenous culture (unless you could the long-dead builders of the planet). There is some racism on the part of the corporate security people, who are mostly from cushy, established Earth, and the squatters, who are hardscrabble Asteroid Belt types, but that’s about it. If anything, there’s more of your classic inter-settler squabbling, like Elvi the scientist earning the ire of the settlers for trying to get them to do less mining (and pooping) so she can do more science on a fresh, untainted biosphere. The violence of both sides is understood as being about greed, sociopathy, and in-group loyalty, the kind of thing basically-good people like Basia and Havelock can transcend, not really about power and who wields it for whose benefit.

There’s still enough of the Coreys’s master, George R.R. Martin, here to make any politics beyond “people are generally bad, except for your (often chosen) family, who you should be good to and open to expanding” supremely unlikely.But that’s ok, as far as I’m concerned, because it’s fine for a scifi adventure to be a scifi adventure without a scathing political critique behind it. It’s almost heartwarming, seeing the authors gesture at a broader point but landing on the usual bromides about family and empathy… anyway, I actually think the Coreys best Martin in terms of delivering on promises, and I’m not just talking about that last ASoIaF book we’re not getting. I mean resolving plots in a satisfactory number in an acceptable span of verbiage, balanced worldbuilding — the concept of the Expanse is about as thin, conceptually, as that of Westeros, but the Coreys haven’t built as much on such shaky foundations as Martin has — and not automatically going for the most cynical/grimdark resolution every time and calling it “tragedy.” Elvi gets over Holden and it’s fine- in Westeros, presumably she’d die horribly. Havelock learns some lessons without getting tortured. Even Holden’s girlfriend, Naomi, a cardboard Strong Female in most instances, shows some vulnerability in a human kind of way. All in all, not bad. ****’

Review- Corey, “Cibola Burn”

Review link- The Everyday, Between Revolution and Reaction

I published this piece in LARB almost two months ago but forgot to update here! It’s a review of Marc Stears’ “Out of the Ordinary,” which purports that a focus on “ordinary life” on the part of a group of British writers and artists (including George Orwell and Dylan Thomas) helped create a humane, effective center-left in Britain in the mid-twentieth century. I don’t “buy” it but it was an interesting and thought-provoking book. Also, Stears wrote a nice tweet about my review! In contrast to my rep in some quarters as an unforgiving ideological warrior, I do like to clasp hands across divides. It just turns out some divides are hard or impossible or not worth crossing. Anyway! Here’s the link. Enjoy!

Review link- The Everyday, Between Revolution and Reaction