Wednesday, April 23, 2014

One Summer, America 1927. Bill Bryson

When books of history, especially popular history, come out every year, conservatives tend to hold them at arm's length at first. As the 6 O'Clock News used to be the time for conservatives to yell at the TV in the old days, most popular history offerings that get a mention on NPR have at least a few sections that make them think Oh Stop. Examine your premises, will you?  Don't take those sources at face value.

Conservatives will eventually get around to reading them if they seem to have staying power.  They just want to know how prepared they have to be to throw the book down a few times.  And as they aren't much concerned with The Latest Thing, they don't much mind if that doesn't happen for a year or two.  In contrast, when I mentioned this book today, two liberals in the group had a quiet competition as to which of them had read it first, and then quickly, which of them had discovered Bryson first and was generally up on these things.  I generalise awfully about A&H Tribe liberals, but they continually oblige me by providing new examples of how accurate I am.

Bryson's newest will not be thrown down.  It's quite good, full of things you didn't know or barely knew, with a nice balance between truly important events and charming anecdotes.  There are indeed places where his bias is opaque to him but clear to alert readers*, but these are shruggable.  He doesn't miss many opportunities to kick his cultural opponents and does neglect genuine criticisms that could be brought against those he identifies with, but here's the thing: the folks he kicks generally deserve it.

So dig in.  Enjoy.

*Humorously for this region of the country, he mentions that middle-class Republicans were the group most convinced of Sacco and Vanzetti's guilt one sentence after informing us that Boston Irish workingmen heavily populated most of the demonstrations calling for their execution. Both could be true, but not easily. The narrative lacks a center. Or again, he keeps wanting Prohibition and eugenics supporters to fit his original assumptions.  They don't.  To his credit, Bryson does get this mostly right - he's just uneasy about it. 


One interesting bit in his outrages about all things eugenics, including some items he hasn't quite done his homework on, is focus on racial differences beliefs as if they are some unusual aberration that pop up around the 1920's in America - and more darkly elsewhere - for unclear reasons and constitute some enduring national shame.  Those beliefs are in fact the default setting for mankind, and there was nothing unusual about them showing up in America at all.  If anything, the focus on 1920's writing about the issue is a product of people of different races having more contact with each other, and evidence that reflexive belief in enormous racial (and ethnic) distinctives was beginning to be questioned for the first time in history. I don't think one can find a president before Harding who would not be considered racist by current standards (though they were sometimes egalitarian by the standards of the day.)

A similar theme came up over at HBD chick's comments sections, where one writer was trying to impress upon us how a Game of Thrones mentality of violence and revenge was very like Medieval Europe, a time of especial darkness and danger.  It was in fact one important stage of diminishing violence in mankind. Violence, cruelty, revenge, and bloodthirstiness are quite normal for humankind.  It is anything else that should elicit comment.  I often think of this when I encounter so many who have trouble with believing in God because of the existence of evil.  Only very recently has anyone in human skin imagined that people generally being good and getting along is their usual state.

Revisiting the Bicameral Mind

Julian Jaynes’s book,  The  Origins of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind was popular in some circles in the 1980’s.  I recall some folks in the Prometheus and Triple-Nine societies speaking highly of it.  One in particular quoted sections in the newsletter, and summarized some of the key ideas.  I would hardly have been interested at the time except that Jaynes was attributing schizophrenia to this change in all human brains over time, and I felt obliged to squelch that sort of thinking pretty quickly.

I feel obliged to squelch many sorts of thinking pretty quickly, actually.  It’s what I do.

The Jaynes enthusiasts pushed back, trying to convince us that this fascinating overview of history, linguistics, consciousness, and psychology was in fact worth considering. I was unmoved. Every few years it comes up again, most recently in a comment thread at West Hunter, of all places.  A young psychiatrist brought it up today.  The book seems to have remarkable persistence.  I dismissed it before the assembled throng on the basis of what I knew 25-30 years ago, yet had to admit when challenged that I had not, in fact, read the book.  So he lent it to me.

I read a dozen pages over lunch and am pleasantly surprised.  He writes engagingly and his reading has been far-ranging.  More importantly, he seems to be defining some issues of the discussion very well, and pointing out biases and philosophical errors in the history of science in the 18th-20th C.  I remain highly suspicious of what I already know are some of his conclusions about linguistics, schizophrenia, and religion.  However, there may be things worth knowing along the way before we get there.

And it is just a good exercise to rethink things and take them under consideration again. I will be away on vacation, and will bring it with me.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Trace Bundy

I am wondering if the mountain locales are NH or VT.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Political Discussion

Another day on my FB feed in which the political argument consists of no positive arguments, only statements about how evil and hypocritical the opposition is. Usually it's got a (theoretically) witty poster, with lots of people who I mercifully am not acquainted with hitting the like button.  YEAH!  Preach it!

So. Three more people off my feed and into the background.  I mostly just follow my children.  Someone new requests to be my friend I nearly always accept, but everyone pretty quickly gets sent to the far reaches of the galaxy.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Bette Davis Eyes

Maybe it's just my dirty mind.  But since my second hearing of the song, with the slapping sound so prominent, Bette Davis's initials, and virtually every lyric of the song, how is this song not about BDSM?  The video seems to seal the deal.

And yet search engines suggest nothing of the sort.  If that was indeed the intent - of either DeShannon or Carnes - you'd think it would have leaked out by now. So I'm guessing it just isn't.

We Built This Village on a Trad. Arr. Tune

I hadn’t realised what I was getting in for when I came upon Half Man Half Biscuit  I previously embedded one of their singles.  They are something of a punk version of Bare Naked Ladies, but I am afraid it is just too user-unfriendly for we who are not from England.  Apparently even the Irish and Australians have trouble hearing, let alone getting the many cultural references in their lyrics, because of the accent. However, some I enjoyed having explained as I looked them up.  There is a reference to the Mamas and the Papas in the song above which is actually the Mummers and the Poppers (to rhyme with The Coppers, an English folksong family, much as the Carters would be in the US.)  Which is typical punning sense for them. The song is track 14 on their album “Achtung Bono.”

They have much more imagination than I do.  I could never have come up with the title above

The Half Man Half Biscuit Lyrics Project has the subtitle “179 pop tunes picked over by pedants.”  Well, who could ask for more, really?