Category Archives: politics

Review: ‘Honeybee Democracy’

Bees give lessons for leadership and group intelligence. 

. . . [N]atural selection has organized honeybee swarms and primate brains in intriguingly similar ways to build a first-rate decision-making group from a collection of rather poorly informed and cognitively limited individuals.

Honeybee Democracy

Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D. Seeley. Princeton University Press, 264 pp.

Seeley-Honeybee Democracy

How can humans make better group decisions? We might look to the bees, says Thomas D. Seeley, a Cornell biologist who has spent his life studying the insects.

Each year, the legions of (female) worker bees in a colony must make a life-or-death decision: where to build a new home? Scouts report on prospects with their famous waggle dances, arguing for one site or another, which the other scouts check out based on directional clues encoded in the dances. A bad choice—a cavity too small to hold enough honey for the winter, an entrance too large to exclude predators—and the entire colony dies.

This stark imperative has driven bees, Seeley explains, toward dissent-free decisions:

This is what normally arises from the democratic decision-making process used by house-hunting honeybees and, quite frankly, I find it amazing. We have seen . . .  how the debate among a swarm’s scout bees starts with individuals proposing many potential nesting sites, vigorously advertising the competing proposals, and actively recruiting neutral individuals to the different camps. All this makes the surface of a swarm look at first like a riotous dance party. Yet out of this chaos, order gradually emerges. Ultimately the debate ends with all the dancing bees indicating support for just one nesting site, usually the best one.

Honeybee Democracy brought me back to childhood, when I devoured books about the natural world and was a steady observer of nature myself. It reminded me too of how little I know or have retained. Such as: the colony’s queen, who does all the reproducing, decides the sex of her offspring, and she lays eggs that produce mostly females. A nest’s 10,000 worker bees, who collect pollen for honey, and a few hundred who become scouts for new homes, all are her virgin daughters. The comparatively few large male drones are not drones at all, in practice, but lazy, well-fed inseminators of young queens, bred once on their maiden flights and fixed, reproductively speaking, for life.

One of Seeley’s salient findings is that bees try to sense a quorum (sufficient number in agreement) rather than a consensus (unanimity) when they swarm. In taking off without complete agreement they risk that the swarm may split in flight—thus endangering their queen, whose loss would be fatal for the colony’s future. But a quorum strikes a balance between speed and accuracy in decision-making for the exposed and vulnerable swarm, and in practice usually every bee gets on board and makes a beeline for the most popular site. The risk of consensus, as we know from some human groups (Seeley gives an example from a Quaker meeting, but juries came to mind for me), one holdout can overrule the wisdom of the group and prevent a decision or prompt a bad one.

As chair of his academic department, Seeley has instituted the “Five Habits of Highly Effective Groups” that he learned from bees:

Lesson One

Compose the Decision-Making Group of Individuals with Shared Interests and Mutual Respect.

 

Lesson Two

Minimize the Leader’s Influence on the Group’s Thinking.

 

Lesson Three

Seek Diverse Solutions to the Problem.

 

Lesson Four

Aggregate the Group’s Knowledge Through Debate.

 

Lesson Five

Use Quorum Responses for Cohesion, Accuracy, and Speed.

Of course, unlike humans, bees appear to lack individual egos, humans’ blessing and curse as a species. In fact, bees operate without leaders, let alone with the domineering ones who  subvert group decision-making. As a recent national failure from poor leadership, Seeley cites how the “headstrong” style of George W. Bush steamrolled his policy team into agreeing to invade Iraq in 2003. “They did little to question his thinking, engage in extended debate about the possible policy options, or delve deeply into the consequences of going to war,” Seeley writes. “In short, they squandered their opportunity to use group intelligence. We now know that the hasty and flawed decision to invade Iraq was based largely on the gut feelings of just one man, George W. Bush.”

Contrast this with Barack Obama’s “team of rivals” ideal, as enacted by his hero Abraham Lincoln, which emphasizes a dialectic arising from a buzz of dissenting opinions. Lincoln was criticized for not being headstrong enough, for hanging back, for bordering on passivity, but look at his results, the preservation of the union and the abolition of slavery. He led by acting in accordance with his sense of his advisors’ growing recognition of the right. Now our politics seem so ugly that many apparently believe our system itself is broken, even with its brilliant checks and balances against egoistic extremism, but surely that’s what many in Lincoln’s day thought too, when the invective was at least as bitter.

Listening to Obama’s second inauguration last week on my car radio as I drove into snow flurries in Ohio, my eyes stung with tears at the beauty of the progressive ideals being expressed. Some would respond to this rhetoric with hate, I suspected, and indeed they have—unlike bees, some humans will always be on the wrong side of history. Our earliest simian layer might be blamed for this: chimps are brutally hierarchical, fierce toward rivals and rival clans, and masters of the elemental two-against-one calculus of politics.

But in the animal kingdom, ants and bees, the most highly social of insects—not apes—are considered most like humans, at least in exemplifying the kind of cooperation humans strive for and sometimes achieve. And after reading Honeybee Democracy, I’m heartened by how much we’re like the bees when we’re at our best.

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Filed under emotion, evolutionary psychology, politics, REVIEW

Boycotting ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Kathryn Bigelow falsifies an American tragedy.

Stormclouds x

That’s too strong a word, boycott. It’s more like deep ambivalence that has kept me away. And today I’ve failed yet again to get myself out the door to see Zero Dark Thirty, despite being between semesters and having my classes pretty well planned. And despite having loved Kathryn Bigelow’s previous movie, The Hurt Locker, about a bomb disposal unit in Iraq, which captures both war’s horror and its addictive quality for some combatants.

Zero Dark Thirty reportedly shows, in sickening scenes, what the Bush administration’s pro-torture policy led to: the brutalizing of helpless prisoners. But widespread criticism of the movie concerns the way Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, portray that torture as having led directly to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. That is false, all knowledgeable experts claim. America’s locating Bin Laden resulted from sustained inquiry of and small kindnesses offered to a particular captive.

Apparently Bigelow and Boal wanted so show the human cost, in prisoners’ agony and torturers’ depravity, and to rub our noses in what our government did on our behalf to find Bin Laden. But it’s so much worse than that! The torture and degradation were worthless in this case, as far as we know from experts and insiders. I cannot imagine a work of nonfiction or a literary novel falsifying this matter because the moral ambiguity here is so rich, the sins against others and ourselves so tragic. Maybe this is “just” Hollywood, a topic too complex for Hollywood and too expensive for indie producers to tackle? For me, though, part of the effect of Zero Dark Thirty’s lie based on a grievous moral and artistic error is to make movies in their execution seem, once again, a lesser art form than literature.

The real story, the real issue.

The real story, the real issue.

For a great book—really a long essay, at only 189 pages—about American policy as revealed in the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal during the Iraq war see A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America by David Griffith (reviewed). Griffith’s book is a brave inquiry into America’s grotesque violations of its transcendent ideals and a meditation upon the larger problem of human evil. A Good War deals a lot with film. Griffith shows himself enjoying violence, becoming uncomfortable, and ultimately grasping a felt, moral response to violence in Blue Velvet and Deliverance in contrast to what he views as Quentin Tarantino’s creepy aestheticization of violence and denial of its seriousness in Pulp Fiction.

Griffith has just published a new essay at Image Journal about writing as a devout Catholic in an age of unbelief.

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Filed under film/photography, honesty, MY LIFE, NOTED, politics, religion & spirituality

Salman Rushdie’s new memoir

Joseph Anton is a splendid book, the finest new memoir to cross my desk in many a year.—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

Salman Rushdie is in the news again. Not because he’s living under a new Muslim sentence of death, which sent him into hiding for a decade after the publication of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, but because he’s written a memoir about the period. With the fatwa now almost fifteen years behind him, Rushdie has perspective from which to assess and portray. The New Yorker has published a long excerpt of Joseph Anton: A Memoir—Joe Anton being his self-bestowed code name, taken from Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov, that British cops used when he was in hiding. The excerpt is available for now on line.

It’s always thrilling when a great novelist writes a memoir: John Updike’s Self-Consciousness, reviewed on this blog (see the Favorite Memoirs page), is one of my favorites, and Nabokov’s Speak, Memory (also with links on that page), reviewed here once negatively and once positively, is nothing if not interesting for how he follows his aesthetic star. What you first notice in Rushdie’s long New Yorker excerpt, “The Disappeared,” is that his memoir is written in the third person. That’s an interesting and, to me, exciting choice; the third-person, though uncommon in memoir, maybe because writers fear editors will think their work is fictionalized, offers memoirists a different and perhaps keener perspective on themselves: third person in nonfiction is a distancing perspective.

The second thing you notice in Rushdie’s excerpt is that it’s non-chronological: the fatwa was issued in February 1989, and his essay procedes under these headings: 1989, at the imposition of the death decree, a section which is dramatic and scenic; 1966, when he learned about the “Satanic Verses” while studying history at Cambridge; 1984, when he began writing the novel, which took four years; 1988, when The Satanic Verses was published and began to ignite rage among Muslim extremists; and 1989 again, a long closing section that returns to the fatwa and to Rushdie’s life in hiding.

The third thing you notice after all this innovation is that he uses any memoirist’s tools: scene and exposition, seamlessly in the dramatized bits, and in the purely expository, smooth summary and reflection. Yes, he’s a good writer. Here’s the essay’s first two paragraphs, dramatic and straightforward, that set the scene and convey deftly an incredible amount of backstory:

1989

Afterward, when the world was exploding around him, he felt annoyed with himself for having forgotten the name of the BBC reporter who told him that his old life was over and a new, darker existence was about to begin. She called him at home, on his private line, without explaining how she got the number. “How does it feel,” she asked him, “to know that you have just been sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini?” It was a sunny Tuesday in London, but the question shut out the light. This is what he said, without really knowing what he was saying: “It doesn’t feel good.” This is what he thought: I’m a dead man. He wondered how many days he had left, and guessed that the answer was probably a single-digit number. He hung up the telephone and ran down the stairs from his workroom, at the top of the narrow Islington row house where he lived. The living-room windows had wooden shutters and, absurdly, he closed and barred them. Then he locked the front door.

 

It was Valentine’s Day, but he hadn’t been getting along with his wife, the American novelist Marianne Wiggins. Five days earlier, she had told him that she was unhappy in the marriage, that she “didn’t feel good around him anymore.” Although they had been married for only a year, he, too, already knew that it had been a mistake. Now she was staring at him as he moved nervously around the house, drawing curtains, checking window bolts, his body galvanized by the news, as if an electric current were passing through it, and he had to explain to her what was happening. She reacted well and began to discuss what they should do. She used the word “we.” That was courageous.

Later that morning, after Rushdie and his wife attend a memorial service for a friend, the writer Bruce Chatwin, the police tell him he can’t go home. Too dangerous, Rushdie writes. “Although he did not know it then—so the moment of leaving his home did not feel unusually freighted with meaning—he would not return to that house, at 41 St. Peter’s Street, which had been his home for half a decade, until three years later, by which time it would no longer be his.”

Whisked to CBS’s offices in London for an interview, Rushdie depicts his disorientation: “But he also knew that his old self’s habits were of no use anymore. He was the person in the eye of the storm, no longer the Salman his friends knew but the Rushdie who was author of ‘Satanic Verses,’ a title that had been subtly distorted by the omission of the initial ‘The.’ ‘The Satanic Verses’ was a novel. ‘Satanic Verses’ were verses that were satanic, and he was their satanic author.”

In the next section “1966,” Rushdie flashes back to his second year at Cambridge, when he was studying Islamic history, along with Indian colonial history and the first 100 years of American history. His supervisor, a medievalist named Arthur Hibbert, whom he calls a genius, told him never to write history “until you can hear the people speak”; this turned out to be great advice for a novelist as well, for speech reveals origin, class, temperament, and “beneath their temperament, their true nature, intellectual or earthy, plainspoken or devious, and, yes, good or bad.”

In this purely expository section, Rushdie explains Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, and the Koran in such an elegantly clear and simple way that anyone can understand it—and see his respect for one of the world’s great religions. In a nutshell: “The ethos of the Koran, the value system it endorses, was, in essence, the vanishing code of nomadic Arabs, the matriarchal, more caring society that did not leave orphans out in the cold, orphans like Muhammad, whose success as a merchant, he believed, should have earned him a place in the city’s ruling body, and who was denied such preferment because he didn’t have a powerful family to fight for him.”

Ensconced for the first time in cities, the early Arabs became patriarchal, and were worshippers primarily of three deities, goddesses who specialized in different realms, with Allah an unpopular fourth deity. Muhammad, a successful and spiritual merchant, rescued Allah from obscurity and elevated him over all, deposing the goddesses, who were economically important to Mecca’s elite, since offerings (taxes, in effect) were collected at their shrines. Their ouster threatened the city’s rulers. The “Satanic Verses” stemmed from a vision of Muhammad’s that restored the goddesses, and which he later recanted.

“After that,” Rushdie writes, “the monotheism of Islam remained unwavering and strong, through persecution, exile, and war, and before long the Prophet had achieved victory over his enemies and the new faith spread like a conquering fire across the world.”

It was a good story, the young Rushdie saw, but it would be years before he wrote it. After that digression into history, “The Disappeared” explains the novel’s composition, its earth-shaking reception by extremists who misunderstood it, and depicts Rushdie’s underground life. I found the scenic end of the first section, with Rushdie and his wife on the run for the first time, touching and powerful:

     The night in Lonsdale Square was cold, dark, and clear. There were two policemen in the square. When he got out of his car, they pretended not to notice him. They were on short patrol, watching the street near the flat for a hundred yards in each direction, and he could hear their footsteps even when he was indoors. He realized, in that footstep-haunted space, that he no longer understood his life, or what it might become, and he thought, for the second time that day, that there might not be very much more of life to understand.

 

Marianne went to bed early. He got into bed beside his wife and she turned toward him and they embraced, rigidly, like the unhappily married couple they were. Then, separately, lying with their own thoughts, they failed to sleep.

Those paragraphs provoke as much as any my fellow-feeling for Rushdie’s human plight and, admittedly, my admiration of his heroic response to the mob, which he’d just denounced in his first TV interview. As well, throughout this fine essay and concentrated here, I identified, as a memoirist myself, with this fellow writer, albeit brilliant and of historic attainment, as yet another scribe laboring with the humble tools of his craft—scene, summary, and reflection (all working here in service of more than one story being told)—to show how it was, how it looked and felt and seemed.

Just another soul, after all, suffering more than most here, who lately has patiently made art from life’s dusty remains, which he retrieved from one very lonely valley of existence.

Next: Salman Rushdie on the craft of memoir.

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Filed under craft, technique, memoir, NOTED, politics, religion & spirituality, scene, structure

Nabokov’s ‘Speak, Memory,’ ver. 2.0

Olga Khotiashova responded to my review of Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory by posting as a comment a lovely essay, which I have also featured as a guest post, below; it unites her personal history with her reading of the book and with literary and political analysis. A mathematician by education, she now lives in Houston.

Reflections on Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory

by a Russian native speaker recently immigrated to the USA

By Olga Khotiashova

I read the famous Lolita by V. Nabokov in mid-1980s. The book, a Russian translation copied from the original printed in the West and hand-bound, was secretly given to me by a friend with a comment, “If anybody asks you where you got it, answer that you found it in a dumpster.” I’m not sure if the original was smuggled through the Iron Curtain, probably the friend just wanted to heat my interest. Anyway, although it was mid-1980s, not mid-1930s, it was safer not to ask too many questions about the book: “The less you know, the better you sleep,” as the Russian saying says. I read Lolita quickly, liked it partially because of the romantic flavor of forbidden reading, and forgot about Nabokov for years.

The next encounter with the writer happened ten years later when the works by Nabokov were widely published in the former Soviet Union. I liked his novels especially those written in Russian a lot, and Drugie Berega (Other Shores) has become one of my favorite books. No wonder that having moved to the US, I was interested in the English version of the book—Speak, Memory.

Well, it appeared to be not an easy reading. Nabokov’s vocabulary is enormous and peculiar. I had to read sitting at my desk and checking up to 10 words per page in the dictionary, and some of the words needed even a deeper research. I even wrote down the new words first but gave up shortly as it became clear that I would unlikely ever use them. For me, with my freshly learned English, Nabokov’s prose seemed kind of staged: stylish and exquisite as his unique Russian but a little tied up in the limits of English grammar.

While reading Speak, Memory, I tried to answer two questions: 1) What may an American reader like about the book? 2) What does the book mean for me in comparison with its Russian vis-à-vis?

No doubt, Speak, Memory may be interesting to an American reader as an exotic butterfly for its unusual and mysterious beauty. But is there anything more? I borrowed the book in the library, and it had some notes and a library receipt which told me about the previous reader. The pencil notes on the margins affirmed that the reader looked for the connections with everything American, was interested in Russian cultural traditions, and was confused by Nabokov’s playing with words. It was funny that sometimes, when the American reader put a bold question mark having not found the word in the dictionary, I could easily guess the meaning based on the rules of word building in Russian. The receipt included two books: Nabokov’s memoir and the biography of Ernest Hemingway, and a DVD with the movie The Night of the Iguana based on the play by Tennessee Williams. Interesting! The choice itself may become the topic of a research. Anyway, I would join the same book club as that unknown reader and we would definitely find what to speak about despite obvious cultural difference.

I can imagine Speak, Memory in the reading list of a scholar specializing in 20th century literature. But it arguably may be interesting to a casual reader as well.
The book gives a private and subtle look at Russian life at the beginning of the 20th century. Nabokov shows the best part of Russian society: educated, broadminded, bearing rich cultural traditions. Most of these features were swept away by the October Revolution and were replaced by the fierce image of a hostile Russian which became a cliché. Nabokov reveals his vision of Russia and makes a reader avoid stereotypes and develop his or her own view.

Nature, landscapes have always been essential for both Russians and Americans. Russian landscapes, as Nabokov pictures them, give a key to the Russian spirituality. The book produces the strongest feeling of home and loving family—the values which cannot be overestimated. Viewed from the point of a boy raised by loving parents in close connection with nature and art, with great respect for the family history going through ages, and admiration of both native and foreign cultures, the picture of “perfect childhood” drawn by Nabokov may appeal to a reader as the source of first-hand information and particular spirituality.

As for my personal impression of the memoir, it hasn’t changed a lot after reading the English version. It just became more refined as I looked at Russia from the same shore the author did. Only looking from far away one may cherish the native language as the most valuable possession. Only living abroad one may feel the overwhelming beauty of the native land.

It was also a thrilling experience to observe Nabokov’s famous alliterations and decipher his allusions. “The spiral is a spiritualized circle” sounds like a poem in English. I wonder how Nabokov said it in Russian; no doubt he found some singing equivalent. Unfortunately, my Russian version of the book was left on the bookshelf in my St. Petersburg apartment. I know exactly where it is: on the right side, between Dostoevsky and Brodsky. The search for the adequate translation haunted me even in a night dream where I could easily reach the book, turn the pages quickly but still could not find the corresponding page. Alas, it was just a dream.

Writing in English, Nabokov preserved grace and magic epitomized in his Russian prose. Speak, Memory works as a magic lantern switching the reader from the narration to his or her own or even ancestral reminiscences. While reading the book, I caught myself several times feeling as if I was looking through the eyes of my great-grandmother whose namesake I am and whose youth coincided with the beginning of 20th century. I never met her. But due to Nabokov’s prose, the stories told me thousand times by my grandmother and stacked somewhere in the depth of the memory miraculously got alive and transformed into the vivid pictures of a sunlit apple orchard, Cossacks suppressing a students’ rally, train tours to the Crimea. I expect even more miracles.

Vladimir Nabokov wrote his memoir approximately the same time he was working on Lolita. He counted on the former to help him make living but it was the latter which turned out to be a great commercial success.  Well, the life is all about unexpected things. As for me, I’ll probably never return to Lolita and will definitely reread both Speak, Memory and Drugie Berega, which connect distant shores and times and serve as bookmarks in the memory pinpointing treasured places and images.

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Filed under diction or vocabulary, memoir, politics, religion & spirituality, REVIEW

With a song in our hearts

A misty December morning at the Summer Palace in Beijing

Touring mainland China with a college choir stirs the spirit.

The consciousness of divinity is divinity itself. The more we wake to holiness, the more of it we give birth to, the more we introduce, expand, and multiply it on earth, the more “God is on the field.”—Annie Dillard, For the Time Being (page 40; reviewed previously)

I’ve just returned from ten days in mainland China, touring with Otterbein University’s choir, which gave concerts in Beijing, Tianjin, and Xi’an. We got to see more of China, and a different side, than I imagine most western visitors experience. We toured a kung fu boarding school with 2,000 students, many of them orphans, some of whom performed for us, and we for them. Our fifty students sang two Chinese folk songs in their sets, and in each venue the crowd’s reaction was amazed delight. It was a joy to witness. As was hearing Chinese choirs reciprocate: a “medley of American folk songs” that included John Denver’s apparently immortal hit “Take Me Home, Country Roads”; the ever-lovely “Shenandoah”; and, inevitably, “Don’t Stop Believing.”

We all were charmed by one of our Chinese guides, adorable twenty-nine year old “Kathie”—just a Xi’an girl livin’ in a Beijing world—and she seemed smitten with our polite, talented, flirty choirboys and girls. She even spent a night singing with them in a karaoke bar, and on one of the buses taking us to the airport Friday she broke down, weeping, when she tried to say goodbye. “Don’t tell the other bus I cried,” she pleaded, “because I have many male concubines on that bus!” We were so touched by her, and I’ll never forget how we connected as humans, regardless of our nations’ political differences and difficulties.

All the same, it was a terrible time for me to be away from my desk. I’d just begun writing the last quarter of my memoir, fourth version, and facing issues (primarily of resolving narrative threads) I’d never imagined. The going was hard, but productive. Now I’ve returned jet-lagged, ill, and puzzled how to resume. Part of me wishes I hadn’t gone—I’ll pay dearly in time and suffering—and it’ll be a long time before I travel again. And yet the trip grew my spirit as it shrank the world.

China is astounding. It’s a vast, jarring country, and its sprawling cities, as rumored, do teem with people. Young adult Chinese speak good English, having begun learning the language at age twelve; now, kids are started at age three. New buildings erupt everywhere—built with America’s debt. What’s happening seems to be the rise of the world’s eventual sole economic and military superpower. It’s humbling to behold this boom. America must have seemed like this, a rawboned giant thrashing its legs, a hundred years ago. Empires wax and wane. How old is America, again? China was unified about 2,200 years ago by the warlord Qin Shi Huan, who started his peasants building the Great Wall, which I climbed with the choir members, who, gaining the rampart, broke into our school song, “The Otterbein Love Song.”

After the ruthless Qin (pronounced “Chin,” from which derives “China”) took power over one kingdom, he amassed 3,000 concubines and began building his tomb, really a palace for his afterlife, which is still unexcavated because of mercury contamination and concerns that air reaching it will destroy it. We gazed upon this flat-topped hummock, and saw nearby the “Eighth Wonder of the World” he also created, circa 210 BC: terra cotta soldiers, part of an estimated 8,000 somewhat larger-than-lifesized figures, plus gorgeous prancing clay horses and bronze chariots, all arrayed in battle formation in parallel trenches. An advisor had persuaded Qin to use models instead of entombing human soldiers, as was the custom. Some farmers digging a well in 1974 found his underground army. Annie Dillard, an early visitor to the dig, writes so well in For the Time Being about this archaeological treasure that, rereading it upon my return, I felt I was asleep by comparison. Her language, as always, is beautiful in its poetic precision:

That morning by the emperor’s tomb in Xi’an, that morning beyond the trenches where clay soldiers and horses seemed to swim from the dirt to the light, I stood elevated over the loess plain, alone. I saw to the south a man walking. He was breaking ground in perfect silence. He wore a harness and pulled a plow. His feet trod his figure’s blue shadow, and the plow cut a long blue shadow in the field. He turned back as if to check the furrow, or as if he heard a call.

We don’t know what call Qin heard, other than his own raging ego, or what he worshipped, other than the notion that he, as supreme ruler, would thereby rule in the afterlife. But after going through the trouble of conquering China, he died at forty-five, having presided only fifteen years. Despised by his subjects for his brutality and taxation, he may have been poisoned by a eunuch who wanted another man, Qin’s second son, to assume the throne. Instead, upon Qin’s death a peasant uprising carried away the entire dynasty.

With these matters in the foreground, what I brooded about in China—between helping send back video clips and other material for the university’s web page on the choir’s trip—was this: religions’ and believers’ general inability to include the Other under the umbrella of their God. It’s an old irony: soldiers from warring armies crouched in opposing trenches praying to God. That is, to be spared by their God and to be helped by Him to kill their godless foes. But if there is “a God,” how can this be? It can’t, unless there’s been, in fact or in effect, no transcendent God—just group-specific deities. Defining this God you believe in, or don’t, seems a lonely adult task, and it matters whether you place this entity outside of people or inside them. To me, God appears to be within, and growing, or evolving, as the human spirit itself enlarges.

Our Xi’an guide Kathie, in her Minnie dress

Just as I believe that China’s repressive government will fall, eventually, or gradually moderate, I believe that one day we and the Chinese will share one God. Both sides will realize we’re in it together on this green and blue mote of dust swirling through the black cosmos. This may sound sappy, or like New Age nonsense—perhance an overwrought symptom of jet lag—but look how long it took for white Americans to grant black Americans the same God. For starters, 200 years of wild-eyed abolitionists crying in the wilderness for a kinder world (Otterbein was founded by the United Brethren in 1847, with women on the faculty and women admitted as full students, though it would take more than a decade to hazard a black student); then came a bloody Civil War over slavery; after a hundred more years of tears, came the civil rights movement and legislation. We now have a black president, who has pledged to God—presumably still limited to America and its allies—to preserve this union.

Last Wednesday, Troy Burton, a black Otterbein senior from Louisville, Kentucky, led the choir in its final performance in China, on the stage of the Xi’an People’s Art Theater; our school’s gifted conductor, Gayle Walker, had been felled by illness. Troy wore an easy smile with his tux, but the singers knew he was nervous—an undergraduate conducting in China before a full house of 1,200. The choir rose, their eyes upon him, their voices soaring with uncommon strength and grace. When they left the stage, the audience applauded, wildly for China, and as that wave subsided, a Chinese woman called out to Troy from the darkness, “Obama!” We laughed, of course, but her shout was more than a joke. The Chinese people have seen something, and grown somehow closer to us, from afar.

The crowd that night, as always, loved the Chinese folk songs, the rollicking “Buffalo Gals,” and the Christmas carols, especially “Silent Night,” which caused them to whisper in recognition. But it was the Otterbein Concert Choir’s powerful performance of “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” that raised the hairs on the back of my neck. This verse says it all:

He delivered Daniel
From the lion’s den,
And Jonah from the belly of the whale,
And the Hebrew children
From the fiery furnace,
Then why not every man?

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Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, evolutionary psychology, MY LIFE, narrative, politics, religion & spirituality

Noted: A dark view of memoir

In a withering New Yorker review this week (November 29’s issue) of George W. Bush’s Decision Points, billed as a memoir, George Packer says, “Very few of its four hundred and ninety-three pages are not self-serving.” But then “every memoir is a tissue of omission and evasion,” he opines.

Incidentally, Packer calls Bush’s book sententious: “1. abounding in pithy aphorisms or maxims: a sententious book. 2. given to excessive moralizing; self-righteous,” according to dictionary.com. Interesting how close sententious is to tendentious, which also might fit: “having or showing a definite tendency, bias, or purpose: a tendentious novel.”

Packer goes on to eviscerate Bush and his Decision Points, without returning to his throwaway line about the genre in which it claims membership. Having read more than a few self-critical memoirs lately—Mary Karr’s Lit, Darin Strauss’s Half a Life, and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army spring to mind—his view seems dated or ignorant to me, the statement of someone who has read politicians’ “memoirs” (which fit better their historical designation, autobiography) but is unaware of the real work that’s been done during memoir’s renaissance.

Then again, I wonder if Packer’s imperious judgment is true in the larger sense, that is, in the sense that people themselves are tissues of “omission and evasion.” Are we? If so, then memoir is bound to reflect that. Maybe it’s a matter of how kindly or cruelly one views people. We’re made of varied tissues wound together, I’d say, flawed by nature but straining to be better. Pride seems to be the issue of this tissue: are we able to master it, or at least fight it to a standstill? Humility and clarity, in art and in life, can result.

In Bush’s case, the irony is that his fabled resurrection, in early middle age, as a humble believer seems merely to have provided cover and fuel for his angry pride. I’ll grant that he thinks he changed, submitted to God, at last found clarity—but he could have used a hell of a lot more self-doubt. The result of his obtuse egotism has emptied numberless Kleenex boxes in America, not to mention our treasury, and has littered Iraq with countless more dead and maimed. He made our world so much worse, then wrote about it, boastful and proud.

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Obama’s ‘Dreams from My Father’

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama. Three Rivers Press, 457 pages

I’ve written about Barack Obama a couple times on this blog. In “Narrative Nation” I explored the meta-meaning of his presidential campaign; in “Behind the Barn” I told how my wife’s family’s barn in northwestern Ohio became one of only about three “Obama Barns” in the entire state.

Now I’ve finally read Obama’s first book, his memoir, Dreams from My Father, and am impressed with him as a writer, not just as in “he’s a good writer,” but as in he’s a writer. Or was, before his political day jobs took him away. I feel like I know him much better, a man with gifts and burdens, someone who had to forge his own identity far more consciously than most people do. His exploration of this identity, half white and half black genetically—but only black in the white world’s eyes, especially when he moved to the American mainland for college—is central. And though I’d assumed he hadn’t faced prejudice while growing up in diverse Indonesia and Hawaii, I was wrong.

My favorite part is the first third in which he recreates his childhood and college years. The conflict here, his doubts, confusion, anger, is personal. His depiction of his white grandfather—ribald, whiskey drinking, garrulous—is just great, an earthy portrait, far from that of the sober Kansan I’d expected.

Confident as a boy—his mother, grandparents, and even his absent, charismatic father all believed in his destiny—Obama suffered a dissolute, cynical period in college. (He did every drug but heroin, where he drew the line, despite a buddy’s urgings.) He allowed the white world that had rejected him to co-opt the values he’d been raised with. He lost hope, rejected those values, and tried to become a bad ass. It took him time to regain his footing:

I rose from my couch and opened my front door, the pent-up smoke trailing me out of the room like a spirit. Up above, the moon had slipped out of sight, only its glow still visible along the rim of high clouds. The sky had begun to lighten; the air tasted of dew.

Look at yourself before you pass judgment. Don’t make someone else clean up your mess. It’s not about you. They were such simple points, homilies I had heard a thousand times before, in all their variations, from TV sitcoms and philosophy books, from my grandparents and from my mother. I had stopped listening at a certain point, I now realized, so wrapped up had I been in my own perceived injuries, so eager was I to escape the imagined traps that white authority had set for me. To that white world, I had been willing to cede the values of my childhood, as if those values were somehow irreversibly soiled by the endless falsehoods that white spoke about black.

Except now I was hearing the same thing from black people I respected, people with more excuses for bitterness than I might ever claim for myself. Who told you that being honest was a white thing? they asked me. Who sold you this bill of goods, that your situation exempted you from being thoughtful or diligent of kind, or that morality had a color? You’ve lost your way, brother. Your ideas about yourself—about who you are and who you might become—have grown stunted and narrow and small.

I sat down on the doorstep and rubbed the knot on the back of my neck. How had that happened? I started to ask myself, but before the question had even formed in my mind, I already knew the answer. Fear. The same fear that had caused me to push Coretta way back in grammar school. The same fear that had caused me to ridicule Tim in front of Marcus and Reggie. The constant, crippling fear that I didn’t belong somehow, that unless I dodged and hid and pretended to be something I wasn’t I would forever remain an outsider, with the rest of the world, black and white, always standing in judgment.

Obama tries to keep himself in the story in the next section, which depicts his years of political organizing in Chicago’s black neighborhoods. But the narrative turns less personal, slightly less vivid—the conflict is more societal—and more compelling in biographical and historical terms. His daily life, other than at work, isn’t clear. But his finally joining a church, the one whose erudite but angry pastor later would be used against him, was a significant and interesting thread and it climaxes this section. Finally he bends the narrative into a satisfying arc by bringing his story to Kenya, where he meets his father’s family, some of whom adore him and some of whom are touchy, easily slighted, offended by this handsome American’s long absence from Africa.

Obama’s election in law school as head of the Harvard Law Review, the first African American to hold that post, got him the memoir contract. Publishers saw the historic significance of his selection and gambled on him. This paid, obviously. Dreams from My Father appeared about the time he was elected to the senate.

Of course it’s impossible to read the book now except as a portrait of the politician as a young man. His story was worth telling, and he possessed the talent to tell it beautifully, but it was published (and probably in large part written) because Obama was marked for greatness in public life. He knew it—anyone with eyes to see knew it. This might seem to diminish the book slightly, qua memoir, but it’s also the truth that it was the story he owned, was his to tell.

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Filed under memoir, politics, REVIEW