BOOK REVIEW: “The Storm Before the Storm” and the seduction of lessons from history

We have a tendency to look at the past as a mirror, to see ourselves reflected in it rather than recognize the past as a foreign country — even when, indeed, it’s both.

This leads to methods of historical divination that try to read the past closely and thoroughly enough that the present is entirely recognizable and therefore the future will be foreseeable.

Sometimes this is presented merely in aphorism (“history repeats”, “it rhymes”, “people repeat history”); sometimes pseudo-scientifically (“these are the six economic indicators that will predict the next president”). Previous societies would sacrifice animals on an altar and from their entrails suss out messages they already wanted to find. We’re much more advanced nowadays, so we substitute cherry-picked data in place of viscera.

Roman history, though, is especially at risk for this sort of confirmation bias because there is so very much of it and it influenced so many successor states, all of whom could reasonably claim to have inherited part of its legacy.

As much as anyone, the United States has intentionally drawn those same parallels since our very founding.

Rejecting absolutism, we were a republic with the highest ideals of personal liberty, representation, and equality under the law. Yet, like the Romans, we only cared to extend this to some, and freedom didn’t preclude seizing territory by conquest or wiping out whole peoples. In Rome’s Italian territory, perhaps a quarter of the total population was enslaved at its height. In the Deep South, it was more like half.

When hobbyist podcaster, now graduated to a professional popular historian, Mike Duncan set out to write his 2017 book The Storm Before the Storm, he admits he went into it with an eye toward resonant parallels between Rome and the United States. Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW: “The Storm Before the Storm” and the seduction of lessons from history”

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Bone and Sinew of the Land’ recovers some American history that actually has been erased

When it so happens—more regularly now than before but never yet regular enough—that a cheap zinc or bronze cast of some semi-famous slaver is yanked from its pedestal in the middle of a city night, or when a suburban school board in broad daylight votes to no longer compel students to adorn their bodies with the name and imagery of a particular child trafficker, invariably there rises the cry:

“You’re erasing history! You’re censoring our Confederate past! You’re rewriting collective memory to sanitize it!”

This, of course, is worse than nonsense and akin to defending the maintenance of NAMBLA-installed plaques to Jerry Sandusky. It should be regarded as such whether it’s an argument being made by angry, open bigots in Facebook comment sections or under the auspices of the National Review.

But some worthy portions of our history have indeed been buried, erased, and minimized. Harvard’s Anna-Lisa Cox’s latest book The Bone and Sinew of the Land is an example of what it actually looks like when that sort of history is excavated for a popular audience, and what a positive effect that can have.

Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Bone and Sinew of the Land’ recovers some American history that actually has been erased”

We let things get worse instead of making sure they’d get better

‘Screw Attack’ by Allie Merritt (@alliearts)

In the original Metroid for NES in 1986, the instruction manual referred to Samus Aran with male pronouns and (charitably) Samus wore a bikini only to make it inarguably clear the character wasn’t a man considering the hardware’s limitations in pixel count.

In the NES game, Samus had green hairbrown hair, yes, blonde, but neon, too, and the Nintendo Power comic for Super Metroid made the hair purple, as well as famously establishing a body size of 6′3″, 198 pounds (190 cm, 98 kg).

Subsequent to that, Nintendo decided to have a more standardized portrayal of Samus outside of the suit, which is blonde and blue- or green-eyed, and they released Metroid Prime and Metroid Fusion simultaneously in 2002. That’s not necessarily bad, but it’s limiting compared to the other options that existed when Samus could be many different things.

After Metroid: Zero Mission in 2004, Samus started down a road of bimbo-ification, for lack of a better term. The games with more explicit plot and characterization tended to follow Japanese stock tropes of magical superheroine, while in the West, the focus on a skin-tight flight suit had predictable results. Heels and generous breasts, hair that became more ornate even in situations where it would seem unlikely that was suitable.

Between the Smash Bros games and Metroid: Other M, a character that had been different, flexible in interpretation, a sci-fi action star with agency and presence, and notable for all these things, turned into another sex object whose feminity was only highlighted in service of being desired or desiring babies. ‘Smash Bros’ tells you a lot about the intended gaze, and MOM the game is ‘doesn’t look like anything to me’ bad in the choices it made.

Maybe it’s just rose-colored glasses, but I swear Samus didn’t use to be the subject of quite so much tentacle-based sexual assault in the past.

So I don’t think the ‘Screw Attack’ portrayal is definitive or should be the only interpretation of the character that exists, but I deeply miss the time, especially between 1994 and 2002, when Samus was more likely to be seen doing something in their suit than out of it, and, while out of it, they could look like nearly anything and anyone’s idea of them could be valid. Somehow, this actually made the character less interchangeable instead of more.

The past 15 years or so for gaming culture have in many ways been a regression when, for some reason, I expected progress instead. But I guess that’s true of a lot of other things in the culture, generally.

BOOK REVIEW: The real “Good News About Bad Behavior” is that the kids are already alright

Journalist Katherine Reynolds Lewis’s inaugural book, The Good News About Behavior grew out of a 2015 article for Mother Jones called “What If Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids Was Wrong?“. The promotional material claims it was the most read story the magazine had ever published; The Seattle TimesClaudia Rowe relates that it got more than 4 million hits.

That’s a good clue you ought to get to work writing a book for someone to sell.

Which Lewis did. This book, subtitled “Why Kids Are Less Disclipined Than Ever—And What To Do About It” or in some editions, “Am I So Out of Touch? No, It’s The Children Who Are Wrong” might be the most important book ever written considering what we’re up against with Kids These Days.

Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW: The real “Good News About Bad Behavior” is that the kids are already alright”

BOOK REVIEW: ‘No Ashes in the Fire’ by Darnell L. Moore burns bright and goes out too soon

It’s a rare thing for a book to conclude and your biggest complaint be that there quite wasn’t enough of it. Yet, that’s what Darnell L. Moore accomplished with his memoir No Ashes in the Fire.

It’s an impressive work of introspection, family heritage, and the intersectionality of race, sexuality, gender, and even faith, all the more so because it’s done in beautiful prose.

Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW: ‘No Ashes in the Fire’ by Darnell L. Moore burns bright and goes out too soon”

BOOK REVIEW: Barbara Ehrenreich is old enough to die, but still has plenty to say

In Gulliver’s Travels, the titular character visits many strange, foreign lands in the service of satirist Jonathan Swift’s desire to poke fun at the flaws of the culture of his time and to talk regularly about human excretions.

Adaptations, especially those aimed at children, tend to only reproduce the book’s evocative imagery of being a giant among the tiny Lilliputians and being doll-sized among the towering Brobdingnagians. They leave out the scenes of defecating enough to fill a miniature church or being forced to watch colossal serving girls urinate. Laputa, the floating island of scientific wonder, sometimes appears in other contexts such as Japanese animated film, but without the associations of trying to turn digested food back into something edible. The humanoid primitives, Yahoos, survived into common parlance better than the rational, equine Houyhnhnms, but without the association of feces-flinging.

One brief, excreta-free section from Gulliver’s Travels is not among those often reproduced whatsoever: Gulliver meeting the immortal struldbrug. These are a special breed of human who are able to live essentially forever but without eternal youth. Their teeth fall out, their eyesight and hearing fail, their memories dull, they aren’t allowed autonomy or property ownership, and eventually can’t communicate even with each other because their dialects grow indistinguishable. The people of the land of Luggnagg are thankful for death because they’re constantly reminded of what the real alternative is.

I’m not the first to point out the similarity of modern medicine in creating cursed immortality as a reality for us, but our appreciation for the inevitability and even relief of death continues to lag behind for most.

Barbara Ehrenreich is definitely not counted among such people, and her latest book Natural Causes is a short, solid piece of prose about what it means to suffer from age, accepting the reality of death, and the sorts of things a person ought to consider when weighing both.

Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW: Barbara Ehrenreich is old enough to die, but still has plenty to say”

Politics is too important not to be treated like a game

The central problem with modern American politics is not that people are unengaged or politically inactive.

It is the case that most people are not effectively engaged or usefully active.

It’s much easier to Like, Retweet, or argue with someone online than to volunteer, donate to an underfunded campaign, or organize canvassers. That’s in part because social media is literally designed by professionals whose job it is to make them addictive and neurologically rewarding.

If we want to make politics better, we need to harness our worst instincts to serve our better angels. We need to turn politics into a literal game. Continue reading “Politics is too important not to be treated like a game”