Saturday, February 17, 2018

Racism: Beyond Anything We Could Have Imagined

It is not for nothing that they call Harry Turtledove the master of alternative history. His wildly famous 1992 book Guns of the South was just one of his many works that explored how history might have been had a few small things changed its course—or maybe a few large things.

In Guns of the South, Turtledove imagines what might have happened if the Confederacy had had superior weaponry over the Union. And not just a little bit superior: what if the Confederacy had AK-47s and grenade launchers? This is what happened in the novel when, in 1864, some mysterious men showed up, wearing what we call camouflage but for which the confederates had no name, and making AK-47s, which could be used either in semi- or fully-automatic mode, and an unlimited amount of ammunition available for very little money—and for nearly worthless confederate money, at that. The men revealed to General Robert E. Lee and other top confederates that they were from the future—they had a time machine that brought them from 2014 back exactly 150 years. The result is gory and unsurprising, though its details are exciting: Confederate troops storm Washington, D.C., where Abraham Lincoln concedes defeat. The Confederacy just wants to be left alone, and the Union leaves them alone.

But there is a price to be paid. The mysterious camouflaged men told Lee that, if the Union had won the war, black people would eventually have enslaved white people. But what Lee and others eventually discover is that these men were lying about the future. They were a South African militia of white separatists who hated the very existence of black people. They were using a Confederate victory as a means of ensuring white supremacy in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Emancipation was already beginning in the Confederacy, and it was a great benefit to the economy. But the racists hated it any way—they wanted to have dominion over blacks, even if it bankrupted their confederacy.

The author portrays many Confederates as evil racists, but others, including the sergeant through whose eyes much of the action is seen, and including Lee, were moderates who admitted to themselves that even a Confederate victory would not ensure the indefinite continuation of slavery, which was despised by literally every other nation in the world. After Lee became a civilian, and ran for Confederate president, he campaigned for gradual emancipation of the slaves. The South African supremacists, of course, hated this, and they turned their weapons against the Confederacy for which they had just a couple of years earlier fought. They had overwhelming firepower advantage, but there were only a few hundred of them—racist splinter groups are always small, even in apartheid South Africa. The moderate confederates, principal among them Robert E. Lee, prevail over them and ease their way into racial equality.

Turtledove’s writing is clear and beautiful, sometimes formulaic but never poor. The twists of plot and the delightful characters even by themselves make the book good.

Why am I reviewing this old book? In 1992, neither Turtledove nor anyone else could imagine that the kind of fierce hatred of blacks that fueled South African apartheid could possibly exist in America. But it does. It is impossible to make an accurate count of how many racists there are in America. But when you consider how widespread and common the white power protests are, and, what is more, the sheer number of assault weapons they have built up, it is easy to believe that somewhere around a half million Americans are ready to take up arms against the rest of us in order to establish a White Supremacist Nation. And I believe that they would be willing to stage an act of terrorism every bit as bloody and violent as that of the Afrikaner racists in this novel. In 1992, Turtledove had to imagine a foreign source for a few hundred such racists; today, right here in America, there are perhaps hundreds of thousands.

That is, real history has turned out thousands of times worse than a novelist could have imagined it a little over a quarter century ago. It seems impossible to avoid the inevitable firestorm that will result from white hatred of blacks in America. Evolution has given us both good and bad instincts, and the intelligence to choose the good; sadly, I see no way in which intelligence and goodness can possibly prevail in this selfish and hostile nation that we have become.

Friday, February 9, 2018

News from France!

“A 19-year-old French youth who was shot in the head after a banal road dispute over right-of-way was pronounced dead in hospital on Wednesday. A suspect has now been charged with his murder…The 19-year-old youth was left fighting for his life after being gunned down on Sunday night near the town of Giffaumont in north-eastern France.”

Wow! They have road rage shootings in France! This makes America not look so bad…

Except that this report was from 2013. This was the only case of French road rage I could find by searching online.

Meanwhile, I was searching online for more information about a road rage shooting in Dallas about which one of my botany majors had told me. A friend of her husband had cut in front of another driver in an ill-advised attempt to take an exit. The driver who got cut off followed him around through Dallas until pulling up next to him at a stoplight. The road rage driver then took out a gun and shot holes in the side of the first man’s car. My student confirmed that this incident went unreported. The only road rage incidents that were reported were those that involved bloodshed, including murder, about five of them in Dallas just in the second half of 2017.

And you wonder why the Europeans think we are crazy? Is this what a “Christian country” is supposed to look like?

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

How Embarrassing... be an American. Nearly every item of news that people in other countries (for example, France) hear about us is bad. And true.

They constantly hear about how many evangelical Christians there are in America. Many millions. Evangelical Christians are the ones who say that all other Christians are going to hell. At the same time, there are always numerous news reports, only some of which make it over to France, about immoral things that evangelical Christians do. America stands out in the world as a place thick with evangelical hypocrites.

They also repeatedly hear about how evangelical Christians by and large practically worship Donald Trump. Many of them are quite open in their idolatry and admiration of Him. As far as I can determine, no evangelical groups have criticized Trump about anything. There are individual evangelicals who have, and they had, at least before the election, an online petition they can sign. But these anti-Trump evangelicals are individuals scattered among the predominantly Trump-worshiping evangelical churches.

And then they also hear about utterly heinous crimes committed in Bible-belt states. This does not mean that the criminals are Christians, but the evangelicals claim that their Christianity creates a moral culture around them. The utter stupidity of this statement is illustrated by a news item that was scarcely reported in American news but was featured prominently in the French online news.

In North Carolina, Katie Pladl, age 20, looked for the biological father who had abandoned his family at the time of her birth. She found Steven Pladl, 42 years old. She married him and, a year later, had a baby by him. Here is the French news report with the American news photo below that appeared on French news. Incest is the one action that is considered sinful in every cultural group in the world, except that it is apparently thinkable in the Bible belt.

I am glad I read French news because otherwise the American news, even NPR, would lull me into thinking that things are pretty good in American society.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

A Shift in the World

Most of this essay appeared on my science blog, but I have added some religious thoughts at the end that are unique to this blog.

It may not seem like the most important news of recent times, but I believe that Trump’s recent declaration that countries with dark people are “shithole nations” marks a major shift in the relationship of the United States with the rest of the world—not just with the countries that Trump insulted, but also with our European allies. As of this writing, Trump has refused to apologize for his words. (He admits insulting other countries, and only denies using the word shit.) He never apologizes for anything. He just blames Hillary for everything he says.

No longer does the United States, embodied now in the figure of Trump, oppose only its enemies such as North Korea or its economic rivals such as China. Trump, who insists that he is a “very stable genius,” has made it clear that he hates every country that is not pure white. Clearly, the United States no longer wants other countries as friends. We Americans want them to either hate us or to fear us or both.

It is not just Trump. The entire Republican Party, even if not completely sharing Trump’s sentiments, has supported him. America elected him, and knew what kind of person he was when doing so.

The majority non-white countries of the world have been pushed away from the table of friendship with America. Naturally, they will turn to one another for cooperation. And the majority-white European countries such as France and Germany must be perfectly ready to form coalitions with these countries. Perhaps even more importantly, when the United States insults most of the world, the Russians and Chinese will say, “Come and join with us, make special trade arrangements with us, at least we will not insult you.”

I do not mean the other countries of the world will become military enemies of America. But, starting now, and increasingly with time, they will consult with each other but only negotiate with the United States. It is quite clear to them that there is no point in talking with America except from a position of their own solidarity and power. We do not need to be at war with the other countries of the world in order to be overpowered by them.

I just finished reading Graham Greene’s classic novel The Human Factor, about a British double-agent who defects to the Soviet Union. But this man was not a communist. He thought communism was evil. Why, then, did he do it? He did it because, when he was a representative of the British government in South Africa, he fell in love with an African woman. In South Africa, love between blacks and whites was illegal. He had to escape from South Africa in order to marry the woman. The only people who were willing to help him escape were the communists, and in gratitude to them for this help—not because he agreed with their politics—he became a double agent. (Leave it to Graham Greene to make a spy novel into an empathetic exploration of the human spirit.)

Graham Greene was a convert to Catholicism. He did not seem very enthusiastic about the details of doctrine, but he considered the internal religious struggle between good and evil to be fundamental to the human experience. That pretty much summarizes all of his novels. Were he alive today he might see American arrogance as a fundamental evil that is now beginning to change the course of world history, much greater than the apartheid that Greene hated so much but that was confined to South Africa.

In a similar fashion, the countries that will begin to form an alliance against America—whether a few or many or all other countries—do not necessarily disagree with democracy nor do they necessarily agree with Russia or China. They will do it primarily because America hates them.

I imagine a future in which the other countries of the world form a new version of the United Nations, one in which America is not invited to participate. As I have so often said in this evolution blog, human altruism has been the greatest achievement of evolution. It will continue into the future, but the form in which it continues may be as mutual aid among countries who have had their fill of American hatred and arrogance.

And I think that future historians will look back and see that this shift started to take organized form in early 2018. As a religious person, though of no specific doctrine, I see that America has now largely become a force of evil in the world. I believe America has pushed God out into the dark shithole realms that we consider the rest of the world to be.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Welcome to the New Year!

Here is a thought to begin the new year. A lot of things that seem purposeful to us are the result of chance. Here is a line from a 1998 short story, Red Underwear, by Charles W. Harvey. I don’t remember what the story was about, but here is the quote:

“I’m a great believer in default. We are alive by default. We are the eggs that didn’t die and wash out in our mothers’ blood. We are the ones who survived the pill or leaked out of a busted condom. And even if our parents planned us, we weren’t the ones they wanted. We were what they got.”

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Faith and Doubt: The Novels of Graham Greene

The kinds of religion to which I am agnostic are those that have easy and clear answers to every question. I admire people who, whether religious or not, seriously engage the questions of ultimate meaning. Characters who take steps of faith despite doubt, even though they cannot explain their faith, and do so without condemning those who disagree with them—these characters are common in the novels of Graham Greene, a twentieth-century British novelist. He converted to Catholicism, not because of being convinced by evidence or of doctrine, but because of an emotional attraction to it, a need he felt in his soul. This being the case, Greene never makes his readers, or his characters, feel as if there is something wrong or evil about them for not agreeing with his religious sentiments. Greene’s novels are not widely popular today, probably because his attention to the meaning of life is considered tedious by religious fundamentalists and atheistic seekers of pleasure alike. But it is precisely this that has made me love every novel of Greene’s that I have read: four and counting.

I just finished reading Monsignor Quixote. It is about a friendship between, and aimless adventures of, a Catholic priest and a communist ex-mayor. As you might guess, the priest is Quixote, the ex-mayor goes by Sancho Panza, the priest’s old car is Rozinante, and they hail from the little Spanish town of El Toboso. Neither of the men, though officially expected to do so, considers the other man to be outrageous or stupid even if he considers the beliefs to be so. The priest realizes that there are questions he cannot answer. Just as the priest does not have to personally answer for the atrocities of Torquemada and the Inquisition, the communist does not have to defend the atrocities of Stalin.

Just as did the original Quixote and Sancho, these two men had a common enemy, the windmills, represented in this novel by the Guardia, the police who supported Generalissimo Franco before his death, and who still operated as a force that always, if slightly, exceeded its legal limits. And just as in the original, Quixote did things that got him in trouble but which he did for sincerely good reasons. In the original, Quixote rescued a chain gang that was on its way to the galleys, men who were officially condemned by legal authorities. In this novel, Quixote helped a criminal to escape pursuit by the Guardia. As Quixote said, “the Good Samaritan didn’t hold an enquiry into the wounded man’s past.” He simply helped him, and did so immediately. Since in this novel Quixote is an innocent priest, his Dulcinea is a long-dead woman saint. Instead of Mambrino’s helmet, Quixote had a pechera, which is a kind of bib worn by high-ranking priests.

This novel could easily have become a fictitious framework for lectures. This is the feeling I got from the Alan Lightman novel Mr g, which has a deliberately ridiculous fictional background for exploring questions about cosmology. But Greene is a master of creating characters who have real reasons for what they believe and discuss and do, something quite lacking in Lightman’s novel.

The climax in Greene’s novel occurs when Quixote, hiding from both church and civil authorities, sees a Catholic procession which has been designed by the local priest as a way of getting larger and larger donations. Quixote stops the procession and denounces it as blasphemy. And at the end, Quixote ends up serving communion to the communist Sancho.

The most human part of the novel was that both men recognized the other as religious, but also as having doubts. Greene said that sharing a sense of doubt can bring men together more than sharing a faith. Sancho was no ordinary communist; he had studied to be a priest before giving up religion. And when Sancho suggested that Quixote read some Marx, the priest ended up liking Marx, noting that Marx, even if wrong, was trying his best to help the poor people whom capitalism had oppressed. Sancho had more faith in communism than in Stalin, and Quixote had more faith in Catholicism than in Rome. The priest noted that if you have complete faith, in the Bible or in Marx, you can quit thinking, something that both men refused to do.

Monsignor Quixote had a current of humor running all through it, neither of the two main characters taking himself too seriously. It was especially funny when they spent the night at a brothel, only Quixote did not know what it was. The bedside tables had condoms, and Quixote thought they were balloons, and he started to blow one up and it exploded. Sancho to Quixote: “Have you never seen a contraceptive before? No, I suppose you haven’t.” Quixote: “A contraceptive? But what can you do with a thing that size?” Sancho: “It wouldn’t have been that size if you hadn’t blown it up.”

The main point, at the very end, is that a man’s hate dies with him, while his love lives on past his death.

I didn’t like the original Don Quixote, by Cervantes. It has memorable scenes, which are clever, but otherwise I found it tedious. Most of Cervantes’s work is not about Quixote but are other stories told by other characters. Quixote is a minor character in his own novel. And Quixote is downright brutal to his follower Sancho, often hitting him violently. I got tired of that. It has some great one-liners, as when Cervantes says that to help a man ungrateful is to pour water into the sea. But, all in all, I would suggest watching a rerun of Man of La Mancha rather than reading the original Don Quixote. However, if you read Monsignor Quixote by Graham Greene, you will have to read, or at least read about, the original or you will miss the numerous references to it.

The priest returns to a place where he knows he will die in The Power and the Glory; the emotionally-torn adulterer confronts himself in The Heart of the Matter; Monsignor Quixote is not only significant but funny. These great novels make me want to read a lot more by Graham Greene. Perfect for a Christian agnostic.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Novel as Experiment in Whitehead’s Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was one of the most famous novels of 2016. In this novel, a young slave Cora escapes from Georgia on the Underground Railroad, and eventually...does she make it? I won’t spoil the ending. But in this novel the Railroad is really a railroad, with railroad cars on tracks running through tunnels.

One impression is inescapable, and intentional. The amount of deliberate suffering inflicted by slave owners and slave hunters on the slaves, and even on other whites, is almost infinitely brutal. In this novel, slave hunters would kill and rape white abolitionists. Slave owners would put the eyes out of a slave who tried to learn to read. A white daughter turned in her parents to be hanged for hiding a fugitive slave (Cora), in return for an elevation of her social status. One slave hunter wore a necklace made out of human ears. One slave owner tortured his male slave by cutting off the slave’s manhood, stuffing it in the slave’s mouth, and sewing it shut.

Remember, this is fiction. Many of these things did not actually happen. For example, it makes no economic sense for slave owners to torture and kill their slaves for minor infractions; slaves were expensive to buy and maintain. Slave owners would, in the real South, treat slaves like animals, but not usually worse. But Whitehead achieves the novelist’s purpose, to make the reader hate slavery, and to see how it turns slave owners into devils.

And then I realized that this was the point. Most of these brutal things occurred at some point in history, but not all at once. During the lynchings after the Civil War, whites would indeed torture blacks. In doing so, they were not losing any money, the way slave owners would have. Whitehead took actual events from the lynching period and stuck them into the time of slavery. Whitehead also created a superficially nice-looking South Carolina, where black escapees were treated nicely, but it turns out that they were being sterilized in the name of scientific eugenics, and being used in scientific experiments. These things actually happened in the first half of the twentieth century. By placing the brutalities of fictional Georgia and North Carolina alongside the superficial niceness of the fictional South Carolina, Whitehead was inviting us to compare them. Were eugenics and scientific experimentation (as in the Tuskegee experiments), any less brutal than slavery? We usually don’t ask that question, because they occurred separately in history. Whitehead lines them all up during one brief time in Cora’s life. He performs an experiment with history. Hypothesis: eugenics is less brutal than slavery. Conclusion: No, they are both brutal.

I tried this kind of literary experiment when I was in junior high. I wrote a short story in which I divided England into two counties, Rupertshire and Spratleyshire, and I gave them two different forms of government. I set them side by side and allowed a traveler to directly compare them. That’s all I remember about this story, which might be in a box somewhere.

The Underground Railroad will certainly stir your fury. The young escaped slave Cora did not take every opportunity for revenge that came to her. I found myself wishing she had tortured and slowly killed the slave catcher in Indiana, rather than leaving him alive and tied up. That is, Whitehead stirred my desire for revenge then confronted me with mercy. This literary theme will never grow old.

Colson Whitehead broke up the timeline of history in a way that is forbidden in most historical fiction: he altered the historical context. But he made this broken timeline into parallel segments and compared them, as in a scientific experiment.

I published this essay on my evolution blog earlier this fall.