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WHAT’S HUMAN AND WHAT’S NOT

Between my previous blog on The Invention of Yesterday, A 50,00 Year of Human Culture and this one on Yuval Harari’s Sapiens, A Brief  History of Mankind, I should be completely versed on the entirety of human affairs from our literal beginnings and beyond. I guess I could quit reading altogether, but I’m far too addicted for that and well beyond the help of any program 12 steps or 12,000.

Yuval Noah Harari

What’s most remarkable to me about Sapiens is the manner and extent in which Harari melds scientific and biological evidence with sociological and cultural. We go back to pre-neanderthal times (100,000 years ago and more) when probably several different editions of our species were roaming the earth. Whether and how they met, intermarried, or otherwise communicated with one another is speculative, but Harari’s point is that we can’t buy into the linear progression from ape-neanderthal-homo sapiens (means “wise man,” by the way. Some joke that.) that most early textbooks imagined.

Rather, we somehow outran, outdueled, outlived our ancestors despite our smaller brains and inferior muscle mass. How? We outsmarted them, and we were better able to work cooperatively. In so doing, we wiped out the larger species of every other animal group we encountered as we migrated from east to west and north to south. [That doesn’t include dinosaurs, of course, who came a few tens of millions of years earlier.]

Why are there no more sabertooth tigers or mammoths, or giant kangaroos or a host of other creatures whose bones archeologists have excavated? They couldn’t reproduce fast enough or in sufficient numbers to keep up with the rate at which we slaughtered them. And all this without the aid of a single elephant gun. Thus did we dominate our earth.

But Harari doesn’t stop there. What’s the next stage? Obviously AI, where our own inventions will produce “fundamental transformations in human consciousness and identity.” And with the possibility of replacing our biological parts with mechanical and electronic ones, we maybe could become, not immortal, but as he terms it “amortal”. Beings whose longevity will extend far beyond anything we’ve been able to achieve so far.

Between you and me I’m not enough of a “Homo Sapien” to think that would be a good thing. But maybe I’m just in a sort of neanderthal stage and can’t appreciate the possibilities.

 

 


On The Fragility of White Folks

So what does this Robin DiAngelo get off with this title? How can a whole race of people who have collectively conquered, dominated, enslaved, incarcerated, and subjugated every other race (except maybe the mainland Chinese) on the planet for centuries–how can a race like that be called “Fragile”? So, at first the title didn’t make much sense, but a group I’m in wanted to read it, so I dived in.

DiAngelo is a veteran of racial awareness workshops both inside and outside academia. She makes a persuasive case (with the exception of some rather clumsy writing, but I’ve come to expect that of educational and sociological prose so I got past it fairly easily.) that despite all our years of sensitivity training and near-universal attitude changes which make overt racial prejudice as unwelcome as COVID in an ICU ward, racism and white supremacist sentiments and actions are alive and thriving across the land.

That’s not news, of course, given the horrid events of the day. What may be newsworthy, though, is the source and manner of the racism among those of us who consider ourselves among the uninfected. I’ll turn to one example Diangelo quotes from one of her groups. During a discussion, a black man referred to himself as “stupid.” A black female colleague assured him that wasn’t the case but that the dominant culture wanted him to believe it. A white woman intervened by saying, “what he was trying to say was. . .” She was, of course, trying to be helpful, but she was also, of course, perpetuating a racist pattern of assuming that she knew better than the man himself what he was trying to say. The guy was caught in between. It’s the kind of thing black folk encounter multiple times a day. And, in the larger context, the kind of thing that perpetuates de facto white supremacy about which black people can do little except navigate. But can to little to change.

The fragility part comes in when the author called the woman on her assumption. Immediate defensiveness and anger, followed by tears and a refusal to discuss the matter further. Her tears and retreat bought her sympathy from others in the group. The whole racial point and the man’s contribution were lost.

Another dynamic DiAngelo points to in similar situations ends with the black man trying to explain himself, thus perpetuating the notion that black people owe us an explanation some amelioration for our own tender and offended feelings.

Anecdotes like this abound, and it makes one despair of changing things. What’s most important is, though, that it is up to us white folks to cure ourselves. It’s both simple and complicated. I think we would start with one of DiAngelo’s sentences and perhaps stand a chance of getting somewhere.

Stopping our racist patterns must be more important than convincing others we don’t have them. 

Without that, we continue with destruction and misunderstanding. With that, we might have a chance.

ROBIN DIANGELO

 

 

 

 

 

 


LOUISE ERDRICH TRIUMPHS ONCE MORE

The Night Watchman. Doesn’t sound much like an Erdrich title, does it? The Last Report On the Miracles At Little No Horse, Antelope Wife, The Painted DrumIt takes only a few pages, though, to demonstrate that we are squarely in Louise’s territory.

It’s the early 1950’s. The Turtle Mountain Chippewas are imperiled. A racist congressman has introduced a bill relieving government of all responsibility for the tribe so that they can live more responsible American lives. That his proposal abrogates the treaty that promised them their land (scant and poor as it is) “as long as the grass grows and the river flows” is of no consequence to this guy.

LOUISE ERDRICH

Put that way, this sounds like a social protest book, and that element is certainly part of the picture. However, Erdrich grounds the saga in Native American family life. Love, sex, survival, integrity. In some ways, this is a coming of age book for protagonist “Pixie” who keeps trying to change what people call her to “Patrice” as one way of growing up. People try, but it’s a struggle. It might sound like a trivial thing that is important only to one young woman, but her battle is emblematic of the struggle for identity of an entire people. They’re trying hard to survive and stay sane and stay themselves in the face of hostile campaigns from all sides. And of course this has been going on for generations.

And what of the night watchman? He takes his lunch pail to work every night to guard a warehouse. And to write the script for the tribe’s defense against the ugly legislation. And to commune with an owl who keeps visiting for purposes baffling and mysterious.

As always in an Erdrich tale, there’s generous comedy here. Of note to me is one scene where a stallion takes off after a mare in heat and disrupts a parade. I was reminded of a sequence in Little No Horse where a sled is hijacked by a runaway moose, and we follow his bouncing balls across a lake.

But comical as some of the novel is, it is also painful and touching. We love these characters and we love following their travails. And I love the ending. A true surprise of the most pleasing and profound sort.

Thanks again, Louise. You’ve enriched my life yet again.


MY REFUGEE BUDDY

Alex Panasenko and I were faculty-mates at a bay area high school for decades. He’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever known, and he was one of the most popular teachers on the staff.

He’s an eccentric cuss who doesn’t much care whom he offends, but still keeps himself likable. His appearance and accent are, to me, vaguely East European, maybe Russian, but I never got him to talk to me much about his background. I didn’t pry too hard. None of my business. After reading The Long Vacation I believe I understand a bit about his reluctance to dwell on the past. It was brutal, and in this memoir he tells the story beautifully.

We start in Ukraine. Alex’s (abusive) father teaches science, his mother keeps the house. They are poor but more or less comfortable even though Stalin is in charge. Then things go downhill. I’m going to skip over, even distort, much of what follows so as not to spoil the book for you readers, but I hope to deliver the flavor anyhow.

Stalin institutes one of his famous 5-year plans, which is really a project designed to starve Ukraine into submission so the vast, rich land can be handed over to Russians. (Sound familiar?) Then the Germans invade, and Alex is conscripted and the family is basically sent to war along with everyone else. Alex is separated from his parents and siblings and forced to hook up with some Germans for protection. This seeming shelter puts him in more peril because one of Stalin’s decrees is that any Russians (Ukrainians count for Brother Joe’s purposes in this instance) who conspire with Germans are subject to being shot on sight. The boy has to do a lot of dodging.

Most of us know the broad historical outlines here. The German invasion, the Russian slaughter, the German retreat, the horrid, bitter cold, the excruciating suffering–Alex the child was in the middle of it all.

Perhaps one anecdote will serve to illustrate. I’m thinking of the one about the exhausted mother on the train who fell asleep with her newborn in her arms, then awoke to find a frozen corpse in her lap. Bad enough. But then the agonizing guilt and shame drive her mad. She climbs off the train and starts walking in the direction where her child as been discarded in the snow miles earlier. The Russian guard on the train can’t allow her to “escape.” A single bullet takes care of her.

Alex leaves us when the Americans arrive. It’s been years since he’s been to school. He speaks Russian and a bit of German. End of “The Long Vacation.”

How he gets from Germany to the U.S., gets educated, ends up speaking fluent English and becomes an accomplished American science instructor I don’t know and find it hard to imagine. Anything I’ve suffered in my life is not worth a stubbed toe compared to this.

Aside from my personal attachment to Alex and his narrative, I find this a priceless piece of twentieth century history. Apparently, it took some doing to get him to write it. The world is richer for it. Nice going, Alex.

 


LOVE IN THE TIME OF COVID

I’m feeling a bit humble at my temerity. Daring to write a “review” of Love in the Time of Cholera. Greater skill and talent than mine have poured forth their riches explaining and exploring the depths of this gigantic piece of literature by a man who deserved the Nobel Prize even more than Bob Dylan. So, here goes, with the caveat that I’m writing for me and pretend not to enrich the mountain of golden criticism that already exists.

GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ

Courtly Love.  A term little set forth and even less understood nowadays. However, it’s a tradition that permeates this book, and in a most fascinating way. Courtly love was a convention that emerged around the twelfth century in Europe. The idea is that genuine affection had to be expressed over time and was subject to great trials and tribulations. Usually, the knight viewed a lady from afar, was smitten, and strove to communicate his affection. Since she was surrounded by family and chaperones whose sole project was to protect her virginity, it was a rough job for a prospective lover to work his way through the defenses. It might take years. A note here, a glance there, hundreds of false tries. That’s Florentine Ariza as he pursues Fermina Daza.

He’s a sorrowful poet, waiting in the park as he sees her on her way to school. He’s a passionate lover, seemingly on the brink of consummation when she suddenly marries another. He persists.

The novel’s setting is in a city near a river which creates swamps and and marshes, so cholera is always a threat. You can make what you want of a symbol like that, and Marquez evokes an enormous amount of meaning without getting heavy-handed about it.

Poor Florentino might seem a pitiable and comical soul somewhat like Goethe’s Werther, but as the years go by he develops into a powerful businessman, well-respected and admired in the community.  Fermina, meanwhile, cruises on in a basically loveless but secure and comfortable marriage. Florentino pursues her the while. This all goes on for decades.

Finally, Fermina’s husband dies in one of the great comic scenes in all of literature. I won’t spoil it all except to say that it involves a parrot, a ladder, and a birthday party.

Both Fermina and Florentino are well into old age by this time, but Florentino, as I said, has not given up. He’s not kept himself virginal over the years, but he has never abandoned his dream of a union with his first love.

Finally, there is a river voyage that not only provides a culmination of the relationship (sort of) but manages to deliver a frightening environmental message or two without preaching or interrupting the narrative.

It’s a story of young and old-age love unique in conception and composition. And it proved the perfect companion to this dreadful time in which we find ourselves. As they say, tears and laughter and great writing. Wonderful companions.