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.


12 comments:

hugh lygon said...

Oh Stop. Examine your premises, will you?

america does have an american history of egalitarianism.

what's happened...i suppose it's obvious...is that equality of opportunity has trumped equality for conservatives even though, again obviously, equality of opportunity is least in present day america of all developed countries, save, perhaps, the uk.

the us is a new world country. america is american, after all. the fate of latin america is america's fate. the state which is not a nation-state will inevitably fail. "La sangre tira mucho."

you might like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFeoS41xe7w

hugh lygon said...

the problem with multi-cultural/racial/national isn't the cultural/racial/national.

it's the multi!

Texan99 said...

It's easy to confuse a general absence of violence with some kind of improvement in the average virtuousness of the population. Ordinary people are non-violent when they can get their basic needs met without resorting to violence. Drop a townful of law-abiding peaceniks into a disaster scenario, and we may find that there's absolutely no average intrinsic difference between them and the denizens of one of today's global hot spots, or a violence-torn era of the first millennium A.D.

Sam L. said...

Mayhap. I find Bryson rather smug, and caustic about where he grew up and the times thereabouts. I shall skip this book, having read two.

Texan99 said...

Grim just linked to an article about how the ideal of citizenship (and gender relations) changes when resources become so plentiful that most of us don't have to spend nearly every waking minute worrying about defending ourselves and our families from pillaging.

http://www.artofmanliness.com/2014/04/23/why-are-we-so-conflicted-about-manhood-in-the-modern-age/

hugh lygon said...

given herr prfessor doktor doktor steve hsu's association with greg cochran and his general imbecility, i requested my sample be destroyed and my data deleted.

chris chang claimed he would do this.

i encourage you to do the same.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Hmm. There's a thought.

hugh lygon said...

it should be very clear to anyone who's investigated the issue that steve is a racist, not just a "racist", a chinese supremacist, and very stupid.

greg cochran is even worse. he's a hick.

the "hbd" bloggers are universally mathematically incompetent.

even steve hsu made a glaring mathematical error.

all of their claims may be true...so far as they have any meaning at all...but the people making the claims are universally stupid as far as i can tell.

hugh lygon said...

it should be very clear to anyone who's investigated the issue that steve is a racist, not just a "racist", a chinese supremacist, and very stupid.

greg cochran is even worse. he's a hick.

the "hbd" bloggers are universally mathematically incompetent.

even steve hsu made a glaring mathematical error.

all of their claims may be true...so far as they have any meaning at all...but the people making the claims are universally stupid as far as i can tell.

Sam L. said...

AVI, are you on vacation? Sick? Uninspired? Then have you tried Vimitol, the little pill that gives you BIG energy? So's you can resume posting? Please?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I was on vacation 4/26-5/3, and sick for a few days afterward. But I am simply not feeling smart or wise at present. Thank you for the vote of confidence.

More book reviews may trickle out.

Texan99 said...

"I am simply not feeling smart or wise at present."

We'll be the judge of that! :-)