Monday, October 27, 2014

University of Orwell update: 10/26/14

Hey y'all.  So I've been reading some books for consideration of entrance into the University of Orwell.  Why not talk about them, shall we?

Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader by Bradley K. Martin ---

This is a book that was at my work, and I checked it out with the express purpose of considering it for this list.  Just look at that cover.  So dramatic, no?  Besides, it's a two inch thick book on a topic I want to read about.  What could go wrong?

Well, to be a good history writer, one must learn to use a knife.  A metaphorical knife, to be used against one's own bias and the bias of the sources the writer uses.  One must have an austere, straightforward mind, free from subtle attitudes and being so sunk in a situation or culture that you can't see past the attitudes and influences of that situation or culture.  While it's not possible to be completely unbiased, the writer has to be always aware that their nonfiction is about the subject, not them.  And someone's writing will always show their attitude.

Such was clearly the case with Bradley K. Martin.  Now, most of his narrative does not involve the early life of Kim Il Sung, North Korea's first tyrant.  It's not really possible, given how little is available on the topic.  However, Martin's methods for summarizing Il Sung's early years is questionable.  For one thing, he heavily relies on Il Sung's own memoirs.  Given some of the fantastic fish stories that have come out of the North (see: Kim Jong Il's golf record), one should be very careful at referencing this propaganda.  While Martin spoke to some of the people who apparently knew Il Sung during his early years, most of the first three chapters rests on Il Sung's post-tyrant biographies.  And at least one of the witnesses involved was still loyal to Il Sung.  Yeah.

So reading the early chapters gave me a strange feeling of dread.  Then in chapter four or five, Martin makes a side comment about America's involvement in Korea being "overbearing." He adds no other detail to this, but simply uses the label "overbearing" as though it sums up the entire range of Korean-American relations.  While I'm willing to believe that's a Korean attitude on the matter (not that he states that), I've read other history books concerning the politics between American and Korean leaders.  Truman as president showed some reluctance to stay involved on the peninsula, and his post WWII reluctance to include Korea in his defense perimeter was a factor in causing the Korean War. It's probably true that some Americans were overbearing, but many were hesitant to stay involved in foreign nations.  In fact, later on Americans showed an odd inability to do anything effective when two of Korea's later presidents used the military to gain their office.

I can't help but compare this to Mao: the Untold Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday.  They, despite being a Chinese woman and her husband, were able to describe a devastating period in Chinese history without resorting to emotionalism or labeling.  When they wanted to criticize American involvement, they got specific: they mentioned that Nixon's visit to China possibly had negative effects on the Chinese population as a whole.  For that matter, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wasn't afraid to mention that FDR and Winston Churchill tricked Russian soldiers into going back to the Soviet Union, even though they knew repatriated Russian soldiers would be arrested if they went back.

So Martin is just going to call American involvement "overbearing"?  That tells the reader nothing, other than Martin's opinion on the matter.  If Martin explained his reasons for this label, it'd be fine, but he just moves on to the next thing.  Reading history books is to gain knowledge, not hear other people rant along.

Perhaps Martin should have started his book at a later point, such as the end of the Korean War, and just described North Korea as it has become today.  With all the testimonials in this book, that would be a better angle.

I stopped reading it at this point.  Despite this being a long, detailed book, I've learned to trust my intuition by now, and this book just felt wrong.  To check, I went on Amazon and started looking up reviews there.

by D. Kauck --
"This is an interesting read. Unfortunately, it lacks structure. The author jumps back and forth from biographies of the Kims, history of North Korea, observations and reflections from his journeys, interviews with refugees and anecdotes. Most of the chapter titles don't tell you anything at all about what the chapter is going to be about. Generally, the book follows a chronological order, but I found that there are many things in between that I was not very interested in and had rather skipped. Given the many details and anecdotes, the book ends up being too long. All the more necessary is it to give it a clear structure and clear chapter titles to allow you to focus on reading what is the most interesting to you. Instead, the author leaves you in the dark with his lack of structure and focus and useless chapter titles."

by Brian Komyathy
"A very large proportion (maybe 20-30%) of this book concerns the accounts of numerous defectors from North Korean territory; how they got out, their opinions of Kim Il-sung (almost all favorable), Kim Jong-Il (almost all unfavorable) and their descriptions of life in North Korea. This is, for the most part, very interesting, but too often the author accepts at face value anything these people have chosen to share with him....Numerous other things the author writes are either not examined, not explained, or are of questionable merit....

...And of the son of the `North Korean God,' Kim Jong-il, the author says "Missing in the accounts by those who demonized Kim was any hint that there might be two sides to the story. Surely there are unrelievedly evil people. Saddam Hussein's sadistic sons Uday and Qusay perhaps qualified. But I could not fit the real Kim Jong-il comfortably into the role of total monster." (Withholding food from starving citizens, imprisoning hundreds of thousands of them for 'offenses' as minor as for listening to non-approved radio broadcasts or not hanging his picture in their home merits what on the monster scale?)"

That's a no.  Komyathy's review gives a lot more detail about the quotes of Bradley Martin, and they're all pretty darned questionable quotes.  I created the University of Orwell to create strong minds, not promote books with faulty historical standards.

Status: Rejected.

Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes by Juan J. Linz ---

This book caught my attention at work when I wanted to return the previous one.  Sure, it only has a plain, grey cover with the title on the front, but its straightforward title, as well as straightforward writing when I peeked inside, really made it look professional and observational.  There are history books out there that are more about trying to persuade people of a point than to actually talk about history.  History, however, should be treated a little more like science.  A proper scientist observes his experiments and draws conclusions from it, avoiding putting his own bias on it. Because we're all human, this isn't 100% possible, but darn if Linz isn't close.

This book concerns the definition of the terms "totalitarian" and "authoritarian."  In fact, that's more or less the entire purpose of the book.  Now, let me ask you something.  How interested are you in reading a dictionary?  Not much, I'd bet.  Well, I love a good dictionary, and would much prefer one to this book.  No offense to Linz, but his book reads like a dissertation meant only to be read by a small group of people who are all so intensely wrapped up in their topic that they've almost developed their own language, much to the detriment of outsiders.  The narrative here is austere and precise, making it very, very dry.

That by itself might not have been such a problem if the book were more historical, explaining what about Hitler's and Stalin's policies that made them totalitarian.  Yet, as I said, it's a dictionary.  Linz spends a lot of time explaining the definition of these government forms (including an additional term called "sultanistic"), and why other writers on the topic had definitions that didn't quite fit or helped Linz create his own definition.  While the discussion on these definitions is nice, the book would have been better off going more quickly to how these terms apply to life, and what regimes fit which definition.  Instead, the book rambles on about these definitions, without clear direction or presentation.

The worst of these flaws was that there's apparently some sort of handbook that was written before this one.  Instead of updating the handbook, Linz instead wrote this, and ends up constantly referring to the handbook.  Thus there's a lot of possibly interesting discussion that the readers of this book don't get to see.

This book could have been good.  I really wanted to like it.  It was on a good topic, the author cared about presenting his information accurately, and he even mentioned the original definition of "dictator."  (Apparently, "dictator" has its origins in Roman history, and means a leader who temporarily gains all power during a national emergency -- which didn't work out too well for the Romans, but there you go).  This book needed to be given a more historical flow and edited better. As it is, it's difficult to read if you don't find the given topic very, very interesting.

Status: Rejected

The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidents by Steven F. Hayward --

One of the hazards of working at a bookstore is that you never know when you'll get blindsided by a book that looks interesting.  You'll also see a lot of titles and have just about no time to really look at the book.  This is one of those.

Now, I've glanced through some of the other Politically Incorrect Guide books, and none of them impressed me.  They seem a bit weak, there to make political points rather than explain history itself. I have this personal saying, that when a thing is too simple, that's when you know it's false.  The books are too simple, simply skimming the shallows of history without going into the depth I crave.

This book, on the other hand, caught my attention for having information on presidents that I've been wanting to read.  There's been a lot of confusing talk on Herbert Hoover, for example.  I was taught in school that he was a laissez faire president, who let the economy do whatever it wanted and thus prolonged the Great Depression.  Other sources (I can't remember what) mentioned that he began the programs that FDR later put into use, and that prolonged the Depression.  Turns out both are sort of true.  Hoover did indeed create many of the programs FDR adopted, but then after his presidency renounced government intervention, giving his critics a false impression of him.  Who knew?

But despite having interesting facts about the presidents, there are many lingering flaws with the book.  Again, it's just skimming the surface of history.  There's a lot more factoids than depth. Frequently there are immature little comments that are supposed to be funny, but ultimately make me take the book less seriously.  Nonfiction is no place for bad jokes.  Unless it's a biography, I guess.

My major problem with the book is the grading system in it.  While otherwise this could have been a good "summary" book that gives out sample facts about presidents, Hayward grades each president according to their reverence for the Constitution.  Okay, if you like.  Trouble is, constitutionality is only one aspect of a president, and people are bound to take the grades as a more overall score of the president described.  Also, how do you judge someone by "constitutionality"?  Sure, you might know that one was better than another, but to what degree?  What is the "unit" by which constitutionality is judged?

This grading system reveals an obvious conservative/libertarian bias. In one sense, I don't mind the existence of bias, because everyone is biased, and people who say otherwise are either lying or don't know enough about the topic to care.  Also, the truth itself is biased, taking one side or another on any given topic.  Either an event happened or it didn't, this economic policy will work or it won't, either this movement had positive consequences or not.  I don't have a problem with arguing for one side, so long as the argument is intelligent and clear minded.  This book, however, failed to meet my rationality standards.

Many Democrats were in fact horrible presidents -- Jimmy Carter's policies were often ignorant, and Johnson set a bad social precedent. On the other hand, the clumsiness of the book's bias made it obvious the Democrats were being intentionally demonized, rather than investigation itself showing that the Dems were weak.  It doesn't help that the Republicans are shown too much grace, rather than investigation showing that they were good.  I for one am willing to believe that Nixon deserves a worse score than he was given...seriously, a C+? The book even states that he ran with some of Johnson's social policies, so shouldn't their grades be closer?

Not to mention that I don't care for the whole "Republicans vs. Democrats" thing.  There are more than two schools of thought in the entire world, and any book attempting to reduce all philosophy into one of two sides is going to be rejected by me, no matter who wrote it.

All in all, the major flaw is that this book only tells small selections about the presidents before giving them a grade.  There's not enough information there for the reader to understand why the grade is what it is.  We can believe Hayward did research, but that research is watered down both by his bias and casual tone.

While I wouldn't mind this book if it took its subject matter more seriously and simply told facts about the presidents, the whole system of grading cheapens what at least could have been a book on the imaginary library shelves of the University of Orwell.  As is, I feel it would be demeaning to my concepts to include this book.

Status: Rejected

The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality by Ludvig Von Mises ---

This book was written in the 50s.  I like it specifically for that reason.  One of the problems with many modern people is that they claim the past was in fact "simpler times."  The only reason that appears to be the case is because old fashioned television was happier and more censored.  Every single conflict we have today was being discussed one hundred years ago: economics, homosexuality, morality of war, feminism, etc.  Anyone who reads books knows this.

This book is a snapshot of observation during the past, making it valuable in comparing to today.  It's like reading 1984, for example -- a book based on observation made long ago, but then you start thinking about things.  Thinking of things you ordinarily wouldn't consider, especially when the source of these concepts is intelligent, gives you new perspectives on life.  It makes you question things that most anyone would take for granted.  It's not that you have to agree with everything a writer says, but that the fact they bring up important concepts that helps you develop ideas of your own on the topic.

That's where Von Mises comes in.  Not only does he talk about the psychological reasons for one to reject capitalism, but the fundamental flaw in anti-capitalism: the accumulation of capital (resources used to make profit) is what enables someone, anyone, to create great things, whether these great things are businesses, buildings, art, or ideas.  The book is very small, but it makes several points that are worthy of discussion.  It also uses economic terms, so it's a good book to read when you're studying to compare to what you've learned in class.

Now, some people might take issue with Von Mises claiming that it's envy that prevents people from liking capitalism.  However, having witnessed this behavior before, I've no choice but to agree at least partially with his conclusions.  There is a sort of social envy that makes people angry at those richer than them, though a more detailed study strays from economics and heads into psychological territory.  The trouble with psychology is that while economics are quantifiable, the human mind is not.  Thus the whole issue becomes difficult to assess.

One of Von Mises' most logical points in this book is the differences between modern capitalism and the caste systems of other societies.  In the caste system, you're born into a station, you fulfill that station, and your success is determined by how well you perform it.  There's little, if any, transfer between castes.  Man does not determine his fate, but he is comforted in knowing what he will be in the future.  In our capitalistic society, there is no comfortable coasting into a pre-made role for our young people.  You either have to figure it out for yourself, or get stuck in some job you take just to have money.  While the innovators and highly motivated among us will find their careers sooner, many people are lost if they don't know where they can apply their talents.

What surprises me is that Von Mises mentions something I've suspected for years.  After reading a Winston Churchill biography (the one by Roy Jenkins) I got the idea that the liberals of today are not the true liberals of the past.  This is easier to see by looking at British political history, as they have separate parties for Liberals and Labor, and Labor is what we Americans would call modern liberals. Over here we have no such distinction, making it much more difficult to understand what happened. It's clear that something happened to America and Britain during the WWII era and a little before. Culture changed.  Turns out, Von Mises is another witness to this, and claims socialist intellectuals started calling themselves liberals.

That's what I like about The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality.  It's like a milestone on the side of a long road.  It's not large, but it marks the period this book was written. Though, this is where I have to start talking the downsides.  There are some statements Von Mises makes that makes him sound angry. I'm looking at a brief bio of him now, and apparently he was discriminated against during his lifetime (over economics), so the anger is perhaps natural.  Still, it's not the way to convince people of your point.

Also, Von Mises is from a very non-politically correct time.  While I appreciate that because history is not PC, some sensitive people might be offended when they read the part at the back where Von Mises comments that Asians (from the middle east through the far) have had lots of innovators and philosophers in the past, but in modern centuries haven't done as much.  I've heard theories before about how innovation has gone westward throughout history, so he might have a point, but all the same, some people are bound to take it the wrong way.  And considering he wrote that in 1957, I'd say the Japanese have been giving him a run for his money the past few decades.  Unless that's the whole "innovation cycle" coming back to the beginning again.

Man, I really want to know more on that topic.

All in all, the point of the University of Orwell is to get people to think.  This book not only gets people to think, but gives them a lot to talk about whether or not they agree.  I compare this book to Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.  While I don't feel Huxley's world was entirely philosophically correct, it was definitely full of ideas that makes you think.  Same with The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality.  Thus, it's getting in.

Status: Assigned to the Economic Department.

Okay, so that's a wrap for now.  I've got to read more books before I can decide on them, and I'm definitely willing to take suggestions.  I've got strict standards for what enters the university, but hey, if it's good enough, I could assign your book to the library.

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