Sunday, October 30, 2005

BOOK: Tash Aw, "The Harmony Silk Factory"

Tash Aw: The Harmony Silk Factory. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005. 157322300X. vi + 378 pp.

This is a very pleasant and readable novel. It is set in Malaya, mostly in the year 1941, in the months just before the Japanese invasion. The central character is the somewhat unscrupulous but very upwardly mobile Johnny Lim, sometime mine worker and communist agitator who becomes a cloth merchant and prospers through various illegal dealings. In the first part of the book, Johnny's son narrates what he has been able to find out about his father's life and unsavoury past. The second part is in the form of a diary, written by Johnny's wife Snow during a somewhat ill-fated vacation taken by Johnny, Snow and three friends (two Englishmen and a Japanese academic who turns out to be more than just that). In the third part, one of the two Englishmen, Peter, tells the story from his point of view and we finally find out what happened at the end of the trip and what it was all about. The book builds suspense very well, you keep noticing that this isn't going to be just an ordinary holiday, things are slowly becoming somewhat bizarre and disconcerting, but not until the end of the book do we find out what was really going on. It was a gripping read, hard to put down.

The book also has many other qualities. As often in such settings, it is interesting to see how different people describe the same events and persons. It is also interesting to see how in some situations the reader knows more than the protagonists (e.g. because of what we have learned about Johnny's life in the first part of the book). In particular, in the second and third part of the book, where we see Johnny through the eyes of his contemporaries, he would come across as a fairly harmless and innocent person, one that has more good qualities than bad, almost someone you can sympathize with. But after all we've read about Johnny's life (both before and after the war) in the first part of the book we cannot really help seeing him all the time in a fairly different light than the narrators of the second and third parts of the book.

Another thing that was very attractive to me was the time and place in which the book is set — the Malay peninsula at the eve of the second world war. So far, the only other book I've read that has been set in at least roughly the same time period and part of the world was Orwell's Burmese Days, but that is of course not quite the same thing. I really should read more about WW2 in the Pacific, and about that area in the pre-WW2 period. I am somewhat interested in the history of imperialism, and the WW2 was a key event in bringing about the end of direct western imperialism in that area. The Japanese invasions in the early years of the war swept away the British, French, and Dutch administration of SE Asia like a deluge, and after the war, although the imperialists tried to return they could never quite get things back into their pre-war condition (just like there was no way to restore the ancien regime after 1815! — there's no turning back the wheels of history). So, anyway, the fact that it is set in such an interesting period makes the novel even more attractive.

The author has an interesting and curious habit of giving ‘meaningful’ names to his characters, although the meaning of the name is often somewhat incongruous with the person that carries it. Thus Johnny's wife, Snow, as we can see from her diary in the middle part of the book, isn't really quite so fragile and innocent as the name might have us believe. The surnames of the two Englishmen are opposites: Honey and Wormwood. But Honey is in fact a dull, stiff-upper-lip imperialist and chauvinist of the old calibre; Wormwood, on the other hand, is much more lively, humane, and capable of forming a fondness for Malaya and a friendship with a ‘native’ such as Johnny.

There are also several interesting minor characters, such as Snow's parents and Johnny's former employer Tiger. An interesting recurring motive in the third part of the book is Peter's obsession with gardening. His pedantic, erudite and opinionated approach to planning and planting a garden reminded me somewhat of similar obsessions that we occasionally find in some of Huysmans' novels. Here is a nice quote from p. 259: “Is the purpose of a flower bed not similar to that of a poem? Within their artificial boundaries, both contain a tiny world of beauty, a joyous compression of life.” And here's a really bizarre one from p. 338, about a sort of hibiscus: “It looks like some strange half-evaginated hermaphrodite genitalia, gloriously labial, with a thin stamen that droops like a failed phallus—the whole thing desperately vulgar.” I think I'll never look at hibiscus tea in quite the same way again... :-) And on p. 337 there's an interesting discussion about how various species of plants were brought from one part of the world to another, and many that we now think of as ‘native’ to one region are in fact old introductions from somewhere else. And in the first part of the book, p. 93, there is a very curious and very Oedipean vision described by Johnny's son.

The blurb on the dust jacket says that this is Aw's first novel; I think it's a very fine first novel and I'm certainly looking forward to his future works.


  • P. 11 mentions “R. St. J. Unwin's masterly study of 1954, Rural Villages of Lowland Malaya”, which sounds like something that is perched halfway between interesting and intriguingly obscure. However, I couldn't find any information about such a book on the web, so perhaps it is merely fictitious.
  • An English writer named Dornford Yates is mentioned on p. 41 (and, I think, in one or two other places). This is the first time I've heard of him, but his Wikipedia page sounds like some of his books might be quite interesting. He seems to have been a bit of an upper-class snob; i.e. the sort of person I could hate with relish and abandon. Incidentally, he seems to have also been a cousin of H. H. Munro.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

My best eBay snipe so far

If you ever buy or sell things on eBay, you are probably familiar with the practice of sniping. Basically, if you are going to bid on an auction, it's usually in your interest to bid as late as possible. Why? Because some bidders can't decide what's the maximum amount they are willing to pay for the item. Therefore they bid some amount early in the auction, and check back later to see if somebody has outbid them; then they place a new, higher bid, etc. By bidding very late, just a few seconds before the auction ends, you are preventing these people from responding in this way. They won't have enough time to place another bid, and you may be able to win the auction for less than they would be willing to pay for the item (if they had had enough time to place another bid).

Some web sites offer sniping software or services, i.e. you can tell them to place a bid on your behalf and their software will take care of bidding just a few seconds before the auction ends. However, I just do it the old-fashioned way — by obsessively refreshing my browser window in the last minutes of the auction, and finally clicking the “Confirm Bid” button some 15 or 20 seconds before the auction ends. Frankly, most of the auctions I bid on don't really require sniping; often I'm the only bidder anyway. But manual sniping is, as others have observed before me, a ‘cheap rush’ — one feels a kind of thrill, one's heart beats wildly for a while, and if they find me dead of a stroke in front of my computer one day, it is just as likely to be due to a particularly exciting snipe than to some particularly kinky porn site.

Anyway, today I placed what was probably my best snipe so far. Of course it would be foolish to try to achieve this on purpose — in case of any network glitch, your bid might arrive too late and you would lose the auction. (In fact network glitches have on one or two occasions saved me nontrivial sums of money by preventing me from winning auctions and buying yet more books that I wouldn't have time to read.) But today it happened by pure chance. I was thinking of bidding on an auction that was going to end a few minutes after noon. But as it often happens, I was immersed in other work and when I next looked at my watch, I saw it was 12:13. I was sure the auction was over, and decided to look at its web page again to see if somebody else had bought the item (there hadn't been any bids there in the morning when I had last checked the auction web page). To my surprise, I noticed that the auction wasn't over yet — there were 37 seconds left, and no bids yet. So I quickly placed my bid, which required going through three web pages (sign in, enter bid amount, confirm bid); thankfully I typed my password correctly on the first attempt; and anyway, at the end I saw that my winning bid arrived just in time — two seconds before the auction ended.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Slovenian Euro Coin Designs

This is going to be an incoherent rant about the designs for Slovenian euro coins, which have recently been approved and published by the Bank of Slovenia (see this PDF file on their website), and which we will presumably have to put up with once we adopt the euro in 2007.

My main complaint is about the overall selection of motives, which reflects a horribly stolid, conservative, dull spirit of 19th-century patriotism without the slightest ounce of creativity, originality, modernity, or indeed anything that would suggest that the people who selected the motives are in any way reconciled with the modern world. But then, I guess I shouldn't be surprised by the choice of motives — according to the designer Miljenko Licul (see his interview in the Sobotna priloga, 15. 10. 2005, p. 24), the motives were selected by the government. And surely motives like these are the only thing one can reasonably expect from the assembly of conservative 19th-century Neanderthals that is our current government.

Sure, our present coin designs may have their faults, but you have to admit that they are decent, humane, modest, you could even say that they have a certain progressive and environmentalist undertone. By emphasizing our wildlife, these designs concede that the state is fundamentally just a geographical entity, not some blut-und-boden wetdream from the heady days of the 19th century. They concede, as it were, that this is a territory inhabited just as much by the other species as it is by people, and indeed that insofar as these other species by and large inhabited it much before us, it belongs much more to them than it does to us. The proposed Euro coin designs, however, have no patience with these calm modern virtues. They are all about the rowdy, flag-waving sort of patriotism that saw people march with glee less than a hundred years ago to be slaughtered by their millions in the trenches of the first world war. It seems that some people will just never learn.

I'm particularly annoyed by the use of Plečnik's proposed design for a Slovenian parliament. Thank goodness that this abomination has never actually been constructed. Sure, I agree that Plečnik designed a few nice things, but this parliament certainly isn't one of them. The huge cone-shaped thingie in the middle reeks of pure megalomania. It would do well enough for some evil imperialist power, but it's hardly appropriate for a small and decent country.

I'm also somewhat annoyed by the use of the princely stone of Caranthania. The only good thing about this is that it pisses off the Austrians, just like it did in 1991 when there was a picture of the stone on the temporary Slovenian banknotes. The stone, just like Plečnik's parliament design, is routinely an object of fetishization on part of the chest-thumping right-wing ‘patriots’. The inclusion of the stone on the new coin designs is just yet another symptom of the increasing influence of the right wing, of its conservatism and its lamentable tendency to mythologize Caranthania, the supposed democratic character of its monarchy, the almost entirely imaginary influence of their coronation procedure on Thomas Jefferson, etc., etc. I can't for the life of me imagine what's the point of mythologizing Caranthania. Yes, sure, it was the first state-like entity of which our distant ancestors were a part, and furthermore it was one in which they were governed by a ruler who was one of them rather than a foreigner. So what? Big deal. You have to start somewhere. And no matter how much you try to inflate its importance, you cannot get past the fact that it was essentially just a minor historical footnote; a smallish country in the turbulent early middle ages, which soon found itself unable to preserve its independence and was eventually engulfed by the Frankish empire. What the heck are you going to accomplish by fetishizing an obscure entity like that? If you absolutely feel that you prefer convenient mythological fiction to actual history, then at least go the full monty. Don't settle for a mere Caranthania. Join the ‘Venetic theory’ instead, insist that our ancestors came here in the 6th century BC rather than AD, have the audacity to claim that the ancient Etruscans and Veneti were really their close relatives, and that the Slovenian language holds the key to interpreting Etruscan inscriptions. I can always appreciate a good absurdity even though I am unable to take it seriously. But the fetishization of Caranthania lies uncomfortably halfway between absurd mythology and historical fact, lacking both the charm of the former and the veracity of the latter.

Besides, do look at the explanation on p. 19 of the above-mentioned PDF file. The motivation for including the stone among the coin motives is that it “is the ancient symbol of the hierarchical organization of power in the Slovenian consciousness”. And they dare to put this on a coin — practically to commemorate it, to glorify it? Isn't it entirely obvious that this is something to be ashamed of, not something praiseworthy? Is it this, then, that our government now stands for? Hierarchy — authoritarianism, oppression, obedience, monarchy — this is what our consciousness is now supposed to be about? So was Cankar right after all? Don't they realize just how FUCKING ABSURD it is to fetishize Plečnik's ‘cathedral of freedom’ (p. 13) on one coin but then prattle about the hierarchy of power in the motivation for another coin? And, once again, if we have to go for absurdities, let's just go all the way — let's just put a whip and pair of manacles (or maybe monocles, given that the slavedrivers nowadays tend to be of the capitalist persuasion) on one of the coins, or maybe a bundle of fasces with an axe in the middle — or maybe, what the heck, let's just go for a big fat swastika: after all, the Führerprinzip is where the concept of the hierarchy of power found its most perfect expression. (Yes, yes, Godwin's law, yadda yadda yadda. See if I care.)

The other motives aren't necessarily that bad by themselves, but the designs of the eight coins as a whole lack all uniformity and coherence of style. Our current coins are much more regular in this sense: you can see that they are all based on the same underlying theme, and all executed in a similar way. In the new euro designs, we have a bewildering and incoherent mixture of techniques: silhouettes of Prešeren and of the pair of horses; engraving-style pictures of Trubar and of the princely stone; a photorealistic picture of Triglav; a drawing of Plečnik's parliament; a pointilist picture of Grohar's sower; and finally the stork in a style all its own, taken from the current 20-tolar coin. These things don't fit together nicely at all. Besides, most of the designs are too busy. There's way too much stuff on them; Grohar's sower is a particularly egregious example. I am disgusted. I can only hope that these designs will look better on the actual coins than they do now in the PDF file. And I can only hope that we'll soon get a period of decent inflation which will render those coins worthless as soon as possible and thus put them out of their misery.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

BOOK: Edwin Black, "War Against the Weak"

Edwin Black: War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003; Thunder's Mouth Press, 2004. 1568583214. xxviii + 550 pp.

A few years ago I read Black's splendid book IBM and the Holocaust, which describes how the Nazis made use of state-of-the-art IBM data processing technology to manage the huge amounts of data about the population of the territories under their control; without such technology, many of their murderous policies, which involved finding and doing something to large amounts of people in a short amount of time, couldn't have been carried out as efficiently and successfully as they were. Black also shows how IBM went out of its way to keep up these highly lucrative deals with the German government, and pick up the resulting profits, even after the U.S. entered the war against Germany, and after it started to become clear to what unethical uses IBM's technology and machinery was being put.

Anyway, it was a very fine piece of muckrakery, so when I recently noticed that Black also wrote a book about the eugenics movement, I decided to read this one as well. I had already read two books about eugenics and euthanasia: Bernhard Schreiber's The Men Behind Hitler and Michael Burleigh's Death and Deliverance: Euthanasia in Germany 1900–1945. Both of these are interesting books, but they are focused only on Germany, whereas Black's book places just as much (or even more) emphasis on the history of eugenics in the United States, which is where the movement first came into prominence and was fairly influential during the first three or four decades of the 20th century. Black also devotes a couple of chapters to the post-WW2 fate of eugenics and the eugenicists. In short, this is exactly the right book for someone interested in a well-rounded history of eugenics.

Ch. 2 has several interesting pages (14–19) about Galton and the origin of eugenics. I had been vaguely aware that Galton was a eugenicist (I wasn't quite clearly aware that he had in fact coined the word eugenics and was thus in a way the founder of the field), and therefore had an exceedingly unfavourable opinion of him. But in this book I see that Galton's ideas and pursuits were in fact largely innocent and harmless enough, and it was the American eugenicists that turned eugenics into the notorious movement that we remember nowadays. Galton was in fact particularly interested in measuring and counting, in biometry (p. 72) and statistics, and tried to put his work on a solid scientific basis; it was the later eugenicists that changed the focus of eugenics onto aggressive population engineering, even if this required relying on untested hypotheses, shoddy science, or even pseudoscience or outright fraud. Both Galton (p. 28) and the U.S. eugenicists (pp. 60–1) were aware that no sufficient scientific basis for the claims of eugenics had yet been established; but the U.S. eugenics movement continued to campaign for eugenics-inspired social policies anyway, driven forth by sheer prejudice. “While many of America's elite exalted eugenics, the original Galtonian eugenicists in Britain were horrified by the sham science they saw thriving in the United States and taking root in their own country.” (P. 99.) Additionally, eugenics as originally discussed by Galton had both a ‘positive’ and a ‘negative‘ programme: try to encourage the procreation of the ‘fit’ classes, and discourate that of the ‘unfit’ ones. However, the eugenics movement as it arose in the U.S. focused almost entirely on the negative part of the programme (p. 208). Galton himself disapproved of the efforts to turn eugenics into a movement for social action rather than a branch of science (p. 212).

Thus the real roots of the eugenics movement lie in the social tensions of late 19th-century U.S. Elitist members of the upper/middle classes were quite concerned that they were being deluged by immigrants of inferior racial qualities (since many of these new immigrants were coming from southern and eastern Europe, as well as from Asia, rather than from the north-west of Europe as has been predominantly the case in earlier periods), or by similarly inferior blacks, Indians, and Mexicans (pp. 22–23). Furthermore, they were very keen to ascribe many of the real or imaginary deficiencies of such people to hereditary defects rahter than environmental or cultural issues. Thus it wasn't far from there to the idea that people carrying such supposed hereditary defects should be prevented from having children, either by sterilization or by being kept in institutions where men would be separated from the women. What is more, many of these eugenicists came to believe that these supposedly hereditary defects were in fact recessive alleles, meaning that relatives of a defective person were likely to also carry some of these defective characteristics in their genes and should thus also be prevented from procreating.

But for many eugenicists, all of this was really just a pretty facade in which they could cover up their megalomaniac and racist prejudice. Many of them believed that white, blonde, etc., ‘Nordic’ type of people — more or less the same sort that would be called ‘Aryans’ by the Nazis several decades later — were the pinnacle of humankind (p. 29), and that thus their procreation should be encouraged while those of inferior strains of people should be suppressed. Some suggested that not only should the ‘lowest’, weakest, least capable etc. people be sterilized, but that this should be an ongoing effort, the standard being raised slowly, so that humankind would improve from generation to generation (p. 59), much like a farmer may through careful selection and control over breeding encourage the development of desirable qualities in his animals (p. 32). The eugenicists were aware that such radical ideas could not (yet) be sold to the public or the legislators, so they focused mostly on less controversial things, such as the sterilization of hereditarily mentally ‘unfit’ people, hoping that after such things would become established, they could be used as a precedent and a springboard for wider and more ambitious plans of population engineering.

I guess that what annoys me most about the eugenics isn't that it was connected with prejudice of this sort — i.e. that white, upper-class, etc. people are somehow superior to others — prejudice like that was after all quite widespread at the time, even more than now; what annoys me most is that they managed to clothe this prejudice in so much shoddy science, or indeed simply sham science. Once a certain critical mass of people is interested in something, and a certain number of them possess appropriate academic credentials, they can start publishing journals, organizing conferences and refereeing each other's papers, and then it can be very hard to stop them and get them to admit that what they are doing is just bullshit and junk science.

The reason that these pseudoscientific explanations of poverty, drunkenness, etc. as hereditary problems annoy me so much is that they seem to be nothing else than excuses to blame the victims. I personally always exaggerate on the other side: I never blame a person for his or her defects and misfortunes; I always blame the environment, the society at large. It's hard to lift oneself out of poverty; work is unpleasant and usually too poorly paid; children of poor people have fewer options in life; etc. — all of which means it is completely unsurprising that if the parents were down and out, so will be the children. It's completely silly to ascribe this to hereditary genetic defects. This would become clear if you secretly swapped a beggar's and a rich man's child at birth.

A blatant and very annoying example how the shaky the (pseudo)scientific foundations of eugenics really were is the way they performed ‘intelligence’ tests. They mostly included questions that didn't really test intelligence per se but rather intelligence in combination with lots of cultural baggage. Thus they were practically guaranteed to favour urban educated middle-class people who were up-to-date on (pop) culture, business, technology, etc., while a recent immigrant or a dirt poor illiterate peasant from the backwoods were almost certain to come across as ‘feeble-minded’ (this annoyingly vague term, by the way, was very popular with the eugenicists; p. 55). The U.S. army, using a test like this during the WW1, found to their surprise that more than half of its draftees supposedly had ‘a mental capacity below that of a thirteen-year-old’ (pp. 81–2, 132). Here are a couple of examples from p.nbsp;82: “The Pierce Arrow car is made in... (a) Buffalo; (b) Detroit; (c) Toledo; (d) Flint.” “Velvet Joe appears in advertisements for... (a) tooth powder; (b) dry goods; (c) tobacco; (d) soap.” Questions like these may have some value as a test of acculturation (and even that only for a rather specific and narrowly defined meaning of ‘culture’); but to imagine that they have anything to do with intelligence as such is ridiculous.

More examples of the eugenicict obsession with explaining everything through heredity can be found on p. 105. They noticed that “fewer than 12 percent of Negro songs were in a minor key”, hence “the negro is temperamentally sunny, cheerful, optimistic”. They also “began compiling long lists of ship captains and their progeny to identify an invented genetic trait called ‘thalassophilia,’ that is, an inherited love of the sea.”

Another example of the eugenicists' disregard for the lack of scientific basis for eugenics is their campaign against blindness. They knew very well that most blindness was not hereditary, but nevertheless supported sterilization measures directed against blind people (p. 149).

Black also points out the strong support that the eugenics movement received from various corporate philanthropists, in particular from the Carnegie foundation and from the widow of E. H. Harriman, a railroad magnate (pp. 46–7, 57, 87, 94–5). Without this, they wouldn't be able to organize their efforts to gather information about supposedly hereditarily defect people, and to campaign for legislation based on eugenic principles. In the first three decades of the 20th century, they managed to get sterilization laws passed in many parts of the U.S., and various government agencies became sympathetic to eugenical principles (ch. 6; with the interesting exception of the Census Bureau, pp. 159–61). The movement had many notable supporters, such as Alexander Graham Bell (the inventor of the telephone; but he eventually withdrew from the movement due to its focus on ‘negative’ eugenics, such as compulsory sterilization etc.; pp. 89, 104), Theodore Roosevelt (p. 99), Margaret Sanger (leader of the birth control movement, p. 127); or, in Britain, George Bernard Shaw (p. 248) and H. G. Wells (p. 209). In the opinion with which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a Virginian law on sterilization, Oliver Wendell Holmes jr. famously wrote: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” (P. 121.) As some of these names suggest, eugenics was seen by many as a very progressive affair, and was thus supported by many progressive-minded people, not just by elitists and racists.

Of course this doesn't mean that there was no opposition to eugenics. A splendid newspaper editorial from 1915 is quoted on pp. 101–2, pointing out that if you are concerned about people having offspring that would become parasites upon the society, or that would inherit their criminal tendencies, then surely the first people that you should sterilize are the billionaires, the robber barons, the great capitalists, etc., etc. The editorial includes a few wonderfully cathartic all-caps sentences; you can almost feel the editor taking off his shoe and banging it on the table like Khrushchev at the United Nations :-). I whole-heartedly support their proposal. In fact I would go one step further; instead of sterilization for the billionaires, I would prescribe euthanasia.

Another facet of eugenics is in the efforts to prevent the mixing of different races, especially of whites with coloured people, believing that offspring of such mixed marriages can only be worse than ‘pure’ white people. This was exactly the kind of (pseudo)scientific basis that many racists wanted to hear (p. 166). Ch. 9 tells the story of Walter A. Plecker, eugenicist and fervent racist, and the efforts to introduce stricter laws against mixed marriages (with bizarre exceptions allowing whites to mix with people that are mostly white but have up to 1/16 Indian blood, because “many of Virginia's finest lineages included eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Indian ancestors”, pp. 167–8; Plecker fulminated that the threshold should be reduced to 1/64).

I often feel that only an idiot would emigrate to the U.S., but I was somewhat surprised to see that the worthy eugenicists are of the same opinion: “the statistics indicate that America, during the last few years, has been a dumping ground for the mentally unstable inhabitants of other countries” (H. H. Laughlin, a leading eugenicist, in 1922).

Here is an amazingly bizarre quote by a racist English surgeon, R. R. Rentoul: “The negro is seldom content with sexual intercourse with the white woman, but culminates his sexual furor by killing the woman, sometimes taking out her womb and eating it.” (P. 210.) I bet Freudian psychologists could have eons of fun analyzing this one. What, in the name of all that is decent, had been going on inside that guy's head? À propos, perhaps this points the way to a lucrative new niche in the internet porn business. A harder version of Savages on Blondes, so to speak...

Euthanasia (ch. 13) was also a topic of interest to eugenicists. Although the word originally means a merciful killing of people suffering great pain, it eventually also came to be used as a (painless) killing of people whose lives are considered unworthy of living (p. 247).

Of course the eugenics movement was not exclusively a U.S. phenomenon. It also spread to other countries, partly through their own initiative and partly due to efforts by the U.S. eugenicists (chs. 10–12; p. 258). In Britain, they were somewhat held back by the fact that sterilization was not a grey area from the legal point of view (as it had initially been in the U.S.) but was plainly illegal (p. 211). Anyway, as ch. 11 shows, despite much campaigning, the British eugenicists weren't as successful as their U.S. counterparts; sterilization was not legalized in Britain. Of the continental European countries, the catholic ones tended to be more resistant to eugenics, while the northwestern ones tended to be more receptive (pp. 240, 245). Of course, eugenics also caught on marvellously in Germany, where it developed almost as early as in Britain and the U.S. The German term Rassenhygiene is pretty much a synonym for eugenics (p. 262). The increasing strength of the German eugenics movement during the 1920s and 1930s was welcomed by the American eugenicists; German eugenical publications were quoted and abstracted by U.S. medical journals (pp. 280–1), and the U.S.-based Rockefeller Foundation funded a lot of medical research in Germany, including many eugenicists (pp. 283–4, 296, 302). By the early 30s, Germany became the world leader in eugenics (pp. 286, 299).

Hitler was also interested in eugenics; he read books by American eugenicists during his 1924 imprisonment, and even wrote admiring letters to some of the authors (p. 259; see pp. 273–5 for more instances of eugenic influences on Hitler). Of course the racist prejudice of the Nazis existed independently of eugenics, but eugenics gave them a very welcome excuse to claim that their prejudices had a scientific basis (p. 269). After the Nazis came to power, eugenical policies were implemented at a faster rate than ever seen anywhere in the world. An American, Joseph DeJarnette, commented in 1934 that ‘The Germans are beating us at our own game” (p. 277). Despite the increasing ugliness of the Nazi regime in Germany during the mid-30s, U.S. eugenicists remained enthusiastic supporters of their German counterparts (p. 303); only after ca. 1936 did this begin to abate (p. 313). Some never withdrew their support (pp. 317, 414, 418).

Ch. 16 tells the interesting and curious story of Dr. Katzen-Ellenbogen; born in a Jewish family in Poland, he moved to the U.S. and became one of the prominent U.S. eugenicists, but later returned to Europe, eventually settled in Germany and then ended up as a (very) privileged inmate at the Buchenwald concentration camp, where he terrorized his fellow inmates as camp doctor and performed psychoterapy for the stressed SS guards.

Some of the cruel medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners were also motivated by an interest in heredity and eugenics (p. 367); Mengele himself had been assistant to the noted eugenicist Otmar von Verschuer (p. 344).

The last few chapters are on the post-war fate of the eugenics movement. After the mid-30s, the Carnegie Institution grew tired of the eugenicists' focus on propaganda and policy rather then science and research; it curtailed its support for the Eugenics Record Office (pp. 387, 390–2), whose hundreds of thousands of index cards with information about people were recognized to be useless for any serious study of human heredity (p. 390); the office was disbanded completely after the retirement of its director, H. H. Laughlin (p. 395). Curiously, “eugenic enthusiasts continued remitting family traits and proffering enquiries for decades” (p. 398). Some of the laws influenced by the eugenic movement in the pre-war period are still in effect (pp. 398, 400; sterilizations were actually performed into the 1970s). Organizations and journals originally devoted to eugenics reoriented themselves to genetics (p. 425); most of the eugenicists slowly faced the fact that their movement had been horribly riddled by class and racial prejudice that lacked a scientific basis (pp. 417–8).

The final chapter of the book is about the prospects of eugenics in the future. As the human genome becomes increasingly better understood, analyzing a person's DNA will give us increasingly large amounts of information about the abilities and defects of such a person. This is likely to be eventually abused by e.g. insurance companies, employers, and banks: “First, newgenics will create an uninsurable, unemployable and unfinanceable genetic underclass. The process has already started.” (P. 429.) Once it becomes possible to genetically ‘enhance’ or ‘correct’ a person before birth, it will of course be the rich classes that will first avail themselves of these opportunities; this in turn will give them an even better starting position in the next generation, and the gap between the rich and poor, now only a gap in money and in culture, will eventually turn into a far wider gap of biology and genetics as well (pp. 441–2). What has not been accomplished in the name of racist ideology will be done far more reliably and unstoppably in the pursuit of profit (p. 428).

This last chapter is deeply fascinating and extremely worrying. I'm always very pessimistic about the future and I see absolutely no reason why the worst-case scenario outlined above shouldn't come to pass. Our enslavement and disempowerment proceed with ever larger steps. The very worst aspects of human nature, the ones that humanity has feared, suffered from, and fought against throughout its entire history, can finally be given unlimited rein. Sufficiently advanced technology finally makes absolute rule and absolute enslavement possible; by absolute I mean such against which no successful revolt can be seriously contemplated. Genetic superiority of the ruling class would be a perfect component of such a system. I have no doubt that such a system will eventually be set up; not suddenly of course, but little by little, by almost unperceptible degrees, and we shall not be aware of our manacles until it has become too late by far to shake them off. Indeed it is perhaps already too late even now. My only real wonder is: how far will it get in the remaining few decades of my life? We know that we will live and die as slaves, but how bad exactly is it going to get by the time we are ready to die? Truly it would be better if our ancestors had never climbed down from the trees. Technology will be the ruin of us all. Alas, why have I ever been born!

Anyway, all of this just goes to show that pessimists shouldn't contemplate the future; nothing good can come out of that, only wallowing in unceasing rivers of gloom. To return to the book: it is a very good book, a thorough, readable, well-documented history of the eugenics movement, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, from its earliest beginnings in the late 19th century to its unravelling in the second half of the 20th. I recommend it to anyone interested in the history of eugenics; as for the last chapter, I recommend it to everyone, for it is about the future, which concerns all of us.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

BOOK: Francesco Petrarca, "Invectives"

Francesco Petrarca: Invectives. Edited and translated by David Marsh. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 11. Harvard University Press, 2003. 0674011546. xx + 539 pp.

Of all dust, the ashes of dead controversies afford the driest.

Arthur Quiller-Couch

As the dictionary says, invectives are denunciatory or abusive writings (or expressions, etc.). The four pieces in this book fit this definition very well. Unfortunately, most of the time they are also quite boring to read. Petrarca is basically pouring out his bile by the bucketload, and while his fists are busy hammering away at the opponent's face (or his good name), he doesn't always take the trouble to be witty or clever or interesting. The usenet and various web forums produce gigabyte upon gigabyte of this stuff nowadays, only without Petrarca's learning and heaps of classical allusions.

Apparently (see the editor's introduction, pp. xi–xiv), the invective was practically a minor literary genre of its own in the ancient times, and perhaps in the renaissance as well. I guess that some people might find this book interesting from a technical point of view, to see what rhetorical or stylistic devices the author is using to lambast his opponents.

Otherwise, from the point of view of content this writing is not particularly inspiring; it is mostly on the level of “Mr Smith is a fool and a cad, and he has smelly feet, and by profession he is a plumber, and as we know all plumbers are inveterate drunkards, and he comes from the village of Nether Bristlebridge, which gave the world two notorious highwaymen three hundred years ago, and where the inhabitants are widely known for sodomizing their sheep on a regular basis.” I can understand that Petrarch may have simply wanted to vent his spleen; I can also see how those who wished to see a particular person get abused would have enjoyed reading these writings; but otherwise, a neutral reader who hasn't taken sides yet will find hardly anything appealing here. There is little of genuine arguments against his opponents; mostly it's just rhetoric, vigorous gesticulation and pure unmitigated abuse that really feels like it is coming from the bottom of his heart. Sure you can claim that Mr Smith is a fool and has smelly feet, but what have you really proven by this? Saying is easy, but that's no argument and no proof. You have only proven that you are willing to descend to the level of writing such things in public. And sure, you can also claim that Mr Smith's native country gave birth to such-and-such bad people, and you can pretend that this somehow implies that Mr Smith is also a bad person, but come on, you aren't fooling anybody — we all know that it doesn't really work that way. You are offending the reader's intelligence by writing things like that. This is the sort of writing we would expect from some scumbag demagogue politician, not from a decent writer and an intellectual.

If I had a bone to pick with the same people that he is vituperating here, I guess the reading could have a cathartic effect; but as I don't, it was the very excess of vigor and violence in his style that made it impossible for me to empathize with him and thus to appreciate or enjoy his invectives.

Several of these invectives were written in response to things that other people have written against Petrarca; it would be interesting if the book included these writings as well, because we would then be able to see both sides of the story. Now we mostly see Petrarca's side, and what little he shows of his opponents' arguments. From this little that we see, I get the impression that his opponents weren't necessarily any more decent or honest at arguing than he was.

As an example, consider the first invective, Against a Physician. Here, although Petrarch at some point says that his quarrel is only with this particular physician, and not with the medical profession as a whole, he nevertheless enjoys repeating, over and over again, things which cannot be taken as otherwise than ridiculing and shaming all physicians, rather than just his particular opponent. I don't mean to say that I'm a big fan of physicians, but much of Petrarca's invective against them is simply silly. He keeps on mentioning how often physicians are involved in dirty, sordid tasks such as inspecting the patients' urine (§31). Even if this is true, this doesn't mean that there's anything shameful or morally wrong in it. On the contrary, insofar as the practice of medicine is beneficial to humankind, we should be thankful that the physicians are willing to do it despite these sordid tasks it involves. Admittedly, Petrarca might disagree that medicine is really useful, and given the state of medicine in his time it's hard to blame him for that.

The fourth invective, Against a Detractor of Italy, is more interesting, although still silly. The context here involves the seat of the papacy, which was in Avignon at that time, and Petrarch wrote to the pope to encourage him to move the seat back to Rome. This resulted in a quarrel with a certain Frenchman, who naturally defended Avignon, and Petrarch wrote his invective in response. He constantly calls his opponent a Gaul rather than a Frenchman, and uses mostly examples from ancient history to prove that Italy and particularly Rome are much more illustrious places than Gaul (i.e. France). I am very annoyed with the practice, apparently not at all uncommon among the Italian renaissance authors, of saying “we” when talking about the ancient Rome. There is something grating, something arrogant and pompous in it; the Italians are not the ancient Romans, Italy is not the Roman Empire — the very thought is obviously and absurdly ridiculous. On the other hand, I do admit that in Petrarch's time and from his point of view, Italy didn't look quite as ridiculous as now. At that time it was, in many ways, more advanced than most other European countries, and had maintained a better contact with its own classical past than other European countries did. And, admittedly, I cannot honestly claim that there is something inherently preposterous in the fact that a 14th-century Italian felt a continuity between him and the people who lived in the same area 1300 years earlier, and from whom both he, his language, and his culture were largely descended. After all, I feel the same kind of continuity with the people who inhabited my country 1300 years ago; the only difference is that they were uncivilized barbarians while Petrarch's ancestors of 1300 years were members of a famous ancient civilization.

Anyway, this invective is nevertheless fairly interesting to read, at least as an example how national rivalry is the same and equally silly in all parts of the world and in all time periods. “You may judge the truth of his other arguments by the fact that he begins by citing the Gauls' moderation in eating” (§9). “Grandiloquence is associated with the Greeks. And I add the Gauls to the Greeks: for while inferior in wit, they are superior in boasting and loquacity” (§55). “For what is all of history but the praise of Rome?” (§60; but I think Gibbon's definition is closer to the truth.) “In Italy, Rome was founded by Trojans; but who founded Troy? In fact, it was an Italian from Tuscany” (§104; reference? why, Virgil, that paragon of Augustan ass-kissing reliable historic reportage, who else). In §78 he lists a number of people that had supposedly been exiled to the Rhone region, including Herod and Pontius Pilate; but I wonder if his authorities are particularly reliable.

The sheer nerve of these passages from §59 is simply astounding: “we see the truth of what is written in genuine histories: ‘All nations should know that the Roman people start and end just wars’ ”. Later in the same paragraph he quotes somebody saying that the Romans rule other people with wisdom and prudence because they are so used to it, whereas “when people's good fortune is new to them, its novelty makes them lose control and go mad in their elation”. Ah, these imperialists. They are the same in all ages of the world. I don't know whether I should laugh or cry.

As happens too often in these invectives, Petrarca again resorts to silly rhetoric to support his opinions. For example, there's the ridiculous tinkering with words to ‘prove’ why Rome should be considered a ‘holy city’ (§24): “the stipulation of the civil law that wherever a body is buried [...] that place is considered ‘religious’. How religious, then, the city of Rome must appear! In it repose the integral remains of so many valorous and illustrious men and rulers!” What complete and utter balderdash! How could anybody take this sort of ‘argument’ seriously? Heck, was it even meant to be taken seriously?

The most interesting of these invectives is the third one, On His Own Ignorance and That of Many Others. Four friends of Petrarca have become envious of his fame (§14) and have accused him of being ignorant (they “pronounced this concise verdict: I am a good man without learning”, §24). (Partly the reason seems to be that Petrarca did not have the habit of flaunting his learning and eloquence in everyday conversations with his friends; §45, 47.) I very much admire and respect Petrarca's response here: being good and being humble is much more important than being learned (§24, 27, 41–2). Then, after admitting his own ignorance, he accuses his detractors of being ignorant as well. He is more measured here than in the other invectives, with more reasoning and arguing, and hardly any blind rage and mindless insults; as a result, this invective is much more pleasant to read. In fact his attitude to the four friends remains remarkably tolerant and friendly, as does theirs to him (§137, 151). Ignorance is in fact a very widespread thing, even among those renowned for wisdom (§144–5).

In this invective, Petrarca turns out to be quite a pious and religious person, much more so than I expected. In fact this occasionally annoyed me. His four friends seem to have had an exaggerated respect for the ancient philosophers and their authority, particularly for Aristotle. Petrarca's skepticism towards such blind acceptance of a philosopher's authority (§48) is very reasonable, but then immediately afterwards his main complaint about Aristotle seems to be that the man was not a Christian and consequently his ideas aren't sufficiently closely compatible with Christian beliefs (§49–50; he “failed to understand, or understood but ignored, the two things that are absolutely essential to happines, namely, faith and immortality”, §50; his lack of monotheism, §55). To Petrarch, Christianity is far more important than any philosophy (§52). He praises Cicero for certain passages in his works which appear to anticipate Christian ideas (§60–7; in §62 he quotes a particularly interesting passage from Cicero's On the Nature of the Gods, 2.34–5, which shows that ‘intelligent design’ is by no means a new idea!). However, Cicero of course did not go quite so far as to become a monotheist; a failure that earns him Petrarca's stern fulminations in §75–6. Later he criticises other philosophers, again chiefly because of their polytheism (§79–82); nor do Pythagoras' metempsychosis (§84) or Democritus' atoms (§86) fare any better. Anyway, I am somewhat saddened by this stiff, dull, self-righteous orthodoxy on Petrarca's part. He quotes the skeptical questions posed by a certain Epicurean named Velleius, mentioned in one of Cicero's works, and comments: “This is the question of an unbelieving and irreligious mind. He sounds as if he is asking about a carpenter of blacksmith, rather than the One of whom it is written: ‘He spoke, and it was done.’ ” (§96.) This, then, is all his defence of Christianity: it's a faith, and you're supposed to believe blindly in it, because, well, just because, that's it, period (§95–7). On the one hand, this attitude is of course entirely reasonable: Christianity is, after all, a religion; it's a matter of faith. If it could be proven by arguments, there wouldn't be any point in believing in it; it would simply be a matter of fact. But it isn't, and thus it's entirely reasonable that Petrarca says it loud and clear that it's just something that you have to believe in despite having no proofs and no reasons for it. However, on the other hand, this state of affairs is of course terribly deplorable. Taking such a religious stance is a complete abdication of responsibility; it's making up an answer when one doesn't know the right answer; it's taking refuge in blind faith rather than trying to understand the world around one and make sense of it, and face candidly the fact that there are many things that one simply doesn't know and doesn't understand, and that this is no excuse to go and make up fictitious answers when we don't know the right ones. It has been truly observed that religion is often like a seal on a person's mind, making them unable to consider things from a different point of view and unwilling to consider the possibility that somebody may validly try to believe in slightly different fairy tales than the ones they believe in. Just look at this stiff-necked statement of faith from §103: “But I have someone else whom I worship. He does not promise me empty and frivolous conjectures about fallacious things, which serve no purpose and rest on no solid basis. He promises the knowledge of Himself. And if He grants this, it will appear superfluous to concern myself with the things He has created.” This passage is full of phrases which criticise the ancient pagan philosophers (see also §133 for more along these lines), but hasn't it ever occured to him how perfectly well the very same phrases could be used against his own beliefs? What does the whole of Christianity seem to an atheist but an empty and frivolous conjecture about fallacious things, something which rests on no solid basis? Knowledge of “Himself”, i.e. of something that doesn't even exist — how much more superfluous can something get? If you can disbelieve in n –1 gods, why not in the n-th one as well? But all these arguments are of course terribly, dreadfully tired. They have probably been flogged out millions of times since at least Voltaire's age, and probably since well before that as well. I have absolutely no ambition to argue with religious people; it's too unlikely that any of them would change their minds. I'm just terribly bored with these sad, sorry delusions of theirs, and I wish they finally abandoned them, as they should have done a long time ago.

Another criticism that Petrarca has of Aristotle is that, although he has written many fine things about ethics, his writings aren't very effective in encouraging people to act ethically; Petrarca suggests that various Latin authors, particularly Cicero, are much better from this point of view. This is quite possible; I haven't read Aristotle's ethics myself but I heard that many of his writings are basically school textbooks and correspondingly rather boring. Russell in his History of Western Philosophy (book I, part 2, ch. XX) certainly puts down Aristotle's Ethics in a few very nice phrases (“The book appeals to the respectable middle-aged, and has been used by them, especially since the seventeenth century, to repress the ardours and enthusiasms of the young. But to a man with any depth of feeling it is likely to be repulsive.”). Petrarca says of Aristotle (§108): “For it is one thing to know, and another to love; one thing to understand, and another to will. I don't deny that he teaches us the nature of virtue. But reading him offers us none of those exhortations, or only a very few, that goad and inflame our minds to love virtue and hate vice.” I'm particularly impressed with the first sentence here; it is applicable in many situations. Alas, how often we know what would be good for us, but cannot summon the resolution to actually do it! Petrarca continues in §111: “It is more prudent to strive for a good and devout will than a capacious and clear intellect. As wise men tell us, the object of the will is goodness, while the object of the intellect is truth. But it is better to will what is good than to know what is true.”

Here is another very good observation, from §92: “[C]larity is the supreme proof of one's understanding and knowledge. Whatever is clearly understood can be clearly expressed [...]”.

In §113 Petrarca stresses that his complaints are not so much against Aristotle himself, whom he actually respects greatly, but against the later Aristotelians, people who seemed to imply that Aristotle has the answers to all questions and that he is the fount of all authority and wisdom. Of course I cannot help but agree that excessive reliance on any individual philosopher or authority is ridiculous and counterproductive.

Of all ancient philosophers, the ones receiving most praise from Petrarca are the Platonists, because their conceptions are the most similar to Christian beliefs (§119–20); had they been born in a later time, philosophers such as Plato and Cicero would undoubtedly have become Christians (§128). Petrarca says he doesn't regret reading Cicero's works (§126, 128).

A nice observation about commentators: “There are people who dare not write anything of their own. In their desire to write, they turn to expounding the works of others.” (§115.) But Petrarca is a little unjust to say merely “dare not”; it isn't only a matter of daring, but also of having the ability and talent to write. I for example am quite clearly aware that I lack these qualities. But fortunately I have no aspirations to become a writer.

In conclusion, I wouldn't really recommend anyone to read this book, except perhaps if you are interested in the rhetorical technicalities of invective. Of all the ITRL books I've read so far, this is perhaps the most boring one. It would have been better to read his sonnets again rather than waste time on his invectives. The most interesting invective was the third one, On His Own Ignorance, and even this was rather marred by his Christian zeal. Perhaps the most entertaining aspect of these invectives as a whole was the abundance of quotations from ancient authors, many of which are quite interesting. If, however, you just want to read rants, personal abuse, and pointless bickering, this book is fine, but surely the usenet is even finer. Or maybe