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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 4, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


PC History, Ambiguous Fiction, Best Books of 2008

Just in case you had any doubt about the ignorance of "educated" Americans, I'd like to quote a line to you from a review in the Publishers Weekly of 8 December 2008.

PW is the news-and-reviews magazine of the publishing and bookselling trade -- reviews in PW are quite influential in the helping booksellers decide which books to order and stock in their stores.

So I'm reading a review of the historical mystery The Bellini Card by Jason Goodwin, and the reviewer refers to "a portrait of Mehmet the Conqueror (who reclaimed Constantinople from the Christians in 1453), painted by the legendary artist Gentile Bellini."

What matters here is the parenthetical phrase, in which the reviewer actually makes the appalling claim that the Muslim conquest of Constantinople in 1453 somehow represented a reclaiming -- which implies that Constantinople had once been Muslim, and was being retrieved from Christian rule.

Here are the facts -- which once were known to every college graduate, if not to every schoolchild: Constantinople was never Muslim until the Turks flat-out conquered it in a naked act of aggression in 1453.

The city was founded by Constantine near the ancient Greek (and therefore pagan) town of Byzantium, and was immediately, due to Constantine's conversion to Christianity, a Christian city and capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.

When the Muslim Arabs burst forth a-conquering in the 600s A.D., the Eastern (Byzantine) Roman Empire had been Christian for centuries. While there were differences between Christian sects, and Persia occasionally conquered a sizeable chunk of Byzantine territory, most of the first wave of Muslim conquests were clawed out of territory whose people were Christian.

Constantinople represented the bulwark of Christianity against these Muslim conquerors. Until the Turks conquered Asia Minor many centuries later, the Byzantines held on to a large Christian territory in what is now Turkey.

One can make a rational case for the idea that the Christian Crusaders were "reclaiming" Christian territory when they invaded the Holy Land during the Middle Ages. But there is no basis at all for the idea that the Muslim Turks were "reclaiming" Constantinople from the Christians!

I hope that Goodwin's novel contains no such stupidity; but the fact that the reviewer made the statement, and his or her editors allowed it to be published, speaks volumes about "general knowledge" in the American literary community.

It is simply assumed by "educated" people today that in any historical conflict between Christians and Muslims, only the Muslims have a legitimate claim.

It is forgotten that Islam spread throughout western Asia and northern Africa (not to mention Spain and the Balkans) by no method other than conquest.

In fact, only Indonesia was peacefully converted to Islam a thousand years after Mohammed. Until that time, all lands that are Muslim today were taken by force from their unwilling rulers and people.

But in our present day, political correctness trumps historical fact.

That's because learning historical facts takes a bit of effort, while the list of politically correct assumptions can be learned by rote and repeated, parrotlike, whenever one wishes to appear "educated."

People used to complain about how hard it was to learn all those dates in history. (They also complained about the times tables, but if you don't learn them -- by rote -- you are forever mathematically crippled.)

Dates are the skeleton on which we hang all sense of history. If you don't know rudimentary dates like 1066, 1453, and 1492, not to mention more modern dates like 1776, 1789, 1861-1865, 1914-1919, and 1939-1945, then how can you organize your conception of history?

In all the complaints about American education, I rarely hear from people who think, as I do, that the single most important flaw in our system is that we do not teach history.

Most particularly, we do not teach our history -- that is, the history that led to us, as Americans, as westerners, as heirs of humanist philosophy, Christian doctrine, Greek philosophy. We do not attempt to pass along our own culture; instead, our academics seem bent on treating our own tradition as the villains of history.

Yet it is that very tradition, and no other, that created the idea of political and religious freedom in which absurdities like political correctness are able to thrive. Today our academic establishment functions like worms devouring our civilization from the inside.

And the result is college graduates who have the idiotic idea that Islam was somehow entitled to take Constantinople -- or anything else -- from Christians.

*

Since I complain when local stores stop carrying items I like, I should certainly mention when they relent and restore my favorite items to the shelves. Recently, Harris-Teeter brought back Tropicana Valencia orange juice to the shelves of the Pisgah Church store, and I am happy.

Also, when I thought Fresh Market had stopped carrying Lesser Evil treats, as well as and Grown-Up Sodas, I mourned (though not in print). Apparently my mourning was heard, and they are both back on the shelves.

*

You know how much I like good audiobooks. The hard thing is that both the book and the performance of the reader must be good for the whole thing to be successful. Well-read junk is still junk, while a good book badly read can be unendurable.

I'm happy to report that Rosalyn Landor's reading of P.D. James's most recent novel, The Private Patient, is nothing short of brilliant. She brings off very precise English regional accents in all their glorious differences, but never do you get a sense that she is playing the accent. Rather, the accents are instinctual, and she is playing the characters.

P.D. James is also a wonderfully talented writer, with a quirky idea of organization. Most mystery novels focus only on the sleuth as he, she, or they uncover the story behind a murder. Other characters matter -- indeed, mystery novels are about discovering the motivations of characters -- but we aren't inside their point of view.

James, on the other hand, gives us acres of material inside the heads of the victims and other characters, and handles them all with exquisite clarity and irony. We get to see the sleuths make assumptions about other characters whose motives we have already seen from the inside; sometimes the sleuths are right and sometimes they're wrong.

But that also creates a problem. Normally, when the sleuth figures out the murder, we have watched his thought process and we believe, at the end, that he is right. If there are any doubts, they are the sleuth's doubts, and we accept them.

But because James has shown us that the sleuths sometimes get things wrong, we can't be sure which of their assumptions can be relied upon, and which cannot.

She also cheats. She shows us what a particular character thinks about things -- her motives, her memories -- but fails to mention huge thoughts, plans, actions, and memories of that character, which only come to light when the sleuth discovers them.

When an author is doing this things -- having the main characters sometimes guess wrong, while withholding from us key information known to characters whose minds we have been inside of -- then it is far more difficult for the reader to sort out what actually happened.

So it was simply infuriating when James tells us, in the final chapter, that Inspector Adam Dalgliesh has finally figured things out, but declines to tell us what conclusions he actually reached.

Yes, of course we can assume that he reached this or that conclusion, based on our own assumptions -- but we have already been tricked and can't rely on our own assumptions.

It may be very arty and all that to leave us with ambiguity, but this is the mystery genre, not the academic-literary genre, and so we enter the story with the assumption that we will be told, if not what happened, then at least what the sleuth thinks happened at the end of the book.

But in that last chapter, we are told neither the issues about which Dalgliesh still has doubts and questions, nor the conclusions that he reaches after his final interview. Yes, that chapter is full of delicious revelations -- but we are not shown Dalgliesh's thought processes about what this new information means to him, and how things all fit together.

I have no doubt that James thinks she has given us all the information, and perhaps she has. What she has not given us is reliability -- we cannot be sure that the conclusions we reached are "true."

She might well reply, in best ac-lit-fic snobbery, that such ambiguity is like "real life."

Well, to all who give such snobby answers (whether or not Ms. James is one of them), I will point out the obvious: To experience real life, we do not require fiction. We are only required to be awake.

We read fiction to find out things we cannot find out in real life -- to erase, if you will, ambiguity. In fiction, events and characters are selected and revealed by an author -- who has, therefore, "authority." Fiction is about precisely the definiteness that eludes us in real life.

Yet where James does tell us what's going on, she's very, very good. The characters in The Private Patient are so exquisitely drawn -- both the ones whose thoughts we experience and those we meet only from the outside, as the detectives interview them -- that I found myself caring about all of them.

The story is about a journalist who has spent most of her life with a disfiguring facial scar that she does not explain to anyone. Now she has decided to have the plastic surgery that will make it far less noticeable, explaining to the surgeon that "I have no more need of it."

The operation is performed at a beautiful and historic old mansion that the doctor has purchased from the noble family that once owned it -- and whose last descendant he hires to manage the house. He has turned the west wing into a surgery and recovery rooms and does half his surgical work there. So when a recovering patient is murdered in her room, the house is ruined as a place where rich plastic surgery patients will come.

So who was the target of the murder? The victim, or the doctor? Or was it a truly random act, perhaps by the employee who, unbeknownst to the staff, committed a brutal murder while a juvenile, so the records are sealed?

James is a master at creating characters whose motives are complex and who are able to repaint their own memories in such a way as to make it possible to live with them. It's not my fault; he deserved it; it was just a mistake -- the rationalizations that allow people to live with themselves after the most horrible acts.

So ... I heartily recommend the experience of hearing Landor read The Private Patient. I just warn you that at the end, you will not be satisfied that you actually know the story. I don't regret reading the book; the disappointment at reaching the destination does not diminish the pleasure and value of the journey.

*

Just like last year, when I never had the time to write a long, thoughtful review of the book I considered to be the best of the year -- Legacy of Ashes, a powerful history of the CIA -- I find myself unable to devote the time for a proper review to the three best nonfiction books I read last year.

But I will at least mention them, along with a thumbnail review, in case you want something excellent to read.

William Stolzenburg, Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators.

When the subtitle talks about "ecological wreckage," one's eyes can easily glaze over, because it sounds as if it's a book full of humans-are-wrecking-everything environmental religion.

Instead, this is a book about serious science, as researchers gradually discovered the important roles that top predators can play in maintaining a healthy, well-balanced ecological system.

For instance, the coastal waters of several north Pacific shores had little sea life -- mostly a few huge sea urchins that consumed anything else that might sprout.

Then sea otters were reintroduced to these shores. Sea otters love to eat sea urchins. And with the sea urchin population falling, plant life began to thrive again. When the seaweeds and other plants returned, fish also came back to the newly-lush jungle.

Sea otters, in other words, made a rich ecology possible because they, as top predators, kept down the voracious sea urchins.

Or take Yellowstone. For generations there has been almost no new growth among the key species of trees. Why? Because the elks eat the new saplings right down to the ground. With their favorite foods gone, there were too many elk -- and they were starving.

Hunters were fine with that -- the more elk there are, the more licenses to hunt them that get issued.

But then wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, and the surprising result was that wolves killed far fewer elk than human hunters -- but changed elk behavior in such a way that new trees were able to grow.

Why? Because wolves hunt by chasing their prey until their hearts or lungs give out and they stand there, exhausted, to be hauled down and torn apart.

Elks quickly learned to avoid streambeds, because it was precisely as they slowed to climb the far bank that the wolves invariably caught up with them. Elks on riverbanks were in greater danger than anywhere else; they learned not to linger there.

And since riverbanks are where most trees grow in the American west, the elks' avoidance of those areas allowed huge numbers of new shoots to grow until they had a chance of thriving as actual trees. And the small animals that thrive in that environment now had new habitat. Again, a whole ecology was restored.

So wolves, in effect, promote forest growth!

Meanwhile, human hunters never had any such effect. What can the elks learn from the annual elk hunt? To avoid public lands in October and private lands in November?

This book is full of real scientific experiments and investigations, with constant testing. The forces leading to bad science are exposed; so are problems caused by the behavior of humans. But it's not a humans-as-villains story, it's a scientists-as-discoverers story, and what they discover is the nature of systems of life.

Carlo D'este, Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945

What people are rarely told about Churchill is that when he was a young man, he was a genuine war hero. In that era, it was possible (though not always approved of) to be both an officer and a paid war correspondent, and it was wearing both hats that Churchill pursued heroism.

One might be cynical and say that Churchill wanted to be a war hero in order to promote his chances of having a successful political career -- and, in fact, young Winston said as much, more than once.

But here's the rub: Even if your motive is personal career advancement, you still have to face the bullets. Churchill showed himself to have a flair for command under fire. More than once, without the slightest official authority, he took command of a confusing situation and saved lives of many soldiers.

He also made crackbrained decisions at times that left other people shaking their heads.

Meanwhile, he was writing brilliant, thoughtful journalism (a kind that hardly anybody writes today) in which he critiqued commanding officers. (Then he couldn't figure out why they didn't want him to be assigned to their forces.)

There are gaps and holes once Churchill comes to political power many years later. It's fine that we don't get the political maneuvering that led to his becoming prime minister -- that is well documented in other books -- but it's a flaw in this book that the whole Norway operation, which was Churchill's from beginning to end, is glossed over very quickly.

And there are no details at all about the Dardanelles and Gallipoli, a disastrous campaign whose failure was blamed almost entirely on Churchill, though it is arguable that his plan was not the problem.

In other words, when his early years are done with, the value of this book drops off quite drastically. It's still quite enjoyable, but the author's propensity for judging his subject harshly, and for reasons that sound more like prejudice or spite than rational consideration, comes out more -- and more annoyingly -- the farther we get into the book.

But the material on the early years is so valuable for understanding Churchill as a man, and Churchill himself is such a powerful, decisive, world-changing figure, that I regard this book, or at least its early chapters, as required reading.

Paul R. McHugh, Try to Remember: Psychiatry's Clash over Meaning, Memory, and Mind

Author McHugh is a psychologist himself. And not just an ordinary practitioner -- he's one of the great pioneers of "biological psychology," the movement that finally turned psychology from a quasi-religion into a reliable science.

But the roots of religion-like psychology still remain, complete with maniacal fads and witch hunts, and it has been McHugh's duty to take time away from his science in order to keep fakers from using "science" as a means of feathering their own nests while devastating the lives of innocent people.

In other words, he takes on utter nonsense like "recovered memories" of things that never happened -- like "memories" of satanic sacrifices, or of child abuse that exhibited no symptoms at the time and only showed up under the ministrations of a hypnotist.

McHugh didn't just assume, he examined and tested and found a consistent pattern. There is no likelihood of memories of childhood trauma being repressed to the point of having been forgotten. On the contrary, traumas are usually strongly and clearly present in memory.

What the hypnotherapist does is not recovery but creation: During the high suggestibility of hypnosis, leading questions put thoughts into the victim's mind, and over time they begin to have clearer and clearer images -- which the therapist tells them are memories of real events.

Time after time, when the victim stops seeing the quack, her (usually her) life quickly improves, and eventually she realizes that the memories were not real.

Meanwhile, however, families have been torn apart and men (usually men) have gone to jail based on "repressed memories" of crimes they never committed.

This is science at its worst; indeed, it is obvious that until biological psychology began, psychology simply was not a science. There was much data gathering, but everything was interpreted through the lens of ex-cathedra pronouncements by guys like Freud, Jung, Maslow, and others who simply made things up and then persuaded disciples to follow them.

McHugh, by contrast, is a scientist, refusing to allow his preconceptions to shape his findings. The result of work by him and others in biological psychology is that there are finally therapies -- usually involving medication rather than chat -- which help the mentally ill return to useful and happy lives.

So this book is not only a record of the continuing struggle to rid our society of the plague of witch-hunts in the name of psychology, but also a chronicle of how good science is done.

Every citizen should either read this book or know the ideas contained in it, if for no other reason than that one might be called to serve on a jury, where "scientific experts" might claim knowledge that they do not have. The point is not to doubt all experts, but rather to recognize the limitations of science and the markers pointing to fake science.

Science is never to be taken on authority, but rather on evidence. And this book will show you what that looks like.


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